Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Lauren Groff

Although I have generally stopped reading fiction, American fiction in particular, I still have a residual interest in it, because there is always the possibility that I will come across something that I will find interesting. I am about to start reading Submission by the French author, Michel Houellebecq, which I will probably enjoy. This novel became unusually controversial because it was featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo on the day that their office was attacked by Islamic terrorists and twelve people were killed, and its subject happens to be Islam in France. I will comment on Submission in due course. I liked The Map and the Territory, his previous novel, and became interested in him earlier when I read The Elementary Particles, which is a little disgusting but offers the kind of social criticism that I appreciate and is virtually nonexistent in American fiction.

I wish I could find contemporary American writing that I consider good - this, after all, is the country in which I live - but I have to say that I haven't located it yet. Having surveyed classic European fiction already, reading it is a bit like watching old movies: yes, the acting may be good, the screenplay may be well-written, etc., but you can't escape the fact that it is dated; people don't live like that now, and some of the techniques are out of fashion. Even allowing for certain universals that are relevant to all humans, the absence of contemporary cultural references makes classics historical artifacts that have little to say about the actual issues that we confront now. All is not lost for me though, because I am still interested in the obscure and neglected topic of the sociology of American literary fiction. Obviously it would be impossible for me to do a serious study of it, since I don't actually want to read the books. Nevertheless, I have been exposed to a bit of it and have formed some opinions on that basis.

What has caught my attention in recent months is the ascent of Marilynne Robinson to the ranks of major American literary figures. She teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has been acclaimed for her novels set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. I read Gilead and, as I said, found the exercise to be a complete waste of time. The only place where I can say this without being attacked is my own blog: Marilynne Robinson and the intellectual community that supports her are a disgrace to American thought. In Robinson I see America turning back on itself in search of a meritorious Christian-based past that never existed. She has created a fable-like heartland inhabited by the exact kind of Christians who appeal to her imagination and has falsely positioned them as the essence of American values. Beneath her startlingly unselfconscious preachiness lies a religious fervor that, in my opinion, has no place in contemporary thought and overlooks much of what was wrong in America's history. The U.S. is and was a Mecca for simple-minded capitalists who are hardly aware of the ill effects they have had on the world or how their triumphalism is a source of rancor from competing ideologies. Rather than entering the fray like a responsible adult and showing her readers how one ideology is usually no better than another, she takes sides in a traditional evangelical sense and tells us that her specific version of Calvinism is not only better than, say, radical Islam, but better than Southern Christian evangelism. Robinson is here to tell you that Jesus Christ was right and she is going to explain to you exactly what he meant. I am appalled that grown adults take her seriously, and the fact that she has any credibility among educated people is a warning sign to me about how demented the thinking is at the highest levels in this country. Apparently by being forthright about her opinions she has a magnetic appeal not unlike that of Donald Trump. She is a toned-down, politically correct, softened and feminized version who is perfect for lazy thinkers. I don't blame Robinson for having deep convictions that happen to be wrong; my complaint lies more with the intellectual bankruptcy of those who have uncritically provided her with an overwhelmingly positive reception.

Within the literary world, Robinson seems to be a one-off, and I prefer to think more broadly about the creative writing subculture that presently inhabits universities. I apologize for having limited experience in this area, but there is a thread within it that I've been thinking about for some time and thought I'd mention. As I said, I used to like the writing of Lorrie Moore and followed her career closely for several years. Moore received an MFA degree from Cornell in 1982, studying under Alison Lurie. A popular writer today is Lauren Groff, who received an MFA from the University of Wisconsin, studying under Lorrie Moore. These three connect three generations of American writers, with Lurie born in 1926, Moore in 1957 and Groff in 1978.

Alison Lurie was an academic's wife who eventually found her way to writing fiction and teaching English before MFAs became prominent. I read one of her novels, The Truth About Lorin Jones (1989) and thought it was OK but not outstanding. She has been compared to David Lodge, who is nine years younger and writes light satirical novels focused on academics. She has also made contributions to the new academic specialty of children's literature. Lurie usually spends part of the year in Britain and part of the year in Key West and is probably not very representative of American writers. Stylistically, I see nothing of her in the writing of Lorrie Moore.

Lorrie Moore's early fiction was experimental, and she became an instant hit among critics when her first short story collection, Self-Help, came out in 1985. She was only 28 at the time and already teaching creative writing in Wisconsin. Like Lurie, she emerged from an academic background: her grandfather had been the president of Skidmore College. Moore's early fiction was jokey, overflowing with wordplay, but her stories usually ended on a down note that looked much like clinical depression. The short story form leaves a lot of room for ambiguity, and she wove in feminist themes without making any explicit commitment to them. I always got the feeling that the women in her stories were the suffering victims of male abuse, but she never came out and said it. For a time I enjoyed the up and down jokiness and despair, but after about ten years she seemed to have run out of ideas. In 1997, when her career was beginning to tank a little, she published the short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here" in the New Yorker, and it subsequently won the O. Henry Award and cemented her literary reputation. By the age of 40 serious writers are expected to produce some serious work, and, as luck would have it, Moore had gone through the experience of having a sick baby and had managed to harvest it for literary purposes, even including that fact in the narrative itself. Since then she has not fared well at all as a writer, and I speculatively attribute this to a lack of real drama in her life, along with the insularity in which she lives as an acclaimed writer who is well protected by university moats and fawning editors such as Robert Silvers who use her reputation to sell their publications. People are still throwing money at her, and I shudder to think how much she makes for what little work she does. I am sure that she is far more successful than she ever thought she would be and has a difficult time dealing with it.

