This is one of those occasions where I feel the impulse to set my thoughts down in a permanent format in order to make them clear in my head; yet it seems somehow strange that the topic is, in fact, dealing with the manner in which I and others communicate their thoughts to others. I'm not sure how it will come out just yet; I guess I'll know in a few paragraphs.
I just watched a Ted talk about "cyborg anthropology" that made some interesting claims about our digital lives. The one that made the biggest impression on me was the idea of "ambient intimacy." On the face of it, this is the intimacy we gain by being constantly appraised of minor details in the lives of our friends and family through social networking sites such as Facebook. We know what our friends are thinking, how they are spending their days, and what links they find interesting, the same kind of information we would gain from having casual conversations with them on a regular basis. It is ambient because the information comes to us adventitiously, passively, without having to engage the person in conversation or invite them to lunch. It is intimate because it brings us into the personal details of their life that aren't exactly confidential, but which people wouldn't generally share with strangers.
However, this idea of ambient intimacy has left me deeply ambivalent. Facebook seems to me to be the perfect way to maintain contact with acquaintances in the most superficial manner possible. We don't share intimate thoughts, we share superficial ones. We don't confide our personal griefs, or our private anguish, or our deepest longings. Instead, we use table talk. Further, we don't talk to anyone in particular, instead shouting at all our friends simultaneously. Thus, we miss entirely the opportunity to connect with them on a personal level.
This ambient intimacy simultaneously makes me feel connected and disconnected. With friends I never see, it enables dialog and a maintenance of friendly ties where they would otherwise not exist. However, with friends I see occasionally, it makes me feel separated from them. They are often a single button-press away via Chat, and I choose not to chat with them, not because I don't want to, but because the pleasantries have already been exchanged via "posts" in the most impersonal manner possible. It makes every encounter feel like the third time you pass someone in the hall at work. Just smile, nod, and go about your business.
Then there are those people who I do want to Chat with, who I may even secretly be desperate to chat with; but I don't, for various reasons. Shyness, fear, lack of context, lack of purpose. Being reminded that those people are one click away makes me feel, ironically, alone.
I'm not sure what to do with this knowledge; or if, in fact, there is anything to be done. What I would like to do is take more opportunities to connect with people off-line. However, I also know that I need to adapt with the times, and learn how to use this technology to be more human and not less. I guess I need more than a few paragraphs to figure this one out.
We are living in an age of wonders; where science is doing incredible things, impossible things, and showing the way to doing many more. The most recent examples I have seen are levitation, telekinesis, controlling robotic arms with your mind, and reanimating the dead. Most of these technologies (with the exception of reanimation) involve the use of a single newly developing innovation: mind reading.
While mind reading in itself is a fascinating ethical issue, the more sticky legal area has been in studies of the brain using analogous technologies. For instance, a study a few years back showed that diagnosed psychopaths, as a group, had lower overall volume in the prefrontal cortex and showed abnormal brain activation to social stimuli. While this is correlative evidence, the authors have suggested that abnormal prefrontal volume and/or activity may be the principle mental impairment in psychopathy. To me and you, this means that a scanner could be used to predict who among the population is most likely to be psychopathic.
I cite this as a legal issue because that is exactly how it is being employed. Defense lawyers are now claiming that their clients are not responsible for violent crimes because they have a measurable deficiency in prefrontal cortex; what amounts to a medical condition.
This may sound unconvincing to the non-psychopath, but consider the following analogous case. In 2003, a man in Virginia was arrested for molesting his stepdaughter. He failed out of a 12-step program because he repeatedly propositioned people for sexual favors. One day before he was to be sentenced to jail time, he went to the emergency room complaining of a headache and ended up having a large tumor removed from his frontal lobe. Almost as soon as the tumor was removed, all his impulses and deviant behavior completely disappeared. Seemingly just to convince scientists, his behavior later relapsed and it was discovered that his tumor had begun growing back.
