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I am a retired academic, comfortable and content. I live with my wife (Shirley) in a semi-rural area about 50 miles northwest of Atlanta. I have two adult sons and two grandsons. I took up exploration of the spiritual side of life as my retirement activity because of some noetic experiences that I had earlier in my life. I have been meditating regularly since 2010. I've done retreats based in Theravada Buddhism, Tantrik Yoga and Kriya Yoga. I have read a good bit of spiritual literature written, for the most part, by current practitioners and teachers.

Speculation About Transgender Conditions

[Note: I use transgender in a broad sense and do not limit the term to persons who transition physically into the binary alternative to their assignment at birth (bodily sex). Personally, I make a distinction between sex identity (biological basis), gender identity (requires a biological basis but is largely socio-cultural) and sexual orientation (biological basis). I consider each to be a separate factor in every individual, in whole or part. I also consider these factors to be variable and interactive producing a wide range of outcomes. While some outcomes are atypical relative to the norm, I consider all to be natural outcomes.]

          Incidence data suggests that transgender (TG) conditions have a wider occurrence in males than in females and this post will be largely focused on TG in males. I do not intend to dismiss TG in females, I am simply trying to keep the level of complexity in this piece manageable. Demonstrating biological factors in TG people is unlikely. Such a definitive answer would require experimental research on humans, which would be unethical to perform. Further, a human subjects review board would never allow it even if some scientist or group of scientists had no ethical qualms about performing the research. An animal alternative will not provide a definitive answer because animals aren’t human beings and generalization from animal studies to humans will always be open to challenge, especially in something as unique as human sexual and gender identity.

What is left then? I would suggest that the next best thing to controlled, experiments on humans is what’s often called a natural experiment. These are unplanned, unintentional events that often provide a source of data that would otherwise simply never be available.

For example, there is the case of David Reimer. Reimer was born a male along with a twin brother. Shortly thereafter, the two brothers were taken for circumcisions. The operation on David was badly botched. After consulting with “experts” on sex and development, David’s parents decided to have him surgically modified to be structurally female. From that point on he was reared as a girl and was on estrogen therapy appropriate to developmental needs. At an early age David began resisting his status as a girl and insisted that he was a boy. By the time that s/he reached the age of 14, the parents gave up and explained what had actually happened. From that point forward, David did everything that was within his power to reverse what had been done to him. He subsequently took the name David and lived as a man. Unfortunately, David ended his own life at age 38 (more here). There are apparently a number of such failed natural experiments, but David Reimer is the best known because he decided to allow all the details of his case to be made public.

What this natural experiment clearly suggests is that there is no significant socio-cultural contribution to sex identity. You cannot have a cleaner test of the socio-cultural hypothesis than a young child surgically modified to conform to external female morphology, socialized during childhood as a girl and given estrogen therapy at puberty. Even if one argues that the parents weren’t fully committed to the path they had chosen, the influences marshaled to affect a change in sex identity were far greater than can be imagined under any set of typical childhood circumstances. The likelihood that the parents weren’t fully committed to making this natural experiment a success seems remote. They were convinced that it was possible by doctors who were supposed to know about these things. They chose to embark on the recommended course of treatment. A treatment that for all practical purposes was irreversible once the surgical procedures to remove the male testes and modify the genitalia was completed. They, no doubt, gave the project their best effort knowing that there was no going back. It just didn’t take.

Another natural experiment that has a bearing on some of the issues is that of individuals with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) [more here]. The bodily cells in these individuals do not have receptors for testosterone and do not respond to the hormone. The default morphology in such cases is female. When this occurs in a male fetus, the outcome is a child that is genetically XY or male and whose external morphology is female. Such individuals do not, however, have the internal female reproductive organs. In other words, a male genotype and a female phenotype, at least in most observable respects.

Individuals with CAIS are reared as girls and the parents and the child are often unaware of the presence of the condition until puberty. Many of these individuals do suffer psychological issues when they become aware of their condition but they do not grow up thinking they are male. Further, they almost invariably live as women and follow a typical female life course. They are sexually oriented toward men and usually marry. Many also become mothers and rear adopted children within their marriages. When there are other than temporary identity problems in these cases, they seem to be mostly accounted for by partial AIS (PAIS) in which the male child is born with deformed or incomplete genitalia. In such cases, the insensitivity to testosterone is not total. In some such cases, they may be surgically modified to be female depending on the status of the genitalia.

What this natural experiment suggests is that sexual identity is not a simple product of DNA or genes. The outcome in CAIS is, for all practical purposes, a woman with male genes. These genetic males have female physical features, female sexual identity and a female sexual orientation (i.e., toward males), which seems to be the human default condition. A cell biologist, Bruce Lipton, argues that DNA directly controls nothing and these cases appear to bear him out. Lipton argues that DNA is simply a blueprint for various proteins and that like any blueprint it is not self-activating. DNA in a cell’s nucleus must be turned on or activated before it will respond and produce a protein. What turns it on, according to Lipton, is a signal that is external to the cell. Such signals attach to a receptor on the surface of a cell and cue the cell to send a signal to the appropriate DNA sequence or gene in the cell’s nucleus to activate it. Testosterone clearly seems to be a signaling chemical that can activate sex related genes and modify some cellular functions. In the absence of the external signal, the genetic sex of a male remains unexpressed.

Sorting out the particulars and understanding the mechanisms and the variations may be possible by a careful study of natural experiments. The two types of cases discussed above seem to clearly rule out socio-cultural factors and simple genotype. The answer to the questions about TG in males will probably be found in exploring natural experiments that represent the middle ground between these two types of cases. It appears that the middle ground is probably formed by individuals with PAIS. What seems probable is that, at least, in TG males sex hormones are probably the external cues that activate genes related to sexual identity.

In TG males, testosterone production is adequate for activating the genes that modify the fetus to follow a male line of morphological development. However, at some point or points in development the fetus is either exposed to the wrong hormone, an inappropriate quantity of the correct or the absence of a hormone at a critical time. It seems likely that the critical function gone awry is related to signaling the neurons in the brain and feminizing the fetus’ brain. Several possibilities follow but do not represent an exhaustive list:

1.              The body fail to produce a sufficient quantity of the critical hormone during a critical period of brain development.

2.              Hormone production is adequate but enhanced, blocked or neutralized by some interfering chemical during a critical period of brain development.

3.              There is some interference with the sensitivity of the hormone receptors on neurons by an outside agent during a critical period of brain development.

4.              Hormone production is normal, there is no external agent interfering and the cell receptors are functioning normally but the timing of the hormone release must match closely with a critical period in brain development and the timing is off.

5.              Normally, there are additional surges of hormones in male babies perinatally or immediately postnatally. There might also be a failure of this late surge or variable levels of weakness in it that could affect brain development related to sexuality.

 In any of the proposals above, the outcome is likely to be variable depending on a variety of factors. The outcome could be the gestational default (female sexual identity) resulting in a transgender or transsexual condition. The outcome could also be only a partial conversion of the default female sexual identity to a male sex identity (mixed sexual identity) resulting in a range of TG associated outcomes.

The speculative hypothesis put forward here is that TG males arise from hormonal signaling gone awry. The errant signaling is likely to be related to testosterone, especially too little hormone or weak sensitivity to the hormone at the wrong time. It seems likely that the explanation for TG females might also be found to be related to errant testosterone signaling or receptor sensitivity that occurs too late in the gestation process to affect morphology but could still cause neurons to activate DNA with male sexual identity functions. It seems possible that TG males and females are due to errant androgen biology. In the former, this is probably due to a deficiency of some sort and in the latter probably due to an excess of some sort. It also seems likely that there would be fewer TG female outcomes simply because the default biology is female and should thereby be more robust and less susceptible to errant hormone signaling.

