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Archive for October, 2012


What I do find compelling about Freud’s project is the attempt to give an account of our ethical capacity. What sort of biological origin can there be for an impulse to consider the needs of another person? This has been, and continues to be, one of the most compelling questions ever asked. The problem with his model, as I see it, is that he seems to have followed, unquestioningly, what I call original sin theory. This is the notion, also present in the writings of Hobbes and Nietzsche, that our aggressive tendencies go all the way down. That humans are essentially aggressive, impulsive, power and pleasure driven creatures with no natural source of restraint. That we are essentially constituted by will to power. This left Freud with the problem of how to account for the restraint of that will. I wonder what factors influenced his decision to not consider alternative models of human nature, because they certainly had been proposed many times in the course of human intellectual history?

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For a pragmatist in the world, there is no truth of the matter. Inscriptions are events. Nothing more attaches to them. The series of inscriptions 2+2=4 for example does not re-present a state of affairs “out there,” any more than an artist’s rendition of someone’s face or a landscape in spring. 2+2=4 simply is an event that some people have learned to respond to and others have not. The fact of responsiveness does not guarantee something called “truth.” It simply provides a hint as to what may come later. That someone else may respond in a manner that I find useful, or pleasing. The truth of these statements is founded on nothing more than a correspondence of behaviors. This is not, however, a recipe for nihilism. Our ancestors who responded to inscriptions survived and gave birth to us. In order to continue this tradition, we must work harder and improve.



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If we define, for a moment, an ironist as a person seeking to create a new vocabulary never before heard, what then is a theorist? A theorist could be defined as a person who follows an ironist and seeks to interpret the meaning of the ironist’s work for all humanity. These two are in tension. The ironist seeks to invent new metaphors while the theorist seeks to find a final, big set of metaphors that shall apply to all people. I am not saying this is always the nature of ironists and theorists, rather that we use these words this way for a moment in time. Because then we can understand the modern writer as one who seeks to be both ironist and theorist (poet and philosopher). Why would someone try this? Well, perhaps because looking back at the history of ironists like Socrates, the Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed, we notice that they are followed by centuries of theorists who attempt (ironically enough) to codify and universalize by any means necessary, the teachings of the original. And then they fall into metaphysics. Which could be described as the effort to anchor the words of the ironist to a reality out there in the world. Once the anchor is built, others can be saved and the theorists become priests. Priests who convey the Truth to the unwashed masses. Unfortunately this way often lies war and burnings at the stake. So I beg you not to forget: the ironist was a person like you and me. You too are as great as all these. Your mind is the Buddha’s mind. Your divine grace is as eternal as Jesus. Your wisdom as great as Socrates. Your submission as sublime as Mohammed. These people were great only to the extent that they were remembered. And the remembering was an accident of time. So is yours and mine.



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I would be very pleased to know that my statements have turned out to be more helpful than true.



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These days we should be just as concerned with the very question that was asked 2500 years ago by both the Buddha and Plato of Athens: How can we understand human suffering (emotional pain) and alleviate it? The Buddha said that pain is caused by 3 things: being alive in a mortal body, being separated from things we want or need, and awareness of change. But the good news is that in this awareness is also the relief of suffering, for as we become aware of habitual desire and avoidance, we can develop a different relationship to pain and suffering and respond more effectively to the way things are. One of the things that humans need, as a social animal, is connection. Connection reduces stress hormones which can damage the brain and body, increases helpful chemicals like oxytocin and helps us recover from suffering. In this way what modern people might think of as “therapy” could be transformed into a fulfillment of humanity’s age old dream: how to create healthy connections between people? The modern world is a world beset with challenges our brains were never designed for, and in this world we are more separated, more depressed, more anxious, more intoxicated and more aggressive than I bet we ever have been in our entire history on this planet. It seems to me that we desperately need just this sort of adaptation of effective emotional coping and connection building tools. The ingredients of modern “therapy,” it seems to me are readily adaptable to a more vernacular dissemination. People readily understand the stress of the constant barrage of bells and whistles, the intrusions of TV, of worries about not so distant war and injustice, and the suffering of isolation. Books like Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence,” and the work of the Dalai Lama have paved the way for teaching emotional coping and connection skills. I think all we need to do is to redescribe what we’ve learned from 2500 years of science in order to bring the benefits to more people.

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What is it going to take for us to grow as a species? For us to begin to understand our brains, our bodies, our minds, our souls? I believe that we require a growth of understanding across traditional disciplinary lines the likes of which we cannot even begin to comprehend. The feeble advances made over the last 20 years in neurology and psychiatry are only just the beginning. When was the last time we had a true advance in the treatment of schizophrenia for example? Probably with the introduction of risperdal in the early 90s. Since then there have been no significant changes or advances in the treatment of this devastating disease, despite the frequent re-packagings and re-issuings that have certainly supported the coffers of corporate big pharma. I believe that to truly advance in the treatment of human emotional and mental suffering, we are going to need advances in the realms of statistical modeling, computer simulation, ethics and spirituality beyond anything we can currently imagine. Take the simplest unit of psychological analysis: stimulus and response. What do we really know about neuro-psychological stimulus and response? Not much. Probably someone some day someone will have to volunteer to have a nano-scopic neuron surfing telemetry unit injected into their brain to help us gather truly illuminating data about the stimulus response event. And I suspect the volume of data collected will be so massive as to fuse the circuits of the most sophisticated computer storage device currently in use and will require stochastic heuristics more advanced than the brainiest of our most academically nerdy nerds can even dream of. And of course this will challenge us ethically and spiritually in ways we cannot conceive. The human mind peering into itself in ways unimaginable: What will we find? How will we have to grow as a species, a community, a collectivity? Will we be ready for that?

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To understand the nature of the phenomenological patterns that I collectively experience as “rationalism” consider the following passage by Shakespearian scholar and Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt as he reflects on his mother’s experiences of living with anxiety and panic disorder:

I understood early on that my mother’s “heart”—the palpitations that brought her and everyone around her to a halt—was a life strategy. It was a symbolic means to identify with and mourn her dead sister. It was a way to express both anger – “you see how upset you have made me”—and love—“you see how I am still doing everything for you, even though my heart is about to break.” It was an acting-out, a rehearsal, of the extinction that she feared. It was above all a way to compel attention and demand love. But this understanding did not make its effect upon my childhood significantly less intense: I loved my mother and dreaded losing her. I had no resources to untangle psychological strategy and dangerous symptom. (I didn’t imagine that she did either.) …Lucretius’ words therefore rang out with a terrible clarity: “Death is nothing to us.” To spend your existence in the grip of anxiety about death, he wrote, is mere folly. It is a sure way to let your life slip from you incomplete and unenjoyed. He gave voice as well to a thought I had not yet quite allowed myself, even inwardly, to articulate: to inflict this anxiety on others is manipulative and cruel.

Notice how his language confuses, through a logical fallacy called “affirming the consequent,” effect with intent and concludes with the common post-Freudian assumption of “unconscious motivation,” even as he himself struggles to extricate himself, on the basis of Lucretian philosophy, from the darkened pit of despair built by this notion. The resources to untangle “strategy from symptom” are exactly what I believe our culture is wanting so badly in this war-weary, conflict ridden, perfection mad and power hungry culture we breathe in and around us every day of our lives. What indeed is the antidote to the poison of the western world? On this question hinge our lives, our fortunes, our several and tenuous honors.


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