October 28, 2016

Future of Human Rights

Future of Human Rights

Michael Ignatieff in his essays about human rights reviewed the recent and not encouraging history of the human rights movement in the world. Human rights are abstract and largely invented. Analysis of the feasibility and the methodology of human rights needs to be grounded in a clear understanding of human nature. Ignatieff asks the question that lies at the heart of my philosophical inquiries: “If human beings are so special, why do we treat each other so badly?” 

Ignatieff argues that human rights is the language of defending one’s autonomy against the oppression of religion, state, family and group. The proper emergence of rights is from the bottom up, from individuals who insist that the group they belong to respect the rights of each member, as an individual. Almost by definition, rules imposed from the top-down, by a moral or political authority insisting that all obey the rules imposed is not human rights. He reminds us that “human rights come to authoritarian societies when activists risk their lives and create a popular and indigenous demand for these rights, and when their activism receives consistent and forthright support from influential nations abroad.”

Humans require regulation using a system of rules that are an external form of behavior coding. External regulation can evolve and improve by creating and maintaining stable social and political structures in a democratic infrastructure. Democracies are, however, unstable and vulnerable to internal dissolution as much as external attack. Democracies require elaborate internal rules and surveillance to prevent subgroups from achieving control over critical functions such as the money supply, police, courts and military forces. Subgroups are always competing for resources and control so that no civil society can be considered stable and enduring without an energetic and educated population of activists who are prepared to defend freedoms and privileges on a daily basis. Paranoid governments such as US administrations, develop elaborate spy networks inside the country that includes collecting data from phone calls, emails, and internet postings. In the worst case, governments imprison, torture, and kill citizens who are critical of the government and participate in protests.

To recall our fundamental truths: at the level of the largest organizations, small groups decide on policy and procedures that effect many nations, even the fate the entire species. The tendency to impose universal rules and policies from the top down is likely to fail because individuals and small groups cannot understand the diverse needs, values and beliefs of large numbers of humans. World-wide policies will tend to fail since they emerge from limited understanding, and ignore the tendency for humans to relate most strongly to the values and beliefs of their local group. World government is an oxymoron.

Whatever we value about civilized human existence - culture, knowledge, social justice, respect for human rights and dignity must be practiced anew and stored as modifications of each person's neocortex. Success at humanitarian efforts within a society reveals that portion of human attitudes, beliefs and behavior that can be modified and/or are supported by innate tendencies. Failure of moral authority reveals the extent to which innate negative tendencies prevail no matter how diligent the effort to modify or suppress them.

Human destiny as a species still lies with the programs in the old brain that offer only limited empathy and understanding and insist on the priority of survival at any cost. Individuals can transcend the old programs by diligent learning and practice but individual effort and learning does not change the genome, so that their can be no enduring human rights without the persistent and relentless initiation of new humans into a rational and compassionate world order. This, of course, is so far an impossible goal to achieve. You can then argue that if only 5% of the human population is not properly initiated they will have the power to destroy the civil order accomplished by the more reasonable 95% unless they are vigorously constrained, depriving them of their human rights.

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is well known in Europe and North America even though it involves an obscure and difficult philosophy. Zen psychology contradicts common assumptions and doctrines. The practices found in Zen have evolved through several cultures in India, China and Japan. Zen can be considered a highly refined but tough and "bare bones" school of self-development that insists on a sustained and disciplined practice of meditation. Some would argue that Zen teaching is “pure Buddhism” as taught by the Buddha himself. In contrast to European philosophy and psychology, Zen discourages preoccupation with one's own story. If you keep a dairy, it could contain pictures of nature, little poems and drawings. Zen and science go well together.

Zen teaching takes a surgical approach to the cognitive lesions created by clinging to the past, egotism and the misuse of language: idle speculations, false story-telling, casemaking, memes and dualistic thinking. While dialectical processes of the brain appear to be built in and natural, a world view based on dualism distorts or conceals the seamless meshwork of events in the really real world. I would argue that paranoia is impossible in a proper Zen mind because there are no terrorists, there is no conspiracy, there is no blame, there is no danger, and there is no fear. Stories that blame others for the way you think and feel have no value and no one will listen to them. The government is not responsible. You are responsible. I am responsible. Everyone is responsible.

