A reader in North Carolina writes:

I still believe in “significant coincidences,” which were demonstrated—once again—by a death in the family that brought me to Ohio for a week. As I woke up this morning, I ended up browsing issues related to my Web site and found your blog posting of the poem I had sent you a few months ago. That led to your blog, and I started reading many of your other postings, with pleasure. First, I realized that I have to link my newsletter readers to your blog. Second, I found great notes on books I need to read. Third, it confirmed that many, many people can benefit from learning more about the Beta Mind.

My kind of guy, for sure. And he set me to thinking: Here’s one of my closest colleagues, and he forgets even that I maintain a blog. And I understand why. Information-wise, we live in a dim sum world. It’s all you can do to sample a little here, a little there. So this may be your first visit to my blog, or your first visit in a good while, or your first visit since your last first visit. In any event, I have managed to haul my bifurcated brain out of bed now for the past 16 months and post, on average, one blog item every week or two. And other than my wife, Sherry, to whom I pointedly allude to “my latest blog item” within 24 hours of each item’s posting and then pointedly make reference to something in that item within the next 24 hours to find out if she’s read it, I strongly suspect that there’s not another person on earth (in the heavens, either) who had read every single one of my musings.

Forever intending to be your humble servant, I then want to save you the trouble of backtracking thoroughly. Here’s a guide to what I consider the Ten Best Of The Lot (although not in any particular ranking of importance but beginning with the most ancient of the postings first) on the day I wrote this blog item (To read the item, find the date provided in the list at right on this page.)

Happy timewarping!

Just When I Was Ready to Discuss What We Could Do to Encourage New Thinking Skills in a Seminar at Her Employer, I Get This Question about Believing in God Posted on November 28, 2005

While the Greedy Merchandisers of Children’s Electronic Entertainment Are Counting Their Shekels, Their Viewers—or So It Appears to Grammie and Me—Are Simply Learning to Count Posted on December 16, 2005

Yes, I’m Convinced That We Are Progressively “Evolving” How We Wire and Use the Wiring in Our Brains, But We Still Don’t Any Means to Stand Back and Take a Good Look at How It All Works Posted on March 04, 2006

Six Years Ago I Wrote About Where Mr. Bush Clocked Out on the Timepiece of Presidential Candidates. I Continue to Think It Was a Timely Reading Posted on May 09, 2006

The Minds We Use Have Consequences in the Lives We Live. Here Are Three Telling Examples Posted on July 05, 2006

“To Be or Not To Be?” Really Isn’t the Question, and Never Has Been. So What IS the Really Important Question that the Brain Needs to be Trained to Handle Adeptly and Maturely? Posted on July 05, 2006

Unhappily, When This Talented Academician’s Dual Worlds of Art and Science Meet in His “Brain on Music” Book, the Bridge Often Seems to Be Out Posted on September 19, 2006

Philosophers Aren’t a Modest Bunch: They Argue That Few of Us Would Know Much About Anything If Philosophy Didn’t Know Something About Something Posted on October 25, 2006

The Buck Stops Here on the Issue of Breaking the Cycles and the Spells That Cauterize Our Brain’s Ability to Provide Sane and Suitable Actions and Answers Posted on December 14, 2006

One of the World’s Smallest “Engines of Change” Is Also One of Its Most Powerful. On An Almost Unimaginable Scale, the Amygdala Rules Posted on January 07, 2007

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The future of the human species, and the future of the many other species whose fate is tied to ours, however directly or indirectly, hinges on what the human brain can be taught to do with this question: Is there another way to explain or do this?

This has always been the question. Every advance in tool capability and efficiency has resulted because someone either imagined another way to do or explain something, or else simply stumbled onto it. The same is to be said for progress in religious thought. And in philosophy. And medicine. And all else.

At the biological level, if it has been a way better suited to delivering a result more useful or powerful or adaptive to general circumstances, or often to very specific circumstances, then the result has not infrequently been a reordering or a reconstitution of the biological pecking order or the biological mechanics.

Adroit handling of the question—is there another way to explain or do this?—seems not to come naturally to us humans. It is, for most of us, an acquired taste at best. What we think of the question, if we think of it at all, is most often a consequence of whether we were born to parents who were products of a culture that welcomed the question. Most cultures, and most parents, have not encouraged the question. So unless you found yourself living in a democracy, there has usually been a risk at asking the question. And even in a democracy as formally devoted to the idea that it is always permissible to ask “Is there another way to explain or do this?” as the United States of America, it can be sometimes dangerous to ask the question. It was pervasively so during the Civil War years, during the McCarthy Era, during the reign of Jim Crow in the South and can still be, to a disturbing extent, so in today’s obsessed-with-terrorism political environment.

We have spent years at Brain Technologies developing and perfecting, often assisted by the trenchant and imaginative work of others, ways to forecast how a given brain may handle the question.

Generally, or so it is our experience, the brain will react in one of four ways:

1) In most circumstances, it will reject the idea that there is anything to be gained in asking the question. Thus it will defend, sometimes to the death or to others’ dying, the explanations it already has.

2) It will accept the idea that the question is a good one, but typically be indiscriminate in seeking, judging and acting on answers to the question. The first answer that happens by that seems to work is, for this category of brain functioning, accepted and acted on, whatever the outcomes.

