Sunday, December 29, 2013

Novel Reading Affects Human Action

The evidence for reading literature having a significant effect on the brain keeps pouring in. The authors discovered that reading novels not only has an effect on our language centers over time, but that it has an effect on those neurons activated when we actually act -- or think about acting. Thus, novel reading causes our brains to react as though we are acting. This, of course, is going to affect our future actions. Thus, novel reading affects our actions. In a science of human actions (catallactics), we should perhaps spend more time understanding the effects of novel reading. Perhaps of storytelling overall, since most people get their stories not from novels, but from T.V. and film. This would seem like important follow up -- seeing the effect of watching plays, televised fiction, and films.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Am I a Kind of Unrecognized Autistic?

You have a child.

He learns to speak very early. He can read Dr. Seuss books by 2.5 years of age. He learns things very quickly. He begins writing at a very early age, and being very imaginative, begins writing stories. He has a fascination with nature. He loves to read everything on every topic, from nonfiction to fiction. He is generally well-behaved, though sometimes argumentative.

He cannot look you in the eye when he talks with you, but rather looks at your mouth or his eyes are darting all over the place (making him hyperaware of his surroundings). He is socially awkward and has difficulty making friends. He prefers to spend time alone, whether in his room or walking in the woods. He obsessively makes lists -- lists of dinosaurs, then lists of sharks, then lists of plants. Everyone agrees he is highly intelligent, but the standardized tests at school suggest he is average. He is exceptionally good at seeing patterns.

I think most people would be pleased to have the first child. That child is obviously intelligent, but otherwise quite normal. The second child, on the other hand, is obviously autistic. More, the two children seem opposites. Autistic children aren't imaginative, and they have speech delays. Even if you combine the two, you don't get a child with Asperger's, as children with Asperger's have difficulty communicating, even though they don't have the speech delay, and they also have coordination problems.

Yet, if you do combine those two lists, you have me.

Since we learned Daniel is autistic, I have read a lot about autism. I recently discovered the Intense World Theory (IWT) of autism, which describes my son almost perfectly. And though the researchers don't say, the theory also allows for a kind of autism wherein the child is also creative. Which also describes Daniel. His creativity would make one wonder about his being autistic, given the fact that autistic children are not supposed to be creative/inventive. More, from the description of autism from the IWT, the two people who know me best -- my wife and my brother -- have each independently concluded that I probably "have that."

However, I did not have the language delay. More, my language was quite accelerated. Yet, this might not be inconsistent with IWT autism. If one is raised in a generally quite, calm environment, might it not be that a child might learn language more quickly, given his neurological structures. This would suggest that there might be a kind of high-functioning IWT autism that is completely undiagnosed, since nobody would have thought there was a thing wrong with me growing up. What is wrong with a child who speaks early and reads by two and a half? Clearly nothing is wrong with that child. And later, when he spends his time in his room reading books and making lists, it's because he's just a little peculiar, because he's so smart. He likes to spend time in the woods because he likes nature. And he does have friends, even if he doesn't really spend that much time playing with them.

The difference between Daniel and me is that he has the speech delay. And he hasn't learned to read yet. I suspect he will learn to read when most other children learn to read, though. His language is improving quite a bit, too. But I am beginning to see much more of a continuation between him and me. His world might be a bit more intense, is all. But I am beginning to think that there might be a kind of autism that remains undiagnosed, precisely because nobody would think a child learning language early and reading early has any kind of significant mental difference, other than perhaps being a bit smarter than average. But it might be more.

Indeed, the fact that IWT autism is dominated by positive feedback also explains much. It explains why I swing between high and low energy -- one would typically consider me to be mildly bipolar. It explains why I am sensitive to food textures and to things touching my wrists and neck -- and general touch-hypersensitivity at times (high energy times). And it explains my extreme empathy -- which makes me socially uncomfortable at times, yet allows me too to really hone in on people's problems. And it makes me particularly interested in stories. I love fiction, and I love to write fiction.

Indeed, IWT does seem to explain so much about me. It is a fascinating insight.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Intense World Theory of Autism and Daniel

Since learning my older son, Daniel, has autism, I have spent a great deal of time reading about it. With my undergraduate degree and two years of graduate school in molecular biology, the things I typically read are on the molecular biology and neurobiology of autism. Since I can understand the most recent research, that's what I prefer to read.

Of course, my interest in the brain precedes my even having children, as my dissertation, Evolutionary Aesthetics, shows. In my dissertation I review some of the neurological underpinnings of artistic production and creation, with a focus on language and literature. Since then, I have mostly published, though, on self-organizing scale-free network processes -- including spontaneous orders -- in which negative and positive feedback is present. When such a system is dominated by negative feedback, the system tends toward equilibrium. When such a system is dominated by positive feedback, you get regular cycles -- booms and busts, in economic terms. When such a system has both positive and negative feedback present at the same time, you have what is called a biotic system -- such systems are complex and creative. Spontaneous orders are biotic systems -- especially in combination with other spontaneous orders, other scale free networks, etc.

All of this leads me to something I read recently on the Intense World Theory of autism. Among the complaints about this theory, though, is that it does not explain all forms of autism. Given a recent metastudy suggesting there are at least three different kinds of autism, though, this is hardly a problem. In fact, this is good news, since we will begin to understand more clearly why some things work for some autistic children, but not for others. If they don't actually have the same syndrome, you wouldn't expect the same things to work for everyone. That being said, the Intense World Theory, as described in the above linked article, makes a lot of sense to me -- in no small part because of what it says about the parents.

But first, the similarities between Kai Markram (the son of the neuroscientist who developed IWT) and Daniel are remarkable. Both were precocious babies. Daniel is a bundle of energy. Daniel also alternates between social anxiety around strangers and just running up and hugging strangers. There are the tantrums -- which in Daniel's case, are fortunately getting better over time, as we continue to expose him to social situations. Daniel also on occasion lines things up. And he is sometimes very sensitive to sounds -- he will sometimes turn off the radio, he is bothered by applause. We also noticed that if we hugged Daniel when he is most upset, he has calmed down. In no small part, I came up with this idea after I read that autistic children who are given nasal injections of oxytocin became more social for a while. Since oxytocin is made naturally in response to skin-on-skin touch, I began making sure I held and hugged him more -- which has had a remarkably positive effect. We have been fortunate that Daniel is apparently better with the food than Kai was, though. He'll try most foods, but when he's made up his mind he likes or dislikes something, that's the end of it.

Given these similarities, what Henry Markram concluded was very interesting to me. Their conclusion that "autistic people take in too much and learn too fast" fits well what I know about Daniel. For example, Daniel, though only age 4, understands cause-and-effect and can therefore engage in deductive reasoning. In fact, just the other day, as we were driving to the local grocery store, we drove by a restaurant with a large number of cars in the parking lot, and Daniel said, "Look, Daddy! They have lots of customers!" We then went to the grocery store, and when we came out, as I was putting Daniel in his car seat, he said to me, "Daddy, we were customers, weren't we?" My wife, who teaches 1st grade, says her students cannot do that.

But this is what really spoke to me, what made me understand that, at least in the case of Daniel, IWT explains a great deal:
The more he [Henry Markram] investigated the idea of autism not as a deficit of memory, emotion and sensation, but an excess, the more he realized how much he himself had in common with his seemingly alien son.
Like Henry Markram, as a small child I wanted to know everything (that hasn't changed). I did a little better in high school than he did, but it was not until my Senior year that I turned things around. And one of the main predictors of someone having a child with autism? Having a Ph.D.