Genetic activation, to one degree or another, of biological sexual identity probably has some biologically based behavioral implications. There is some pretty clear evidence from evolutionary analysis that there are some basic differences in male and female reproductive strategies that lead to differences in behavioral styles. For a person who has some degree of sexual identity associated with the opposite sex, the greatest behavioral impact will be through socialization. Much of socialization takes place through social learning, which is observation based. The most critical factor in observational learning is attention to models. Thus, sexual identity might be considered an attention orienting variable. For example, a male with a female sexual identity, in whole or part, will to some degree be biologically oriented toward attending to female models. This is not unlike the priming that a fetus’s brain receives to focus attention on language models to facilitate acquisition of language in its developmental environment.

The content that makes for femininity or gender identity is largely socio-cultural and will vary by time and place. An individual with a focus of attention for female behavior will through observational or social learning acquire some degree of those behaviors and attitudes associated with the female models in his or her life. The strength of this biological orienting response will affect how strong or weak are the learning conditions. A further impact on the strength of the learning will be governed by whether or not the environment supports and reinforces the learning of feminine content. In the case of TG males, there often will be variability in the strength of sexual identity both for male and female aspects. This should result in variable degrees in the attention orienting response to both male and female models. Combine this with variability in the environmental support for or disapproval of attending to and imitating cross sex models and there exists the potential for a wide range of outcomes ranging from fantasy male femaling (to borrow a phrase from Richard Ekins) to medically orchestrated sex change, which in fact is what is seen in many TG males.

In sum, the hypothesis is that a male’s sense of sex identity is determined at the biological level and is related to hormonal signaling. When this signaling goes awry, TG males (and TG females) result. It seems likely that the errant signaling is related to much or to much androgen signaling at a critical time or selective cellular insensitivity to androgen signaling at a critical time or more generally. The degree to which the signaling goes awry accounts for different degrees of expression seen in actual TG males. That femininity and masculinity are learned expressions of gender identity is, no doubt, largely true. However, it is also proposed that the focus of attention needed to readily acquire expressions of gender through observational learning has a biological basis in one’s sense of sexual identity. Finally, attempts to socialize against one’s biological sense of sexual identity, as in the Reimer case, will be met with resistance and will likely fail.

My Most Challenging Unitarian Universalist Principle

Commentary on an essay by Richard S. Gilbert on UUA Principle Two: We affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Printed in With Purpose and Principle by Edward S. Frost (ed.).

          In opening, Reverend Gilbert offers us a bit of history for his discussion of Principle Two, including the focus on practical application of religious principles to daily life promoted by Faustus Socinus in the 16th century Minor Church of Poland; Ralph Emerson’s emphasis on deed over creed in the 19th century; and the contemporary appeal by Eugene Pickett “…to create heaven on earth.”

 Rev. Gilbert follows up on this introduction with a discussion of several concepts associated with Principle Two:

The essay defines compassion as shared suffering, which leads to empathy and finally to action. He goes on to ask, “How can we presume to understand our society without deep feelings of moral outrage at the pervasiveness of suffering and injustice?”

 As I discussed in an earlier piece, I think the development of social perspective taking leads to an expansion of empathy, which in turn engenders compassion. Compassion motivates an ego-free response, if any response is possible, toward the person for whom one feels compassion. I think that “moral outrage” is an emotionally motivated egotistic state that is incompatible with both empathy and compassion.

Personally, I don’t pretend to understand our society, which is the reflection of very complex, dynamic and organic processes. I suspect that Rev. Gilbert doesn’t understand it either. I think that he has certain beliefs about society through which he filters and construes his observations. While he doesn’t elaborate on what those beliefs are, they are no doubt the source for his emotional state of “moral outrage.”

The essay also offers us the position of David Williams that states, “We are joined together by a mystic oneness whose source we may never know, but whose reality we can never doubt…We are our neighbor’s keeper, because that neighbor is but our larger self…”

David Williams seems to be offering us a vision of a transcendent self that is merged in the unity of All That Is, which is similar to the unified field of consciousness that I have mentioned in previous talks. I would suggest that Williams’ perspective on caring for our neighbors grounded in the understanding that our neighbors and we are joined through the unity of transcendent consciousness is a firmer basis for compassionate action than “moral outrage.” Thus, I find it hard to reconcile “moral outrage” with “mystic oneness” and personally would find true compassion to be more likely to arise from the latter than the former.

 It seems to me that “moral outrage” must be against the alleged perpetrators of perceived injustice, which creates a dualism that is incompatible with the non-dualistic “mystic oneness” of David Williams. The “victim versus the perpetrator” struggle in Rev. Gilbert’s dualistic conception merges into transcendent unity in Williams’ non-dualistic conception. The former seeks victory of one over the other and the latter seeks reconciliation of differences. I would argue that the implications for actions arising from these two views are very different and makes this section of the essay a study in contradiction. Personally, compassion flowing from “mystic oneness” resonates better with me than “moral outrage.”

The essay states that equity is not equality but fairness. Rev. Gilbert then asserts that equity is the measuring rod for social justice and that social justice demands that society improve the conditions of its impoverished and call into question the corruption of its affluent. He asks, “How does one allocate resources and by what criteria in a free society?”

 I think it is important to understand the term “fair” since this is the core meaning of equity in Rev. Gilbert’s definition of the term. According to the dictionary, the primary meaning of “fair” is “free of bias or dishonesty;” and the secondary meaning is “proper according to the rules.” Of course rules can be or not be biased or dishonest so I’ll focus on the primary meaning. Bias in a negative sense implies that a rule is constructed in such a way that it arbitrarily favors one person over another person.

For example, a law prohibiting someone from using a public water fountain because of their skin color is not fair or equitable because it is based on an arbitrary characteristic of the person. On the other hand, prohibiting someone from using a public water fountain because they have a communicable disease that can reasonably be expected to be transmitted through use of the water fountain would be fair and not an arbitrary bias. Thus, the issue is not bias per se but arbitrary bias or arbitrary discrimination. I would suggest that “dishonesty” is simply another way of saying “arbitrary bias.”

 We can conclude then that justice requires that the rules or laws in a community, state or nation should be equitable, that is, free of arbitrary bias. Indeed, one of the primary meanings of justice is the quality of being equitable and one of the secondary meanings is that of lawfulness; that is, justice requires laws free of arbitrary bias both in wording and in enforcement.

 The notion of “social justice” is peculiar given the understanding of justice just arrived at. Justice could of necessity only be reflected within society either at the community, state or national level and is thereby inherently social. Thus, those who use the term obviously mean something different from the meaning of justice just discussed. The term social justice was initially used in 1840 by a Sicilian priest and was, a few years later, taken up by the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. The initial use of the term was a call for virtuous behavior by parishioners in their personal dealings with others. Mill’s use of the term implied that society should behave virtuously.

