Thursday, January 5, 2017

Our opinion of reality.



This is a good point, but I disagree.

I mean, what is reality anyway?

It's our brain's best approximation of the world around us based on its limited ability to interpret the data it receives from our limited physical senses.

Bear in mind also, that our brain literally ignores the existence of data it can't catagorize or understand.

My point is not to say that everyone's opinion is equally valid. It's that opinions are still opinions, and not facts.

The starting point for the two characters in the above cartoon should not be to assert their own opinion as fact in the first place.

And I wouldn't even go so far as to say that one of them must be correct.

Maybe they're both wrong.

Maybe it's a lower-case g.

And if figuring out the identity of a single alphanumeric character is this complicated once you account for the fact that your own perspective is limiting the data you receive, how much more likely is it that your interpretation of politics, the economy, and the nature of the universe is anything close to the actual truth?

We are all fond of saying to other people, "you just don't understand how the world works." But if they are reasonably functional adults, they probably understand pretty well how the world works. Their world. And if you can't see the world from their prospective because you're too intrenched in your own, that doesn't really make you the expert.

A young mother on foodstamps taking the bus to three part-time jobs shouldn't be expected to understand international trade. A father laid off from his third factory job this year doesn't know how Wall Street shareholders manipulate quarterly earnings reports for leverage over business owners.

You can stack up as many facts and statistics as it takes to prove the specific point you're trying to make, and then you can get upset when the person you're talking to accuses you of being out of touch with how the "real" world works (their world), but how many times are you willing to chase your tail in circles before you throw your hands up in exasperation and walk away?

What a different world it would be if we could give up the notion of facts entirely.

If everyone could come to the table and say, "this is my perspective. This is the world from my point of view. These are things that I struggle with on a daily basis and would like to fix."

We could work together to build a system that truly benefits everyone, at least in the places where our worlds intersect.

The case of the split brain.

We all have two brains.

The right brain and the left brain are each completely separate operating systems, linked together by a band of nerves called the Corpus Callosum.

In some rare cases of severe epilepsy, patients have had their Corpus Callosum severed so that the electrical impulses of their seizures cannot spread from one side of the brain to the other, thereby mitigating some of the damage. For the most part, these people are not impaired by the procedure; they think and function quite normally.


A spoon is held up in the subject's right visual field, and the researcher asks "What is this?" 

The subject responds, "What is what?" They don't see the spoon.

The researcher then says, "Here, take this spoon," and the subject reaches out and takes it.

Here's what is happening:

The part of the brain that names things is in the left hemisphere, so when asked to name an object that is only visible in the right visual field, the person does not perceive an object at all (because the part of the brain that names things can't see the object and the two sides of the brain can no longer communicate).

But the person does see the object when they are told to take it. 

There are many other examples of this neurological phenomenon; the brain fails to perceive stimuli when it cannot process and categorize it.

So, on top of the whole spectrum of light that our eyes cannot even perceive, how much of the information our eyes do take in never registers in our consciousness because our brain can't categorize it. It's like that information doesn't exist at all.

The reality that we are able to perceive is very likely a tiny sliver of the reality that actually exists. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Of Right and Wrong

Oh, Abraham! Confounder of children.

I sat in the car after Mass while my dad went into the store to get a Sunday paper and a box of doughnuts. This was usually my favorite part of Sunday; the Sunday funnies, the doughnuts, hanging out with my dad. I would emerge into the sunlight from the dark, fragrant cathedral with the weight of sitting still for two whole hours lifted from my body.

But this Sunday, the weight lingered...

So... Abraham was going to kill Isaac?

Yes, but God didn't let him.

But he was going to?

Yes.

And that was the right thing to do?

Yes, but God was never going to let him actually kill Isaac. It was just a test.

To see if he would?

Yes.

And it was right that he would?

Yes, because nothing is more important than God. If God tells you to do something, you do it!

Even if God tells you to kill your son?

Yes, but God wouldn't tell you to do something bad. He never actually told Abraham to kill Isaac.

But it was a test to see if he would?

Yes.

And he passed the test?

Yes.

Because he would kill his son?

Yes, but that's not the point. God was never going to let him kill Isaac.

But that very much was the point for me.

Looking at the story now, as an atheist, I can pick it apart in all kinds of ways. If God is all-knowing, why would he need to test Abraham to begin with?

But as an eight-year-old child who firmly believed that there was a God and a Heaven and a Hell, this story was life-altering.

I knew that killing Isaac was wrong. That being willing to kill Isaac was wrong. And sitting in that car alone, I saw hell-fire and burning and the wrath of Almighty God, but I resolved that I would never be willing to kill Isaac, no matter what. That was when I first began to consciously part ways with God.

This really gets to core of how individuals differentiate right from wrong, regardless of religion or culture or time period.

Most people will do what they're told.

Some people will not follow an order they know is wrong, no matter who gives it.

Most people need to know that someone is in charge in order for the universe to make sense to them. They need authority, they need order, they need rules. That authority can be God, a monarch, Science, Capitalism, Pope Francis, Charles Manson; so long as there is a system in place and someone is in charge, they can sleep at night knowing that there is order in the world.

And then there are the people whose moral code transcends any authority. These people are in the minority.

Chaos doesn't phase me. I don't need order.

Maybe we are energy beings, more than the sum of our parts, maybe our time in this physical existence is part of a grander scheme that we cannot even fathom.

Or maybe we are an accidental coagulation of polymer chains languishing on a meaningless piece of rock hurling through a vast vacuum of space for no reason at all.

