"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Category: I-We

Robots, Hives and Heroes

Robots

We are now able to engineer machines to perform feats that were, only a few short years ago, thought to be very distant possibilities in an imagined future. Self-driving vehicles, medical advances that outstrip the diagnostic abilities of the most able and experienced physicians, robots capable of accomplishing tasks of great complexity, are some examples. These futuristic achievements resulted from a breakthrough in how to program computers perform tasks.

Computers are programed using algorithms, which are simply formulas that define the organization and order for systematically performing operations needed to execute a task. These, of course, can be very complex, as the tasks become more complex, but are typically also rigid; once programed, the sequencing organization cannot be changed unless the programmers make modifications. The learning—the altering the organization based on feedback from the results —is done by the programmers.

All this changed with the advent of ‘machine intelligence’, where learning occurs within the machine itself. The algorithms responsible for machine learning are not completely rigid. They can self-modify, based on the results of its action. Exposure to many, many, situations, creates many, many different outcomes that provide feedback, generating iterative adjustments (learning) that refine and perfect the performance. Machines become experts, capable of discriminations and decisions that can surpass the best human experts.1

Brain

The human brain is the model for how machine learning is programmed. The brain is composed of billions of neurons knitted together in complex networks. Each neuron operates like an on-off switch; it is either ‘on’—firing an electrical impulse—or ‘off’. The firing occurs when the electrical potential between neurons reaches a critical value, generating a spark that jumps the gap between the neurons. This becomes a link in a neural pathway that is part of an incomprehensibly vast web of networks. The networks are constantly changing as circumstances change. Habits create established neural pathways that occur when confronted with familiar circumstances. Learning occurs when feedback from familiar situations is sufficiently different from expected, prompting alteration of the response, changing electrical potentials between neurons, and thus changing the neural networks.

Machine learning is composed of silicon, rather than neural on-off switches, and the networks are very simple, not infinitely complex, but in both, feedback changes the firing potentials between switches, which alters the networks, which alters the responses.2 Simple, individual components capable of only the most elementary and inflexible on-off responses, when combined into complex networks of coordinated action, give rise to a system capable of solving impossibly complex tasks, and self-correcting as is goes. Thus occurs a promethean leap from silicon and neurons to intelligence and mind.3

Hive

What is this? It is not a sand hill. It is a termite mound. It is also housing for, and integral to, a mind; a hive mind. Each individual termite can perform simple functions, certainly more complex that an on-off switch, but quite limited in flexibility and function. The biology of the termite (reflexes, nervous system, exoskeleton, etc.) constrain the scope and functioning of individuals, but, most importantly, also encompass the ability to communicate and cooperate with other termites. This is a critical component for survival, for like the on-off switches of computers and brains, individuals become part of networks of collaborative action, which gives rise to a hive mind.

This mind is capable intelligent actions and evidenced in the termite mound itself. The structure is among the largest of any constructed by non-human species and acts as a huge lung, allowing the entire colony to inhale oxygen, exhale carbon dioxide, house underground cultivated gardens and specialized chambers, and is under continual alteration to adjust to changes in weather and humidity to keep a constant livable environment for the inhabitants. Single individuals are incapable of learning and lacking in memory. A hive is capable of both, in very complex ways; foraging widely for food and bringing it back to the hive, adjusting to changes in the environment, developing creative solutions to the problems encountered.4 The hive is made possible by the biology of the individual to establish collaborative networks. The survival of the individual is dependent on the survival of the hive.

Humans

What is this? It is not a metal and glass hill. It is a human mound. It is also housing for, and integral to, a mind; a hive mind. Each individual is certainly more complex than an on-off switch or a termite. Each possesses a mind capable of intelligent, creative actions and adaptive responses. Despite individual sophistication, however, they cannot survive independent of the hive.5 Biology (reflexes, nervous system, endoskeleton, etc.) constrains the scope and adaptability of individuals, but, most importantly, also encompasses the ability to communicate and cooperate with others. This is critical for survival, and like the on-off ‘switches’ of computers and brains, and the biology of termites, allows individuals to become part of networks of collaborative action that give rise to a hive mind. The survival of the individual is dependent on the survival of the hive. One becomes the many. The many protect the one.