 The idea that an abstract entity, “society,” could take on virtue in the sense that an individual can be virtuous seems to me to be a case of fallaciously attributing human characteristics to an abstraction. Thus, what I take Rev. Gilbert to be suggesting is that some “agent” acting on behalf of society should impose his or her notion of virtue on the aggregate of individuals comprising society. This was precisely what Benito Mussolini did in his national socialist state in fascist Italy, which he proudly proclaimed to be a totalitarian state. At the time, totalitarian meant that the agent acting for the state, for example Mussolini, imposed his notion of virtue on all aspects of society or the total. Interestingly, emulation of Mussolini and his totalitarian state was suggested to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s as the way to overcome the economic depression. Fortunately, Roosevelt declined to fully embrace the idea.

 Rev. Gilbert asked the question, “How does one allocate resources and by what criteria in a free society?” I think the answer is that you don’t, because the question contains inherently contradictory elements. You can’t have an agent (or agents) acting on his or her notion of virtuous behavior decide how to allocate resources and have a free society at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. Having a so-called virtuous society would require an agent that can impose decisions about what is correct and incorrect behavior on the total population. In short, a totalitarian order imposed by dictatorial powers.

 The essay goes on to address justice, which I have already given considerable attention to earlier, separately from social justice. Justice according to Rev. Gilbert requires more than can be achieved by mere compassion. He states that justice requires a systemic approach that addresses underlying problems. A systemic approach he says must address government policy, taxation, welfare programs and income redistribution among others. It requires transcendent values or virtues that, according to Rev. Gilbert, cannot be determined by democratic processes or market forces. Thus, by implication he is arguing that a systemic approach must rely on values or virtues derived from and imposed by an authority.

 It seems to me that it matters little who that authority is. It is a call for an authoritarian or totalitarian approach to governing society so that it might be recast in the image of an individual or group of individuals believed by some to be virtuous. Clearly, this goes well beyond the definition of justice derived earlier as requiring that the rules or laws in a community, state or nation should be equitable, that is, free of arbitrary bias. Personally, I can embrace a definition of justice based on “equitable law” as previously discussed but find Rev. Gilbert’s notion of justice alien to my notions of equity and fairness.

 The essay continues beyond the three basic elements of the second principle to talk about the Beloved Community and the Prophetic Imperative. Rev Gilbert states that the concept of a beloved community best characterizes a liberal religious concern for justice, equity and compassion, which he finds to be in step with the UU tradition of attempting to build “heaven on earth.” I am immediately reminded of a quote from the philosopher Karl Popper, “The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.”

The reason I think that Popper draws this conclusion is that there has never been a successful utopian community over the long term. Such communities invariably fail because they ultimately require a totalitarian order formulated according to the beliefs of some authoritarian leader. Since no one is infallible, there is always a flaw in the vision of such “leaders” and ultimately “heaven” sinks back into the mundane world in which real and ordinary people live.

 The prophetic imperative is, for Rev. Gilbert, the requirement that we all work to make the beloved community or heaven on earth a reality. He argues that we should attempt to repair the world, for in doing so we will repair ourselves. I’m not sure what prophecy his prophetic imperative is grounded in, but whatever it is, I am certain that it is flawed as have been all such idealistic notions.

 The need to repair something implies that at one time it was in good working order. What specifically does this repair intend to restore and when and where did it exist? I believe life is too “messy” for it to ever exhibit perfection. Can a community, state, nation or indeed the world be improved? I believe it can through a spiritual practice. I also believe that it can only be done by starting with oneself, not some abstraction such as society.

 In an earlier piece I offered some thoughts on employing a personal ideal or standard to guide one’s own behavior in interacting with others. Setting and following a personal ideal is a spiritual practice in its most basic sense and probably the best way to “repair” oneself. The primary way in which a personal ideal needs to be expressed is through interaction with others within the context of family, work and associations. It is in these very personal and daily relationships where you have the most power to affect the world. It is the cumulative effect of this type of action that changes the world. Change is a bottom-up process that begins with oneself, not with an abstraction. This I think was the intent behind the original use, by the Sicilian priest, of the term “social justice.”

The Monetary Factor in the 2008-09 Economic Downturn

          To see the role of the monetary factor one must look beyond the present or even the recent past. One could go back to the late nineteenth century or earlier, but the problem really got underway with the creation of the Federal Reserve by the Woodrow Wilson (D) administration in the early twentieth century (ostensibly to prevent recessions — that’s worked out really well hasn’t it?).

This was followed by Franklin Roosevelt (D) taking the U.S. currency off the gold standard (and confiscating gold from citizens) during the depression and thereby significantly devaluing the currency and giving the Federal Reserve a larger financial space in which to operate. Devaluing the U.S. currency in effect inflated the money supply, which allowed paying off government debts and obligations at a discount. The USG agreed to continue redeeming obligations to foreign governments in gold but at the new set price, which significantly discounted the obligations.

The problem really began catching fire with Lyndon Johnson (D) and his Great Society (War in Vietnam, War on Poverty and Medicare), which greatly increased federal debt and obligations. At the time, I recall reading an article in the “New Republic” lamenting the long-term economic effect this was going to have. The effects didn’t take long to catch up as the Richard Nixon (R) administration found itself potentially facing foreign government obligations and demands for more gold than the U.S. had in its reserves. Thus, Nixon was faced with either potentially defaulting on some or all of the obligations or finding a way to appear to be meeting them. Thus, Nixon took the U.S. the rest of the way off the gold standard declaring that the U.S. would no longer meet obligations to foreign governments in gold (implicitly saying we didn’t have the gold to meet the obligations we had incurred). In short, the U.S. dollar became fiat money.

This contributed to the runaway inflation of the 70s and a further devaluing of the currency. The original link between a dollar and an ounce of gold was 1:1. It is currently around 1200:1. It was during this period that a scheme, devised by Henry Kissinger, for tying the value of the dollar to the price of oil by forging an agreement with oil producers to price oil in dollars in exchange for U.S. military support. One side effect of this scheme was to significantly elevate the power and importance of big oil companies. The U.S. government (USG) under both Democrat and Republican administrations has continued merrily on down this path, which can only end in financial ruin and economic chaos. The Russian devaluation in 1998 should serve as an object lesson.

Recent political administrations seem hell bent on achieving “pedal to the metal” speed as we careen toward the immovable wall represented by what appears to be unavoidable insolvency. I’m not necessarily an advocate for tying the value of the dollar back to gold but it needs to be tied to something that isn’t easily subject to political whim. It is after all supposed to be a store of value.

In short, the USG has declared de facto bankruptcy twice. The first time was in the 1930s and the second time was in the 1970s. It appears we’re facing a third episode of de facto bankruptcy, except this time there appear to be no exits from the burning house of cards. Some think it could be avoided by economic growth but the kind of growth required is only found in entrepreneurial dreams. Even leaving aside such an unlikely degree of growth, the tax and other policies that define the U.S. economy mitigate against much economic growth at all. Low economic growth may have a silver lining in that the issue arising at the intersection of ecological degradation and economic growth would be mitigated. 

We will be indeed fortunate to generate enough growth to tread water at or near our current levels. Look at the Japanese economy of the past two decades and you’re probably looking at the U.S. economy for the foreseeable future. The one major difference is that Japan had a huge cushion of private savings to soften their economic fall. Another option would be to simply let the house of cards collapse. This would be very economically painful and disruptive and there is not any stomach for it, especially among the political class. A third option that some see, based on a flawed understanding of the what ended the depression, is massive government spending to stimulate growth, which produces growth in the same sense that “speed” generates energy. What pulled the U.S. out of the depression was not the economic activity generated by public programs and then war time spending but the industrial infrastructure destruction of war that left the U.S. as the only industrially intact economy in the world. The recovery from the depression was thereby produced by manufacturing and exporting goods to the rest of the world, until their infrastructure was replaced and they began competing with us rather than depending on us.

