Saturday, September 27, 2014

Greetings, Visitors!

My blog has been getting a lot of hits lately, but rarely does anyone leave any comments.

Just for fun, who are you, and why do you come to my blog?

How to Know Thyself

"Know Thyself." Carved at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, location of the Oracle. Repeatedly used by Socrates and Plato. The very foundation of philosophy. Philosophy -- from phila-so-phos -- love of the inner light -- love of wisdom.

But what does it mean to know yourself? Socrates, to know himself, didn't sit around in caves contemplating his navel. In Phaedrus, he specifically rejects that, saying he prefers to be around people in the city of Athens. He learns about who he is through conversation with others. Through dialogue -- dia-logos -- through speech/information. He compares himself with others, learns about the similarities and differences and, through the latter, questions himself, compares himself, tests himself.

We can know ourselves today, but we have at our fingertips a variety of methods. We can delve deeper than before, with evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, Gravesean psychology, cognitive psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, etc. We can learn more about the natural variations among human beings, and find where on several spectra we lie. In doing so, we can find out the degrees to which others are the same or different from us, the sources of those differences, and thus learn to relate to those others better, knowing better who we are.

If you want to grow as a person, you have to know who you were and who you are -- only then can you learn where you are going.

Who am I? I have been a boy raised in rural Kentucky with family living in South Bend, IN (whom we visited on occasion) and Kentucky. I have been a child and young man with Asperger's, not knowing it. I am now a middle aged man with Asperger's knowing it. I have learned evolutionary psychology and sociobiology and Gravesean psychology and economics and some anthropology and sociology and cognitive psychology and neuroscience. I know who I am as a fellow human being, and I know in what ways I differ from so many of those fellow human beings. And, knowing the latter, I am more patient and understanding of what in the past I have considered the stupidities and irrational ideas of the vast majority of people. I have learned they are not stupidities and irrational ideas, but rather the natural way of thinking of neurotypical people, while my own natural way of thinking is what is rare, and seems odd to most others.

The above hardly covers it, but it does begin to get at what I'm talking about in trying to know yourself. It necessarily involves knowing who you are as a human being, as a species of social ape, as a social mammal, as a vertebrate, as a living thing. It necessarily involves knowing one's culture (and others'), one's economy (and others'), one's society (and others'), one's history (and others').

What does knowing all of this make you? I've been called a polymath. In the past, such people were called philosophers (and those we now call philosophers would likely not have fit the bill).

Will knowing all of this help you find your avocation? Will it deepen who you are? Will it help you understand others? Will it make you a better person? I hope it has done all of these things and more for me.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Social Regulations from a Gravesean Perspective

I have recently written several posts on guilt and shame. I have also written several posts discussing Gravesean psychology (Spiral Dynamics). So it should not be surprising that I am now bringing the two together.

Tribal (Purple) -- Familial loyalty, taboos, and customs are what regulate our social lives. Of course, our social lives and family lives are pretty much one and the same at this level of psychosocial complexity.

Egocentric (Red) -- Avoiding shame, defending one's reputation, and the desire to be respected (which can lead to demands to be respected, even if you are unrespectable) are what regulate social lives. This is the shame culture at its peak. "Respect and reputation matter more than life itself" (Beck and Cowan, 215), as can be seen in the ancient Greek epics and tragedies.

Authoritative (Blue) -- Feelings of guilt and the fear of breaking rules regulate social and personal lives. When these people dominate, one gets a full-fledged guilt culture.

Strategic (Orange) -- Feelings of responsibility for one's own actions and embarrassment from failing to meet some status goal. This gives rise to the responsibility culture.

Relativistic (Green) -- Feelings of collective guilt regulate social lives, though lack of personal guilt or responsibility does not regulate personal lives. This is the relativistic culture (hippie culture).

Integrative (Yellow) -- Feelings of enlightened self-acceptance and desire to not harm others regulates personal and social lives. This is the principled culture.

Holistic (Turquoise) -- Big-picture contextualization regulates personal and social lives. One may not even desire to do something unethical, since the negative outcomes are abundantly clear.

This suggests there are far more than the shame and guilt culture. Taboos and customs give way to shame, which gives way to personal guilt, which gives way to responsibility, which gives way to collective guilt and relativism, which gives way to principles, which gives way to globalist contextualization.
Beck, Don and Christoper Cowan. (1996) Spiral Dynamics.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate (Economists' Edition)

Economics is a moral science, so why do so many associate "economics" -- especially free market economics -- with immoral behavior?

