Posted tagged ‘materialism’

Burrowing into tragedy: a story behind the story of the Iraq War Suicides.

June 5, 2008

Cross Posted at Cosmic Variance (thanks Sean).

My thanks to all here who gave me such a warm welcome on Monday (and, again, to Sean for asking me here in the first place).

This post emerges out of this sad story of a week or so ago.

Over Memorial Day weekend this year there was a flurry of media coverage about the devastating psychological toll of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The single most awful paragraph in the round-up:

“According to the Army, more than 2,000 active-duty soldiers attempted suicide or suffered serious self-inflicted injuries in 2007, compared to fewer than 500 such cases in 2002, the year before the United States invaded Iraq. A recent study by the nonprofit Rand Corp. found that 300,000 of the nearly 1.7 million soldiers who’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or a major mental illness, conditions that are worsened by lengthy deployments and, if left untreated, can lead to suicide.”

(For details and a link to a PDF of the Army report – go here.)

This report, obviously, is the simply the quantitative background to a surfeit of individual tragedy – but my point here is not that war produces terrible consequences.

Rather, the accounts of the Iraq War suicides — 115 current or former servicemen and women in 2007 – struck me for what was implied, but as far as I could find, not discussed in the mass media: the subtle and almost surreptitious way in which the brain-mind dichotomy is breaking down, both as science and as popular culture.

How so? It is, thankfully, becoming much more broadly understood within the military and beyond that “shell shock” is not malingering, or evidence of an essential weakness of moral fiber. PTSD is now understood as a disease, and as one that involves physical changes in the brain.

The cause and effect chain between the sight of horror and feelings of despair cannot, given this knowledge, omit the crucial link of the material substrate in which the altered and destructive emotions can emerge. PTSD becomes thus a medical, and not a spiritual pathology.

(This idea still faces some resistance, certainly. I launched my blog with a discussion of the attempt to court martial a soldier for the circumstances surrounding her suicide attempt. But even so, the Army is vastly further along in this area that it was in the Vietnam era and before.)

Similarly, depression is clearly understood as a disease with a physical pathology that underlies the malign sadness of the condition. (H/t the biologist Louis Wolpert for the term and his somewhat oddly detached but fascinating memoir of depression.)

This notion of the material basis of things we experience as our mental selves is not just confined to pathology. So-called smart drugs let us know how chemically malleable our selves can be.

More broadly, the study of neuroplasticity provides a physiological basis for the common sense notion that experience changes who we perceive ourselves to be.

All this seems to me to be a good thing, in the sense that (a) the study of the brain is yielding significant results that now or will soon greatly advance human well being; and (b) that the public seems to be taking on board some of the essential messages. The abuses (overmedication, anyone?) are certainly there. But to me, it is an unalloyed good thing that we have left the age of shell shock mostly behind us.

At the same time, I’m a bit surprised that the implications of this increasingly public expression of an essentially materialist view of mind haven’t flared up as a major battle in the science culture wars.

Just to rehearse the obvious: the problem with cosmology for the other side in the culture war is that it conflicts with the idea of the omnipresent omnipotence of God. The embarrassment of evolutionary biology is that it denies humankind a special place in that God’s creation, destroying the unique status of the human species as distinct from all the rest of the living world.

Now along comes neuroscience to make the powerful case that our most intimate sense of participating in the numinous is an illusion.

Instead, the trend of current neuroscience seems to argue that the enormously powerful sense each of us has of a self as distinct from the matter of which we are made is false. Our minds, our selves may be real—but they are the outcome of a purely material process taking place in the liter or so of grey stuff between our ears.

(There are dissenters to be sure, those that argue against the imperial materialism they see in contemporary neuroscience. See this essay for a forceful expression of that view.)

I do know that this line of thought leads down a very convoluted rabbit hole, and that’s not where I am trying to go just now.

Instead, the reports of the Iraq suicides demonstrated for me that the way the news of the materiality of mind is is slipping into our public culture without actually daring (or needing) to speaking its name.

That the problem of consciousness is still truly unsolved matters less in this arena than the fact of fMRI experiments that demonstrate the alterations in brain structure and metabolism associated with the stresses of war or the easing of the blank, black hole of depression. The very piecemeal state of the field helps mask its potentially inflammatory cultural implications.

To me this suggests two possibilities. One is that it is conceivable that when the penny finally drops, we might see backlash against technological interventions into the self like that which has impeded stem cell research in the U.S.

On the other hand, I don’t think that the public can be motivated or even bamboozled into blocking the basic science in this field. Too much rests on the work; any family that has experienced Alzheimers knows just how urgent the field may be — not to mention anyone with a loved one in harms way.

This actually gives me hope for a shift in the culture war. For all the time and energy wasted over the last several years defending the idea of science against attacks on evolution, with the cosmologists taking their lumps too – the science of mind could force a shift in the terms of engagement decisively in the right direction.

Or I could be guilty of another bout of wishful thinking. Thoughts?

Image: Brain in a Vat, article illustration. Offered in homage to my friend and source of wisdom, Hilary Putnam, who introduced the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment in this book. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday blogging: On the Nature of Things — Philip Pullman edition

April 6, 2008

So I’m late to the Pullman party. I only picked up The Golden Compass after the publicity surrounding the movie — which makes me a full ten years tardy, in fact.

But read that book I did, and then, following a course plenty of folks have travelled before me, devoured the next two books in the trilogy as fast as I could.