Of course, there is the insane solution, a nice little tactical nuclear war that wipes out a lot of infrastructure around the world but not most of the populations while leaving our infrastructure intact. A somewhat less insane strategy would be to start a nice big conventional war (something along the lines of Vietnam) in the irrational belief that the war will stimulate enough economic activity to bail us out of our mess. At best such a war would provide a temporary distraction while digging the hole deeper. Iraq and Afghanistan won’t do it. Iran maybe?

Immigration Policy

              This country without doubt has a problem with illegal residents. Why? First and foremost is that there are many places in the world that are so politically oppressive and economically impoverished that there is no shortage of people who want to get out and find more favorable circumstances. Second, we have a problem because the U.S. has an immigration policy that is so restrictive that many people despair of ever being able to legally immigrate and decide to take matters into their own hands and ignore the law. Finally, we have a problem because the federal government has shown itself either unwilling or unable to maintain the integrity of the territory comprising the U.S. The latter is a problem that goes well beyond illegal residents and includes problems related to smuggling and security to name two major concerns.

I favor immigration reform and reform that would significantly increase the number of immigrants. Why do I favor immigration reform? The answer is out of self-interest. First, immigrants supply a pool of individuals with little or no stake in the status quo. A regularly renewing pool of such individuals provide the fresh perspective and talent needed to keep the country moving forward. Second, without immigrants the U.S. population is approaching zero growth due to a falling birth rate. Without immigrants the U.S. population will very likely begin contracting within a few decades. Population growth rates below replacement levels are already a problem for many countries such as Italy, Japan and Russia. Further, it is a problem faced in the near future by a number of countries such as the U.S. and China. Thus, many of the countries in the world will soon be in competition for a diminishing pool of working-age adults who want to immigrate. The U.S. has a huge debt, an even larger pool of underfunded obligations and unfunded guarantees that need to be met. These cannot be satisfied with a flat or declining working-age population. In short, we must grow economically or face an economic collapse such as that recently endured by Russia.  Leaving aside, for the present, the issue created by the intersection of economics and climate change.

I application for immigration status should be open to anyone who meets a couple of simple tests. First, the person should be capable of supporting him or herself as evidenced by sufficient assets to do so or by having secured a contract for suitable employment within the U.S. Second, the person should pose no clear threat to civil order or national security. I think immigration status once granted should extend to an applicant’s immediate family, which includes spouse and dependent children but reaches no further. I would place no limits on the number of immigration applications approved each year and would not have any restrictions related to country of origin. I would offer work visas under the same guidelines as immigration (excepting the asset criterion) to anyone wishing to legally work here on a temporary basis.

We have restrictive policies that generally limits immigration and virtually prohibits immigration from some parts of the world. We also have a less than flexible policy about temporary work visas. Given these conditions it is not surprising that we have a large population of illegal immigrants who have made their way here from around the world. Migrants from Mexico, Central and South America probably comprise the majority due to geography but certainly points of origin extend beyond this hemisphere. I do not think it wise to allow this de facto immigration policy to continue to operate. I also do not have much sympathy for people who are willing to flaunt U.S. immigration law, even though it is flawed. I personally know people who would like to immigrate to the U.S. but who are not eligible to apply and who have enough respect for the rule of law not to take the matter into their own hands. If I had to choose between these two types of people, I would favor those that respect the law. However, we do have around 15 million illegal residents in the country so one issue is what to do about them.

It is unlikely that we are capable of deporting 15 million people not to mention the problems this would cause in many cases. For example, in families where the adults are illegal and the children are citizens what is the proper course of action? Personally, I think citizenship by birth granted to children of non-citizen parents in the U.S. is something that needs to change. However, it is the law and those children are not only legal residents but citizens. Because of the complexity of the situation, I favor amnesty for illegal residents whose only legal violations have been of immigration law. Convicted felons should not receive amnesty for violations of immigration or criminal law.

By amnesty I mean forgiveness not legalization. Legalization of past law violations is logically equivalent to making something illegal retroactively. Amnesty should be limited to forgiveness of violations of immigration law. In short, if you are granted amnesty you will not be subject to prosecution for violation of immigration law. Amnesty does not mean being rewarded with a fast track to citizenship and jumping ahead of everyone else in the world who wants to immigrate to the U.S. For example, when Vietnam era draft dodgers were granted amnesty, they were relieved of any risk of being prosecuted. They were not, however, rewarded with veterans’ benefits along with amnesty. So, where does that leave formerly illegal residents who have been granted amnesty?

I think any such resident who is employed should be able to apply for and be granted a work visa good for a fixed period such as three years. This visa should cover the applicant and any dependents in his or her immediate family. Renewal of the visa should be available as a matter of course at the end of the visa period. If such a person wishes to apply for immigrant status and be on track to citizenship, he or she should follow the same application procedures as anyone else in the world who wants to immigrate and become a citizen. If the immigration reform that I favor and discussed above were to be adopted, persons already in the country and holding a work visa would have an advantage in the immigration process. I see no easy way to avoid visiting this injustice upon persons outside of the U.S. who want to immigrate. It is an imperfect world.

The proper venue for getting changes in immigration law is the U.S. Congress. If you want changes in the ground rules for immigration, you should be advocating and lobbying with your congressional representatives. No one else has the authority or power to change the laws in the U.S. All other actions are a waste of time and largely amount to political grandstanding.

I do have a major concern related to Mexican immigration into the U.S., especially in border states. Niall Ferguson, a well known historian who studies economic history, has put forth an historical hypothesis about the causes of the conflicts in the twentieth century. He discussed his hypothesis and the evidence supporting it in his book War of the World. What he argued was that the recipe for conflict has three ingredients. These ingredients include overlapping ethnicities populating a geographic area, economic stress and either an inability or unwillingness by authorities to maintain order. Today one can see these ingredients coming together in several locations including the area where Iraq, Iran and Turkey come together (the Kurd “problem”); the area including the northwestern part of China (Xinjiang) and the territories in northeastern Pakistan (the Uygur “problem”); and the southwestern U.S. and Mexico (the Mexican “problem”). All of these areas, among others, have the potential to become violent. There exists a real possibility that an increase in Mexican immigration into border states could fuel the fires of ethnic conflict. I don’t argue that immigration should be restricted because of this concern but one should recognize the potential and attempt mitigate the factors that could cause conflict to erupt.

I also think that there is a downside to increasing immigration that is often overlooked. While immigration reform would increase the population and expand the tax base, which has some clear economic benefits, it also means growth. For those who are concerned with energy independence, conservation of resources, pollution, protection of the environment and similar endeavors, growth is a significant threat to all of those goals. If one advocates for expanding the population it follows that the economy must be expanded to accommodate the new citizens and the increased birth rate that will follow them. An expanding economy will put additional strains on meeting the goals mentioned. There is an inherent contradiction between increases in population, economic expansion and concern for the quality of life. We may have to choose between economic stagnation and financial chaos or environmental degradation and diminished quality of living conditions. Carefully consider what you ask for because you may get it.

