How to Die: Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery has become commonplace. I have several acquaintances who have had operations, and we jokingly refer to the cougars at the local hot spots as “50/50 ladies” (50 years old and 50 percent plastic). It’s no longer just the older people; one of my colleagues died from complications of plastic surgery at the age of 23, and it seems like the girls in China and Korea are now competing to see who can get the most plastic at the youngest age.

I don’t have a problem with orthodontics or other mainstream cosmetic treatments, so I might be accused of hypocrisy for having a problem with plastic surgery. But I fear there is something terribly wrong in this obsession with youth. Life shouldn’t be about clinging to youth as long as possible — life is about growing old and dying gracefully.

Around age 12, one of my favorite poems was Yeats “When You are Old”:

WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

What kind of person would trade Yeats’ vision of graceful aging for plastic? Yeats had advice for those who rejoice in youthful beauty in “To a Young Beauty”:

DEAR fellow-artist, why so free
With every sort of company,
With every Jack and Jill?
Choose your companions from the best;
Who draws a bucket with the rest
Soon topples down the hill.

You may, that mirror for a school,
Be passionate, not bountiful
As common beauties may,
Who were not born to keep in trim
With old Ezekiel’s cherubim
But those of Beaujolet.

I know what wages beauty gives,
How hard a life her servant lives,
Yet praise the winters gone;

There is not a fool can call me friend,
And I may dine at journey’s end
With Landor and with Donne.

Around 200 BC, a Greek sculptor created a statue of a “Dying Gaul“, which has ever since been a symbol of how to die. Upon seeing the statue of the dying Gaul, still a dead ringer for Yeats’ countrymen, Lord Byron was inspired to write:

I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one..

Rather than being a celebration of youth, the dying Gaul shows the wisdom of Montaigne’s advice:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.

He doesn’t try to prolong his youth any longer than is given to him. Montaigne examines this topic in his essay 17, “To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die“, as well as a few other essays.

I recently read through “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer“, in which the author collects Montaigne’s thoughts on life, death, and much between. It’s not fantastic, but not bad, and I’m convinced that Montaigne would share my same misgivings about plastic surgery.

Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe is the oldest human-made place of worship yet discovered. The site was constructed 11,000 year ago, and has only recently been excavated.

Our parents and grandparents didn’t even know about this site; it was buried for thousands of years. If you know your Old Testament and comparative religion, you will see the significance. These are amazing times to be alive! Göbekli Tepe will be a mandatory pilgrimage for my family sometime in the next few years. Perhaps I’ll take along a few PDEs to bury when I’m there. If I were a science fiction author, I would definitely have the singularity set up headquarters at an underground facility in Göbekli Tepe.

Are Autistic People Evil?

Simon Baron-Cohen is director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, and has been instrumental in showing that Autism is caused by a defect in the empathy system. Now, Baron-Cohen is seeking to banish evil by boosting empathy:

His proposal is that evil be understood as a lack of empathy — a condition he argues can be measured and monitored and is susceptible to education and treatment.

In the article, he talks about his lifelong quest to understand how the Nazis could have committed such atrocities against the Jews, and his conviction that a lack of empathy was the cause:

Baron-Cohen also sets out an “empathy spectrum” ranging from zero to six degrees of empathy, and an “empathy quotient” test, whose score puts people on various points along that spectrum.

Drawing a classic bell curve on a graph, Baron-Cohen says that thankfully, the vast majority of humans are in the middle of the bell curve spectrum, with a few particularly attuned and highly empathetic people at the top end.

Psychopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder sit at the bottom end of the scale — these people have “zero degrees of empathy.”

This is quite remarkable coming from a guy who studies autism. Autistic people aren’t known for being evil. If you torment an autistic person, he might bite or pummel you and run away, but that’s just self-preservation. He’s not plotting to turn anyone into a lampshade. I’ve worked with plenty of people with Asperger’s, so I know that they can be deceptive, stubborn, and egotistical. But they are generally far more honest and less malicious than the average person.

Conversely, it seems that violent criminals have problems other than lack of empathy. Poor impulse control and hair-trigger insecurity come out near the top. And there are several other neural defects that have been clearly linked to violent sociopathic behavior which have nothing to do with empathy.

So, I’m not convinced. In my experience, a strong empathic system can help to inhibit sociopathic aggression. But the root cause of evil aggression is not a lack of empathy. And, more importantly, if the root causes of the aggression are strong enough, the empathic system will be overridden and enlisted in aid of the aggression.

Neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran discusses many of the neurological defects that underpin sociopathy in his new book “The Tell-Tale Brain“. He also discusses Simon Baron-Cohen’s research, and suggests his own novel technique for improving empathy and “curing” autism — he suggests giving recreational drugs to children!

A possibility—one that I suggested in an article for Scientific American that I coauthored with my graduate student Lindsay Oberman—would be to try certain drugs. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that MDMA (the party drug ecstasy) enhances empathy, which it may do by increasing the abundance of neurotransmitters called empathogens, which naturally occur in the brains of highly social creatures such as primates.

If administered sufficiently early, cocktails of such drugs might help tide over some early symptom manifestations enough to minimize the subsequent cascade of events that lead to the full spectrum of autistic symptoms.

Again, I’m not convinced. Baron-Cohen wants to “banish evil” by “boosting empathy”, and empathy can certainly be boosted by boosting empathogen levels, as Ramachandran says. Feeding mind-altering drugs to kids seems like a profoundly bad idea.

In any case, empathy can be used for evil as well as for good. Perhaps to be wicked requires a lack of empathy, but to be truly evil requires empathy.

Hell Bank Notes

Dandelionsmith has a great story about a family memento; a stone that he took from the foundation of his great grandfather’s house. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are some excerpts. First, he recounts the hike out to find the old homestead:

To get a picture of the continuing saga, imagine a square section of land (640 acres) bounded on all four sides, first by six strands of barbed-wire fence, and beyond that, either a gravel or a tar road. Inside the fence was close-cropped pasture grass, lichen-covered rocks, clumps of thistle, and at least a quarter-mile walk. The sun was high, the air was dry, and the wind was imperceptible. Our sweat flowed while the grasshoppers jumped. I took the tyke on my shoulders when she couldn’t keep up the pace set by my septuagenarian parents (and their pace is another story).

And taking the stone from the foundation:

The house, like many others of its time in the late 1800s, had a stone foundation. That is, many large stones from the surrounding land were gathered together and with mortar added, formed the foundation of the building. In time, the old foundation crumbled, leaving the stones somewhat exposed. Figuring the building’s lack of integrity would cause total collapse before I had another chance to return, I pulled out a rock the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. It wasn’t supporting the structure, anymore, and I thought it might be nice to have the rose-tinted stone as a way to remember the old place.

And finally, the effect that this memento has on the family:

That rock moved with us from Iowa to Montana, from Montana to Granite Falls, from Granite Falls to our former country house, and from that house to this. Every time I look at it, I remember. Every time I look at it, I think of sharing the story with the younger children.

This story really resonated with me, because it’s almost identical to an experience of mine, but also quite different.

My story involves a visit with the kids and the spry septuagenarian in-laws to see the graves of the ancestors. We, too, had to get permission from a suspicious tenant before hiking through the sweltering heat in a rural area outside Shanghai. And I, too, had to carry the youngest, while the oldsters soldiered on ahead. I had explained to my kids that we were going to pay our respects to the ancestors, much as we would by laying flowers on a grave in America.

Before setting out on the hike, the in-laws had spent some time haggling with a local merchant for things to burn at the grave site. I liked the fact that our kids would be able to see the graves of their ancestors going back several generations, and form lasting memories. I was somewhat less enthused about the ritual of sacrifice to dead people, and we agreed that the kids needn’t participate.

When we arrived at the grave site and opened the bag of merchandise, the kids and I had quite a surprise. The bag was full of fake paper money emblazoned clearly in English with the words “Hell Bank Note”. I immediately assumed that someone with a cruel sense of humor had played a prank on the unsuspecting Chinese by stamping the money with “Hell Bank” in a foreign language. Startled, I asked my wife, “Do Chinese people know what this says in English?” She assured me that, yes, Chinese people were intentionally burning Hell bank notes for the ancestors. Of course, the first question the kids asked was, “Does this mean the ancestors are in Hell?!?”. The next question was, “How will they spend the money if it just burned up?”

It certainly left a lasting impression on the kids, but not exactly the impression I expected.

I have to assume that the burning of paper money is relatively new, since China hasn’t had paper money for more than a few centuries. And I’ve since learned that people burn paper houses and paper Porsches. I’m well aware that there is some semblance of a rationale given for these practices. But I can’t shake the feeling that some cruel person played a malicious joke on the unsuspecting population by introducing these relatively new traditions.