Along comes Lauren Groff, another introverted girl from upstate New York, like Lorrie Moore. By the time she had graduated from Amherst in 2001, there was a better-established path to literary success, and she chose to study with Moore in Wisconsin. Like Moore, she received early acclaim with her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, which was published in 2008, when she was 30, and became a bestseller. She has done well since. I read her short story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, which came out in 2009, and thought it was all right, but too juvenile for my taste. Groff is good at turns of phrase that precisely capture familiar events while throwing different light on them, but she lacks the mature observation to dissect anything beneath the surface. Her writing is careful but not witty. She also has a penchant for a kind of Americanized magical realism based on folklore from upstate New York. She grew up in Cooperstown, which is named after the Cooper family of which the fanciful author James Fenimore Cooper was a member. Farther down the Hudson River in Tarrytown there was Washington Irving, who wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," two American classics. These influences appear in her work. The reason why I chose to write about her is that I read this review of her latest novel, Fates and Furies, by one of the very few credible reviewers living today, James Wood. Wood does an admirable job teasing out what is best about the book, but in a rare instance of professional integrity doesn't hold back on its weaknesses. Apparently the second half of the novel is so off-kilter that he had to reinstate any disbelief that he had suspended in the first half after finding the narrative veering into hyperbolic untruths. I would not recommend Fates and Furies, but you might want to read Wood's review if only to see what a proper review looks like.

Groff seems to come from a privileged background. Her father is a rheumatologist and her sister, Sarah, who is a graduate of Middlebury College, competes in triathlons. While a variety of people probably choose to enter creative writing programs, the impression I have is that MFAs are especially appealing to children who are born into affluent families and feel a need to differentiate themselves by excelling at something that appears on an approved list of upper-middle-class careers. Here I go generalizing again, but it looks to me as if this kind of arrangement is likely to skew who gets published in the direction of people like Lauren Groff, at one end of the spectrum, allowing space for a few underprivileged minorities at the other end, in compliance with contemporary political correctness standards. This is not to say that Lauren Groff can't produce good fiction; rather, my point is that the system tends to homogenize literary culture, and people like Lorrie Moore and Lauren Groff rise to prominence well before they have reached the level of maturity as writers that would warrant such success. Groff's latest novel may be her first attempt at adult seriousness, but if James Wood's review is accurate, she lacks the maturity and insight to tackle the large and complex subject of marriage.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Generally Speaking

You could characterize a lot of my writing by saying that it involves observation and generalization. Journalists and academics seem more prone to describe and compare than observe and generalize, and fiction writers make things up for the entertainment of their readers, which may involve observation but usually doesn't include much explicit generalization. My writing style tends to presume that through the process I will arrive at a worthwhile conclusion or a formula that more or less sums things up. I do this unconsciously because that is how my mind works. Despite not being a scientist, I may come across as an informal scientist who is always making loose observations and proposing general theories that somehow explain whatever it is that I have chosen to focus upon. For this reason, I sometimes feel as if I am not providing the kind of writing that readers are most likely to expect. I don't write according to a journalistic model, I don't write according to an academic model, I'm not writing fiction, and even though I may seem to follow a scientific model, there is no research behind most of what I suggest. A little discussion of why I generalize is in order.

I recently read an article by Robert Sapolsky in which he says that by nature not only people but other mammals operate according to mental categories. The specific example discussed is that of gender. Like us, chimpanzees divide the world into male/female; upon coming into contact with a newborn chimpanzee, the first thing they want to know is its gender. I also just happened to notice, in the process of doing genealogical research involving census records, that gender is always one of the most significant characteristics recorded for each household member. This kind of categorization is probably a form of generalization in which different sets of behaviors are associated with males and females, and on that basis alone the future behavior of an individual is predicted. The article points out that there is in fact a range of gender characteristics built into each of our brains which does not necessarily correspond to our sexual organs, so it might be said that chimpanzees would be puzzled by contemporary LGTB thinking on gender, which makes gender identification an interior process that does not necessarily have any exterior manifestations.

It is true that categorizing and generalizing can be haphazard activities that result in distorted understanding of phenomena, but they are also default analytical methods that allow us to make basic evaluations and decisions. In the case of gender, within specific species, males may realistically be expected to behave aggressively and physically attack newcomers under certain circumstances, whereas females may be expected to avoid confrontation with the exception of defending their young. By adopting models of gender-based behavior, certain kinds of life-threatening actions may be avoided most of the time, even though the models may not be appropriate in every case and may not provide an accurate picture of reality. Sapolsky's main point is that gender stereotypes among humans are for the most part intractable, with important implications for transgender people who will find that others may not understand their choice of a gender that is at odds with their bodies. I am only using this as an example of how human minds work, but my personal position is that if I had gender issues myself I wouldn't change anything and would just deal with it. I've noticed an assortment of gender characteristics in myself and others and don't think that making an exterior change to put forth your ideal gender preference has much meaning at all. There have been feminine men and masculine women for millennia, and most of them would probably give you a blank stare if you suggested that they change their gender.

