Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ha, ha: I told you so.

(While couched in scientific terms, the conclusion is simply that liberals are objectively smarter than conservatives. I add this summary for the benefit of any conservatives who may not understand the article. :) Ed.)

From the Los Angeles Times
Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain
Even in humdrum nonpolitical decisions, liberals and conservatives literally think differently, researchers show.
By Denise Gellene
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 10, 2007

Exploring the neurobiology of politics, scientists have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.

In a simple experiment reported todayin the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists at New York University and UCLA show that political orientation is related to differences in how the brain processes information.

Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

The results show "there are two cognitive styles -- a liberal style and a conservative style," said UCLA neurologist Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who was not connected to the latest research.

Participants were college students whose politics ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

Researchers got the same results when they repeated the experiment in reverse, asking another set of participants to tap when a W appeared.

Frank J. Sulloway, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Institute of Personality and Social Research who was not connected to the study, said the results "provided an elegant demonstration that individual differences on a conservative-liberal dimension are strongly related to brain activity."

Analyzing the data, Sulloway said liberals were 4.9 times as likely as conservatives to show activity in the brain circuits that deal with conflicts, and 2.2 times as likely to score in the top half of the distribution for accuracy.

Sulloway said the results could explain why President Bush demonstrated a single-minded commitment to the Iraq war and why some people perceived Sen. John F. Kerry, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat who opposed Bush in the 2004 presidential race, as a "flip-flopper" for changing his mind about the conflict.

Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.

"There is ample data from the history of science showing that social and political liberals indeed do tend to support major revolutions in science," said Sulloway, who has written about the history of science and has studied behavioral differences between conservatives and liberals.

Lead author David Amodio, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University, cautioned that the study looked at a narrow range of human behavior and that it would be a mistake to conclude that one political orientation was better. The tendency of conservatives to block distracting information could be a good thing depending on the situation, he said.

Political orientation, he noted, occurs along a spectrum, and positions on specific issues, such as taxes, are influenced by many factors, including education and wealth. Some liberals oppose higher taxes and some conservatives favor abortion rights.

Still, he acknowledged that a meeting of the minds between conservatives and liberals looked difficult given the study results.

"Does this mean liberals and conservatives are never going to agree?" Amodio asked. "Maybe it suggests one reason why they tend not to get along."

--

denise.gellene@latimes.com


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Am I just a Figment of Someone's Imagination?

B"H

Tevet 15, 5768 * December 24, 2007

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T H E F R E E M A N F I L E S
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Am I just a Figment of Someone's Imagination?
By Tzvi Freeman
---------------------------------------------

To the ancient sage of Israel and pride of Latin America, the chief rabbi of the outskirts of certain parts of suburban Guadalajara and director of the Guadalajaran Mind-Body Spa,

Dear Guad,

Ever since I was a small child hooked on The Cartoon Channel, I've had this nagging, ominous sense that I'm no more than a figment of some nutty animator's imagination. I've gone for psychiatric help about this, but they generally start giggling nervously as I begin my description of the phenomenon, eventually exploding into full-blown laughter. What do you recommend to help me overcome this pathology?

--F. Igment

Dear Figment,

First we need to examine just how ludicrous this thought really is. Since it's not exactly the most comfortable perspective on life, we're better off breaking it down analytically to take an objective perspective.

What are the properties of imaginary characters?

1) Imaginary characters can go poof without notice.

You're in the middle of a 24 bit color, 3D audio daydream, when, without notice, someone places his hand on your shoulder and asks, "You doing okay?

"Yeah, uh sure, uh just daydreamin'."

"Tell me about it. Maybe we can sell it to Pixar."

"Um, well…"—and for the life of you, you can't recall a thing.

You know there were characters in that daydream. You know there was drama. But now it's all gone, as though they never existed. Well, in fact, they didn't, did they?

Sure, those characters may come back some day to haunt you. But they're not really the same characters. They are no more than products of unresolved inner turmoil, passions and boredom. The character himself only lives for the duration of the daydream, and then is gone forever, for in truth he never really was.

