Saturday, August 28, 2010

neurology of transcendance

How does focusing on a perception of transpersonal experience affect the human brain?  Many members of society want a vocabulary to talk about them and claim their benefits, but the terms used are imprecise and lacking in scientific accuracy.  Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs from his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" placed such peak experiences of self-actualization at the top of his pyramid.  Carl Sagan spoke eloquently of the inspiring nature of the cosmos, and "Einsteinian" religious sentiments are referenced by Dawkins frequently (he has also said that pantheism is "sexed up" atheism).  More recently than that there has been talk about the "New Mysterium" in philosophical circles.  I'll make a naive attempt to define what I mean. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

scientific humility

My earlier interest in the role of science resurfaced when I looked at the ideas of E. O. Wilson.  He combines a depth of understanding with an ambitious and sweeping approach, making use of powerful quotes and sources along the way that make his works a pleasure to read. Wilson elevated the discipline of sociobiology, which he saw as bridging the gap between the humanities and the sciences in a new and revealing way.  Gould, another scientific giant, denounced Wilson's approach, when applied to humans.  The conflict between these two is interesting.  When I encounter unresolvable conflicts like this, my tendency is to want to side-step the problem and approach it from a new angle.  (Dawkins and Dennett have weighed in on this debate, though I have not read their conclusions yet.)  Since my interest is in the role of science in changing our perception of the world, I remembered PZ Myers once hailed Jacob Bronowski as a particularly articulate popularizer of science.  And indeed, he is: 
"It's said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That's false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken."

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people."
Source: Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, Episode 11: "Knowledge or Certainty"  (text or video)
Earlier, in his 1951 book The Commonsense of Science, Bronowski wrote: "It has been one of the most destructive modern prejudices that art and science are different and somehow incompatible interests".  Bronowski and Wilson were trying to do the same thing, they were trying, in Wilson's words, to show the consilience of knowledge, though they do it in different ways.  Wilson's critics believed he did not give due acknowledgment to the role of culture in explaining behavior, his approach was overly simplistic ("greedy reductionism"), and his conclusions on human nature were not entirely correct.  Gould was aware that not only genes but also developmental constraints influence evolution – any explanation for human behaviour would inevitably be pluralistic in content.  Wilson provides a materialistic explanation for the unity of knowledge that, for a variety of reasons, not everyone accepts.  Bronowski provided an explanation for the unity of knowledge that roots it in our ethical sensibilities, and is far less controversial. 

What I find most interesting about the extended quote above is that Bronowski, in humanizing the subject, turns a popular assumption of the role of science on its head.  The most important role of science isn't to provide us with knowledge, it is to tell us that we do not have knowledge (any claims of knowledge must meet rigorous criteria), we do not have knowledge when often we suppose we do, and to show us why this is so.  Science is the best tool we have for eliminating certainty.  A dictatorship, like those during WWII, aspires to absolute knowledge and power - any doubt of its authority must be eliminated and prevented.  Honest science cannot proceed under such constraints with artificial limitations imposed upon it.  It depends on the freedom of ideas, so to Bronowski, the flourishing of science is the best hope to preventing future tragedies of the scale that had occurred in WWII.  He does not believe they would have occurred if the people, and the leaders, were to ask themselves if they could be certain they were right, in light of the terrible cost of being wrong.  The same effect results from science as can result from philosophy, rationalism, realism, and critical thinking.  Science, the application of critical thinking to everyday human activities, is the antidote to the power of propaganda.  Science does not make us arrogant, it can only humble us.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Satisficing: the cure for analysis paralysis

I have a great family, a house, and I am part of a socially stabilizing effort assisting in the development of humankind toward a deeper understanding and appreciation for life.  No one person does this alone.  And yet, I have a problem.  Lack of motivation?  Obsessive-compulsive?  Instant gratification impulsiveness? Inability to defer gratification to a later date?  No.  Perfectionism?  Indecisiveness?  Closer.  As Dan Ariely puts it, "When we are choosing between two or more very similar options, we tend NOT to take into account the consequences of not deciding."  In other sources, this situation is cleverly termed "analysis paralysis".  My almost compulsive over analysis of some ideas came to my attention in a post dated 11 May 2010.  (The following portion of this entry will borrow heavily from the most popular online reference, Wikipedia, paraphrasing liberally.)

