While reading an article called The Science of Loneliness, I found this interesting passage:

Functional magnetic resonance imaging scans showed that the experience of being snubbed lit up a part of the subjects’ brains (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) that also lights up when the body feels physical pain.

I asked Eisenberger why, if the same part of our brain processes social insult and bodily injury, we don’t confuse the two. She explained that physical harm simultaneously lights up another neural region as well, one whose job is to locate the ache—on an arm or leg, inside the body, and so on. What the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex registers is the emotional fact that pain is distressing, be it social or physical. She calls this the “affective component” of pain. In operations performed to relieve chronic pain, doctors have lesioned, or disabled, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. After the surgery, the patients report that they can still sense where the trouble comes from, but, they add, it just doesn’t bother them anymore.

What this means is that emotional pain isn’t a metaphorical, “all in your head” thing. It is literal pain, the difference from physical pain being that it is not located at a specific site in the body. From this we can see why people use alcohol and opiates to cope with emotional distress – they function as literal and functional anaesthetics. Which puts the matter of “substance abuse” in a different perspective. You don’t tell someone with a broken leg that their need for painkillers is a character flaw, do you?

(I must advise those tempted to self-medicate for anxiety that taking large amounts of paracetamol will cause liver damage.)

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This linked article collects short pieces on the reconciliation of religion and atheism:
After God: What can atheists learn from believers?

The title is a bit of misdirection, as it’s not suggested that atheists can learn anything useful from what believers in religion may tell them. Rather, the main subject is ways in which the lives of the godless can be improved by elements of religion.

The backlash against the blinkered aspects of the “New Atheists” has in fact been quite blinkered in itself – yes, the NAs may not know every nook and cranny of the theology they are arguing against, and the history of the USSR shows that a (supposedly) godless nation may perpetrate all the horrors of the religious state and then some, but underlying the backlash argument is the thought that, because the NAs deny the existence of God and the spiritual, they are obviously wrong, and any specific citings of St. Augustine are more for the sake of form than necessity of argument.

In terms of cognitive development, both groups are stuck at certain points analogous to those which children pass through. The religious are at the stage of believing that morality comes from authority (i.e. murder is wrong because God forbids it/it’s against the law), of wishful thinking (willpower and prayer can affect the world), and magical thinking (events occur due to will of supernatural entities, morally-determined providence or karma; non-sentient things have moral qualities).

The atheists are at a later step, where they understand the distinction between the world and the self: the world is distinct from the individual’s mind and body and so cannot be moved by will alone; events in the world are not necessarily directed at them personally by benevolent or malevolent powers; the moral status of a thing or event derives from the judgement of the observer, not the thing itself. From this stage naturally arises disbelief in divine will, souls, magic, ghosts, and moral absolutism (not the same as rejecting morality, but rather understanding that other views may exist).

When it comes to intellectual and moral development, we always imagine that we have reached the final stage. The atheists are a step beyond the believers, but there is another step to take: There is no use in knowing the world if you do not know yourself.

It is a fallacy to attribute religion to religious institutions. Obviously the belief came first. Also, I think that if atheists are honest they will admit to the weaknesses of which they accuse the believers. I’ve observed in myself, precisely due to my desire to be a strict atheist, all sorts of thoughts which are supposed to derive externally from religion or superstition. Have you ever willed a car to start or a computer to work faster? Have you ever prayed to get to a destination on time? Do you believe deep down that certain moral standards are indivisible? Have you ever felt that a dead person was somehow still present?

We all think like this, even Richard Dawkins. From this, I think we must conclude that our minds are mystically inclined, even if the world in which we live is not. This is something that Carl Jung recognised and explored (though I think deep understanding of the situation will have to wait for radical advances in neuroscience). Jung suggested in The Undiscovered Self that being denied overt religious experience would cause mental collapse, but I think the mind is more adaptable: if the idea of God is consciously rejected, something else will inevitably fill that mental slot, be it Communism, nation, family, sports, or even the idea of “nothing” itself (to paraphrase The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, some people go to church, some keep birds, and some join the Communist Party). In a similar way, monotheistic religions inevitably develop a crypto-pantheon of prophets, saints or similar venerated figures, because this fulfills an inherent psychological need.

