EidoScope

The observable examined

Archive for the ‘Reason and logic’ Category

Critical thinking.Anyone?

leave a comment »

“ . . . intelligence . . . is in plentiful supply . . . the scarce commodity is systematic training in critical thinking.” –Carl Sagan (requoted from How to become a Critical Thinker)

Recently, when browsing the Health pages of Google News, I was intrigued by the following headline in the sidebar – Couple Addicted to Coffee Enemas, Up to Four Times a Day! If you know anything about enemas, well, the obvious is easily imagined. It turns out this couple are participants in a reality show – My Strange Addiction on TLC. And it is in its fourth season!! Fourth !?! What’s on tap for this season? I quote from the article “….In its premiere of the first of eight new episodes on Feb. 13 at 10 p.m. ET, the show will also highlight Lisa, a middle-aged woman from Detroit who eats cat fur, grooming her pet with her own tongue. In subsequent episodes, a woman is addicted to bee stings and another one inhales more than 30 jars of vapor rub every week. In the season finale, a woman is addicted to drinking blood….”  Really!  The good news here is that there is not much collateral damage as these strange behaviors are restricted to the individuals or their families.

Which brings me to another topic – Preppers! Anybody watch Doomsday Preppers, the reality show on National Geographic channel, no less! A NYTimes article described the show thus “…is more or less a weekly invitation to laugh at lunatics tunneling into mountainsides to escape a Russian nuclear attack. ” Of course, there was a significant segment of the population obsessing over the ill-fated Mayan end-of-the world prediction. Now it gets a bit worrisome because we are talking about larger groups of people who could potentially influence others in their network to think like them and create panic. The potential for collateral damage is higher!

Which leads me to L.Ron Hubbard. I urge you to listen to this interview – Going Clear – on the Fresh Air Program hosted by NPRs Terri Gross. It gives you some great insights into the mind of Hubbard, Scientology, and its practitioners. Essentially, Hubbard’s fight with his own demons gave rise to this cult with no real basis for broad applicability of its tenets to create social good.

Which points to two modern day abusers of their reach and power, one peddles physical health and wellness, Dr.Mehmet Oz, and another peddles, spiritual health, Dr. Deepak Chopra. You can read about Oz’s shenanigans in the New Yorker article – The Operator – Is the most trusted doctor in America doing more harm than good?. From the article, it will be obvious that Oz is a cardiac surgeon with stellar credentials but also a man who gets carried away by his own success and succumbs to peddling advice (taking on a messianic persona) that is clearly outside of his expertise. Hence, the subtitle question. Clearly, lot of folks tune in to watch his show which means he ought to be more responsible. I came across Chopra’s book, back in the early 90s and kind of bought into his holistic medicine philosophy of curing patients, because it made sense. I sampled some of his writings over the years and quickly determined he was losing it. He has truly become, as one blog calls him, appropriately I might add, the King of Woo Woo. He is #72 on the Top 100 American Loons – a place well deserved. He was on KQED’s Forum program recently talking about his new book – SuperBrain . As usual with his gift of gab and condescending voice, he doles out a bunch of nonsense (which compelled me to write this). What is even more surprising, he has convinced academics from Harvard, CalTech, and other prestigious institutions to co-author books with him. This guy utters pure drivel. But then he has a huge following (I have watched him hold audiences in rapture and wondered why they cannot see through his blasphemy).

Which brings me to the main point of this note, the central importance and need for critical thinking in our lives. P.T.Barnum said there is a sucker born every minute. If you don’t want to be one of them, embrace critical thinking with earnest. Just in case someone needs it, there is a lovely primer on Critical Thinking (targeted for high school and college kids).

Advertisements

Written by asterix98

February 11, 2013 at 9:29 am

Harry, Dumbledore and talking Gods

with one comment

About two thirds into the movie, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Voldemart uses the killing curse on Harry. In the next segment, Harry awakens in a brightly lit King’s Cross station. A powerful dialogue ensues between Harry and Dumbledore, as Harry is confronted with the choice of returning to finish the work he had started or move on. In the exchange, Dumbledore offers him some words of wisdom thus ….” Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic ….capable of both, inflicting injury and remedying it…….Do not pity the dead..Pity the living….Above all pity those living without love…” Towards the end of this interchange, Harry asks the question “Professor, is this all real? Or is it just happening inside my head?” Before disappearing into the brilliant white light,  Dumbledore responds, ” Of course, it is happening inside your head, Harry. Why should that mean it is not real?”

Harry’s questions highlight something interesting and unique about the human brain. The “real” part implies we perceive the external world through our senses. Perception here means we bring to bear some prior knowledge when interpreting the significance of the sensory input and translate it to an appropriate action (including do nothing). This is not the unique part. The “just happening inside my head” part is. We are probably the only life forms on the planet that can run “simulations” in the absence of sensory input from external stimuli. This extraordinary ability to simulate events (anticipate and plan a response) in our head confers enormous survival advantages – in my mind (no pun intended), a key ingredient that has led to our being at the apex of the food chain.  Neuroscientists would, generally, be very happy with Dumbledore’s response, but only with the first part because they do firmly believe mind is a product of physical processes. Harry’s questions then are trying to separate the real from the imagined. But the second part of Dumbledore’s response implies that they are really not distinct. Philosophers drool on this stuff and have orgies debating its ontological and epistemological aspects.