Zen developed in China and manifests the work ethic of Chinese peasants who were pragmatic and lived close to nature. Suzuki contrasted the Chinese as "the most practical people” with the Indians who tend to be “visionary and highly speculative... subtle in analysis and dazzling in poetic flight.” Suzuki stated: ”the Chinese are children of earthly life, they pod, till the soil, observing social duties and developing the most elaborate system of etiquette. He contrasted the Indian Mahayana Sutras that burst with multiple deities, kaleidoscopic colors, fantastic exaggeration and magical, supernatural powers attributed to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, with the more grounded Chinese Sutras that contain Confucian principles; the superior man never talks about his magical powers nor does he refer to supernatural events.

The Way of Zen 

I first encountered Zen Buddhism as a teenager in the form of Alan Watts book, the Way of Zen.Watts had a lasting impact on my understanding. Watts introduced the idea that language determined thought and misrepresented what is really going on. Watts stated: “…man is always in danger of confusing his measures with the world so measured, of identifying money with wealth, fixed conventions with fluid reality. But to the degree he identifies himself and his life with these rigid and hollow frames of definition, he condemns himself to the perpetual frustration of one trying to catch water in a sieve.”

Watts also introduced the Tao, wu wei and the value of emptiness – all heretical concepts in the West. The Tao pointed to the natural way; the way of the natural mind and nature.The Taoist might be a sage in the forest who sat by a stream and conversed with birds. Wu wei means something like not doing, not acting, not making. Wu wei points to an insight into the way of the mind that is embedded deeply in Zen. Wu wei has at least two roots. The first root is a pragmatic assessment of the human condition. Human action is often un-necessary, wasteful and destructive. Why make hydrogen bombs when you could be sipping tea in a Zen garden?

Desires are often unattainable. Criticism and hate is invented and harmful. Ownership of things and people brings worry, frustration and ultimate loss. Why strive for all this stuff when happiness is your goal and sitting quietly by a stream brings happiness?

The second root is insight into the processes of the mind. All creativity is spontaneous and needs space; emptiness is valuable because it permits movement. The emergence of new forms of thought and experience require spaciousness in mind. Cluttered minds are not creative. So do nothing, empty the mind, be quiet and appreciate the natural world.

Zen is paradoxical, self-contradictory and iconoclastic, as exemplified in the following discourse:

Dako came to the Zen Master and said: I am seeking the truth. In what state of mind should I train myself to find the truth? The Zen master said:  There is no mind, so you cannot put it in any state.There is no truth so you cannot train yourself for it.

Dako asked: If there is no mind to train and no truth to find, why do you have these monks gather before you to study Zen?

The Master replied: But, I haven’t an inch of room here, so how could the monks gather? I have no tongue so how could I call them together or teach them?

Dako in frustration exclaimed: How can you lie like this?

But if I have no tongue to talk to others, how can I lie to you? asked the master.

Dako said sadly I cannot follow you. I cannot understand you.

 I cannot understand myself said the Zen master.

From Religion for the 21st Century by Stephen Gislason

Killing an Innate Tendency

Killing an Innate Tendency

The Clinton administration launched an attack on people in Texas because those people were religious nuts with guns. Hell, this country was founded by religious nuts with guns. Who does Bill Clinton think stepped ashore on Plymouth Rock? “ P. J. O'Rourke
Human males are predators and naturally express the skills and interest in hunting and killing prey.  Men in the United States commit 85.53 per cent of simple assaults, 87.31 percent of aggravated assaults and 88.5 percent of murders. Women may play a supportive role in by encouraging their men to hate and to kill. Women participate in the construction and maintenance of hatred and can play a decisive role in initiating and sustaining lethal conflicts among men.  Men compete over women and often kill each other to gain an advantage or to revenge sexual trespass. Men and women conspire together to attack and kill rivals to gain property, prestige and ostensibly to protect their lives and property. Anne Campbell observed: ”For males, status and toughness where this quality is a determinant of status is a route to desired resources, including females. Males seek public recognition of their status and  trivial altercations can result in homicide when an opponent's acts are interpreted as a public challenge to a man's honor and when to back down is to accept that dishonor.” 
Anthropologist, John Patton studied the Achuar, a tribe in the Ecuadorian Amazon who have a high murder rate. In the 90’s after the introduction of guns, killings increased; 50% of the males die from shotgun blasts.  The Achuar associate killing with prestige. They value the warrior who has strategy, skill, valor, willingness to fight and lack of hesitation in battle. There is a striking similarity between an Aschaur tribe in the Amazon and a street gang in Los Angeles or New York and an army platoon in any country you choose. Patton suggests that men have a keen sense of whom they can and cannot trust in the event of a conflict: "You want to be part of a group that is big enough to beat the other guys or at least be a threat to them, yet not so big that you can't keep everyone fed. Friendships are forged according to who can offer whom or what, as a sort of insurance policy.” 