So if you are a figment of someone's imagination, that would imply that not only could you also disappear into oblivion in less than a moment—you, along with your friends, toys and dramas of life—but that your entire reality doesn't really exist to begin with.

You still want to continue with this? Okay, let's examine a little further:

2) Imaginary characters are intangible.

Actually, I don't know how true this is. You see the characters of your daydreams because the same dynamics are happening in your brain as occur when you see objects that are "out there." You hear them the same way, as well. So, if it's a deep dream, what's to stop you from smelling, tasting and touching them, as well.

Touch, after all, is just another sensation, only that it has an additional haptic quality that other senses don't have. That is, as you sense with touch, unlike with sight or hearing, you are also manipulating the object that you are touching.

Now, when you imagine something, you imagine it within space and time. Space implies that each object occupies a unique space and must be manipulated to move from that space. So, if it's to be a hi-res daydream, there will have to be some of that haptic palpability to it.

Think too much about this and your ganglia start tingling. Yes, the world feels so real. It can be hard as rock—nothing imaginary about that hard concrete floor you're standing on. At least, you hope so. How could imagination turn out so solid?

Think again: What's so solid about it? Only the fact that you don't slip through it. And why not? Only because the electromagnetic and nuclear forces that organize the particles of that concrete floor conflict with the parallel forces organizing the particles of your body. And what are those forces? Nothing more than a set of rules. What are rules? Intelligence.

Turns out that all there is behind the tangibility of our universe is concentrated, very consistent intelligence. Or call it a great imagination.

So, assuming the someone who is imagining has a real powerful imagination, the fact that we are tangible is not sufficient evidence to prove that we are not his/her/its cerebral artifacts.

Nevertheless, before we conclude that we very well might be tangible figments of someone's imagination, there are a few more properties to discuss:

3) Imaginary characters are not self-aware.

Yes, it is very difficult to imagine a character who is self-aware. Even when we deal with other human beings who (appear to) live outside of our imagination, we often barely acknowledge that they are just as self-aware as ourselves. Countless philosifizers have grasped in futility for a proof that anyone is self-aware other than the one doing the philosifizing.

But let's go back to our hypothesis that the someone imagining us has a much superior imagination than our own. The human mind, according to those who use the thing to study itself, can only imagine about 7 (give or take 2) discrete objects at once. Our universe contains around 10 to the 80th power of subatomic particles, structured within complex forms and dynamics. Yes, that takes some imagination.

I relate this to the time I was building electronic games using a graphic object model (called MOM—Metropolis Object Model. Great tool with lots of promise. Bought up by Quark in the early 90s and shelved). We drew objects on the screen, then dropped behaviors and properties into them, tweaked the parameters, and watched them interact. Two objects was a manageable proposition. Three objects already harried the mind. When you got to five or six, your brain was sizzling like a fried wiener. After juggling their complexity for a good 16 hours straight, all it took was for some smart aleck to walk in the room and ask, "How are you today?" and you would break down in tears, crying, "I've just lost the whole thing!"

That was hard. But I'll tell you something even harder, and that is to contain within your mind the feelings and perspectives of other people you are living with. Meaning, to be able to feel both how they feel and how you feel at once. As large a mind as MOM demanded from me, we demand from our Moms even more.

So if this imagination imagining us can also imagine this entire universe, what's to say it can't get out of itself and feel things from a couple of billion other perspectives as well—thereby endowing us all with self-consciousness. It takes a large mind to do that, but it's not unimaginable.

Still, there's something even more real about us than our own self-awareness. Something that makes us feel the ultimate, unimaginable I am:

4) Imaginary characters are not free to choose their own script.

Now here's a tough one. As much as we could try, how on earth could we imagine a character who exercises his/her/its own autonomy? I certainly can't program one—no matter how complex a random function I use, ultimately, my character will be predictable. How could my mind create an unpredictable character?

So here a little computer science might come in useful: Predictability is the product of rational numbers. That's because any logarithm that uses rational numbers can be resolved. A rational number is one that can be written as a ratio (1/2, 3/4, 128,398,743/3,483,473,164).