Henry Markram and his wife discovered that in the mouse models they were studying, the inhibitory cells (negative feedback) worked normally, but the excitatory cell (positive feedback) "responded nearly twice as strongly as normal—and they were hyper-connected," and "were hyperactive, which isn’t necessarily a defect: A more responsive, better-connected network learns faster." In other words, autistic people with hyper-connected, hyperactive excitatory cells learn too quickly, and they learn irreversibly. Which can be a problem -- especially when what they are learning is a fear response.
Also, they discovered that autistic brains have more minicolumns, "which can be seen as the brain’s microprocessors." Coincidentally, "extra minicolumns have been found in autopsies of scientists who were not known to be autistic, suggesting that this brain organization can appear without social problems and alongside exceptional intelligence." This suggests a kind of continuum. It seems that your "average" extremely smart person has enough extra minicolumns, enough of a ramped-up brain, to become a scientists (and, likely, an artist, inventor, etc.). Slightly more, and you might develop Asperger's Syndrome. Slightly more, and you develop autism. This would suggest, as the article does, that brilliance in those autistics who are also savants is a feature, not a bug. Many autistics develop very advanced cognitive abilities, including those necessary to be good at math, music, and science. In fact, "Mathematics, musical virtuosity, and scientific achievement all require understanding and playing with systems, patterns, and structure. Both autistic people and their family members are over-represented in these fields, which suggests genetic influences." My own proclivities are in "understanding and playing with systems, patterns, and structure" in my scholarly work (on complex network processes) and poetry (formal verse -- patterns and structure).

What this suggests is that Daniel is an even more intense version of me. I have many social difficulties precisely because I "feel too much and sense too much." I am deeply empathetic, and my intensity of feeling is what led to my becoming an artist. I am sensitive to fabrics, to anything touching my wrists or neck, to the textures of foods (spaghetti and fettuccini both taste very different to me because of their very different textures). I experience the world very intensely, and it can be too much at times. If this is my experience, and Daniel is (if Asperger's is one level, and autism is two) two levels more intense in his feelings and senses, his behaviors make a great deal of sense to me.

More than this, the fact that it is excitatory neurons that are working more also explains quite a bit, if we take a complex systems view. As I mention above, complex systems like the brain have both positive and negative feedback working simultaneously. That is a normal brain. In a brain in which the inhibitory neurons were more active, we would expect to see a brain moving more toward equilibrium -- low activity. In a brain in which the excitatory neurons were more active, though, we would expect to see cyclical activity -- periods of hyperactivity and mania followed by low energy and depression. Many autistics are also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Though undiagnosed, I am almost certainly at least mildly bipolar. I have seen Daniel have very low energy and cry and "be sad" for no reason at all; at other times, Daniel is extremely hyper. Fortunately, Daniel rarely crashes into the really sad depressive mode, but he does cycle between low and high energy. This would make perfect sense if his brain were dominated by positive feedback, as the Intense World Theory suggests.

However, this aspect is nowhere mentioned in the article. It seems an important thing to consider, though. However, to understand this means one has to take a complex systems perspective. Perhaps further research will show others have in fact made this connection -- but if not, I think it's an important insight that needs to be investigated further.

The good news is that many of Daniel's social anxieties and repetitive behaviors seem to have been decreasing over time. And his language skills have been improving. Fortunately, while he is clearly autistic, his symptoms could have been much worse. From the sounds of the article, his social anxieties are not even as bad as Kai's, whose symptoms do not sound all that bad compared to others I have read about. And Daniel is more likely in recent months to look at you when you talk to him. Much of this improvement has been since I read about how autistic children have low oxytocin levels and that increased levels of oxytocin help with these behaviors. Since skin-on-skin touch increases oxytocin, I have made sure to hug Daniel more and to make sure there is skin-on-skin contact. I am convinced this has helped. I have seen the behavioral changes. He will always have them to a certain degree, but if Daniel can overcome some of these social issues, while retaining the benefits of autism, Daniel should have a great life.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Inclusivist Morality as Spontaneous Order Morals

In the wake of the Renaissance, we saw the emergence of several distinct spontaneous orders, which we could identify as the liberal orders -- free markets, science, and democracy. In the Renaissance itself we saw the emergence of the artistic orders as free and independent spontaneous orders -- free and independent of the religious order, that is. With the Enlightenment, we saw the economy, science, and governments become increasingly free and independent of religion. No doubt part of this was the fact that religion itself -- in the Reformation -- became free and independent of the overarching hierarchical organization of the Catholic church.

In addition, though, we also see another spontaneous order emerging and coming into its own -- the moral order. The distinctive feature of the moral order is inclusive morality -- one extends fellow humanity, meaning moral standing is separated from group membership. As Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell argue in "Beyond the Paleo":
According to this inclusivist moral outlook, moral standing depends on the cognitive capacities of the individual, not the ability of the individual to reciprocate or otherwise contribute to co-operative goods. Even if non-human animals, or young children, or persons with disabilities lack strategic capacities, this does not deprive them of moral status. Likewise, if a minority group or weaker nation can safely be exploited without risk of retaliation, we nonetheless deem such behaviour morally unacceptable.

As with the other orders, once morality was able to develop into its own free and independent spontaneous order, it followed its own evolutionary logic independent of many of the elements of its foundations. As Hayek observed, though, this results in our living in "two worlds at once." The conservative moral philosophers discussed by Buchanan and Powell are not wrong about their observations and their concerns; neither, too, are Buchanan and Powell wrong about the existence of recently developed moral order. However, there is necessarily a tension between the two, as we will all too often feel the pull of each -- our evolved moral psychologies as well as the results of the moral order's inclusivist morality. That is the tragic tension present in each and every person participating in a spontaneous order.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Yes, Libertarianism Now!

As the author of a book chapter in Basic Income and the Free Market, in which I make an argument in favor of adopting either a negative income tax or, better, a basic income guarantee as a replacement for all of our current set of welfare programs (which would include the welfare programs we call subsidies), one may be surprised to learn that I disagree with Matt Zwolinski on this very topic.

The reasons I disagree with Zwolinski are expressed quite well by David Friedman, as quoted by David Henderson, with whose criticism I also agree. I do not buy into the argument that we must redress past grievances precisely for the reasons Friedman gives -- many of the descendants of past wrongdoers are themselves poorer than the descendants of those who had had the wrong done to them -- but also because there is absolutely no foundation in either morals or justice for punishing the children for the sins of their parents.

That, after all, is the logic of "reparations," no matter how they are laid out.

Suppose that there was a man who raped and murdered 20 women. He died before the police could catch him, but all of the evidence showed him to be the culprit. This man also happens to have a son who is over 18. Should the police go and arrest the son, try him for his father's crimes, and put him in prison for them (in Texas, he would get the death penalty as well)? We would rightly decry this as a horrible act of injustice. The son did not commit the crimes, and he is not responsible for his father's actions.

The same is true of the descendants of any crime. It is perhaps particularly true of something we consider a crime today that was not considered a crime in the past. You cannot even try someone for committing an act that was not a crime when they committed the act, but is a crime now. How, then, can one possibly justify then punishing this person's descendants?

I see the same argument against those with luck or those who "got there first" when it comes to property.

The first seems almost as bizarre, given the subjective nature of values and the fact that what can seem like bad luck can turn out to have good consequences later, and vice versa. Yes, it was probably luck that allowed Alexander Graham Bell to patent his telephone a day before that other guy who also invented the phone, and whose name nobody knows because of it. But so what? One might make an argument against intellectual property on that basis -- but still, what's luck got to do with it? The issue of luck is utter nonsense -- it requires a level of knowledge impossible for real human beings to have. Further, it points back to the point Friedman made about the African slave traders. The ones selling the slaves were the lucky ones, while the ones sold into slavery were the unlucky ones. The descendants of the former, though, are financially much worse off than the descendants of the latter. Would anyone like to defend the argument that the African-American descendants of slaves are the lucky ones?

