April 19, 2010

Philosophy for the 21st Century

Since the Greek Philosophers three thousand years ago, the subjects usually included in philosophy are logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, sociology, politics and the philosophy of the mind.

You could argue that the proper concern for 21st century philosophy is the destructive aspects of human nature and the possibility we will cause our own extinction. To be properly qualified as a philosopher, you need to be a generalist with an expansive overview of all human activities. You are willing to be informed by any and all sciences, academic disciplines and by the chatter of modern discourse which takes many forms.

These credentials, of course, are demanding and few would qualify for the position. You could not, for example, belong to a religious group dependent on faith in historical fictions. You could not belong an academic group that limited your exploration of any point view that conflicted with the groups norms. You could not live in a society that censored your writings and limited your access to information.

I would argue that progress in human affairs requires a new approach to education that is universal, persuasive and complete. The knowledge and ideas in this book are basic ingredients for the new education. How can this be achieved? Not by philosophers employed by universities or even book writers that gain an audience. Idealists with a commitment to realize universal civil and free societies will need to pause and consider that progress in this direction is not possible without dramatic change in the way humans think and behave.

Walter Kaufman described liberation philosophy, a prescription for 21st century advances in human cognition:

“Philosophy, like poetry, deals with ancient themes: poetry with experiences, philosophy with problems known for centuries. Both must add a new precision born of passion. The intensity of great philosophy and poetry is abnormal and subversive: it is the enemy of habit, custom, and all stereotypes. The motto is always that what is well known is not known at all well… The poet's passion cracks convention: the chains of custom drop; the world of our everyday experience is exposed as superficial appearance; the person we had seemed to be and our daily contacts and routines appear as shadows on a screen, without depth; while the poet's myth reveals reality... Newspaper reports, and even scenes we have seen with our own eyes, are distorted images in muddy waters of reality. We live upon the surface; we are like ants engaged in frantic aimlessness pursuits until the artist comes, restoring vision, freeing us from living death. Philosophy, as Plato and Aristotle said, begins in wonder. This wonder means a dim awareness of the useless talent, some sense that ant-likeness is, This wonder means a dim awareness of the useless talent, some sense that ant-likeness is a betrayal.

"But what are the alternatives? Vary the metaphor. Men are so many larvae, crawling, wriggling, eating - living in two dimensions. Many die while in this state. Some are transformed and take flight before they settle down to live as ants. Few become butterflies and revel in their new-found talent, a delight to all. Philosophy means liberation from the two dimensions of routine, soaring above the well known, seeing it in new perspectives, arousing wonder and the wish to fly. Philosophy subverts man's satisfaction with himself, exposes custom as a questionable dream, and offers not so much solutions as a different life. A great deal of philosophy, including truly subtle and ingenious works, was not intended as an edifice for men to live in, safe from sun and wind, but as a challenge: don't sleep on! there are so many vantage points; they change in flight: what matters is to leave off crawling in the dust.”

From Group Dynamics by Stephen Gislason (now available as an Amazon.com download for the Kindle.)

Also Read Religion for the 21st Century

April 13, 2010

Fusion Jazz

Wittgenstein, a student of Bertrand Russell, attempted to reduce philosophy to a compact collection of brief statements in the style of mathematical equations. Russell favored the rigor of mathematics and expressed extreme doubt that natural languages could ever represent the really real. Wittgenstein recommended silence when you realized that could not say what you meant or when you did not mean what you might say. I share Russell's doubts about natural language. Indeed the second use of language (to deceive) usually overwhelms the first use(to inform). My solution is to move away from language back to music (where I believe I came from). While I was immersed in classical music as a child and have just completed a recording of 14 pieces from JS Bach's Art of the Fugue, my real salvation lies in playing and inventing Jazz.

My interest in Jazz begins with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. I have followed a meandering path from their bebop innovations through Miles Davis, cool jazz, modal and fusion jazz. The 1968 album “Miles in the Sky” introduced Herbie Hancock playing electric piano and Carter playing bass guitar. In 1969, electronic instruments dominated the next album “In a Silent Way”, an innovative fusion album.