Over the last few years, much research has been devoted to making AI think as well as or better than humans. A major breakthrough occurred in 1997, when the computer Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, who is considered to be one of the best chess players ever. That is seen as a "brute force" method, in which the computer evaluates hundreds of millions of moves per second, which is not at all how humans play. Humans simplify their play by using strategies and insight, which require far less processing than Deep Blue and produce a high relative return for the amount of processing. Improvements in chess programs since 1997 have resulted in newer programs that can run on mobile phones and play at the grandmaster level with less analysis and hardware than Deep Blue. Some AI researchers are looking at tier-like programming that simulates human thinking in order to achieve a more human-like cognition process in AI.

As I've suggested before, I don't think that human cognitive abilities are all they're cracked up to be if you look at how we got them, their purposes, our small brains and the totality of what we don't know. Computers that already exist are capable of processing far more information than we ever have, and their capacities are likely to increase rather than level off. In this context it seems that our brains have evolved, in effect, to get more bang for the buck by using processing shortcuts. Though you can see it in much of our cognitive activity, it is particularly clear in sciences such as physics, which aim at general rules that can be expressed mathematically and have the greatest explanatory power. At the frontiers of knowledge, physics and other fields are becoming so difficult that few people are capable of advancing them on their own. I recently read about a new mathematical proof that is so complex that hardly any mathematician in the world can read it, let alone understand it. Contrary to the image of the robust human intellect that emerged from the Enlightenment and portended almost unlimited mental potential, it is beginning to look more as if we may be reaching an upper limit to our unaided intellectual capacities.

There are two points that I want to make about this. On the one hand, a case can be made that the way we generalize is inaccurate and misleading, and that there may be other more direct ways to understand reality that are beyond our inherent intellectual capacities. On the other hand, we may not be capable of escaping this kind of shortcut method of understanding the world, because it was built into us by our evolutionary development. As a thought experiment you can see how these factors might play out today in the domain of political correctness. A purely politically correct person would theoretically make no inferences about anyone based on their outward appearance. Thus, a demure, fashionably dressed woman in a gown arriving at a gala social event in a black limousine accompanied by an elegant man in a tuxedo would not be presumed to have an inner life different from a burly, unshaven man with windblown hair, sunglasses and tattoos covering his arms stopped at a red light and revving his Harley-Davidson loudly. While it is theoretically possible that the gowned woman and the motorcyclist would have similar inner lives, the odds of that are comparatively low, and a politically correct person who ignored that fact would not only have difficulty communicating with them by treating them identically, but would also be unable to function in society as it exists. In this example, pure political correctness would have the virtue of a complete lack of bias, as if using only deductive logic and never inductive logic. The downside, however, would be significant. Without making inferences about people based on their outward appearances and behavior, their actual personalities become unknowable, hence it would be impossible to apprehend their motives. All people other than oneself would become noumenal, making it impossible to categorize and group them. The human instinct to belong to a group would be stifled if it were impossible to identify groups, and it would not be possible to lead a normal human life as we currently understand it.

My thesis, then, is that generalization is what humans do, and that although it is subject to error, we cannot avoid doing it. This means that I favor empiricism and the scientific method over the view that reality is essentially unknowable. There remains the possibility that through future genetic engineering or AI some sort of trans-human model that explains reality without relying on traditional empirical methods will emerge, but in the meantime I intend to stick to what we do best, since that's all we really know.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Enos Severance

When we moved to Vermont in 2011, I had no idea that I would become interested in local history. As it is, there are so many palpable signs of the past here that it is hard for me not to think about it. Our house was built by the original settler of this land, Enos Severance, in about 1798, when John Adams was president and Thomas Jefferson was vice president. Although the house was remodeled in 1974, it retains some of its original features. It was a basic post and beam farmhouse with an enormous hearth in the center of the ground floor. The hearth is gone, but its foundation is still in the basement. We have the original ceiling beams, the original pine planks on the second floor, and some of the original doors and hardware.

Born in 1770, Enos Severance was the fifth of ten children born to Ebenezer Severance and Azuba Smith in Northfield, Massachusetts. At that time Vermont was mostly a wilderness. Although the legal background is still murky, there were conflicting claims on the land by colonial New York and colonial New Hampshire. Starting in 1749, the colonial governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth, sold land grants here, the first of which was named Bennington, after him. Middlebury was chartered in 1761. When New York began to make grants of the same land as the New Hampshire grants, a legal battle ensued, and purchasers of the New Hampshire grants, who were primarily small farmers and land speculators such as Ethan Allen, formed a militia to protect their property from New York. The issue was later resolved in 1791 in favor of New York, when a settlement was paid to New York by Vermont, enabling Vermont to become the fourteenth state. Because the French and Indian War (1754-1763) made Vermont an unsafe place to live, not much settlement took place during that period. This was immediately followed by the American Revolution (1765-1783), which also destabilized the region, with Lake Champlain serving as a conduit for the British forces in Canada. It was not until after the revolution that settlement picked up in earnest.