In the realm of the ordinary, real vs imagined is fairly well defined. Imagination is the engine of creativity and has benefitted society tremendously (from literature to technology). Wild imagination leads to fantasy , as in Indian films and Chinese martial art movies where the protagonists can violate all physical laws, including gravity, and perform astounding feats. Nevertheless,  it is still entertaining.  When the imagined becomes pathological, we label these excursions delusional, schizophrenic, paranoia and so on. These have an underlying neurological/psychological basis and are subject to treatment with therapy and medications .

In the realm of the Divine (notice I instinctively capitalized the D),  no such boundaries exist. Your beliefs can be fantastic defying any rational analysis, but they cannot be classified as symptomatic of something amiss. Let’s see how. Tanya Luhrmann, is an anthropologist at Stanford University. She was recently on the NPR program, Fresh Air. The topic was her book – When God Talks Back. She spent sometime with Evangelical Christians (Vineyard denomination) who believe in the notion of an intensely personal God. In fact, he talks back. To get a flavor of what the content of the interview was like, here are the opening remarks Luhrmann made

“.. I wanted to understand what people meant when they said that God spoke to them, that God had heard from them, and that they had heard what God wanted them to do. I was at – first became intrigued by this when I was doing a different project, and it was on religion and community, and I went over to the house of an evangelical woman. And she told me that if I wanted to understand, I should have a cup of coffee with God.

She had coffee with God all the time. She hung out with God. She chatted with God. She talked about God as if he were a person. And I was blown away. I was just so intrigued by what that meant and how she was able to do that.”

Please either listen to the interview or view the entire transcript by clicking on the links.

Here is another very interesting segment of the conversation..(reproduced verbatim from the transcript on NPR)

——————

GROSS: Will you talk about, in going to the services and in going to prayer groups at this Vineyard church, how you felt that people were training their minds to perceive God? And you attended prayer training classes. What are some of the things you learn to do in prayer training classes?

LUHRMANN: Prayer, in this context, is in an imagined conversation with God. That doesn’t mean that you’re treating God as imaginary. It means that you’re using your imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with God. And what people are first invited to do is to experience what I would call a new theory of mind.

They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God, as being external communications from God that they hear inside their mind.

The second thing they’re invited to do is to pretend that God is present. And I take that verb from C.S. Lewis. He has a chapter of “Mere Christianity” entitled “Let’s Pretend,” and his, you know, his perspective is let us pretend in order to experience as real. These folks were invited to put out a second cup of coffee for God while they prayed, to go for a walk with God, to go on a date with God, to snuggle with God, to imagine that they’re sitting on a bench in the park and God’s arm is around their shoulders, and they’re kind of talking about their respective days.

And so what’s happening is that people are using their imaginations to create this conversation, and they’re seeking to represent God the way that God is represented in church – you know, in this kind of church, unconditionally loving, always wise, always responsive, always there. And then they’re trying to experience that God as talking back to them and to experience what God says as being really real, and not the creation of their own imaginations.

GROSS: How were you supposed to tell the difference between God actually speaking to you and you using your imagination to manufacture a conversation with God?

LUHRMANN: Well, that was tough, and one of the things I was so impressed by was how thoughtful people were about the process. But basically, the church taught people what they would call a style of discernment. So what thoughts – you know, what thoughts are good candidates for God’s thoughts?

Well, they are thoughts that feel different in some way. They stand out. They seem more important. They’re different from what you were thinking about at the time. They are thoughts that are consonant with God’s character. They’re the kinds of things that God would say. They give you peace. You’re supposed to feel good when you recognize God’s voice.

And so, you know, what I was fascinated by was that as, you know, people would enter the church, they’d be – you know, I don’t know what people are talking about. God doesn’t talk to me. And then they would try praying in this interactive, free-form, imagination-rich kind of way.

And after, I don’t know, six months, they would start to say that they recognize God’s voice. Some people told me that they recognized God’s voice the way they recognize their mom’s voice on the phone.

GROSS: Because, I mean, so distinctly, like it had a different sound to it?

——————————-

Listening to this, would you say we could possibly continue this conversation in English? I hope you get my point about no boundaries existing in the realm of Gods. [I have to admit, I have nothing against the practitioners as long as there is no collateral damage from their beliefs].

