Saturday, September 10, 2016

I'm Done

Lately I've had an intense, Down the Rabbit Hole/ Twilight Zone feeling, an increasing sense of unreality/ insanity as to what is happening in our country and the world, I think I am coming to kind of a crossroads or the end of a cycle in my life. As discussed in a previous blog post, "An Aging Yogini...", in my youth I was very political and actively involved in "trying to make the world a better place," writing editorials, engaging in protests, etc., with disappointing results. So I turned inward and spent the next 20 odd years in prayer and meditation.
I started to become "political" again after the 2000 election, when George Bush Jr.'s brother Jeb helped him steal the election in Florida and then, unbelievably, George Jr. was reelected in 2004. The 2008 and 2012 elections gave me a sense of urgency with the looming specter of another GOP, especially a Romney "Great White Hope" presidency. I was relieved when my old school-mate Barry Obama won both elections, but then increasingly alarmed at the behavior of the Republican-dominated Congress obstructing him every step of the way, as well as their [allegedly nonexistent] War on Women, and I resumed active involvement and writing as I'd done in my youth.
Over the past several years I've been blogging a lot and doing my best to "get the word out," sharing my thoughts and insights, petitions, links to organizations, resources, book reviews and news items, engaging in debate as politely and persistently as possible on Facebook and other venues - all with the intent of changing the world. And I think I am close to being done and going back into my cave.
In the process of helping somebody apply for jobs online recently, I discovered that I am unable to pass an employment test for Burger King and other retail stores, and this has led to a lot of existential angst and soul-searching, not that I have the desire (or the physical ability) to work at those places. Rather, it has shown me how vastly different my perception of "reality" is from that of most other people. My educated liberal friends said, "Don't worry, those tests are not intended for people like you anyway. We couldn't pass it, either." A few of them calmly opined that such tests are ridiculous, inaccurate, and/or discriminatory. But society at large apparently has accepted the process without questioning, while conservatives continue to loudly insist that the 7.8 million Americans who are out of work are just "lazy." I seem to be the only person who is screaming, "OMFG this [among so many other things] is so fucking wrong! WTF is happening to our country??!!" Am I the only frog that can feel the water temperature rising?
I feel like a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but I'm not. There are plenty of other people crying out, more loudly and clearly than me. We join our voices together and - what happens? Not a damn thing. Because we are preaching to the mutual choir. Those who are aware, nod in agreement and approve of each other's writings, arguments and political projects, while the brainwashed masses continue to support politicians who view them only as votes, fools, baby-making machines, low-wage labor and cannon fodder. In my many years as an "activist," I think it is safe to say that I have never succeeded in enlightening even one person or changing a single mind. Not one. People are like well-trained lemmings intent on going over the cliff, only getting annoyed and biting me as I try to gently herd them away from the edge. Because, the world doesn't want to change. The world is happily going to hell in a handbasket, and who am I to object?!
Meanwhile, in my job as a Spiritual Advisor working for the Famous Psychic Company which Cannot Be Named for Contractual Reasons, people call me for advice, including those in positions where they can actually help to shape world events; politicians, high-powered attorneys, CEOs, celebrities, inventors, authors, diplomats, doctors, and wealthy donors to charity and NGOs. Amazingly, they WANT my input. This is where I need to focus my energies, not on arguments with people who either don't give a shit, or else are so brainwashed that my words sound to them like, "blah, blah, Fifi, blah, blah, blah, Fifi." [from The Far Side cartoon].
I will probably still write on my 3 blogs only because, as explained previously, it's like mental vomiting; the words and ideas roll around in my head and I'm uncomfortable until I spew them out. As for the Medical Heresies blog, I will finish parts 2 and 3 of "How I Became a Medical Heretic" because it bothers me to leave projects unfinished, and will write the new one about diabetes as a classic example of mainstream medicine being full of shit, mostly for the sake of my dear mother (may she RIP), whom doctors permitted to subsist on a diet of cookies washed down by soda pop until it eventually resulted in her horrible, prolonged demise. But, I won't fool myself into thinking that anybody will learn or benefit from it. Only free thinkers with a medical education like a handful of my friends will even get it, and again, I'm preaching to the choir. Laypeople won't understand and most mainstream medical professionals will quickly discredit whatever I write since I'm not an M.D. and that particular blog has already been censored on Disqus. As for the political and yoga blogs, only approximately 3 people read them anyway and I will write whenever the mood strikes.
But, I'm done wasting my time and energy debating on Facebook, Patheos, Daily Kos, Disqus, etc. Go ahead, folks, vote for whichever insane asshat politician you want, believe whatever they say, surely they have your best interests in mind and they would never lie to you. Maybe nuclear war isn't such a bad thing after all; there are too many humans as it is, and if we're going to stop using birth control, something's got to give at some point and maybe the planet will thank us for blowing ourselves to kingdom come. And by all means, until that happens, keep on taking every prescription drug and vaccine that your doctor recommends, and eating every genetically modified and/or pesticide-drenched and/or nutritionally bankrupt "food" on the market, because you know it's all totally safe since the government and the corporations who pull the puppet strings of our elected "representatives" wouldn't lie to us.
BLECH!!! There, I feel so much better now. Nothing to see here. Carry on.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Putting Yourself in Their Shoes

In a previous post I stated that every time I think I've said everything I could possibly say about the abortion debate, something else comes up that I feel I must address.  I had a conversation recently that took a very interesting turn.

This friendly conversation with a nice Christian woman started out not about abortion, but rather, her opinion that sex outside of marriage is destroying women's self respect as well as the very fabric of society.  I agreed that for me personally as a yogi and a Christian, sex is sacred and promiscuity has zero appeal.  However, I do not see fit to impose my own values on other people, and adults should be free to do whatever they want, provided that they use birth control.  In my opinion, it's not casual sex per se that is destroying society but rather, casual breeding, 

She insisted that casual sex can only lead to bad consequences, and I replied that bringing an innocent child into the world should not be one of them.  She countered that pregnancy is the natural result of sex, and birth control encourages people to have sex irresponsibly without consequences.  She said it allows men to use women for their own selfish purposes without considering the woman's happiness and well-being.  I responded that selfish, irresponsible people make bad parents and therefore they ought to use birth control.

From my perspective, the primary purpose of sex is spiritual, or what the Catholics call "unitive." But, contrary to the Catholic doctrine, which emphasizes "procreative" sex, in my view pregnancy should be a rare and special occurrence resulting from a serious, intentional act when the lovers are ready and willing to welcome a baby into a good home.  Two strangers meeting in a bar, screwing in a car, and "oops!" is not a valid reason to have a child.  Life is both too precious and too fraught with peril for kids to be brought into this world unwanted as an accident or an afterthought from a random booty call.

She asked, what if promiscuous people don't use birth control and a pregnancy does occur; what then?  Surely not abortion?!  I answered that sometimes, yes, abortion is the best option.  But, she protested, it's not the child's fault that the parents were irresponsible sluts!  That is true, it is not the child's fault, which is why the child deserves better.  Every child deserves to be wanted.

I explained, contrary to the "pro-life" presupposition that being born is always the ideal outcome of every pregnancy, sometimes not being born is in the best interest of everyone involved, including the potential baby.  It has been argued that being born is never the best choice, but I would not go that far except perhaps in my most cynical moods.  I discussed some of the circumstances under which bringing a child into the world is not a good idea, such as extreme poverty, drug addiction, rape and/or abusive relationships, and above all, being unwanted.  I described how the pregnant woman's emotional state including extreme stress, fear, anxiety and depression, in addition to poor nutrition, cigarettes, street and prescription drugs, and alcohol, not to mention suicide attempts (which are not uncommon in countries where abortion is illegal) can create a chemically hostile uterine environment for the fetus, causing distress and disability both in the womb and later in life.

We on the pro-choice side have always suggested that people put themselves in the pregnant woman's shoes, but the pro-lifers say the selfish woman should have to endure the "inconvenience" of pregnancy and birth for the sake of the baby whether she wants to or not.  They then claim to be concerned about the alleged detrimental effects of abortion on a woman's physical and mental health, while having no such concerns about gestational diabetes, birth trauma, postpartum depression and other complications of pregnancy.  But, regardless of the impact on the mother, the baby has an absolute right to life.  Predictably, my debater expressed that position.  And this is where the conversation took an unusual turn.

I said that as a Christian my basic moral compass is, "Do unto others as you would be done by."  If I were the fetus, I would not want to be born under those circumstances!  Now, you could argue it is a silly point because a fetus is not conscious and therefore not able to "want" anything.  However, in light of the pro-life belief that a zygote is a person from the moment of conception, I think it is a valid proposition: putting oneself in the other person's shoes, or baby booties as the case may be.  I personally would not want to stay inside the body of a woman who did not want me in there, and put her through the torture of childbirth against her will.  What a horrible situation for anyone to be in!  If I were that embryo, I'd want to get the hell out of there.  I would rather voluntarily miscarry, if such a thing is possible, or else be aborted very early, than be trapped in the role of a 9-month rapist and inflict so much suffering on another person.