Then there is the "got there first" complaint. Yes, as people moved around the globe, there were inevitably people who "got there first." But this is true of those who invent something as well. Is it "fair" that the Wright brothers "got there first" with the invention of the airplane? I'm not sure how to reasonably answer that. Fair to whom? To whoever else might have invented it later? How on earth would we be able to determine that? And never mind all the people who benefited from the airplane's invention, I suppose. But even then, it was early adopters who benefited most. Of course, they also spent the most early on. Should their descendants be paid back, since it was their willingness to spend a lot of money to be the first to fly that made it cheaper for others later? How convoluted this nonsense becomes!

Of course, when it comes to land, sometimes people got there second, and did away with the ones who got there first. Such is nature. But it is not justice -- at least, by our current definitions of justice. Perhaps there is a claim here?

I think not. The issue is precisely that these considerations are based on our current, prevailing ideas on what is just, on what is moral. Our ideas of what is moral and just evolve, and will continue to evolve. Yet it seems unjust to argue that someone should be held criminally responsible for actions not considered unjust, no matter when it happened. And more so the descendants of those who actually are responsible for those actions.

Judging past actions with today's morals is sloppy thinking. It's lazy and simplistic. It denies the evolutionary nature of morals. Yes, morals are rooted in our sentiments, as Adam Smith rightly observed, but at the same time, those morals evolve. Murder is and has always been immoral, if we define murder as the purposeful taking of a fellow human life -- what has evolved is the kinds of people we consider fellow human beings.

Political libertarianism is a view of justice, and views of justice evolve the same as do our morals. We cannot fix what we as libertarians perceive to have been past injustices, using our current ideas on justice, by imposing even more injustices upon the innocent descendants of those who committed the acts in question. But we can move forward. We can try to encourage social evolution toward greater justice. Over time, social evolution will create the more just outcomes we desire. That is why we need libertarianism, now!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Predicting Protein Functions from Primary Structure -- a 20 yr old idea of mine

Once upon a time, in the early 1990's, I was in graduate school studying molecular biology. I developed a thesis project, which I never pursued and which, to my knowledge, no one has ever pursued.

The project would have been one of the first forays into bioinformatics. The idea was to use an artificial neural net (ANN) to predict protein function from primary structure. Basically, one would create inputs of known proteins' amino acid sequences and the qualities of each of those amino acids, including whether they were:
  1. Polar / hydrophilic
  2. Non-polar / hydrophobic
  3. H-bonding
  4. Sulfur containing
  5. Charged at Neutral pH Negative / acidic
  6. Charged at Neutral pH Positive / basic
  7. Ionizable
  8. Aromatic (and potentially stacking)
  9. Aliphatic
  10. Forms covalent cross-link (disulfide bond)
  11. Cyclic
  12. C-Beta branching
  13. pK values
  14. pI values
  15. Ka values
One might also use secondary and tertiary structures when known as inputs. This would certainly contribute to more accurate outputs.

The outputs of the ANN would of course be the protein function, though it is perhaps not impossible that some structural predictions -- of alpha helices or beta sheets, for example -- could not be an output for such a system.

As for discovering the best ANN architecture, perhaps genetic algorithms could be used. There is no telling what is the optimal architecture, so some sort of evolution and selection process would likely be most efficient.

Of course, it may  be possible that there are programs other than ANNs that could do this better/more efficiently. I suggest ANNs because they are able to conceptualize and therefore make pattern predictions, which is what a program like this, with the outputs desired, require.

If anyone thinks this worth pursuing, I encourage you to do so. I just ask for a courtesy 10% of any profits. :-)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Leiter's Theocracy

Brian Leiter is right. Rule of law means equality under the law, meaning there should not be special exceptions and exemptions for any given group. This includes religion.

But that point is as far as Leiter is right. And he is right that America is not a theocracy. And that last point he makes is why he could not be more wrong in the rest of his piece.

If rule of law means no one can be exempt, then if there is a case where law violates someone's religious liberty (which I do believe is law in this country), then that means the law itself should not be in place, as it inherently violates the rule of law. Any law that forces someone to choose between it and their conscience is no law.

Now, we are not talking about those laws that are protective in nature. You should not be allowed to murder, rape, steal, or assault in the name of God(s). What we are talking about are those laws that are not inherently protective in nature, but simply reflect someone's particular moral code. That would include laws against drugs and prostitution, many of the provisions in the ACA -- in fact, many of the laws currently on the books. Each of those laws are expressions of some group or groups' moral code. It is thus fundamentally theocratic, since the point of theocracy is to impose one particular moral code (God's, of course) on everyone. Thus, every single example Leiter gave is a theocratic law intended to impose one set of morals on everyone else, even those who do not subscribe to that religion.

A great example of this is the law against polygamy, which members of other Christian religions imposed on Mormons through the power of the federal government. The impetus behind prohibiting polygamy was purely religious, and was used to violate the consciences of those in another religion. If Leiter wants a good example of theocracy, that law would be it.

In fact, if we do not want a theocratic government, we would get rid of all laws that violate the consciences of all religious believers, and do not impose any one religion's views on the rest. That would in fact be rule of law -- not what Leiter supports, which is the establishment of his own theocracy.

Evolution in Music, Genes, and Language

Music seems to coevolve with genes, whereas language evolves more quickly. Which only makes me wonder about how this affects the evolution of songs and poetry. Might this more ancientness of music be one of the things that stranges language when it's made more musical?

And why does music evolve more slowly, at the rate of genes? Might it be because music is so much more connected to our emotions, which equally evolve at a glacial pace? Language is liberated from pure emotivity, able to express in logical structures as well. And sentiments give rise to emotions and moral responses equally, suggesting music (and language) are connected to sentiments. Logos, pathos. ethos.

And music, then, brings language back to being more sentimental -- expressing emotions and moral content more strongly, bringing them back in balance with the logical content of language. And yet, one cannot escape the logic and reason inherent in language, even in poetry.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Secret of Educational Reform

My latest at The Pope Center is The Secret of Educational Reform.

Is it top-down reform? No. Impossible to do.

Is it argumentation? No. People are in fact practically unpersuadable.

Then what is it? Hint: how do you create empathy and persuade unconsciously?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Moral Layers in Literature

As the evidence rolls in that literature has an effect on an individual's moral development simply through the act of reading, we need to remind ourselves that literature also has a content, and authors, and that one cannot escape the fact that each contribute a moral element as well.

While it is true that just the act of reading literature makes us more empathetic, improves our theory of mind, and complexifies our minds, but works of literature have authors of varying morals and content of equally varying morals (with many in the 20th century varying toward the immoral). Despite declarations of the death of the author, we remain interested in them. And surely (author-created) content has an effect on readers.

Certainly it does. And it does so on several levels.

Since we started with the broadest discussion of literature qua literature and the effect on our improved empathy, let us start broad and consider the sense of life of given genres and works.

Reading tragedies allow us to understand and perhaps develop a tragic sense of life. What is the tragic sense of life? It is a realization that everything you do has unintended consequences, that the smallest things can have the biggest effects. The more Oedipus runs away, the closer he gets to his destiny. An accidentally dropped handkerchief leads to the murder of Desdemona at the hands of her husband, Othello. A conflict between duties for Orestes (one must avenge one's father's death; one must never murder one's own parents) results in the establishment of the Athenian system of justice through trial by jury. Those who deny life is tragic want to condemn the past, cut society from it, and recreate it in their own image. The results would be comic if it weren't for the lives ruined and even lost in such efforts.

Reading comedies allow us to develop our specific moral sense -- but does so at the expense of others (though sometimes at our own expense, in self-deprecating humor). It in many ways reinforces the Us-Them dichotomy, but does so along moral lines. Comedy invites us to laugh at our own shortcomings -- often moral, but sometimes perceptual and/or cognitive (as in the case of mistaken identity in twins in a variety of plays, including the Amphitryons of both Plautus and Moliere, and Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors) -- as well as the shortcomings of others (which may have turned out to be our own without the lessons of comedy).

