Thoughts in the Wake of Eric Harris’s Death

If I were to imagine a police sting gone wrong, an operation wherein the victim was accidentally killed by one of the officers on duty, it would probably unfold in a manner almost identical to what we’ve seen in the Eric Harris footage that’s been in the news lately and making rounds on social media. You might speculate that racial motivations lay behind the execution of Walter Scott or, to invoke namesakes, the strangling of Eric Garner, no matter how much and how deeply I hope to the contrary; but as far as I can tell, everything in this most recent travesty points to an unfortunate, though honest, mistake, plain and simple, albeit the kind of mistake one would expect to see when some geriatric rent-a-cop (actually, I think it’s called “pay-to-play”) is given permission to handle a deadly weapon that looks all too much like a taser.

Perhaps I should be a bit kinder to Mr. Bates as the immediate disposal of the still smoking gun and concomitant apology strikes my eyes and ears as nothing less than a sincere expression of shock and disbelief at what had just happened, while the aggression, brutality, and callous disregard exhibited by the accompanying patrolmen bring to mind a passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

David Grossman, a former army lieutenant colonel and the author of On Killing, argues that the optimal state of “arousal” — the range in which stress improves performance — is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute . . .

“After 145,” Grossman says, “bad things begin to happen. Complex motor skills start to break down. Doing something with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult . . . At 175, we being to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing . . . The forebrain shuts down, and the mid-brain — the part of your brain that is the same as your dog’s (all mammals have that part of the brain) — reaches up and hijacks the forebrain. Have you ever tried to have a discussion with an angry or frightened human being? You can’t do it . . . You might as well try to argue with your dog.” Vision becomes even more restricted. Behavior becomes inappropriately aggressive . . . [emphasis mine]

This is precisely the reason that many police departments in recent years have banned high-speed chases. It’s not just because of the dangers of hitting some innocent bystander during the chase, although that is clearly part of the worry, since about three hundred Americans are killed accidentally every year during chases. It’s also because of what happens after the chase, since pursuing a suspect at high speed is precisely the kind of activity that pushes police officers into this dangerous high arousal. “The L.A. riot was started by what cops did to Rodney King at the end of the high-speed chase,” says James Fyfe, head of training for the NYPD, who has testified in many brutality cases.

However one feels about the previous law enforcement encounters that have made headlines over the past couple years (and weeks), I find it remarkably difficult to interpret this one as anything more than a mishap of the most tragic kind, fueled by the incompetence and poor judgement of whoever decided it would be a good idea to send an elderly reserve officer into a high pressure and volatile situation. Robert Bates deserves the conviction of second-degree manslaughter since “culpable negligence” is precisely how his behavior ought to be defined. The real responsibility, though, lies with the Tulsa County Police Department who should have never allowed this situation to happen and should have been far more diligent in assessing the type of work Officer Bates was being assigned.


Freedom and Fear Are Strange and Secret Bedfellows Who Need a Divorce.

As a corollary to the supercilious bullshittery being peddled by the worst representatives of leftist politics is the tragic proposition by California’s Matthew McLaughlin not only to outlaw homosexual behavior, but to make it a crime punishable by death (via bullets, though it’s not clear if the traditional methods of stoning and burning are acceptable). From one point of view this latter suggestion would appear substantially worse than the gross intolerance demonstrated by mainstream LBGT advocates, as seen especially in the wake of Indiana’s RFRA debacle, yet the matter is nonetheless precisely the same in both cases, i.e. a totalitarian imposition of personal morality upon a vast and diverse population who should have every right to judge for themselves what ethical and religious beliefs they consider best.

It’s hard to imagine McLaughlin making any pretensions of inclusivity, since I suspect most of those embracing his form of theonomy care little for the classically liberal, Enlightenment-based political philosophy of the American way and would prefer instead to live in a Geneva-like utopia, complete with consistory and all just to make sure there’s not too much dancing in the streets. But semantics and persona aside, is there any real difference to the underlying thought processes that inform the polar ends of our ideological spectrum and the participants in modern policy debate? As I see it, one of the major driving forces behind the vitriol of both sides is an incessant and nagging fear, likely stemming from a primitive instinct to favor the group, which can, in turn, cause us to view outside individuals as inherently suspect and potentially dangerous to our own well-being. Beneficial though this may have been in our ancestral environment (and maybe even today in certain contexts), when applied to a world in which democracy reigns, the inevitable result is a sort of political tribalism that elevates identity and ideology over reason and logic, thereby engendering a measure of strife that can’t be assuaged by rationalization, but only by bloodbath and sheer disaster.