Several secular religious forms have already been observed: performances of Beethoven’s 9th symphony have long been regarded, not always consciously, as a kind of eucharist, if not a downright ecstatic mass ritual. English literary culture rests on both the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare (I recently watched a documentary in which an actor talked about audiences speaking Hamlet’s soliloquy along with him, which certainly has something of the church about it, and elsewhere the extended analysis of the play texts was nothing less than hermeneutics). In the U.S.A., the national Constitution is revered on a par with the Ten Commandments. In Russia, the great novelists are regarded as something like national prophets. Experiences like childbirth and mountain-climbing have been called “spiritual” by people who’ve never given thought to the condition of their souls. None of these have been accorded the overt recognition given to the institutions of religion.

(Should these be called secular religions or secular cults? Technically, because they are smaller, more personal and less externally dogmatic, they are cults, whereas totalitarian creeds like Communism and Fascism were religions.)

Can we consciously establish broad-based secular religions, as Daniel Dennett and Alain de Botton have suggested? There are some tricky obstacles to overcome, the trickiest of which is: How can you believe in something which you simultaneously don’t believe? But then, there are plenty of paradoxes in the orthodox religions. They are called “Mysteries“.

First, we must acknowledge what is in our minds, perhaps by a catechism – “I have no soul, and yet my soul is everything. The world has no meaning, and yet is utterly beautiful and profound. Ritual is mere action, and yet it connects me to people, places, and myself. There is no “Good” nor “Evil”, and yet kindness is the greatest virtue, and cruelty the foulest sin. Death is the end, but I feel everything somehow eternally remains. I am an animal – and yet I love, and my mind encompasses the universe.” That’s just an improvised suggestion.

Texts of faith: there is something unsatisfying about religious texts created to be such by an individual. Apart from the problem of personal idiosyncracy being transformed by authority into unanswerable dogma, the work of one person rarely has the richness and sheer size that make older religious canons seem so profound. Whatever the new Bible might turn out to be, it must be complex, and the work of many authors (or an author who contains multitudes).

As for secular ritual, there are plenty of things which serve as ecstatic experiences, but few that offer regular solemn observance, and none that offer forgiveness, acceptance and transformation of pain into transcendence. Perhaps such a thing could not exist until a secular faith is consciously created.

Here is an article in the New Yorker, on belief, atheism, and the populous realms between: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2014/02/17/140217crat_atlarge_gopnik?currentPage=all

Particularly of interest to me is the discovery of Auguste Comte, a French Humanist who indeed founded a Humanist “religion”, the Religion of Humanity. His development of strict and complex doctrines for priests and rituals seems rather oppressive, and therefore a mistake, but I like the idea of Humanist chapels.

Perhaps if I was rich I would build a Hall of Humanity in the centre of the city. It would be a beautiful space, like a cathedral or a great museum, but warm and welcoming, surrounded by a simple garden and with chapel niches containing statues or busts of great people, each with a plaque describing their achievement. Statesmen and public figures would strive for remarkable feats of altruism and expansion of knowledge, in the hope that one day they too would have a place in the hallowed Hall (all appointments would be posthumous, of course). On the other hand, they would be fearful of ending up in the basement of the Hall, where mass murderers and those who have suppressed knowledge, health and opportunity for the sake of doctrine would be placed (I’m thinking now of Tony Abbott and his war on science (and his Health Ministry staffed by alcohol and fast-food lobbyists)). The lighting here would be dark and fearful, and the smell of the sewer would waft up through vents in the floor. Every religion needs its devils.
 

The healthy diet mantra of recent years has been to eat masses of green leafy vegetables, in order to replace excessive fat, carbs and sugar, increase antioxidants (to combat excess free radicals), and promote bowel health through fibre.

But now it seems that’s not the whole story, as this news item reveals:
‘Too many sprouts’: man in hospital

The excess vitamin K from eating extra Brussels sprouts for Christmas had the dangerous effect of countering his anticoagulant medication, which he was taking to prevent heart attack.

A hospital spokesperson said: “We think this is possibly the first-ever festive admission to hospital caused by the consumption of Brussels sprouts.” Actually, since sprouts are considered a traditional Christmas food in Britain, I think it’s possible that their consumption is an important factor in the annual heart attack season that coincides with the holiday period.

