Mindapps

Mindapps is a book by Thomas B. Roberts, PhD, professor emeritus of Northern Illinois University, published this month by Park Street Press of Rochester, Vermont. Subtitled Multistate Theory and Tools for Mind Design, it is enthusiastically praised in a foreword by James Fadiman, PhD, author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide and teacher at the “Institute of Transpersonal Psychology” in California. There are also many blurbs and positive quotes from those engaged in the field of psychedelic studies, and evidently Professor Roberts commands the respect of his peers working in this interesting and unconventional area.

A concern however arises from the reputation of his publisher, located well beyond the mainstream of scientific thought, describing itself as “a publisher & online retailer of books on new age spirituality, the occult, ancient mysteries, new science, holistic health & more!”

Roberts explains his concept as being analogous to installing digital apps on our electronic devices, so can we construct “mindapps” and install them in our mind-brain complex. “Just as digital apps add capabilities to our devices, mindapps can expand our mental powers and creative abilities, allowing us to intentionally redesign our minds.”

Psychological jargon is employed throughout and new coinages surface, such as “metaintelligence” and “cognitive qualia.” The overall flavour is somewhat grandiose, even oxymoronic, as in quoting a source called “empirical metaphysics.” A “map of the mind” from another source is presented, resembling an updating of Freud’s old concept of id-ego-superego division.

Pervasive references to LSD as a “mindapp” reveal the conviction of the author of having perceived significant insights from his personal experiences with this substance. I thought of my psychiatry professor in medical school who, when asked whether he had tried LSD and whether he had any insights, replied that though he had experienced many insights during the session, the following day he realized they all were trivial.

Such has also been my personal view about psychedelics, as well as that of colleagues and friends who used these agents when they were first discovered a half century ago: insights yes, but only trivial ones. Roberts tellingly quotes an admonition from one source, admitting that “the sometimes overwhelming sense of truthful insight during sessions makes us susceptible to unbridled enthusiasm for our own ideas,”

One cannot deny the sincerity and intelligence of the author, but his ideas being promoted by a publisher noted for its array of pseudoscientific and “new-age” claptrap mitigate against them being taken seriously by scholars beyond those who already are confirmed psychedelic enthusiasts. He needs to address a wider audience beyond those who already share his interest in this fascinating area.

June 19, 2019

Pseudoscience

I recently received a 52 page glossy brochure from an American publishing company based in a small town in Vermont, featuring a variety of books devoted to arcane subjects such as “Advanced Civilizations in Prehistory,” “Healing Crystals,” “The Hermetic Science of Transformation,” “Ascending with the Higher Angelic Realms,” “Sex Shamans,” and other topics of that ilk.

Biographical sketches of the authors of these texts make fascinating reading, with claims of expertise by virtue of quasi-academic training, often in some legitimate field of science, represented by their professional credentials, enhancing the assertion of legitimacy by appending Ph. D., Ed.D., M.D. to their names.

Lesser known abbreviations like L.A. M.Ac., CFMP, CSTeen, and CLF, are amassed by one author described as “an internationally recognized authority on autoimmunity, functional blood chemistry analysis, thyroid and gut health, food as medicine, integrating mind, body, and spirit in health care, with more than 22 years of experience, education, and wisdom to empower you to heal on all levels.”

Another author claiming to be “a medical doctor with a background in physics” was described as conducting research on the mind-matter continuum, presenting his findings in peer-reviewed scientific papers and at international scientific conferences. “Drawing on his work as one of the leading experts on the Shroud of Turin as well as research by scientists from NASA and Los Alamos, he shows how the image on the Shroud could only have been produced by a flash of light as intense as a nuclear explosion — a burst of light that occurred after the body was in the tomb. Sharing medical evidence of consciousness in people declared clinically dead, the author shows how the light of consciousness evidenced by the Shroud is also a consistent feature of most near-death experiences.”

Legitimate scientists and physicians see no need to promote themselves by advertising their credentials and find it undignified and unnecessary to do so. Books by Stephen Hawking or Oliver Sacks do not require their authors to be legitimized by appending Ph.D. or M.D. to their names.

As PT Barnum observed, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Promising relief from the ordinary concerns of living by impressive sounding practices like those espoused by the authors in these publications has always been a lucrative business. “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public” was another gem of wisdom from Barnum, revealing of not just an American but a general human tendency to seek solutions to life’s problems from sources promising relief that portray themselves as curative.

Is anyone interested in purchasing a vial of genuine Canadian Snake Oil?

June 18, 2019

Tu Fu

Little was accomplished in Europe during the so-called “dark ages” between the fall of the Roman Empire and the intellectual and artistic reawakening associated with the renaissance, as far to the east the Tang Dynasty in China spanned the 7th to 10th centuries CE. The Tang is regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization, a golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Last year I wrote about the peculiar problems in translating into English VIII century Chinese poetry in a discussion of Wang Wei (699–759), from the book Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated (Weinberger, Eliot, and Octavio Paz,1987).