Either way, I will still never be willing to kill Isaac.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Truth. Justice. Knowledge.

As we came into the primaries for this election season, I was dusting off the old blog, ready to have lots of online debates with strangers. I eagerly laid out my core beliefs ahead of time as a starting point.

But then, for the first time in my life, the whole political circus just drained me. I honestly couldn't find an intelligent word to write about what our political system has become.

The result of that nightmare of an election season, that Donald Trump is president, left me speechless.

Breathless.

But I pulled myself together and resolved to fight.

To be clear, I am not here to debate whether or not the Trump administration is poised to become a fascist regime or whether our political and economic system has already been primed for just such a power grab.

I am no longer operating under the assumption that the system can be repaired.

My focus is on survival.

Not my personal survival, but the survival of truth, justice, and knowledge, which are the first casualties in a fascist or authoritarian government.

There will always be upheavals in human civilization. There will always be periods of growth and periods of destruction brought on by a confluence of internal factors (politics, economics, war) and external factors (environmental disasters, disease epidemics). When we find ourselves in a period of destruction, those of us with the foresight to recognize when the point of no return has been reached, need to start planning for a different kind of future.

How do we preserve our most sacred ideals in the hope that when the dust settles and we again enter a period of growth, we can start from the highest possible point of truth, justice and knowledge?

Most importantly, we need to recognize that the struggle will be fought on a daily basis in a hundred seemingly inconsequential ways, and we need to understand that giving up any ground at this point will result in monumental losses.

Every attempt to mainstream and normalize the Trump administration must be resisted, even after they have fully transitioned into power and resisting becomes dangerous. Refuse to accept racism, sexism, corporatism, and xenophobia. Refuse to accept the suppression of intellectuals, free speech, human rights and the media. Refuse to accept the increasing militarization of the police. Refuse to accept that might makes right.

Understand that the apologists who want to "wait and see" will be fully indoctrinated, so start distancing yourself from them immediately. These are the people who will quietly look the other way as atrocities happen; they are already normalizing and accepting the unacceptable, and they will continue to do so. Do not believe that when things get bad enough, they will suddenly wake up to the reality of the situation. They are not waiting to choose a path; they have already chosen.

Start identifying people and organizations who already understand what is happening and are ready to mount a resistance.

Know your principles and do not compromise on them.

Be vocal about your principles as an example to others; keep that light alive no matter how dark it gets.

Keeping the light of truth alive is more important than my comfort.

Keeping the light of justice alive is more important than my security.

Keeping the light of knowledge alive is more important than my life.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The tipping point has already been reached.

As much as I have tried to express that the dire situation our country is currently in did not happen as the result of one election, that this was decades in the making and is currently a worldwide trend toward dangerous far right ideologies; I also need to stress that fascist totalitarianism is something that, once the scales are tipped ever so slightly in its favor, sets off a cascade systemic changes at breakneck speed.

One of the fundamental errors that people commonly make when believing that something like the Holocaust could never happen here, that Americans would never allow something like that happen here, is the notion that there was something fundamentally different about the German people; some inherent personality flaw that we Americans do not possess. That idea was proven wrong with the Milgram experiments.

But the other mistake is that we would have time to stop such a cascade of events once set in motion.

I'll stay on the Hitler example because most Americans are familiar enough with that bit of very recent history.

In 1934, Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany by President Hindenburg. The decades leading up to that moment were rife with political and economic strife, and the people of Germany were impoverished and angry. And not just Germans; this was a global trend. Sounding familiar so far?

Within months of Hitler grasping that thread of power, the Dachau concentration camp is opened for political prisoners. Before the end of the following year, Hitler will name himself Fuhrer.

Game over.

So for all of my liberal and middle-of-the-road friends who want to wait and see what happens; you need to wake up to the reality of what has already happened.

For everyone who wants to call their Senator, or boycott something, or pray for the electoral college to save us: you need to stop wasting your energy.

The tipping point has tipped, and it's all downhill from here.

Start organizing accordingly.

Lying in wait...

Way back in the year 2007, I was sounding the alarm about the unfathomable breach of Constitutional civil liberties enacted by the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act.

Quick update:

2009
The Military Commissions Act was revised by a Democratic Congress to remove the statute that denied detainees the right of habeus corpus; meaning that detainees must have the right to challenge their detention in a federal court.

While that fixed one major criticism of the law, the Military Commissions Act can still be used to classify a US citizen as an "enemy combatant" and thus be subject to a secret military tribunal rather than a public trial.

2013
Due to the whistle blowing intelligence leaks of Edward Snowden, government officials were forced to address the scope and breadth of NSA surveillance tactics used against every US citizen, surveillance which had previously been justified by the Bush Administration using the The Patriot Act. The drafting of the USA Freedom Act begins.

2015
On June 1st, most of the provisions of the Patriot Act expired.

On June 2nd, the USA Freedom Act was passed. Originally intended to replace the Patriot Act with safeguards to protect the civil liberties of US citizens from government overreach, the watered down version that was able to pass Congress offers very little to reassure anyone concerned about freedom in the USA.

For instance, the USA Freedom Act has a lot of provisions for "oversight." That sounds great, but who is actually in charge of overseeing these issues of surveillance and the secretive FISA court and who can and cannot be designated an "enemy combatant?" All that oversight, it turns out, falls on the shoulders of the Attorney General, who is a political appointee of the President.

2016
President Trump taps Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and Mike Pompeo for CIA director.

But don't trouble yourself worrying about all this now. These are freedoms you lost almost a decade ago.

All that potential dictatorial power, lying in wait for a potential dictator...