Mind-boggling Violent. 

Herbert wrote: “Life in the United States is mind-bogglingly violent. But we should take particular notice of the violence brought down on the nation’s women and girls each and every day for no other reason than who they are. They are attacked because they are female.
 A girl or woman somewhere in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every couple of minutes or so. The number of seriously battered wives and girlfriends is beyond the ability of any agency to count. There were so many sexual attacks against women in the armed forces that the Defense Department had to revise its entire approach to the problem. We would become a saner, healthier society if we could acknowledge that misogyny is a serious and pervasive problem, and that the twisted way so many men feel about women, combined with the easy availability of guns, is a toxic mix of the most tragic proportions. 
Guns and killings are broadcast to everyone everyday in the USA. Children learn how and what to shoot, were and when to place bombs and practice their killing skills with video games. Bob Hebert, wrote in a New York Times review:” I do think that millions of American adults have lost all sense of what are appropriate forms of play for children and teenagers. And the country as a whole behaves as though there is no real-world price to pay for a culture that has so thoroughly desensitized us to violence that it takes a terror attack or a series of suburban sniper killings to really get our attention… The biggest-selling video game over the last couple of years has been a PlayStation 2 game called Grand Theft Auto III. It actually carries a voluntary "M" rating, which means it's not recommended for kids under 17. But younger teens have no problem buying "M"-rated games, and they love the various incarnations of Grand Theft Auto. This is a game in which all boundaries of civilized behavior have vanished. You get to shoot whomever you want, including cops. You get to beat women to death with baseball bats. You get to have sex with prostitutes and then kill them. (And get your money back.) The game is a phenomenal seller. At close to $50 each, millions of copies are sold annually.” 

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

Impermanence Often Wrongly Described as Plasticity

Impermanence Often Wrongly Described as Plasticity

Everything changes. The largest chunk of uncertainly is impermanence. There are constant paradoxes and contradictions built into our brain function. We must be alert to notice and respond to changes but, at the same time, attempt to be stable and consistent. Our visual system is designed to notice minute changes but ignores most of the movement around us to create the illusion of a stable world in consciousness. Growth, development, and aging are the main expressions of predetermined impermanence that combines DNA programming with environmental opportunities and hazards. You could argue that brain growth and development changes are most vigorous in the first 20 years of life; later, after a brief period of relative stability, degenerative changes take over, accelerating with advancing age.

Too often, I am an unwilling victim of television news nonsense and plasticity is a current favorite topic. Brain damaged survivors are shown with plausible mental abilities, as if their example refuted neuroscience beliefs. The term plasticity has crept into neuroscience jargon and should be erased from the vocabulary. I am not aware of the source of plastic metaphor and can only assume that it refers to a material that can be coaxed into different shapes by heat and pressure using a variety of machines. I cannot see any connection between the malleability of plastic and the constant flux that characterize brain function.

Even smart, educated humans participate in these media delusions. For example, I was surprised to read a report by Allison Gandey from a meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine that revealed basic ignorance among a group of smart professionals. She stated: " Some suggest the discovery of neuroplasticity is the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since the revelation of the brain's basic anatomy. Proponents say the brain is pliable and can alter its structure and function. " One MD even admitted:" We used to think the brain was wired after about the first 3 years and what you had was what you got and you work within that because there was no chance of changing it. If on top of that the brain was damaged, you had to live with that damage. Neuroplasticity says that's not so — the brain is changing all the time."