At Least Some People Are Still Thinking Rationally

Here is one of the better write-ups I’ve seen on the current RFRA situation going on. Dougherty really nails is when he states,

There is something truly paradoxical about the progressive desire to vindicate secularism by compelling objectors to participate in another person’s marriage solemnities. That’s the sort of thing the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay did. Religious liberty — including the liberty not to participate in another’s private ceremonies — is a liberal value. And liberty of conscience should be protected for all small proprietors, even those who are not religious, or even anti-religious.

I can appreciate where certain individuals are coming from when they express their fear that Bill 101 will lead to gross and justified discrimination under the guise of religious freedom, I really can. At the end of the day, however, that’s all it really is — fear. There’s simply nothing in the text suggesting that such a scenario could ever reasonably occur.

More on Depression, the Limbic System, and My Own Struggles with Psychiatric Illness.

Yet another write-up on Nature suggesting that an overactive limbic system may causally contribute to a dampened prefrontal cortex, presumably leading to anxiety, depression, and even cases of ADD in some folks. Unfortunately this is a pay-to-read article, and I’m not a subscriber, but the abstract and this available box of information ought to do the trick. Here are the most relevant excerpts:

“Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites.”

“Under conditions of psychological stress the amygdala activates stress pathways in the hypothalamus and brainstem, which evokes high levels of noradrenaline (NA) and dopamine (DA) release. This impairs PFC regulation but strengthens amygdala function, thus setting up a ‘vicious cycle’. For example, high levels of catecholamines, such as occur during stress, strengthen fear conditioning mediated by the amygdala. By contrast, stress impairs higher-order PFC abilities such as working memory and attention regulation. Thus, attention regulation switches from thoughtful ‘top-down’ control by the PFC that is based on what is most relevant to the task at hand to ‘bottom-up’ control by the sensory cortices, whereby the salience of the stimulus (for example, whether it is brightly coloured, loud or moving) captures our attention. [emphasis mine]”

What’s particularly interesting for me is comparing my own neural SPECT scans from the Amen Clinic to these statements. I know. I know. Most psychiatrists are critical of Dr. Amen’s methods, which is fine. I’m neither making a plug for him nor am I criticizing him. The reader can decide his/her own opinion on the matter. One of the complaints, however, is that SPECT scans aren’t very good at actually tracing neurotransmitters, which have been implicated in most mental illnesses, since they primarily focus on blood flow, thereby making their relevance to psychiatric diagnosis quite limited. Sure, you can get a good overview of one’s brain function, detecting tumors, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, etc., but there seems to be no analysis of the chemicals themselves or the receptors that metabolize them, which means those with such issues won’t find any real benefit.

Despite all of this, however, we can be certain of the simple fact that my own scans showed, among other things, increased blood flow to my limbic area and slightly decreased blood flow to my dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, which seems to me highly suggestive of the aforementioned scenario and perfectly in sync with my own subjective perception of symptoms, e.g. depression, inattention, anxiety, obsessions and compulsions, etc. Likewise, it fits fairly well with my own history since my younger years, in retrospect, seemed to have roughly followed the progression of nervous tics, full-blown anxiety/depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, then ADD. I purposely write ADD, by the way, and not ADHD since I was never hyperactive, and it just makes more sense to use the old terminology for my experience rather than ADHD-PI. At any rate, I’m only aware of the nervous tics beginning first because I’ve been told by my parents of the incessant cough that the pediatrician chalked-up to anxiety as opposed to some sort of illness. Unfortunately, I was always so quiet, introverted, and well-behaved that I probably never gave anyone a reason to think something was wrong, and it’s only now that the pieces can be put together more accurately.