Romanticism, realism, neoclassicism, naturalism, existentialism -- all are going to have an effect on our world views and sense of life, and thus affect our morals. To find joy in things, or sorrow in them -- each affects our moral development. The more things we find beautiful, the more moral we become -- for virtue aims at the beautiful (Aristotle). And insofar as art shows us truths we may not have understood before, the more moral we are -- for beauty is truth, truth beauty (Keats), meaning virtue aims at truth. This may then equally suggest that artistic efforts to undermine our sense of beauty equally undermine our morals. The less beauty there is in the world, the fewer things at which we can aim, and the more restricted our moral spheres will become.

But these are all broad senses in which literature can affect our moral development. What about specific content? Is not Nabakov's Lolita an immoral tale of an immoral narrator? And if we grant the incredible artistic merit of Lolita, surely there is nothing but moral repugnance in the world of the Marquis de Sade. The moral atrocities in Philosophy in the Bedroom are seemingly endless. Though we do get the words "sadism" and "sadistic" from Sade's name, it doesn't seem that we saw an actual increase in sadistic behavior since the publication of Sade's works. In fact, Gad Saad points out in The Consuming Instinct that exposure to pornography does not result in an increase in rape, promiscuity, cheating, or misogyny; it rather has the opposite effect. Perhaps through a kind of cathartic effect, or perhaps through a kind of passive Freudian bringing-to-the-surface of the contents of one's id in the safe dream/play space of the work of literature, the works of Sade will likely have a similar moralizing effect. Equally with Lolita. The specific  (dream) content, in these cases, are what drive the moralizing effect.

It is the safe play space of the work of literature (or of the amusement park, for physical dangers, etc.) that allows one to morally develop. While in the real world, actually doing immoral things makes doing those immoral things easier to do over time, when we experience such things in the dream/play space of literature, we see the opposite effect. Literature makes us more moral, because of the content. Violent video games make us less violent in real life. Amusement parks make us more brave in the face of physical dangers because we faces simulated danger in the form of roller coasters, etc.

Does this mean there are no dangers to literature? Was Cervantes being silly by having Don Quixote go mad from reading so many romances? If so, what are we to make of the fact that there were a string of suicides in the wake of the publication of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther? The young men who killed themselves after reading Goethe's novel did so in emulation of the book's hero. Did they empathize overly much? Is there a danger in that with great literature?

And yet, who today commits suicide after reading Werther today? Were we perhaps seeing a rash of suicides that would have taken place anyway? Would Lennon's assassin and Reagan's attempted assassin have gone through life, perfectly normal, had it not been for the publication of Catcher in the Rye? Or are we seeing cases where the readers could not themselves differentiate between dream and reality, between fiction and the real world? How is that the fault of the work itself, that there are such readers out there? And does this not in fact prove my thesis?

These are all questions which need to be more fully investigated. But I think it is clear that literature has a major effect on our moral development, primarily through the development of empathy. This in turn is going to affect our various moral orders, including politics, philanthropy, religion, philosophy, and the social sciences. That being the case, it is vital we come to understand how we interact with literature, and what the consequences of those interactions are for ourselves as individuals, for those we know, and for the spontaneous orders in which we interact.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Progressives Are Nothing But Jerks and Ought to be Taken Out and Shot; Or, Group Dynamics: Problems and Solutions

One of the more helpful contributions of postmodernism and postcolonialism is the development of the concept of the Other. What were once thought of as separate issues -- sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. -- can be seen in this light as deeply structurally related. This is important in no small part because it can help us overcome the utter nonsense of the claim that sexism, racism, etc. are entirely socially constructed and help us realize that what we are in fact dealing with are particular expressions of an evolved psychological tendency.

Humans naturally engage in "othering." We see it in children. Put a group of children together, and they will form smaller groups, and those smaller groups will in no small part create an identity based on the fact that they are not the other group(s) that formed. The formation of the group can be as arbitrary as mere proximity; yet, when the groups are formed, they are quite clear about who is "good" and who is "not as good as us." From an outside perspective, each group may be essentially the same, with the same mixture of race and sex and ages, but if you were to ask each group about themselves and the other group(s), you would find each providing many good attributes about their own group, and finding all kinds of flaws with the other group(s). Anyone who has seen children in a classroom and/or on a playground knows this to be true.

In the past, group membership was something you were born into. Your tribe was US, and other tribes were THEM. And the name of your tribe typically was the same word you had for Human Being; others in other tribes were not fellow human beings. Out of this we see the old patterns of racism, ethnic divisions, religious divisions, etc. As divisive as religion often is, it has nevertheless acted as a way to overcome racial and ethnic divisions. Race does not matter so long as you are a fellow Christian, Muslim, etc. A shared Other can make for a larger group of Us.

However, the world is seeing greater and greater heterogeneity. Especially in places like the United States. We send our children to school with children of other races, ethnicities, religions, etc. We see them playing together and getting along, and come to the conclusion that racism is socially constructed -- after all, look at our children playing, showing no racial animosity at all. But this actually exposes our own racism, in thinking that what children are looking for are deep, inherent racial differences that are, in fact, not really there. However, if we understand what we are really looking at, we can see that our children are no better than any other human being that ever lived -- they just Other different groups.

And sometimes they do the same old Us vs Them groups. Your children will fight like cats and dogs -- until and unless someone else comes along, in which case there will be a united family front against the other. Outsiders cannot attack the family.

It is more obvious when we look at how our children divide themselves up now. It is less and less along racial/ethnic lines and more and more along lines of interest, etc. Cliques are the new "racism." The nerds are certain they are superior to the jocks, who are equally certain they are superior to the nerds. You have nerds, geeks, stoners, punks, gangstas, jocks, etc. It is Our School vs the Other School(s). My college vs. other colleges. My sports team vs. other sports teams. Science vs. the Humanities. Proletariat vs. Bourgeois. Right vs. Left. As we get older, we simply change group membership -- we don't abandon group membership itself.

Political divisions are a good example of this. The Right is convinced the Left are immoral, arrogant dictator-wannabes. The Left is equally convinced the Right are immoral, arrogant dictator-wannabes.  Libertarians agree with both of them, and both of them agree that the libertarians are out of touch with reality (and arrogant and immoral). The divisions become deeper and deeper the more there is at stake -- and the more power the government has, the more there is at stake, meaning divisions are only going to become deeper and deeper.

The divisions humans create may be arbitrary in many ways, but the fact that we want to divide ourselves into Us and Them is an evolved drive. That drive is not socially constructed, though the qualities of the divisions may be. We are naturally xenophobic. However, we are naturally xenophilic as well (making us paradoxical in nature -- meaning we have to engage in complex behaviors to negotiate both drives). We are naturally competitive, but naturally cooperative as well. And the latter drives the former. We cooperate to compete. We get together in groups to cooperate, but that means we identify other groups with which we are in competition. So long as the stakes are relatively low (power and wealth relatively decentralized and spread out, as one finds in market economies), the groups will not engage in violent competition. Violent competition is costly, and the benefits have to outweigh the costs. This means that if the stakes get to be high enough, violence becomes worth engaging in. This is the great danger in governments having too much power over peoples' lives, whether in the economy or in other aspects of civil society. The more power a government has, the more there is at stake. The more there is at stake, the more likely it is that the groups in a given civil society will treat each other with increasing hostility.

We are never going to get rid of the human tendency to want to live together in cooperative groups. Nor would we want to do so. It is what allows us to live in cities and work together in firms. But that same tendency has a dark side. Depending on what institutions are in place, that dark side can be greatly minimized, or it can be greatly emphasized. If we centralize wealth and power, we can expect greater hostility among groups. If we decentralize wealth and power, we can expect decreased hostility among groups. But we will never get rid of the natural human tendency to get into groups and to think our own group superior to others. We can only create the conditions to mitigate those effects.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Poetry, Music, and the Brain

New research has demonstrated that reading poetry stimulates not just the areas of the brain dedicated to reading, but also those areas related to introspection and the emotion areas that are also stimulated by music. In other words, rhythmic poetry stimulates not just the language portions of the brain, but the music portions as well. This may imply that all of the positive attributes of music are equally applicable to poetry.

