Friday, June 29, 2007

The Brave New World Takes Visa

Time for a rant.

I recently saw a Visa commercial showing this morning in this city in which all this commerce is happening like clockwork, mechanically, with classical music (Johann Strauss's "On the Beautiful Danube" Waltz) as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Donuts dropping in bags, sugar dropping in coffee, synced to the music, and everyone using their Visa card, moving one right after another. No one talking to each other or anything. Then, all of the sudden, this guy pays for his donuts with cash, and the girl behind the counter gives him this funny, glaring look, as if it was because he interrupted the seamless flow of people standing in line to check out and buy things with their Visa cards. She gives him a damn glare because he used cash, and the music stops and everything! She didn't talk to any of the people who were swiping Visa cards, and she didn't say a word to him either. And then, maybe the worst thing, the slogan that appears on the screen at the end of the commercial: "Life takes Visa". Life, for crying out loud. That thing itself, that we all live, takes Visa. Said as if life runs on a credit card.

Aldous Huxley would not be surprised.

If I were ever impressed by a commercial like that--no, if I ever didn't absolutely hate a commercial like that--just take me out and shoot me, because most of what I am is dead inside already.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sexuality, biology, and the nature of human beings.

It's only too easy to respond to an argument like Dinesh D'Souza's post "Is Homosexuality Genetic? Ask the Ancient Greeks." D'Souza, a conservative author/commentator and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, has written a blog post asserting that, because many older, married men in ancient Greece were engaged in the practice of pederasty (sexual and mentoring relationships with young men), and that that was a cultural practice, sexual preference is a choice and does not have a biological basis. Asks D'Souza,

"If these practices are genetic, why aren't homosexuality and pederasty prevalent in Greece and Rome today? Has the gene pool changed that much?"

Even ignoring the fact that D'Souza both completely discounts studies of the biological basis of sexuality AND refers only to genetics (when there is more to biology than genetics, particularly in the study of sexuality), his argument seems poor to anyone but conservative ideologues (see also this excellent response, "We're all Gay--The Only Question is How Much?" by Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks radio show). I contributed this comment (which can be seen on #44 on the comments):

The problem with an absolutist view is that it lacks any appreciation of the depth of an issue, any nuance. In the case of Dinesh D'Souza, he believes sexuality must be a choice because there is a precedent in which the expression of sexuality has been culturally influenced. A few problems with that:

1)The most important, he overlooks decades of important work in the area since the studies of Alfred Kinsey which suggest that it is not a dichotomy between "gay" and "straight", but that most people fall somewhere in between and, while having preference for one sex, have a latent attraction, to whatever degree, to the other (the expression of which can be culturally influenced, as in ancient Greece or feudal Japan). There is a small percentage of people on the exclusively gay side of the spectrum, just as there was in ancient Greece alongside the mostly heterosexual/slightly bisexual pederasts.

2)By characterizing the scientific studies of sexuality as more controversial and inconclusive than they actually are, D'Souza is showing that his ideology is preventing him from seeing what is there.

3)Even if latent homosexuality could be changed (i.e., "cured"), why should it be? Who is Dinesh D'Souza or anyone to want to change an intimate and personal part of a person's identity (particularly when it does no harm and adds diversity to a society)? What is easier and better, to "cure" homosexuality or to "cure" homophobia?

Now, this actually gets into a much deeper debate, which is "how much power do human beings have to decide themselves and their own behavior?" Some hold to a strict genetic/biological determinism, some hold to a general social/environmental determinism, and many more hold to a combination of the two. Some, however, while believing that both are true, also believe in an important third factor, self-determinism. That is, there is such a thing as mental causal efficacy. I happen to hold such a view, and have spent quite a lot of time researching and pondering on it (particularly how it is quite consistent with modern [quantum] physics, how it is consistent with and even necessitated by the nature of our conscious experience, and how it is necessary for any real ethics and meaning). There are some, however, who take this to way wrong conclusions. One such person is Harvard psychologist and religious conservative Jeffrey Satinover, who has written books on quantum neuroscience, the Bible Code, and how gays can and should change their abberant behavior (which he believes is supported by quantum neuroscience).