The irony here (if I need to point it out) is that vitamin K, chiefly found in green leafy vegetables, is necessary for cardiovascular health, but because it is an anticoagulant it can also be dangerous for those at risk of vascular blockage.

HOWEVER, it’s important to note that large doses of the vitamin will not cause increased blood clots in healthy people (according to the Wikipedia article on vitamin K linked above).
 

I last took this test years ago, when it was on a different site, but my result hasn’t changed, right down to the equal bard-thief ranking. In the detailed stats, it’s nice to see I am not at all evil. 🙂

I Am A: True Neutral Gnome Thief Bard

Alignment:
True Neutral characters are very rare. They believe that balance is the most important thing, and will not side with any other force. They will do whatever is necessary to preserve that balance, even if it means switching allegiances suddenly.

Race:
Gnomes are also short, like dwarves, but much skinnier. They have no beards, and are very inclined towards technology, although they have been known to dabble in magic, too. They tend to be fun-loving and fond of jokes and humor. Some gnomes live underground, and some live in cities and villages. They are very tolerant of other races, and are generally well-liked, though occasionally considered frivolous.

Primary Class:
Thieves are the most roguish of the classes. They are sneaky and nimble-fingered, and have skills with traps and locks. While not all use these skills for burglary, that is a common occupation of this class.

Secondary Class:
Bards are the entertainers. They sing, dance, and play instruments to make other people happy, and, frequently, make money. They also tend to dabble in magic a bit.

Deity:
Callarduran Smoothhands is the True Neutral gnomish god of stone, the underground, and mining. He is also known as the Deep Brother and the Master of Stone. His followers enjoy mining – especially for rubies. Their favorite weapon is the battleaxe.

Find out What D&D Character Are You?, courtesy ofNeppyMan (e-mail)

Detailed Results:

Alignment:
Lawful Good —– X (1)
Neutral Good —- XX (2)
Chaotic Good —- XXX (3)
Lawful Neutral — XXXX (4)
True Neutral —- XXXXXXX (7)
Chaotic Neutral – XX (2)
Lawful Evil —– (0)
Neutral Evil —- (0)
Chaotic Evil —- (0)

Race:
Human —- XX (2)
Half-Elf – X (1)
Elf —— XXX (3)
Halfling – (-2)
Dwarf —- (0)
Half-Orc – (-4)
Gnome —- XXXX (4)

Class:
Fighter – (-6)
Ranger — (-2)
Paladin – (-5)
Cleric — (-6)
Mage —- XXXX (4)
Druid — (-1)
Thief — XXXXXXXXX (9)
Bard —- XXXXXXXXX (9)
Monk —- XX (2)

It occurred to me recently that the moral sense and the aesthetic sense might be related, or possibly even be the exact same thing.

Experiments with infants have shown (debatably) that the “fairness instinct” is indeed inborn. Somehow from this simple base all the diverse and mutually loathing moral systems of the world are grown. We disagree about what may be called right, or wrong, but either way we sure feel strongly about it, because it’s in our genes.

Now look for example at internet forums, where matters as trivial and unprovable as the validity of a musical interpretation can stir us to righteous fury. It is an aesthetic issue, but it can stir emotions as strong as any political or religious debate. It is in fact a moral response.

If we accept this premise, where does it take us? Well, for a start it validates moral relativism. (I mean that in a philosophical sense, not a prescriptive sense.) It also suggests new methods of social influence. We already use aesthetic considerations to influence moral judgements, e.g. calling someone “crooked” or “dirty”. Possibly this approach could also work the other way. For instance, if the populace is exercised by a political issue, they might be diverted from action by a related aesthetic issue, e.g. a debate over the design for a new flag.

Possibly this idea has been developed before, and by someone with more substantial credentials than mine. But I’m less interested in producing material for a thesis, more in developing better tools for understanding human thought and behaviour.

I’ve been thinking about architecture, prompted by watching Grand Designs and reading this thread.