3) It will see the creation of hypotheses and the investigation of them as “end all and be all” of the process. So that the challenge becomes understanding a set of answers in great detail but not necessarily the efficient and imaginative use of any of them.

4) It will automatically assume that there is an infinite variety of ways to explain almost anything and will work to experience as many varieties of ways as possible, giving precedence to the newest and most novel.

Of course, the human brain being what it is, most any healthy and especially fully formed (adults over 30, for the most part) brain can and does move between these four approaches if coached, encouraged and provided with a safe haven for doing so. However, such safe havens, such encouragement and such coaching are in extremely short supply. It is so today, and it has always been so.

So nothing approaches in importance how human brains handle the question, “Is there another way to explain or do this?” At this stage in our development as a species, handling the question well and effectively and with political astuteness requires unusual pluck, luck and maturity. It is a most intriguing reality that while our species often seems to take three steps backwards for every half-step forward, we do seem to be making some progress in handling the question.

Now explaining the reasons for that has come close to antiquating virtually all foundations of religion and philosophy. Nor are suitable answers in immediate prospect. It may first be necessary to have some good explanations for such questions as what is the world made of (we still don’t know) and what happened before anything happened (we don’t have a clue) and is there conceivably any point or place or combination of circumstances in the universe when it will cease to make sense to ask the question, “Is there another way to explain or do this?”

Stay tuned as long and as healthily as you can. It has really begun to get interesting in these recent times.
The above commentary has appeared previously on one of my blogs.

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It started as purely a business transaction—a business coup, it seemed then and still does. Seventy-two moving boxes (12×13×16 inches in size), each packed like a sardine tin with books, CDs, audio tapes or photograph records. We bid $1,000 and got the lot. It took a rental trailer and a pick-up truck (and my brother-in-law’s generous help) to get all this to our double-car garage. My rotator cuff injury ached for days. And that was only the beginning.

The thousands of items had to be unboxed, one at a time, and catalogued for the online bookstore we operated at the time (Brain Books To Go) and other services where we were selling reading and listening materials. That, obviously, was the initial attraction. What we didn’t realize at the time was our thousand dollars had done more than simply glut our intellectual properties’ supply line for several months. We’d also acquired a window on a remarkable, and remarkably shattered, brain.

We knew going in that this collection carried a “must-sell” urgency because its compiler was in a coma from which he was not expected to emerge. We heard vaguely that he had suffered a lifetime of schizophrenia. That added an element of intrigue to the deal, because we purchased the library blind. The items were already packaged when we bought them.

Months later, we’d opened every box and examined every item. And it was a singular experience for us.

Sherry took charge of the CDs, audio tapes and albums. I took the books. Both categories, though, produced the same response. Our minds boggled over another mind’s remarkable achievement, given the obvious depth of its despair and brokenness.

Sherry gave me a guided tour through the albums, the audio tapes and the CDs the other night. She’s put them in clusters alphabetically by artist. It appears that our archivist started in the late 1960s. For the rest of that decade and in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was all albums. The Beatles, Grateful Dead, Beach Boys, Marshall Tucker Band, Abba, Kenny Rogers, Jimi Hendrix—those names and many others we recognized, even though their album photos often pictured them earlier in their careers than we remembered. And then there were hundreds of singles by performers we weren’t familiar with at all: Dan Fogelberg, Lee Michaels, Savoy Brown, Lightfoot, The Jim Carroll Band and Barclay James Harvest, to name a handful I turned up at random while rifling through Sherry’s orderly storage system.

In the ‘80s, our archivist turned to audio tapes. And in the 1990s and the 21st Century, to CDs. Not an unprecedented undertaking, of course. There are thousands of collectors worldwide of this sort of thing. But when combined with the book collection, we’ve been made to realize that our potential “white elephant” purchase has thrust us into the role of archaeologists for a mind that, if deeply troubled, was also profoundly gifted, active and productive.

Because the same thoroughness that made his music products collection a veritable “history” of what music producers were packaging over nearly four decades did the same for his book collection.

Clearly, he didn’t buy everything. But it is difficult to think of a title … or a writer … of importance that he missed. At one point I had to wonder, “Will I ever get all of his copies of Anthony Trollope’s works catalogued?” But I quickly forgot Trollope because then came Dickens. Book after book after book. Some a bit bunged up, but many brand new. Eleven, spankin’ clean volumes of The Diary of Samuel Pepys. The entire set of the gorgeously printed and bound Library of America series. Copy after copy of the prodigious Oxford University Press’s dictionaries and anthologies and histories and “companions to.” Somehow, he either got on the mailing lists of or prowled the bookstore stacks housing the publications of numerous university presses, and certainly the biggest and busiest: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, the State Universities of New York, Berkeley, Stanford, North Carolina, Indiana, Oklahoma, Nebraska and on and on. But then he’d also purchased practically every book Billy Graham ever wrote. And Robert Schuller. And Joan Didion. And John Grisham. He’d bought copious numbers of books about military history. And race relations. About philosophy and literary criticism. (And languages. He never seemed to have passed up a Berlitz “learn to speak it yourself”-type tape set and instructional book. But not just Italian or Japanese. The languages of the Lakota Sioux, and the Shoshoni, and the Navajo—he had those sets, too.)