See Also:

Borderlands and Immigrants

Arizona, Borderlands and U.S. — Mexican Immigration

 

Comment on a Klan Rally

 

          The picture above is from a Klan rally held in a small town not far from where I live in north Georgia. I was at first reminded of the Klan rallies that took place during my youth. Regular rallies were held on the top of Stone Mountain in Georgia, east of Atlanta. I recall sitting in my car at a highway intersection waiting to exit onto the highway while a seemingly endless stream of Klan “kars” passed by in route to the mountain and the inevitable cross burning.

 As I considered the current event, which was much smaller than those earlier events, an observation made by a psychologist, Charles Carver, came to mind. Carver’s observation was that if you want to understand a behavior, you must first understand the goal to which it is directed. This thought led to questions about the goal of the Klan and of the protesters present at the rally.

I don’t seriously believe that the Klan thought they were going to persuade anyone to adopt their position on any issue, so what did this small band of men belonging to a marginalized and socially impotent group hope to accomplish? Further, what was the goal of the protesters at the Klan rally? I very much doubt that the protesters thought they were going to persuade the Klansmen to throw off their robes and become advocates for freedom and liberty for all.

If this little “dance” on the Ellijay town square wasn’t about one group trying to change the mind of another group, what then was it about? I think that for the Klan, a true home grown terrorist organization that is now marginalized and socially unacceptable, the rally was primarily about validation. They sought and obtained public attention, which affirmed that they weren’t forgotten relics and could still command an audience by their public presence. The Klan reminds me of youths I’ve observed who know just the right buttons to push to aggravate some adult in their lives (teachers and parents seem to be favorite targets) and take considerable pleasure and satisfaction from having so manipulated an antagonist.

In addition to the self-affirmation obtained from public attention, the rally seemed to me to possibly serve a second purpose — communication. How does a small, isolated group recruit new members and give support to other scattered and isolated groups and individuals of a similar mind? One answer I think is through publicity. The news coverage generated by the event turned protestors and the media into the unwitting accomplice of the Klan in disseminating its message to its kin, “we’re here and we still matter.” In support of this analysis consider this from Scott Atran an anthropologist and expert on terrorism, “Media and publicity are the oxygen of terrorism. Without them it would die.”

Even in this day of digital communication, the context of a public event has significant messaging potential, as all of the “terrorist” groups in the world know so well. A public event, whether a rally or a car bomb, is both a cheap and effective way to obtain an outcome not otherwise possible for such a group. Thus, contributing to a publicity event conducted by the Klan, whether by showing up to protest or showing up to cover the “event” for the media, is to assist the Klan in meeting its goals. Empowering the Klan in stressful and contentious times is especially hazardous because it remains a spark with the potential to become a fire.

What led the protesters to become dance partners with the Klan? Clearly, there was a bit of self-affirmation going on here as well. What better way than a public dance of defiance with a defanged cobra to demonstrate one’s righteousness and moral superiority. The Klansmen in their white robes provided a stimulus to elicit the moral outrage of the most sensitive members of the community — the Klan’s dependable foils. The protestors came out because of the Klan but they demonstrated to affirm their own beliefs and to signify publicly to one another and the community that we are truly good and caring people. The rally also provided the protesters an occasion to identify kindred spirits in the community, form new associations and weave a new thread into one’s personal narrative.

In the end, the Klan cared only that the protesters showed up and the more the better for their purposes. The dance goes on.

Institutionalization as a Factor in Educational Under Performance

              American society throughout the 20th century progressively institutionalized many social functions, including education. The vehicle for institutionalizing education was through the creation of public school systems. Whenever something becomes institutionalized, it becomes a bureaucracy and depersonalized. The function of the institution becomes the responsibility of “experts and professionals” and those served by the institution become “wards” of the institution. My experience has been that “experts and professionals,” contrary to what they sometimes claim, have no sincere interest in input from “clients” of the bureaucracy. Further, institutionalization leads to homogenization of institutional services making them unsuitable for many of those that are supposed to be served. Homogenization results from the tendency to adopt an “assembly line model” with a standardization mentality and the inevitable politicization that comes with institutionalizing social functions. Under such conditions, parents and children alike become passive “consumers” and relinquish their responsibility to the institution and its “experts.”

Along with this institutionalization of America has come a huge tax burden on citizens to fund all the institutions created to serve social functions. Several estimates put the average American family’s tax burden at approximately 50% of gross income when all taxes national, state and local are taken into account. Dual employment has become a necessity for most two-parent families in order to afford a middle-class life style. In such families, much of one income goes to pay the family’s tax bill and the other goes to maintaining a comfortable life style. Single parent families are burdened down with trying to live on a single income in a two-income society. Of course, many families simply collapse under this burden and dissolve into chaos. All of this exacerbates the problems in public education. Parents are too busy with making a living to invest much, if any time, into education of their children. Instead, they readily relinquish their responsibility to an institution that they are paying for through their taxes and that isn’t interested in hearing from them in any case.

What can be done about the situation in education? Obviously, institutionalization of education isn’t going to be quickly reversed though that should be a long-term goal. I don’t necessarily propose that there should be no public role in education but education should at the least be put back under local control with parental oversight. I also believe that much could be done by changing the philosophy of education underlying most schools and teaching. Click here for a piece on educational philosophy.

Free Will and the Evolution of Consciousness

           Spiritually speaking, free will or the ability to make meaningful choices is a critical concept for the evolution of consciousness or refinement of consciousness (see also here and here). The panentheistic principle of the primacy of Consciousness and its expression through the quantum monad, which was discussed in an earlier piece (Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy, Part II), is assumed. Implicit in this view is acceptance of the panentheistic conception of reality, which requires the ability to make meaningful choices or free will. How then might the requirement for free will be construed in a manner that meets the necessary conditions for the evolution of consciousness?

 Simple determinism asserts that everything we do is predetermined and therefore our apparent choices are really an illusion. From that point of view, we have only what appear to be choices and all the outcomes that follow from such imaginary choices are predetermined and beyond our ability to influence. In short, the chain of causality that began in the distant past, perhaps with the origin of the material universe, set in motion a chain of cause and effects that still continues and will continue into the future. That chain of causality passes through us and determines what we think, feel and do. Clearly, there are no real choices that might allow for the operation of free will in such a dismal conception of life. Further, such a conception renders impossible any meaningful conception of moral responsibility. If one’s behavior is wholly determined and outside of one’s ability to influence, how can an individual be held accountable for his or her actions? Finally, if simple determinism governs everything then a spiritual vision that entails the evolution of consciousness (or the soul if you prefer) cannot be valid.

Indeterminism (a.k.a. absolute free will) is the opposite of simple determinism. Absolute free will means one can by choice affect an outcome that is not predictable from its antecedents. In short, one can do things that violate the principle of causality as it is commonly understood (a.k.a. magic). For example, someone walking on water would both violate the principle of causality and demonstrate a choice outcome that is not predictable from its antecedents. Interestingly, the principle of causality or simple determinism has, at the quantum level, been experimentally demonstrated to be untenable. This suggests that reality almost certainly does not rest upon simple determinism. The quantum world appears, however, to be governed by statistical determinism, which includes all possible outcomes and even some that might be considered “magic.” However, “magical” outcomes, while possible, are extremely improbable. It is clear that no mere mortal is likely to ever observe or experience one of these highly improbable outcomes. Thus, indeterminism is not suitable for our purposes because meaningful choices leading to systematic consequences are not possible and such choices along with their feedback are necessary for the evolution of consciousness.