I have discussed before how music improves vocabulary. Imagine, then, how much more poetry would improve vocabulary over music, given that it actually has words in it. And I have discussed how music improves our ability to interpret emotions. Music is emotional training. Is poetry stimulates the same areas, so too is poetry emotional training. And of course, I have recently noted the discovery that literature improves theory of mind and, thus, empathy. And of course increasing empathy means increasing morality.

The connection to emotions -- suggesting poetry, like music, results in a kind of emotional training -- also suggests a further connection to moral development, given the work of Jonathan Haidt. Haidt demonstrates the emotional underpinnings to morals (developing further Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments); this in turn suggests that if we develop and train our emotions, we will develop and train our morals as well.

The poet who wants to have the most impact on his readers will thus be the poet who simultaneously creates the most musical poetry and challenges his readers with a certain degree of difficulty, requiring them to interpret the work to at least some degree. And the teacher who wants literature to have the strongest impact on his students will have them read precisely such works.
Update: The supramarginal gyrus, associated with time perception and language (including reading), has been discovered to be involved in empathy. Yet another connection between literature -- especially poetry -- and empathy.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

From Good and Bad to Good and Evil -- On Moral Emergence

One of the most famous stories is that of Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and being thrown out of the garden. Most interpretations of this story argue that Adam and Eve rebelled against God in doing so. However, we have to face a real problem in the fact that Adam and Eve could not have known that what they were doing was evil before they ate from the Tree, given the fact that they were in fact in a state of ignorance. If you do something out of ignorance, you are not rebelling. Your actions may be bad, but they are bad insofar as they will not gain what you think your actions will gain you. You are simply wrong, ignorant.

This understanding of the fact that there is a difference between bad and evil, and that the bad is done out of ignorance, while the evil is done out of knowledge and is thus an act of rebellion, should in fact help us understand the meaning of the story.

If, as Plato argued, people do bad things out of ignorance of the good, we can begin to see what happened in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are in a state of ignorance about good and evil. This is necessarily true, as they have yet to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If you are without knowledge, you are ignorant, by definition. Now, God told them the consequences of eating from the Tree -- that they would die. However, the serpent told them that if they ate from the Tree, they would not die. They are given two pieces of information, but do not have the knowledge of which is in fact true. They made a choice out of their ignorance, listening first to the first Being to tell them something, then listening to the second to tell them something, acting on that information each time. When they eat of the Tree, that is when they in fact gain knowledge. From here on out, they have knowledge, meaning ignoring what they know and acting against that knowledge is an act of evil. Adam and Eve have thus moved from good vs bad to good vs evil.

What we see in this story is a metaphor for the process of moral growth. We go through life doing things that are bad out of ignorance that what we are doing is bad. Then a moral teacher comes along and teaches us that what we are doing is bad. Once we agree that what we were doing was bad, we move from the state of good vs bad to the state of good vs evil. A person who is a racist because of ignorance and residual tribalist ethics is a bad person; a person who is a racist even though he knows racism is bad is an evil person. A person who advocates a minimum wage out of ignorance of the economic effects is someone advocating a bad policy; a person who advocates a minimum wage even though he knows the economic effects is someone advocating an evil policy.

From this we can see that moral teachers come from a variety of places: religion, philosophy, the social sciences, perhaps even on occasion government. The social scientist is included because the social scientist discovers what are good and bad institutions, structures, and policies. They thus educate us out of ignorance (the realm of good and bad) and into knowledge (the realm of good and evil). These ethical orders do not create ethics in a clean, clear-cut fashion. It is a complex, messy process. And it takes time for a society to fully adopt new morals. This should suggest to us that we need to be a little more patient with people who are still in a state of ignorance, as they have yet to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil for the particular virtue we wish to actively promote. At the same time, we do have to encourage them to eat. For innocence, ignorance, and simplicity is not virtue. It is painful to be thrown out of the Garden, but we are better (more interesting and more complex) people for it when it happens.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Literature Improves Theory of Mind

I have argued previously and elsewhere that literature makes us more empathetic. This is supported by the work of Jonathan Gottschall. This is important because empathy underlies certain moral judgments. If you want to be more moral, more empathetic, and thus more able to live in an increasingly connected, highly pluralist world, read more literature.

But wait! There's more!

There is now evidence that reading specifically literary fiction improves the reader's theory of mind. This is tied to the complexity of the texts. Literature exercises our minds. Of course, if one's theory of mind is improved, one's empathy must of necessity be improved as well. The more mind I attribute to you, the more empathy I feel toward you.

If we combine this with the fact that poetry moralizes by weirding and the fact that surrealist literature makes our thinking more complex, and we can begin to see how important literature of all kinds is to our moral development.

And theater, because it draws people together, makes us want to work more together to solve social problems, according to Russell Berman.

Combine all of this with my arguments in The Spontaneous Orders of the Arts, and we can see that literature makes us more moral by complexifying our thinking in general, fine-tuning our theory of mind and expanding our empathy, and even moving us to act.

Imagine what literature classes would be like if we taught them using this knowledge.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Humans Did Not Evolve to Understand the World As It Truly Is

Almost everything discovered by quantum physicists goes counter to what reality seems ogvious to be. It seems obvious we touch things, but in truth electromagnetic repulsion between atoms makes touching anything literally impossible. It seems obvious objects are solid, but in truth, they are over 99% empty space -- with the rest made up of probablistic waves. It seems obvious that everything has a local habitation, but in truth, everything is everywhere in the universe at once, with only a certain (high) probablity of being localized.

Humans engage in essentialist thinking, meaning we are programmed to believe species have an (eternal) essence, that racial and ethnic categories are essential categories, and that each individual remains essentially the same over time (the latter allows us to accuse people of being wishy-washy when they change their minds over time). The truth is that we change constantly over time, that species come and go, that evolution is the true reality, whether it be species, individuals, or societies.

As a social species, we evolved to believe all social networks must be hierarchical. This is the structure of all interspecies social networks. This is why we support powerful leaders and attempts to impose hierarchical structures on social order. It is practically impossible for us to see and understand scale-free networks, which is the structure of ecosystems (intraspecies networks) and large-scale social orders (division of labor networks).

Humans also evolved to expect there to be an orderer whenever we find order. This is why self-organization theories -- whether biological (evolution) or social (e.g., free markets) -- are widely rejected. Biological self-organization is rejected not only by physical creationists, but by secular leftists who reject any and all evolutionary explanations that are inconvenient to their ideologies. Social self-organization is rejected primarily by the left when it comes to the economy, but is also rejected by the right when it comes to culture.

The last three in particular affect our political views. Acceptance of our evolved sense of social reality and rejection of what we have learned to be our actual social reality affects left and right alike -- and altogether too many libertarians as well (those who embrace conspiracy theory explanations of the order seen in the world). Overcoming our evolved sense of how the world works and embracing how it really works is very difficult. But it must be done if we are going to best deal with reality.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Lecturer of English

My career has been very slow to take off. I graduated with my Ph.D. in 2004 from UT-Dallas. I initially thought it would be a good idea to publish a book. So I wrote Diaphysics and got it off to a publisher. I probably should have concentrated more on writing academic papers and getting my poems published. I also made the mistake of thinking that doing adjunct work would create teaching experience that would eventually lead to a tenure-track position. Of course, I have since learned that doing adjunct work will do absolultely nothing for your career.

That may seem odd to say given the fact that I am now a lecturer at the University of North Texas at Dallas, where I was an adjunct just last year. It seems obvious that doing the adjunct work is what got me the lecturer job. However, not every adjunct was given a lecturer position. Why, then, did I get one?