I don’t want to go into a long rant, so I’ll just state some basic principles which underlie my tastes:

Architecture is not sculpture. We’ve been sold a bill of goods as far as “human”, “playful” postmodern architecture is concerned. A provocative sculpture is not the same as a good building. I call these things “gimmick buildings”; they are amusing in the short term but banal and annoying in the long term – and the long term is what architects should be thinking of. In fact, in practical experience, these are generally bad buildings. You can’t make a comfortable home out of a concept, however “visionary” that concept may be. (Nor can you redeem a Modernist box by pasting a sneering caricature of a past style over the facade.)

Modernism was wrong. Critics and defenders alike of Modernist trends usually overlook that Modernism was an intellectual trend imposed across society, not confined to any one area of life. The Modernist impetus to wipe out the “redundant” past, and create superior new forms from nothing except abstract ideology, is visible in Communism (and, disguised, in Fascism), architecture, music, writing, education, etc., etc. A few worthy creations labelled Modernist do not justify the eradication and derision of all the old ways; we see that the best of culture usually arises from organic development, and not by reinventing the wheel.

Flat roofs are stupid. Unless you are building in a place with NO precipitation (and with no massive duststorms), flat roofs are impractical, expensive to keep up, and more liable to fail disastrously. (They also often are eaveless, so that modern “pure” box buildings are streaked with grime from the run-off, and in hot countries the lack of eaves means you use more energy keeping the interior cool.)

Doors are for closing. Sure, you may feel, in some hippyish way, that living without the artificial barriers of doors and walls will lead to some sort of freeing of consciousness, spiritually and politically and environmentally. But do you really want your kids to hear you fucking (or you to hear them) from the other side of your open-plan communal dwelling? Do you want to smell someone frying garlic while you are having a shit (or, God forbid, vice versa)? Do you want to try figuring out the household finances while listening to the kids playing on the X-Box and the spouse watching a movie? The invention of the door was one of the major events of civilisation, because it was a revolutionary machine for keeping bad air (and predators) out, maintaining a comfortable temperature, and getting silence and privacy in which to think for yourself. Don’t throw that gift away.

Windows have consequences. Just in the last year or two, a new building went up at Sydney University which is basically a glass box suspended in the air. It will cost a FORTUNE to keep cool in summer, and warm in winter. The advantage of this design? Well… I suppose it’s cheaper to build a giant greenhouse than to drop a billion dollars worth of gold bricks into the ocean. There is that. Oh, and, of course, it has a flat roof.
The opposite approach is also used – great concrete bunkers (often university libraries) with tiny slits for windows that are practically useless, and make the occupants feel like prisoners.
This is also the place to mention that great hypocrite Mies van der Rohe, who berated his clients for installing curtains or blinds in their windows, which should have been kept pure and bare, and meanwhile, in his own home, Mies was surrounded by bourgeois chintz.
Nowadays, many commissioners of domestic fish tanks architecture have drunk the Kool-aid, and, like self-flagellating monks, willingly expose themselves to the glare of the sun and the gaze of their neighbours, all in the cause of Modernism. As with open-planning (see “Doors are for closing”, above), it seems that Modernists regard the desire for privacy as something shameful. Like Victorians trying to prevent masturbation, Modernists are horrified at the thought of a person going about their business without the constant supervision of their family or co-workers or neighbours or random passers-by. What have you got to hide?!? Take all the doors off their hinges, confiscate all blinds and curtains. Be Healthy and Clean and constantly visible to all. I suspect all this enforced openness has a deleterious effect on the psyche.

Apart from the above approaches to avoid, here are some positive suggestions:

Subtle ornament. All the great buildings of the past use elegant, repeated motifs to make them seem organic and alive. However, please note the word “subtle”. Giant flashing lights installed at one metre intervals across a bare concrete plane are not subtle.

Regularity, but softened. The human eye loves symmetry and regularity, but this should not be overdone. Patterns of regular repeating features should be occasionally broken up with an element that complements, not contrasts, the overall scheme.

Human scale. Low ceilings and narrow corridors are oppressive, because the person feels confined and restricted; towering ceilings and huge doorways are also oppressive, because the person feels dominated and lost. If you are a human being, you will know what the happy medium looks like. Apply that to your buildings. Remember that the ratio of height to width determines scale, but the amount of light in a space is also an important factor.