Analysis paralysis describes the situation where a decision is treated as over-complicated, with too many detailed options; when a person seeks an optimal or "perfect" solution upfront, and fears making any decision which could lead to erroneous results.  In the end a choice is never made, despite the alternative of trying something and changing if a major problem arises. In this example the opportunity cost of decision analysis exceeds the benefits that could be gained by enacting some decision.

Herbert Simon (who researched cognitive psychology, politics, sociology, and computer science, among other fields) defined two cognitive styles: maximizers who try to make an optimal decision, and satisficers who simply try to find a solution that is "good enough". Maximizers tend to take longer making decisions due to the need to maximize performance across all variables and make tradeoffs carefully; and some suggest they also tend to more often regret their decisions

Simon coined the word satisfice in 1956. He pointed out that human beings lack the cognitive resources to maximize.  A more realistic approach to rationality takes into account these limitations, this is called bounded rationality.  Bounded rationality is the notion that in decision making, rationality of individuals is limited by:
  • the information they have (we usually do not know the relevant probabilities of outcomes), 
  • the cognitive limitations of their minds (we can rarely evaluate all outcomes with sufficient precision and our memories are weak and unreliable), and 
  • the finite amount of time they have to make decisions. 
(Thus ends my liberal paraphrasing of Wikipedia.)

So what can I conclude from all this?  Well, a rational person who adopts a realistic perspective is a satisficer; someone who recognizes that this kind of decisiveness is in the long run a more optimal solution than indecisiveness despite the initial appearance that it is a poor decision making strategy.  (This reflects Tim Pychyl's anti-procrastination mantra "just get started.")  Satisficers take an evolutionary approach to optimization, where some "accidental" solution is used so long as it works, and competing solutions are naturally selected such that the best ones are used and less optimal solutions either change or are no longer used.  And in the final analysis, who is to say that an optimal solution exists (Zhuangzi had much to say on this subject)?  Each solution has advantages and disadvantages, once the apparently worst options are removed, what remains may be qualitatively indistinguishable.  Satisficers, and the process of evolution, both have no definite goal, or even a clear direction (in a sense).  Perfectionists and maximizers do have a goal: making the optimal decision, and they insist on knowing what that is before they take any action.  That is their weakness and eventual downfall. 

Tags: decision making, indecisiveness, irrational delay, deferred gratification, analysis paralysis, satisficing, bounded rationality

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Is that Denali I see?
Ice water immersion.  Yes, that's just like it sounds.  In Finnish it is avantouinti.  If I can't get a sauna, then this is what I can do this winter - cold water dousing also has the effect of elevating body temperature.  The only problem is that it is difficult to keep a large tub of water from freezing solid in the winter here.  But it's not impossible, I could insulate a large tub set in the ground, maybe even have a pump circulate it, but that's a lot of trouble to go through.  I recall hearing about Tibetan monks who do a sort of meditation call “Tummo” in which they can raise their body temperature, especially that of hands and feet, to the point where they can stay outside in the cold, even drying wet sheets draped over their bodies.  This practice is associated with the monk Naropa, Tibetan Buddhism, Tantric meditation, and Kundalini Yoga, but I think that consciously affecting thermoregulation is not a rare feat that requires special training in meditation.  I would guess ordinary folks asked to concentrate on elevating their bodily heat though a kind of biofeedback involving visualization and relaxation are probably capable of doing it.  And this is something I'd like to do, to help me keep a clear mind and good physical health as well as enjoy the outdoors.  Wrapping a thin sheet over my skin could give me some level of protection from instant frostbite. 

If I can develop an ability to generate heat and know my limits, then wearing only a fundoshi I would like to participate on Dontosai, January 14, in the annual hadaka mairi (written 裸参り in Japanese) at Takekoma Jinja in Japan.  It would be a great experience!  I believe it was in 2004, during a visit to Japan that I saw the festival at this shrine first hand.  But first I am going to make my own outdoor shower, and use it until the first frost of the year. 

My greenhouse plans had long since turned to “a plastic sheet covered metal pipe box barely five feet high”, and now my sauna plans have turned to me sitting outside baring my skin to the cold and wet.  And these are my ideas for “the backbone of recreation during the summer and winter - outdoor oriented activities, play in the snow and cold, and in the summer watch plants grow and mold  - social activities, to be shared and enjoyed in the company of others?”  Yes, they are, and now it seems I have it all.