I asked, "Would you want to be put in the position of doing that to someone?" and she replied, "but the baby has a right to live!"  I had to ask a couple more times because she kept evading the question, saying things like, "it's not their fault," "they aren't to blame for the circumstances," "it's only a 9-month inconvenience," etc.  I pointed out that she had not answered my question and said, "I did not ask about 'they' or who has a 'right' to what.  I asked, if you yourself were that fetus, would you impose your alleged 'right' to force an unwilling woman to carry you inside of her body for 9 months and inflict the agony of childbirth on her?"

Finally, the nice Christian woman replied, "Babies deserve a chance at life and yes, I would want that chance."  I was utterly taken aback and said, "Wow.  You seem like such a nice person, I can't believe you would want to do that to someone.  So, you would use a woman's body against her will, putting your own desires above her happiness and well-being.  Isn't that exactly the kind of selfishness that you argued against in the beginning of this conversation?  Why is it wrong for a man to use a willing woman's body for even a few minutes to fulfill his own needs, but perfectly ok for a fetus to do it to an unwilling woman for 9 months?"

She replied, "But you make it sound like pregnancy is a terrible thing, when the gift of a child can be a great blessing if only the woman would just accept it!"  Yeah, just lie back and accept it - ?!

Thankfully, I have no personal experience of this either way, as I have chosen not to breed and always had access to effective contraception.  But from what I have been told by a great many women, yes, pregnancy can be among the most wonderful, magical experiences, when you are voluntarily expecting a child, especially with somebody you love!  And while childbirth is certainly no picnic even under the best of circumstances, when a woman truly wants to be a mother and is excited to welcome her beloved child into the world, she can turn the unimaginable pain into a positive, empowering, life-affirming experience.

On the other hand, women tell me that being pregnant when you don't want to be is horrible, like your body has been hijacked by an alien literally sucking the life out of you, and forced birth is absolute torture.  Which is why, throughout history and even today in parts of the world where abortion is illegal, women risk their own death by back-alleys abortions or, failing that, commit suicide to escape an unwanted pregnancy.  Apparently, it really is that bad.  And once again, if I were an embryo, no, I would not want to do that to any woman.  Would you?

For religious or spiritual people, discussion of abortion from the perspective of the fetus would not be complete without addressing another important consideration, namely, what happens to the soul that would otherwise have incarnated?  This, of course, presupposes that an embryo - or anybody else, for that matter! - has a soul.  For atheists it is a non-issue.  

Christians disagree as to the origins of the human soul and when it enters the body.  The traditional Jewish view as expressed in the Bible is that the soul is preexisting and enters the body with the first breath, as reflected in the word "ruach," which means "spirit" or "breath," a common theme among various religions.  A Wiccan midwife friend has explained that the soul may "visit" the developing fetus but only "moves in" with the first breath, in much the same way that you can visit a house under construction but you can't live there until everything including plumbing and electric is complete.  Early Christianity proposed that the soul enters the body at a stage of development when the fetus becomes "animated," sometimes called "quickening."  Some modern Christians believe the soul is created at the moment of conception and/or "arises from the body," developing progressively along with the nervous system.  Hindus say that the soul preexists and is infused at conception.

Whatever the origin of the soul, if the embryo is lost whether through miscarriage or induced abortion, where does the soul go?  Most Christians believe that miscarried babies go to heaven.   Hinduism allows the soul to reincarnate and be born into a more favorable situation.  Another view is that the soul can return to the same mother at a later time under better circumstances, and there are fascinating accounts of children who claim to have done exactly that!  Either way, putting oneself in the baby's booties, the option of being able to bypass a potentially miserable life with bad parents who did not want you, versus going straight to heaven or getting another chance at a better life here on earth, is certainly appealing.  If you were the fetus, what would you prefer?




Saturday, May 21, 2016

Is Psychology a Science?


I was recently involved in a conversation on Facebook where we entertained a suspected diagnosis of "narcissistic personality disorder" on the part of one of the presidential candidates (I will leave it to your imagination as to the identity of the candidate in question).  My opinion as a psychologist was requested and I concurred, with the caveat that of course I had not examined the person and, in any event, "I do not regard psychology as science."  What I meant to say, or should have said, is that psychological diagnosis is not scientific, as I will discuss further, below.  This comment resulted in my being un-friended by a Ph.D. psychologist who replied that if I were to go on for my Ph.D., I would change my perspective about psychology being a science, because "it is based on scientific studies" and moreover, graduate schools in psychology are strict about "the scientific method" because "they want to be taken seriously as a science."

The implication was that psychology at the Ph.D. level is vastly different from my experience in the Master's program at the small private college in California where most of my fellow psychology students were there to obtain the MFCC counseling license.  Apparently the doctoral level is a kind of occult society in which the secret "scientific" knowledge is revealed to only the most advanced initiates.  I also got the impression that my comment was taken as an insult.

I did not intend to hurt anyone's feelings or to disparage the discipline of psychology or its practitioners.  And while I lack a Ph.D., I think my educational background makes me reasonably well qualified to have an opinion about psychology and science.  I have always loved science and originally wanted a dual major in philosophy and physics.  There was a waiting list for the math minor classes required for a physics major and I already had a double minor in German and Russian languages.  Since I couldn't afford to stay in school that long, I foolishly opted to get my B.A. in philosophy, took physics classes as electives and read a lot of books on the subject.  In retrospect I wish I would have done it the other way around, gone ahead with the B.S. in physics and read philosophy books on the side.  

Note, I would strongly discourage anybody from majoring in philosophy unless you are independently wealthy, your spouse can support you, or your career goals specifically include either 1. law school, 2. college professorship, or 3. a job involving, "Do you want fries with that?"  I went on to get a more "practical" Master's degree in clinical psychology with emphasis on the Jungian approach.  I later went back to school to become a medical language specialist with postgraduate courses in pharmacology and worked in mainstream medicine including psychiatry for 22 years, and finally returned to counseling full-time as a Spiritual Advisor, my current occupation.

Despite my unfriend's emphatic insistence that psychology (at least at the doctoral level) is indeed a "science," the issue is by no means resolved and certainly not a personal opinion that I randomly pulled out of my ass.  There has been lively debate around the topic since the 17th century and it was an issue for Carl Jung, William James and others.  The L.A. Times published a couple of excellent articles in 2012 presenting both sides of the debate:
"Stop bullying the 'soft' sciences" by Timothy Wilson, Ph.D. psychology and
"Why psychology isn't science" by Alex Berezow, Ph.D. microbiology.
"A Biologist And A Psychologist Square Off Over The Definition Of Science," by Hank Campbell, founder of Science 2.0, evaluates the debate and includes insightful rebuttals by scientists and psychologists on both sides in the comments below the article.

I am not going to summarize the above articles here, but suggest that the readers make up their own minds.  A case could be made either way, depending on which schools of psychology and what you mean by "science."  From my own unique point of view, I initially joined Dr. Berezow in questioning psychology as an "actual science" because I use the term in the more limited and old-fashioned sense than how it is often used today.  From this perspective and per the first definition in the online dictionary, "science" is "the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment."  Science in this sense requires the acquisition of concrete objective data by means of which a falsifiable hypothesis can be evaluated.

However, the secondary definition of "science," and the one that is most often used by people including Dr. Wilson who want to apply it to psychology, is "a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject."  Some have further suggested that "science" refers not to any particular subject, but rather, the way in which one approaches it, by "the scientific method."  If we remove the objective physical criterion and go with the general sense of collecting and analyzing data, then nearly anything can be "science" if approached in that manner.  

I asked my friends with relevant educational backgrounds whether they thought psychology is a science.  Gerry Tedesco, who is trained in Behavioral Analysis/ Forensics and has degrees in Social Science and Public Health, replied:  "I think Psychology has a number of incarnations and expressions today. Depending on how it is being used, it can be a behavioral science, philosophy, a business method, and even a junk science."  Lori Newlove, who has degrees in Biology and Psychology, replied:  "I do. There are parts that are. That's as much as I am comfortable committing to.  There is a field that wasn't named as such when I was in school called 'psychobiology' that is science."

Dr. Carolyn Buck-Gengler, a Cognitive Psychologist, gave me a great deal of useful feedback on the topic.  She has indeed conducted rigorous and [mostly] reproducible experiments involving the collection and analysis of data on perception, cognition and memory funded by NASA and the U.S. Army, agencies known to be sticklers on "science."  She kindly provided me with examples of her impressive research in linguistics and information processing.  While I am not a scientist, it sure looks "scientific" to me, at least in the secondary sense described above.  With regard to Dr. Berezow's position I would conclude that either:  1.  He was not aware of such research, or 2.  He was aware of it but, like me, thought it was being done by a different department such as Neuroscience or Linguistics, or 3.  It doesn't meet his strict criteria for "science."  

