Category Archives: psychology

The Moral Dimension of Fear

On a certain level, my life’s career has been an in-depth study of fear. It has had a hold on my imagination since my first nightmare.

That dream was a standard horror. I was running from something invisible behind me through a dark, tangled wood. I tripped, and recovered, but I could tell that the missed step had cost me my chance to escape. Just before my pursuer caught me, I woke up.

Instead of going back to sleep  or crawling into bed with my parents, I lay awake wondering exactly what was chasing me and why I feared it.

In retrospect, those first questions about my nightmare led to a decades-long exploration of emotional aversion. From fights, to speed, to height, I fixated on the subject. It was an unconscious enterprise at first, but eventually I began to reflect on what I was doing. Through reflection and reading, I learned something about fear beyond instinctive familiarity and mere control.

In summary, fear is nothing more than emotional aversion. It is the feeling of motive turning aside, and as riders on motive, fears present themselves to us as motivations present themselves to us. To borrow Nietzsche’s formulation, they come to us unbidden.  I no more choose to be afraid of being hit than I choose to start paying attention to time’s passage when I wake up in the morning.

In a certain sense therefore, we may be exonerated for our fears. They happen to us. However, what happens to us, makes us, and we accrue responsibility by and for our constitution. That is the vey nature of moral responsibility, as opposed to the sort of responsibility we take on when we park our car in a handicap spot, for example.

To follow this example down the line, parking in the reserved spot may carry  a whole, separate load of moral implications, of course. Fellow citizens may hold us in moral contempt for the act of parking selfishly. Some of our neighbors will even find a statement of intent to park in the reserved space as morally offensive as the act itself. The city cop doesn’t care about motives. His concern – the law’s concern – is functional.

The act of steering your car into the slot suffices for the law, no matter how the officer may feel about it, or your intent. You get the ticket, even if you have suffered a stroke the day before and are handicapped, but lack the proper permit – a situation which absolves you of moral responsibility in the eyes of most people.

The point is: morality is not a set of laws like the municipal codes. If I do not want a ticket, I ought to avoid parking in a handicap space, if I don’t have a placard. Not parking in the handicap spot, definitively makes me a non-violator. However, no such action will make me good.

Morality is not a set of facts in the world. I can’t look at the handicap spot and say that it is 25 square meters, blue, bright and benevolent.

Morality is not a set of sentiments. I can feel sad about having to bypass the handicap spot and park in the boondocks. But, I will also feel sad about actually parking in the spot, if I am good.

Moral responsibility resides in global action, not circumstance.

In the latter sense, we may not be exonerated for our fears. Our emotions are inseparable from the motives which birth them.  So all of our emotions have a latent moral dimension, because the moral nature of our actions depends essentially upon our motives. Morality appears to be the process of reconciling motives, the psychological conditions which evoke those motives, and the truth.

And if morality is a class of activity, rather than a formula or a set of real properties in the world, then fear carries the greatest moral weight of any of our emotions.

All other emotions follow from their associated motives, but fear has an echo. Within the individual, anger does not evoke anger and admiration does not evoke admiration (except perhaps in a really committed narcissist). However, fear evokes fear.

Our impulse is to turn away from our aversion, resulting in a spiral which orbits farther and farther from the truth.

 

 

 

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Guess What?

If you believe that your thoughts, feelings, and motives have – or are – explanatory causes, then you are a determinist.

You are also a physicalist.

If you think that God is a person with thoughts, feelings and motives similar to your own, nothing changes. You remain a determinist and a physicalist. God just joins the club.

Welcome.

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Thanks Paul Ryan

I received a gift from the congressman today.  He sent me a survey, or his toadies did. I don’t recall how I got on the NRCC mailing list, but it’s no wonder. After all, I am a white guy with a decent income who has lived most of his life in red, rural America. Who can blame them for assuming that I am one of them?

But I am not one of them, In fact, I am a sworn enemy, and this survey is a perfect example of the reason why I despise those Trump-lovin’ tapeworms.

Really, the survey isn’t a survey at all; it is a push poll. It asks a set of questions designed  to elicit and solidify emotional responses to key terms.

Of course, there is donation request at the end of the thing, and I am pretty sure that enclosed checks are the only pieces of paper which survive “data extraction” to feel the sticky caress of the NRCC toadies.

Anyway, this intellectual hairball must be seen to be believed, so here goes:

Question #2: (I’ll edit out the dry bits) Amnesty is not the correct path for immigration policy.

The possible answers are along a scale from “Strongly agree” (the Right answer) to “Strongly disagree” (the naughty, un-American answer). But what the hell are they talking about? Has anyone proposed amnesty as the path for immigration policy? And what is amnesty anyway – a path to citizenship, a new class of work visas, anything short of a human catapult at the border wall (God bless its steely heart)?