While I was adjuncting, I also published quite a bit of work. Being an interdisciplinarian, it was mostly interdisciplinary work, and mostly on spontaneous order theory. I also have quite a few creative publications, and a few editorships, and some experience in theater. Also, I consulted on a book for Dr. Eric Bing at the Bush Center here in Dallas. It was this latter which seems to have led to someone deciding to offer me the developmental writing class, and later a few projects, including the development of a non-course competency-based option for developmental writing/reading. Their need for a specialist in developmental writing to teach this and the original course then led them to creating the lecturer position, which I applied for and got.

Yes, the adjunct position did get me in the door in this particular case -- but it was my other work that led to my current position.

And now that I have this lecturer position, I have been asked to develop a Writing for Performance class, based on my experience in theater. And there is some discussion of creating a student journal of some sort, based on my editor experience. These are the things that have gotten me where I am, not teaching experience.

Those of us in academia have heard the phrase "publish or perish." I am convinced it is true. Publish and participate in a variety of social activities. Otherwise you will perish on the island of adjuncts.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Revenge Order

What is the real purpose of government? Why do we think we need one? We do not need government to engage in mutual trade. We do not need government to create money. We do not need government to create technology. We do not need government to discover scientific facts. We do not need government to discover mathematical truths. We do not need government to create art and literature. We do not need government to have religion. We do not need government to have philosophy. We do not need government to be philanthropic and charitable. Indeed, government more often than not gets in the way of all of these things. So what is government for?


Government cannot really be around for self-defense in the literal sense. If you are attacked, it is pretty much up to you to defend yourself then and there. But if you cannot defend yourself? If someone robs, rapes, assaults, kidnaps, cheats, or murders you? The government can then come in and exact revenge on your behalf, or on the behalf of your friends and relatives (if you've been murdered). The threat of exacting revenge is the closest to self-defense a government can engage in.

But revenge is corrupting. Revenge makes us into what we are seeking vengeance against. We know that on some level, and thus seek to create governments so we can outsource our vengeance, keeping ourselves morally clean in the meantime. This is why the areas of government most directly engaged in the exacting of vengeance tend to be the most corrupt. We sacrifice the moral lives of our police and military to keep our own moral lives clean.

Governments thus are not spontaneous orders of justice; it is when we act justly toward each other that a spontaneous order of justice emerges -- the common law. Governments, rather, respond to injustice with vengeance.

Given the fact that government is created so we can outsource our vengeance to keep ourselves morally clean, we can begin to see why governments have taken on certain roles. The envious, for example, seek vengeance against those whom they envy. This is the source of much of our class warfare/welfare state rhetoric and policies. Progressive income taxes do not bring in nearly the amount of money as other kinds of taxation; the reason we nevertheless have such a tax system is because the envious are enacting vengeance against those whom they envy with such a tax system. Indeed, the vengeance of the envious is precisely what drives all redistributionist policies. And it is why we find the government engaging in such policies. Redistributionist policies and progressive income taxes are forms of vengeance and, thus, appropriate for the government to engage in. This assumes, of course, that one thinks the envious enacting vengeance is itself just behavior. Game theory has demonstrated, unfortunately, that envy is a deep primatological trait.

Libertarians are distinct in the fact that they apply individual morality to the actions governments. If private individuals cannot rob, rape, assault, kidnap, cheat, or murder, then neither can an individual if they are associated with the government. However, if one is going to enact vengeance, then one is likely to engage in any one of these. A fine is robbery; one is assaulted and kidnapped when one is arrested; one can be killed while being arrested, if not given the death penalty. However, these are things we have the government do to those who have proven themselves unjust in their actions against others. That is, they are acts of vengeance.

If we are going to remain untouched by the corruption inherent in vengeance, we are going to have to continue to outsource our vengeance. But that means the creation of institutions which are inherently corrupting. The best we can do, perhaps, is narrow down as much as possible those activities for which we think vengeance ought to be exacted. If government must necessarily be corrupting, then we should give it as few tasks as humanly possible.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Virtue and/as the Golden Mean

The more philosophy I read, the more I find virtue described as a golden mean -- or moderate position -- between two vices. Lao Tzu does so in the Tao Te Ching. Aristotle does so in the Nichmachean ethics. And Francist Bacon in his Novum Organum repeats Aristotle's views, as does Nietzsche in The Twilight of the Idols.

Aristotle argues that virtues are means between two vices -- extremes at either end. Cowardice (extreme caution) and rashness (extreme lack of caution) are vices, with courage being the virtuous mean. Murder (purposeful killing of a fellow human being) and refusing to even defend oneself and one's family are vices, with self-defense (or the willingness to engage in self-defense) being the virtuous mean.

Bacon argues that those who overspecialize and with their hammer treat all things as nails are one extreme, while those who are too broadly interdisciplinary but only have a shallow knowledge are another extreme, with both depth and breadth being the mean (one thinks of F.A. Hayek's observation that economists ought to be interdisciplinarians -- they should have a deep knowledge of something, in this case economics, and a broad knowledge of other things, so their economics isn't stupid). Bacon also observes that "There are found in some minds given to an extreme admiration of antiquity, others to an extreme love and appetite for novelty; but few so duly tempered that they can hold the mean, neither carping at what has been well laid down by the ancients, nor despising what is well introduced by the moderns." (I think, again, of Hayek and his advocating of evolutionary traditionalism -- or, spontaneous order.)

Nietzsche argues that the two extremes are giving in to the passions and negation of the passions. Always giving in to sex is rape, but pure negation denies a real aspect of human life and thus a rejection of life; the mean is what Nietzsche calls the spiritualization of the passions -- in the case of sex, love and marriage. One can either be a glutton or fast to death, or find the spiritualization of eating and eat enough for one's constitution and enjoy eating, to boot. With his idea of spiritualization, we see a mechanism for turning the vice of excess into the golden mean virtue.

Sadly, many who claim to have been influenced by Nietzsche have managed to fail to notice is advocacy for the mean as virtue -- even though he ended his career with this idea, above, and began his career with the argument that the highest form of art was tragedy, which was the mean of the extremes of Apollonian and Dionysian drives and art. It would not be a bad idea for us to return to the insights of Lao Tzu, Aristotle, Bacon, and Nietzsche.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Creative Intelligence and Being an Artist

In Creative Intelligence, Bruce Nussbaum lays out what he calls the five competencies of creative intelligence:

1. Knowledge Mining
2. Framing
3. Playing
5. Pivoting

The last one is the movement from creating to making, which emphasizes the fact that having a great idea isn't enough. You have to follow up on that great idea and actually make something.

All of these are features of every great artist who has ever existed. Great poets have read the great poets, and even memorized many of their poems. All artists engage in framing. Art is play (a nonserious thing done seriously). And the artist has to move from conception to making, and actually make the work.

One could make the argument that every team whose purpose is to be creative really needs a poet, a playwright, a painter, a sculptor, a musician, etc. on their team to keep the team thinking as truly creative people think, and to keep the moving on to turning the ideas into things.

I will note in particular that Nussbaum's "framing" is something people involved in theater ought to find of interest. Nussbaum says there are three kinds of framing:

1. Narrative Framing, or "how we interpret the world" (35)
2. Engagement Framing, or "how we interact with each other" (35)
3. What-If Framing, or "how we imagine the unthinkable to innovate beyond our wildest dreams" (35)

The first, Narrative Framing, should be of obvious interest to people involved in theater. However, plays are staged, and thus, how people interact with each other is also vitally important. How many playwrights leave those decisions to the director and/or actors? How much could/should playwrights think about their Engagement Framing? And finally, one of the primary roles of any artist, playwright included, is the creation of What-If scenarios. What else is narrative art but What-If scenarios, designed to teach us how to behave (or not behave) in a variety of situations (Engagements).