It is true that the brain is changing all the time, but it is not true that this is a discovery or a breakthrough. It is also not true that lost function is easy to recover. While it might be true that limited recovery of function is possible after brain injury, it is more true that loss of function tends to be permanent after the initial recovery in the first few months. You might consider that some physicians are lost souls with erroneous assumptions and unrealistic fantasies, but then, I also read rather naïve comments about plasticity in the neuroscience literature.

A big problem we have is that while the world around us changes, we also change and the biggest changes occur in our brain. The idea of one personality remaining stable over many years is actually absurd, but we are tempted to believe in an enduring self. An astute observer will notice that each day brings forward a series of different personalities within one body. I call these personalities eigenstates. The self is not one entity but rather consists of a collection eigenstates that serve different needs, roles and capabilities. Some eigenstates are built it others are learned and remain open-ended, evolving with changing circumstances. '

Neurons and glial cells are the brain cells that a manifest all the properties of mind. The study of neurons could be considered ne plus ultra, the quantum mechanics of biology. Neurons come in different shapes and sizes but have the common property of constant changes receiving and sending information. Neurons conduct discrete signals as electro-chemical pulses, known as action potentials or “spikes.” The signal passes from one neuron to another by the secretion of chemical neurotransmitters in synapses. There are trillions of synaptic junctions in the human brain. Learning occurs at least in part by changes in the number, strength and kind of synaptic connections.

Learning, in the best case, is adaptive impermanence that requires changes to brain structure and function. We will consider, for example, that learned movements are generated from dynamic cortical maps based on fields of activity that converge and diverge in complex patterns. Over time, the pieces of the map change with learning and practice, so that the construction of cortical connections is always in flux. This impermanence allows us to learn at all stages of life, to adjust to changing environments and, to some extent, to work around disabilities that arise from brain injury and disease.

Sleep is a transformative time of day. Cortical neurons are active, reviewing events of the day. During slow-wave sleep, the cortex disconnects from other parts of the brain and concentrates on memory consolidation. The emergent properties of the sleeping brain are unpredictable. You could argue that the events of each day will alter the brain during sleep and a new person wakes in the morning.

From Neuroscience Notes by Stephen Gislason MD

Democracy and Control of Citizens

Democracy and control of Citizens

We have recognized that humans in groups larger than 150 require an external form of behavioral regulation that is ephemeral and must be renewed continuously. The invention and enforcement of rules occur within hierarchical organizations that, by their own nature are autocratic and self-serving. Citizens living in democracies must prevent subgroups with vested interests from achieving control over critical functions such as the money supply, police, courts and military forces. Subgroups are always competing for resources and control so that the freedom promised in an ideal democracy cannot be considered stable and enduring. The preservation of democracies requires an energetic and well educated population of activists who are prepared to defend freedoms and privileges on a daily basis. The preservation of freedom in democracies also depends on a well educated and dedicated population of civil servants who can administer complex infrastructures competently and honestly.

Elected politicians are seldom competent administrators and must depend on senior civil servants for management skills. One weakness of democratic governments is that personnel and policies are in constant flux because of the instability of political processes. This weakness is also strength since truly democratic elections can shuffle the deck so that power bases, among both elected official and civil servants are disrupted at regular intervals. The trade-off is less competent administration in favor of less dictatorial government. The greater evil is clearly the emergence of a powerful government that assumes dictatorial powers and cannot be opposed or displaced. 

Another weakness is that governments grow large and unmanageable. Bureaucratic inefficiency, indifference and incompetence is well known and tolerated only because there is no obvious alternative. In Canada, optimism and idealism is sometimes expressed as compassion for refugees and a willingness to welcome immigrants from all over the world. While the result has been mostly positive, newcomers are sometimes hostile to Canadian culture, disregard laws, engage in criminal activity and dream of taking over the country sometime in the future. Group identity and affiliations established early in life tend to endure and will often override later alliances established after immigration. The tendency in Canada is for immigrant groups to maintain their native language and traditions and to resist assimilation into Canadian culture. A host society has limited capacity to assimilate newcomers. When this capacity is exceeded, the newcomers change the society more that the society changes the newcomers.

Canada, like the USA and many European countries has become mosaic of different ethnic groups with the separate, sometimes incompatible, traditions, languages, beliefs, values and goals.