But did he actually read any of his books? As I kept moving through box after box of the best and the most acclaimed (and sometimes not so acclaimed) of 300 years of writing in the English language, I had my doubts. But then by-the-bye I’d pick up one of Oxford U. Press’s 1,200-page tomes, for example, and there deep in its bowels I’d notice a series of repetitive notes. “I read this … I read this …I read this … I read this,” he’d pen in his small, slightly irregular handwriting.

And then I discovered the journals. We’d been told by one of the workers who had packaged all this about the journals. He said they were just spiral-bound notebooks filled with gibberish and they’d tossed them in the trash. But not all of them. I found a half-dozen. And it was in them that the extent of his illness became instantly and achingly clear. And also, the extent of his devotion and passion to his collections.

I’ll not quote a single word from his notebooks. It would be a violation of his copyright, not to mention his privacy. But leave it said that he read copiously. He would plan the night before to read Doftoevsky or William James or Eugene O’Neill the following day. He might even have a favorite chapter in mind (indicating that he’d read it before), and would note how eager he was to place a checkmark by it once he was finished. Every day for years, he wrote a single page about each day of his hopeless fragmented life. When he reached the end of a page and a day, he stopped, often in mid-sentence. Yes, he read a lot in his books. And, no, he couldn’t possibly have done more than open many of them a time or two, if that.

We understand that he did emerge from his coma. Afterwards, he was cared for in a health facility in the Midwest. We wish him every solace that contemporary medicine of the mind could offer. And we wondered if the store clerks checking out his endless purchases over the decades had any idea of the chaos in the brain they were conversing with.
The above commentary has appeared previously on one of my blogs. I’m choosing to recycle it here because I think the story it tells is fascinating.

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Thanks to invaluable assistance from the late Polish philosopher, Leszek Kołakowski, who taught at All Souls College, Oxford, after being exiled from Poland in 1968, I think I’ve figured out what my real political orientation is. I am a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist with the following views (all borrowed, most liberally and described most conservatively, in a very social sense, from Kolakowski):

A conservative believes:

1. That in human life there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils; thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its price has to be assessed. Put another way, innumerable evils are compatible; but many goods limit or cancel each other, and therefore we will never enjoy them fully at the same time….

2. That we do not know the extent to which various traditional forms of social life—family, rituals, nation, religious communities—are indispensable if life in a society is to be tolerable or even possible. There are no grounds for believing that when we destroy these forms, or brand them as irrational, we increase the chance of happiness, peace, security, or freedom….

3. That the idée fixe of the Enlightenment—that envy, vanity, greed, and aggression are all caused by the deficiencies of social institutions and that they will be swept away once these institutions are reformed—is not only utterly incredible and contrary to all experience, but is highly dangerous. How on earth did all these institutions arise if they were so contrary to the true nature of man?

A liberal believes:

1. That the ancient idea that the purpose of the State is security still remains valid. It remains valid even if the notion of “security” is expanded to include not only the protection of persons and property by means of the law, but also various provisions of insurance: that people should not starve if they are jobless; that the poor should not be condemned to die through lack of medical help; that children should have free access to education—all these are also part of security. Yet security should never be confused with liberty. The State does not guarantee freedom by action and by regulating various areas of life, but by doing nothing….

2. That human communities are threatened not only by stagnation but also by degradation when they are so organized that there is no longer room for individual initiative and inventiveness….

3. That it is highly improbable that a society in which all forms of competitiveness have been done away with would continue to have the necessary stimuli for creativity and progress. More equality is not an end in itself, but only a means….

A socialist believes:

1. That societies in which the pursuit of profit is the sole regulator of the productive system are threatened with as grievous—perhaps more grievous—catastrophes as are societies in which the profit motive has been entirely eliminated from the production-regulating forces. There are good reasons why freedom of economic activity should be limited for the sale of security, and why money should not automatically produce more money. But the limitation of freedom should be called precisely that, and should not be called a higher form of freedom.

2. That it is absurd and hypocritical to conclude that, simply because a perfect, conflict-free society is impossible, every existing from of inequality is inevitable and all ways of profit-making justified. The kind of conservative anthropological pessimism which led to the astonishing belief that a progressive income tax was an inhuman abomination is just as suspect as the kind of historical optimism on which the Gulag Archipelago was based.

3. That the tendency to subject the economy to important social controls should be encouraged, even though the price to be paid is an increase in bureaucracy. Such controls, however, must be exercised within representative democracy. Thus it is essential to plan institutions that counteract the menace to freedom which is produced by the growth of these very controls.

Observed Dr. Kołakowski, “So far as I can see, this set of regulative ideas is not self-contradictory. And therefore it is possible to be a conservative-liberal-socialist. This is equivalent to saying that those three particular designations are no longer mutually exclusive options.”

I’ve left out some of his comments to shorten the above. The complete essay appears on pages 225-227 of his Modernity on Endless Trial, a book whose every paragraph I’ve found to be enlightening and engrossing. To order a copy, click on the title.
The above commentary has appeared previously on one of my blogs. I’m choosing to recycle it here because I think the points it makes are fascinating and important.