The Screw

The hive mind, that is, the collective capacity to understand and undertake projects that allow the human hive to adapt to demands and changing conditions that help insure the welfare of the collective, are beyond what any one of us could possibly conceive or execute. They also typically are hidden from view, in the background, as we attend to the foreground that preoccupies our daily lives. We drive to the market, unaware and unappreciative that every single act is made possible through the hive mind.6 What single individual could build a car from scratch; scratch here meaning, produce even a simple screw needed for the task? Indeed, the human hive-mind not only encompasses the hum and buzz of the living, but also resonates with the deeper register of the hum and buzz of the long past; those who learned to make metal from dirt, the physics of the screw, and the machine tools to make a screw, for example.

The Heroic Individual

We Americans are especially blind to the humming significance of the hive mind, as our model of the heroic individual pervades all aspects of our life, from economics, to politics, to psychotherapy. Certainly, individual initiative, determination, intelligence and adaptability are important attributes that can contribute to our individual accomplishments and fate. Often, however, the model also includes the assumption that the individual is pitted against the world—the collective “they”; that our fate is totally in our hands and we are solely responsible for our success or failure, and the collective is a barrier to achieving success.7

The Heroic Ones and the Many

Rescue

Crises that threaten the hive, such as pandemics, most forcefully reveal the limitations of the individual, however able, to survive on their own. Our collective welfare, and survival, and our individual welfare, and survival, are inseparable. And the most heroic individuals are those who are ready to sacrifice their welfare, even their lives, for the collective; health care workers, police and firefighters, to name but a few. We use the term ‘heroic’ only for those who sacrifice themselves for the greater good. We understand, at a primitive level, that individual sacrifice that only benefits ourselves is not heroic. It may be admirable, encompassing individual pluck and initiative, but it is not ‘heroic’. One becomes the many. The many protect the one. The heroic ones protect the many.

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Pandemic Exposure

Crises expose. Some crises are personal; a traumatic event, life-threatening illness, death of a loved one. Some are communal; war, economic collapse, pandemic. Crises rupture our everyday life, upending what we have taken for granted, rendering what we thought essential as trivial, forcing us to confront stark realities about our life—and the impending end of our life.

Crises cloud our vision, as anxiety and dread about our future, our fate, our survival disorient and overwhelm. The rupture of crises also expose, perhaps for the first time, the hidden undergirding that gives our life structure and stability. It can be a clarifying moment, if we open our eyes, allowing us to understand and appreciate what we otherwise failed to see.

The pandemic affords us this opportunity. What is important? Basic needs: food, shelter, health and safety. We discover that those who are essential for providing these are not sports ‘heroes’, media celebrities, or hedge fund managers. The heroes are nurses, health care workers, doctors and hospital cleaning people; truckers, delivery people, mail carriers and supermarket employees; police, firefighters, utility workers and trash collectors. They risk their lives for the greater good, and have performed these tasks, every day, before the pandemic—and with few exceptions, have been invisible, unappreciated, and underpaid.

The previously simple act of driving to the market to buy supper is now a considered act of anticipation (when is the best time?), hope (have they run out of…?) and consternation (will I be able to feed myself and my family?). It is also an act made possible by a dense network of rules, regulations, policies, and fiscal commitments by the government. The extent of this is so enormous that only a small set of examples are needed to make the point.

Get in your car. There is standard, mandatory equipment, critical for travel, such as breaks, headlights and taillights, windshields, wipers, etc., etc. Driving requires everyone to follow an array of rules and regulations, otherwise commerce and travel would be nearly impossible; stay on the righthand side of the road, ‘stop’ on red, ‘go’ on green, etc., etc. All drivers are required to be licensed to guarantee universal understanding and competence. Once we begin our drive, the hidden governmental structures making possible the roads we travel also fill volumes—and we have not even arrived at the market, which possesses its own vast edifice of governmental structures and supports. A simple drive to the market, so critical for sustenance and now a conscious focus of concern, is supported and made possible by the “deep state”. And this is only a single, simple act. Almost everything we do in our modern life would be impossible without government, which enables complex collaboration, commerce and exchange among over 300 million citizens. The past 40 years has been marked by the rise of a powerful political movement that has marched to the slogan, “Government is not the answer, it is the problem”. One of the aims of this movement have been to dismantle programs that arose during the New Deal, such as Social Security, and subsequent programs, such as Medicare. “Wasteful, inefficient, and unnecessary resources given to the undeserving” is chanted under this banner. It has been more than 75 years since the Great Depression and World War II, when we were confronted with a global crisis like the pandemic1.