Question #3: The Constitution is not a “living and breathing document.” Its authors had a clear vision that judges must follow.

Huh? Doesn’t every jurist think that they are trying to be faithful to the vision? I guess they mean the Right vision.

Question #6: The IRS needs more oversight from Congress for its extreme targeting of conservative groups.

Speaks for itself. They dropped the pretense at this point.

Question #7: Congress should abolish the death tax that forces our children to pay taxes on their rightful inheritance.

Don Jr. and Eric may pay that tax. My kids will never pay it, nor will the children of anyone I know.

Question #8: The capital gains tax should be reduced to encourage entrepreneurship.

When did you stop beating your wife? Well?

Question #9: Radical Islamic Terrorism (my two cents: They should go ALL CAPS next time. It’s what they want anyway) is the biggest threat we face in the Middle East.

In the Middle East? Nope.

Question #13: Congress should cut Obama-era regulations that have created unnecessary obstacles for people to open and maintain businesses.

Ok, just a couple more, really ripe ones.

Question #17: Welfare recipients should undergo drug testing

To maintain a consistent standard of efficacy, Our Party should also push for funding of weekly prostate biopsies for all its members of congress.

Question #21:  Republicans must reverse Obama’s war on coal that has damaged Ohio.

Ohio? I suspect that Ohio has bigger problems. Don’t they have a Superfund site or two?

Now, politicians have always lied and manipulated to advance their fortunes. But tactics like the mailing above go well beyond manipulation. They are conditioning.

“Bark, drool, and puke up some cash for our sustenance on cue,” they say, “and you get a yummy bit of certainty, a morsel of reassurance, and a warm pat of belonging.”

Thanks, motherfuckers.

 

 

 

 

 

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Objective Hazards

There are two broad categories of climbing risk: subjective hazards and objective hazards. Subjective hazards are risks intrinsic to the first person. These are things like failing to properly tie a knot, pack a jacket or place the right protective equipment.

Objective hazards are everything else. They include things like loose rock, weather, avalanches and equipment malfunction.

Objective hazards may be avoided. One may choose to stay home if the weather looks bad.

Objective hazards may be engaged. One may choose to go out despite the 110 degree temperature, but choose to go to a shady crag at high altitude.

Objective hazards may be accepted. One may stick with the plan despite the blazing heat and just be prepared to climb poorly and suffer.

What one may not do with an objective hazard is control it. It should be obvious that weather, snow, loose rock, misguided guidebooks, and other people are all objective hazards.

However, although we readily accept natural forces and conditions of participation as objective hazards, we generally do not regard other people as objective hazards.

We count on others to behave in certain ways and blame them when they do not. We don’t make our best estimate of another’s capacity, plan accordingly, and then accept what we get. We expect performance according to role, which is characteristic of subjective hazards, at least when they do not prove hazardous.

This is insanity.

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A Romance for the Ages

Even before the UN, we could see it coming. One tin-pot dictator can always recognize another, and once their eyes meet across a crowded international stage, destiny takes over. A love affair is inevitable. For, an affair with an autocratic kindred spirit is the closest that either will ever come to his core aspiration: simultaneous actual and metaphorical auto-fellatio.

The passion between Rocketman and Cap’n Reality is extra special, though.  It is special because the younger partner’s pallid complexion, chubby cheeks, and Kim family glasses, perfectly complement the older man’s crispy ‘do, orange naugahyde integument and conniving squint (not to mention his teeny-tiny hands).

And it is special because both partners are imposters. Each having found himself in an awkward situation as a result of pursuing his fondest dream with too much gusto, they are both making it up as they go along. That makes their passion a refuge as well as the sole substitute for special sucking.

It is no wonder then, that each mounts the other in turn, in public, on a daily basis.

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In Defense of a Quaint Habit

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This Summer, climbing ended.

A journey which began in exploration of the heights by a few weirdos equipped with boots and a powerful dissatisfaction with life on the flats, concluded when Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan in Yosemite Valley equipped only with boots and a powerful dissatisfaction with life on the flats.

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El Cap. was where the closure had to happen. It was where climbers rounded the bend to see the sport’s conclusion, because El Cap. was where the use of climbing implements – pitons, ropes, chocks, etc. –  peaked and then slowly started to tilt toward freedom. Now, parties still engineer their way up the face of Yosemite’s premier monolith, but their methods have been exposed as second-best. They have been rendered the sport’s Civil War reenactors by the nuclear blast of Honnold’s solo.

Yet there may be hope for roped climbing. It may still be more than shooting blanks at a campout.

All history looks circular from a certain perspective, but that view misses the metamorphoses within lifecycles. And, that miss is a big one. The transformations carry all the themes, while the repetitions merely demonstrate mechanisms.