We have come to a point in human science where we now have to wrestle with the possibility of discovering the major biological influences of our behavior. A violent man has a small prefrontal cortex. A caring woman has a high oxytocinergic tone. A republican has an enhanced amygdalar response to fear stimuli. And a pedophile may have a tumor in his brain. The question is, what do we do with this information? Do we still punish people for their behavior when we can see the biological causes?
I can't answer for all of humanity, of course; in fact, all I can guarantee is that humanity will reject my solution.
First, there are two issues entangled together here: that of the "freeness" of the will, and its separability from the brain; and that of responsibility for one's actions, and subsequent candidacy for punishment. I have argued before that science has only now begun to disentangle the influences on our choices, and that none of our scientific studies have suggested that these are determinants that are beyond variability. I have said before as I still believe now; that our will is still free, but can be influenced. In a way, the extent to which we are "free" is the extent to which we deviate from the bell curve of most probable choices based on those influences. The psychopath with the shrunken cortex has his bell curve shifted to the right or left, the degree to which it is shifted being a measure of his psychopathy. While it remains true that the psychopath could have chosen to act differently, it is becoming more clear that there exist physical and biological conditions under which one's ability to make normatively correct judgments is impaired.
It may seem that I am vacillating on two sides of the issue, but in fact I am merely demonstrating the difficulty in defining a viewpoint that lands cleanly on one side or the other on the issue of punishment while still incorporating all the facts. So what is my answer?
I believe Nietzsche had it right when he challenged us to imagine a society without punishment. The concept of punishment in itself is a bad fit for a paradigm where responsibility and agency are unclear. I, too, would have us cast aside our notions of good and evil and replace them with good and bad. The question should not be whether a criminal needs to be punished; but simply what is to be done with him; as an individual, as an agent, as a biological entity which produces aberrant behaviors. Then the issue becomes one of simple pragmatism: whether the problem can be corrected medically, surgically, through psychological intervention, or not at all.
So the question of punishment becomes a false one; the better question is what to do; and the answer is, do not punish, but act.
I had a long discussion recently with a friend on many subjects, and this one requires me to set my mind straight.
My philosophy has a disjunction; a point unresolved; a crack in a wall already made from a heap of broken images. While I believe in the subjectivity of all knowledge, I also believe that we must passionately commit to objectively uncertain propositions in order to function as human beings. Yet there are some propositions to which I passionately commit, and some to which I maintain a more agnostic position.
On the subject of free will, I have in the past stated a passionate desire to affirm its existence. However, there is also a theoretical framework in which I feel this is the most scientifically valid position. Those who propose that free will does not exist make the point that group studies show that our decisions can be predicted by certain variables, and fMRI studies now show that certain individual decisions can be predicted by brain signals even before the individual is aware of making a choice. These are damning evidences against free will, they say. Yet, to the extent that these arguments rely on group statistics, they do not address the individual; the very purpose of group statistics is to eliminate individual will as a variable. Even individual fMRI studies use these to smooth out the influences of individuals whose actions could not be predicted. And so, a major part of the argument against free will comes down to a statement of faith in science: because we can predict some things, because we can identify some influences, we should ultimately be able to predict and identify them all and solve for the human mind.
So both positions, the existence or nonexistence of free will, involve an element of faith. However, science also requires that theories be predictive, and here there is a difference. Theorizing that free will does not exist predicts that we should be able to account for individual choices without variance, which is currently not the case. In contrast, theorizing that free will exists but can be influenced predicts that such individual variance is irreducible. At the moment, the latter has more predictive validity.
In contrast, I have in the past avoided a passionate position on the existence or nonexistence of the divine. Existence or nonexistence is irrelevant, I have said; what is relevant is whether the divine is necessary to explain my personal universe, and I have found that it is not. This is in part due to a similar evaluation: neither the theory of the existence of the divine nor that of nonexistence provides predictions that are evaluable. As such, there is no scientific value in committing to one proposal or the other; the only value is personal, passionate validation. So I remain committed only to the proposition that God is unnecessary.
My friend and I discussed a great many things, some of which I may write about soon; but this one needed to be brought forth before it slipped through my mind's fingers.
