Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Pride's Gotta Go Too

One aspect of the philosophy of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity is the rejection of free will. (See these blog posts: general, societal consequences, personal consequences.) There are many consequences of letting go of the belief in free will; these include the elimination of blame and guilt. If, in any situation, I couldn’t have done any differently there is nothing to feel guilty about. This is pretty easy to swallow. But another of the consequences seems a little harder. This is the flip side of guilt: if I couldn’t have done any differently, there is nothing to feel pride about. This seems cruel and unjust.
Many of us have worked hard in our lives, in school, at our profession, in our marriages, and it seems only just that we feel pride when we have achieved success.
The New Yorker recently published a review by Malcolm Gladwell of a new book, The Sports Gene, by David Epstein (you can watch his TED talk here), that is pertinent to the issue of pride:
In The Sports Gene there are countless…examples of all the ways that the greatest athletes are different from the rest of us. They respond more effectively to training. The shape of their bodies is optimized for certain kinds of athletic activities. They carry genes that put them far ahead of ordinary athletes.
For example, the book reveals that major league baseball players have superior eyesight compared to the average person. The ophthalmologist Louis Rosenbaum tested four hundred professional baseball players and found the average visual acuity was 20/13. When he looked at the Los Angeles Dodgers, half had 20/10 vision, and a small number fell below 20/9, “flirting with the theoretical limit of the human eye,” according to Epstein. Gladwell concludes
The ability to consistently hit a baseball thrown at speeds approaching a hundred miles an hour, with a baffling array of spins and curves, requires the kind of eyesight commonly found in only a tiny fraction of the general population.
The question here is: should those baseball players be proud of their ability?
Of course those baseball players worked hard to get where they are; the fact that they are members of a professional baseball team didn’t happen just because of their good eyesight. Epstein reveals that even the ambition to work hard is not shared evenly among the whole population. In the Sports Illustrated article he wrote (unfortunately Sports Illustrated has taken this article down since the book was published),
But researchers have found that even motivation to work out has an important genetic component. A 2006 Swedish study of more than 13,000 sets of fraternal and identical twins—fraternal twins share half their genes on average, while identical twins share all of them—found that the exercise tendencies of identical twins were twice as likely to be similar as those of fraternal twins. 
Another 2006 study, of more than 37,000 pairs of adult fraternal and identical twins from six European countries and Australia, concluded that about half to three quarters of the variation in the amount of exercise people engaged in could be accounted for by their genetic makeup, while environmental factors, such as access to a gym, often had less influence. [my bold]
Wayne Gretzky famously said, “Maybe it wasn't talent the Lord gave me, maybe it was the passion.” But what if the two are inextricable? What if passion is a talent?
What if passion were a talent? Exactly. The passion that motivates an individual to devote his life to the physical training required of a professional sport, or to practice the piano eight hours a day, or to pursue a Ph.D. in particle physics is not “freely chosen” by the person. It is created through the interaction of that person’s physiological makeup and psychological programming. I know scientists whose field of study was clear at the age of seven: they had a fascination with bugs or stars in childhood that lasted all their lives. Novak Djokovic, the tennis star, began to hang around a tennis court at age six, and when he began playing that year the tennis pro said it was obvious he had extraordinary talent.
Of course this passion doesn’t have to be obvious as a child. One of the scientists involved in Curiosity, the latest Mars rover, didn’t become interested in astronomy until he was in his 20s. According to “The Martian Chroniclers” (The New Yorker again) Adam Steltzner, the leader of the team in charge of entry, descent, and landing, dropped out of college and, at age 21, was working as a musician. One night as he drove home from a gig he noticed the stars overhead and wanted to learn more.
A few weeks later, he went to the local community college to sign up for an astronomy class. Told that he had to take physics first, he reluctantly agreed, only to discover that he had a knack for it. More than a knack, really. “I just fucking dominated,” he told me. “There were tests where the average was thirty per cent and I would have a ninety-eight. I was the dude.”
Steltzner ended up with a Ph.D. and a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But how many of us have looked up at the sky in wonder and been content with a trip to the planetarium, or taking a single course, or just cruising around the Internet looking at photos. We didn’t have the ability to understand physics, or the drive to keep learning and working that this man had. Should Steltzner feel pride at his accomplishment?
Another element that Epstein discovered was that not everyone responded to training equally.
Even after five months of training, some people in families that benefited little on average did not improve their aerobic capacity one iota, while others in families that generally showed marked improvement increased it up to 50%. Statistical analysis showed that about half of a person's ability to improve with training was determined by his or her parents. The amount any person improved in the study had nothing to do with how good he was to begin with—his "baseline aerobic capacity"—but about half of that baseline, too, was attributable to family inheritance.
So for some of us, even if we have the passion to undertake a sport, our physiology might mean we are incapable of improving. So for those born with the capacity for improvement, should they feel pride at their increased aerobic capacity?
We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity says that instead of pride, we should feel gratitude. Gratitude for our inbuilt passions, talents, drives, and abilities. Gratitude for what those gifts allow us to accomplish in life.
Pride means we are claiming a control over life that we do not have. It reminds me of the folk saying “‘My, look at the dust we raise,’ said the ants on the chariot wheel.”
Everything is interconnected. Say I made an apple pie that I was proud of. Did I make the apples that taste so good? Did I grow the wheat, create the cows that produced the butter? Carl Sagan once said that in order to truly make an apple pie from scratch one would have to first bring the universe into being.
Because of the linkage of guilt and pride there is a benefit to letting go of pride:
You don’t have to take the blame if you don't take the credit.  

