On Concentration and Dopamine

With our heavy use of digital media, it could be said that we have taken multitasking to new heights, but we’re not actually multitasking; rather, we are switching rapidly between different activities. Adrenaline and cortisol are designed to support us through bursts of intense activity, but in the long term cortisol can knock out the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which help us feel calm and happy, affecting our sleep and heart rate and making us feel jittery.

Harriet Griffey – “The Lost Are of Concentration: Being Distracted in a Digital World

Interesting — the thought that our actions on social media and our inability to concentrate on one task could theoretically cause the rise of depression and anxiety via hormones. It’s long been known that heavy use of social media has a direct effect whether we feel anxious or happy, but the thought that our actions are replacing one set of hormones (dopamine and serotonin) with another (adrenaline and cortisol), and that’s the cause, actually brings me some hope. This would mean that behavioral/habit changes could bring us back to the point where we want to be — focused, creative, calm.

What we need, then, is communities and social groups that help us to form habits over and against the prevailing, standard habits that a society plagued by technocracy sort of “automatically” gives us.

Alan Jacobs on Technocracy

Their great fear is that, if the war is won by technological prowess, then why shouldn’t the technocrats who won the war be given the task of rebuilding society after the war? And this is what all the figures in the book were afraid of — that the winning of the war would actually inaugurate a technocracy that would be extremely difficult to displace from its throne. And they were exactly right. That’s what we got. If they wanted to prevent that from happening, they started too late. The technocracy was already largely in place, and as soon as the major American universities — and Harvard is the signal case here, under James Bryant Conant — explicitly put themselves in service to what Eisenhower would later call the “military-industrial complex,” then technocracy had a death-grip on our social order.

“Christianity and Resistance – An Interview with Alan Jacobs”

The question for us, post-technocracy, is: how ought we resist technocracy as all-consuming, and is that even possible?

Ford, Kavanaugh, and Our Relentless Need to Be Entertained

In his work Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that the advent and ultimate rise of television gave birth to a new epistemology in Western discourse (he wrote this in the 1980s). This claim is more than simply “the medium is the message,” as we have often heard. It is deeper than that — rather than television simply being our new mode of communication and forming the kinds of things that we discuss, television (that is, the combination of images and sound that makes up what we know as television) forms the very basis of what we can know and how we know as a society. Television (and, it could be argued, later iterations of it, including the internet, social media, YouTube, music streaming, etc.), with its focus on fantastic images that stimulate the brain bends our societal discourse towards entertainment.

In such a society, where television and its iterations are entirely inseparable from social fabric, every other sphere of human discourse will ultimately be viewed and understood through the lens of entertainment. Our news, our politics, our religion, our economic choices — all of them will eventually be filtered through the lens of visual and audible stimulation. As various programs and content compete with each other for attention, those which are most visually stimulating will naturally shape what we know and how we know, because our brains are essentially lazy, and impulsively value stimulation over difficult mental labor.

The even bigger challenges now are that our modes of discourse have shrunk in meaning and quality in the last decade. A YouTube video that is longer than five minutes is probably not worth our time. A blog post over 500 words is difficult to follow. Twitter, with its (now) 280 character limit, seems to set our natural attention span.

I wondered about this last week during the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. For ten hours, our nation sat and watched — first Dr. Fords testimony of her experience, and then Kavanaugh’s attempted rebuttal. But what did our comments about that hearing focus on? Kavanaugh’s angry, partisan responses when questioned heavily. Dr. Ford’s harrowing recounting of her experience that night. Lindsey Graham’s outrage at the alleged mistreatment of an upstanding civil servant. What was not clear was that this trial was truly about discovering the truth about what happened that night. Sure, that was the veneer of the hearing, the “why” this hearing was happening. Just under the surface, however, our desire for a partisan battle over the soul of our country roiled. The entire hearing came across like a courtroom scene in a movie — the anticipation of seeing Dr. Ford walk in the room, the emotional buildup to her story, the recesses and breaks that functioned like commercial breaks to build anticipation for the next scene, the righteously angry Judge Kavanaugh, the side-room deals being made between Flake and other senators, and on and on and on.

Television and its iterations have made such hearings nothing more than another form of entertainment, no different than ancient gladiatorial fights, wherein we can, without fear of recrimination, satisfy our thirst for blood and battle and the thrill of the fight. And after this week is over, and Kavanaugh is or isn’t confirmed as the next SCOTUS nominee, we’ll be itching for another.

Know-How and Technology

Reducing knowledge to know-how and doing away with thought leaves us trapped by an impulse to see the world merely as a field of problems to be solved by the application of the proper tool or technique, and this impulse is also compulsive because it cannot abide inaction. We can call this an ideology or we can simply call it a frame of mind, but either way it seems that this is closer to the truth about the mindset of Silicon Valley.