Yes, the butterfly will lay eggs, but its wings are beautiful.

Ropes and pitons opened the way up previously forbidden ice and stone. But the equipment also bound us to each other and the mountains. The rope gave us things like Pete Schoening’s famous catch on K2 in 1953. Actually, it gave us the 1953 K2 expedition. It gave us Peter Terbush.

We shouldn’t forget that the rope also gave us Alex Honnold. Without a safety system which allows for failure, and for pushing past the point of failure, soloing is just a stunt, like going over Niagra Falls in a barrel. The rope allows soloing as perfection of an art. A soloist climbs alone, but not apart from other climbers.

Still, climbers are a breed apart, and not because we are capable of feats which are beyond the average citizen. The rope sets us apart. It lets us see that soloing El Cap. is not a stunt. Climbing accomplishments of all sorts, which the average citizen, mired as he is in the institutionalized narcissism of our civilization, can only see as ego gratification, we see as steps on a path to a broader vista.

 

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Ahhh, what else is there? I mean that rhetorically.

 

Use of a rope gives access to that view: of the self as part of a team, the ego as malleable, and a person as part of the fauna on the vertical face of the crag. Some people will always yearn for that perspective, despite societal admonitions to keep looking down and stay in line. And so, roped climbing will persist as more than a quaint habit.

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I Know What You Mean

There are two divine categories: the philosopher’s God and the popular God. The former is an organizing or rationalizing principle. The latter is a Guy in the Sky. There is a defensible position within the set of concepts which make up the philosopher’s God. It is a pretty narrow strip of intellectual territory to hold, and I don’t see that it matters much to claim it, but it is there.

As for the Guy in the Sky, the point of believing in the Guy is not even believing in the Guy. The point is social cohesion, and thus proselytization. It is very hard to ask others to rally around a set of vague principles, but it is easy to ask others to rally around a flag, or a God.

To the same end, various pundits try to reconcile the philosopher’s God with the popular God. Lectures and debates ad nauseum from learned believers like Zacharias, Lennox, Craig, etc. attempt the trick.  As a strategy (both offensive and defensive), the maneuver is completely consistent and coherent.

The actual arguments constituting the maneuver, however, are neither. Because, the Guy in the Sky is above all, a Guy, and the rationalizing principle is a rationalizing principle with a whole raft of properties which are inconsistent with our concept of a person. So, what comes out of these arguments, once all the threads are swept into a pile and sorted out, is just a jumble.

To the preachers and apologists out there: I know what you mean when you toss these arguments out into the ether. I know that you feel obligated to push your flag forward. But please understand why it is never going to work like you want it to (there are lots of flags, at the very least), and please understand why I might occasionally ask you to give it a rest and shut the fuck up.

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Buddy the Blastocyst’s Ensoulment Adventure

It’s the wildest yarn of them all. Be warned: you may not like the ending, but the thrill is worth it.

Let’s set the scene.

In the lead role, we have Buddy. He consists of a few hundred cells arranged in a hollow sphere. There is nothing too special about Buddy. He is not that far removed from the fused gametes which preceded him in that he is full of promise, yet without much substance or even a distinguishing feature. To be honest, he is a pretty passive character in his own tale.

As such, he is a perfect foil for the soul. The soul is no simpleton, and unlike Buddy, the soul is very difficult  to describe. Here we can turn to words from the wise philosophers and theologians who have previously contemplated the mystery of the soul. The wise have described the soul as the “I”-ness of experience or the proper subject of mental properties. The key point to take from such descriptions is: Don’t ask the wise for directions to the nearest coffee shop. Those directions are likely to lack substance.

Substance is exactly what we need in the case of the soul, to characterize it. Lucky for us, we need no more than substance, or at least the agreement that the soul is a substance distinct from the sphere of cells which is Buddy. Not everybody will agree. Some may contend that Buddy is simply the dawning realization of something which has always been, kind of like a Chrysler LeBaron. Let me try to clarify.

In a certain sense, one could contend that the specific turbulence pattern in the early universe, doomed us to the Chrysler LeBaron, because one could ostensibly track a chain of distinct events back from the structure of the LeBaron to the details of the turbulence pattern of the early universe. And by the same token, one could track the turbulence pattern back to a purported state of affairs before the early universe started doing anything. A claim of pre-existing potential opens up, of which the early turbulence pattern and the Lebaron are mere manifestations.

There are loads of problems with this account of history, but only a couple concern Buddy and his soul. First, we cannot do anything with this account. An auto designer in 1896 could not foresee the Lebaron in all it’s hideous detail. We can see the inevitable  manifestation of LeBaron essence in retrospect only. Think vitalism (and its discontents).

Second, the pre-existing potentials do not do anything for themselves. They are manifested, without occupying space or expending energy or participating in the manifestation process, other than as an additional explanation. Like solipsism, the tale of essences suffers from terminal irrelevance.