If we take the word "psychology" at its most basic meaning, it is the scientific study of the "psyche," the soul or mind, a non-physical entity whose existence the term presupposes.  But, this presents a problem because we cannot study "the mind" directly or, for that matter, even confirm its existence objectively.  We can only infer its existence and properties from observation of behavior and from people's accounts of their subjective experiences which, again, cannot be externally verified, let alone quantified.  With materialism being the current fashion, many today would argue that just as there is no God without evidence to the contrary, there is also no soul or mind, and the burden of proof is on those who propose the existence of such entities.

Dr. Mario Beauregard says in his book "Brain Wars":  "Mind, as most people think about it, does not exist in conventional science because the expressions of consciousness, such as choice, will, emotions, and even logic are said to be brain in disguise."

No doubt you have heard the old saying, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."  My husband is fond of joking, "A mind is a terrible thing [period]."  LOL!  But, in all seriousness, and forgive me for being nit-picky, from a philosophical standpoint I don't think this is an unreasonable argument:  If the mind is not in fact a "thing" that exists, then by definition it cannot be the subject of scientific investigation, at least in the strict sense of science as the study of the physical and natural world.  If what we call "mind" is merely a subjective manifestation of brain activity, then what we are really studying is the brain.

I argued with Dr. Buck-Gengler that if the materialists are right and there is no "mind," only brain, then neuroscience - which  the dictionary defines as "any or all of the sciences, such as neurochemistry and experimental psychology, which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain" - can explain conditioned response, memory, learning and other cognitive activities as a function of the brain.  We can perform experiments and studies like the ones she has done without the need to postulate the existence of a "mind," i.e., "psyche."  My friend patiently explained that cognitive psychology as she practices it involves multiple levels of linguistic analysis.  Using the analogy of computer programming, her work addresses the upper levels of multi-layered software (cognition), not the hardware (brain), which remains the jealously guarded territory of the neuroscientists.  Like others in her field, she equates the "psych" in the title with the software and does not worry about its ontological status.  Essentially, research psychologists don't give a rat's ass about my philosophical dilemma as to the existence of the mind, they just study its behavior.

When I asked Dr. Buck-Gengler about the point that Dr. Berezow raised regarding the vague nature of things like "happiness," she replied "I don't study happiness; we look at basic cognitive issues of training, memory and learning."  The "psyche" has been compartmentalized into various departments, most of which have hardly anything to do with what I studied in clinical psychology at the Master's level in the 1980s.  There is a huge leap from the study of particular brain functions in an academic or scientific sense, to something as vague and subjective as, e.g., happiness, sadness, fulfillment, emptiness, loneliness, fear, love, self-esteem, shyness, the aspects of human consciousness which I as a counselor address every day.  My unfriend was absolutely right when she suggested that my work is not a science, but an art.  I am actually dealing with the individual and collective "psyche":  the human soul, mind, personality in all its messiness, chaos and poetry.  

My clients often present with existential malaise, asking questions like, "Why am I here?  What is my purpose?  Is this all there is?"  These are not scientific questions, although if I were to answer them "scientifically," from the materialistic standpoint, my admittedly cynical answer would be:  "You are here because hormones induced your parents to breed.  Your purpose is to be a laborer, a cog in the wheel, a consumer of goods and services, and to produce offspring for the benefit of the ruling class.  Yes, this is all there is."  But, that is not really the point of such questions.  Rather, it is philosophical.  The clients tell me they feel adrift in a meaningless universe and wonder what is their place in the Big Picture.  How do we accurately define or quantify, let alone medically treat "symptoms" like that?  

Some clients are already taking medication, e.g. SSRI, for depression, and when I ask if it's working, they reply hesitantly, "yeah, I guess so...  I'm not as depressed anymore...  but still, something is missing."  There may be a sense of emptiness and while the degree of angst is reduced, the existential questions remain.  If the client goes back to their physician with these vague complaints, the doctor may well conclude that the SSRI isn't sufficient and an antipsychotic medication may be added to the regimen which will often numb the mind enough to quell these existential complaints.  

Medical treatment is socially useful because persistent discomfort can lead to challenging the status quo and even doing something about it.  Depression, if analyzed closely, gives rise to inconvenient questions such as, "Is the purpose of my life really to spend most of my waking existence working for low wages at a soul-sucking job merely in order to survive?  Is it just me, or maybe our system is unjust and ought to be changed?"  Potential revolution may even be averted by perpetuating the myth that depression is always simply a chemical imbalance, a defect in the brain of the individual, as opposed to a perfectly normal and appropriate response to unjust political or socioeconomic conditions.  

Vivek Datta, M.D. states that mental illness is a social construct, not a scientific diagnosis.  We "medicalize" behaviors that society finds objectionable. He gives the example of homosexuality, which was listed as a mental illness in the DSM until 1973, at which point it was downgraded to "sexual orientation disturbance" and then removed entirely in 1987.  It was not removed from the DSM as a result of scientific research but rather, the changing social climate.  I would not be surprised if, as the social fashions continue their current trend, religion were to be classified as a "mental illness," especially if the pharmaceutical industry manages to come up with a profitable medication to "treat" it.  And this brings us back to the political candidate whose potential "diagnosis" started this whole argument.  Perhaps he is "mentally ill," or maybe we just find him exceptionally arrogant, rude and obnoxious.  Human behavior is a continuum, after all; where do we draw the line?

The reason I said that psychology in this respect is decidedly not science is because the diagnoses in the DSM are not based on any consistent scientific method and do not involve empirically verifiable data.  In fact, with rare exceptions like epilepsy and other identifiable organic (physical) processes such as brain tumors, most mental disorders are to a certain extent subjective and cultural.  For example, "hearing voices" or being plagued by "demons" is a subjective experience on the part of the client; we would not know about it unless we were told; we cannot record imagined sounds or photograph invisible entities.  And schizophrenia presents differently depending on the cultural context.  Likewise, contrary to popular belief, there is no blood test whereby we can document "low serotonin level" or other chemical imbalances in the brain allegedly causing conditions like depression or ADHD.  At the present time, brain chemistry can only be ascertained via autopsy, and most university ethics committees frown upon dissecting human test subjects.  The diagnosis of these mental disorders is made based on the client's expressed thoughts and feelings - the subjective contents of their "mind" - and observation of their behavior.    

My belief that DSM diagnoses are unscientific is not some wild personal opinion.  In fact, in 2013 the National Institute of Mental Health announced that it was shifting its diagnostic criteria away from the DSM because,  "The weakness [of DSM] is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure."  The new approach, the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) will "transform diagnosis by incorporating genetics, imaging, cognitive science, and other levels of information to lay the foundation for a new classification system." 

Subsequent to these conversations with friends and unfriend in the field, and reading the arguments and comments on the LA Times debate and related articles, it has become very clear that the "psychology" I learned years ago in my Master's program is indeed quite different from that of Ph.D. psychologists in the research branches today.  It is so very different that I really question whether it is the same field at all.  "Psychology" as a discipline has mostly moved on to claim its place within Science, and the shift from DSM to RDoC at the NIMH illustrates this trend.  Since the late 1990s, Psychology departments in many schools have been changing their names accordingly to "Psychological and Brain Sciences," "Psychology and Neuroscience" (including my friend Dr. Buck-Gengler's school), "Behavioral Science," or "Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences."  Some have dropped the label "Psychology" entirely and replaced it with "Cognitive Science."  Likewise, the American Psychological Society changed its name to "Association for Psychological Science."  

The branch that I practice, Clinical/Analytical has been left behind and perhaps should be renamed.  I don't so much "study" the mind as provide therapy, hence I am less a "psychologist" than a "psychotherapist."  But I can't call myself that, for reasons I will explain later.

So, as we have seen, the determination as to whether or not psychology is a "science" depends upon the definitions of "psychology" and "science," whom you ask, and whether you think the existence or nonexistence of the "psyche" or "mind" is even relevant to the argument.  But, as a counselor, I have an additional question for those who want psychology to be taken seriously as a science:  Why is it important to you?  Is it only a practical issue in terms of funding, i.e., the "sciences" receive more government grants than the humanities, and insurance companies are increasingly reluctant to reimburse claims for "talk therapy" as opposed to much cheaper medical therapy?  Or, is it rather the modern prejudice that science is the only valid source of knowledge and information (a statement which is, itself, metaphysical in nature)?  To put it simply, financial considerations aside, science is en vogue and scientists are respected by society.  We want to be respected.  We want to sit at the big kids' table.  

