A Largely Secular Journey

Robert-Wright

Robert Wright. Photo: Courtesy of CardsPlayer4Life

I feel a bit of a kinship with Robert Wright, the author of the recently published book “Why Buddhism is True.”

Roughly a decade or so ago, Wright also published a book titled “The Evolution of God,” which complemented another superb book published at roughly the same time: “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Berlin Johnson.

The two books helped me gain a keen insight into how human experiences and insights have been networked through language, writing and, more recently, digital technology, and uploaded into a kind of cloud that I’ve come to call the “Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton.”

But I feel a special bond with Mr. Wright, having experienced a religious upbringing and pilgrimage quite similar to his. As a teenager, he was converted by a fiery but charismatic Southern Baptist evangelist named Homer Martinez, who also passed through my boyhood church in the late 70’s.

Wright and I seem to have undergone similar epiphanies.  Wright abandoned his Southern Baptist religious legacy long ago for a largely secular  worldview that has taken on discernibly Buddhist hues.

As he sees it, human beings have been hardwired by evolution not to be satisfied.  Excuse me if I’m mangling the teachings of Darwin, but evolution, in a manner of speaking, strives to keep us unsatisfied so that, in the course of which, we continue to, well, strive. And amidst all this perpetual striving, happiness remains elusive.   Many of us spend a lifetime never seeming to achieve happiness or anything approaching it.

We crave things, but once we attain them, our happiness seems fleeing, and we’re left striving to acquire or achieve the next thing.

Wright contends in his book that the ancient teachings and practices of Buddha can provide a healing balm for this restiveness.

As Wright observes in a recent NPR interview:  “I think of mindfulness meditation as almost a rebellion against natural selection,” he says. “Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda, and Buddhism says, ‘We don’t have to play this game.’ ”

My own journey, which I would describe as a secular rather than a spiritual one, involved reconciling my Christian cultural inheritance with the cognitive behavioral techniques I developed in my late 20’s to rewire my brain to cope with the effects of a rather debilitating anxiety disorder. And much of this involved coming to terms with the reality that many of the things in life that can’t be resolved simply must be endured.

I owe my insights to three teachers:  Dr. Claire Weekes, an Australian physician and general practitioner who wrote a series of books that emphasized the value of cognitive techniques in overcoming nervous illness; Dr. M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist who is best known for his bestselling book The Road Less Traveled; and finally but certainly not least, Dr. Viktor Frankl,  the founder of logotherapy and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.

I suppose my exposure to these three individuals and their teachings amounted to something akin to an epiphany, resembling in some respects the insights that Wright has acquired in the course of his own pilgrimage.

They helped me understand that life was a difficult and often heart-rending journey, as Peck relates in this first sentence of The Road Less Traveled.  In a real sense, my Southern Baptist upbringing had insulated me from this vital truth.  My exposure to these three people helped me understand that religion, particularly fundamentalist religion, often blinded people to life’s hard, incontrovertible truth.

I had come to regard my conservative Christian faith as a sort of lucky rabbit’s foot. Instead of coming to term with the hard truths of life – a hallmark of adulthood –  I always assumed that a close, personalized relationship with a deity would somehow cordon off all the sadness, disappointment and random tragedy bound up with human existence. To put it bluntly, I practiced a form of faith that was inherently neurotic.

I finally became an adult when I was able not only to view life but also to embrace it in all of its damnable complexity – all of its sublime beauty inextricably bound up in its random, unfathomable injustice and ugliness.

Somewhere along this journey, I, like Wright, also learned that something approaching happiness was achieved by learning how not to be spooked by the emotional reactions to stimuli that we have acquired through eons of evolutionary hard wiring.

I can’t say that my life journey took a Buddhist turn, as Wright’s apparently has. Mine has assumed a form that, while respectful of its Christian influences, is largely secular,  though it remains open to and respectful of the potential for spirituality.

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Some Disparate Thoughts on Language Learning

ludwik-Zamenhof

Ludwik Zamenhof, Father of Esperanto.

Aeon an digital magazine committed to spreading knowledge and a cosmopolitan world view, recently carried a piece about the struggle under way throughout the world to preserve so-called minority languages.  In some cases, the term minority is applied generously.   Many of these languages have declined to only a handful of speakers.

Boa Senior is mentioned.  She was the last member of an Andaman tribe believed to be one of the oldest cultures on earth.  She was also the last speaker of Aka-Bo, her tribal language.  She was forced to learn an Andamanese version of Hindi simply to converse with others.