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I do not remember exactly the first time that I heard about pioneering neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s concept of the triune brain. The idea of a neocortex sitting atop a primordial cortex sitting atop the brain stem. The brain of a human sitting atop the brain of a horse sitting atop the brain of a reptile, all three brains located inside each of our heads. I do remember being electrified by the idea. Instantly struck by what a gorgeous, evocative, instructive, illuminating insight this was.

But like so many other gorgeous, evocative, instructive, illuminating discoveries, the idea of the triune brain has not always stood the test of further, better scientific inquiry all that well. The problem mainly is that the roles of the trio of brains are not nearly as independent as Dr. MacLean had thought. What is going on in the general neighborhood of one of Paul MacLean’s trio of brains is often having an outsized influence over what is going on in other brain areas.

But the idea that the brain has separate “processing” areas that don’t cooperate well—that’s a MacLean idea that has stood the test of time.

For example, the region where MacLean located his middle (primordial) brain contains a little almond-shaped organ called the amygdala. It turns out that the amygdala has a mind of its own. That is, it can learn—reason?— independent of the (higher) cortex. Moreover, the means that the amygdala and the cortex have for communicating what each “is thinking” are imperfect at this point in our evolving capabilities, and that creates endless trouble for us.

For non-brain-scientists (me, for one), no one whom I know about has offered better, clearer explanations of all this than Joseph LeDoux at New York University’s Center for Neural Science. In Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are, Dr. LeDoux suggests that the reason why the all-important amygdala can’t “talk” well with its higher-up synapses is because the wires leading there aren’t well enough developed. And the reason for that is because the development of language by humans required so much space and so many connections to pull off. Consequently, the cognitive systems in our heads have inordinate trouble communicating with the emotional and motivational systems, and vice versa.

Writes Dr. LeDoux, “This is why a brilliant mathematician or artist, or a successful entrepreneur, can like anyone else fall victim to sexual seduction, road rage, or jealousy, or be a child abuser or rapist, or have crippling depression or anxiety….Doing the right thing doesn’t always flow naturally from knowing what the right thing to do is.”

The trilogy of brain functions that LeDoux finds most compelling are indeed those governing thoughts, emotions and motivations. If this triune grouping breaks down, he writes, “the self is likely to begin to disintegrate and mental health to deteriorate. When thoughts are radically dissociated from emotions and motivations, as in schizophrenia, personality can, in fact, change drastically. When emotions run wild, as in anxiety disorders or depression, a person is no longer the person he or she once was. And when motivations are subjugated by drug addiction, the emotional and intellectual aspects of life suffer.”

In short, Dr. LeDoux says that the self is synaptic: “You are your synapses.” Meaning that what happens between key parts of the brain—or doesn’t happen—can be all-important and all-defining. On this point, Dr. MacLean would most likely have been in full agreement.
The above commentary has appeared previously on one of my blogs. I’m choosing to recycle it here because I think the points it makes are fascinating and important.

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Four of the most egregiously unfair and misused words in this language are “You can do it.” And I’m guilty at abusing them, too.

Because in using those words to urge our children or employees or students or anyone else forward in the performance of a task they’ve not done before or at which they are performing poorly, we are often claiming ownership of information and insight that, in most cases, is simply absent.

Who really knows exactly what your brain is capable of? I certainly don’t? And how could you possibly know what my brain is capable of? You shouldn’t presume to know. And neither of us should be telling each other, or anyone else, that we can do something unless there is evidence that this might be so, and even then, there are important intermediate steps that usually get left out. We can call it The 3-Way Test of Achievability.

• Would you like to do it?
• How do you think you might best go about it?
• Is it worth the effort that is going to be required?

When and only when we have affirmative answers to those questions, do you and I have any reasonable right to offer someone the encouragement that “You can do it.”

In the past few days, I’ve had at least three experiences reminding me that there are things that, in all likelihood, I can’t do. At least, in all likelihood, I’m not going to do them, and so, on these subjects, I fail The 3-Way Test of Achievability.

1) Sitting in our neighborhood deli, Sherry and I were still waiting on our food when the private envelope of our morning conversation was suddenly pierced by a sheet of drawing paper. On the paper, with remarkable fidelity to visages we both were used to observing in the bathroom mirror, were two people seated at a deli restaurant table, having their morning conversation. When we looked up, the artist was beaming at us. He’d been sitting at the table across the aisle, sketching away, unnoticed by either of us. I’m quite sure I’ll never be able to do what he had just done because my brain doesn’t work that way. He said his gift was something he had discovered in himself. He doesn’t use it professionally but, wanting to do something with it, he does things like draw unsuspecting strangers in their morning conversation and spring their portraits on them.

2) One of our local high school seniors has taken the three-hour exam that’s supposed to measure a high school student’s chance of academic success in the first year of college—the dread SAT—twice . . . and achieved a perfect score both times. Asked to explain how he does this, the best he could offer was, “It helps to remember what you have studied.” I don’t need to test this talented mind to be very suspicious that he can’t help but remember what he has studied. This is just the way his brain works. I’ve always marveled at how quickly and totally my brain erases what I’ve just studied once the immediate reason for cramming has been satisfied. I’m quite sure I was not designed to achieve perfect scores on the SAT. Not even once, much less twice.