As for me, I have pretty much given up seeking social respect.  Due to licensing restrictions I cannot legally practice "psychology" or "counseling" in the state where I now live.  The word "therapy" also is illegal unless you have a specific "therapist" license, as I discovered when I wanted to offer "equine therapy" at my farm and ended up having to call it "equine assisted learning."  Since retiring from medicine I employ my psychology education working as a Tarot reader in the most reviled and "unscientific" role of "Psychic" or, as I prefer to call myself, "Spiritual Advisor."  The fine print at the bottom of our t.v. ads is required by law to state "for entertainment only," and I file my taxes as an "entertainer."  

Famous psychic Mark Edward has said, "a sideshow tent is never far from a psychiatrist's couch; there's just more sawdust on the floor," and this job is a good fit for me as a Jungian counselor.  Discussing the archetypal images on the cards and how the universal themes apply to their particular situation enables the clients to invite me into their subjective inner world, where they share with me their past hurts, their hopes and dreams for the future, literal dreams (to be analyzed), fantasies, fears and challenges.  I help them sort through their difficulties, examine their thoughts and feelings, find the strength and courage to face their real or imagined demons, navigate their relationships and responsibilities, reach their full potential as individuals and, dare I say it, find happiness.

Part of the job requires making predictions about the future, which I am able to do with surprising accuracy merely by my knowledge of human behavior and the ability to quickly analyze many different variables and data to ascertain the most likely outcome, but that doesn't make it "science."  If I were so inclined, I could probably do some kind of "research" by analyzing the outcomes of hundreds of Tarot readings and how often the analyses and predictions were correct and formulating and testing an hypothesis as to how it was accomplished.  The mechanism doesn't particularly interest me, but I suspect it is the sort of thing that my friend Carolyn B-G could explain very well from the perspective of cognition and information processing.

I do want a Ph.D., though, if only because all the other kids have one.  A lifelong yoga practitioner and part-time teacher for over 30 years, I would follow up my Master's [of Arts] thesis, "The Psychology of Nonattachment in the Bhagavad Gita" with a study of Jung's warnings about yoga.  I could make it sciencey by defining exactly what he thought the danger was and finding objective ways to measure that.  I would interview practitioners, subject them to tests assessing their mental health, compare them with non-yogi controls and analyze the data to determine whether or not Jung's fears were founded.  That might be fun.  I would also very much like to hook up meditators to machines such as biofeedback and brain imaging modalities to see what happens in the brain when people are in a deep state of meditation or "God intoxicated."  Meanwhile I am content to remain an "entertainer," a fortune teller, a sideshow freak, grateful and humbled to have this opportunity to help the people who often queue up for hours waiting to talk to me.  And it definitely beats the hell out of "Do you want fries with that?"

*******

http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/medical-medium-mashing-up-pseudosciences/

"a sideshow tent is never far from a psychiatrist's couch; there's just more sawdust on the floor." - Mark Edward  http://www.alternet.org/belief/i-was-one-americas-top-psychics-and-all-them-complete-fraud

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/05/the-real-problems-with-psychiatry/275371/

A discussion of Jungian psychology vs. behavioral science:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4217588/

http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/12/opinion/la-oe-wilson-social-sciences-20120712

http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/13/news/la-ol-blowback-pscyhology-science-20120713

http://www.science20.com/science_20/biologist_and_psychologist_square_over_definition_science-92172

http://www.madinamerica.com/2014/12/homosexuality-came-dsm/

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/when-hearing-voices-is-a-good-thing/374863/

http://hubpages.com/education/Does-the-Mind-Exist

https://philosophyisnotaluxury.com/2010/01/12/does-anything-like-a-mind-exist/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/under-the-influence/201308/the-psychology-the-psychology-isnt-science-argument

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Caring about The Wrong Things

In the midst of election madness, politics can bring out the ugly in people, even turning friends and family members against each other.  I experienced this in a rather peculiar manner recently when I posted a positive comment on my friend's Facebook wall about his beloved candidate, Mr. Trump.  I have never been a big fan of Mr. Trump, although I tried in the beginning of his candidacy.  I wanted to like him because he was a t.v. personality and a businessman, and therefore hopefully "different" from the typical politicians, but the more he opened his mouth, the less I liked him.  I found that I disagreed with him on most issues, and have criticized him for some of those things in the past.  But, the other day I was very pleasantly surprised at his bold (for a Republican) stance on the LGBT discrimination in North Carolina, which he harshly denounced as unnecessary, discriminatory and economically unwise!

Since I generally try to see the positive in people as much as possible, to find common ground, and to give credit where credit is due, I posted on my friend's wall, "Kudos to your candidate for his bold stance on the nonsense in North Carolina!  It is so refreshing to hear a GOP politician standing up for LGBT people in any context."  My post was promptly deleted, followed by a quite rude post by my usually very nice friend that appeared to be aimed at me, although not by name, saying essentially, "People are stupid for supporting candidates for all the wrong reasons!  We shouldn't care about trivial issues affecting different groups, but the safety and prosperity of our country as a whole," or something to that effect.  My friend deleted his own post shortly thereafter so I don't have access to the original wording, but the bottom line was, even though I'd made a favorable comment about his candidate, I was stupid for "caring about the wrong things."

Wow.  Well, you may care about whatever issues you think are important, and please allow me to do the same.  Yes, I do care about civil rights and liberty for individuals, minority groups and for the well-being of our country as a whole!  In my opinion the preservation of civil liberties, far from being a trivial concern, is in fact crucial, and I will explain why.

I have always believed in the fundamental value of personal freedom and civil rights.  As a teenager I became involved with the Libertarian Party even before I was old enough to vote, back before libertarianism was hijacked by the GOP, as I have described elsewhere.  I vividly recall one of my first public speaking engagements where, to the horror of my family, I gave a televised speech in Honolulu at a rally opposing the reinstatement of the draft, in which I argued that a volunteer army is more professional, dedicated and effective than drafted soldiers (a concept with which my military father grudgingly agreed).  More importantly, though, I emphasized that conscription violates the spirit of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which prohibits the use of a person's body or labor against their will.  I said:  "While our nation must stay strong in the face of potential threat from evil empires and dictators overseas, at the same time we ought to remain vigilant against the imposition of tyranny within our borders."

Thanks to my subsequent post-graduate attendance at the School of Hard Knocks over the years, I eventually outgrew the so-called "free market" economic philosophy with which I'd been indoctrinated during the very enjoyable summer camps kindly funded by the Koch brothers in my youth.  However, I have remained firmly committed to the value of liberty and civil rights because, as I said on t.v., if we give that up, how are we better than our dictatorial enemies?

What if we manage to destroy ISIS, only to institute Rafael "Ted" Cruz's theonomy, a sort of "Christian Sharia," which would impose religion as the law of the land here in the U.S.?  Like recent legislation in North Carolina, theonomy would allow discrimination against LGBT persons in the name of what Cruz calls, "Religious Liberty," an Orwellian twist on those words.  No, I am sorry Rafael, but "religious liberty" does not give you the right to oppress other people and/or take away their liberties.  One of the few things I like about Mr. Trump is that, unlike Mr. Cruz, he is not very religious, as evidenced by the fact that when asked about his favorite Bible verse, he stammered and had difficulty thinking of one, finally quoting the Old Testament verse "an eye for an eye" which, humorously, Jesus rejected.  I am happy about this because, as an Episcopalian, I do not want a religious wingnut in the White House.

Again, I applaud Trump for denouncing discrimination against the LGBT community - and not because I am bi, the "B" in the LGBT.  For most of my life, I didn't even realize "bi" was a thing; I thought my personal indifference as to gender in romance was just part of my own peculiar (or you could say, "queer") personality.  Being female I can't remember ever being oppressed on this basis, probably in part due to the fact that I ended up marrying a man.  Had I chosen a female partner, perhaps society would have treated me less kindly.  At any rate, my support of LGBT rights is not on account of my own membership in that minority.  Rather, I do not want to live in a society which permits the oppression or marginalization of any individuals or minority groups!

As Niemoller said, "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Socialist..." although I kind of am.  I support libertarian socialism in the specific sense of what Richard Wolff calls, "democracy in the workplace" where the employees (not the State!) are owners and board members of the company where they work.  I take this position because liberty in the broad sense also requires freedom from economic coercion, including what Chomsky refers to as, "wage slavery."  Yes, I care about  income inequality.  Over the last 35 years in America the wealth has "trickled up" into the hands of the 1% and CEOs now make 300 times more than median-level employees.  While corporate profits and worker productivity are higher than ever, wages for most employees have remained stagnant or decreased, so the rich have gotten richer, the poor remain poor, and the middle class is increasingly sliding into poverty.  I am also concerned about the disproportionate tax burden on the working poor and middle class, especially small business owners and independent contractors, who must pay additional Self-Employment Tax.