The term Fusion still appeals to me. Fusion describes the merging of different musical styles and intentions. In the best case, Fusion is an open door to all music traditions everywhere to merge with novel, exciting creativity. Fusion is not always an easy path to follow. Musicians who are well established in one musical genre usually face criticism and degrees of rejection when they move in another direction. Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker were criticized by fellow jazz musicians for their new jazz style "Bebop." Miles Davis also faced criticism as he moved from more "traditional jazz" into continuously evolving styles that incorporated world music and at times came perilously close to rock and roll. Davis attracted the best musicians available so that innovation was an eclectic group effort.


The musicians who played with Miles often continued to develop fusion styles. 1970’s fusion bands originated with Miles Davis alumni: Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report, McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Corea's Return to Forever, and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters band. Herbie Hancock was one of the first jazz keyboardists to use synthesizers. Funk jazz emerged in his albums, Head Hunters 1973 and Thrust in 1974.

Weather Report, featuring Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter developed world music fusion jazz. Jaco Pastorius, the electric bass player, went on to great fame and a tragic death in 1987. Chick Corea, another of the great keyboardists, founded the band Return to Forever in 1972 with latin-influenced music. The band soon evolved into a jazz-rock band.

John McLaughlin was influenced by his guru, Sri Chinmoy and created the Mahavishnu Orchestra that merged psychedelic rock with Indian music. Carlos Santana’s band blended Latin salsa, rock, blues, and jazz. Pat Metheny started a fusion band in 1977 that produced popular recordings that made both jazz and pop charts. Cool jazz groups such as Dave Sanborn's bands and the Ripping tons become popular with more melodic pieces that appealed to listeners at home.

Marcus Miller, the multitalented musicians' musician collaborated with Miles Davis, played with Jaco Pastorius and carried forward a brilliant style of bass guitar playing, turning the bass into a versatile solo instrument.

I have arranged and recorded tunes made famous by several of the fusion jazz musicians. Tutu is a Marcus Miller/ Davis piece. Today I am adding another Marcus Miller tune Snakes to my song list. I have treated snakes as one of my anthem pieces, developing an energetic, big-band style arrangement with my Flugelhorn as a solo instrument. Snakes in this version is a description of the state of the human world. I have the image of someone asking me what I think about the state of the world. I cannot speak. When I open my mouth, out comes Snakes.

Hear Snakes, Tutu, Night in Tunisia - Stephen Gislason and the Trinity P2500 Band.
(http://www.reverbnation.com/tunepak/2560031)

April 10, 2010

Teenagers as Outlaws

There are recurrent stories in the news about bullying at schools, teenage drug and alcohol use and suicides. "Experts" are interviewed and offer a variety of opinions about the causes of these apparent aberrations. I have a different view. There is a relentless consistency in destructive human behaviours that is ancient and universal. Each society develops strategies of coping with disturbances --some are more successful than others. I often remind my fellow humans that we are all narcissistic, critical of others, disputatious and unstable. We tend to destroy whatever order we create.

Children manifest these human tendencies and teenagers undergo extremes of narcissism and instability as they are transformed into adults. I wanted to share my point of view in brief, taken from two books Alcohol Problems and Solutions; Children and the Family.

Puberty changes the entire programming manifest by children and raises the ante so that the relatively safe play of younger children is replaced by the more dangerous and consequential play of teenagers. Parents are often unprepared for the major transformations that occur after puberty and feel estranged from the new person emerging awkwardly and contentiously in their own home. Teenagers are in the business of separating from their family and are drawn to the values, activities and norms of their peer group. They seek role models in the media and imitate examples of costume, values and behaviors that attract them. Movies, "music" and television programs are stronger influences than parental example or advice.

Teenagers have a tense mix of old primitive features in their mind and new modern ideas. They tend to manifest tribal behavior and at the same time develop individual, modern personalities. Adolescent society is stratified, competitive and relatively unforgiving. Teenagers cluster in small groups with strict inclusion/exclusion rules. They manifest ancient animal and human social patterns quite spontaneously and the importance of group affiliation with their peers takes precedence over family affiliation. Family values and teenager group values often conflict and the conflict is seldom resolved in favor of the family unless parents are determined and on the job 24 hours a day.

