Going To Bits

I was hovering over depression recently and was taken aback by a comment someone made about people who are subject to depression, becoming depressed by way of direct causation. By that I mean X screams at Y, and Y gets verklempt and goes all Goth and becomes suicidal (to compress things a bit). It has always seemed to me (and I think people like Durkheim who looked at the societal implications of broad depression) that depression is not a matter of discreet response but is rather more systemic. And then I realized that it is the “nonsystemic” nature of depression which lies at depression’s core.

“Good Grief!”, you gasp, “Now what is he trying to say?”

What I am saying is the depression arises on a growing sense of entropy (in the non-technical sense; my apologies to physicists everywhere).  Generally, entropy is defined as

A measure of the amount of disorder in the Universe, or of the availability of the energy in a system to do work. As energy is degraded into heat, it is less able to do work, and the amount of disorder in the Universe increases (see arrow of time). This corresponds to an increase in entropy. In a closed system, entropy never decreases, so the Universe as a whole is slowly dying. In an open system (for example, a growing flower), entropy can decrease and order can increase, but only at the expense of a decrease in order and an increase in entropy somewhere else (in this case, in the Sun, which is supplying the energy that the plant feeds off).1

More popularly the term is used to describe increasing uncertainly and disorder in a system. I don’t want to belabor the thesis they promote, but I think Carhart-Harris et al. touch upon the idea I am suggesting here.

Entropy is a dimensionless quantity that is used for measuring uncertainty about the state of a system but it can also imply physical qualities, where high entropy is synonymous with high disorder. Entropy is applied here in the context of states of consciousness and their associated neurodynamics, with a particular focus on the psychedelic state. The psychedelic state is considered an exemplar of a primitive or primary state of consciousness that preceded the development of modern, adult, human, normal waking consciousness. Based on neuroimaging data with psilocybin, a classic psychedelic drug, it is argued that the defining feature of “primary states” is elevated entropy in certain aspects of brain function, such as the repertoire of functional connectivity motifs that form and fragment across time. Indeed, since there is a greater repertoire of connectivity motifs in the psychedelic state than in normal waking consciousness, this implies that primary states may exhibit “criticality,” i.e., the property of being poised at a “critical” point in a transition zone between order and disorder where certain phenomena such as power-law scaling appear. Moreover, if primary states are critical, then this suggests that entropy is suppressed in normal waking consciousness, meaning that the brain operates just below criticality. It is argued that this entropy suppression furnishes normal waking consciousness with a constrained quality and associated metacognitive functions, including reality-testing and self-awareness. It is also proposed that entry into primary states depends on a collapse of the normally highly organized activity within the default-mode network (DMN) and a decoupling between the DMN and the medial temporal lobes (which are normally significantly coupled). These hypotheses can be tested by examining brain activity and associated cognition in other candidate primary states such as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and early psychosis and comparing these with non-primary states such as normal waking consciousness and the anaesthetized state.2

In other words, when we hear people talking about “coming apart at the seams”, or “going to bits” what we really may be hearing is their attempt to express the sense of increasing entropy, a feeling that all order is breaking down, including the manner in which they “fit” into the circumstances around them.

As I can attest to personally, as these gaping black holes open before us, it is this sense of purposelessness, senselessness, and chaos that reach and envelop us. The good news is that in many cases one can just refuse to “feed” that sense.  “Pitter, Patter!” as Wayne would say.3

And, perhaps that is why those who have fortified their psyches with excessive structure are so at risk when that structure is threatened. They feel the ground beneath their feet feet shifting, and the fear they feel is not just the fear of imminent physical consequence, but the fear that nothing makes sense any more.

What I find curious is where those who do not seem to experience fear, still experience this since of entropy. Is that a mark of reduced ego, a misinterpretation of chemical signal, the result of some insight?

It would seem that people can manage to suppress entropy, perhaps using the same types of neural circuits used in cognitive inhibition (thought to regulation analytical thinking) and that such management alleviates, remediates, obfuscates or otherwise resolves the onset of depression.  But it also suggests that those living in a world perceived to be completely ordered would be subject to acute depression should their perceptions waiver; in other words, their delusions of actual order keep their brains from having to balance the real existence of disorder.

 

La Vie En Rose

Recently I came across the following “pearl”,

Gender is a myth, like the rest of the physical world.

The physical world is not “a myth”. Period. Full stop. On the other hand, gender certainly would appear to be mythical, myth being a cultural narrative explaining the physical world. In the case of gender, it is myth that explains, names, sex.

SO what exactly is myth? That is a tangled question. Lincoln rejects all the arguably chaff of religiosity, collectivity, and veracity and pares things down to the kernel.