Republicans usually say that the above economic situation is not a problem; it's just "The Market" appropriately determining what our labor is worth, and we must never question the wisdom of The Market.  I do question The Market and feel strongly that it is a problem when people working full-time cannot afford to pay their bills including housing, food, and "Affordable Health Care," never mind send their kids to college, without falling deeper into debt, and young people graduating from college even with advanced degrees cannot find decent jobs to pay back their enormous student loans.  Other Republicans admit the situation is less than ideal, but blame it on President Obama, choosing to ignore the history of how we got here and the fact that the economy crashed before he took office.

Mr. Trump claims that if elected, he will fix the economy, in part by erecting a wall along the Mexican border to keep illegal immigrants from getting in, although it's not clear how much this will help as long as we continue to permit vulture capitalists to devour our domestic companies and send our jobs offshore to exploit cheaper labor elsewhere.  If he were to actually succeed in creating jobs and boosting the economy, this would be an extraordinary accomplishment on the part of the GOP.  Aside from their all-important goal of opposing the President, the focus of the Republican agenda for the past 7 years has been the creation not of jobs, but of low-wage workers and soldiers via the regulation of wombs, the allegedly nonexistent "War on Women."  A female Republican friend commented, "The real War on Women is the war against our wallets!"  I agree that our finances are under attack, but a secure bank account means nothing if my own body doesn’t belong to me.  No amount of money can compensate for the sacrifice of bodily sovereignty, the fundamental civil right without which all other rights and freedoms become meaningless.  And women cannot take full advantage of good job opportunities without access to affordable birth control and/or childcare.

If Rafael "Theonomy" Cruz were to win, his policy would restrict women's reproductive rights, including outlawing some forms of birth control which he [incorrectly] considers to be "abortifacient," such as IUDs, and on this critical issue, unfortunately Trump and Cruz are mostly in agreement along with nearly all GOP politicians.  The current Republican platform states that a fertilized ovum is a person and allows no exceptions for abortion under any circumstances.  Some GOP politicians have even gone so far as to say that forcing a woman to bear the spawn of a rapist is, "a beautiful thing... that God intended."  

Mr. Trump, to his credit, departs from the party line by recommending that the Republican platform should be changed to permit abortion in the case of rape, incest, or the life of the mother.  While Trump does not go nearly far enough, continuing to maintain that abortion for any other reason should be illegal, even these limited concessions have earned him the dreaded insult "liberal" from his GOP peers, including Cruz, and for this he is to be commended.  Not that I have a personal stake in the matter, being past the childbearing years, but I do have a young stepdaughter, a goddaughter and a grand-goddaughter, and even if I didn't, I would nonetheless stand up for the rights of all women.  No person or "potential person" has the right to use another person's body against his or her will.  Forced birth is involuntary servitude.

My concerns about civil rights and liberty are not limited to the allegedly "unimportant" matters of who may marry whom and buy wedding cakes, who may use which bathrooms and call themselves "him" or "her," and have access to what kind of birth control.  I also am not ok with the fact that the United States jails our population at the highest rate in the world, at 1 in 110 adults (and 1 in 3 black males), over 50% due to drug offenses.  I don't want my hard-earned tax money going to keep nonviolent offenders in prison.  Medicinal and/or recreational herbs should be legal.  IMO, people should be free to eat, drink, smoke, snort or otherwise ingest whatever substances they wish, and live as they see fit, so long as they don't harm anybody else in the process.

As a libertarian, I believe that the role of government is not to regulate bathrooms and bedrooms, but rather, to protect its citizens from force and fraud, which would include preventing such things as corporations exploiting employees' labor or stealing their retirement funds, banks gambling away their customers' savings accounts, and insurance companies collecting premiums and then refusing to pay claims.  It would also enforce contracts, e.g. when a county clerk refuses to issue marriage licenses, or congressmen fail to appoint a Justice to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court - tasks which were included in their respective job descriptions when they voluntarily accepted the position.

Because I do care about these things, I cannot vote Republican.  Nonetheless, I give credit where it is due.  Kudos, Mr. Trump, for having the courage to go against the party line by standing up for female and LGBT persons even to a limited extent!  And for you, Mr. Cruz, love your first name, "Rafael" - why don't you use it, too ethnic?  Kudos to your mom for naming you after the archangel.  I would enjoy having a President named "Rafael," kind of rolls right off the tongue.  Other than that, um, not so much.  And I sincerely pray that neither of you will ever become President.













Friday, April 15, 2016

Libertarians and Lifeguards




My friend Mark Sandlin posted this very amusing cartoon in a Facebook discussion about (so-called) "Libertarians" being selfish and uncaring. The Tea Party/ GOP poseur "Libertarians," perhaps. I've previously discussed in my blog how the GOP has hijacked and corrupted libertarianism. But, I would like to comment on this cartoon, which although it gave me a good LOL, is inaccurate. Real libertarians, and anarchists, for that matter, understand that liberty and responsibility go hand in hand. We believe in voluntary cooperation among people for our mutual benefit. In order for that to work, a person's word must mean something and contracts that we enter into voluntarily must be kept. So if we accept a job as a lifeguard then we save people from drowning.
Now, this cartoon would be accurate of libertarianism if the lifeguard in the picture was replaced with a sign saying, "No lifeguard present. Swim at your own risk." You are free to take the risk of drowning if you so choose. Presumably one of the other swimmers would voluntarily save you, but if they don't, that is the risk you take. Libertarians do not believe in a "Nanny State." The government does not exist to babysit us or protect us from ourselves, to prevent us from swimming, surfing, skateboarding, smoking, snorting or other recreational activities.  Adults should be free to do as we please, so long as we harm nobody else.  Personal liberty takes precedence over safety.
From a libertarian standpoint, the role of government is to protect the citizens from force and fraud.   But, contrary to the Tea Party philosophy, this would include preventing such things as corporations exploiting employees' labor or stealing their retirement funds, banks gambling away their customers' savings accounts, and insurance companies collecting premiums and then refusing to pay claims.  It would also enforce contracts, e.g. when a person hired as a lifeguard ignores drowning swimmers, a county clerk refuses to issue marriage licenses, or congressmen fail to appoint a Justice to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court - all of which were included in their respective job descriptions when they voluntarily accepted the position.
Interestingly, here in the Redneck Riviera (Panama City, Florida), we do not have any lifeguards - whether because we are an impoverished hick town despite being a resort destination, and/or because FL has no State income tax, or whatever.  We only have a flag system:  blue flag for calm conditions, yellow for medium hazard, red for high surf and double red for danger, water closed.  The system is somewhat arbitrary, as the actual surf conditions at any given time do not necessarily correspond to the flags.  We have a sign explaining the flags which says at the top, "No lifeguard on duty, swim at your own risk."  However, the "risk" includes going to jail, because when the double red flags are flying, the police will arrest anybody in the water.  They will not actually go into the water to try to save anyone; they stand on the beach and order you to come out, and if you drown in the process, oh well.
I've been threatened with arrest twice while surfing when the red flags were up and the waves were just 2-3 feet and nothing compared to what I grew up surfing in California and Hawaii. One time an adolescent boy got caught in a current and was being pulled out to sea. An obese policewoman stood on the beach barking into her bullhorn, "Get out of the water immediately! You are under arrest!" She did not make any attempt to save him. There was a surfboard on the police vehicle but the officer was in no shape to use it, although I am sure she could float very well. I tried to go after the boy and was threatened with arrest for doing so, but in any case he was too far away. His father told me, "Don't worry, I taught him, he knows what to do." He waved and pointed to the left, the boy then turned and paddled perpendicular to the current and returned safely back to shore.
The flags do not, of course, prevent anyone from drowning even when the water is calm if they just don't know how to swim. A non-swimmer can panic and drown in a few feet of calm water.  I have rescued a a couple of tourists on blue flag days.  
With regard to the cartoon, a government-certified lifeguard, paid by our taxes, is the Democratic solution.  A sign saying, "Swim at your own risk" or a caring and competent lifeguard, privately hired or volunteer, are Libertarian options.  A police officer in the lifeguard chair is our Redneck Riviera flag-and-arrest system, the classic GOP response to drowning citizens:  rather than hiring lifeguards, pay police to arrest the tax-paying swimmers who survive.  Our taxes are paying for a babysitter who is allowed to spank us and cannot provide first aid or CPR if needed.  It is a travesty that violates safety, liberty and justice all at the same time.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Political Rant

I've been ignoring this for a while but tonight I've just had it and must say something!  I am sick and tired of all the ignorant-ass comments blaming our President for everything from the economic crash that happened before he took office, to ISIS (which even Mr. Trump admits is a consequence of our ill-advised war in Iraq that was begun by the previous President), to the crab grass in your lawn.  Until today I brushed it off as a few uneducated redneck mother-fuckers that didn't deserve any serious attention, and/or mentally handicapped who need our compassion.  However, I now realize there are many more people holding these views, which is how Mr. Trump has become so popular.  It's not just the lunatic "fringe."  As Frank Schaeffer says in the video I posted earlier, "The lunatics have taken over the asylum." 