I was driving home in the rain tonight and happened upon a patch of road covered in pools of water. There were hidden patches and deep puddles and the kind of runoff on the right side that flies up in big, satisfying sheets when you drive through it. I discovered that there is still a little boy inside me that enjoys splashing in puddles, even indirectly.
Oh, and I'm posting in Livejournal again. No biggie. :)
Another multiple-oh-so-many-hour day at work, which I love, by the way.
On the way home, I was passed by a small group of people, half of whom were just finishing ice cream cones. Not so unusual. I continue on.
Almost immediately I am passed by a small group of people, most of whom are finishing ice cream cones. Hmm.
A minute later I pass a third small group, all of whom are in the middle of ice cream cones. Wait a minute here.
Two minutes later, three more groups have passed, carrying cones in decreasingly consumed states. Now there is DEFINITELY an adventure afoot!
I spend the next 15 minutes wandering around campus, tracing the stochastic stream of sugar-sampling students to their source. At one point I think I've lost the trail, then after a pregnant pause a girl with a freeze-pop walks out from behind a tree. Finally, I follow a series of arrow-signs labelled "FTE" (which can only stand for "Find The Eicecream") and arrive at the source!
I arrive home 5 minutes later, sticky-faced and smiling.
I have the good fortune of living within a healthy walking distance of my place of employment. In all, the walk is about 30 minutes, and takes me through the heart of Emory campus, which is beautiful in spite of the millions of dollars that are spent to make it beautiful. I generally get off work just after 5pm, or right after the shuttle stops running, which gives me the perfect excuse to walk home.
Today, I got off work around 11pm, after a particularly long day of preparation for an experiment that starts tomorrow. When I left the building, the sky grumbled at me, and the wind swept about angrily. I rushed on my way, worried all the while that it would start raining at any moment; and from the rumbling in the sky and the blustering of the wind, I knew that, when it did, I would be rather thoroughly wet.
So on I went, rushing along the way, worried about the rain, uncertain whether I would get home before the storm began. Then, suddenly, I realized something -- the kind of realization that makes you stop in place and say, "oh, well, okay then." I realized that, despite the sky's threats, the weather at that exact moment was extraordinarily pleasant. Warm, humid, dark, with a cool breeze blowing across my face. The shadows from the streetlights played lightly across the sidewalks as the trees swayed. All at once, I slowed down and began to enjoy my walk home.
I'm sure there is a life lesson there, but for now I am tired.
I did manage to get home dry, by the way, though I got soaked 5 minutes later when I had to bring a check to my landlord.
I took this meme from jupiter143.
Go to this website and cycle through the random quotes until you find five that resonate with you. Post them.
1) "Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation."
2) "I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it."
3) "Life is all one piece. Men err when they think they can be inhuman exploiters in their business life, and loving husbands and fathers at home. For achievement without love is a cold and tight-lipped murderer of human happiness everywhere."
4) "Never continue in a job you don't enjoy. If you're happy in what you're doing, you'll like yourself, you'll have inner peace. And if you have that, along with physical health, you will have had more success than you could possibly have imagined."
5) "Whatever thy hand findest to do, do it with all thy heart."
In case anyone is curious about the little furry monogamous mammals I research, here is a collection of just about the cutest pictures I have ever seen of voles. If you look carefully, you can tell which pictures were taken with the vole anesthetized.
Don't be fooled, though, they're not domesticated. They're wild animals.
I have a guest in my apartment today,
I call him Mr. Underwood.
He keeps to himself, slinking this way and that
As quietly as any guest could.
He sleeps under furniture or behind walls
And seems to prefer the night;
And when it is dark he slinks out like a whisper
Sometimes even giving me a fright.
He is always friendly, saying hello and goodbye
With a wave of his slithery tail;
And he's easy to please, eating bugs and left-overs
And being tactful when hospitality does fail.
Though I never know when he comes and goes
And I never impose (but how could I),
I always delight in the seasonal sight
Of the Gymnopthalmus underwoodi.