The writer, Rebecca Roache, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of London, asks whether it’s really worth spending immense amounts of money to preserve these languages. Wouldn’t it be better for language learners, especially young ones, to invest their time  learning global languages (e.g., English, French and Mandarin) that not only will enhance their lives and, but also, perhaps, their prospects for employment?

Roache is right to stress that the extinction of a language is a sad thing. It marks not only the passing of a language but also of a cultural ecosystem of which this language once served as the cultural wellspring.

Yet, even the cultural changes that overtake more viable language also strike me as sad. As someone – Foucault, I think – once said, we live in language. And any significant change associated with language implies equally significant change within the cultural ecosystem from which it sprang.

The Evolution of Gaelic (Irish)

Gaelic (Irish) has undergone a sweeping transformation now that it has become a language spoken predominantly by educated Irish citizens who learn it in the classroom rather than from daily discourse with family members and other native speakers. In a very real sense, Gaelic no longer is a peasant language, and, consequently, it no longer is quite the indigenous language it once was. One additional complicating factor: Now that it is more of a book language than one rooted in an indigenous culture, Gaelic arguably lacks much of the nuance that characterized it a century ago.

Reading the article prompted another observation: It will be interesting to see how AI will be used to preserve languages in the future. More than decade ago, linguists, aided by computers, extrapolated Virginia Algonquian, a dead language, from other extant Algonquin languages to create part of the dialogue in The New World, a 2005 movie about Pocahontas and the English settlement at Jamestown.

We are likely to see more of these sorts of computer-aided revivals of ancient languages. But this raises the question: How close do these languages come to the originally spoken languages? In the vast majority of cases, we will be dealing with resurrected languages that provide only imperfect insight into the original language and the cultural context in which it was spoken.

The Exaptation of Experanto

What we have learned about language within the last century has driven home other vital lessons, too.

Language usage has lent fascinating insight into a phenomenon known as exaptation. Throughout history, we humans have taken things that were originally conceived or that had evolved for one purpose and adapted it to another – hence the term exaptation.

In the 19th century, a Jewish-Polish oculist (glasses maker) and amateur linguist named Ludwik Zamenhof developed an artificial language known as Esperanto with the hope of its becoming humanity’s universal language. (Incidentally, Esperanto literally translates as “one who hopes.”)

Shortly after its establishment, the League of Nations seriously considered adopting Esperanto its official language.

Esperanto is a cleverly designed artificial language that combines a very simplified grammar with a vocabulary constructed from many European languages – German, Polish, English and the Romance languages. It is still spoken by a million or so language enthusiasts around the world. Many of these speakers still hold out the hope that it will someday be accepted as the universal language. George Soros, incidentally, is one of a handful of people on the planet who grew up in an Esperanto-speaking household.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Esperanto in the 21st century is not its viability as a universal language but rather how it’s being “exapted” by linguists for an entirely different purpose: To provide elementary school children with a rudimentary foundation in language to enable them learn living languages, such as Spanish, French and Italian.

Watch this interesting TED lecture below by Esperantist Tim Morley, who contends that Esperanto should be adapted to language instruction in the same way that the recorder is used in music education to provide a basis for mastering many musical instruments.

 

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A Cult Leader or Simply a Frightened Little Man?

DPRK-missilesEarlier this morning, I finished a rather fascinating article exploring whether the Kim dynasty has essentially managed to construct nationwide cult, one so entrapped in its dogma and mysticism that it would gladly sacrifice itself in the face of American aggression.

I’m reminded of a remarkable video posted a few years ago on an official North Korean YouTube site of Kim Jong-un greeting a welcoming delegation of uniformed young people at a massive young rally in Pyongyang’s sprawling Rungrado 1st of May Stadium. The standing ovation droned on and on, and it became obvious that Kim was itching to sit down and commence the festivities.

Finally, he grew exasperated, pointing and shouting at the kids to sit down. He finally resorted to pushing them into their seats. This reminded me of a fascinating account I once read about the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union. Delegates at party congresses and other official mass meetings were careful not to stop clapping, lest they be perceived as lacking enthusiasm and bearing malice towards Stalin.  Consequently, the applause could last for as long as a half hour.  A bell was eventually installed.  A single ring was enough to ensure the participants that it was safe to cease clapping and to be seated.