Let us say that you are complaining about your situation. You don't like your job. You don't think the job pays enough. You want to do something else. What will an economist say?

Well, the first thing an economist will say is that you are in fact doing what you want. Of course, in a literal sense this is true. You are always doing what you want, given your options. Of course, too often economists leave out that latter part: given your options. They mean that, but people need to hear it.

Of course, an economist can also come up with a variety of options:

Quit your job.
Find a new job.

If you point out that you have been trying to find a new job, they will suggest increasing your human capital. As if that were a cost-free solution. Increasing your human capital requires time and money. And you're working that crappy job because you have no money.

Of course, there are other options. You won't need to make as much money if you changed your life style. Who needs a house and car, anyway? It's not like you need the latter to get to a job. And if you're trying to support a family, why not abandon the family? That's an "option." Now, you're probably not going to find an economist who will make those arguments, but I promise you that that is what people understand to be meant when it is suggested that you have "options." But of course, not all options are moral ones.

When immoral options are suggested -- either explicitly or implicitly -- you shouldn't be surprised if others find your solutions immoral, and end up thinking that because your options derive from the economic way of thinking that economics itself is immoral.

I mean, what on earth can you think people will think of you if you suggest that a meth-addicted prostitute is doing what she wants? She may be, in the economists' sense of the term "want," but to anyone else on earth, she's clearly not. Few people are going to think through what an economist is really saying: "Given the person is addicted to meth, and given that such an addiction makes employment in many fields outside of prostitution difficult if not impossible, and given the cost of being addicted to meth, and given the amount of money a person can make as a prostitute, this person wants to be a prostitute." With all of those "givens," one can likely agree with the assessment. But you almost never hear anyone hedging when they claim that you are always doing what you want to do at any given time.

When Economists Mistake the Map for the Territory

There is nothing like arguing with an economist with whom you mostly agree to make clear the shortcomings in the field.

In order to engage in economics research, you have to make some simplifying assumptions. That's fine. That's necessary. Economics deals with one of the most complex network processes known to man; there will have to be some simplifying assumptions. But when one mistakes the map for the territory, problems arise.

For example, it is a simplifying assumption that people are fungible -- that is, that people are perfectly flexible and do practically anything. This then leads to the economic logic that whatever you are doing is what you want to do. Now, there is a certain truth to that statement, but it is a truth that too often is used to mask the complexities of any given situation.

Say you have someone who works in a coal mine. He hates working in the coal mine. The economist would say that he prefers the pay plus working in the coal mine over not working in the coal mine and getting less pay. Or that if he really wants to get out of working in coal mines that he ought to get training in something else.

But here's the reality. Let's say we have a 40 year old man who has worked in coal mines since he was 20. Who, realistically, is going to hire him? He is trained on mining equipment. Which means he's specialized. Some of that is transferable, but he's going to have an easier time getting a coal mining job than some other job. More, many people won't want to hire him because they believe that he'll want to go back to the coal mines for the pay. The perception of potential employers matter. It is not up to this man as to whether he works in a coal mine; it is up to him and all potential employers. And if nobody will hire him except coal mines, then he's stuck being a coal miner. Or becoming homeless. Which is a ridiculous "option."

Further, what if the person is uneducated or has a poor education? This also restricts options. The economist will argue the person can go back to school to gain "human capital." But here we run into all sorts of problems. I already noted that the human capital the coal miner accumulated as a coal miner tends to restrict his options to coal mining. But more, the argument that one can gain any human capital one wants completely ignores the realities of learning disabilities, aptitudes, I.Q., interest, etc. You may want to go back to school, but if you have severe dyslexia, that may not be an actual option. Someone who tells you that you ought to learn computer coding when you don't have the aptitude for coding and/or math is wasting your and his time. Some people simply cannot learn certain things. There are wild variations in creativity, aptitude, I.Q., etc. And all of these restrict people's real options.

More, while it may seem logical that more human capital gives you more options, the reality is that it often has the opposite effect. Sure, if I learn carpentry, that means I can do carpentry and work at Kroger's. There are areas in which it is true that knowing more gives you more options. However, there are other areas where more education not only fails to increase your options, but in fact restricts them. For example, if you have an undergraduate degree -- or even a Master's degree -- in English or technical writing, you can get some pretty good, high-paying jobs. Technical writers can make pretty good money. However, I have discovered that if you have a Ph.D., nobody will ever offer you a job as a technical writer, no matter how good a writer you are. Why not? Surely, if you have the writing skills as a B.A. or a M.A., you have them as a Ph.D. In fact, you should be an even better writer. But writing skills are not the only thing taken into consideration when hiring a writer. They also want to know that you will be there long-term; they don't want someone who they think might be too arrogant, what with their Ph.D. and all. Thus, a Ph.D. can actually close off a number of avenues.

