Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Quicklink: US Army Using 'Spirtual Healing' To Combat PTSD

Today's Quicklink comes from the Wired blog. Noah Schactman reports that:

The Army just unveiled a $4 million program to investigate everything from "spiritual ministry, transcendental meditation, [and] yoga" to "bioenergies such as Qi gong, Reiki, [and] distant healing" to mend the psyches of wounded troops.

Sure, we could try Reiki and acupuncture or we could, you know, not send people to kill other people for no good reason. I bet that's pretty reliable in reducing incidence of PTSD.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Quicklink: How is a Brain Not Like a Computer?

I'm going to try to start posting at least one "quicklink" every day--something cool (and relevant) that I found on the internet with a minimum of commentary. Today's comes from Developing Intelligence, and covers some reasons why the brain is really not very much like today's digital computers; this topic is important, as there are a lot of people out there who actually think that we're right on the brink of using computers to create beings with minds like ours. Snip:

It's easy to think that neurons are essentially binary, given that they fire an action potential if they reach a certain threshold, and otherwise do not fire. This superficial similarity to digital "1's and 0's" belies a wide variety of continuous and non-linear processes that directly influence neuronal processing.

For example, one of the primary mechanisms of information transmission appears to be the rate at which neurons fire - an essentially continuous variable. Similarly, networks of neurons can fire in relative synchrony or in relative disarray; this coherence affects the strength of the signals received by downstream neurons. Finally, inside each and every neuron is a leaky integrator circuit, composed of a variety of ion channels and continuously fluctuating membrane potentials.

The Great Tanta Challenge

Things like this make me smile a big happy smile of naturalistic joy. Earlier this month Sanal Edamaruku, president of Rationalist International challenged India's most prominent practitioner of Tantrik--a prominent superstition in India--to put his magic where his mouth is. Pandit Surinder Sharma, who claims to give magical advice and aid to top Indian politicians, claimed on national television that he could kill any man "in under three minutes" with his black magic. Sanal, also present on the program, invited him to give it a try. After nearly two hours of chanting and ritual (including pressing on Sanal's temples, sprinkling him with water, and waving a knife at him), the show's producers declared the attempt a failure, prompting the following:

The tantrik, unwilling to admit defeat, tried the excuse that a very strong god whom Sanal might be worshipping obviously protected him. “No, I am an atheist,” said Sanal Edamaruku. Finally, the disgraced tantrik tried to save his face by claiming that there was a never-failing special black magic for ultimate destruction, which could, however, only been done at night. Bad luck again, he did not get away with this, but was challenged to prove his claim this very night in another “breaking news” live program.
Anyone want to guess how the super-double-secret magic ritual went? From the Rationalist International website:

Now the tantrik wrote Sanal’s name on a sheet of paper, tore it into small pieces, dipped them into a pot with boiling butter oil and threw them dramatically into the flames. Nothing happened. Singing and singing, he sprinkled water on Sanal, mopped a bunch of peacock feathers over his head, threw mustard seed into the fire and other outlandish things more. Sanal smiled, nothing happened, and time was running out. Only seven more minutes before midnight, the tantrik decided to use his ultimate weapon: the clod of wheat flour dough. He kneaded it and powdered it with mysterious ingredients, then asked Sanal to touch it. Sanal did so, and the grand magic finale begun. The tantrik pierced blunt nails on the dough, then cut it wildly with a knife and threw them into the fire. That moment, Sanal should have broken down. But he did not. He laughed. Forty more seconds, counted the anchor, twenty, ten, five… it’s over!
Pure, unadulterated awesome. Millions of people watched this happen live on India TV, and we can only hope that, for some at least, the spell of supernaturalism and religion was broken (or at least weakened) when the "most powerful wizard" in India failed to so much as give his compliant target a headache. It is these sorts of consciousness raising events that, ever so gradually, push the world toward a new age of reason.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Philosophy, Teaching, and the Hoi Polloi

Commentor Mike recently said the following in a comment (that statement seems vaguely tautalogical):

Pardon my cyncicism, but you may suffer a little from being too interested in communicating with the hoi polloi, the civilians, the canaille. Your blog is readable and interesting. You may assume that obviously all philosophers would like to be broadly be understood, but I invite you to check your experiences to see if they hypothesis that they don't has some viability. Searle is likely a brilliant exception, and I hope you find whoever the brilliant exceptions at Columbia and attach yourself to them.

It IS important to keep in mind that your life goals are NOT the same as the department's or your advisor's.

Having checked my experiences carefully, I'm pretty sure he's right: most philosophers care very little about being understood by anyone who doesn't have a PhD, and far too many philosophers (read: Continental Philosophers) don't really care if they're not understood by even that relatively small subset of the population. This is, I think, a Very Bad Thing.

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned in the past that one of the reasons that I very much admire John Searle and his work is that he really makes an effort--or at least is naturally very good at--writing with a very high degree of clarity; a relatively educated person (i.e. someone with a high school diploma and a curious mind) can pick up many of Searle's books and, though he might not understand all of it, will at least understand enough to be able to converse intelligently about its contents. By contrast, I read a lot of philosophers as an undergraduate (Saul Kripke springs to mind) who, while brilliant, are almost indecipherable to those without savant-like abilities in analytic philosophy (again, Kripke springs to mind). While I like to take snide pot-shots at Continental Philosophers (Kant, Hegel) and Postmodernists (Derrida, Foucault), this is even more of a serious criticism of them--in some cases (e.g. Derrida), it's not even clear if the author knows what the hell he's talking about.

I think a lot of this stems from / mirrors the trend in philosophical education--if you do graduate work at a top tier (top 20 or so) school, you're expected to want (and maybe even get) a job at a major research university, where you'll have a 2/2 teaching load and spend the majority of your time cranking out journal articles and books. By contrast, teaching seems to be something that is thought of as best left to the "second rate" philosophers; people who go to lower ranked institutions are expected to get hired by small liberal arts colleges, teach 4/5 or even 5/5, and spend very little time doing research. It's sort of a meritocracy-meets-division-of-labor approach. The end result of all of this, I think, is that the people with the most "academic talent," (i.e. those coming out of NYU/Princeton/Rutgers/etc.) will, by the end of their PhD, have developed the habit of writing only for other philosophers; they'll be told explicitly and implicitly that the "academic dream job" is one with little to no teaching responsibility and lots of time for research. I don't buy this model, but I do think there's room for nuance.

Philosophy is a very broad discipline, covering everything from "Does God exist?" to "How do I know other people have minds?" to "Is it ok to clone humans?" and much more. While the answers to all of these questions do impact Average Joe somehow, obviously some are going to have more relevance to every day life (questions of normative ethics are particularly relevant), and some will have less relevance (nit-picky ontology questions about the nature of color, maybe). Given this, it seems reasonable to assert that philosophers ought to be able to write at two levels: a very precise, technical, academic level that is designed to deal with very small technical issues (is consciousness an emergent or supervenient property?), and a broader, less technical, more accessible level to communicate important philosophical ideas to the general public. My major objection to the system as it stands is that there is not enough overlap here--if an author is skillful, many questions can be dealt with simultaneously on both levels. Searle is great at doing this--most of his books and articles could easily be written for the layperson, but also give careful and skillful consideration to important philosophical questions. This balance should be the rule rather than the exception, I think.

Similarly, I think universities (even, or perhaps especially, the top tier) should focus on a balance between research and teaching, ensuring that graduates from prestigious philosophy programs are capable of teaching quality philosophy classes, a task that is significantly harder than those without teaching experience tend to think it is. I can honestly say that many--if not most--of my theoretical developments have come as the result of discussing the issues while teaching (either formally or informally), and I think this is a fact that is under recognized: by being a better teacher, you will become a better researcher, as your ideas will (must) be made clearer as you explain them and are challenged by those who disagree.

Philosophy, broadly, is concerned with the same task that science is concerned with: figuring out what's true about reality. Whereas science deals with specifics and facts, philosophy deals with generalities and concepts; both are essential if we really want to get at an accurate description of the world around us, and it's important for both to be understood by the majority of people if we want to have an educated population.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Stroke of Insight

In this video from this year's Ted Talks, neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor discusses the experience of having an ischemic stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, and what it taught her about consciousness and the human condition. It's an incredibly moving video, and one of the best TED Talks I've ever seen; that says quite a lot.

It's a Crapshoot

Those blessed with peripheral vision will notice that I've recently been admitted to graduate school in philosophy. Now that the application process is over and I can breathe again, I'd like to share a few of my thoughts on the experience of applying to graduate school. I'm not sure if what I have to say is necessarily relevant to those applying non-philosophy PhD programs (or even if it's relevant to them!) but, as a blogger, I'm inclined to share those thoughts anyway. I suspect that a fair percentage of my readership (if there is such a thing) is enrolled in graduate school already (that's just the kind of person this subject matter attracts), so this will be particularly irrelevant to them. Again, though, I'm going to write this post anyway; hopefully it will at least be cathartic for me--and really, what's the point of having a blog if you can't occasionally use it to vent?