Whether or not the behavior at the Pyongyang youth rally supplies evidence of a Kim Jong-un cult, there is the strong likelihood of growing discontent among both the ruling class and rank-and-file North Koreans. In fact, the Rungrado 1st of May stadium was the site of the public immolation of generals involved in a plot to depose the Kim Jong-il regime in the late 1990’s.

It seems likely that Kim Jong-un is embroiled in a desperate dance with fate amid deteriorating conditions in the country. Based on my limited knowledge of the situation, I speculate that Kim is engaged in the hot pursuit of two objectives: first, the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal to secure a means of insurance that other one-man despotisms (e.g., the Saddam and Gaddafi regimes) have lacked, and, second, to keep his increasingly restive elites and rank-and-file focused on a palpable threat, namely long-term American hostility toward toward North Korea.

Despite all the opulence surrounding Kim Jong-un, I would not wish to be in his shoes.
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Westworld: An Enduring Science Fiction Legacy

Westworld

Photo: Courtesy of Source.

Last night, I watched the troubling and highly dystopian film Westworld.  A long time has passed since my first viewing in 1973 in the Cinema Twin Theater in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with my old boyhood chum, Joey Johnson.

The movie deals with a giant android amusement park run by a company known as Delos. For a thousand dollars a day, guests can engage in all sorts of interactions with sophisticated androids – gunfights, brawls, and even sexual encounters.

I was struck by a couple of things: First, how the film’s plot attests to the growing number of people in the early Seventies who already were reflecting on the risks associated with the routine use of highly sophisticated machines partly conceived and designed  by other machines, beyond the purview of humans.

As the plot unfolds, Delos technicians monitoring the amusement park interactions between androids and humans begin to discern a growing number of troubling anomalies. And these problems seem to spread like an infection through the two themed parks: Westworld, Medievalworld and Romanworld.

As these anomalies multiply, one troubled scientist observes: “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.”

Even so, the humanoid machines in the film appear to be entirely that: machines. The malfunctions struck me as the result of a computer virus rather than signs of incipient consciousness on the part of these machines.

Yet, a couple of scenes sow doubt – for example, when an attractive young android maid spurns the sexual advances of a guest and when one imprisoned android damsel pleads for help but refuses water at the very end of the film. And to be sure, scientists and science fiction writers way back then already were devoting considerable thought to the implications of artificial intelligence – thinking reflected five years earlier in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” developed concurrently with Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name.

In time, could sophisticated machines eventually attain something resembling human consciousness? Many smart people were raising that question, even back then.

Still, I do think that the case could be made that the remarkable insights we’ve gained within the last generation, largely through our day-to-day interaction with and growing reliance on smart technology, account  for the unusually nuanced treatment of consciousness and perception reflected in the current HBO version of Westworld.

In fact, the treatment of these issues in the series troubled me so much that I quit watching it after the first couple of episodes.

Westworld Trailer, 1973.

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A Bittersweet Cruising Memory

Every time I watch American Graffiti, the classic movie about American cruising culture, I’m invariably reminded of our own cruising tradition in my hometown of Russellville, Alabama.

Some long-term courtships and even a few marriages were forged during those long Friday and Saturday night cruises.  I wasn’t quite so lucky, though I always held out hope that I would meet the ultimate dream girl on one of those Friday or Saturday night cruises.

One experience I still recall as bittersweet.  I was riding “The Strip” in Russellville in the summer of ’77 or ’78 with my old and dear friend, David Hester. We chatted up some girls on his CB radio. After some rather earnest negotiating, we agreed that we would drive to my house and stand out of the car while these two girls drove by for an inspection.

We waited patiently and after a few minutes we could hear the hum of a car engine a few hundred yards away. My heart raced with anticipation as the car ascended the steep hill beside my house.

Yet, before we could even lift our arms to wave, the car rushed past us – time enough to spot two really attractive young women laughing uproariously. They never stopped. It was an ego-diminishing experience, to say the least. But like brave little troopers, we got in David’s brown Oldsmobile coup and headed back for some more “action.”

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Memes and the Human Exoskeleton

kilroy

One of history’s most noteworthy and conspicuous memes. (Photo: Courtesy of J.-N.L).

I’ve posited before in this forum my theory that much of human destiny is bound up in what I call a “Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton (NHE).”