3) At a used book sale the other day, I spotted a thin, jacket-less little volume titled Mind’s Eye of Richard Buckminster Fuller. There was a time when I spent a lot of time devouring Bucky Fuller’s writings—and pretending to understand most of what I’d just read. Two things in life I’m pretty certain of: (1) Buckminster Fuller was a genius. (2) Virtually no one really understands very much of what he had to say. A really gifted mind can understand a part of it. But by the time you understand that part, Bucky is off rattling the tea cups in some other authority’s buffet. Here, though, was a guy—Bucky’s patent attorney!—ready to show us how Mr. Fuller’s mind worked. So I snatched up Donald W. Robertson’s book (it’s only 109 pages long) and figured I was about to be handed the secret to deciphering one of the 20th Century’s most creative intellects. But no such luck. All that attorney Robertson knew was how to describe approximately how Bucky happened to think up an invention so it stood a chance of being awarded a patent. (Robertson’s applications weren’t always successful because sometimes the patent office attorneys didn’t understand Robertson well enough to understand if Bucky, on that occasion, could be understood).

Three more things in life I’m pretty sure of. No matter how many times you tell me “you can do it!” I’ll never be able to (1) draw a detailed likeness of you eating breakfast that will cause you to say, “That’s amazing!” (2) take the SAT and get a perfect score (once, much less twice) or (3) be able to look at much of anything with the kind of unique visioning capabilities of one of modern times’ most fascinating minds, Richard Buckminster Fuller’s.

The moral of the story: Please save your encouragement for my doing something reasonably doable, and something that I really want to do (and maybe that the world would benefit from my doing), and I’ll return the favor. Thanks!

P.S. Never pass up a chance to buy a copy of Mind’s Eye of Richard Buckminster Fuller. It’s a rare book.

The above commentary has appeared previously on one of my blogs. I’m choosing to recycle here because I think the points it makes are fascinating and important.

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One week a few years ago, I chanced upon two mostly forgotten books, and probably would not have spent much time with either had not both mentioned—on the very first page—an event that itself has been mostly long forgotten: the Century of Progress Exposition that the city of Chicago staged in 1933-34 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the city’s incorporation.

In The Next Hundred Years: The Unfinished Business of Science, Yale University chemical engineer professor C.C. Furnas lost no time in pointing out how disappointing and overblown the Hall of Science at the Chicago event was to many astute visitors.

Among his observations:

“They [visitors] found most of the loudspeakers on the grounds sadly out of adjustment and the television exhibitions to be more imagination than vision. They saw the latest, swiftest and safest airplanes on display, but during the Fair one sightseeing and one regular passenger plane fell in the vicinity of Chicago killing an even score of men and women.

“They saw exhibit after exhibit featuring the advance of modern medicine but were faced with a preventable and inexcusable outbreak of amebic dysentery, entering in two of the city’s leading hotels, which claimed 41 lives out of 721 cases….They saw a motor car assembly line in operation but, if they investigated carefully, they found that as mechanism for converting the potential energy of fuel into mechanical work the average motor car is only about 8 per cent efficient.

“They marveled at the lighting effects at night but, in talking the matter over with experts, they found that most of the lights were operating with an efficiency of less than 2 per cent.” There was much more—several more paragraphs, in fact—in the way of observations and cautions and laments from Professor Furnas based on his visit to the Century of Progress Exposition.

Bottom line to The Next Hundred Years: the Century of Progress wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Then I opened a copy of J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress and learned on the first page that the Century of Progress Exposition was partly why the Macmillan publishing house decided in 1932 to bring out an American edition of Cambridge historian Bury’s 1920 masterpiece of historical/economic analysis.

In it, Bury sought to pooh-pooh the idea that “the idea of progress” was a john-come-lately concept crystallized by self-promoting business people and thus was a rather superficial invention. He traced the roots of the idea back at least as far as St. Augustine in the Middle Ages (not that Augustine was a father of the idea of progress but rather that he and other Christian Fathers booted out the Greek theory of cycles and other ideas that stood in the way of a theory of progress) and charactered the idea as one of those rare world-makers.

But even so, after 300 pages of trenchant, sometimes breath-taking reporting and analysis, Bury—on the final page of his book—cautioned that the Idea of Progress might not be all it was cracked up to be. After all, he argued, the most devastating arrow in the idea’s quiver was the assertion that finality is an illusion, that the truth is that what comes, eventually goes.

Bury wrote, “Must not it (the dogma of progress), too, submit to its own negation of finality? Will not that process of change, for which Progress is the optimistic name, compel ‘Progress’ too to fall from the commanding position in which it is now, with apparent security, enthroned?…In other words, does not Progress itself suggest that its value as a doctrine is only relative, corresponding to a certain not very advanced stage of civilization; just as Providence, in its day, was an idea of relative value, corresponding to a stage somewhat less advanced?”

Bury thought it might be centuries in the future before the Idea of Progress was dethroned and replaced.

But looking at an exceedingly rough start for the 21st Century, especially in America, it can be suspected that a persistent undercurrent of change may already be underway less than one century after Bury raised the question of whether the Idea of Progress was going to prove insufficient and undesirable as “the directing idea of humanity.”