But then there are the irrational numbers. Those are numbers such as pi or the square root of two. When you try to write one of these numbers out, you get something like 1.414213562373… —meaning that you need an infinite number of placeholders to store this number. Problem is, we don't know how to build a computer with infinite storage. Even if we wire all those 10 to the 80th power particles of the universe to become one enormous computer (hey, who says they aren't already?), we still would be short of infinite.

It would be nice to just ignore these irascibles, but here's the clincher: There are infinitely more irrational numbers than rational numbers[1] What that means is that infinitely more of our world cannot be described on a finite computer than can be.[2]

Which means that even the universe itself can't compute what it's going to do next. Because even though it's a finite universe, it can only be measured by an infinite device. And if you can't store those numbers, you can't accurately predict anything.

So you'll be a little off, right? I mean, what's a few picoseconds or picometers here or there?

This is where chaocomplexity kicks in: When working with a system of just two factors, a little inaccuracy won't matter too much. You'll need to go through many, many iterations of your algorithm before it's noticeable. Increase that to three factors, things start getting out of whack exponentially faster. When you get to real-world complex systems, like the weather, the ecology, and my laundry, predictability lies only within a very small range of time and a very wide range of precision. When you talk about systems as complex as the human brain, predictability is out the window.

So this could explain how we human beings could still be figments of someone's imagination while remaining entirely unpredictable. You see, if this imagination was just very big, bigger than ours to the point that it could contain this mega-mega-big universe, it would still be limited to imagining a predictable universe. However, if it is an infinite imagination, then it could also handle irrational numbers. In which case, it could generate unpredictable beings.

Unpredictable + Self-Conscious = Free Choice.

Bingo, we have a formula for free-choice figments.


Ask a Friendly Kabbalist

All the above may leave you feeling a little uncomfortable about your status in reality. You may be asking, "Why hasn't anyone thought of this before?"

Well they have. They're called Kabbalists. Here are the words of one of the foremost Kabbalists, Rabbi Moses Cordovero, in his magnum opus, Pardes Rimonim (The Pomegranate Orchard)[3]:

The prophet says, "For His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways."[4]

Meaning that a person's thoughts have no real effect. He can imagine conjuring something into existence, but his thoughts accomplish nothing. He can fantasize and visualize the form of this thing he wishes to materialize, but his thoughts are futile. He must actually do something to make his thoughts real.

We see that for us, nothing is complete until an event occurs. Potentialities are not real—nothing is real until it has actually happened. The actual is everything. It is reality and without it there is nothing.

This is not the case with the "King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He," who causes being and generates existence. As soon as it has arisen in His will to isify[5] and to emanate the holy and pure emanation, immediately it is emanated and formed within Himself without any change in Him, heaven forbid. It is nothing more than an entity that unites with Him to the degree that there is no distinction between the emanation and the Emanator at all. They are entirely one.

What Rabbi Cordovero is saying is that with a single thought, G-d calls all into being. And if He would cease to think about us for a moment? Here's another quote from our same sagacious Kabbalist:

This is why we say[6], "And You vivify all of them." Our teachers of blessed memory interpreted this as, "And you is-ify all of them." But they also stood by the simple meaning of "You vivify all of them."—because it is all one idea: Since He is-ified them and brought them into existence out of nothing, the current must continue flowing and all of them continue drawing their vitality from Him. And since He is continually vivifying them, it turns out that He is is-ifying them at all times and at every moment and in every event. So you see that vivifying and is-ifying is really one thing.

Along the same lines, we can understand the words from the daily prayers, "And in His goodness He renews each day, continuously, the first act of Creation." This is talking about the current that flows to vivify them, to sustain them and to set all their properties. So that if, heaven forbid, you could imagine the withdrawal of His current from them—they would terminate immediately. This is all they are: projections of the mystery of His light. It is the current of a stream that is never interrupted but renews itself constantly, like the waters of a river that renew every moment.