Therefore, Buddy shall receive soul-stuff rather than a post-hoc rationalization.

Now, what is the nature of Buddy’s relationship to his soul, and how does the soul adhere to that little, hollow sphere of cells? Maybe the second question is too ambitious. Yet at least there has to be a singular moment in which some sort of threshold for ensoulment is surpassed and the membranes which a moment ago contained only chemical elements now serve as vesicles for spirit.

Some spirit-permeable membrane channel opens or an angel-beacon gene gets transcribed, and the soul binds to Buddy irrevocably. This must be the case. We want an active soul for Buddy, so he cannot merely slip into it. In that case – where Buddy is the realization of some soul formula written into the cosmos – we are right back to the maximally inefficient essences.

Once he has his soul, Buddy begins to exist in two worlds at once. He takes in nutrients, builds membranes, and generally engages with events in the world. At the same time, he is moved by the spirit to do Good or Evil, and his soul bears the weight of his activities in the world.

At the end of it all for Buddy, he can stand in the court of the Lord and the Lord can say to his angel, “Bring me Buddy and I shall judge him, for he lusted after a Unicorn Frappe and was moved by the wickedness in his soul to purchase a Unicorn Frappe, and his soul was soiled by the act. ”

“Wait, who is this you bring before me? No, no, that’s Benny, who turned aside from his evil impulses and purchased a tall coffee. Now let Benny go and bring me Buddy, who smells of shame and sugar, not wholesome ground roast.”

How else does the Lord know who is Benny and who is Buddy?

And so we have arrived at the shocking dénouement: the story of Buddy’s spiritual existence and his physical existence are one and the same. His soul, however convoluted the mechanism, moves electrons, as much as a magnet moves electrons. His soul, as much as any magnet, is moved by electrons. In being so engaged, Buddy’s soul becomes part of the reductive explanations which constitute physicality.

Is this the end for Buddy’s soul?

For his soul as a supernatural substance, maybe it is. But the point of the story is: those supernatural substances can’t get going in the first place.

They just don’t hold together at all.

For Buddy’s soul as a strange appendage, who knows?

The world is a weird place.

 

 

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Am I Wrong?

I hear that Trump is going to talk tonight. I won’t be listening.
Why bother? It’s going to be the same thing again.
Here’s the boilerplate:
1) I am great.
2) Everything good is ’cause of me.
3) Everything not good is ’cause of those other people (you know who they are).
4) Compound interest on a few lies (He has not read Goebbels closely enough. The repetition thing, he gets, but the simplicity thing, he does not. Stick to ‘Mexico is sending its rapists for the women-folk’. ‘Obama is orchestrating a vast resistance network,’ is just too unwieldy.)
The End.
Six weeks and the tedium is already unbearable.

Go Ahead, Say ‘Chattering Classes’ Again…!

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Sebastian Gorak Gorka is a strategist by trade, an ‘assistant’ to the President, Steve Bannon’s purse-dog, and real-life Dr. Strangelove.

And he doesn’t want to hear it from no protesters. According to him, the uproar around Trump’s attempt to make cowards of us all  (for what else is a zero-risk policy regarding the intake of refugees ?) arises from the chattering classes.

He isn’t too forthcoming with qualifications for enrollment in the chattering classes, but his implication is clear enough. The chattering classes are made up of poli-sci students, their professors, pampered, ex-poli-sci students employed in government or the soft sciences, and a few, deluded members of the aristocracy. A diverse group, it’s members hold in common a history of sheltered existence and an effete spirit. In Gorak’s  Gorka’s estimation, those qualities render the opinions of the chattering classes irrelevant.

It is the reapplication of common sense. Brexit happened — Donald Trump became president because the average voter said, Enough! We want safety! We want national security to be a priority. But the chattering classes do not understand.

“I’m not interested in the chattering classes, in the social justice warriors,” Gorka says. “If you’re really going to ask really churlish and childish questions like that, then there really is no point to the interview.”

The problem is, of course, that anyone who opposes the Chief Troll, his lackeys, or his lackeys’ purse dogs, is automatically part of the chattering classes.

That is the only real inclusion criteria. Otherwise, it would be hard to distinguish Gorak Gorka from the whiners he holds in such contempt. He has a PhD in political science. He was a writer for a fringe publication on the internet. His current purpose is to yap and bare his teeth at anyone who dares look askance at mumsy and her entourage.

He had better be thankful for the chattering classes. They are the manifestation of our society’s commitment to settle politics politically. They are what allow him and his ilk to exist.

He can keep saying ‘chattering classes’. He had better keep saying ‘chattering classes’. I dare him to stop,  jump out of that Coach, and try to take a bite. I double dare him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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