 The libertarian philosopher Richard Taylor proposed an alternative to simple determinism that he calls complex determinism, which recognizes that human agency is a primary factor in causation. That is, human agency or in the case of an individual self-agency can alter a chain of causality and initiate a new branch in an unfolding sequence. This brings us back to free will. In this view, free will is no longer absolute but rather is probabilistic, which is similar to the statistical determinism of quantum physics. Free will then, for me, is equivalent to complex determinism. Complex determinism suggests that in any given situation there are usually multiple possible outcomes, none of which require magic; i.e., they have a basis in antecedent events. Each of these possible outcomes is more or less probable than another. The most common outcome is the one with the highest probability. This is what is sometimes described by the phrase “the path of least resistance.” Recall the example about the collapse of a wave of possibilities discussed in an earlier piece (Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy, Part I).

When one arrives at a meaningful decision point in life, the complex and tangled web of antecedents that have led to the decision point generally allow for more than one possible consequence or outcome. Suppose that the decision point contains five possible outcomes or choices. Each has a probability of expression. If the path of least resistance is followed, the choice made will be the one most closely associated with one’s habitual and conditioned pattern of behavior. This default choice, in fact, is not really a choice so much as it is an acquiescence. Default responses that follow the path of least resistance are very common and give the appearance of following from simple determinism.

Research has provided evidence that suggests decisions are made at a subconscious level before one is consciously aware of them. This it is argued is evidence for simple determinism. An alternative interpretation is that this research is evidence that habitual or high probability responses are virtually automatic. Fortunately, the research also shows that there is a small delay between the subconscious decision, awareness and action. This delay is the window of opportunity that provides room for free will. Self-agency effected through intention and deliberate choice, based on forethought and anticipation of consequences, can influence and change the probability functions of potential outcomes. Thus, the first step is to prevent the default or habitual response from occurring. The second step is to undertake a deliberate effort to make manifest a possible alternate response. In short, if one is willing to be attentive and make the effort, it is possible to exert self-agency and become a causal force in your own chain of causation. I have a web page and ebook devoted to this endeavor.

In this conception of complex determinism, there are three principle contributors to human action: biological factors, environmental factors and self-agency. It is important to recognize that all three influences operate through predisposition, not predestination. Consider two identical twins with virtually identical biological inheritance who are predisposed to diabetes. Further, suppose that the twins live in an environment that has varied dietary choices but one that includes an abundance of readily available, tasty, refined carbohydrate foods. Such high glycemic environments predispose one to the development of diabetes. The interaction of the biological and environmental predispositions (what’s known as an epigenetic factor) make avoiding diabetes unlikely, especially given the predisposition to follow the path of least resistance. Eventually, one twin develops diabetes and the other does not. Clearly, this would never happen if biological and environmental causation were predestination. We can ask why did these different outcomes occur?

Very likely part of the answer is that the twins created different environments from the choices they made. Suppose that they took a class on nutrition while they were in high school or college in which they learned of the hazards of overeating a high glycemic diet. This was not welcome news since both had become accustomed to eating a high glycemic diet. Let’s assume that one chose to continue eating a diet rich in refined carbohydrates. This twin followed the habitual pattern and took the path of least resistance. The other chose a diet that emphasized complex carbohydrates. This choice was clearly available to both but only the second twin exercised self-agency and took the more difficult path of resisting habitual patterns and making healthier choices. Thus, these different choices in lifestyle differently influenced the possibility of developing diabetes in the twins.

In my view, we do have the ability to make real choices. We can, at least, make choices from among those potential outcomes that are possible given the antecedents. Our choices, reflected in our intentions and actions, influence (but do not control) the probable outcomes available in situations in which we are actors. Self-agency has the potential to carry us to a tipping point that can set in motion a new causal chain. Most of us, most of the time, fail to exercise self-agency and simply follow the path of least resistance and thereby give the impression of being controlled by simple determinism.

Complex determinism construed as self-agency then appears to meet the need for the meaningful choices necessary for evolving consciousness. Accepting self-agency as essential for evolving consciousness leads to recognition of personal sovereignty as a natural right. A sovereign individual is a free agent engaged in self-determination. Free agents set their own goals and choose the means to those goals. Further, a community of sovereign individuals represents a diversity of goals and methods for achieving those goals. Evolution of consciousness can only be achieved by freely taken choices. This means that it is incumbent upon anyone who accepts the primacy of Consciousness, implicit in panentheism, to avoid interfering with other people’s choices to the greatest extent possible. This is important because it is the intent behind choices, not the acts in and of themselves that is important for the evolution of consciousness.

 There are several ways in which one individual might attempt to affect the choices of another individual. First, one can use force to impose choices on another person. Second, one can use threat or intimidation to impose choices on someone else. Third, one can use contrived incentives to influence another person’s choices. Fourth, one can use deception as a means of influence. Finally, one can use persuasion to influence the choices of another person. Clearly, the first two options are coercive and inconsistent with self-determination. However, the third and fourth methods are also coercive but in a more subtle way. The use of contrived incentives or deception to influence someone’s choices is an effort to manipulate them and therefore represents a soft form of coercion. The final method may be the only method that is consistent with self-determination and the evolution of consciousness. Persuasion, properly conducted, appeals to the reason of another person. Successful persuasion convinces a person of the correctness of a particular choice and is thereby most likely to affect intention as well as action. Persuasion is not coercive but educational and is the only ethically acceptable method of influencing others in a society of sovereign individuals. Thus, sovereign individuals in their exercise of self-agency must accept some limitations on personal behavior. Specifically, they must accept a prohibition on the use of force or coercion directly or indirectly against others in the pursuit of their goals, except when necessary for self-defense or protecting others from harm.
 

 See also: “What does quantum physics have to do with behavior disorders?” for more about self-agency.

For a related case history see: “Big Jim: A case history

Choice

There are advocates for simple determinism who would assert that everything we do is predetermined and therefore our apparent choices are really an illusion. From that point of view, we don’t have any choices and all the outcomes that appear to follow from such imaginary choices are predetermined and beyond our ability to influence. In short, the chain of causality that began in the distant past, perhaps with the origin of the universe, set in motion a chain of cause and effects that still continues and will continue into the future. That chain of causality passes through us and determines what we think and do. I think this view takes all meaning from existence and makes life largely pointless, which doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. However, I reject it on existential grounds and advocate for a view based on complex determinism.

Before going into complex determinism, let me say something about free will. The free will counterpart to simple determinism is absolute free will (a.k.a. indeterminism), which means one can by choice affect an outcome that is not predictable from its antecedents. In short, one can do things that violate the principle of causality (a.k.a. magic). For example, I used to challenge advocates of this position to go to the roof of the building and walk across the open space over the street to the roof of the building on the other side. To do this would both violate the principle of causality and demonstrate an outcome by choice that is not predictable from its antecedents. I’ve never had an advocate for absolute free will take me up on this opportunity to demonstrate the validity of their position. However, just as there is an alternate form of determinism there is an alternate conception of free will, which I’ll come to shortly.

The libertarian philosopher Richard Taylor proposed that the way out of the dilemma posed by simple determinism is to recognize human-agency as a primary factor in causation. That is human-agency can alter a chain of causality passing through one and initiate a new branch in an unfolding sequence. This brings us back to free will. In this view, free will is no longer absolute but rather is probabilistic. Complexity theory suggests that in any given situation there are usually multiple possible outcomes, none of which require magic to be produced. Each of these possible outcomes is more or less probable than another. The most common outcome is the one with the highest probability. This is what is sometimes described by the phrase “the path of least resistance.”