Never in history have the shibboleths and ideals of the Idea of Progress been praised and promoted to the extent that they have in the U.S. in the past five years. And with each passing day, the conclusion seems to be more and more unavoidable: they are only working for a tiny part of our population, the very rich and powerful.

It is becoming more and more obvious that the highly stylized, sound-bite-polished, PowerPoint-presentation-perfected, U.S. flag-draped version of the Idea of Progress isn’t all that is was cracked up to be.

Which leaves us to wonder if the time isn’t much riper than we could have imagined a few short years ago for if not the emergence of a new directing idea of humanity, at least the beginning of the disintegration of the current one.

For as the late Peter Drucker argued in a book published in the 1960s that perhaps should be considered the third in a triology of works on this whole subject of progress, it appears that we may already be much deeper into an “age of discontinuity” that we had realized.

The above commentary has appeared in a blog on another of my websites. I’m choosing to recycle it here because I think the points it makes are fascinating and important.

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Anyone—and it might be anytwo, or at best anyfive or anysix—who has been paying attention to the progressive content of my thinking through the years understands that I’ve been on some sort of journey.

It is my belief that it is not all that remote from a journey that most all who have ever lived participate in.

The road map that I like best, and one to which I’ve devoted a substantial part of my lifework, is that provided by the late Dr. Clare Graves, the psychologist. He traced the route as a spiral, with well-defined stops. In my most recent book, I shared the view that much of the time I’m now experiencing “life its own self” at Graves’ Stage 7 or, as I renumbered it in this work, Stage 2.0.

From the perspective of the 2.0 mind, one of the key understandings that I keep butting my nose into—like a door jam in the dark—is this: Everyone who has ever tried to explain why the world is, what humans are doing here, and the totality of how it all works has been guessing. Once you are armed with this insight, then it is both fascinating and sometimes a little fear-provoking to see just how many guesses have been put forth about what’s happening and how and why, and how much influence even very bad guesses can have.

A question then: Which of those guesses deserve to be labeled the best guesses ever made, even if they are no longer attention-attractors except for serious scholars, and sometimes not many of these?

Somehow, I have always intuitively suspected that the cultural mentality most likely to take such a question seriously, and attempt to answer it, would belong to a citizen of the United Kingdom. The question itself just sounds very…British.

And so it was a vindication of sorts to come across British critic, biographer and poet Martin Seymour-Smith’s book, The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. Published in 1998, this work was just such an attempt—to define the guesses in history that have had “the most decisive influence upon the course of human thought.”

I can’t imagine anyone ever reading Seymour-Smith’s book from cover to cover. At least, I don’t have this kind of ocular or intellectual stamina. But this is one of those books that prompts me to get it down off the shelf every once in a while, open it at random and marvel anew at the origins and consequences of all the guessing that has been going on.

This time, 100 Most Influential fell open to book No. 83, Italian intellectual Vilfredo Pareto’s The Mind and Society. I have always thought that Pareto was an economist, because of what has come to be called “Pareto’s 80/20 Principle.” (Seymour-Smith calls it “Pareto optimality,” and says it was unpopular from the first because of its “the trival many—the critical few” character. In other words, that an economy is best off when the largest proportion of its participants are badly off.) But what do I learn? That Pareto, a congenital sourpuss of a thinker, is consider one of the fathers of sociology. And that The Mind and Society puts forth one of the best guesses for why, to use T.S. Eliot’s notion (as Seymour-Smith does), “Mankind cannot bear much reality.” Pareto’s ideas of the early 20th Century are very much in vogue again in the early 21st Century: that the foundations of the social system are very much anchored in the nonlogical, not the rational, actions of humans.

So Pareto’s best guess is, by other names and because of other systems of inquiry, back in town. I suspect that if I ever summon up the stamina to read this entire work, I’ll find that this is true again and again. That there can only be so many guesses of sufficient quality to be considered very good guesses about what’s happening here even though they all remain just that—guesses—and that most of them have already been fleshed out at one time or another by a very fine, if now perhaps largely ignored if not totally forgotten, mind. But good or bad, they remain mostly that: guesses.

Seymour-Smith died on July 1, 1998, at the age of seventy.
The above commentary has appeared in a blog on another of my websites. I’m choosing to recycle it here because I think the points it makes are fascinating and important.

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I don’t often experience writer’s block. Sleeping on a topic overnight is nearly always enough to return a free flow of ideas and images. But it was not working that way with this thing called The Singularity. For days, I tried without success to tie a literary bow around a supposition that had fast become a phenomenon that is now on the verge of becoming the first Great Technological Religion. In repeated stare-downs with my computer screen, I lost.

In a moment, I’ll share what finally dissolved the plaque in my creative arteries on this subject, but first I may need to introduce you to the high drama and low wattage of the whole Singularity debate.

The word first appeared in a 1993 essay written by a California math professor, Vernor Steffen Vinge. The full title was “The Coming Technological Singularity.” Professor Vinge was not the first to raise the issue. But he was the first to supply a name worthy of building a whole “end of the world at least as we know it”-fearing movement around this idea: that computer and other technologies are hurdling toward a time when humans may not be the smartest intelligences on the planet. Why? Because some kind of artificial intelligence (“AI”) will have surpassed us, bringing an end to the human era.