In a discussion on Mr. Schaeffer’s video, somebody said that we need to get the word out, but be sure to remain polite and civil and listen to the other person’s opinions, so as not to hurt anybody’s feelings, etc.  Up until now, on the occasions that I’ve said anything about it, I have done exactly that.  But, I’m over it now.  No more Mrs. Nice Guy.  I have fucking had it.

The last straw was earlier today when I commented in a thoughtful political discussion posted by one of my friends about “personalities versus policies.”  I said, "I have an issue with Mr. Trump saying 'I will make America great again!' because we are great.  We are the greatest nation on earth."  To which someone replied, "No, we are not great.  This country won't be great again until we get rid of the current president."  Another person said, "Yeah, name even one good thing Obama has done for this country."  Really?!  Yes, I know my Democrat friends have compiled quite a list which includes shaving $1 trillion off the federal deficit, but on a more personal note, “Obamacare” saved my husband's life by paying for surgery that he couldn't otherwise obtain.  That counts for something, doesn't it?  

But, what really pissed me off was this ignorant son of a bitch insulting my country - that my father and other military veterans risked their lives defending! - because he happens to not like the President for being half-black, or a Democrat, or going ahead and doing things for the country like making sure our military personnel got paid, and bombing the hell out of ISIS, while Congress sulked and threw temper tantrums, or whatever.  I think he’s done a damn good job under the circumstances, especially considering that Congress fought him every step of the way.

Look, I'm not just saying this because Barry Obama was my classmate at Punahou School in Hawaii (where he was born) and a very nice guy.  I'm not even a Democrat, for that matter.  The voter card in my wallet says "Libertarian," which I've been ashamed to admit ever since the fucking Tea Party corrupted that term into something totally different than what it was when I joined the movement as a 14-year-old kid in Hawaii, back before corporations were "persons" with more rights than actual persons.  Truth be told, I'm an anarcho-socialist (yes, the scary “A” word), but that wasn't one of the options when I registered to vote.  More recently I actually supported Gary Johnson, the only candidate of any party that made personal liberty for actual persons, and ending crony capitalism, the priority of his campaign.  I also like Gary because although he’s a millionaire, he got there the old fashioned way - by working.  But even if Gary runs in this election, I will have to vote Democrat in the hope that somebody like “Dollars” Trump or, worse yet, “Theonomy” Cruz, doesn’t win.

Not that I have anything against the Democratic candidates.  I agree with most everything that Bernie says, but talk is cheap, and apparently he hasn’t been able to get much legislation passed during his time in Congress.  Also, I’m concerned that he couldn’t beat the GOP because the American people won’t elect an openly Socialist president.  Hillary is a bit conservative, militaristic, and a little too chummy with the pharmaceutical industry and Wall Street for my taste, but having said that, I think she’d be a great President.  She is smart and strong, seems like she could be charming and diplomatic, or be devious and a Total Bitch if necessary to put fear into the hearts of our enemies.  She would eat ISIS for breakfast.

But getting back to my argument with people so deluded that they will vote for the party that sees them as nothing more than breeding stock for soldiers and low-wage workers to be exploited by the 1%, I told the guy, “If you really don’t think America is great, then feel free to move somewhere else.  I know a whole bunch of people overseas who would do anything to take your place!”  Which is true.  I have numerous friends on Facebook who want to move here regardless of who is President.  They could give a flying fuck if Homer Simpson was President.  So, those of you who support Mr. Trump, just answer this one question:  If we are not “great,” then why the hell does he think we need to build a damn wall around our country to keep immigrants out?!  Despite all our problems - yes, we have a long way to go and America is not “perfect” - we are still the place where people believe they can realize their dreams.  That’s why they will risk everything to move here legally, illegally, or whatever it takes!  Let’s face it, you don’t see a whole lot of people trying to flee this country, although we will certainly consider it if, God forbid, Ted Cruz were to win this election.

Whether you like the President or not, our country is way more than the President.  We the people are America!  Every single one of us has to do our part.  So grow the fuck up and stop complaining.  You’re a spoiled, rebellious teenager who doesn’t like the house rules.  Try moving out on your own and see how you like it.  You bitched and moaned because you didn’t think your little sister deserved the same allowance that you got, but that allowance was nice, wasn’t it?  All you want to do is bad-mouth mommy and daddy because you don’t feel you should have to follow the rules and contribute to the household, so go ahead and move out.  Who’s going to feed you now, punk?  I hope you enjoy eating from trashcans.  

You fucking hate President Obama, for whatever reasons.  I get it.  But he’s still the President.  And you know what?  A lot of us weren’t real thrilled with President Bush Jr., either, especially my military friends at the American Legion (of which I’m a member of the Ladies’ Auxiliary) who watched their sons and daughters being sent off for repeated tours of duty over in Iraq to get their limbs blown off and/or their minds blown by PTSD when we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.  We didn’t necessarily agree with all of his policies, but we nonetheless gave Mr. Bush due respect as our Commander in Chief, and the goddamn President of the United States.  We knew that he was a human being who, having been elected to office by the people, was doing the best he could under difficult circumstances.  We didn’t blame him for the crabgrass in our yards or every other fucking thing that happened over which he realistically had little or no control.  And we wouldn’t have dreamed of publicly offering him for sale as a slave, “low price because he is lazy,” or recommending that he be hanged.  Even those who thought Bush was a war criminal only wanted him brought to trial, not outright lynched.  That’s just way over the top.

I’ve held my tongue for 7+ years listening to this bullshit and I’m done being civil.  And if you don’t like it, y’all can bite me.  If, God forbid, your party wins the election, you will get exactly what you deserve.  You’ve made a deal with the devil, so don’t be surprised when he takes you to hell like the contract said, assuming you can actually read.  Whew.  There, I got it off my chest.



Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Chicken and The Egg

Every time I think that I really have said everything I could possibly say about the abortion debate (1), I seem to encounter yet another bizarre twist to the arguments presented by the anti-choice side which makes me feel obliged to respond. I don't particularly want to get dragged into it again, but my conscience compels me to speak up on behalf of women and girls, as discussed in the first article of the series. In fact, I wrote the series to examine the various arguments in some depth, write it all down to link for future reference, and not have to repeat myself over and over in the ongoing discussions that I seem to get sucked into despite doing my best to resist. 

The latest "twist," which I learned about from an article by pastor Mark Sandlin, was presented by Ben Carson and Bristol Palin who have recently stated that abortion is the equivalent of slavery.  I've heard this mentioned every once in a while in the past, usually in the context of, "Like slavery, abortion is a terrible moral evil and we must change the law." But Carson and Palin go further; they say that abortion is wrong specifically because it treats the unborn "child" as property which may be disposed of as the "slaveholder" (the woman carrying it inside of her body) sees fit.  It should be noted that according to the biblical standards which Carson and Palin claim to support, children are the property of their fathers.  The Bible also condones selling a daughter as a slave, or to a man who rapes her, or to a legitimate suitor, whose property she then becomes.

In any event, I find this comparison of abortion with slavery quite ironic, because they have it entirely backwards. The policy they promote would make the fetus a slaveholder over the woman, demoting her from person to chattel. Now you could argue that forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term against her will is the “morally right thing to do” (to save the fetus), but there is no way getting around the fact that it is “involuntary servitude.” That leaves us in the awkward position of concluding that while slavery is a moral evil on the part of any born person, it is perfectly acceptable when done by a fetus. 

The anti-choice side tries unconvincingly to skirt this objection by saying that there can be no such thing as an “unwilling” pregnancy, i.e. “involuntary servitude” on the woman’s part, given that pregnancy is a known potential consequence of sex.  They say a woman's "choice" is made every time she voluntarily engages in sex (2) because even if her intent is not to get pregnant and she is using birth control (which could fail), her participation constitutes de facto "agreement" to have a baby.  Or to put it another way, by being sexually active a woman automatically forfeits her right of bodily autonomy and becomes a walking incubator belonging to the spawn of any man who manages to impregnate her with or without her explicit consent.  An informal survey of sexually active women reveals that most of them don't recall signing any such agreement but, again, I have addressed this argument in previous posts.

Pastor Sandlin's article discusses the fact that in the natural course of events, loss of a fertilized ovum due to failure to implant is statistically a much more likely outcome than successful implantation and pregnancy.  Abstinence advocate Palin said her last out-of-wedlock child was a "planned pregnancy," which means that in the process of trying to have that baby, other embryos must have been sacrificed.  So, according to the above-described logic, that a woman is responsible for the natural consequences of sex, by engaging in unprotected sex Palin would be guilty of causing the deaths of those embryos, or "babies" as she and Carson call them.  Now, some readers commenting on Sandlin's article objected that a woman is not responsible for the loss of embryos because "they died of natural causes" and it was unintentional on her part.  But, I think we can't have it both ways.  Either we are responsible for the unintended biological consequences of sexual activity, including pregnancy and spontaneous abortion, or we're not.