When economists talk about people having all of these options and use evidence that because you are doing something that that is what you want to do, they fail to acknowledge the fact that one's options are severely restricted by others' decisions and perceptions. I cannot get a better job if nobody will offer me one from the hundreds of jobs for which I've applied. Just because I settle for something because it's better than losing one's house and car, not paying the bills, and not having enough to eat, that doesn't mean that I'm happy to have the job or with my situation. And one should not have to be happy when institutions exploit situations where people have found themselves boxed in by being over-educated or not having the aptitude (for whatever reason) to do something else. The fact that someone is doing something does not mean they are happy with the situation, or that they are perfectly happy to have the job they have. The options real people have in the real world are often extremely narrow, and too many economists sound like fools when they don't acknowledge that reality.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Larger, More Active Amygdalas, Autism, and Altruism

Discover magazine reports that extreme altruists have more active and larger amygdalas. These people are more sensitive to "fearful faces." This heightened empathy drives their altrusim.

We also happen to know that people with autism also have more active and larger amygdalas.While some researchers, like Simon Baron-Cohen argue that people with autism are less empathetic, the research reported by Discover would seem to argue that it is not that autistic people are less empathetic, but that they are more so -- so much more so that avoiding faces becomes necessary to avoid being overwhelmed.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Spontaneous Orders as Different as Day and Night

Some fascinating research on what Kalahari Bushmen talk about during different times of the day raise some interesting questions. One interesting question is this: might there be "daytime" spontaneous orders and "nighttime" ones?

Consider this:

  • During the day, the topics of conversation involve social regulation and jokes (the moral order) and economic issues (the various economic orders).
  • At night, the conversations typically involved stories and involved dancing and singing (the artistic orders), including stories of the supernatural (religious order).

It may seem odd that I include jokes in the "moral order," but comedy is typically involved in social bonding around ridiculing those deemed morally inferior. They thus act as reinforcers of the moral order.

Further, the moral order involves aspects of justice, leading to the emergence of the democratic order as well. Social control, whether direct or indirect, are thus "daytime" concerns. We can also see that there are explicit connections among issues of justice, morals, and economics (isn't this what most people are really talking about when they talk about the economy?). Too many economists during the 20th century tried to pretend economics was not a moral science, with the result that many ended up supporting either mere nonsense or immoral systems.

But what about our "nighttime" concerns? The arts and religion act to bind us together in different ways than do economic or political transactions. And, as much research has shown, stories have a moralizing effect through increasing empathy.

The night is when strong bonds are formed and strengthened; the day is when weak bonds are formed and maintained. Both are needed to have healthy cultures and civil societies. We spend a lot of time with the daytime orders (we even work well into the night); we need to spend more with the nighttime ones as well.

Update: I expand more on this topic here.

Friday, September 19, 2014


Neurologically, we see both increased numbers of dendritic spines and increased excitatory activities. Now a gene linking the two has been found. It is, of course, only one of many genes that can result in autism, but every advance in knowledge is good.

It is my hope that a way can be found to reduce severe cases' problems without reducing benefits too much.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Disney's Frozen -- A Tragedy (Almost)

My daughter, Melina, is a big fan of the movie Frozen. Of course, she's a seven year old girl, so it's probably not all that surprising that she loves it. I like the movie well enough -- I think it's cute (who doesn't like the snowman?), and I like some of the ways it subverts your Disney princess expectations -- but I haven't exactly thought all that much, let alone deeply, about it.

However, I recently came across Mayim Bialik's blog in which she discusses why she and her sons didn't much care for the movie. My initial point in commenting was to point out she was technically wrong about Frozen not being based on a fairy tale. It is -- quite loosely -- based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson. But this resulted in a discussion with another commenter, which resulted in my thinking about the film a bit more.