The trouble with this way of seeing the world is that it cannot quite imagine the possibility that some problems are not susceptible to merely technical solutions or, much less, that some problems are best abided. It is also plagued by hubris—often of the worst sort, the hubris of the powerful and well-intentioned—and, consequently, it is incapable of perceiving its own limits.

Zuckerberg’s Blindness and Ours– L.M. Sacasas

I wonder if a connection can be made back to Kierkegaard here on his distinction between objectivity and subjectivity. In CUP, although he is specifically writing about our relationship to Christian existence, he writes:

In a logical system, nothing must be taken on that has a relation to life itself, nothing that is not indifferent to existence. The infinite advantage over all other thinking held by the logical, by being objective, is limited in turn by the fact that, seen subjectively , it is a hypothesis, it is a hypothesis just because it is indifferent to life in the sense of actuality.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 94- Johannes Climacus

Kierkegaard is writing here on the inability of humans to objectify existence, and to subsume existence itself to some logical system that we can somehow control and understand. The Hegelians of his day spent their time on speculative metaphysics, on grasping reality as it really is. The thought was that the building of a speculative system would allow for absolute understanding. I wonder if the same is true of our current techno-modern situation. We cannot fathom a scenario where all knowledge, all problems, all of existence itself could not one day be subsumed under our technological prowess.

That’s why I think we don’t need to get rid of individualism — we just need a better one. We need an individualism that recognizes the necessity of subjective knowledge; one that doesn’t assume that objectivity (of the kind found in our relentless desire for technological solutions to humanity’s problems) is the only valid sphere of knowledge.

The Future is for Building

I have spent the last nearly two years of my life in a near-constant state of introspection. That’s what grad work is for, and I’ve been thankful for it. I’m not even really done yet — I still have somewhere between 5500 and 8500 words to go on my thesis. Epistemology has been my focus. Particularly, whether “religious epistemology” is even valid, and whether I think we can have religious knowledge (spoiler alert: I think we can, but not in the way we often classify “knowledge”).

I’m at the point now, though, where I understand my own view of this subject, and the writing is becoming slightly less interesting to me. Basically, I want to just be done. Don’t get me wrong, I love thinking about the Enlightenment and Kierkegaard’s response to how that time in Western history affected religious thought. It’s probably something that won’t ever go away for me because it’s an important subject that we all need to think about at some point.

Nevertheless, I find myself dreaming of what I’ll spend my time doing once the thesis is over. I don’t want to lose my drive to think, to read, to create, to do. And if reading Kierkegaard has taught me one thing, it’s that I want to live my life. To do that, I cannot simply abstract myself away from existence — I’m required to live into my own daily reality. 

When I get past graduation, I think I want to spend time making things. Working with my hands, getting out in the garden, learn a craft. I just want to do something to cultivate this world in a way that is good and simple and honors the goodness of the creation we find ourselves placed in. Maybe I’ll learn to weld, maybe I’ll learn economics, maybe I’ll landscape and garden, maybe I’ll pick up coding again. Whatever it is, I want to be able to build something of significance, and spend some time away from the intellectual problems I’ve been tackling for so long. My 20s have been spent in this constant state of introspection. Let my 30s be outward-focused.

“Be Still a Man”

So writes the philosopher David Hume, that (in)famous empiricist, after tearing apart our notions that we can “know” anything outside of our sense experience.

I find his stance fascinating. At the beginning of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he makes clear that his goal is to establish what we can know, and how we know it. In doing so, he defines mankind:

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: but so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions.

Section 1.3, emphasis added

Hume sees his goal as relatively modest one. He is not interested in building up a system of knowledge and truth like Descartes. Rather, he is looking for the bare bones of human knowledge, giving us a springboard for exactly how and what we can know. For Hume, we know “impressions,” which are the content of our immediate experience, and “ideas,” the mental pictures that come from impressions. This means — generally speaking — that knowledge of the physical world (i.e., our direct observations) are relatively reliable. Relations between ideas are not necessarily knowable — especially, for Hume, cause and effect, but that’s irrelevant to this discussion. The rest is simply not knowable with certainty.

That limits us significantly, and that’s exactly Hume’s point: we’re extremely finite, and it’s our inescapable position in the world.