In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, citing a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov:

If the letters of the ten utterances by which the earth was created during the six days of creation were to depart from it for just an instant, G-d forbid, it would revert to void and absolute nothingness— exactly like before the six days of creation.

Poof! We never were. In fact, as far as we can tell, it may have just occurred just now. Maybe He forgot about us for a moment and we ceased existing. Then He started up the daydream again, and here we are again. Prove me wrong.


Redemption

Okay, one last step. We've left for last the most pertinent question, perhaps the only truly relevant question: So what? So I'm not as real as I thought I was. But within my limited little world, as I see it, I am real. So who cares what some supermind is thinking out there? How does it affect the price of coffee and the schedule in my TV Guide?

Actually, there wouldn't be much use for this whole exercise if it weren't for one more detail: You see, this Infinite Mind that is imagining you right now is not satisfied with a one-way daydream. Daydreams can sweep you away for a moment or two, but they fail to engage the all of you. This Infinite Mind is into interactive play. Interactivity is where you get all of the person into the show.

So He stoops down into His own grand daydream and says to us little critters, "Hey, guys, what do you think of this universe I imagined up? Look at those sub-atomic particles whizzing around within every piece of matter, those bio-factory cells that power every diverse form of life, those universal patterns that resonate throughout the entire cosmos. Awesome stuff, right? So, hey, you want a piece of the action?"

Now who wouldn't want a piece of the action? So He goes on:

"Well, guess what? You may have noticed that there's some unfinished business around this place. A few details kind of out of synch. Some of it can look real messy, too. But there's potential there. Well, that's what I left over for you guys. And just to make sure you get it right, I'm sending you a Torah with some enlightened teachers, like Moses and his buddies, so you can get into my way of thinking about things."

"And if you have any problems, I've got an open door—just talk to me and almost anything can be solved."

So are we figments of Someone's imagination? Looks like it. Until that point when we are liberated, when we enter into a relationship with the Infinite Mind that imagines us. At that point, we leave fantasy and unite with the Ultimate Reality. We become real.


Footnotes:
1. Yes, there are an infinite number of rational numbers, even between any two points, such as 1 and 2. But Georg Cantor has already proven that irrational numbers are infinitely more infinite.
2. For a more complete presentation of this issue than I am able to present here, see Chapter One of Paul Davies' The Matter Myth.
3. Shaar Hatzachtzachos, Chapter 3.
4. Isaiah 55:8.
5. "bring into being" is too awkward. In Hebrew: m'haveh—the causative participle of the verb to be.
6. Nechemia 9:6; c.f. the prayer liturgy.


- Rabbi Tzvi Freeman heads Chabad.org's Ask The Rabbi team, and is a senior member of the Chabad.org editorial team. He is the author of a number of highly original renditions of Kabbalah and Chassidic teaching, including the universally acclaimed "Bringing Heaven Down to Earth." To order Tzvi's books click here: http://www.chabad.org/240099 .

- To view this article on the Web, or to post a comment, please click here: http://www.chabad.org/615042 .

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

Box of Rain

Look out of any window
any morning, any evening, any day
Maybe the sun is shining
birds are winging or
rain is falling from a heavy sky -
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
this is all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

Walk out of any doorway
feel your way, feel your way
like the day before
Maybe you'll find direction
around some corner
where it's been waiting to meet you -
What do you want me to do,
to watch for you while you're sleeping?
Well please don't be surprised
when you find me dreaming too

Look into any eyes
you find by you, you can see
clear through to another day
I know it's been seen before
through other eyes on other days
while going home --
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
It's all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

Walk into splintered sunlight
Inch your way through dead dreams
to another land
Maybe you're tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted
with words half spoken
and thoughts unclear
What do you want me to do
to do for you to see you through
A box of rain will ease the pain
and love will see you through

Just a box of rain -
wind and water -
Believe it if you need it,
if you don't just pass it on
Sun and shower -
Wind and rain -
in and out the window
like a moth before a flame

It's just a box of rain
I don't know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it's just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

– words by Robert Hunter;
– music by Phil Lesh