Individual initiative, drive, and intelligence, as well as corporate profit-making and market forces are powerless to effectively confront the challenges posed in these times of crises. Government is not only the answer, it is the only answer. Massive marshaling of resources, creation and coordination of agencies to address a single aim, and new agencies and regulations for banking, commerce, fiscal markets, and corporate conduct are needed, as is deficit spending and government programs to provide food, shelter, health and safety.

The pandemic, like previous global crises, requires massive government intervention, unprecedented deficit spending, and a new “rulebook”, which is in the process of being written as we go. Very few of either political party object, and there is near universal agreement of the necessity to multiply the size of national debt. And who is at the head of the line, hat in hand, demanding a governmental handout? Captains of industry, CEO’s of investment firms, small businesses owners, and other ardent proponents of “Government is the Problem”.

Crises expose.

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Songs From The Crib

Долпхин

What in the world is this?

If you have recognized that this might be a word written in a foreign language, you have made a huge cognitive leap; recognizing that bizarre shapes can stand for letters that, in turn, stand for sounds that, when combined, can create the sound of a word that, when spoken, has a shared meaning with others.1 We forget just how strange, magical and shocking written language is. Or how difficult to learn.

Literacy is not natural, does not come unbidden like spoken language; it is a cultural invention, not a biological imperative. It is a tool, not unlike the wheel, that aids mental rather than manual labor. Like all tools, it extends human action in ways that take us beyond our biological capacities. It becomes an extension of ourselves, deeply altering ourselves and our community.

Literacy is the key for entry into the hallways of our highly complex, highly technological culture. It requires many, many years of hard labor, sitting in a chair, stationary, in deep concentration for hours at a time—another unnatural imposition on a body that is biologically primed for movement, action and activity, especially so during the critical years for gaining the foundations of literacy; from 4 to 10 years of age. We frequently overlook this topsy-turvy upending of biology, as school has replaced the natural world as the environment requiring adaptive responses; survival in today’s world means survival in an environment scribed in print.

The reach of literacy in our lives is so pervasive and profound that to be illiterate is to be bereft of significance; to be consigned to a life of ridicule, hardship and a dead-end future. Publish or perish, describes life in academia, where failure to have an authorial presence in the scholarly community is to cease to exist as a meaningful entity within that community. This phrase can be altered to Read or die, to encompass the significance of literacy in the broader culture.

Oral and Literate Cultures

One of the consequences of literacy, and the intense, prolonged training it requires, is that music and dance have been relegated to extracurricular, after school activities. The placement of these activities embodies the transformation from oral to literate cultures. The segment occupied by literacy in the long arc of human history is quite brief. The first written language appeared only 5500 years ago, and of the 3000 languages that have been identified, 78 have had writing.2

Unlike literate cultures, music and dance are the foundational axis of life in oral cultures—the predominate form of culture for most of human history. Lacking writing, these cultures use song and dance to remember, recount, recreate history, and preserve tradition; to celebrate important ceremonial events, evoke the presence of gods and spirits, conduct rites of passage, and enact rituals of religious significance. Music and dance are the repository of culture, which is inscribed, not in a book, but in the body.

The environment of literate culture overlooks the primal power of music and dance in human life, and can lead to the conclusion that these are “after school” activities; auxiliary endeavors, with little importance or evolutionary significance. Indeed, this is the conclusion of some noted cognitive neuroscientists.3 But music and dance make their appearance, developmentally, long before school starts, providing essential scaffolding for the emergence of speech, language and the attainment of literacy.

Songs From the Crib

Music and dance begin in the crib. Human neonates are the most helpless beings born into this world and, from the first moments of life, are beholden to others for the most basic needs; to be fed, clothed, moved, sheltered, protected and soothed. These urgent needs, requiring immediate care and attention, are expressed in urgent ways that are clear and unambiguous; through vocalizations, bodily movements and gestures.

Neonates are exquisitely perceptually attuned to the presence and response of others. They make remarkable discriminations in human speech sounds (e.g., distinguishing ‘p’ from ‘b’), orient toward the human voice (especially female voices), and can identify the voice of their mothers. Neonates are primed to orient toward the human face, can discriminate and imitate facial features of another, and are capable of expressing recognizable emotions through vocalizations, most notably crying, and through facial and bodily gestures. These abilities are quickly elaborated as infants become capable of nuanced, complex, extended communications.