Having invoked the category of “myth,” however, in a context where it is not commonly applied, it is useful to indicate how I use this term and why it seems appropriate. To begin, I would reject three widely accepted notions. First, myths are not sacred narratives. Although many myths claim sacred status, in this they misrecognize their own nature, for they are human stories, like any other. They simply make more exaggerated claims to a more elevated kind of authority. Second, myths are not collective narratives or the speech of any group as a whole. Rather, they are stories that are told and retold in countless variants. Often the authorship of these variants is unacknowledged, forgotten, or deliberately hidden, but in its details each variant advances the specific interests of those responsible for its production, revision, and circulation. These anonymous agents and absent authors misrepresent themselves-and those for whom they speak- as the group as a whole. Third, myths are neither false stories, nor true, but simply stories that claim to speak with authority about issues of deep importance. Sometimes these claims succeed and sometimes they fail, and the same story can change its status over time from myth to fable and back again, since such status is a function of reception.

If myths are not sacred, not collective, not true or false, what distinguishes them from other narratives? My best attempt at definition runs as follows: Myth is ideology in narrative form. More precisely, mythic discourse deals in master categories that have multiple referents: levels of the cosmos, terrestrial geographies, plant and animal species, logical categories, and the like. Their plots serve to organize the relations among these categories and to justify a hierarchy among them, establishing the rightness (or at least the necessity) of a world in which heaven is above earth, the lion the king of beasts, the cooked more pleasing than the raw. Sometimes issues of human society are given explicit attention-in stories that treat the relations of men and women, uncles and nephews, our tribe and its neighbors, etcetera – and sometimes these are left implicit, as when stories about lions serve to make points about royalty. But always this concern to rank (or to recalibrate the ranking of) human groups is present, and this is the most consequential aspect of any mythic story. 1.

Doty, who wrote a handbook on myth, would largely agree with Lincoln, though he quotes Manfred Frank to the effect that, “The correct definition of myth exists as little as the correct definition of human being itself.”2

I recall in the ‘70s, between “Social Construction of Reality” 3 and “Dancing Wu Li Masters” 4, that many were going “off the rails” because they could not differentiate between a thing and a description or label for a thing. Somehow, just because it seemed we had different ideas of what a thing was,

So while some poo-poo’d the programmers (an up and coming demographic whose impact on society would soon see all those snickers rattle in the throats of the denigrators), programmers were a bit ahead of the curve in this respect as the difference between a thing and its label was fundamental to their praxis…

As a friend remarked, “Werds r hrd”. And anything “hard” is likely magical. Look no further than the various biblical canons and consider the dialectic between the concept of the ineffable 5 6, and the idea that being able to call one by a “true name” renders power over the named. 7

But, what is really in a name…

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face. O, be some other name
Belonging to a man.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And, for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.8

More to the point perhaps,

To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and
hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted
my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—
and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not
a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions,
senses, affections, passions? Fed with the
same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to
the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not
bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you
poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall
we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong
a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian
example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I
will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the
instruction.9

Now what? What’s the 911 on all this?

Adam Alter references studies that, “suggest a sort of linguistic Heisenberg principle: as soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it. 10 This idea is similar to those pursued in rhetorical genre studies and in the introduction of that all too common word today, meme.

Bawarshi and Reiff specifically note that RGS provides that cultural mapping that we would expect to see served by myth. The entirety of Chapter 6 of their book is worth study, but here is a snippet,

Part of how genre systems and their genre sets coordinate complex social actions within systems of activity is by supplying intentions, distributing cognition, and shaping our notions of timing and opportunity (what Greek rhetoricians called kairos). Genre systems do not just sequence activities; they also sequence how we relate to and assign roles to one another, how we define the limits of our agency, how we come to know and learn, and how we construct, value, and experience ourselves in social time and space 11

Now compare the genre sets of RGS with Dawkins conception of memes.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. 12

We continue to focus on what I like to think of maps and legends. Guides on how to interpret the physical world around us.  We seem to forget that our map IS NOT the physical world. Our maps may help us to relate to that world, but when we forget that the maps are of our own invention, we truly forget who we are.


Dispassionate Compassion

With the rise of self-anointed spirituality and the sudden caché of “Buddhism”, discussion of compassion is all the rage. I have often pondered the possible obligations of “compassion”. I don’t see compassion as mandating the provision of another’s desires. Nor does compassion mandate I interfere in another’s “just desserts”. As I see it:

  • wishing is foolish,
  • celebrating another’s misfortune is not compassionate, but acknowledging they deserve their present circumstances does not reflect a lack of compassion, and
  • the whole karma/dharma thing is religious nonsense.

It is clear that there is a divide of sorts between Buddhist views of compassion and some more “romantic” Western notions. 1 A discussion of compassion by Jenniger Goetz 2 points out the “cold” nature of compassion as viewed by Buddhism.

The more one reads Buddhist writings, the more one realizes that Buddhist compassion is similar to lay conceptions of compassion in name only. While lay concepts of compassion are of warm feelings for particular people in need, Buddhist compassion is not particular, warm, or even a feeling. Perhaps the most succinct and clear mention of this is in the discussions of the Dalai Lama and Jean-Claude Carriere (1996, p. 53). A footnote explains in refreshingly plain language that compassion in the Buddhist sense is not based on what we call “feeling”. While Buddhist’s do not deny the natural feelings that may arise from seeing another in need, this is not the compassion Buddhism values. Instead, Buddhist compassion is the result of knowing one is part of a greater whole and is interdependent and connected to that whole. It is the result of practiced meditations. Indeed, Buddhist compassion should be without heat or passion – it is objective, cold, constant and universal.