The best thing about the book is that Pullman’s argument about the horror of dogma self-perpetuating by force runs through just about every plot event, but almost always does not displace the glories of the work: its realization of a marvelously realized alternate world and a human story told through the lives and actions of recognizable individuals.

There is a polemic reading of the trilogy, that is, but the characters are human, not types. (Mostly human, of course. Iorek is one of the most astoundingly complete characters I’ve found in fiction for a long time, to name one among many.) Pullman’s argument against revealed religion works, in fact, because it plays on the emotions brought into play only when you care about the individual lives and deaths he has made so imaginatively real.

But a bit of pop criticism of a book that I imagine most readers of this blog found long before I did is not why this post comes into existence. Instead, I want here to bring to the surface the root of perhaps the most powerful and beautiful passage in the entire trilogy — the moment (spoiler alert) in Book Three, The Amber Spyglass when Lyra tells the multitudes of the dead what will happen if they follow her and Will back up to the world of the living.

This entire episode is infused with classical sources; the tale of living men or women descending to the underworld to seek insight or to beg favors of the dead is one that originates deep in our past, and recurs again and again in the great literary investigations of human experience. Think of Hercules seeking Persephone, or Oddyseus in pursuit of knowledge…and then Dante, accompanied by Virgil examining the taxonomy of sin and human vanity in the greatest of all such stories (IMHO, of course).

Pullman’s version speaks to that tradition, locating the center of its terror in the direct confrontation between his heroes and their own deaths.

But then, in a brief set-piece, Pullman makes the single most direct and powerful claim of the whole work for his secular vision of transcendence in death. It is the necessary affirmative statement to balance his negative argument about the anti-human qualities of revealed religions. Lyra and Will have offered to lead the dead out of the grim, hellish experience of sense-less eternity. The dead ask what will happen, and Lyra tells them this:

She took out the golden instrument. The answer came at once. She put it away and stood up.

“This is what’ll happen,” she said, “and it’s true, perfectly true. When you go out of here, all the aprticles that make you up will loosen and float apaqrt, just like your daemons did. If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that look like. But your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms taht were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. theyre just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you, I swear to you. I promise on my honor. You’ll drift apart, it’s true. But you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”

And then there is this, as glossed by me in an earlier book of my own:

“For that which once came from earth to earth returns back again…Nor does death so destroy as to annihilate the bodies of matter, but it disperses their combination abroad, and then conjoins others with others…” But though atoms traipse through an eternal dance, coming together and falling apart, the human soul did not. Lucretius wrote, “Even if time shall gather together our matter after death and bring it back again as it is now placed, and if once more the light of life shall be given to us, yet it would not matter to us that even this had been done, when the recollection of ourselves has once been broken asunder, and to us now, no memory, no anguish remains from those who we were before.” Therefore, Lucretius concluded: “We may be sure that there is nothing to be feared after death”–for both sensation and memory are lost forever. Life is lived once, now, and that is all.

Lucretius wrote that in what I think is the greatest poem of science, Of The Nature of Things, written before 50 BCE (i.e. in the last decades of the Roman Republic).

Thus one of the foundational ideas of humanism:

This world matters; this time in which I write and you read is all in all. Our atoms may be eternal (though modern physics would say protons, whose claim on eternity has a current lower bound of 10 to the thirty fifth years) but our consciousness is not.

This is exactly the argument that runs all the way through Pullman’s trilogy. One chance means one chance to get it right. (Contrast this with the morally repugnant claim that commitment to a revealed religion is an essential precondition for leading a moral life. Scroll down to Sharon Soon’s quotes if you have a strong stomach.)

Back to Pullman. This moment comes and goes quickly in the rush of action at the end of the trilogy. After all, Pullman is writing a inversion of the battle for command of heaven and earth that typically ends with the triumph of God and the banishment of the dissident angels. There’s quite a campaign to manage, and the detour to the underworld is here, as in most epics, a subplot, a moment to pause the action, and perhaps (as here) to stand on the soap box for a while.

But this passage contains more than a skeptics credo. Instead, it is essential, I think, to the idea that Pullman wants to leave at and after his long work’s end.

As the trilogy closes, it seems, rather oddly given all the tumult of the last thousand pages or so, that everything returns to normal.Lyra in her world finds that the Church is still there, powerfully contending for allegiance and belief. It is, we are told, somewhat changed, a little less inclined towards the total intellectual dictatorship that threatened at the beginning of the book. The warring factions within and outside the church remain. Life continues.

Lucretius lived more than two millenia ago. It remains something of a mystery how his great poem survived most of those years, given the hostility of this world’s Church to his uncompromised materialism, his denial of the immortality of the individual soul.

This is an old argument, that is, one which, despite the advance of the most successful materialist program of discovery in history — the scientific revolution which began to take on its modern form just a few centuries ago.

There are communities within the science blogosphere that rage against this fact of life, this eternal return of the same battles. (See, e.g., almost any comment thread at Pharyngula.)

I’m not saying they shouldn’t. But I am saying that Pullman got it.

He explicitly presented the titanic struggle of His Dark Materials as but one campaign in a more or less endless war — not so much one between reason and folly (h/t Erasmus) as between the claims of this world vs. those of a notional next. His use of the language, imagery, even the elegance of Lucretius reinforces the point. The Greeks fought about this (as did the Jews, in an interesting way to be blogged another time.) The Romans did. Christian believers have, on both sides of the trenches. We do too. It’s better — more relaxing, certainly, and probably more conducive to tactical clarity — to take the long view. Or so, at least, I read Philip Pullman.

Image:  Luca Signorelli, “The Damned,” 1499-1505. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.