Teenagers are risk-takers and seek excitement. Teenagers copy the behavior of other teens. Teens are drawn to drinking alcoholic beverages, smoking and try a variety of illegal drugs that alter their experience and behaviour. Teenagers drink alcoholic beverages as a matter of course, even when drinking is restricted, illegal and dangerous. Teenagers often get drunk and some develop high risk drinking behaviors at an early age.
Parents of teenagers will often doubt that they have any role to play except to offer custodial support and then recognize that their jurisdiction is limited. I noted a bumper sticker that said: "Teenager for sale cheap - take over the payments."

The process of becoming a civilized, competent, compassionate human is long and arduous and some teenager do not make it. Good parents are role models who moderate or avoid the use of alcoholic beverages, do not smoke and teach their children to prefer clear minds and sane sober behavior , avoiding intoxication with any drug. Good parents offer sustained custodial support of their adolescent sons and daughters, recognize the risks of drinking and drugs. They establish lawful conduct at home.

For decades, American literature has described and decried the alienation of adolescents from their parents and a host of studies have confirmed that peer group dynamics influence teenagers more than their parents. Teenagers "hang-out" together and spontaneously form groups that drift on the periphery of the adult society. Deviant, antisocial and criminal behavior emerges as a group expression. Even "nice" teens routinely experiment with alcohol, drugs, sex and other forbidden pleasures, commit minor felonies, conceal their activities from parents and teachers and lie when confronted with allegations of improper conduct. In the worst case, teens form gangs and kill each other with guns.

Adolescent behavior and teenage gangs in particular remind us that drama on the ancient African Savannas has simply time-traveled to contemporary cities and suburbs. Teen gangs are primitive clan structures that repeat human behavior thousands of years old. Teens who are not so nice, form gangs to commit crimes and murder with appalling ease. Teenagers are narcissistic and are often trapped in self-talk and case making.

Some teenagers are kinder than others and develop an idealistic view of human life and may be at risk because they are too trusting and suggestible. Other teens are more cynical and aggressive and believe that only they understand what is right and true. Teens form cliques or gangs and the greatest cause of teenage suffering is to be excluded from a desirable group.

Members of inferior groups are treated badly by members of superior groups and outsiders emerge who are isolated and alienated individuals. Inferior or isolated individuals are taunted, threatened, pushed, bullied, ridiculed, sexually harassed, beaten, robbed and sometimes killed even by nice children in affluent Canadian and American suburbs.

Alienation pushes an unwanted teenager toward one of four destinations:

1 creative alienation; scholarship, poetry, music, art, political activism
2 withdrawal, depression and risk of suicide.
3 revenge, antisocial ideas, affiliation with groups that express hatred
4 crime

Alienated individuals can form groups that develop and express their disappointment and anger. Often these groups borrow costumes, ideology, ritual and values from existing ideologies - the skinheads, for example, adopt fascist values and admire German Nazis of the 30's and 40's who now epitomize for most adults evil intentions and deeds.

Binge drinking often begins in adolescence. Some teenagers survive their drinking escapades and become more or less reasonable adults. Others continue on an alcoholic path. Some die violent deaths, mostly in cars they drive and crash while intoxicated. Giving a teenager keys to the family car and enough money to buy beer or whiskey to take to the party is a high risk mistake that too many parents make.

Young male adolescents have the highest risk of dying in car crashes. Intoxication with alcohol and other drugs increases their risk. In a US survey, about 1 in 7 Americans aged 12 or older in 2002 (14.2 percent, or 33.5 million persons) drove under the influence of alcohol at least once in the 12 months prior to the interview. Males were nearly twice as likely as females (18.8 vs. 9.9 percent, respectively) to have driven under the influence of alcohol. More than 1 in 4 (26.6 percent) young adults aged 18 to 25 reported driving under the influence of alcohol at least once in the prior year.