In a sense, these are all things every artist understands -- but it is sometimes beneficial to have such things made explicit, to think about what it is we are really doing as artists.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Time and Austrian Economics

One of the distinguishing features of the Austrian school of economics is that it takes time seriously. Much mainstream economics could be described as taking place on an atemporal pin-tip. Because Austrian economists view the economy as an unfolding process, time is necessarily central to their theorizing. 

Since time is such an important element to any economic theory that views the economy as an unfolding process, we have to face the question, “What is time”? The person who has perhaps investigated this idea the fullest is Julius T. Fraser, whose theory that as the universe becomes more complex, those new entities experience time in new ways, is also a theory of the emergence of freedom.

J.T. Fraser argued in books like Time: The Familiar Stranger and Time, Conflict, and Human Values that time is experienced by different levels of complexity in different ways, and that those complex levels emerged from previous levels. That experience, he termed umwelts. He posited that there are six umwelts: atemporal, prototemporal, eotemporal, biotemporal, nootemporal, and sociotemporal. Each of the later, more complex experiences of time also contain the less complex experiences. But let us look at each.

Atemporal – The time experience of the pure, chaotic energy at the moment of the Big Bang (or inside a black hole) is that of no time passing, or atemporality.

Prototemporal – This is the probabilistic, fragmented time experience of the particle-waves of quantum physics.

Eotemporality – This is the deterministic time experience of macro-objects, the physicists’ time “t”.  Events at this level are countable and orderable, but have no preferred time direction.

Biotemporality – Living organisms have a past, present, and future in a way nonliving things do not. At this level, life-serving goals and intentions emerge. This is, of course, the beginning of a time experience which makes the most sense to us, as living things.

Nootemporality – Humans have much longer temporal horizons than do other living things. As mature adults, we are aware not just of our own births and imminent deaths, but of a time before we existed, and of a future in which we will no longer exist. Here our intentionality is aimed at concrete and symbolic goals.

Sociotemporality – Fraser points out that this level is mostly theoretical, and difficult to distinguish from the nootemporal, since it is, after all, made up of humans. It is hard to theorize because we are viewing it from the inside. With nootemporality, we can understand it through introspection. The other four, we can understand through scientific research. But the patterns of society, and the temporal experience of society, cannot be so thoroughly understood as the rest. The best we can do is understand it as any particular culture’s collective understanding of the nature of time.

Each of the above levels of time experience also represents the emergence of a new physical level of reality, each exponentially more complex than the level before. The first thing we should note is that the scientific view of time is primarily that of eotemporality, or Newtonian time. It is unfortunately applied to the biological, human, and social sciences as well. But we should be able to see that we have fundamentally different processes at each of these levels – fundamentally different processes that need to be understood on their own terms, using methods appropriate to those levels of complexity. 

But there are issues that concern libertarians that go beyond appropriate scientific methods. With Fraser’s model, we can see, too, how freedom unfolds in the universe. New levels emerge from the bottom-up, as elements of that lower level interact, creating new rules of interaction, that become solidified at the next level. As rules emerge from these bottom-up interactions, a new, freer level emerges. The universe becomes more complex – and more free – over time, self-organizing and emerging into freer and freer entities. And this freedom emerges in no small part because more and more time can be experienced. 

With each new level of complexity, the constituent parts are organized both by their interactions and by the emergent new order. Interacting biochemicals give rise to the living cell which in turn orders those biochemicals; interacting neurons give rise to the mind which in turn orders those neurons; interacting people give rise to social orders such as cultures, economies, governments, money, technological innovation, etc. which in turn order those people. New rules emerge at each new level; the most successful rules survive and are passed on. And those rules that provide the most freedom are the ones that have always survived. Thus, the universe has become freer over time. 

We can see, then, that the universe has self-organized from the bottom-up, with the chaos of pure energy giving rise to the probabilistic experience of particle-waves giving rise to the deterministic experience of chemistry and macrophysical objects giving rise to the life-serving goals and intentions of life itself giving rise to the concrete and symbolic goals of humans giving rise to social temporal experience. Although there is a certain amount of fee-through of time experience – given that we humans experience chaos, probability, determinism, and life-serving goals as well as concrete and symbolic goals – if one were to try to impose a less complex level of time experience on a more complex level, you would destroy that more complex level, while if one were to try to impose a more complex level of time experience on a less complex level, you would crush that less complex level. To reduce a living thing to eotemporality, you have to kill it. If you reduce sociotemporality to human concrete and symbolic goals, you will kill that society. 

This latter has, of course, been covered extensively by the Austrian economists in their ongoing fights against central planning. You cannot give society – including the economy – a goal. Doing so reduces that society’s or spontaneous order’s complexity, causing it to collapse. We humans are goal-oriented, but that does not mean spontaneous orders are or should be. With Fraser’s model of the temporal experiences of new levels of complex processes, we can see why. More, with Fraser’s model, we can see that the natural tendency of the universe is to, through bottom-up emergent processes, become freer over time. Libertarians can take great comfort in the fact that, in a real sense, cosmological history is on our side.

Friday, July 12, 2013

What It Is That I Do (as an interdisciplinarian)

As an interdisciplinarian, I reject reductionist world views. I  reject 19th century scientism (the attempt to reduce everything to simple physics), postmodernist reduction of everything to power, the tendency (left and right) to reduce everything to politics and government, the tendency of too many libertarians to reduce everything to market interactions, reduction of everything to psychology, to language, to religion, to philosophy, to aesthetics, etc. This tendency toward reductionism on the part of, perhaps, most people, makes these people tend to accuse everyone of reductionism if they have the audacity to argue from a different perspective from that person.

The world is made up of a variety of spontaneous orders, and thus of a variety of ways of understanding human social interactions (there being different kinds, they should be understood differently). There is reductionist science and emergentist science -- each requires different ways of understanding, and when the emergentist science reaches the level of human psychology and social interactions, the differences are so wide that the equation of the social sciences with the physical sciences almost appears bizarre. The physical sciences require knowledge; the social sciences require understanding. Knowledge and understanding are quite different things. The social sciences thus come much closer to philosophy and literary theory than the kinds of things we find in the physical sciences -- even as the physical sciences are finally starting to produce theories, such as the constructal law and self-organizing complexity and strange attractors and network theory, that are increasingly applicable to the social science. Still, these theories of emergent complexity require more understanding than simple knowledge.

If there are a variety of spontaneous orders in which we necessarily interact -- math, the physical sciences, technology, money/finance, the economy, the social sciences, democratic government (or the non-spontaneous order versions of government), philanthropy, philosophy, religion, and the arts -- there are a variety of ways of understanding the world, all of which are right and all of which are wrong. They are right, when taken together with the rest; they are wrong when used as the only lens through which to interpret the world. Of course, reductionism is simple and easy; understanding our complex social reality as a set of interacting spontaneous orders and organizations is, well, complex and difficult. It is far easier to be a reductionist of some kind than to even acknowledge the true complexity of the world.

Of course, those of us who are interdisciplinarians have to live with the fact that we are going to be misunderstood by the reductionists, who are always going to accuse us of reductionism when we provide evidence from an other other than the one they most prefer. The libertarian reductionist of all to market economics is going to look on me with distrust when I suggest there are political economies and gift economies as well as market economies. The postmodernist power reductionist who politicizes everything (in the worst sense of the term) can make no sense of my objection that not everything is power. They are also not too keen on scientific explanations. And the scientific reductionists, who reduce everything to math and physics, don't really think emergentist science is in fact real science. And philosophers, who are the ultimate in pursuing understanding, are the most stringent in rejecting knowledge-based science. Sadly, they equally misunderstand the social sciences, which are forms of understanding and, thus, more similar to philosophy than to the physical sciences.