Getting back to Palin's comparison with slavery, she argues that abortion is even worse because the slave owners, while racist, supposedly regarded their slaves as "sort of" (maybe 3/5?) human, whereas "abortionists" deny that a fertilized ovum is a human being at all - which, according to Carson and Palin, is a completely shocking and ridiculous notion that goes against science.   They will tell you with a straight face that science "proves" a fertilized ovum is a "human person" for the simple reason that it has unique human DNA. Period. Yes, folks, that's right: All that is required for "personhood" is a microscopic clump of proteins. You don't need consciousness, sentience, or the tiniest flicker of awareness, and even among Christians the idea of a "soul" has become rather passe'.  All you need is genes. (3) 

Now let's take a look at this notion that a fertilized ovum is a full-fledged human person. What if we were to apply the same scientific criterion to another creature, say, a chicken?  (I apologize in advance to my vegetarian readers): 

You go to a restaurant and order fried chicken. The waiter brings you a fried egg. You say, "Excuse me, I ordered fried chicken." The waiter says, "This is fried chicken." "No," you say, "This is a fried egg." The waiter explains in a snippy tone, "This 'egg,' as you call it, is indeed chicken. It is fertile and therefore has the complete genetic material which, were it not for people like you eating them, would have ensured its development into a mature chicken." "But," you say, "It's not a chicken, it's still just an egg." The waiter says, "I assure you, this poultry specimen has pure DNA from the finest Plymouth Rock, with beautiful black and white plumage.  It is a chicken."  "Eggs don't have plumage," you point out.  "Well you can't see the plumage yet, but genetically it is already there.  How dare you criticize this bird because of its size. Just because it is small and undeveloped doesn't make it a non-chicken!" "Well yes," you say, "it kind of does..." The waiter interrupts and says slowly and clearly as if speaking to a small child, "Had it not been harvested at such a young age, it would have grown into a nice, big bird - not a dog, a cat, a monkey, or even a duck - a chicken! What other possible species do you think it could have become?!" "But," you say, "I mean, there are no wings or legs or -"  The waiter heaves a sigh and says in a pained voice, "Very well then," picks up your plate and goes back to the kitchen.

He returns shortly with a new plate holding a fried egg which, remarkably, displays in its center where the yolk would have been, a chicken embryo flayed neatly down the middle, the halves artistically arranged like mirror images.  "There!" the waiter says triumphantly, waving his hand at the plate, "Look at this lovely chicken!  The tiny sharp beak, the developing wings, the tender legs, the perfectly formed little feet.  This is a chicken."  You dubiously inspect the embryonic bird which, while the chef has somehow managed to make it appear halfway appetizing, looks more like a biology lesson than the "fried chicken" you had in mind when you ordered.  "Um," you say, not wanting to be rude, "This is very nice, but I was really hoping for more meat."  Waiter:  "It's just young and tender. What you call 'meat' is the result of aging."  "Look," you say, "I'm really not trying to be argumentative, but in most restaurants 'fried chicken' means literally, um, an already hatched, big chicken."  The waiter replies peevishly, "You didn't specify an adult chicken!  And what difference does it make whether it's hatched or not?  Chicken development is a seamless process from fertilization to full maturity."  Trying to defuse the situation with humor, you suggest, "Well, you know that old saying, 'Don't count your chickens before they're hatched'..."  The waiter, having reached the end of his patience, says, "You ordered chicken.  If you were to take this bird to the lab and have its flesh analyzed, I promise it will reveal chicken DNA and all the same proteins found only in chickens! ergo, it is a chicken. What else could it possibly be?  Are you insane?!"  He rolls his eyes, stomps his foot and walks away in a huff. 

Be honest, are you convinced it is a chicken?  I didn't think so. 

(1) Don't Spread Your Legs, and please see links at the bottom of that article for the full series. 

(2)  But, what if she was NOT a willing participant, i.e. she was a rape victim?  Anti-choice people brush this off by saying such pregnancies account for only 1%, or maybe 30,000 per year, and therefore apparently can be disregarded.  Sometimes they will claim, incredibly, that giving birth to the rapist's baby is "healing" for the woman.  Carson has stated that it makes no difference how the baby was conceived and the victim should be forced to deliver it in any case, because "the offspring of rapists can go on to have useful productive lives in society."  He does not address the effect on the rape victims themselves.

(3) They don't mention to what extent a pregnant woman may be a human person, but presumably to a lesser degree than the fetus which owns her body, although she too has her own unique DNA.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Why I Don't Call Myself a "Believer"

In a previous post, "Another Look at Religion" I discussed my view of religion as mythology, something that belongs in the same category as art, music, theater, poetry and literature, the purpose of which is not to “explain” but to “inspire.” More recently, in “Letting God Out of the Box,” reflections on Frank Schaeffer’s delightful new book “Why I am an Atheist who Believes in God,” I described how for me “God” is not a “belief” but rather, a label that I use to describe my subjective personal experience. That post generated some wonderful, lively discussion. Thanks so much to everyone for your very thoughtful insights and questions! You have inspired me to discuss the issue of “belief” further and to explain why I don’t normally use the word “believe” in reference to God.

My description of “God” as Something I experience that is beyond intellectual constructs has led some readers to assume that my approach is non-rational or purely “emotional,” but that is an incorrect assumption. While the yoga/meditative practice results in a state which transcends both thought and feeling, my spiritual journey, far from being “non-rational,” has involved a great deal of rational analysis. A degree in philosophy along with studies in theology and comparative religions provided intellectual tools which could only take me so far. In philosophy we spend a great deal of time just discussing fundamental concepts like epistemology, i.e., “how do we know anything??” What I ultimately found was that both western and eastern philosophy are like a dog chasing its own tail, in terms of the limitations of human knowledge. Obviously I cannot condense my education into this short post, so you can either take my word for it or read a whole bunch of tedious books yourself, if you wish. But, what I would like to do is share with you my thought process about “belief in God.”


Words can mean different things to different people and in various contexts. The online dictionary defines belief as:
1. an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
2. trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.

For me, “belief” is an intellectual construct involving data, and I most often use the word with regard to verifiable events in the material world. For example, “I believe per the instructions, this 6-pound bird @ 20 minutes per pound will be cooked in approximately 2 hours @ 350 degrees.” Or, “Given the history of their legislative behavior, I believe the GOP will continue to support the rich and screw the middle class.” Or, “I believe I will need to order the next bigger size of flip-flops, as all the reviewers said this brand tends to run small.”

Now if you ask me, “Do you believe in God?” it’s a funny question, like asking, “Do you believe in the sun?” I don’t need to “believe” in the sun because I can just go outside and see and feel it, at least during the day, and at night I “believe” it will reappear tomorrow as it has reliably done for 51 years. Likewise, after a lifetime of serious yoga practice, I can consistently perceive Something that I call “God.” My experiences of the sun, and of God, while “real” to me, are completely subjective. In both cases, because many other people assure me that they, too, experience these entities, I can reasonably conclude that they “exist” in some sense outside of my own mind, at least as a shared delusion, if nothing else. But that’s not to say they exist objectively! That conclusion would require scientific data which, in the case of the sun, is at least theoretically possible for me to obtain, whereas in the case of God, no scientific verification is possible even in principle, for definitional reasons, as I will explain later.

I believe some things about the sun, e.g., that it exists in an objective sense, that it is a star like billions of others only much closer, which is to say, a spherical fusion reactor in space 93,000,000 miles away whose radiation would burn us all to a crisp were it not for the earth’s magnetosphere, and that contrary to how it appears, the earth is actually orbiting the sun at 19 miles a second and the sun only appears to be orbiting us because the earth is revolving on its axis at 900 miles per hour. How do I know this? Well, both from the Monty Python song, and from textbooks written by scientists. And this requires a certain amount of faith on my part because I have to trust, or “believe in,” the scientists who provide this information.

Don’t get me wrong; I love science! In fact, I love it so much that I considered getting a double major in philosophy and physics, but I already had a double minor in German and Russian languages, while physics required a math minor and there was a waiting list for the math classes. So instead I just took as many elective science classes as possible and read all the popular physics books I could get my hands on. But despite having a reasonably good education in science, my knowledge is relatively limited, as is my ability to verify information. I believe that you can’t travel at the speed of light because when I plug numbers into the Lorentz transformations, doing so results in dividing by zero, which I believe is impossible because I learned in algebra if you divide by zero, unacceptable things occur like 2 = 1. I believe that the universe could have emerged from nothing, only because I vaguely understand the mathematical concept that if you roll the dice an infinite number of times, anything is possible.