Dr. Vinge is now retired. But his Singularity idea has become another of those Californications that sucked the air out of intellectually tinged, futuristically oriented salons and saloons faster than a speeding epiphany. The relentless personality under the hood of the Singularity phenomenon is a talented 70-year-old inventor and big-screen-thinking, oft-honored futurist from New York City and MIT named Ray Kurzweil.

Where “My Way” Is the Theme Song
A few years ago, I wrote about The Singularity movement just after it had finished what one irreverent observer had called Kurzweil’s “yearly Sinatra at Caesar’s.” He was referring to Singularity Summit, the annual conference of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. As best I can tell, the last one of these events was in 2012.

Attendees usually listened to, among others, futurist Kurzweil explain how he believed with all his heart that unimaginably powerful computers are soon going to be able to simulate the human brain, then far surpass it. He thinks great, wondrous, positive things will be possible for humanity because of this new capability. If you track Kurzweil’s day-to-day activities and influence, you quickly realize that he’s not so much Singularity’s prophet as its evangelist. His zeal is messianic. And he’s constantly on the prowl for new believers in a funky techno-fringe movement that is definitely showing legs.

Consider these developments:

• Not long ago, no less than four documentary movies were released within a year’s time on The Singularity. One debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival and also was shown at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles. “Transcendent Man” features or rather lionizes—who else?—Ray Kurzweil. The film is loosely based on his book, The Singularity Is Near. Movies called “The Singularity Film,” “The Singularity Is Near” and “We Are the Singularity.” One admiring critic wrote of “Transcendent Man,” “[The] film is as much about Ray Kurzweil as it is about the Singularity. In fact, much of the film is concerned with whether or not Kurzweil’s predictions stem from psychological pressures in his life.”

• Meanwhile, the debate continues over how soon will be the first and only coming of The Singularity (otherwise it would be named something like The Multilarity or perhaps just The Hilarity). At the Y, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel once gave voice to his nightmare that The Singularity may take too long, leaving the world economy short of cash. Michael Anissimov of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and one of the movement’s most articulate voices, warned that “a singleton, a Maximillian, an unrivaled superintelligence, a transcending upload”—you name it—could arrive very quickly and covertly. Vernor Vinge continues to say before 2030. (It didn’t arrive on Dec. 21, 2012, bringing a boffo ending to the Mayan calendar, as some had predicted.

• Science fiction writers continue to flee from the potential taint of having been believed to have authored the phrase, “the Rapture of the Nerds.” The Rapture, of course, is some fundamentalist Christians’ idea of a jolly good ending to the human adventure. Righteous people will ascend to heaven, leaving the rest of us behind to suffer. It’s probably the Singulatarians’ own fault that their ending sometimes gets mistaken for “those other people’s” ending. They can’t even talk about endings in general without “listing some ways in which the singularity and the rapture do resemble each other.”

• The Best and the Brightest among the Singulatarians don’t help much when they try to clear the air. For instance, there is this effort by Matt Mahoney, a plain-spoken Florida computer scientist, to explain why the people who are promoting the idea of a Friendly AI (an artificial intelligence that likes people) are the Don Quixotes of the 21st Century. “I do not believe the Singularity will be an apocalypse,” says Mahoney. “It will be invisible; a barrier you cannot look beyond from either side. A godlike intelligence could no more make its presence known to you than you could make your presence known to the bacteria in your gut. Asking what we should do [to try and insure a “friendly” AI] would be like bacteria asking how they can evolve into humans who won’t use antibiotics.” Thanks, Dr. Mahoney. We’re feeling better already!

• Philosopher Anders Sandberg can’t quit obsessing over the fact that the only way to AI is through the human brain. That’s because our brain is the only available working example of natural intelligence. And not just “the brain” is necessary but it will need to be a single, particular brain whose personality the great, incoming artificial brain apes. commentator Stuart Fox puckishly says this probably means copying the brain of a volunteer for scientific tests, which is usually “a half stoned, cash-strapped, college student.” Fox adds, “I think avoiding destruction at the hands of artificial intelligence could mean convincing a computer hardwired for a love of Asher Roth, keg stands and pornography to concentrate on helping mankind.” His suggestion for getting humanity out of The Singularity alive: “[Keep] letting our robot overlord beat us at beer pong.” (This is also the guy who says that if and when the AI of The Singularity shows up, he just hopes “it doesn’t run on Windows.”)

• Whether there is going to be a Singularity, and when, and to what ends does indeed seem to correlate closely to the personality of the explainer or predictor, whether it is overlord Kurzweil or someone else. For example, Vernor Vinge is a libertarian, who tends to be intensely optimistic, likes power cut and dried and maximally left in the hands of the individual. No doubt, he really does expect the Singularity no later than 2030, bar nothing. On the other hand, James J. Hughes, an ordained Buddhist monk, wants to make sure that a sense of “radical democracy”—which sees safe, self-controllable human enhancement technologies guaranteed for everyone—is embedded in the artificial intelligence on the other side of The Singularity. One has to wonder how long it will take for the Great AI that the Singulatarians say is coming to splinter and start forming opposing political parties.