The Wang Wei book consists of a close discussion of many different possible translations of a single short poem, mostly into English, but also some in Spanish, German, and French. Tu Fu (712-770 BCE), another celebrated Tang Dynasty poet, is represented in a collection by scholar David Hawkes from Oxford University Press in 1967, Á Little Primer of Tu Fu.

The Hawkes collection consists of 35 different poems, each one with the original Chinese text in modern Mandarin characters along with the pinyin transliteration. Accompanying each poem is a commentary on the subject, a discussion of the formal structure of the verse in terms of meter and rhyme, the historical background, and exegesis of every individual line. At the conclusion of this close examination Hawkes offers his colloquial translation of the content.

The poems themselves of Tu Fu range in content from reflections on a mountain view, songs of particular vignettes such as passing army carts, paintings of horses, images of court officials, dress styles of women, dream content, a range of human emotions, all contributing to a vast word-picture of the culture and values of this sophisticated and wealthy society in east Asia, when the west of the continent was populated by illiterate barbarian tribes living in hovels.

In his introduction the author commented that he wrote the book “to give some idea of what Chinese poetry is really like and how it works to people who either know no Chinese at all or know only a little . . . it is my ardent hope that a reader who is patient enough to work his way through to the end of the book will, by the time he reaches it, have learned something about the Chinese language, something about Chinese poetry, and something about the poet Tu Fu.”

With a non-alphabetic script and a linguistic tradition extending back continuously some 3500 years from the present day, this is more than a just a selection of ancient poetry from a different culture: it is a vast panoply of human creation, reminiscent of the paintings of Bruegel the Elder, in words and thoughts rather than visual images. David Hawkes has done us all a favour in providing this key to unlock a great flowering of human civilization in a society so far removed in both time and space from our own.

June 5, 2019

Speaking vs Writing

Lane Greene writes the Johnson column about language for The Economist and recently penned Talk on the Wild Side, a rant attacking “linguistic purists ” who maintain the English language needs to be “protected” against those who would debase its elegance by using non-standard grammar and usage. An obvious target of his outrage may be found in The Elements of Style (1935), the classic guide to writing by Strunk and Tenney, which has been through many editions since that time. The current copy before me is the fourth edition, (2000, 1979) with E.B. White as co-author.

Though never a professional writer apart from a few months working as a journalist for an American news agency in South America over sixty years ago, I once edited a journal for medical students at university, and later for many years as a psychiatrist wrote medical histories, along with journal articles, book reviews, and even some attempts at humour.

The initial chapters of The Elements of Style are straightforward and clear about the nuts and bolts of forming possessives, use of punctuation, parenthetic expressions, pronoun usage and so on. The second section is devoted to the “elementary principles of composition” with recommendations about design and structure, formation of paragraphs, summaries, and placement of emphasis and the third section addresses “matters of form” such as headings, use of colloquialisms, margins, numeral placement, quotations, references, and titles. Again, the object is that of clear written communication in a published work.

In the fourth section the authors become more concerned with “what is correct,” or considered acceptable in the use of English. Here the focus is more clearly restrictive than descriptive, suggesting a matter more of taste than of rigid order, and “correctness” is emphasized with a series of “improper” examples of “common misuse,” illustrating the point of Lane Greene in his Talk on the Wild Side, where he deplores those “fuddy-duddies” who promote the “correct” usage of the English language.

But Greene is specifying the difference between written and spoken English, that unlike Latin, is a living language. Speech inevitably insinuates itself into writing, as evident in reading citations of spoken words by politicians and others in the media. For example, future tense may be indicated by new modal verbs like “wanna” and “gonna” that become contractions for”want to” and “going to,” as in “Do you wanna have another beer? I’m gonna have one.”

France is notorious for its Académie française to invigilate (and unsuccessfully regulate) the purity of the French language, but we have no such body in English, which will no doubt continue to expand as a living language, both spoken and written, whether language purists like it or not.

May 25, 2019

From Presocratics to Quantum Mechanics

The earliest recorded attempts to explain the nature of the physical world are usually attributed to VI BCE Greek philosophers like Thales of Miletus, who speculated that matter was initially formed from water. In the following century the Greek Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 BCE) suggested small indivisible particles or “atoms” to be the basis of all matter. Prior to the VI BCE, Buddhist atomism in India also described an atomism, earlier than the Greek presocratics, but ancient China recognized no basic units of matter.

Greek ideas in science were preserved in Arab libraries during the dark ages while the European intellectual world was smothered by supernatural religious dogma. The discovery and translation of Aristotle and other Greek documents led to a renewed interest in the nature of the material world and the eventual rebirth of atomism.

By the end of the XIX century, classical mechanics as first developed by Newton appeared to fully describe the universe with the motion of physical objects, accompanied by  Maxwell’s equations unifying electricity, magnetism and light.

Once the atom was found not to be indivisible, subatomic particles were found leading to laws governing their behaviour beyond the earlier classical mechanics, describing how subatomic matter can be described in small units or”quanta.” During three decades at the beginning of the XX century this new theory of quantum mechanics was elaborated . A basic equation was formulated by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, from which the rest of the system could be derived. What this equation describes however is not something tangible, but rather a “waveform of probability” that allows one to accurately predict experimental results.