I have no evidence about what prompted the Severances to move to Vermont. Possibly they were attracted by the cheap land. In those days, modern agricultural methods did not exist, and it is also possible that they had exhausted their soil in Massachusetts. In any case, Enos's eldest brother, Samuel, arrived here in about 1786 and purchased land in East Middlebury, where he soon started a farm and married his neighbor's daughter, Mary Kirby, who had recently settled from Litchfield, Connecticut. In 1793, Enos and Samuel's father, Ebenezer, began to purchase land in our neighborhood on South Munger Street. In 1796 and 1797, Enos purchased adjacent land to the north, which became his farm, where he built his house. Samuel sold his property in East Middlebury and moved to land adjacent to the south side of Ebenezer's. In all, the Severances had several hundred acres along South Munger Street. Ebenezer's original house still stands, as does Enos's, but Samuel's appears to have been replaced by a new building, with a later Severance house dating from about the 1850's still standing next door.

Not many people were living in Middlebury in the late 1700's. Ebenezer Severance, as one of the few mature men, became a town selectman. Everyone appears to have been religious, with much of their social life centering around the Congregational Church, which was built in 1806, but whose members held meetings elsewhere prior to that. The same building stands today, and you can hear its bell from our house three miles away. It is difficult to imagine how physically demanding life must have been for the Severances. They had no power equipment for farming, no electricity, no inside plumbing, and twenty-below-zero temperatures during the winter. They had to cut their firewood by hand, and they probably made their own clothes. Worse yet, death was always nearby, with children not surviving childhood and adults dying before reaching the age of 60 in many cases.

In 1801, at age 30, Enos married Lydia Petty. Their first child, Philena, was born in 1802, and at age 27 she married a reverend and moved to Bristol, Vermont. Their second child, Roxana, was born in 1807 and lived in the house for most of her life. Lydia died in 1813 at the age of 49, and Enos married his second wife, Chloe Emerson, in 1814. Chloe bore him one daughter, Lydia, in 1815 and died while Enos was still alive. Enos soon married his third wife, Abigail Field, who outlived him. He died in 1842 at the age of 72, and his third daughter, Lydia, married later that year at the age of 26. Upon Enos's death, Abigail remarried and stayed on in the house until her death in 1869. Roxana then apparently married for the first time, at age 62. She and her husband, Edwin Landon, remained in the house until her death in 1877.

These were all ordinary people about whom we know little today. At his death, Enos owned about 80 acres, the house, a barn and the woodshed that we just replaced. He had an orchard, of which at least one tree is still alive - we ate a couple of its apples this year. According to family records he was also a beekeeper, though there is no evidence of that now. Several of the Severances, including Enos, his first wife, Lydia, and Roxana are buried in the Case Street Cemetery, about a mile from here.

You can infer some of their culture from their marriage patterns. Apparently it was unacceptable for a woman to live in a house without a male head of household. Thus, the younger Lydia married as soon as her father died, Abigail remarried as soon as Enos died, and Roxana married as soon as Abigail died - presumably Abigail's last husband no longer occupied the house. Conversely, there may also have been pressure for single men to be married. From the little evidence that I have, it is impossible to know whether there was attraction between the couples in every case; among the older couples it seems more likely that the marriages were simply an expedient way of keeping everyone paired up, and they may hardly have known each other before they married. The rural conditions and slow transportation further complicated the situation by making the plausible marriage choices extremely limited, and I would guess that everyone married someone who lived less than five miles away or attended the same church. From the church documents that I've seen it is clear that being an upstanding Christian was strongly emphasized. For example, the son of one of Enos's neighbors was reprimanded by his father for doing woodwork on a Sunday, when all work was strictly forbidden.

I don't know what the collective agricultural activities of the Severances were. The soil here is full of clay, and over time it seems to have shown itself best suited for hay. In this county over the years sheep, beef and dairy cattle have done well. Many grains don't grow well, as is attested by a contemporary farmer who is switching to rice after attempting unsuccessfully to grow other grains. With poor soil, little industry and a consistently small economy, most of the settlers who arrived in the late 1700's and early 1800's had left by the late 1800's. Enos's youngest brother, Moses, lived briefly with his father in his old age, but he then moved on to Ohio.

It is comforting to ponder simpler times, and the idea of a simple life appeals to me as much as anyone. There are people in Vermont now and people who would like to move here who would prefer to throw back the hands of time and live under circumstances in which they can proceed slowly, not feeling the pressures of the modern world, and perhaps even having more genuine relationships than they are likely to find in our competitive, fast-paced civilization. However, it is easy to idealize those conditions, and it would be instructive to transport Enos Severance to the present and ask him what he thought. There is little doubt in my mind that he would soon want a tractor, a car, electricity, a chainsaw and many tools that were unavailable when he was alive. If he were given the benefit of a modern education, his intellectual horizons might expand enough for him to consider belief systems other than the one that dominated his entire life. If you look at the past this way, it is less tempting to idealize it and make false assumptions about its merits.