It seems at first that we have a typical Disney princess movie in that the princess is going to find "true love" within seconds of meeting him. This first happens with Hans -- and the absurdity of it is pointed out in Elsa's reaction to their announcement they are going to get married. Then we meet Kristoff who, as the real red herring, is designed to make you think that he is Anna's true love. But, of course, they know each other only slightly more than Anna knew Hans (and Hans was manipulating her) -- and they know each other more only because they spent more actual time with each other. In fact, when you watch the movie again, it's pretty clear that Anna and Kristoff are not falling for each other. But the script plays with the audience's expectations that the friendly banter, etc. are preludes to love. The fact that Kristoff's "family" are excited he "brought a girl home" when the girl is not his girlfriend is a common trope in comedies. Of course, Frozen subverts that as well, since those movies all result in the man and woman falling in love, whereas we again do not see that in Frozen.

As for Elsa, she is the entire motivation for all of Anna's actions. Anna's separation from her sister makes her lonely enough to be taken advantage of by Hans. And when Elsa runs away, that causes Anna to go after her. There is no story at all without Elsa. She drives all the action.

Elsa meanwhile has a gift/curse her parents fear and are ashamed of. Elsa grows up not learning how to control it, but learning she should be ashamed of it. This is what causes her to make the same mistake as before. Her shame causes her to want to separate from the rest of society. Shame is, after all, social. Anna of course doesn't want to lose her sister again, so she goes after her. She doesn't want her sister to feel shame about who she is and what she can do. But shame causes people to lash out, and Elsa lashes out with her powers in creating the ice monster. When Anna is able to persuade Elsa she has nothing to be ashamed of, we get the resolution of the story.

If we consider the fact that there is a character -- Elsa -- who is a trailblazer (with her magical powers, which in fact represent being an outsider within one's own culture) who has to harm who she loves most to come to grips with who she is, it has the makings of a tragedy -- but it being Disney, we have to have a happily ever after ending with Anna not dying. Absent that, it's actually a pretty decent work of tragedy.The real message that Elsa should not be ashamed of who she is and what she can do does get muddled a bit at the end with her love for her sister being what saves her. This makes it appear that the story is really about love of one's siblings, when in fact the story is about how she should not stifle what makes us different, as what makes us different can make us great -- or, when we stifle it, it can make us a monster and drive us out of society. 

It's probably too much to ask Disney to give us a full-blown tragedy, but what they gave us isn't too far off.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

An Outline for the Two Plays that May Have Followed Euripides' Hippolytus

Ancient Greek tragedies tended to be written as trilogies with a satyr play. We unfortunately only have one trilogy -- Aeschylus' The Oresteia, which includes Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. However, we know that this structure was common, even if we do not have the complete set for any of the rest of the plays we have.

Thus, we can assume that Euripides' play Hippolytus was one of a trilogy. In fact, we can safely assume it was the first of the series. We can do this because it seems clear that there is nothing that came before which we need to understand, while the end of the play provides a clear indication that Artemis is going to do something to Aphrodite in revenge for what Aphrodite did to Hippolytus.

If we consider the one intact trilogy we have, we can work out what was the likely outcome of the tragedy (if not the final satyr play).

Hippolytus begins with Aphrodite saying she is going to avenge herself on Hippolytus because he disrespects her and curses her. The action of the play is thus caused by Aphrodite's desire for revenge. To accomplish her revenge, she causes Phaedra to fall in love with Hippolytus. Phaedra feels guilty for being in love with Hippolytus, but this guilt is turned into shame when her Nurse, in whom she confides, decides to tell Hippolytus, believing it is better Hippolytus knows than that he doesn't. Of course when Hippolytus learns of Phaedra's feelings, he curses the Nurse for telling him. But the Nurse had wisely asked Hippolytus to keep silent regarding what she was going to tell him, so he will not tell anyone. However, Phaedra is under the impression that he is going to tell her husband, his father, Theseus. The guilt she feels, combined with the shame she feels regarding Hippolytus' knowledge of her feelings, combined with the shame of his rejection, combined with her anger at him for cursing all women leads her to want to avenge herself on Hippolytus. More, she does not want her shame to spread to her children, so she has to silence Hippolytus. She thus writes a letter claiming Hippolytus raped her, and commits suicide to punctuate the letter, thus ensuring Hippolytus won't be believed no matter what he says. Thus will her reputation remain intact.

Committing suicide to protect one's reputation may, for someone who feels guilt rather than shame, seem an odd thing to do, but given the connection between shame and reputation, and the fact that one's shame can spread to one's relatives (while one's guilt cannot), her suicide does in fact make sense. It would have made sense to the Greek audience who first saw the play.