Even good parents tend to be unrealistic about their adolescent children and assume they have better judgment and self-control than they actually have. Drinking a few drinks erases the little judgment that a teenager may possess. According to Michigan Universities 1998 survey: "The use of alcoholic beverages by American teen-agers had been drifting upward very gradually in recent years as they came to see behaviors such as weekend binge drinking as less and less dangerous…. one-third (33 percent) of all high school seniors report being drunk at least once in the 30-day interval preceding the survey. The risk perceived to be associated with weekend binge drinking began to rise two years ago among eighth- and 10th-graders (after having declined for several years), which may help to explain the recent downturn in alcohol use at these grade levels."
Stroh wrote: 'Teens who joke about killing brain cells while downing beers may find the idea a bit less funny when they grow up. A report by the American Medical Association shows that adolescents and young adults who drink risk brain damage, especially when it comes to learning, memory and critical thinking… the number of young people who drink is increasing. In 2000, 3.1 million people aged 17 and younger took a drink for the first time, according to the AMA report. "The brain appears to be particularly susceptible to damage during high school and college -- the prime drinking years…After only three drinks with a blood-alcohol level slightly under the 0.08 legal limit, volunteers were 25 per cent less accurate on memory tests."

Some parents face a defiant, disruptive teenager who becomes an outlaw. Usually, binge drinking and other drug use causes their deviance. Writer, Martha Dudman described a crisis with her 15-year old daughter: "Three years ago I didn't know what to do to save my daughter. She was doing everything possible to hurt herself - dropping out of school, sneaking out of the house, running away, cutting herself, stealing, taking drugs, drinking and attempting suicide. I found a reputable "education consultant" - one of a legion of such advisers in a rapidly growing industry that caters to the parents of troubled teens… There are all kinds of programs for troubled teens - from simple farmhouses where gruff, kindly couples take in four or five girls at a time to residential educational institutions where teens get group counseling. There are places where kids are actually locked up like prisoners. There are hospitals. And there are wilderness programs run by avid outdoorsmen or former marines."

There are no easy solutions for teenage outlaws. They do need custodial care, but oppressive treatment will make them worse rather than better. I have the image of sending disturbed teens to kindly relatives on the farm, far away from city activities. They should work hard physically, live close to nature, eat the best foods, and form affectionate attachments with animals and other humans. They should stay on the farm for one or two years. The same approach tends to work for alcoholics at every age.

The problem, of course, is that most families no longer have kindly relatives living on a farm. Cities have obliterated natural environments and most urban adolescents are alienated from the deep values in their nature that would give them direction and purpose. Rehab centers in rural settings may partly replace relatives on the farm, but usually do not involve physical work, proper food or sustained, meaningful relationships with healthy humans. I not a fan of the "head games" played by counselors and with other intimates in rehab centers. Good therapy is based learning to live a normal, productive life without using any alcohol or drugs. Prescription drugs should be a last resort treatment.

Also read Alcohol Problems and Solutions by Stephen Gislason MD

April 1, 2010

A Cognitive Black Hole ?

I have referred to it before – the cognitive black hole that consumes reason in the Less than United States (my neighbours to the south). Regardless of what I might write about those Less than United States (LUS), I hope my readers will realize that I wish the best for the folks in that troubled country.

Despite our win against the LUS hockey team in the winter Olympics, Canadians remain just one step behind LUS citizens in most respects. The 2 weeks of euphoric feelings of national unity that came to Canadians with the Olympics in Vancouver was a welcome surprise for a federation of 12 less than united provinces. When all is said and done, I and my fellow Canadians want friendship and collaboration with LUS citizens to continue and grow. A bilateral announcement this week of new automotive emission standards was the happy result of Canada-US collaboration.

Over many years, I have studied and written about human nature and the basic principles that govern human dynamics. When I hear about current events, I compare what is going on now with my descriptions of what has always been going on, with the view to improving or changing those descriptions. For example, I am convinced that humans do best living and working in small groups. As organizations grow larger, they often fail as a matter of course.

In Group Dynamics, I wrote:" The desirability of unlimited corporate growth and mergers is doubtful unless enlarging corporations re-organize around small, semi-autonomous groups. The inefficiencies and failures of enlarging human systems is a product of the distinct cognitive limitations of the participants. While smart and apparently well qualified people become CEOs of large corporations their limitations eventually become obvious. One paradox is that experts are people who focus their attention on details of small parts of large and complex systems, but do not understand how the whole system works. Another paradox is that managers develop competence in smaller systems and advance to the level of their incompetence as the company grows. Even the smartest, best-informed human cannot comprehend how large complex systems work overall."