However, human-agency through intention and deliberate choice, based on forethought and anticipation of consequences, can influence and change the probability functions of potential outcomes. When I was a professor, I often talked about behavior in terms of what I refer to as the three-legged stool (biological causes, environmental causes and self-agency). It is this latter concept that lies at the root of the notion of the “cooperative alliance” (see Chapter One, page 16) in behavioral intervention that I discuss in a paper on behavior and quantum physics. In short, it is unlikely that one will affect a significant and lasting change in behavior without the active cooperation and collaboration of the subject with the change agent.

As a side bar, I would add that most, if not all, human religions presuppose that the underlying nature of reality is indeterminate and magical (e.g., witness the use of prayer in an effort to produce and outcome that cannot be predicted from the antecedents, i.e., appeals for divine intervention are in effect based on a belief in indeterminism or magic). Herein lies the source of my skepticism about religious claims. As for the existence of God, I can only say that depends on how one defines the nature of God. I see absolutely no basis for an anthropomorphic God and view such depictions as the artifact of a paucity of imagination. If one wants to define God as the ground state from which our universe arose then I can accept that as a possibility whether called God, Quantum Field or by some other name. What the characteristics of such a ground state might be is an open question and might include some of the claims of mystics and other spiritual explorers.

In my view, we do have the ability to make real choices. We can make choices, at least, from among those potential outcomes that are possible given the antecedents. Our choices, reflected in our intention and actions, influence (but do not control) the probable outcomes available in situations in which we are actors. I also think that most of us, most of the time fail to exercise self-agency and simply follow the path of least resistance.

 

Why We Believe

          As a psychologist I have often asked myself, why people seem to easily commit to belief systems? This predisposition is clearly evident in a wide range of human activities. It includes things as diverse as religions, conspiracy theories, political ideologies and pseudo-scientific theories.

Albert Ellis’ rational-emotive theory (see Chapter One, page 19) makes a useful distinction between what he calls rational and irrational beliefs. The former have some objective basis and depend upon evidence. The latter have no empirical basis and their adherents usually have a strong emotional investment in the belief, which is largely supported by faith in its correctness. Ellis’ theory rests upon two assumptions about human nature. First, we have a biological predisposition toward irrational thinking, e.g., over generalization and illogical association. Second, one of the major tasks of socialization is to establish a system of beliefs. It is a major developmental task because belief systems help us interpret our experiences, organize our thoughts and observation and make decisions to act.

The second assumption helps to explain why we adopt beliefs systems. They are to varying degrees useful schema for imposing order on our world, understanding the events in our lives and guiding our behavior. The first assumption indicates why many of the belief systems we adopt are irrational and without empirical foundation.

What might be the basis for the assumed predisposition for irrational thinking? Michael Gazzaniga found evidence, in his research on the brain, for what he calls the Left Brain Interpreter (LBI). Gazzaniga thinks that the LBI is a function of the brain acquired through evolutionary selection pressures. The LBI evolved because being able to organize and explain experience has survival value. Having an explanation for a phenomenon, even an incorrect explanation, makes it easier to interpret and respond quickly. If our beliefs lead to successful responses more often than not, this success would give an ability to use explanations to quickly evaluate and respond survival value. While it is often the case that our beliefs lead to successful responses, such success doesn’t necessarily make them valid. However, we usually take success as evidence confirming the correctness of our belief. For example, if you believe that people who look different aren’t trustworthy and are potentially dangerous, you will avoid contact with such people. If you then find that you are seldom assaulted, you will probably attribute your safety to avoiding contact with people who look different from you. Of course, the absence of assault experiences may be due to entirely different reasons but it will be attributed to the belief that motivated your avoidance behavior.

Since we have a strong disposition to formulate explanatory beliefs about our experiences, why do we so often formulate inaccurate and incorrect beliefs or explanations? This happens in part because evolutionary pressures favored those who quickly formulated explanations about experiences. The day-to-day struggle by our predecessors to survive allowed few opportunities for reflection. In the evolutionary environment that led to human beings the quick-witted were usually survivors and the reflective were often someone’s dinner. Thus, we acquired a disposition to formulate beliefs or explanations on the basis of little or no information and what information we had was frequently incorrect.

Frank Barron, a creativity researcher, pointed out many years ago that his research suggested that an inability to explain something made most people anxious or uneasy, which of course provides an incentive (anxiety reduction) to conjure up an explanation or accept some proposed explanation. This is possibly a motivational component to the evolved predisposition to create explanations. Barron found that most people would accept almost any explanation rather than live with uncertainty. He also found that among creative people the opposite was generally true. In short, a small minority of people would rather live with uncertainty than accept a dubious explanation. Barron would probably agree with Steven Pinker, a contemporary psychologist, who has suggested that the human mind frequently functions less like a chief executive and more like a “spin doctor” that is always busy creating post hoc explanations for our decisions and actions.

 There are many examples of this near compulsion to create explanations in human history. One need only think about the many, varied and incorrect beliefs that societies have created to explain natural events, e.g., floods, volcanic eruptions, failed crops, plagues, etc. In many cases, these beliefs have led to behavior that, from our perspective, was irrational. An irrational belief arises in one or more individuals and if it has appeal is adopted by others and often becomes a cultural belief that is perpetuated through the socialization process.

Ellis contends that our tendency to think irrationally results in distortions, flaws, and inaccuracies in our thinking. Parents, peers, community institutions (e.g., schools, churches, political parties, etc.), and the media can introduce distortions into our belief systems. Not only are distortions possible in commonly held beliefs, but personal aspects of our belief system are also prone to distortions that result from our own faulty thinking. Cognitive psychologist Yaakov Kareev’s research has identified one particularly important source of distortion in human thinking. His research has demonstrated a tendency in humans to find positive cause-and-effect associations among events. In fact, he found that people are more likely to see a positive association between two observations than a negative association even when a valid negative association is present. When we attempt to understand an event, we can usually only identify a few of the apparent components of the event. Further, due to limitations in our working memory capacity, we can only consider a small number of the apparent components at one time. Kareev and his associates have shown that our strong predisposition to find positive associations between things that appear to be associated with an event increase as the number of variables in working memory decreases.

There are differences between people in working memory capacity due to differences in cognitive abilities and due to differences in temperament, which make some people more susceptible than others to seeing false connections between events. Anyone who is susceptible to anxiety may experience a reduction in working memory capacity because anxiety has been shown to reduce working memory capacity. As the size of working memory decreases the likelihood of finding false positive associations increases. A predisposition to find positive associations among things we observe and experience has positive benefits, such as, making it easier for a young child to make associations between vocal sounds and environmental stimuli during language acquisition. It also makes it possible and even likely that we will develop cause-and-effect associations that are erroneous. This tendency to make erroneous cause-and-effect associations is sometimes called magical thinking and is most clearly reflected in superstitious and delusional behavior. In addition to our susceptibility to magical thinking, there are many other common errors in thinking that we are prone to make. In fact, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini has investigated and compiled a catalog of errors in thinking common to human cognition.

Finally, Gazzaniga indicates that once a belief is established it is difficult to change it. There are several reasons beliefs are difficult to change. First, we find it easier to think of evidence for rather than against a personal belief; that is, validating evidence is easier to recall than contradictory evidence. Second, we also have a strong tendency to look for evidence that supports our beliefs and to ignore evidence that does not. Third, when we encounter ambiguous evidence we are disposed to interpret that evidence so that it supports our beliefs. Finally, when we are confronted with evidence that directly conflicts with our beliefs, we are inclined to discredit the evidence rather than change our beliefs. The single best antidote for irrational thinking that we have developed is the scientific method, when properly applied.