Trungpa (1973) argues true compassion has the potential to appear cruel or ruthless. Compassion requires prajna or transcendental wisdom – an ability to see past shallow appearances and see true suffering and need. For this reason, compassion may involve giving someone what they really need, not what they want. In addition compassion is an open gift, it is generosity without demand. One does not expect or require reciprocity or confirmation of compassion. Indeed, true compassion will often not be appreciated and may be received with anger or hatred. The next section discusses the threat of anger to compassion and the methods for dealing with this.

From a Buddhist perspective, Harris notes 3 that,

Viraaga literally means the absence of raaga: the absence of lust, desire, and craving for existence. Hence, it denotes indifference or non-attachment to the usual objects of raaga, such as material goods or sense pleasures. Non-attachment is an important term here if the Pali is to be meaningful to speakers of English. It is far more appropriate than “detachment” because of the negative connotations “detachment” possesses in English.

and

In fact, at least three strands of meaning in the term “compassion” can be detected in the texts: a prerequisite for a just and harmonious society; an essential attitude for progress along the path towards wisdom; and the liberative action within society of those who have become enlightened or who are sincerely following the path towards it. All these strands need to be looked at if the term is to be understood and if those who accuse Buddhist compassion of being too passive are to be answered correctly.

Bodhi 4 states,

Like a bird in flight borne by its two wings, the practice of Dhamma is sustained by two contrasting qualities whose balanced development is essential to straight and steady progress. These two qualities are renunciation and compassion. As a doctrine of renunciation the Dhamma points out that the path to liberation is a personal course of training that centers on the gradual control and mastery of desire, the root cause of suffering. As a teaching of compassion the Dhamma bids us to avoid harming others, to act for their welfare, and to help realize the Buddha’s own great resolve to offer the world the way to the Deathless.

Considered in isolation, renunciation and compassion have inverse logics that at times seem to point us in opposite directions. The one steers us to greater solitude aimed at personal purification, the other to increased involvement with others issuing in beneficent action. Yet, despite their differences, renunciation and compassion nurture each other in dynamic interplay throughout the practice of the path, from its elementary steps of moral discipline to its culmination in liberating wisdom. The synthesis of the two, their balanced fusion, is expressed most perfectly in the figure of the Fully Enlightened One, who is at once the embodiment of complete renunciation and of all-embracing compassion.

Both renunciation and compassion share a common root in the encounter with suffering. The one represents our response to suffering confronted in our own individual experience, the other our response to suffering witnessed in the lives of others. Our spontaneous reactions, however, are only the seeds of these higher qualities, not their substance. To acquire the capacity to sustain our practice of Dhamma, renunciation and compassion must be methodically cultivated, and this requires an ongoing process of reflection which transmutes our initial stirrings into full-fledged spiritual virtues.

But, you start to whine,  isn’t compassion a call to action. Mustn’t one DO something?

The simple answer, of course, is, “Yes!” But while compassion is about helping another find the power to overcome their circumstances, that power truly comes from helping another find detachment5, NOT by way of resolving someone’s difficulties. It’s not about which side of the mushroom to nibble on; it’s about acknowledging one has no need of the mushroom. 6


 

Homo Echhhh

I had started to do a piece about where Homo economicus was hanging in 2019. This was in no small part because of the suggestion that I came across that les Mises-erables had now gone full cannibal on Homo economicus 1.  This was hysterical as here we had those who started out by assuming that humans acted rationally, now arguing that the very model of human rationality was a straw man.

But what had statted me down the path was a rather ridiculous piece by Paul Collier 2 in which he made largely the same claims as McMakken, from arguably “the other side”. Collier largely relies on Blueprint: The evolutionary origins of a good society by Nicholas Christakis 3, an intriguing anecdotal book that is, however, far less effective in arguing human eusociality than anything on offer from E. O. Wilson. 4

So, let everyone (other than admitted “orthodox” economists) agree that humans are NOT rational. They are, contra Solnit 5, not universally altruistic. They vacillate between reliance on their forebrains and their inner chimp 6 And those whose seem to have issues with their cognitive inhibitor circuits tend to be fruitcakes who are also outbreeding those that appear rational.

And now. we have come to the great spasm on the crest of COVID-19, brought to our species courtesy of SARS Co-V-2. While many of us are seeing the “better angels of our nature”7 (Pinker really should stick to linguistics) as Solnit argued, one would be blind and deaf not to be aware of the greedy, careless of Phillipa Foote 8, massing like the real zombie apocalypse. And I have to suggest at this point that the claim of rationality, today, most likelt is an admission that the claimant suffers from Dunning- Kruger 9

I am not sanguine about our future.