As a child, I found a fossilized seashell in Colorado. I own a telescope that allows me to see 4 of Jupiter’s alleged 63 moons, and a microscope with which I can identify yeast and some other organisms. I can perform some basic experiments with gravity, volume and mass and even a little chemistry. I do not personally have access to a supercollider or an underground vat of cleaning fluid with which to catch neutrinos and other particles. But, the cool thing about science – and why it makes a good “consensus reality” – is that at least in principle, if I were rich and/or I knew the right people, I could send a probe to the sun and/or employ a device to catch neutrinos, Higgs bosons, quarks or whatever. Since that is not realistically possible, I am taking other peoples’ word for it, because I have no particular reason to doubt them and peers have duplicated their experiments and analyzed their data.

If I have any skepticism about science, it is only due to my medical career of 22 years, during which I discovered to my considerable dismay that some of the things I’d believed were solidly “science-based” turned out to be either “market-driven,” dubious, and/or completely fabricated. I have also found that medical “news” as presented in the popular media is sometimes contrary to the information in the medical literature, which is accessible to me only because working in the field I know where and how to look things up, whereas even a very intelligent and educated layperson would have no way of knowing. I’m not going to go there right now, because every time I do, people are eager to burn me at the stake and in any case, it’s a whole ‘nother subject for another time. However, my experience in the medical field naturally makes me wonder whether similar misinformation could be happening in other fields where I have less knowledge, such as geology or hydrology. For example, if scientists tell me that fracking is perfectly safe and that peoples’ tap water catching on fire is a mere coincidence and has nothing to do with fracking, who am I to argue? I would like to think that the “hard sciences” are less susceptible to manipulation and deceit than for-profit medicine, but in the absence of available evidence, I take it on “faith.”

But, I digress. The point I was making is that my beliefs about the sun and other physical entities can at least in theory be objectively verified via scientific experiment, whether performed by myself or some other trustworthy persons, and confirmed by peer review. The same cannot be said of a metaphysical entity such as “God” because science, by definition, does not concern itself with non-physical subjects, in the same way that you can’t get color video on a black and white t.v. and a radio won’t give you visual images at all, because it’s not designed to do so. One of the people [thx ban48!] who contributed a great deal to the discussion on my last post, and who helped to inspire this one, raised the question, “What is a physical consequence of your god?” None, unless you want to hook me up to an EEG or MRI, and/or measure my brain chemistry while I am hanging out with God. But, those same measurable neurological changes can occur as a result of the meditation technique itself, without a God. Otherwise, my God is like String Theory, making no verifiable real world predictions.

Now I often say, “God is Love,” but this won’t help us, either, because Love, like God, is a metaphysical, i.e. subjective, entity. One of my atheist friends insists that Love, unlike God, is objectively real because we can measure the brain chemistry associated with it. Well no, actually we can’t; our understanding of neurochemistry is simply not as sophisticated as laypeople often imagine it to be. While we can track oxytocin and other hormones, it would be difficult to distinguish love from lust, infatuation or baby hunger. But, even if we could trace and analyze and document every single neurochemical interaction corresponding to the feeling of love, that still would not prove that the personal experience of “love” has any objective reality outside of the human mind. If anything, it would argue against it, since “love” can be easily explained to be nothing more than our hormones tricking us into breeding and taking care of our offspring, so as to pass on our DNA. Likewise, the changes in brain chemistry that occur when I am in a meditative state are indicative that I am experiencing Something, but in no way prove that Something has any objective existence outside of my own mind. I would go so far as to say that from the purely scientific standpoint, consciousness or even the “self” as such may be merely an illusion caused by chemical interactions in the brain.

So, I have no material data, and no way even in theory of obtaining any data, that would support a belief in the objective existence of God, a metaphysical entity. And were it not for my consistent personal subjective experience of God over many years, I would have no reason to “believe” in God. I certainly would not believe based on the Bible, a clearly mythological book or collection of allegorical and poetic writings with, at best, some history thrown in here and there. I would not believe based on fundie preachers telling me that I must believe or else be sent to hell by a God that I had no particular reason to believe exists. And given my extensive study of comparative religions, the fact that every religion claims to be the one and only Truth, which none of them can objectively substantiate, would also raise a red flag. On the other hand, I might conclude that God is, at the very least, a nearly universal human phenomenon – which, again, is not the same as objective existence and may well just describe the shared archetypal collective unconscious of which Jung speaks.

The second definition of “believe” in regard to persons, which many if not most “believers” consider God to be a Person (although God can also be impersonal), presupposes the existence of that person and refers to their character. If I say I “believe in” Barry Obama it doesn’t mean I believe that he exists; I take that as given. Rather, it means that I think he is a person of integrity, that he is the right man for the job, and/or that he is doing a great job under the circumstances. That is merely personal opinion. It’s not a statement of fact and has no objective consequences. But, I can “believe” factual things about him, such as, I believe he was born in Hawaii because I attended high school with him at Punahou, and I happen to know trustworthy people who knew his parents from the University of Hawaii and saw baby Barry when he and his mom got out of the hospital.

I should probably also address, because somebody will inevitably bring it up, what about the Creeds that we recite in church, where we chant, “We believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”? This brings us to the contextual use of the word “believe.” It is my understanding from church history that the Creeds were not so much formulated to make a statement about physical or scientific reality but rather, to differentiate our particular brand of religion from competing factions and to take a stand against heresies such as Docetism (the doctrine that Jesus’ body was only an illusion). So within this context, I “believe” certain things. For example, I believe that the sacrament of Holy Communion is the body and blood of Christ, as opposed to a “mere symbol.” But, do I believe that laboratory testing would reveal it to be human DNA of a guy who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago? Of course not! We’re not talking about science here. Do I believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Yes. I also believe, in the context of the LOTR story, that Gandalf rose from the dead after defeating the Balrog in the mines of Moria, and that Eowyn slew the Nazgul at the battle of Pelennor after he said, “You fool, no man can kill me!” and she replied, “I am no man!” and drove the sword through his skull. Note, some LOTR fans believe that it was actually the hobbit Merry who killed the Nazgul by striking him from behind with an elven sword. A case could be made either way, again within the context of the story. But that’s not to say that elves or hobbits objectively exist.

Finally, there is a fundamental reason why I don’t use the word “believe” with regard to the objective existence of God. As Frank Schaeffer discusses in another of his wonderful books, “Patience with God, Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion {or Atheism},” according to the Orthodox apophatic tradition, “neither the existence of God nor nonexistence , as we understand these words in the material world, applies to God.” We have already seen that it is impossible even in principle to demonstrate the existence of a metaphysical or non-physical entity using physical science, our consensus standard of “objective” reality. But there’s a deeper reason that the objective existence of God is moot.

The very use of the word “exist” with reference to God is theologically problematic. The word “exist” comes from the Latin “existere,” “to arise or stand out from.” As Rabbi Tzvi Freeman puts it, “G‑d is not a thing… G‑d is isness itself… ‘Does G‑d exist?’ In Hebrew, that's a tautology, somewhat the equivalent of ‘Does existence exist?’" Richard Bach likewise refers to the Divine in his book “Illusions” as “The Infinite Radiant Is,” and Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has stated, echoing Christian existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich, that God is rather the Ground of all Being from which everything else emerges, the Source of life and love. My teacher Mark Whitwell, Heart of Yoga, likewise calls God, “Source Reality.”

The eastern tradition also sees God as the ground of all being, but with a twist: that same Divinity is the essence of our own human soul! Swami Vivekananda explains, “As certain religions of the world say that a man who does not believe in a Personal God outside of himself is an atheist, so the Vedanta says, a man who does not believe in himself is an atheist… Where is there a more practical God than He whom I see before me — a God omnipresent, in every being, more real than our senses? For you are He, the Omnipresent God Almighty, the Soul of your souls… He is the Oneness, the Unity of all, the Reality of all life and all existence.”

So, when my atheist friends insist, “the burden of proof is on those who say God exists,” while that may be true, it is a moot point because no objective proof is possible even in principle, and “exists” is meaningless in this context. But, that’s fine with me because I don’t need to prove the “existence” of the God I experience as Love. I’m content to subjectively enjoy It and to be an expression of It in the world. And unlike the fundies, I don’t believe that my God who is Love would send you to hell [if there were a hell] for your failure to believe based on using the rational intellect that He gave you; therefore I have no vested interest in convincing anybody of anything.

If you were so inclined, I could easily teach you yogic techniques to experience It; no “belief” is necessary. The techniques work very well for the vast majority of people, including my atheist students, (although I’ve recently been informed that some folks lack the requisite gene). If you do the practice consistently you will more than likely experience Something and you may call it Whatever You Wish. Or, you could leave that Something nameless and just enjoy It as you would a beautiful painting or poem, a sunset at the beach, or a song that touches your heart and inspires your own existence – assuming you and I “exist” at all apart from complex chemical interactions in our fleshly primate brains, which is itself a dubious proposition.