In fourth grade I very clearly recall one of the earliest manifestations of textbook OCD during an incident in which I felt compelled to hold the left side metal support of my desk with my right hand so that my fingers touched, prompting the girl next to me to ask what I was doing. (I wonder if she remembers too) During those years I also began to stop swallowing my saliva from time to time for fear of being poisoned, which I hid well by either spitting when outside or wiping it on my sleeve when inside, always hiding it as best as I could because hey, I may have been a mentally ill kid, but even I knew that stuff was crazy. It was around that time, also, that teachers began telling my parents that I would daydream a lot, spacing out during lessons and such, though no one really knew what the story was, assuming I was just lazy and unmotivated — a perfectly reasonable conclusion based on the external data. From there it only got worse, prompting me to eventually seek treatment, which helped immensely in various ways and to varying degrees, but never permanently as one would like. I’ve had numerous relapses over the years, one in particular being the result of my foolish decision to totally ween myself off of a medication without the doctor’s knowledge. Helpful hint: don’t do it.

From what I’ve gathered, however, it all seems perfectly reasonable to suspect that a fiery limbic system somehow caused these issues and still continues to do so to this day. The good news, however, is that a variety of cognitive and behavioral techniques have shown serious promise is reversing many of these tendencies, as I pointed out in my last entry, so I may not be as doomed as I once thought.

Depression and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

As one who has struggled for years with psychiatric disorders of various kinds, I find the inner-workings of the human brain remarkably fascinating. Of particular interest to me is the notion that retraining one’s thought processes can potentially alleviate, if not cure, such maladies as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder — two illnesses I’ve battled to varying extents. Lately I’ve been thinking of the possibility that some of my issues arise from a kind of neural resource allocation in which certain overactive brain functions take up more energy than is necessary, thus draining the potential supply for other portions. This piece by Emily Anthes helps to confirm and explain such a possibility, while offering the comfort that maybe these problems aren’t necessarily permanent.

An Overview of Kurt Gödel’s Ontological Argument

Perhaps I’ve not given it enough thought, but I must confess that I find Gödel’s ontological argument to be one of the most powerful and persuasive pieces of evidence for the existence of God — evidence that really is hard to ignore. I focus on Gödel, by the way, since his is the version I’ve looked at the most, though Leibniz offered a similar one in correction of Descartes’ which, along with Anselm’s, posited existence as a predicate and never wrestled with the question of whether or not the perfect being in question was itself logically possible. At any rate, it does make a good bit of sense, and the objection that positive properties are subjective and undefinable somehow doesn’t sit well with me, though it’s hard to say why. I’m sure there must be an answer, but it seems that we can all intuitively agree with his own explanation that appeals to the moral aesthetic of of such properties.

Formally, the argument is written thusly:

Ax. 1.    {[Pφ ⋄ ▢(∀x)(φx → ψx)] → Pψ}
Ax. 2.    {P~φ ↔ ~Pφ}
Th. 1.       ∴ {Pφ →♢(∃x)φx}
Df. 1.     {G(x) ↔ (∀φ)(Pφ → φx)}
Ax. 3.     P(G)
Th. 2.       ∴♢(∃x)G(x)
Df. 2.     {φ ess. x ↔ [φx ⋄ (∀ψ)(ψx → ▢(∀y)(φy → ψy)]}
Ax. 4.     {Pφ → ▢Pφ}
Th. 3.       ∴G(x) → G ess. x
Df. 3.     {E(x) ↔ (∀φ)(φ ess. x → ▢(∃y)φy)}
Ax. 5      P(E)
Th. 4.       ∴▢(∃x)Gx

All of these formulas can be restated in more colloquial English, however, so that one doesn’t need to know the symbolic language to understand the argument.

Ax. 1. If a property is positive and the instantiation of that property entails the instantiation of another property, that other property is also positive.
Ax. 2. A negation of a property is positive if and only if the property itself is not positive.
Th. 1. Therefore, if a property is positive, it is possible that such a property exists.
Df. 1. A thing is Godlike if and only if that thing has all positive properties and only positive properties.
Ax. 3. Being Godlike is a positive property.
Th. 2. Therefore, it is possible that something Godlike exists.
Df. 2. A property is an essential feature of something if and only if that property entails every other property that thing has.
Ax. 4. If a property is positive, it is necessarily positive.
Th. 3. Therefore, if something is Godlike, being Godlike is an essence of that thing.
Df. 3. Something necessarily exists if and only if every essential feature of that thing necessarily exists.
Ax. 5. Necessary existence is a positive property.
Th. 4. Therefore, something Godlike necessarily exists.