This last point sums up how I feel about Christian sentimentalists such as Marilynne Robinson. I would not object to her fiction, other than its tendentiousness, if it were sold as light reading for escapists, but because of her academic credentials and popularity among educated readers she has somehow been elevated to the ranks of major thinkers. To me, this is an indication of how unclearly even the so-called intelligentsia may think. There are countless ways to imagine comforting ideologies in which one might live more happily, and Robinson's choice, besides being no better than many others, resorts to idealization that is both historically inaccurate and lacking in applicability to the present. In my view, the credentialled people who embrace her work are only demonstrating their inability to think deeply or imagine anything beyond their existing prejudices. Whether they are willing to admit it or not, they are engaging in escapism pure and simple.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Theocracy in America

As an independent bystander living in America, I tend to go through cycles of bemusement, incredulity and disappointment as I watch various spectacles unfold. Specifically, I have worked out my own ideas on morality and religion to my satisfaction, but am still surprised from time to time about how primitive American thinking remains in these areas. Over the last few years I've become more interested in hearing what scientists have to say on various topics, because in theory they are impartially seeking to understand phenomena as they exist and don't impose arbitrary agendas on their research, other than fairly basic ones such as making sure that they continue to receive funding for their projects and, very rarely I hope, cheating on their experiments in order to enhance their careers. The impression I have is that most scientists are honest and thoughtful and are reluctant to compromise their work for personal gain. What I find is that the farther you get from science, the more amorphous the procedures that people follow tend to become. In the academic setting, some members of the humanities camp have even outlawed the traditional idea of truth, in effect making truth relative. There may be something to the idea that Truth with a capital T should be viewed with caution, because it can be used as an ideological weapon, but sometimes it seems as if the anti-science people in the humanities have opened up a floodgate that allows them to proclaim as valid whatever nonsense they happen to dream up.

In this vein I have been thinking for many years about an offhand remark in a short story that I read: "There was a point at which the study of something became a frightening and naive thing." The suggestion here is that one must get on with one's life and not explore things too deeply by examining them in great detail. It is true that always exposing the underbelly of that which one encounters can make it hard to proceed. Sometimes it may be better to suspend your disbelief or set aside your inquiries. I consider this a paradox of honesty, in which honesty can become destructive when people are unable to deal with it. It may, for example, become problematic during the early stages of a relationship, when some breathing room may be necessary for trust and confidence to develop. However, my instinct is usually to get to the bottom of things, so for me there is a point at which the avoidance of the study of something becomes a frightening and naive thing. This is not exactly a new concept, since it dates back to the famous and often-quoted statement attributed to Socrates by Plato: The unexamined life is not worth living. In these matters, my strategy has been to continue thinking about whatever interests me but to bring it up cautiously after weighing the potential consequences. In most situations, since I have few close friends, not much of an issue ever develops when I pursue this course, because I have trained myself to keep my mouth shut and either say nothing or stick to platitudes. The people who know me better - perhaps even the readers of this blog - sooner or later become accustomed to hearing some of my interpretations and analyses.

I wrote earlier that I have not believed in God ever since my adolescence. One of the spectacles that periodically disturb me is the recurring American theme of Christianity and its imputed connection to morality. I've briefly critiqued the popular Christian writer, Marilynne Robinson, and it is easy for me to simply ignore her by not reading her work. However, Barack Obama has recently gone out of his way to see her and make a public display of his admiration, and I find this inappropriate in a major political figure. I'm still not completely sure what exactly is going on with Obama, but I am tending to see him as a shallow thinker who has become skilled at interweaving his public profile with his personal goals. In any case, I seem to disagree with him frequently and my assessment of him as a politician has gradually shifted from positive to negative. By publicly expressing his religious beliefs he is inadvertently linking them to his political views in a nation that is supposed to be secular, and this is disturbing in conjunction with the fact that he also holds the rather discredited idea of American exceptionalism, because it makes him look like a religious crusader. To put it loosely, whether it is his intention or not, I see Obama as proclaiming his allegiance to a Christian God that backs the United States, making the U.S. morally superior to other countries. It is difficult for me not to interpret this as self-righteous, self-justifying, thoughtless and irresponsible nonsense.

Whatever Obama's actual religious beliefs, he seems to be deliberately forging an alliance with a de facto religious figure whose demographics make her acceptable to educated Americans, unlike those of the televangelists who have large followings among the less-educated. The public usually approves of these kinds of alliances and takes them as an opportunity for a feel-good moment, without much reflection. However, only a little analysis shows the insidious effects of innocent-seeming religious alliances such as this. The subtext here is that Obama, who is currently waging war with ISIL and the Taliban and is at odds in varying degrees with several Muslim-dominated regimes, is motivated by a religion that he sees as valid, whereas the versions of Islam that he is fighting are not. From an ideological standpoint, a case could be made that there is little to distinguish this from a recapitulation of the Crusades. Because some Muslims are comfortable with the idea of a Muslim theocracy, they may have a tendency to view themselves as being in a battle to the death with a competing theocracy that is trying to impose itself on them. Seen this way, Obama's public affirmation of his Christian faith and belief in American exceptionalism, which itself is an odd amalgam of national hubris, economic greed, religion and imperialism, only serves to increase long-term international hostility and war. From my point of view there is so much bad thinking going on here that, besides Obama's self-image and America's self-image, the entire project of democracy is brought into question.

In the context of my opening paragraph, Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson belong to the humanities camp, taking liberties with reality that can lead to unreason if no one ever discusses them critically, which is usually the case. Although by nature I am completely apolitical, I find it unsettling to see the leader of a secular state depict himself as a devout believer in a religion that is objected to by the adherents of another religion who have formed groups with which we are at war. Belying his demeanor of Christian principles is his role in the perpetuation of American military adventurism in the Middle East. Beyond the geopolitical inappropriateness of Obama's public embrace of Christianity there remains the basic fact that, as a war-waging military leader, he cannot be considered a true Christian according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who was a pacifist and opposed the accumulation of wealth. Between the two of them, Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson make a travesty of reason, and in so doing they are unwittingly perpetuating ideological disputes and world conflict.

