Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Free Will and Neuropeptides

I'm stuck in a mental vortex because I have to fly out-of-town today. My running joke is that I have to be careful in the airport restrooms to avoid getting bothered by creepy Republican senators.

I can't start any serious work, nor can I do nothing at all. So, am I a victim of circumstances concerning my state of mind? I wish I could absolve responsibility and somehow push the issue back to the set of externals and maybe my genes, but that would be a bit rash.

I ask that rhetorically, however, because it is an issue that arises in an article in The Psychiatric Times called Hume's Fork and Psychiatry's Explanations: Determinism and the Dimensions of Freedom. In the article, the author posits the discovery of a neuropeptide called "assaultin" that is coded by the gene, BAD2U. When assaultin is injected into the cerebrospinal fluid of human subjects, 65% become dangerous and attack others. Now the 35% don't become assaultive because they use some kind of impulse control mantra that can also be taught to the others.

The author uses this framework to build a contingency-based theory of free will and promises to develop a legal framework in subsequent articles. Overall, he suggests a continuum of responsibility that needs to be reflected in the relative strength of punishments and treatments that should be applied to people.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Totalism and Liberalism

Mark Lilla's exceptional piece, The Politics of God, in New York Times paints an historical analysis that has Hobbes front and center in refashioning the Will of God as a political force into a belief that fear is the driver of men's wills and that alleviating fear can bring about peace. Lilla carries forward through Locke and coins "Great Separation" to describe the forceps that pried apart theocratic impulses and political philosophy, echoing Jefferson's Wall of Separation that would come to America.

Strangely, he says of the American experiment that "It's a miracle" that our institutions have held fast against tides of cultural opposition that have desired to refashion liberal, secular democracy with messianic drivers. But I don't think so. There were several unique starting conditions that were essential to American success. There was the lack of existing institutions in the New World combined with the diverse religious character of the early immigrants themselves. This washed over into a unique opportunity to create governance completely anew and in a way that trusted no one and no higher authority. And the preservation of the system during the initial 90 years was derived from a shared belief in the value of institutions, themselves, arising from Northern European sensibilities about order, only crashing mightily during the Civil War but surviving and thriving by dint of Lincoln's victory.

Overlooked, too, is the impact of geography, with America just too far from our allies and enemies for any state to have too great an impact on America's development of an independent strain of morality that verbally holds fast to religious principles but in action subjugates them to secular law.

It's interesting that Lilla begins with a discussion of the letter to Bush by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wherein he claims that liberalism and democracy have failed, and the failure is that they apparently do not provide the kind of totalism that the Iranian president thinks is essential to human existence, with a unification of God's will with that of man. To me, there is no effective answer to that except in Bertrand Russell's notion that contingency is the essential aspect of the liberal mind and the reflexive desire to build ever stronger walls between the liberal and the illiberal.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Moore and Semantic Skepticism

Strange, I found the Paglia essay interpenetrating all of my thoughts over the past few days, dredging up language swarms from old Derrida and Feyeraband essays, and dipping over into my work on disambiguation and ontology. See, linguistics-wise, I was once an empiricist with an almost palpable antagonism to the value of knowledge resources like ontologies in solving specific problems. I would reach first for a statistical model that was trained on the contexts of word occurrences, expecting that words can only be known by the company that they keep.

Even the notion that the Semantic Web can achieve any level of crispness in assigning metadata to online content was doubtful in that it was inherently impossible for content authors to assign metadata consistently. The position is postmodern relativism, if you will, derived from the same kind of semantic and pragmatic arguments that have been used to deconstruct machine learning: do I translate this as "terrorist" or "freedom fighter"? Well, what is your frame of reference? What is your meta-narrative?

A radical position is the folksonomy view that folks are themselves are the best determiners of how to tag metadata. In this view, they use whatever tags seem appropriate based on their own intuitions about the content. But does this get us around the Bono issue, below? Unlikely. It seems more appropriate to purely abstract and controversial concepts like "terrorist" or "justice".

So I think we need a gradation of semantic forms that range from relatively simple propositions about identity up through propositions about meaning and intent. The latter are purely Wittgensteinian word games, with agreement and disagreement strewn across the symbol space, but the former have lower average rates of disagreement over referential attachment.