Heisman’s Nihilist Experiment

During Yom Kippur this year, Mitchell Heisman dressed in white, climbed the steps of Harvard Memorial Church, and killed himself as dozens of horrified spectators watched. His death drew attention to the 1900-page “Philosophy Book” he self-published. For a few days, until a spate of gay suicides wiped Heisman from the public consciousness, the early reviews of his book seemed positive. IvyGate said:

The document sketches Heisman’s dense, heavily-cited social, political, and ethical philosophy, and promotes his book, heretofore unpublished. Heisman worked in several bookstores throughout the area, and consulted with Harvard professors in the process of writing the document.

Most arresting of all: the note — tome, really — is probing, deeply researched, and often humorous. Heisman personality and erudition shine through every page, as he traces the philosophical steps that have led him to suicide: not really desperation or depression, but rather, intellectual curiosity, and a desire to test the limits of the unknown. After a quick read, comparisons to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” abound. All the more sad that such a deeply intelligent young man would choose to cut his scholarly output off at one, interesting book.

Commenters lauded the young man’s “brilliance”, and a few even speculated that the work would be studied in serious university courses for decades to come. Since I’m interested in many of the topics he discusses, I approached it with great interest soon after he died. It took me 3 days to finish the book.

Heisman’s primary goal in writing the book is to explain why suicide is the “ultimate experiment in nihilism”. Sadly, if Heisman had allowed anyone to peer-review his book before his experiment, he would still be alive today. His treatise would earn a solid failing grade in any philosophy, economics, history, or religion course I know.

In every field of study he employs, he cherry-picks citations that support his crackpot theories and seems to be ignorant of anything taught beyond undergraduate level. It’s a total train wreck. I’ve talked with many schizophrenics, and his obsessive proof-texting and conspiracy theorizing is sadly typical of mental disease.

His central argument is that nihilism is the only logical conclusion of materialistic naturalism. This is a slur normally leveled by Christians against atheists, so it’s ironic that this specious argument becomes the center piece of Heisman’s atheistic excuse to kill himself. Of course, some Christians still try to equate atheistic naturalism with nihilism, but it hasn’t been a strong argument for decades. Out of curiosity, I looked around, and the best current argument equating naturalism with nihilism seems to be “Ethical Naturalism Defeated” by Mark Linville. Like Heisman, Linville assumes that altruism could only arise as a fitness function, and doesn’t consider sexual selection. This oversimplified view of Darwinism completely undermines his argument.

It’s a terrible shame that someone would kill himself over a basic misunderstanding of evolutionary biology. If you’re going to pretend to believe in the theory, you ought to do it right. When lives are at stake (especially your own), one ought to have absolutely unimpeachable reasoning.

Several reviewers held up Heisman as a great example of postmodernist deconstructionism. But they clearly did not read his book. He might still be alive if he had even a passing familiarity with postmodernism. The only times he mentions postmodernism are when he equates it with sollipsism, and when he uses it in the same sentence as the word “deconstruction”. His multiple uses of the word “deconstruction” only prove that he hasn’t the slightest clue what that word means, which is tragic. If only he had thought to deconstruct concepts like “Jew”, “Anglo-Saxon”, and “Christian”. It’s especially ironic that he’s (mis)-using “deconstruction” in the context of “deposing the Mosaic order” and Jewish identity. It’s as if he read Sloterdijk’s “Derrida, An Egyptian” and got completely confused. Again, postmodernism is a wretched mess, but if you’re planning to use “deconstruction” in life-or-death decisions, you ought to at least do it properly.

Beneath all of the deplorable scholarship and sophistry, one discovers a young man who never recovered from the death of his father. Starting around page 1850, Heisman becomes abruptly autobiographical:

When my father died when I was twelve, I dealt with his death by interpreting him as a purely material phenomenon. In other words, I viewed my father as a material thing and his death as a material process. Well before my father died, I had interpreted my own emotions as material processes and my reaction to my father’s death was treated no differently.

The death of my father marked the beginning, or perhaps the acceleration, of a kind of moral collapse, because the total, materialization of the world from matter to humans to literal subjective experience went hand in hand with a nihilistic inability to believe in the worth of any goal. At one point when I was nineteen, after another descent into a psychological downward spiral, I had enough, and finally launched myself into a “program” of radical self transformation.

Ultimately, Heisman seems like a young man who was in a tremendous amount of emotional pain and wanted to die, but who felt compelled to protect those he loved by making his suicide appear rational, calculated, and even heroic.