So far so good. But there were conceptual problems, for the logical consequences of Schrödinger’s equation led to paradoxical results when applied to systems operating beyond the small distances associated with atoms, such as Schrödinger’s famous cat in a sealed box being simultaneously dead and alive until the box is opened.

Over decades the apparent counterintuitive conflict between classical and quantum mechanics appears to have been resolved by utilizing the concept of wave coherence and decoherence to derive the former from the more basic latter.

Thales of Miletus would no doubt be nonplussed by the suggestion that though fundamentally matter really does appear to consist of waves, not of water, but waves of probability.

For books helpful in understanding this subject: see Beyond Weird (2018) by science writer Philip Ball, who has a knack for making quantum concepts like superposition and entanglement understandable in only 354 pages; for a short historical overview in 25 pages of text, try Quantum Mechanics (2017) by theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, a Ladybird Expert Book.

May 21, 2019

Can Medicine be Cured?

This recent contribution to medical humanities by Irish physician Seamus O’Mahony (dramatically subtitled The Corruption of a Profession) identifies many frustrations in the practice of medicine arising from current medical care provision and the hopes and needs of those receiving it. Although much of his criticism is related to Ireland and the NHS system in the UK, it is also relevant to other developed countries.

Unlike in our species past, most of the diseases that kill us now are associated with aging, and as the body wears out, much of the work of family physicians is related to helping their patients cope with the stress and distress involved in reconciling to this. “Only in the XX century did we (at least those of us living in rich countries) decide that the inevitable vicissitudes of living should be reconfigured as medical problems.”

Trained as a gastroenterologist, O’Mahony reviews how the “worried well” respond to perceived threats to their health, leading to the marketing of “free-from” food products, and are willing to pay extra for them because of self-diagnosed food intolerance. The pseudo-disease of “non-coeliac gluten sensitivity” is discussed in detail as an example of commercial exploitation of human gullibility.

Another bugbear of the author is “awareness-raising,” a ploy described as dear to the medical-industrial complex. Patient support groups tend to be dominated by single-issue extremists. He particularly singles out mental health awareness week: “We should stop the awareness now. In fact, if anything, we might be getting too aware, the ordinary struggles with life problems becoming rebranded as psychopathologies.” A huge commercial market in “complimentary health services” is provided by non-medical practitioners such as naturopaths, who take time to listen to complaints presented by hypochondriacs.

Drug companies are always happy to proclaim any possibility of symptom relief and relentlessly promote their products on an individual basis to doctors as well as at exhibitions in medical conferences. As more and more screening programmes are initiated for the apparently healthy, frail elderly people may await “bed availability” in hospital or a community care facility. Meanwhile hospices rely on charity and fund-raising events.

O’Mahony cites Ivan Illich, who argued in 1975 that the medicalization in recent decades of so many of life’s vicissitudes—birth and death, for example—frequently caused more harm than good, and rendered many people in effect lifelong patients. Illich noted that the more medical services given a population, the greater becomes their demand for care. This care must be rationed, and rational scepticism is necessary for the practice of medicine to be compassionate.

In sum,”We should simply try to make the conditions of human life more bearable.”

May 19, 2019

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Greed

On 18 May 1986 stockbroker Ivan Boesky famously defended greed in a commencement address at the UC Berkeley’s School of Business Administration, in which he averred, “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself”.

Practicing what he preached, he later received a prison sentence of ​3 1⁄2 years, and was fined US$100 million for illegal marketing of stocks.

Boesky’s assertion had its roots in the well known opinion of the XVIII century Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith, who described those engaging in selfishness as being led by an “invisible hand” and benefitting others. Even so, Smith admitted that profit-earners “have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public,” and notes that government should enact legislation to control profiteering, as happened in the case of Boesky.

Greed, an undue desire to acquire or possess more than one needs, appears to be a persistent human trait, not limited to issues of only political economy, and manifested throughout history since at least the VIII century BCE in the myth of King Midas , who was magically cursed by all he touched turning into gold.

The destabilizing and negative personal consequences of greed are implied in the warning of St. Paul in the New Testament, writing in his first letter to Timothy “. . . those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils . . .”

Laura E. Alexander, an American scholar in the field of Religious Studies, cites theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in attributing human anxiety as one possible source of greed, arising from existential anxiety associated with the conscious awareness of limitations inherent in the human condition, leading to a drive to attain certainty by hoarding. But then we inevitably end up harming others in an insatiable quest to amass more for ourselves.

We see normalization of greed in the proliferation of “business schools”, pseudo-academic degree-awarding institutions usually associated with legitimate universities, and often endowed by wealthy philanthropists. These “MBA mills” are devoted to teaching students how to make profits, are intellectually fraudulent, and foster a culture of greed. Their message is that capitalism is inevitable, and the technologies for running it are a “science.”

Adam Smith was aware that wages tend to be minimized in order to maximize profit, and felt that endless growth would be the only alternative to endless poverty. We now know that a consequence of this will be the destruction of the environment with global warming, accompanied by the collapse of civilization.

May 14, 2019