Attunement is mutual. It should not be surprising that adults of a species are especially sensitive and responsive to the signals and cries of their newborns. Adults, without training or experience, understand the meaning of infant cries, distinguishing hunger cries form cries of pain, and also discriminating cries of healthy infants from those at risk for various developmental difficulties.

Not only are adults attuned to infants expressions, they also sensitively adjust their communications in ways that maximize infants attention and involvement. Adults exaggerate and pace their vocalizations creating rhythmic, periodic, tonally heightened expressions. These exaggerated expressions, called motherese, are non-conscious engagements automatically used by adults and children across cultures. Similarly, exaggerated facial and body expressions serve to heighten the salience of communicated meaning.

The resulting communicative exchanges are ballets of sound, movement, gesture and posture. Infants’ communications, such as a cry or smile, possess their own unique body/sound signature that are distinctive, obvious and unmistakable. And powerful. They compel a response—a response that is distinctive, obvious and unmistakable.4

Music and dance, grounded in our bodies from birth, possess the power to sway, to enchant, to entrance, to overwhelm.5 Oral cultures are the natural outgrowths of these biologically given forms of human communication. Although literate cultures relegate music and dance to “after school” status, we are, to the core, creatures of song and dance.

If you can’t say it, you sing it, and if you can’t sing it, you dance it…6 7

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Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box Morality

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, these are giants of moral virtue, courage and commitment. They devoted their lives, sacrificed their lives, for the cause of justice and the greater good. When we think of living an exemplar moral life, it is these lives that we look to because of their engagement of big issues that affect big changes in a multitude of lives. They overshadow our small, insignificant lives, lived in the alleyways of common life.

An equally long shadow is cast from the methods typically used to understand the nature and development of morality. The study of moral development has, for decades, used moral dilemmas to determine one’s moral stage of development. For example, the question is posed, “If you were poor and your parent had a life-threatening illness that required a drug that you could not afford, would it be acceptable to steal it?” Analysis of the reasoning involved in the answer is used to determine individuals’ “moral stage”. Philosophical inquiries into the basis and origins of morality and ethics typically pose similar moral dilemmas to expose underlying moral reasoning and values. These approaches assume that morality is exposed in events of great significance, and that reason and logic are the gateways to identifying and codify the rules of ethics.

Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box

I call the beliefs that morality is manifest only in the lives of great personages or in life-altering situations “Big Box” morality. It is presumed that from the flat, quotidian landscape of life, morality arises and is made manifest in singular lives and in life-defining moments. It is here where moral character is revealed. And this presumption is misguided. These singular lives and defining events, while important, are merely more pronounced features of the rich, dense moral landscape that comprise all our lives. Morality and ethics are not Big Box items. Nor are they derived from reason or deducible from logic. They are conditions of being, like breathing, where our every action is inescapably a moral one. We are, fundamentally, constitutionally, inescapably, moral.1 Not “Big Box”, but mom and pop morality.

mom & pop

I place my mother with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Florence Nightingale in my moral pantheon of individuals I admire.  My mother, of course, is not Big Box. She, instead, underscores the absolutely essential contributions of the unheralded moms and pops. The moms and pops are all of us, not just parents, not just adults. Our lives are embedded within the moral matrix of family, friends, and communities, great and small, whose accumulated commitments form us, nurture us, bind us at the nuclear level. Moms and pops are the hands that reach from the past into the present, that constitute, stabilize, and guide us through life, and reach, though us, into the future. This occurs, not at moments of acute crisis, but at the at the everyday, ground floor of human action, care, giving and exchange.

Our daily life is a moral one, and it is only the moral currency we have earned in our life’s journey that matters:

Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last. … A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?. 2

Tribute and Remembrance

Mom

I offer this tribute to my mother and, by association, to all the moms and pops, whether parents, adults, or children, who form the collective web of moral regard that binds us together.

When my mother died we found this Bible verse, Psalm 86:11, on prominent display on her desk:

Teach me your way O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

Teach me, my Lord, to be sweet and gentle in all the events of life—in disappointments, in the thoughtlessness of others, in the insincerity of those I trusted.