Although my initial reaction to Obama as a political leader was positive in 2008, I now see him as out of his depth in his job across the board. This, along with the general dysfunction in Washington, inclines me to think of ways to abandon the current political system entirely. Here is where science could play a constructive role. Over time, a deeper understanding of the instincts and irrationality of our species is emerging, and this could eventually provide a basis for the creation of a more functional system of governance that, in the absence of research, could never have been envisioned only a few decades ago. From the sidelines, I am appalled by the mindless theatrics that regularly occur on the national stage only to be applauded by an uncomprehending public.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Anthropocentrism

One of the concepts that comes up from time to time on this blog is that of anthropocentrism, and I thought I ought to discuss it separately to clarify my understanding of it a little. I first became aware of anthropocentrism early in school when I learned about the geocentric theory of the universe and how Copernicus provided the first version of the modern heliocentric model of the solar system. The Roman Catholic Church favored the geocentric model of Ptolemy, which corresponded better with the idea that God had made the universe with mankind at its center. Later I came to focus on how human culture overgeneralizes from some of the arbitrary preferences of our species, and most recently I have thought about how our cognitive structures as earth-evolved organisms may distort our conception of the universe in ways that are difficult for us to see beyond.

I have always enjoyed science fiction movies, books less so, but even when I was young I began to become annoyed by the fact that whenever there were aliens, they tended to be almost exactly the same as humans except for the particulars of their bodies. They were anthropocentric without being anthropomorphic. The stories often seemed like childish fairy tales arbitrarily set in space. I was already grown up by the time Star Wars came along in 1977 and found it slightly entertaining, though from a conceptual standpoint it was annoying to me. Aside from some of the technology in the story and the location in space, there was little to distinguish it from standard epic narratives or ordinary adventure novels. Although I always liked the original The Thing from Another World, from 1955, which strangely starred James Arness of Gunsmoke fame, and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey of 1968, in which no alien appears, it was not until Alien came out in 1972 that I found a film with an alien that seemed plausible. The Alien alien is scary because it has no human-like feature other than a relentless drive to reproduce, hence it is not presented merely as a variation of human life.

We recently watched the latest sequel to the original 1968 Planet of the Apes film that starred Charlton Heston. As usual, the apes are exactly like people, except for having difficulty speaking English, swinging from tree to tree naked and occupying the bodies of non-human primates. From a scientific standpoint the story is complete nonsense, and there may be a racial subtext. The apes and the humans each find the other group violent and untrustworthy, and by the end of the film we see that both groups are in fact violent and untrustworthy. During the course of the film we learn that the apes are like us: they take moral positions, care for their young, etc. This is anthropocentrism at its best in film. If you substitute, "primitive" for "primate," this may just be another way of saying "beneath the skin, we're all the same." The film is an iteration of the familiar Hollywood formula regarding the acceptance of others who at first seem different by recognizing ourselves in them. For me, the film fits my long-running experience, which is that most of the films made in Hollywood target children or childlike adults.

Perhaps the aspect of anthropocentrism that distances me most from conventional thinking is that I see morality as an evolutionary feature of humans that in a strict sense has no relationship to the rest of the universe. From my point of view, humans became moral as a result of a Darwinian accident that is by no means universal. In short, being eusocial and having an innate sense of empathy and cooperation turned out by accident to be sufficiently advantageous to our species to allow it to become encoded in our genes and supported in our social interactions. Thus, I have little patience with arguments that place morality anywhere beyond our collective existence as humans. Religions routinely do this by associating it with the entire universe through the will of God. There are also philosophical arguments that attempt to base morality on reason, and I find them futile.

My view of morality brings into question some ideas that are popular among many Westerners. The most obvious one has to do with invoking a higher authority such as God as a source of direction for all to follow on moral questions. Additionally, I do not believe that people are inherently good or evil; good and evil are misleading constructions, as I said earlier. For me, morality will never be more than a flexible human predisposition, and I strongly believe that it is a mistake to make anything more out of it. Specifically, problems begin to arise as soon as you attempt to apply morality to other species. We have a tendency to inappropriately project our moral beliefs onto other species. Because we empathize with other animals we unwittingly attempt to incorporate them into our moral sphere even when they could never participate in it of their own accord.

To use vegetarianism as an example, there is no simple principle that can justify it according to my views. "It is wrong to eat animals" is incorrect. My translation of that idea into an acceptable form would be: "Humans sometimes become emotionally attached to members of other species and grant them human status that precludes harming them." We are omnivorous animals that have eaten meat throughout our existence, and there is no sensible way that anyone can refute this. The best case for vegetarianism is to present it as a personal preference. It is possible that someday it will be easy to obtain food that tastes exactly like meat but does not contain any actual meat, which would make it much easier to become a vegetarian, but in my view that would do nothing to validate the idea of vegetarianism. I believe that if you look at animals from their point of view, generally they have no moral sense at all, and if humans were a part of their diet they would not hesitate to kill us and eat us. A hawk doesn't hesitate to eat a mouse, and the mouse doesn't question the hawk's morality.