All of this makes one-on-one conservations difficult for an interdisciplinarian. We are going to draw on evidence and understanding from a variety of disciplines and areas of life, and those who view things through one or even a few narrow perspectives are always going to object to those outside their perspectives and accuse the interdisciplinarian of having a narrow perspective when they do not, just because they offer arguments from outside the reductionists' perspective. The interdisciplinarian does somewhat better in writing, where they can bring scientific knowledge and philosophical understanding and mathematical idealism and real world evidence and artistic presentation together into a single work more easily. This, however, does not prevent some people from objecting that they simply don't know what it is that you do.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Criticisms of Libertarianism

If the powers-that-be feel the need to attack you, that's probably a good thing. After all, they will only attack you if they think you are strong enough to challenge them. This bodes well for libertarianism as a movement.

Of course, there are going to be criticisms that range from ridiculous smear pieces long on accusations and short on direct proof to more legitimate criticisms, as outlined by Jacob Levy. Yes, there are subsets of stupid ideas in libertarianism, broadly understood. There are Confederate apologists and conspiracy theorists, but probably no more than one would find among conservatives or leftists, respectively (they seem larger in such a small movement).

To my mind, you cannot be a libertarian and believe in either the rightness of the Confederacy or conspiracy theories. The former accepts the equation between oppression and agricultural socialism, and liberalism -- as though those can ever be reconciled. The latter accepts that order is created by powerful elites (in this they agree with the socialists), only they don't want the socialists' order. I say this latter is un-libertarian because libertarianism argues that social order emerges naturally from human social interactions. To argue otherwise is un-libertarian, un-liberal.

There also seems to be a notion that libertarianism has only been around since the early 1970s. In the contemporary American parlance, this is technically true. This is what allows people like the one I linked to in the first link to claim that if Rothbard was a racist, and Rothbard helped found libertarianism, therefore libertarianism was founded by a racists and, thus, in racist ideas. I don't want to get into whether or not "Rothbard was a racist" is in fact a truth statement; rather, I want to get into the foundations of libertarianism. While it is true that one can point to a literal date for the foundation of the Libertarian Party and, thus, make an argument that this is the foundation for libertarianism, doing so ignores the fact that libertarianism has its true foundations in classical liberalism -- in the ideas of Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, et al. Classical liberalism generally opposed aristocratic government and supported democratic self-governance, opposed government interference in people's lives, including the economy, and supported the liberation of women, slaves, and other oppressed peoples. This carried over into the foundations of libertarianism, because in a real sense, libertarianism is a postmodern continuation of classical liberalism (this fact may in fact be the problem with it).

Let me make it clear what it is libertarians support.

Libertarians support the free movement of people -- we do not think people should be condemned by the accident of their birth to economic destitution and oppression. Thus, libertarians support open borders and free immigration. It should be difficult to argue that this is a racist policy. It is support for immigration restrictions which is racist and unjust.

Libertarians support drug legalization and ending the War on Drugs. Given that the War on Drugs grossly disproportionately targets minorities (despite the fact that whites are no less likely to use them), libertarians are supporting a policy that will overwhelmingly benefit those minorities being targeted by our legal system. It is support for the War on Drugs which is racist and unjust.

Libertarians support equality under the law and the rule of law. Special privileges for any group is a violation of both of these and leads to group conflict. Favoring one group over another is unjust. And if the groups are racial groups, it's racist; if the groups are men and women, it's sexist; if the groups are one economic group or another, it's cronyist. In all cases, we see collectivism at work. Racism and sexism are forms of collectivism, and libertarianism opposes collectivism. Libertarians think each person should be judged on their own merits.

Libertarians support eliminating the minimum wage, an idea originally developed by progressives because it would result in the unemployment of minorities. It continues to disproportionately affect minorities and teens. One result is that teens have a harder time finding employment, leaving them bored. Bored teenagers is a recipe for trouble.

The progressives may have abandoned the racist reasons progressives originally gave for their social policies, including support for the minimum wage, but they have not given up the social policies whose original intentions were to harm racial minorities and others progressives considered to be "undesirable" (eugenics was also a progressivist idea, and was only abandoned after their policy was adopted by Hitler, who demonstrated to the world what the eugenicists really wanted). It should be obvious to everyone that the libertarian opposition to government interference in people's lives would extend to racial, gender, and reproductive choices. There is nothing more un-libertarian than eugenics. Indeed, the early progressives' support for eugenics was an integral part of their opposition to classical liberalism in general, and free markets in particular.

I would also like to address the absurd dualism proposed by opponents of classical liberalism/libertarianism -- individualism vs. collectivism. Opponents of liberalism argue that if you support individualism, you oppose all forms of social living. This is reasonable if the only choices are individualism or collectivism. But this is simply not true. Yet, this is perhaps where a real division occurs between classical liberals and libertarians. Classical liberals reject the radical individualism that leads to collectivism of Rousseau and the progressives and postmodernists whose ideas derive from his. However, the libertarians are in fact rational constructivists, just like the progressives and neoconservatives. Rational constructivism can in fact lead one to support for free markets (Ayn Rand), fascism (Heidegger), or communism (Saretre). However, Hayek demonstrated the weakness of this position for classical liberalism. The strain of classical liberalism that emerged from the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers sees people as social individuals -- we are always already a social species, and our individualism emerges out of our social interactions.

Classical liberals believe humans are social mammals and that collectivism in fact undermines society in all its aspects. Where classical liberals support the peaceful co-existence of the economy, democratic self-governance, religion, science, technological innovation, the arts, philosophy, philanthropy, etc., both neoconservatives and progressives seek to reduce all social interactions to the solitary collectivism of government control. All of the different orders listed are to be subsumed into the government -- with some of those orders utterly destroyed if necessary (i.e., the anti-religious tendency in progressivism or the anti-science tendency in neoconservatism -- and progressivism, when the science is inconvenient to their ideology). Too many libertarians, following this logic, tend to subsume everything into the market economy. They tend equally toward reductionism, only into the market order rather than the democratic one.

If we return to the issue of the Confederacy, we can see the problems with libertarians supporting it if we take a Gravesean view. The southern states were not liberal, but rather were aristocratic in nature. Thus their recreation of serfdom in slavery. This would put their psychosocial level as authoritative (4th level, or blue, for those who know the patterns), whereas classical liberalism would be 5th level (orange), and libertarianism/progressivism/neoconservatism/Existentialism/postmodernism would be egalitarian (6th level, green). I have argued before that the integrationist (2nd tier, 1st level; yellow) level is where you find bleeding heart libertarianism.

To return to the topic at hand, the aristocratic (and, thus, anti-liberal) south took on liberal rhetoric in order to try to make a case for their position (much the same way the progressives, to mask their support for racist policies, adopted the term "liberal" and much liberal rhetoric). Some of the collectivist arguments of the authoritative level are in fact attractive to those in the egalitarian level (thus, much neoconservative thought), and this is true of the postmodernist libertarians as well (the postmodernist element of libertarianism is why they have a tendency toward conspiracy theories, vs. classical liberals and bleeding heart libertarians, who reject such notions). This is no doubt why we can find supporters for neo-Confederacy ideas within libertarian circles.

This hardly means that, because one can find a few kooks in a movement that everyone in the movement are kooks. I mean, communists and socialists have hardly considered Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, et al as black stains on their ideas and movement. They even proudly wear shirts with the image of a sociopathic mass murderer and racist -- Che Guevara -- without a second thought. This is not a defense of our kooks; rather, it is to point out the utter hypocrisy of libertarianism's leftist opponents. Libertarians would do well to reject the kooks. I myself reject the idea of a "big tent" if by "big tent" that means welcoming apologists for the Confederacy and conspiracy theorists. Those people should not be welcome. Those people harm the movement and prevent it from being taken seriously by many more people. I would like to argue that those people aren't even libertarians. In the case of Confederacy apologists, I would argue they are not. Sadly, the conspiracy theorists -- a group we share with the postmodern left and neoconservatism -- are, as least in the postmodernist sense, libertarians. But they are not classical liberals -- nor bleeding heart libertarians. If I am any of the above, I would consider myself a bleeding heart libertarian. Or, perhaps, more complex than that -- a complexity realist.