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

Virtual Realty , Smart Phones, Internet Addiction

 Virtual Reality, Smart Phones, Internet Addiction

Electronic machines have a strong appeal and create new possibilities for users. Children adapt quickly to video games and hand held devices that beep, display characters and images. Hand-eye coordination skills develop quickly. Some children display astonishing speed interacting with video games but become frantic and robotic in this connection with electronic virtual reality. You can argue that electronic games are perverse machines since they occupy time and attention in a virtual reality that might be better spent enjoying and cultivating the real world. Television has been declared a perverse machine for the same reason – a virtual reality replaces the real world and sedentary viewers may become fat, sick and confused.

No Education in Video Games

Lewin observed that:’ New media products for babies, toddlers and preschoolers began flooding the market in the late 1990's, starting with video series like "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby." But now, the young children's market has exploded into a host of new and more elaborate electronics for pre-schoolers, including video game consoles like the V. Smile and handheld game systems like the Leapster, all marketed as educational. Despite the commercial success, though, a report released yesterday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, "A Teacher in the Living Room? Educational Media for Babies, Toddlers and Pre-schoolers," indicates there is little understanding of how the new media affect young children - and almost no research to support the idea that they are educational… In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended no screen time at all for babies under 2, out of concern that the increasing use of media might displace human interaction and impede the crucially important brain growth and development of a baby's first two years. “
The growing dependence on smart phones and video games among teenagers and young adults is a very destructive trend in human development supported by a rapidly expanding multibillion dollar commerce. 

Dougherty reviewed some of the current trends (2016): “In a recent survey by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research group, half of teenagers said they watched TV while doing their homework, while 60 percent said they texted and three-quarters said they listened to music. About three-quarters of United States teenagers have access to a mobile phone, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Most go online daily and about a quarter of them use the Internet “almost constantly. Those numbers have created a growing advertising market and fortunes for apps like Snapchat and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. This year companies are projected to spend $30 billion on in-app advertising in the United States, roughly double what they spent in 2014, according to eMarketer, a research company. But even though these services all have the same core functions — find friends, post pictures, send messages — teenagers juggle them constantly, developing arcane customs for what to post where and ditching one app for another the moment it becomes uncool. To manage their identities in and obligations to this world in their pockets, they adhere to rules that have somehow been absorbed and adopted by their peers. App makers fear this kind of juggling the way TV networks fear DVRs. Each time someone leaves one app for another, there is a chance that user will never come back. And since apps make money only when users are plugged in and absorbing ads, the number of monthly users is less important than how many users they get each day — and how long they stay.” (Conor Dougherty. App Makers Reach Out to the Teenager on Mobile NYT Jan. 1, 2016)

High Tech Stupidity

The real question is what humans really want? A better real world is a good answer. A better real world would be more natural, cleaner, safer, and more stable. A better world might be achieved, but not by the people who are preoccupied watching TV and playing videogames. Children are not well-served by television, movies, video games and games played with computers. Good parents face an increasing task of limiting virtual reality experiences and keeping children in the real world. While considerable effort has been made to rate television shows and movies and a few parents restrict access to violence and sex shows, the average child is hooked on virtual reality, is physically inactive, gaining weight, and not gaining a useful perspective on what is really going on out there in the real world.

The term virtual refers to the replacement of a real person or event with a substitute. "Virtual reality" has come to mean a computer-generated environment that is a facsimile of a real environment. You can create the illusion that you are walking around in a room by displaying pictures on a computer monitor and computer games routinely simulate three dimensions in two. If you wear the visual display as wrap around goggles, you can improve on the visual experience of a three-dimensional space, but the display is far from convincing. Movies often create virtual realities and virtual characters are proliferating.
Loose talk, fantasy, paranoia, violence and terror have become commonplace in movie and television plots that place computers and robots at the center of some fantasized machine takeover of the world. The people who write these scripts apparently do not understand computers very well and understand the intelligence of living creatures even less. A realist will note that there are no independently intelligent machines and there are no prospects for "intelligent machines" except in some vague fantasy. The only intelligence found in machines is human intelligence put there by people who design and program the machines.
Computer generated "virtual realities" are limited and limiting but there is increasing evidence that at least some children prefer these virtual realities (VR) and withdraw increasingly from the real world (RW) if they have a choice. In VR you try to create a hermetic world that is more predictable and mostly under your control.