The underlying problem of vegetarianism is that we have difficulty modulating our moral sense when other species are involved. The same phenomenon is at work in the concern for animal rights. From my point of view, strictly speaking, animals generally have no rights. The best we can do - and I don't oppose this - is acknowledge that we sometimes feel extremely uncomfortable hurting animals because they remind us of humans, and we have no control over our feelings. Seeing the problem this way, I don't object to people who choose not to eat meat or who defend animal rights. A mistake occurs when anthropocentrism projects a human face onto other species, and I don't believe that the mindless extension of essentially human models to other species makes much sense. The notion that we somehow become more moral through animal rights awareness seems foolish to me.

Another area in which anthropocentrism distorts human thought concerns how we see ourselves in the universe. Here the problem is related to the fact that we are the only intelligent species on the planet and have nothing to compare ourselves to. There are no other species around to contest anything we think, and in the absence of alternate thoughts we blindly assume that our way is self-evident. However, I am convinced that many of our fundamental assumptions will eventually be challenged. One way that this could occur would be through contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. There is a good chance that their understanding of the universe would be completely different from ours, putting into doubt much of what we have taken for granted. But for a number of reasons there may be nothing happening on this front for many years, if ever. The obstacles to extraterrestrial contact include a small number of candidates, indecipherable languages, undetectable transmissions, distances too great for two-way communication and lack of interest. In fact our presumption that intelligent aliens would want to communicate with us may itself be anthropocentric. I think a more probable challenge to our worldview will be the development of superintelligent AI. Most people still live under the impression that AI is a tool for making human work easier and don't realize that superintelligence may be far more significant than anything they imagined. For the first time in human history there may be an intelligence present that understands the universe far better than we do, which would in some respects make it the equivalent of God, i.e., it would know more and understand more than any human ever has. I'm not putting a date on this, but it could actually occur within our lifetimes.

Through the informal study of geology and astronomy over the last few years I have become more aware of the fact that enormous, irreversible changes are not uncommon in nature, and that our frame of reference with respect to time is extremely small within the scale of the universe. Though it is difficult to imagine what life would be like if many or all of our current paradigms were shattered, it is at least worth recognizing that something on that scale could occur.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Robert Durst

We watched the HBO miniseries, The Jinx, which focuses on two murders for which Robert Durst has been tried and one missing person case in which he has been implicated. Like most television productions, this is two or three times longer than it needs to be given the actual content, so I don't particularly recommend it unless you happen to become interested in the story. This was useful to me because it provides interviews with Durst, his acquaintances and family members, and these allow me to perform my own evaluations directly rather than relying exclusively on conventional news coverage. Durst interests me for a number of reasons, chief of which is that he is a good test for my theories of human nature. Also, he is only seven years older than I am and grew up in Scarsdale, New York, a few miles from where I grew up. Additionally, he owned a health food store in Middlebury during the early 1970's. The similarity ends there, because he is a wealthy real estate heir and, apparently, a murderer. If Durst ever goes to trial again, it is likely to be a major media event.

Durst may be guilty of six or more murders, though so far he has been convicted of none. He was a suspect in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen, in 1982. Her body was never found. In 2000, his longtime friend, Susan Berman, was murdered in her house, and Durst is expected to go on trial for that. He was arrested in 2001 and tried in 2003 for murdering and cutting up a neighbor. Although he admitted to shooting the neighbor, he claimed that it was an accident that occurred during a struggle with his gun. Despite the fact that he carefully cut up the body and disposed of it, the jury acquitted him in part because the head was never found and forensic experts were therefore unable to confirm or deny his version of what happened. As a result of his recent publicity, he is currently a suspect in the disappearance of three different women, one in 1971 and two in 1997. The 1971 case is that of Lynne Schulze, a Middlebury College student. What especially drew media attention was Durst's off-camera recorded statement in the final episode of The Jinx. While presumably thinking that no recorders were on and no one was listening, he said to himself: "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."

I'm sure much, much more information about Robert Durst will filter out over time, but for the moment I am looking at him in the context of mental illness, eusociality, morality and the effects of wealth. There is some evidence that Durst is not mentally healthy, but for now he doesn't seem that unusual to me. He seems to have some anti-social tendencies and could possibly have very mild schizophrenia or autism symptoms or perhaps a little psychopathy, but my impression is that he is not severely impaired in any way. Over his life he seems to have had female friends, and others report that he and his first wife were quite happy together initially. No doubt mental illness will be emphasized by his lawyers if he goes to trial, but in a court setting it will probably be little more than a legal strategy.

Durst doesn't strike me as particularly intelligent, because, even though he has fared quite well so far as a criminal, if he actually committed all of the crimes that I think he did he has been a little sloppy and cavalier from time to time. For example, he haphazardly threw plastic bags containing body parts into Galveston Bay without realizing that they would just float around by the shore. After he was arrested in 2001, while out on bail he failed to appear in court and was arrested for shoplifting in a supermarket even though he had $500 in his pocket and $37,000 in cash in his car. There is also evidence in the Susan Berman case that, based on his handwriting and spelling, he wrote a note to the police that only the murderer could have written. On the other hand, he seems to be wily about presenting himself in just the right light for people to rule him out as a dangerous person.