This parallels the notion of post-postmodernism in a way, by accepting fluidity and chaotic symbol/signifier interactions but still anticipating a useful and uncontroversial basis for facts. G.E. Moore would raise his hand in salute.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Paglia and Reconstructionism

A few things I've read lately:

Camille Paglia's Religion and the Arts in America from Arion (cross-pollinated from 3QuarksDaily)

Pioch et. al.'s A Link and Group Analysis Toolkit (LGAT) for Intelligence Analysis (scary, huh?)

Malcolm Gladwell's The Moral Hazard Myth from The New Yorker

Wikipedia on the Casimir Effect

Paglia's speech at Colorado College was especially interesting. Her central thesis is that the role of religion in the arts in America has been sidelined into pure identity and narrow partisan politics which only reinforce antagonism from the Conservative Right. The end result has been the strangling of arts funding from government sources though she points out that no one in the avant-garde should accept government funding anyway. In some ways she echoes an Allan Bloom in decrying "sterile and now fading poststructuralism and postmodernism." Like Bloom, she sees a vacuum created in deconstructing traditional notions of values and aesthetic criteria. Like Bloom, she longs for something more powerful, more lively.

But her answer is, in part, to reinvigorate the arts through a re-examination of the spiritual roots that underlay so much traditional art, from spiritual hymns to rock to rap. In that, I think she misses one of the crowning achievements of our civilization even while she points out how technology is the most current creation of "American genius." Is it the failure of the arts and humanities to embrace materialism, science and technology as a central facet of modern life that leaves us in this condition of limitations and craven ennui?

Even while I read about the Casimir effect and try to imagine some of the most abstract and beautiful ideas ever conceived of--that vacuum itself is pervaded by energetic influences and zero point energy--Paglia thinks polyphonic differences between Calvinist and Lutheran hymns are a source of inspiration. Even while I imagine the subtle mathematics of group dynamic evolution using sophisticated achievements in graph theory, Paglia ponders the political implications of Madonna images festooned with elephant crap.

Why isn't rationality and all that it has achieved the greatest source for artistic inspiration in modernity? These are not sterile thoughts at all, but stunning achievements that have changed human existence more than all the stained glass in all of history.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Swarms and Social Cybernetics

David Sloan Wilson, in his spectacular Darwin's Cathedral, does an in-depth analysis of Korean-American Christian Churches in the Houston area. Newly arriving immigrants, some with only a few hundred dollars in their pockets, use the church as a transitional community asset that supports them through jobs, business development, loans and other benefits. Many second generation children complain that their parents have only the church and other church members as their community, even after twenty or thirty years.

Wilson's analysis also points to some of the relatively simple mechanisms that are used to try to keep church members actively involved. Every Sunday, for instance, there is a flier placed in mail boxes assigned to each member. After the service, the church staff contacts any parishioners who failed to pick-up their flier, giving them a clear attendance record.

Wilson never uses the term "cybernetic" to describe the pushes and pulls that are needed to keep a community actively engaged, especially communities that expect tithes and human capital, but that was the term that kept popping up as I read through his slim manifesto. I visualized a swarm of points in space orbiting each other in close formation. Occasionally a point would break away and start to orbit into another group, only to be pulled back to the original center of gravity by attractive forces (incentives) combined with shame forces (disincentives). The steam governor at work in sociology. The tighter knit or more extreme the ideas, the stronger those attractive forces.

A New York Times article shared similar thoughts. In it, a Harvard Law prof went through a Conservative Jewish Yeshiva and went on to a do great things. When he went back to a wedding of an old friend from school, the subsequent wedding photos did not show him. He had been literally erased from the photos. The reason: he had been accompanied by an Asian American girlfriend. The motivation was to remove the record of his failure to abide the expected rules, thereby both shaming him and eliminating any temptation for other young men who might see the photo and start thinking outside the Hassidic box, so to speak. Defeating free thinking and Hellenism prevented assimilation once. Defeating Asian chicks is a comparatively minor self-correction.

But could such qualitative social forces as shame and sense of belonging be given a quantitative reality that helps describe the rate of change of social and religious groups over time? We might be able to use group membership counts and look at correlations between the subjective opinions of group members as to the attitudes of other group members as a proxy for the cohesion mechanisms or memes in the group. Wilson does a bit of this when he reviews a survey of the orthodoxy of different religious groups as gauged by a random sample of religious scholars.