If that still seems like a bit much to handle, don’t worry. It took me a while to understand it too. Keep in mind, also, that philosophy has its own language so that those who haven’t been acquainted with that language might find some of the arguments difficult to grasp. That sounds a bit demeaning perhaps, but I only say it so that no one feels stupid if they’re having a hard time following along. Oftentimes philosophers use very common words in very precise ways so that most of us think their sentences are incoherent mumbo jumbo until we realize that they’re actually defining words differently than we expected. I’ve tried to be relatively straight forward in my interpretation of the argument that I wrote above while remaining true to the premises as they were written formally, and I think I’ve been successful, even though the argument itself is a bit dense and abstract. It might be worth keeping in mind, however, that the words “necessarily” and “possibly” carry with them certain connotations so that they refer to things that are logically necessary or logically possible in some possible world. Or, to put it another way, something is logically possible if, in some hypothetical world, it can exist without logical contradiction. For example, it is conceivable that in some possible world the continent of North America is shaped like a perfect triangle. Bizarre though it may seem, there is no inherent contradiction in this idea, meaning that it is logically possible and not an absolute impossibility. On the other hand, in no possible world is there a triangle that has any more or less than three angles, since a triangle is by definition something with three angles. If it has four angles it would be a quadrilateral and no longer a triangle. This is, then, a necessary truth since in all possible worlds triangles will always have three angles — no more; no less. And while we’re at it, I might as well clarify what is meant by the term “essence” or “essential.” The essence of something is that which makes a thing what it is. A triangle, to use the last example, is a geometrical figure of three angles, and these three angles are the essence of that geometrical figure called the triangle. It may be a blue triangle or a green triangle or even a metal triangle used to make noise, but these are not essential properties of the triangle since they don’t define what it actually is. So, if what I’ve written doesn’t make sense, try reading it with these ideas in mind and see if it doesn’t help.

To boil it all down, though, the core of the argument goes like this:

1. Something that is Godlike has all positive properties and only positive properties.
2. We can prove that these so-called “positive properties” are at least logically possible.
3. Furthermore, since being Godlike is a positive property, we can conclude that something Godlike possibly exists.
4. Now, if something is Godlike, then this Godlike thing entails all positive properties, since positive properties are the essence of being Godlike.
5. Necessary existence is a positive property.
6. Therefore, something Godlike necessarily exists. This is because being Godlike entails all positive properties and necessarily existence is a positive property, meaning that something Godlike necessarily exists.

As far as I can tell, all of this is a very solid piece of reasoning (far better than the moral argument, which simply doesn’t hold up, or even the Kalam Cosmological argument, which has some pretty clear weaknesses), making it hard for me to seriously deny the existence of some Godlike being.

A Change of Plans

I think it’s time for me to put an end to these theology ambitions, which are nothing but an unprofitable waste of my time, money, and energy. Sure, I love the topic and for years I’ve hoped to make some sort of academic career out of it; but realistically that’s just not going to happen. I hate teaching, and deep-down I’ve been hoping that I could somehow refocus my track toward a more research-oriented end, which is where I really thrive, but it just doesn’t work like that, at least not in a humanities discipline. So what’s left? Ministry? I suppose that’s an option, but I can’t say I have it in me to preach sermons or visit shut-ins; and it’s hard to imagine I’d have any real ability to counsel distressed individuals since I have so many problems myself. The only remaining option, then, is a total change of direction, moving into some other field in which I can take some level of interest and pursue with some degree of passion. My biblical studies undergraduate degree makes that difficult, though, since I’m virtually unqualified for every occupation that I find even remotely appealing; and it is for that reason I warn any of you potential college students out there who are considering a humanities discipline as a major to seriously rethink that decision.