Luhrmann found that the Vineyard practitioner’s needed about six months to “…start recognizing God’s voice.”  This is surprising. I thought God had a big booming voice like James Earl Jones, very distinct and instantly recognizable. So what gives? Actually, if we go back about fifty years, we may find an explanation.  Solomon Asch, a sociologist, demonstrated through experiments, that there is enormous pressure on individuals to conform. In Asch’s experiments, subjects could be manipulated into actually believing a line was longer or shorter than it actually was, through feedback from a peer group, even if their senses was providing contradictory information. Another example is Stanley Milgram’s famous role playing experiments, where the participants lost all sense of normal reality and made role playing their primary reality. The transformation of Vineyard initiates into recognizer’s of God voice must largely be due to this pressure to conform to beliefs and expectations of the VIneyard congregation. Clearly, the conversation with God is happening inside the head of the congregationers. It is imagined. In this case, conceding and answering Dumbledore’s rhetorical question in the affirmative, thankfully, has no serious societal consequences, at least for now.

(Disclaimer : Transcript contents belong to NPR/Fresh Air)

Written by asterix98

December 11, 2012 at 1:44 am

The animal-industrial complex

leave a comment »

My friend, Namit Arora, recently published an excellent article – Eating Animals – in 3quarksdaily.com. I also recommend his blog – Shunya.net . It has great content and excellent photos from his many travels to different corners of the world.

Inspired by his article, I wrote a comment . I am reproducing it here.

——

As I write this, I am watching a KQED program called Orangutang Diary. The lengths to which the baby sitters and veterinarians go, to rescue an individual animal, is truly amazing. This is indeed testimony to the remarkable heights of compassion humans can achieve, for their fellow beings.

Stark is the contrast between this idyllic scenario and the dark realities of the animal-industrial complex Namit has painted for us. Even more interesting is the psychology of the individuals involved in either of these enterprises. In the Orangutan case, the employees are fully invested emotionally, while in the slaughterhouse the workers are fully divested.

I will venture that in either group, a significant portion of the individuals are meat eaters. Namit wonders why one can be both an animal lover and a meat eater, which cognitively smacks of engaging in double standards. That the brain is pretty adept at suppressing cognitive dissonance by responding with rationalizations and compartmentalization is fairly well documented in the psychological literature. Pertinent to the topic, I found this interesting article (http://www.onegreenplanet.org/lifestyle/carnism-why-eating-animals-is-a-social-justice-issue/) by a social psychologist Melanie Joy. In fact, she has written a book called Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (I have not read it so cannot attest to its contents).

She writes “….Widespread ambivalent, illogical attitudes toward a group of others are almost always a hallmark of an oppressive ideology. Oppressive ideologies require rational, humane people to participate in irrational, inhumane practices and to remain unaware of such contradictions. And they frame the choices of those who refuse to participate in the ideology as “personal preferences” rather than conscientious objections.”

In the same article, she says “….Yet most of us have no idea that when we eat animals we are in fact making a choice. When we are growing up, forming our identity and values, nobody asks us whether we want to eat animals, how we feel about eating animals, whether we believe in eating animals. We are never asked to reflect upon this daily practice that has such profound ethical dimensions and personal implications. Eating animals is just a given; it’s just the way things are. Because carnism operates outside of our awareness, it robs us of our ability to make our choices freely—because without awareness, there is no free choice….”

The general consensus on the comment thread is we all more or less agree with Namit’s position and sense of outrage. But how do we effect change in the general population? The few converts, from meat eating to vegetarianism, have engaged in critical thinking (which by the way requires cognitive effort) to shift their perspective. What about the others (there are some example comments here)? I want to share a personal experience. I grew up in a vegetarian household (thankfully!) but briefly experimented with meat eating in my 20s . Funnily, meat never felt like a meal and cognitively I seemed to be asking where is the real food? I quit. Contrast this with a Hungarian lab mate I had, who was incredulous that I was vegetarian and perhaps wondered how I had even made it. My point is : we may have to catch them young, so it becomes part of your DNA. Of course, this means the parents have to be on board. Here Jonathan Safran Foer -author of Eating Animals offers some help (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/magazine/11foer-t.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1).

Lastly, Namit talks about us having lost touch with animals. If anybody doubts that animals have a lot more in common with humans, I suggest you point your browser to this article (a perspective on animals by a cardiologist who has worked with veterinarians)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/opinion/sunday/our-animal-natures.html?pagewanted=all .

As I pondered the article, I thought it highlighted another important bias – one of size. I was thinking of live lobsters and crawfish, that get thrown to their deaths in boiling water.

In essence, we are trying to motivate a change in a fundamental human behavior, what biologists would refer to as one of the four Fs (Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting and Sex).

Thanks Namit, for a thought provoking article.

 

Written by asterix98

June 20, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Illogical?

leave a comment »

A few days ago, I was walking on the parking lot of Fry’s, a local electronic store.  I looked up at the clear night sky and was greeted by a really beautiful, bright full moon.  It was a sight to behold.  All my scientific training, cold rationality, voices of reason, etc., etc., were nowhere in sight. Instead, at that moment, I was hoping against hope, and I was thinking “Lechi, I hope you are out there somewhere, smiling!”. I took a lot of comfort in those thoughts. Oh well, to be human!

Written by asterix98

November 27, 2010 at 5:09 am

%d bloggers like this: