Back from Seattle

The 10 month old nephews are very easy to amuse – funny faces and air-tosses and pokes with stuffed animals and dances to made-up songs bring gales of laughter. The niece, who is 5 going on 6, performs elaborate song and dance routines, plays monster-and-rescue adventures with elaborate checklists before blasting off to save the day, and looks elegant in pink sparkly things.
Ingy gave me a tour of the new Seattle public library, which is just waiting for the movie where the villains chase the heroes across the ledges and levels.
It was a restful weekend away – nice to sleep somewhere you don’t have responsibility. Which I guess parents don’t get ever.

Looking for Spinoza – Mind as Part of Body

Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio recounts experimental neuroscience that is revealing the physical sources of emotions in the brain. Damasio brings evidence supporting a theory of human consciousness having its source in the human body. The book proposes a mechanism where emotions are an emergent phenomenon of many chemical gradients within the body, and conciousness is an emergent phenomenon based on the brain’s ability to map the physical state of the body.
My favorite experimental results in the book are in Chapter 4, where neurological patients with damage to brain regions used for certain classes of emotions are perfectly able to analyze social and ethical situations in the lab, and come up with the “right answers”. Yet these patients lack empathy and normal affect. Without emotional capacity, they are consistently unable to make good decisions and consistently break ethical norms and cause social damage in real life. Emotions are an important component of human intelligence, playing a critical role in “good judgment.”
These anecdotes shed light on the “trolling” problem — there are some individuals with a pathological lack of emotional capacity; no amount of reasoning or compassion will restore the capacity they lack. It is also possible that the physical distance in online communication fails to trigger in some individuals the empathy that restrains them from social pathology in 3d.
It is fascinating to watch modern neuroscience approach proof of mind/body integration, and yet it is less surprising than Damasio makes out, given the Cartesian mind/body dualism that Damasio takes as his straw man. Damasio makes no mention of supporting ideas from other domains: contemporary cybernetic system theory, in which higher levels of abstraction have emergent properties different from the properties of substrates in silicon and elementary logic; and eastern traditions in which the mind makes use of its integration with the body to develop an astonishing level of influence over emotions and basal bodily functions.
The Spinoza contrast to Descartes is less dramatic as a philosophical ground for embodied mind, and more intriguing as a counterfactual to the intellectual development of modernism, given that Cartesian dualism emerged as enlightenment conventional wisdom, and that Spinoza’s writing is a partially occluded source of modernism. Perhaps more of the missing threads in this argument are connected in Damasio’s earlier book: Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.
I need to reread this book, and read some of Damasio’s earlier work, to figure out if I still agree with these conclusion upon further reflection.

Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite is a “revenge of the nerds” movie that tries to have it both ways.
The main character is an oddball loner in a small-town, Idaho highschool. He wears weird clothes, draws fantasy/sci-fi sketches, plays tether volleyball by himself, stuffs leftover lunch tater tots in his cargo pants, and is tortured by the school jocks and mocked by the popular girls. When the camera visits his house, where his unemployed 30-year old older brother spends hours in pre-internet chatrooms and his uncle yearns to relive his days of almost-highschool-football stardom, you know there’s no way out.
The film spends most of its meandering plot inviting the audience to at Napoleon, his loser family, his awkward, fresh-from Mexico friend Pedro, and the unprosperous, uncool ambience of small-town Idaho.
Then, toward the end, the movie evolves into a “follow your dreams” fairy tale. The ideosyncratic loners find each other, and become school heroes.
The audience gets to make fun of the nerds and small-town losers through most of the movie, and then bask in the myth of individualist triumph at the end.
In the genre of misfit triumph, I preferred Muriel’s Wedding — which was simultaneously sweeter and darker. The film shows the awkwardness of the misfit main character and her disfunctional family all the way through, and the triumph is partial, since the main character has internalized the values of her oppressors.