• It may be that the penultimate act of the Singulatarians is to throw The Party to End All Parties. It should be a doozy. Because you don’t have thoughts and beliefs like the Singulatarians without a personal right-angle-to-the-rest-of-humanity bend in your booties. The Singularity remains an obscurity to the masses in no small part because the Singulatarians’ irreverence. Like calling the Christian God “a big authoritarian alpha monkey.” Or denouncing Howard Gardner’s popular theory of multiple intelligences as “something that doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.” Or suggesting that most of today’s computer software is “s***”. No wonder that when the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies was pondering speakers for its upcoming confab on The Singularity, among other topics, it added a comic book culture expert, the author of New Flesh A GoGo and one of the writers for TV’s Hercules and Xena, among other presenters.

All of the individuals quoted above and a lengthy parade of other highly opinionated folks (mostly males) who typically have scientific backgrounds (and often an “engineering” mentality) and who tend to see the world through “survival of the smartest” lenses are the people doing most of the talking today about The Singularity. It is a bewildering and ultimately stultifying babel of voices and opinions based on very little hard evidence and huge skeins of science-fiction-like supposition. I was about hit delete on the whole shrill cacophony of imaginings and outcome electioneering that I’d collected when I came across a comment from one of the more sane and even-keeled Singulatarian voices.

That would be the voice of Eliezer Yudkowsky, a co-founder and research fellow of the Singularity Institute.

He writes, “A good deal of the material I have ever produced—specifically, everything dated 2002 or earlier—I now consider completely obsolete.”

As a non-scientific observer of what’s being said and written about The Singularity at the moment, making a similar declaration would seem to be a great idea for most everyone who has voiced an opinion thus far. I suspect it’s still going to be awhile before anyone has an idea about The Singularity worth keeping.
The above commentary has appeared in a blog on another of my websites. I’m choosing to recycle it here because I think the points it makes are fascinating and important.

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I always seek to break the news gently, but it can be disconcerting to some folks when I reveal that the two brains in history intriguing me most are Shakespeare’s and Jesus Christ’s, in that order.

Neither choice is by any means unique, and the subject of Jesus’s brain is probably the most enigmatic. What can you really think about a brain that supposedly was both a man’s and a god’s, dually occupied at the same time? Bertrand Russell thought the man suffered from schizophrenia, but Schweitzer, summoned to the truths he saw in the man’s life, argued otherwise. Psychologist Jay Haley thought the Nazarean carpenter is best understood as a master political strategist whose mind, above all, excelled at using complex power tactics to flummox and stalemate his enemies.

I’m not sure that were a small group of us to sit down to dinner with the Godspell character himself that we’d really understand how things worked inside his cranium, so that’s why I list him second. And putting J.C. Superstar second is what upsets my fundamentalist Christian friends, so I rush to assure them that I do so only because with Shakespeare, I think we’d have a better chance of coming away with more insight than heart burn.

I once happened on a book whose author shares my interest in Shakespeare’s brain and isn’t waiting on a chance dinner party encounter in some future time-warp to take the subject on. Diane Ackerman has an entire chapter in her book, An Alchemy of Mind (Scribner softcover, 2004), speculating about how the bard’s brain functioned. She opines, “Something about his brain was gloriously different.”

For example, Ackerman recalls his abilities to squeeze the most precise qualities from word combinations. Like when he described a kiss as “comfortless/As frozen water to a starved snake.” Or when his King Lear, in deep grief over Cordelia’s death, utters, “Never, never, never, never, never.” (Such feats and usages of the language led the editors of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to devote more than 60 pages to Shakespeare, Ackerman observes). Such precisely feelings-capturing word pictures suffuse his works, of course. “He must have … possessed a remarkable general memory, the ability to obsess for long periods of time, a superb gift for focusing his mind in the midst of commotion, quick access to word and sense memories to use in imagery, a brain open to novelty and new ideas,” she writes. And that’s just for starters.

Eventually, she asks one of two questions I’d most love to put to a large list of personages who have distinguished themselves down through the mists of time. Did Shakespeare know how different he was? Her conclusion: probably so. How alien. How “more of everything.” If scientists could study his brain today, she wonders if they’d find his brain bushy, somehow having foregone all the natural pruning away of neuronal connections that occurs in a “normal” brain.

Ackerman doesn’t see any usefulness in viewing Shakespeare as a god. “If anything, he risked being more human than most. Because he was a natural wonder,” she finishes.

It’s a beautiful chapter in a really well-done book. And her concluding thoughts about Shakespeare fit well with the second question I’d like to put to each of the great personages selected from “the bank and shoal of time” (Shakespeare again): What do you think this universe is really about? If there is a god in the group, then we should be in for a memorable evening although I can’t shake the thought that we’d probably end up learning more from Shakespeare’s reply than anyone else’s.

You can latch onto a bargain-priced copy of Ackerman’s book by going here. Haley’s fascinating arguments, by the way, are in his book: The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ and Other Essays); go here.
The above commentary has appeared in a blog on another of my websites. I’m choosing to recycle it here because I think the points it makes are fascinating and important.

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