First, I want to say a little bit about my particular background, as I think it's at least tangentially relevant to the topic at hand. I did my undergraduate at UC Berkeley, and graduated with a respectable (if not stellar) GPA of 3.55 (3.7 in philosophy). I double majored in philosophy and peace & conflict studies--a hand-wavy sounding major, I know, but think of it mostly as international relations with an emphasis on studying war. Most of my low grades were in lower division classes (I did poorly if I thought the class was boring) which, though not as good as having no low grades at all, is apparently preferable. I didn't work terribly hard in college, and mostly got by on good writing skills and an affinity for making clever arguments. I'm not terribly proud of this, but apparently feeling that, on the whole, the whole undergrad thing could have gone better is not uncommon for recent graduates; as one of my friends said, "When I finished college, I sort of just wanted to ask 'So....can I get a do-over on that whole thing or something?'" Again, I suspect this is a rather common sentiment--students often don't begin to really focus until near the end of college, which can hurt GPAs somewhat. I had good letters (perhaps most notably one from John Searle), and a really solid writing sample. I did well on the GRE, especially on the verbal and analytic writing sections.

My overall point here is that I was a pretty strong applicant (decent grades, good undergrad institution, good letters, good writing sample), though by no means stellar; I expected to be rejected from most schools, and admitted to a few. Because of this expectation, I applied to ten schools (shotgun method!), 8 of which were in the top 10 (as ranked by Leiter), and 9 of which were in the top 15. Assuming that NYU doesn't miraculously decide to accept me--I'm still waiting to hear from them, but I'm not holding my breath--I got accepted to exactly one of those ten: Columbia.

I'm certainly not complaining; I'm glad I got in anywhere, quite frankly--and Columbia is a great school--but the whole experience I've had with applying and whatnot has left me with the overwhelming feeling that the whole process is so damn arbitrary as to actually reflect very little on me or my abilities. For one thing, I got accepted to Columbia (ranked 10 on Leiter), and rejected from the University of Washington (ranked 38 on Leiter). I can't think of any possible explanation for this other than that student admissions/rejections are strongly tied to something much more than student merit; what that something might be I do not know. I know that graduate student admissions (especially for PhD students) are significantly more complicated than undergraduate admissions--for one thing, a university taking a PhD student is, usually, making a significant financial commitment (in the form of a grant or fellowship), rather than receiving a significant financial commitment (in the form of tuition), so an admission committee needs to be damn sure an applicant is worth the investment. Additionally, graduate students are going to be working closely with professors, so individual interests and personality come into play a lot more than when the only professor/student interaction is for 10 minutes per week during office hours. I understand all that, but my mind is stuck on that "accepted to #10 with full funding and summarily rejected from #38" thing. I don't know--it just seems strange.

All in all, I think the best phrase to describe the experience of applying to graduate school is "cluster fuck" or maybe "cluster skullfuck." Yeah, it's that bad. I thought applying to undergraduate was nerve wracking, but this was 100 times worse; the pressure is higher, the competition is tougher, the applications are more expensive and longer, and the writing samples need to be much more polished. I lost a lot of sleep, spent way too much money, and nearly had a nervous breakdown on at least two separate occasions. There are no words to describe the absolutely soul-crushing humiliation of working your ass off on applications, then getting seven generic rejection letters in a row. It's just kind of a bad scene all around, and I'm very glad it's over.

I suppose my advice for current undergraduates thinking about applying would be this: start early, and I don't just mean on the applications. Numerous sources I've read advise thinking about grad school as the start of your career, and not just "Undergraduate Redux." Though I haven't actually started attending yet, this seems like pretty sound advice, and I wish I'd encountered it earlier. By the time the end of your Sophomore year in college rolls around, you should have a pretty clear idea about what you want to do if/when you graduate--at least in a general "grad school/law school/get a job" sense. If grad school is even on the table, take it seriously from that early on. Take the idea of getting in as seriously as your business major buddy takes landing that awesome entry level job at the prestigious accounting firm, because that's exactly what you're doing: landing your entry level job. Go after those letters of recommendation--I suspect that having letters from non-philosophers hurt me significantly, even though all my writers are well respected in their fields, so go after philosophy professors with particular gusto--take the GRE early enough to retake it if you're dissatisfied, and try to shine as much as possible in your philosophy classes.

Even if you do all that, though, you'll probably still get rejected from most of the places you apply. It's a crapshoot.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Accepted at Last

I've just been informed (via email) that I've been offered a "Faculty Fellowship" for five years to study at Columbia University in New York. This (apparently) means that they'll be paying my tuition, providing a living stipend, and giving me a teaching job while I study for my PhD. Columbia wasn't my first choice, but it's a great school, a great program, and I'm very excited to start.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Sorry for the lack of recent posts; I'm right in the middle of hearing about grad school, and I've been too freaked out to focus on much of anything else. There'll be an update as soon as I know if/where I'm going.