Friday, September 6, 2013

Plato's Allegory of the Cave

What is reality? Could it be different from what we perceive? These are the questions addressed by Plato, the Greek philosopher who lived 2500 years ago, in his Allegory of the Cave.
Plato asks us to imagine a group of people chained in a cave since birth. The chains prevent them from moving their heads so they can only see the wall of the cave in front of them. A fire is kept burning behind them. Other people pass back and forth between the fire and the prisoners, carrying things. These peoples’ shadows and the prisoner’s shadows are cast onto the wall that the prisoners can see. Understandably, because it is the only thing they see, the prisoners believe that the shadows are reality.
The prisoners can talk to each other; they form all sorts of theories and philosophies and scientific hypotheses about the shadows. But the truth is the reality they think is so real is actually just a shadow-world. The real world exists, but they can’t see it.
In my terminology, they are deluded about what is real; they are out-of-touch with reality; they are insane. But within the prisoners’ consensual reality, within the “truth” of their society, to be “sane” you must believe that the shadow-world is objective reality.
Plato then asks us to imagine that a prisoner escapes the chains, makes it out of the cave, and sees objective reality. After a difficult period in which his eyes adjust to the light of the sun, this person realizes that the shadow-world is an illusory, delusional reality. When this person tries to enlighten those still in chains as to the truth, he is ridiculed.
But in fact he is more in touch with objective reality than those who believe the shadows are reality. He is the relatively sane one.
This allegory is exactly to the point of the message of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity. Our perceptions are like the shadows on Plato’s wall. Yet we mistakenly believe that our subjective point-of-view is actual reality.
Lately I have been wondering what brought about the so-called Post-Modernist worldview, which began to appear in the 1960s. In a major shift from earlier times, when it was accepted that there was only one correct worldview, people began to recognize that everyone has a subjective point-of-view.
While watching a collection of films made by Thomas Edison’s studio between 1901-1906, it occurred to me that the advent of film played a role in this shift. We take it for granted today, but imagine what it was like one hundred years ago to go into a dark theater and see on the flat screen something that seemed so real. Of course people had been attending stage-plays for centuries, but these could never approach the simulation of reality that is true of movies.
In addition, in an age when many people never traveled farther than 50 miles from home, the images of life in far-off places and of people behaving differently than the norms of the local society must have been startling and revelatory. (The film “Cinema Paradiso” is a fascinating look at the influence movies had on a small town in Sicily.)
While I was looking for online versions of Plato’s Allegory, I came across a version posted by someone at Washington State University, with this commentary:
If he were living today, Plato might replace his rather awkward cave metaphor with a movie theater, with the projector replacing the fire, the film replacing the objects which cast shadows, the shadows on the cave wall with the projected movie on the screen, and the echo with the loudspeakers behind the screen. The essential point is that the prisoners in the cave are not seeing reality, but only a shadowy representation of it.
The essential point here, in this blog, is that when we are confuse our shadow representation of reality with actual reality, we are delusional, we are insane.
In an earlier version of We Are ALL Innocent Arthur and I used a movie analogy for the concept of “mind-generated reality.” We wrote: imagine a one-seat theater in our minds in which we watch the film of our life. This film is scripted, edited, and directed by the beliefs and assumptions of our culture, time, family, and personal experience, and is projected on an internal screen of awareness.
Arthur wrote a song about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:

by Arthur Hancock

In Plato’s cave a prisoner dreams of a place he knows is true
High above this shadowed darkness that was once all that he knew
In Plato’s cave a chanced escape sent him wandering from that wall
That he'd studied for a lifetime that he'd never learned at all
In Plato’s cave everyone was chained with their faces to the stone
And their shadows were reality not just ghosts the light had thrown
In Plato’s cave all the others said that a life in shadowed chain
Was the most that one could hope for there was nothing else to gain
In Plato’s cave he escaped his chains and he stumbled to the light
And he saw the wherefore and the why and he saw the prisoner’s plight
So to Plato’s cave he returned to tell of the truth he’d found above
But there his words of hope received more fear and hate than love
In Plato’s cave maybe life ain’t much but it’s all we’ve ever known
We’re secure in this reality so won’t you please leave it alone
In Plato’s cave maybe life ain’t much but it’s all we’ve ever known
We’re secure within our misery so won’t you please leave us alone