Every environment that humans build is a step in the direction of creating an ultimate virtual reality. The living room equipped with drapes and a television set with remote controller is the most common virtual reality machine. You close the drapes to tune out the real world; with remote controller in hand, in the tradition of the most powerful person in the universe, tune into the virtual reality of videospace. With the push of a few buttons, you can skim the video envelope surrounding planet earth and adjust the picture and volume to your liking. What you experience is another matter.

Videospace is full of gossip, fantasy, noise, confusion and violence. The worst of human behavior seems to receive the most attention. While it is challenging to exaggerate human perversity that actually exists in the RW, television VR programs often succeed. Perversity is amplified, exaggerated and sustained beyond any reasonable notion of entertainment or artistic license. You can argue that humans are unrealistic about all the virtual realties they create. Illusions of security and comfort are routinely accepted even when a VR is manifestly dangerous. The car is a virtual reality machine. Inside a new luxury automobile you are in a dream space; you feel comfortable, secure and in control. A new car is hermetic and the designers have thought of many comforts and conveniences.

You carry this sense of hermetic perfection with you as your drive and may not comprehend that in 60 seconds your luxury vehicle could be transformed into a pile of rubble and you could be seriously injured or dead. Children are notably unrealistic about the dangers of driving cars. If they are trained on virtual cars in video space, they will become dangerous drivers. You could argue that they will develop superior hand-eye coordination and should be technically better drivers, but the flaw is that they have no sense of how the real world operates, have practiced aggressive and dangerous driving and have poor judgment about the hazards they face and the hazards they impose on others.\

Teaching Violence with Videogames

Bob Hebert, wrote in a New York Times review :” I do think that millions of American adults have lost all sense of what are appropriate forms of play for children and teenagers. And the country as a whole behaves as though there is no real-world price to pay for a culture that has so thoroughly desensitized us to violence that it takes a terror attack or a series of suburban sniper killings to really get our attention… The biggest-selling video game over the last couple of years has been a PlayStation 2 game called Grand Theft Auto III. It actually carries a voluntary "M" rating, which means it's not recommended for kids under 17. But teens have no problem buying "M"-rated games, and they love the various incarnations of Grand Theft Auto. This is a game in which all boundaries of civilized behavior have vanished. You get to shoot whomever you want, including cops. You get to beat women to death with baseball bats. You get to have sex with prostitutes and then kill them. (And get your money back.) The game is a phenomenal seller. At close to $50 each, millions of copies are sold annually. The latest version, Grand Theft Auto, Vice City, is expected to be one of the biggest sellers this Christmas…”

The curious aspect of future technology fears and fantasies is that all the problems in the real world are sometimes discussed and then ignored. Even the most advanced countries today have aging infrastructures, ready to collapse at any moment. We are dependent on machines that depend on aging infrastructures that are inadequate in the best case. Electricity, telephone, cable communications and the internet are carried by wires on poles that fall down easily, pushed by a little wind or shaken by earth tremors. Even if TV networks keep broadcasting, viewers may not have enough clean water to drink or food to eat.
While we do not need space exploration, we need better technology to build a more stable and friendly infrastructure close to home. Parents must ask: What do children really want? Do they want more distraction and entertainment in virtual reality or do they want a real life in the real and healthy world?

The problems of bad food and eating excesses are embedded in the virtual reality of television and all other marketing media. The supermarket is a virtual reality that presents real food along with packaged, processed and junk foods. Again parents are confused and easily lose perspective on what is the correct food to feed children. Children, of course, responding to television advertising and store displays, demand and usually receive the wrong foods. I think it is necessary for parents to fully comprehend the two pronged assault on their children’s well-being; bad information and bad chemicals combine to produce disturbed or sick children. Normal is not normal.

Lewin, T. See Baby Touch a Screen but Does Baby Get It? New York Times. December 15, 2005. Hebert,B. The Gift of Mayhem. New York Times. Nov 28 2002.

From Surviving Human Nature    By Stephen Gislason