The sense I get is that Durst would have fit a fairly normal psychological profile except for the fact that his financial resources have had the effect of turning him into a self-centered, wealthy American version of Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov. He started out acceptably, probably with a normal moral sense, but because he had the resources to do whatever he liked and wasn't under much pressure to behave according to conventional moral standards, he gradually fell into a pattern of doing as he pleased and then covering it up whenever the consequences to him were undesirable. My guess is that this all started when he assaulted a woman and she resisted. Fearing what might happen, he killed her and disposed of the body without ever being discovered. He may have proceeded in this manner with little threat of arrest for about thirty years. It also seems plausible that he feels guilt about what he's done. I do not get the impression that he is seeking publicity, which so far has only drawn negative attention to him and will most likely work against him when he goes to trial. While he is accustomed to obtaining the best legal defense possible, he can only be making his legal vindication more difficult than it would be otherwise. I suspect that he feels really bad about what he did.

So, in terms of what I've written earlier, Durst may have an innate moral sense that he was born with as a eusocial being. The point here is that eusociality in humans doesn't necessarily work on its own at all times and requires appropriate social reinforcement. Robert Durst's life may have been poisoned by too much money along with too little adult supervision. I would wager that money made him desirable to women even though he wasn't charismatic, physically attractive or ambitious. He never seems to have suffered from a shortage of women who would be willing to back him up. Money also made it less necessary for him to compromise with others during the course of his life. He always had far more money than almost anyone without even having to work. Never compromising is the same as always having your way, like an overgrown spoiled brat. However, Durst can't escape his conscience, and that may be what is playing out now. I much prefer this kind of analysis to the dated narratives of Christian moralists who would rather leave biology out of the discussion entirely. The origin of morality is biological, not theological.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Two Places Not to See Before You Die

One of the pitfalls of living in the idyllic setting of your choice in the absence of unpleasantness is that sooner or later you will have a rude awakening when one of the banes of your former life suddenly intrudes upon you and unsettles you even more than it did previously. The effect can be like suddenly going from a John Constable painting to the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx, or from an essay by Alexis de Tocqueville to a song by Cyndi Lauper. This can happen when you drive or fly to another part of the country or simply by inadvertently switching on a daytime television program. When you are working and occupied you become accustomed to distractions and psychological noise and accordingly build up a resistance to them, like germs, but in their absence over extended periods you may become vulnerable to them once again, even hypersensitive.

Although I'm sure many would just write me off, as Spiro Agnew would say, as an effete snob, I sometimes feel as if I have the curse of good taste while living in a barbarian civilization that considers it a borderline crime. However, I don't think of myself as an expert in much of anything and would describe myself as a dilettante in most things. The problem I have seems to be that I recognize unimaginative repetition more readily than most people and become bored and annoyed when presented with something that is little more than a repackaging of something that has already been done. This is why I come down so hard on most of the arts. It is an offense to me that after centuries of great literature some schmuck can still crank out what I consider to be literary garbage, and no one bats an eye. In a way it is as if people actively discard the past and prefer to reinvent the wheel because it is easier and more soothing than actually producing something memorable. Of course, this all occurs against the backdrop of capitalism in which, to look at it honestly, the only thing that usually counts is the passing of money from one hand to another.

Whenever I depart from my little utopia it doesn't take long for me to observe that most people are living compromised lives and probably don't know what they're missing or that they are in some sense victims of a political and economic system that is reeling out of control. I see obese people everywhere who are going to have shortened lives while subsidizing the food and pharmaceutical industries and are never giving it a thought. They don't think they have a problem, and no one will step in to explain the enormity of it all. Most television programming is so unsatisfactory to me that I can barely even watch one episode of a celebrated series that wins multiple Emmys and has ample space devoted to it in literary reviews, where sycophantic doyennes will join the chorus if the money is right.

What started me thinking about this post was the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die. We have a copy here, which I haven't looked at for quite some time. By coincidence, I have seen several of these places, but my tendency is often to go in the opposite direction and avoid what is said to be essential. In this vein I like to think in terms of places that I haven't seen and would rather not. Originally I wanted to go to many places because during my childhood my family was financially strapped and we rarely did anywhere interesting. After moving from England we went on one trip to Niagara Falls and two trips to Cape Cod, and that was it. At age 18 I took a train from Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan to attend college, sight unseen, in Indiana, and that was my first trip west of Pennsylvania. I had managed to make it all the way through high school with very little travel. Since then I've been able to see most of what I wanted to see in North America and Europe, and now, living in a place that I like a lot, I have little desire for more travel. The crowded, no-frills flights and security procedures these days are special disincentives to travel in themselves.

Because I dislike so much about American culture, there are quite a few places that I'd just as soon never go. I never wanted to go to Florida, but had to make a short business trip there once. I've never been to Texas, which I think is a plus, though it's so large that there must be a few good things there. I've always wondered about New Orleans, but think I would find it far too touristy, and I don't particularly like the music. Generally I don't like the culture of the South, though I've spent time in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, which all have pretty parts. Perhaps my favorite travel in the U.S. is driving on the high plains between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges, where the vastness gives me a feeling of awe similar to the feeling I get from stargazing.

At this point I am trying to uphold my standards and am continuing to avoid going to Los Angeles or Las Vegas, because they seem to me like epicenters of the cultural depravity of the U.S. I suppose that if someone twisted my arm I might go, but, even then, it would probably be as an anthropologist rather than for pleasure as a willing participant.