This exoskeleton is comprised of all sorts of things – culture, political ideology, religious beliefs and, most important of all, language, which has been chiefly responsible for the formation of and sustenance of this exoskeleton. Much like our human genome, the elements of this exoskeleton are networked, interacting among themselves to produce relentless change.

An article posted recently in the Science section of The New York Times, which explores how viruses have contributed to the evolution of our human genome, prompted some thoughts about how memes have served an equally significant role in the evolution of our noncorporeal exoskeleton.

Researchers have discovered that over the course of eons, viruses have attached to the human genome, producing both good and bad effects. In fact, viral DNA comprises roughly 8 percent of the our genome.

One conspicuous example of a good effect is Hemo, a blood protein that is produced in the fetus and placenta and  that originated from a virus that affected our mammalian forebears some 100-million years ago. Hemo proteins apparently serve a critical role in enabling the embryo to develop a variety of tissues.

However, other viruses apparently have produced a myriad of deleterious effects. Our genome apparently contains about 100,000 pieces of viral DNA.  Only now are scientists beginning to account for how all of these elements affect us.   Some may be safeguarding our health, while others likely contribute to cancer and other diseases.

Back to my exoskeleton argument: Much like the human genome our exoskeleton is comprised of countless memes. Some have described memes as viruses of the mind. They are ideas, behaviors or styles that attach to our minds and, ultimately, become networked within the human exoskeleton.  In many cases, they mutate over time and also mate and morph with other memes.

The human exoskeleton teems with memes as well as with the memetic mutations that have followed. And, yes, they have been as indispensable to the evolution and expansion of our exoskeleton as viruses have been to the human genome.

Like viruses, they have also produced both good and bad effects. They have steered our species toward the development of more benign forms of political ideologies and faiths as much as they have contributed to the formation of virulent and destructive ideologies and religious beliefs.

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Lessons from Fraternity Life

fraternity-life

A fraternity member with malt liquor bottles taped to both hands vomiting into a breakfast cereal box.  Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Ratto.

Reminiscent of an old-time Baptist minister stumping for temperance during a wet/dry referendum in the Deep South, Bloomberg News senior editor John Hechinger argues that “alcohol is the well-spring of fraternity vice” in a column that appeared today in the “On Campus” section of The New York Times.

Hechinger is also the author of True Gentleman: The Broken Pledge of American Fraternities, which contends that fraternity life has never been more embattled. He also stresses that the current state of fraternities puts a lie to the argument that drinking is simply an unavoidable facet of college life that can’t be avoided.

I agree with Hechinger – to a degree.  A trail of abuses has followed fraternity life for as long as there have been social fraternities.  No one can deny that fact. And I agree that fraternity parties should be subjected to systematic monitoring by campus authorities.

The only substantive insight I can add to this perennial and often emotionally charged topic is to speak about my own experience as an undergraduate deeply exposed to the fraternity drinking culture.

I got almost deliriously drunk on PGA (pure grain alcohol) at a frat party early in the fall of 1979. It was my freshman year of college. I was miserable the next day – so sick that I could barely move without throwing up.

Yet, I did something that amounted to an extraordinary feat at that juncture my life:  The next morning, I dispensed with self-pity and picked myself off the floor.  I summed up every ounce of energy I could muster and went to class. I was a mediocre high school student and the thought occurred to me: My folks are paying for my education, and I’m going to redeem myself by turning out first-rate grades.

That hangover lasted for three days. I hung in like grim death and attended every class and even spent a couple of hours studying each night.  I lay on the floor, barely able to life my head high enough to read the assigned texts.

In the end, that incident turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons of my college career and of life in general. I learned how to discern limits – for the most part, at least. And with only a few minor indiscretions in the years that followed, I managed to get through college with good grades.

Looking back, exposure to fraternity life was a very good thing. I learned a lot about the complexities of life – all of its temptations. Most important of all, though, I learned about all of its attendant risks and how to assess those risks. My folks had helped me along by fully underscoring the horrendous consequences that could follow from driving a car in an intoxicated state. I not only put my safety at risk but also everything they had built.

That’s why I think that Hechinger, despite all his good intentions, goes too far.

Life, especially college life, is bound up with risk. I lived for almost two years in a fraternity house where drinking was entirely unsupervised. Yet, in the course of which, I and all the kids around me were learning how to behave responsibly – to set limits, to negotiate risks. And I can honestly say that the vast majority of guys who lived that experience with me came away as more responsible and even more enlightened adults.

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