Bioethics and Life Extension*

          We all have a vested interest in matters related to biotechnology. In particular, we should be especially interested in how government and government advisory bodies are looking at biotechnology. Whether we like it or not, our future is in the hands of government and government advisory bodies that determine through legislation and regulation what is or is not permitted. A good example of how legislation and regulation impact us as individuals is the activity of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [See FDA Review]. This agency literally has the power of life and death over each of us through the exercise of its authority to regulate what we consume whether it is nutritional or medicinal in nature and without regard to what our personal wishes may be. For example, the FDA has denied terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs because they may have dangerous side effects. What could be more dangerous than a terminal illness? I spent some time on the site for the President’s Council on Bioethics because I think that this advisory body will significantly impact future legislation on and regulation of biotechnology.

One area that has been a concern of and subject to the attention of the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCB) is the divide between what it terms enhancement as opposed to therapy. This distinction is made in a book length report on ethical considerations in biotechnology (Beyond Therapy) that was released in 2003. Therapy is viewed as current and future interventions directed at curing or controlling diseases (e.g., AIDS) and correcting defects (e.g., cystic fibrosis) as traditionally understood. Enhancement on the other hand is viewed as potential interventions directed at improving natural conditions (e.g., life span) and abilities (e.g., memory). The PCB addresses age-retardation and life extension in a working paper prepared for its members (Ageless Bodies). What the PCB has to say on life extension has the potential to impact our personal efforts to enjoy and extend our lives.

One of the concepts mentioned in the discussion of bioethics by the PCB is the precautionary principle. “Over the past few decades, environmentalists, forcefully making the case for respecting Mother Nature, have urged upon us a “precautionary principle” regarding all our interventions into the natural world. Go slowly, they say, you can ruin everything. The point is certainly well taken in the present context… (Emphasis added)

The precautionary principle asserts that any action or policy that is potentially harmful, especially to the environment or to human health, should not be taken unless there is a scientific consensus that there is no danger. Thus, the burden of proof is on those who propose an action. Critics of this principle point out that since science cannot prove a negative, the criterion stipulated in the principle would essentially give regulators absolute discretionary power. Thus, a powerful tool for blocking scientific progress in many areas, including biotechnology and nanotechnology would be placed in the hands of groups with political and ideological rather than scientific motivations.

We should be alert to attempts to incorporate the precautionary principle into legislation and regulations that bear on research and development in biomedicine and related fields. If this principle should become the guiding light for government regulation of biotechnology research, it may be much longer than any of us have imagined before advanced biotechnology techniques for life extension are developed and implemented, if ever.

A second, distinction made by the PCB is between the impact of life extension on individuals and the impact on society. The Commission admits that there is likely much potential good to be gained by individuals from biotechnology. “Powerful as some of these concerns are, however, from the point of view of the individual considered in isolation the advantages of age-retardation may well be deemed to outweigh the dangers.”

The Commission goes on to take the view that the impact of life extension and biological enhancement in the aggregate of individuals comprising society are another matter altogether. The PCB contends that society composed of citizens who are the beneficiaries of life extension may suffer as a whole even though each individual is personally benefited. “…If individuals did not age, if their functions did not decline and their horizons did not narrow, it might just be that societies would age far more acutely, and would experience their own sort of senescence—a hardening of the vital social pathways, a stiffening and loss of flexibility, a setting of the ways and views, a corroding of the muscles and the sinews…”

The Commission spends some considerable time lamenting the possible corruption by biotechnology of what it means to be human. The essence of this concern is captured in these comments from the conclusion to the working paper referred to above, “…Is human life, as our ancestors understood it and as our faiths and our philosophies describe it, really just a problem to be solved? The anti-aging medicine of the not-so-distant future would treat what we have usually thought of as the whole, the healthy, human life as a condition to be healed. It therefore presents us with a questionable notion both of full humanity, and of the proper ends of medicine (Emphasis added).”

The former Chairman of the PCB, Leon Kass, has offered the following opinions about the mortality of man, 1) “Mortality as such is not our defect, nor is bodily immortality our goal…the human soul yearns for, longs for, aspires to some condition, some state, some goal toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained in earthly life…Man longs not so much for deathlessness as for wholeness, wisdom, goodness, and godliness.” 2) “The finitude of human life is a blessing to every individual, whether he knows it or not.” (Both quoted in Liberation Biology by Ronald Bailey. Apparently, for Kass it is not possible to have a truly meaningful and satisfying life while bound to the material world. Thus, Kass would appear to have no qualms about pressing on you the blessings of a short life so that your soul can achieve godliness.

In Liberation Biology, libertarian author Ronald Bailey points out that bio-conservative opposition to biotechnology can be found on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum. Joining Leon Kass on the political right are such figures as John Hopkins University professor Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama has been prominent thinker among neo-conservatives but has drifted somewhat out of that orbit recently as he has become disenchanted with the war in Iraq. In his book, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Fukuyama argues that biotechnology will lead to radical inequality and poison the political process. Neo-conservative editor of the Weekly Standard William Kristol also fears biotechnology and supports restrictions on its development. Kristol acts on his fears in various ways including giving bio-conservatives a platform such as the following book. Writing about the stem cell debate in The Future is Now: America Confronts the New Genetics edited by William Kristol and Eric Cohen, Fukuyama claims “…the need [is] for an institutional framework for the regulation of all human biotechnology, and not just research funded by the federal government.” When asked in an interview if the government had a right to tell its citizens that they have to die, Fukuyama replied, “Yes, absolutely.”

The political left has also produced a number of bio-conservatives and activists against biotechnology. One of the earliest to emerge on the left was Foundation for Economic Trends president and author, Jeremy Rifkin. In his book The Biotech Century, Rifkin presents a catalog of reasons why we should fear biotechnology and argues that in spite of obvious potential benefits the risks far outweigh the benefits and development of biotechnology must be restrained. Another left-wing, bio-conservative is Marcy Darnovsky the Associate Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society based in Oakland, CA. Darnovsky, among other things, is concerned with the social justice aspects of biomedicine and argues that “…we need ways to apply the brakes…” on designer medicine and designer babies. She argues that these are technologies that will only benefit the wealthy and leave the rest of us as second-class citizens. She suggests that there are far too many more mundane problems that need resources to waste them on low priority projects such as biomedicine. A final example from the left is Daniel Callahan, Co-founder of the Hasting Center, which has a focus on bioethics. The following quote illustrates his thinking on life extension; “There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death…The worst possible way to resolve this issue is to leave it to individual choice.”

Advocates for life extension should adopt as a guiding principle the words of John Stuart Mill; “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” One might ask, which political philosophy best embodies the above principle? In my view, the libertarian philosophy comes the closest to advocating Mill’s principle. Unfortunately, the libertarian political philosophy has not had much success in making the transition to politics. From the above discussion it is clear that there is potential opposition to life extension from both the left and the right. Thus, life extension advocates should take care to support candidates from any political party whose views are consistent with their objectives. They should also be watchful for legislation that could serve to block progress toward life extension and actively lobby against it. One certainly cannot afford to ignore politics!

*This essay reflects minor modifications to the original, which was Published in Long Life the in-house journal of the Immortalist Society.