When Theseus discovers the letter, he curses Hippolytus in revenge. Once that revenge is realized, a dying Hippolytus forgives Theseus and Phaedra while Artemis tells Thessus what happened and that she will now avenge herself on Aphrodite's favorite.

Thus ends Hippolytus. One can imagine, though, that the second play would have been titled Adonis, with the story about Artemis' killing Adonis with a wild boar. In this play, we likely would have had Artemis declaring what she was going to do to Adonis, followed by Adonis' appearance and Aphrodite warning him not to go deep into the woods and to stay away from any animal that did not run away. In the same way that Poseidon killed Hippolytus, the boar was in fact the god Ares, who killed Adonis out of jealousy -- no doubt spurred on by Artemis. The play may have ended with Aphrodite tending Adonis' wounds as he died, or Persephone welcoming him permanently to Hades.

Given that Adonis' fate -- to spend a third of his time with Persephone and a third of his time with Aphrodite and a third of his time being his choice (he chose Aphrodite) -- had previously been decided by Zeus, we would not be surprised if the third play involved Zeus setting up a permanent celestial court to decide conflicts between the gods. After all, by Artemis killing Adonis, Zeus' decision regarding Adonis is nullified -- Persephone now gets Adonis permanently. One cannot imagine that Zeus would have been favorable to that outcome, meaning he would have an incentive to ensure that his will were not again circumvented by one of the other gods. Further, given that Aphrodite goes into Hades after Adonis, Zeus would have to again decide what to do with Adonis -- which turns out to be to split his time with Aphrodite and Persephone equally. Of course, Artemis, too, sought the resurrection of Hippolytus, and she would have likely insisted that if Aphrodite could get Adonis back, she should be able to get Hippolytus back. Hippolytus is, of course, resurrected, and Artemis makes him her priest.

Thus, a celestial court emerges that ends the revenge cycle. This would reflect those tragedies that celebrate the establishment of the earthly court system of Athens, such as we see in The Oresteia.

It is unfortunate we have no idea what the satyr play could be in either case.

On the Emergence of Tragedy

While one can certainly identify elements of tragedy in literatures around the world, tragedy in its purest form has only arisen at certain times and places: 

       Ancient Greece                          -- 5th Century B.C.
       Ancient Rome                            -- 1st Century A.D.
       Renaissance Europe                   -- 17th Century A.D.
      Shakespeare, et al (England)
       Post-WW II Modernist America – 20th Century A.D.
      Eugene O'Neill
      Robinson Jeffers

Why do we see tragedy arising at these times, in these places? Are there any similarities among these times and places? Let us look at the social situation of each:

5th Century Athens
       Athenian political hegemony after defeating the Persians
       Strong economic growth
       Influx of immigrants
       Golden Age of Athens

1st Century Rome
       Stable government under Augustus after Civil Wars
       Strong economic growth
       Influx of new people and ideas from the furthest reaches of the Empire
       Golden Age of Rome

Renaissance England
       Stable monarchy under Elizabeth after period of political instability and the defeat of the Spanish Armada
       Strong economic growth
       Influx of immigrants
       Elizabethan Age considered a Golden Age

17th Century France
       Stable French government under Louis XIV after period of wars
       Strong economic growth
       Influx of immigrants coinciding with colonialism
       Called the Grand Siecle (Grand Century)

Post WWII Modernist America
       World dominated by American hegemony after the central role of the U.S. in winning WWII
       Strong economic growth
       Influx of immigrants from around the world
       This period is known as The American Century

What we seem to see here is a major cultural shift, followed by a peacetime during which certain artists have the time and luxury to consider the changes that took place. Most cultural changes are gradual, or the jump is not that dramatic. But sometimes you get cultural changes such as we saw with the Renaissance.

Above is a cusp catastrophe model of cultural change.  It is rare for a culture to move along the front edge of the topological map. More commonly, cultures evolve along the back side of the map. We can see what will happen if one moves from one stable section to another along the front of the map -- sudden, surprising changes. One can imagine that during such changes, people will have a desire to figure out what, exactly, just happened. And that's where tragic art comes in. The bigger the jump, the purer the tragedy that will be written.

Coincidentally, during long periods of stability, we tend to see epics written, providing confirmation for that culture.

Tragedy affirms the new cultural forms, while trying to make sense of them.

Comedy arises out of conservative impulses, to ridicule the excesses of the new.

Drama tends to combine the genres. Novels, especially. These can in some ways be seen as storytelling for storytelling's sake.