Although I share with Satinover the view that our minds actually do something and aren't just unexplainable by-standers or by-products, and that we humans are capable of self-directed neuroplasticity (and I have some experience with such myself, overcoming anxiety disorder through intense mental effort rather than medication), his idea that sexual orientation can or should be changed in such a way (or any way) comes, like D'Souza's, from his conservative ideology--not from either science or from geniune spirituality. There are certain things about us that are just that--things about us. We shouldn't any sooner want to or try to change them than we should or could our skin color or personal history or most deeply personal traits. Who we love in certain (romantic) ways is one of those. And, as I wrote in a previous post, just because our minds have power doesn't mean they have unlimited power--just as we can change our course when behind the wheel but we can't change everything about the vehicle we are driving, nor can we change the road as easily (regarding the road, my friend Jim pointed out this insightful example: the Dalai Lama arguably has more control over his own mind than most people. However, with all the mental power he has, he hasn't been able to drive the Chinese government out of Tibet).

Integral philosopher Ken Wilber has written on this subject in great detail, and what he has written is quite relevant (it can be found about a fourth of the way down the page, here). In Wilber's analysis, those views that have tended to focus exclusively on external factors/realities, like the historical materialism of Marxists and Utilitarians, believe that everything happens to people, discounting or ignoring internal, conscious factors. The typical conservative, meanwhile, focuses only on internal, subjective factors, ignoring or discounting external factors that affect people and which they have little or no control over. It is only an Integral approach, Wilber says, uniting the truths of both realities, that will allow us to move forward. I think so too.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


I felt like posting something comical; all Star Wars fans will love this.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Life's Journey, moving on again.

I haven't posted anything in a while (preoccupation, personal reformatting, lack of anything affirmative to say or write about, etc.). At Jim's suggestion, here is my recent farewell message to the World Transhumanist Association:

Dear WTA members,

As my interest in most of the topics of this list has begun to subside due to a mixture of preoccupation and, in many cases, increasing basic foundational difference, I've had to ask the question "how much of a transhumanist am I?" Probably not much of one, actually. My views have changed considerably since I joined the WTA and was gung-ho about the whole project. As anyone who has followed my recent posts will know, I've personally divorced the ideas of the Singularity and AGI and machine sentience, but also, more importantly, I no longer believe indefinite life extension to be either possible or desireable. It has become my personal feeling that death is a natural and important part of life; I do not fear it, and I am prepared to embrace it when it comes. So that doesn't seem to leave me with much that is transhumanist-oriented in my personal worldview; at least not much in common with most self-identified transhumanists here. At most, I retain a positive attitude towards technological improvement in areas of human importance, mixed with serious resistance to the unfortunate, naive, and frankly destructive attitude that technology and technocrats can solve all our problems. Most of you are obviously pretty thoroughly modernist here... but I'm finding myself to be more of a postmodernist or something else. It's something deep; it's no shallow distinction. My outlook now more values living in accordance with both nature and the most important things of human nature; there are many ways in which we need to evolve, our bodies and technological abilities being lower on the priority list for me than some other, deeper, more important ones. To quote Lao-tzu, "How do I know this is true? By looking inside myself." I've sought out my path through much difficulty and now, with that path before me, I must follow it.

I'm not here to advocate that anyone else take these positions; everyone must seek and follow their own path, regardless of whether any others feel it is right or wrong (although I think it would be good for many of you to be more self-critical about your ideas and assumptions, particularly those monolithic ones that are hardly ever scrutinized). And I'm not here to be a contrarian or a "token" anything (although it's good that there are at least a few contrarians here, I shan't be one of them). This is not to say, either, that I will never again have an interest in this community and its doings. Transhumanism as an ideology or set of ideas will become increasingly relevant as some of the less pure-science-fiction things become manifest, and of course for that reason it should not be ignored. But for me, right now, I must move on. Which is what I will do. Best wishes to everyone.


Joseph Von Hoven


Responses were cordial.