All well and good, but that’s not what intrigues me about his point. What intrigues me is his personal attitude towards all of this. Where Descartes displays a heavy amount of obsession about building up a complex system which will give us certain knowledge about the world, Hume essentially says, “Nah, we really can’t know much at all. But don’t worry too much about it.” Later, in section 1.4, he writes:

Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: bt neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them… Nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let our science be human…

Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Section 1.4

I disagree with Hume on some significant points. But of the philosophers that I admire most at the moment, I find that I am interested in those that force us to look back on ourselves, and point out the silliness of our abstract thinking. We ought to philosophize, we ought to discover, we ought to think critically and rationally. But in the midst of all that, and even more so, we ought to be human beings, living in the world.

The Humanities are Useless

Something is amiss when we automatically evaluate the value of higher education (or, really, education in general) for the kind of economic impact it will have on one’s life. Think about it — how much of the discourse surrounding whether college education is valuable right now revolves around return on investment, likelihood of increased personal wealth over the long term, and steady job prospects? As soon as higher education becomes involved in the game of job training, we necessarily start to place the filter of “useful” or “pragmatic” on why one ought to pursue higher education. And thus, we start to shift resources for academic programs away from the humanities and towards more practical pursuits — business, engineering, the sciences.

Of course, that’s not to say those questions about individual economic impact are bad — only, really, that we perhaps need to make a distinction between higher education for the sole purpose of education, and job training as such. The problem is that capitalism demands that our life choices be affected first by whether this choice will produce wealth, either in our individual lives or the surrounding society. Production (wealth and labor) as the measure of individual value makes the pursuit of education in art, history, philosophy, theology, and so on useless — and, in fact, in a society where the growth of capital is the ultimate goal (our telos, if you will) the humanities are useless.

My guess is that, until we stop valuing higher education only for how much wealth one might produce or obtain, interest in the humanities will continue to decline. We will become a society of producers, laborers, and managers — not one in which we are concerned with meaning, virtue, and justice.

Here Comes Jumbo

Here comes Jumbo
American as gumbo
Skin white as new corn liquor hair black as molasses rum, though
He ain’t dumb, no
You elitist bums, go
Get yourselves off of Capitol Hill
‘Cause we’ve just about had our fill
Of y’all playing Columbo

This is the kind of political commentary in art that I want to hear. Subtle, clever, and no one’s gonna get it unless they’re listening intently.

What I’m Doing

All has been quiet here lately, and with good reason. I’m doing a lot of interesting things:

  1. I started teaching a high school philosophy class last week, which is a pure joy for me.
  2. I started actually writing my thesis a few weeks ago, and I’m a little over 3000 words in, and working on the next big sections. Hopefully I’ll be around 6-8000 words by the second week of September.
  3. I’ve been coaching a high school cross country team since August 1. Also a joy, but of a different sort.
  4. I’m prepping to teach a freshman orientation class at my university this fall.

All while doing my best to keep the centers of my life focused — just trying to be a present and loving father and husband. I fail a ton, but I’m working hard to make sure the work I do doesn’t hinder or suppress who I am.

This is a good, tiring, slightly overwhelming time for me. I get the sense that I’m moving in a direction that will be highly satisfying for me vocationally — we’ll see where I’m at by the end of 2018.

My other hope is that, while the blog will suffer a little over the coming months, that I pick it back up with full force once things settle down in late November. I love epistemology, but I imagine there will be other areas I want to explore in the future.

A Better Individualism

Much has been said recently lamenting the rise of individualism — in fact it’s quite popular in Christian circles to make a specter out of individualism as the bane of both true Christianity and as the leading cause of our current condition (anxious, separated, afraid, lonely, etc., etc.).

What if this isn’t really the case? That is to say, what if individualism itself is not the problem — it’s the false individualism that we’re sold that is a problem.

The reality is that we cannot escape our individualist stance. We are bound to it, no matter what we do (thanks Descartes!). We are, before anything else (in the order of being, anyway), individuals — individuals before the world, individuals before our social contexts, individuals before the infinite.

So, perhaps, rather than deriding individualism, we ought to reclaim it as a viable understanding of our human condition. We should reclaim it from the secularists who use it to uphold individualistic autonomy (necessarily leading to consumerism, and a free-for-all libertine stance towards economics and the political realm. We should also reclaim it from those who think it has brought about the downfall of civilization and the end of true Christianity. We need a better individualism.

What do I mean by that? I’m not exactly sure — I only really know that I’m convinced the either/or that we currently experience is a false binary. It’s not individualism or communalism. We are already and always individuals. What we need is a robust understanding of what individuals are made to be.

Perhaps, then, we should work with defining individualism by running through my two-question test in helping define the telos of a thing:

  1. What is an individual?
  2. What is an individual for?

Inherently, this allows us to approach the question without judgement. No longer is it a debate about whether individualism is a bad thing or not. It’s about recognizing that we are already, necessarily individuals, and determining the best way to understanding our stance as individuals in the world.