Sun and shade in 3:2 proportion. This is a rough ratio for designing outdoor spaces, so that people can shelter from the elements (and not feel exposed like ants on a rock) without being mired in gloom. For indoor design, I’d suggest reversing the ratio – certainly not exceeding it, because a degree of shadedness makes people feel safe, and this shouldn’t be sacrificed to an abstract notion of “openness” (see also the above section “Doors are for closing”).

I posted this in a forum as a response to Alex Ross’s recent column “Why Do We Hate Classical Music?“, in the Guardian:

I’m afraid I find Ross’s argument hackneyed, as well as a bit confused.

First, the problem of new artists versus old masters. This isn’t unique to music at all. In fact the only exception to the rule I can think of is cinema, in which the mass audience generally dismisses anything over 20 years old. But then, in that field, there have been undeniable technical advances which make most earlier films look primitive – there isn’t really comparable technicological drift in other fields.

Second, the comparisons in other fields are in many respects invalid. Architects and painters in particular rely on an extremely small group of patrons for their success (or failure), whereas music really needs a mass audience.

Third, you will actually find people who disagree with the Modernist “icons”, despite the weight of conventional wisdom. For instance, we had a debate on the merits of Picasso in this forum earlier this year. I think a number of these icons remain so because of the strenuous vocalisations of a tiny minority, rather than their inherent values.

At the core of Ross’s piece is the same old controversy about “outdated” tonality suppressing “historically inevitable” atonality. If it is suppressed, it’s because people want it suppressed. And in my listening experience, it’s not even because atonal music is difficult, but because it’s boring. If the notes occur because of some extra-musical schema, their harmonic relationship is essentially random, and thus meaningless. And even outside this consideration, atonalists seem to me generally incapable of constructing a rhetorical or dramatic flow to a piece that makes it engaging. (But this is something even modern tonalists seem to lack.)

Indeed, it’s striking that film-makers have made lavish use of the same dissonances that concertgoers have found so alienating. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its hallucinatory György Ligeti soundtrack, mesmerised millions in the late 1960s. … If the human ear were instinctively hostile to dissonance, these and 1,000 other Hollywood productions would have failed.

This is a junk argument, partly because music accompanying a dramatic visual experience is processed differently to “pure” music, and mostly because atonal music in film always represents or evokes an alienating, horrific, or inhuman experience. It does this because it sounds “wrong”, and I would argue this wrongness stems from a cause that is biological, not “merely” cultural. (Inverted commas around “merely”, because I disagree with the Modernist idea that culture, particularly Western culture, must be undermined and overthrown).

Here are my thoughts on the biological necessity of tonally-based music:

1) Humans are wired to be pattern-finders. Presented with any complex, apparently chaotic system, we look for patterns and meanings. So strong is this instinct that we even find patterns and meanings in places where they don’t exist.

Music is complex, particularly classical music, and we derive pleasure from identifying and following its patterns, regardless of whether we identify these patterns as emotions or technical phenomena. There is an element of trust involved. We want to believe that there is some conscious intent behind the meanings we discover (just as we want to believe in God). For this reason, we have limited patience for music derived, or apparently derived, by chance.

2) Perhaps more controversially, I believe humans are programmed to find specific meanings in tonal relationships.

These meanings are both emotional and spatial. Two notes, the second a tone higher than the first, form a relationship which we cannot help but take as implying a change of elevation both physical and emotional. If the order of the notes is reversed, it must represent a decline or a reduction both physical and emotional. These meanings have value and interest to us, in as much as they are analogous to information about the real world.

If we introduce more notes, the meaning becomes more complex, thus more interesting and valuable. The use of several different tonalities/harmonies in close proximity brings a new dimension, which I suggest implies the simultaneous existence of multiple viewpoints, or places, in other words the complexities of community, or geography.

I assume you can see where I’m going with this. Tonality is a grid on which we can plot meaning. If we take away the grid, we are left with parts which are unrelated. Unrelated parts do not have meaning. Things without meaning are not interesting.

All this is not to say that tonal music cannot be incredibly boring, of course! The minimalists abuse tonality in another way, by repetition, but that’s an argument for another time.