Let me put myself aside, to think of the happiness of others, to hide my little pains and heartaches, so that I may be the only one to suffer from them.

Teach me to profit by the suffering that comes across my path. Let me so see it that it may mellow me, not harden, not embitter me.

That it may make me patient, not irritable, that it may make me broad in my forgiveness, not narrow, haughty and overbearing.

May no one be less good from having come within my influence.

No one less pure, less true, less kind, less noble for having been a fellow-traveler in our journey toward eternal life.

Teach me O Lord, your way.

This is how she lived her life.

She died 5 years ago, on Good Friday, April 19, 2014.

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Origins of Ethics

Morality Unspoken

The words were never spoken in my house. Never once uttered. Indeed, they were assiduously avoided, as if saying them would change everything, call into question the very meaning of the words. But never, for a day, for a moment, did I ever feel unloved. They were of a different generation, my parents, a generation less psychological, one less in need of constant reassurance, one both more and less direct. I never longed for them to say it, never felt deprived, never in doubt, for even in their displeasure, censure, and anger, I knew.

There is, of course, merit in saying the words, “I love you”. Few other words have such a life-altering impact as these. But the sinews of love, the binding strength of love, is in deeds, not words. This is why, before and beyond anything we utter, our deeds go forth in the world, and why I know that I, myself, am able to love—because my parent’s deeds live on in me.

My parents love for me, and my sister and brother, did not spring from their religious beliefs, was not contingent on church affiliation, not derived from “Thou Shalt Not” imperatives. They could have left their church (they did), changed religions, or become non-believers and their nurturance, protection and care for their children would have remain unaltered. Their commitment to our welfare was deeper than religion, more primal than creed.

Ethical Indebtedness

We do not choose our children. They are born to us, miraculously, and we are entrusted with their care. Our face-to-face encounters with our children are asymmetrical; our children are completely vulnerable to our response, completely dependent on our care. They expose us to the mystery of life, and their helplessness alerts us to the ever presence of harm, injury, death. Their life depends on our simple, daily acts of feeding, giving and care. We love our children, not for what they can do, or what they provide, but because of who they are, their irreducible uniqueness; specific beings who are bound to us, who have a moral claim on our being.

This moral claim entails love. If our “care” for children is merely functional, simply dispensing nutrients, offering basic shelter, and providing the bare essentials necessary for survival—“care” without love—our offspring wither and die.1 Every culture, in every historical epoch, shares these human truths. Our love for our children, and the attendant acts of care, are hardwired.  And this must be so, if our species is to survive.

The ethical circle of regard encompasses more than our children. We are a social species and our individual and collective survival depends on our communal acts of care, cooperation and sharing. This, too, is hardwired, from the specific brain neurons dedicated to human facial recognition, to neonates’ innate ability to imitate others, to toddlers’ preverbal appreciation of fairness in exchanges, to young children’s spontaneous acts of compassion toward someone in distress.

Ethics does not appear only when creeds are uttered. Morality is not confined to those who profess certain beliefs. We are beholden to others, dependent on one another throughout our lives. We are, fundamentally, ethical beings. Our daily, in-this-moment journey is a moral one, and every action a decision about how to comport ourselves in the face of ethical demands engendered by being with others.

Ethics and Cruelty

Picasso’s Guernica
Museum Reina Sofia
Madrid, Spain

Human history, however, or even a cursory glance at the morning headlines, reveals a frightening range of human cruelty, casting a shadow over assertions about the fundamental ethical nature of human life. Our primordial ethical indebtedness does not prevent murder, rape, abuse or the many other forms of malevolence or, for that matter, the petty acts of greed, dishonesty, and selfishness that pollute our daily life. Overwhelming evidence indicates that more than ethical kindness beats in the human heart. But human cruelty does not obviate the centrality of ethics in human life. Rather, our ethical relatedness exposes human cruelty, allows us to grasp it as such.

Ethical Humanism

Ethical Society St. Louis

I am a member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, which is a humanist, non-theist religious community. We are often queried by our more traditional religious friends of how we can be moral without a creed; how we can be ethical without a belief in a higher power. These questions are posed to us by those from a variety of different religious traditions, beliefs and practices. Our answer: The multiplicity, diversity, and sometimes contradictory ethics of the many religions spring from a common human ground of ethical regard. Or, more simply: “Deed Before Creed.”2 3

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