Raging Against the Void

avalokitesvaraI had heard Rinpoche’s teachings about compassion before, and they had seemed innocent enough. But that night, listening to him speak, it suddenly dawned on me that he was teaching something terrible and inhuman. You see, Buddhists teach that love is a means to an end. By responding to the suffering of others, they say, we let go of our selfish egos, learn the illusory nature of the “self”, and open ourselves to the realization that nothing has a permanent, enduring identity. Understanding that nothing has essential, enduring identity (Sunyata), is essential for achieving Nirvana, says Nagarjuna.

A good humanist might react with revulsion. Using “love” to achieve some other end? Isn’t that called “prostitution”? Using love in a way that is not directed towards enduring personhood? Isn’t that Onanism, Cronus-like, or worse? Instinctively, we feel that love should be the ultimate end, not a means. Love is a fruit, not a seed. A Nirvana that leaves personal love behind seems, to many, to be a Hell.

Some Buddhists have responded by arguing that these objections are a symptom of our selfish egos. If only we dropped our egotistical attachment to identity, they say, we would realize it’s a good thing when people let go of self-reference. The most loving and compassionate thing we could do for anyone would be to hasten along their abandonment of miserable self-reference. Redefining “compassion” to mean “elimination of the identity” is repulsive to the layman. We can’t blame those who hear this and think of “I love you, I’ll kill you”.

The story of Avalokitesvara, developed most fully by the Tibetans, is the best Buddhist answer. In the story, developed hundreds of years after Christ, Avalokitesvara was ready to ascend to Nirvana. However, he looked back and saw the suffering of all the beings who were left behind. Out of love for all, Avalokitesvara refuses to ascend to Nirvana until all other beings have been rescued. In Buddhism, the beings who are ready to attain Nirvana, but remain in this world out of compassion for the lost, are known as Bodhisattvas. Thus, Avalokitesvara is the personification of the vows of all Bodhisattvas.

It’s a beautiful story. According to the Tibetans, Avalokitesvara is the great creator, the father and first king of the Tibetan people, and the Dalai Lama is considered to be an incarnation of this Bodhisttva. This is love, right? Avalokitesvara sees the suffering of all beings and weeps. In his tears, he is driven to make a great sacrifice. He stays in this plane of suffering in order to save all of those who remain behind. You could say it’s almost Christ-like.

Except, it’s not. In the touching stories about the weeping and tears of the Bodhisattva, it’s easy to forget what he’s holding out for. It’s easy to forget what is on the other side of his “love”. Sunyata, the true nature of things, can be translated as “void”. Where are the tears for those who cease to exist as individuals? Where is the rage against the void?

For the Tibetans, the void is typically symbolized by the sky. The sky in Tibet is not the life-giving place that most of us think of when we think of the sky. The climate is arid and cold; warmth is rare, and rain is rarer. Tibet is the one place on earth where you can get frostbite and sunburn in the same day. The oxygen is thin; the air tends to kill infants who don’t have a specific genetic mutation.

According to one version of the Tibetan myth, Avalokitesvara was asked by Buddha to establish a kingdom on the rooftop of the world, to reign until all beings have abandoned self-reference. Avalokitesvara sits atop the highest throne on earth, beckoning all souls to the great void above him, where there are no eternal souls, no resurrected bodies.

Buddha Congratulates Calvin on 500 Years

CalvinRolls We’ve recently wrapped up family visits in Toronto, Port Huron, and Princeton, and now relaxing near the beach in Pawcatuck, Connecticut.  In honor of John Calvin’s 500th birthday, my wife took this picture of a former Presbyterian church we drove past in London, Ontario.  The cement plaque in the side of the wall says that the church was established in 1910, and the large beaming statue of Buddha in the front is Vietnamese.

As my brother observed, this was a Presbyterian church, so nobody can say that the congregation were not warned.  The pastor probably warned the congregation of the imminence of God’s wrath often.  And now their building is a shrine to idolatry and sophistry.

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One of the only good things to come out of economics recently is the field of “behavioral economics”, which shatters the myth of the “rational consumer”, and provides sound empirical evidence for the concept of the “totally depraved consumer”.  For most people, behavioral economics is redundant, since we already knew that people are not rational or ethical.  But for people who have been brainwashed by scientism, the field provides an invaluable tool to reacquaint them with common sense.  It uses their own tools to dismantle their fantasies.

In that spirit, check out Tyler Cowan’s post in honor of Calvin’s birthday: “John Calvin was a Behavioral Economist”.