Collins, writing in Fortune magazine’s annual addition that lists the top 500 US corporations, reflected on the ephemeral nature of big corporations. Only 71 companies of the 500 best listed in 1955 were still in business in 2007. Most of the 2000 companies that made the list in subsequent years have dropped out. Collins blames managers for the failures. He points to examples of corporations that faltered, adapted and continued on a successful path because of new and inspired leadership. While managers are often at fault for corporate failures, I would argue that even the best qualified, most honest managers are just people with distinct limitations who may not cope with the relentless recurrence and complexity of the problems they face.

There have been a succession of business Gurus such as Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, published in 1982) who have studied management styles and strategies. The main advice that emerged for executives was to stay involved with employees and customers; reduce the number of middle managers and empower productive employees to become innovators. A big problem that Peters identified was that executive officers withdrew progressively into their exclusive and privileged offices and clubs. Like aristocrats of old, they would not mingle with the commoners and were oblivious to employees and customers. They developed delusions of grandeur and collected false beliefs such as "my company is too big to fail."

I believe that Barack Obama is a great president. I am really happy that he is charge of the LUS. If someone offered me his job, I would decline without hesitation. Why turn down such a great job? The main reason is that it's difficult or impossible to succeed, especially if you are an idealist and want to turn the ignorant and belligerent into constructive citizens.

A great leader will motivate his audience with empowering suggestions, but will realize that inspiration alone is not sufficient to change the status quo. A big country with diverse regions has a terrifying inertia; it takes years of painfully slow, incremental changes to head in a new direction.

Barack is an idealist with amazing stamina. Now, he did not take my advice to get out of Afghanistan ASAP, but I understood why. The real reasons are not his stated reasons. I am sure he realizes that there is no need to travel half way around the world to find terrorists. He has plenty of people close to home planning to overthrow the federal government.

Sedition is not new to the LUS and other countries have the same problem, but there is renewed hatred emerging there and in too many other places on the planet. This hatred is a cognitive black hole that swallows reason and motivates property destruction and killing.

Governments (as overly large organizations) do fail. Federations of many states also fail as a matter of course. Top down solutions may sound good in theory, but, in practice, they usually fail.

If I am really perplexed, I consult the great LUS sociologists and philosophers such as P.J. O'Rourke and several New York Times columnists: Maureen Dowd is one of my NYT favourites because she combines local insider knowledge with insight and a skillful use of irony and sarcasm, a special ability of smart women who can outclass smart men in social commentary.

What is remarkable about human nature is the moral depravity associated with notions such as "national security." You might ask, how can any nation be secure if it is busy creating new enemies, especially in foreign poor countries who want what you have? What about the golden rule that recommends treating others the way you would like to be treated? Just turn that excellent rule around a little and you realize that if you travel to a foreign country to kill people and blow up buildings that you have given permission to to those people to come to your country and carry out the same acts of death and destruction. Tit for Tat.

In terms of LUS foreign policy, PJ wrote the definitive equation: "Whatever it is that the government does, sensible Americans would prefer that the government do it to somebody else. This is the idea behind foreign policy. "

Maureen is fearless in her writing. In her recent description of the growing hatred directed against Obama, she wrote: " I've been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer - the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids - had much to do with race. I tended to agree with some Obama advisers that Democratic presidents typically have provoked a frothing response from paranoids - from Father Coughlin against F.D.R. to Joe McCarthy against Truman to the John Birchers against J.F.K. and the vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill Clinton. For two centuries, the South has feared a takeover by blacks or the feds. In Obama, they have both. Don Fowler, a former Democratic Party chief stated: "A good many people in South Carolina really reject the notion that we're part of the union… when slavery was destroyed by outside forces and segregation was undone by civil rights leaders and Congress, it bred xenophobia. We have a lot of people who really think that the world's against us, so when things don't happen the way we like them to, we blame outsiders."

Read Group Dynamics by Stephen Gislason http://www.personadigital.net/Persona/groupdynamics/index.htm