Wednesday, February 29, 2012

John Nash: Champion of Reason

This month I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see in person a truly remarkable man and a hero of mine: Dr. John Forbes Nash, Jr.

As a teenager, I saw the film, A Beautiful Mind, and found it deeply affecting--subsequently I read Dr. Nash’s autobiographical essay and an interview with him and discovered the movie was only loosely based on his life--but the most remarkable aspects were true: he began a brilliant career, developed some extremely important new mathematical theories, then descended into severe schizophrenic illness, and after many years recovered, was awarded a Nobel Prize and is now doing serious mathematical research again.

It’s an incredible story, both because Dr. Nash is one of very few who really recover from severe mental illness, and because he demonstrates the “fine line between genius and madness.” He saw problems in a new and different way that enabled him to come up with solutions no one had thought of before--but this “strange” way of thinking devolved into insanity.

Dr. Nash came to a symposium on helping people with schizophrenia, held by Fuller’s School of Psychology, and at the closing banquet on the last day of the symposium he spoke with an interviewer. Dr. Nash is 83 now. He speaks in a soft, slow voice, and still has a “different” perspective.

The interviewing psychologist, who had helped organize the event and had given presentations himself on how professionals and communities can help people with mental illness, really wanted to talk about the importance of the support of Dr. Nash’s wife and academic community in his recovery.

Dr. Nash just sort of nodded at this, but he himself did not discuss those things at all. In speaking of his recovery, he did not mention how his devoted wife never gave up on him, nor that the community at Princeton accepted him, nor did he express any gratitude for the wonders of modern medicine. None of the interventions highlighted at the symposium figured into the way he described his recovery. Rather, he framed it as a deliberate return to rational thinking--because his delusions did not stand up in the light of careful reasoning.

When asked if his mathematical insights really came in intuitive flashes, as depicted in the film, he replied, no, breakthroughs in mathematics come the same way as in other fields: through long hours of careful research.

Dr. Nash has said the delusions came to him in the same way as his mathematical ideas--but it seems the sieve through which he discovered which ideas were dross, and which gold was the same process of deliberate intellectual discipline.

At the banquet, Dr. Nash observed there had been a lot of talk about how the mentally ill suffer--and he challenged that notion by saying he thought many in mental institutions do not want to leave--he called them “minds on strike”--refusing to do the intellectual work that is normally expected of people. I wonder how many psychologists in the room actually heard him, and how many were simply unwilling to hear a perspective so “different.”

In his autobiographical essay, Dr. Nash says that his rejection of delusional thinking “began, most recognizably, with the rejection of politically-oriented thinking as essentially a hopeless waste of intellectual effort.” I assume this is because his political thinking was stuff along the lines of “the pope and the president are plotting against me.” But it’s an interesting quote, because so much of the current political discourse on a variety of issues is indeed highly, highly irrational and yes, at times even delusional and paranoid.

How I wish that society at large would turn from its insanity and submit to the discipline of rational thinking!

In any case, it was indeed an incredible honor and thrill to see and to hear speaking in person that unusual champion and beleaguered hero of rationality, Dr. John Nash.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Cautionary Tale

On Valentine's Day Brandon took me to the Hammer Museum to see the Van Goghs. They were stunning, as expected.

But the painting that has really stuck with me is a portrait of Miss Edith Crowe by Henri Fantin-Latour (1874).

The little blurb beside it did not discuss the painting--it just said something about how the artist, in general, tried to paint portraits of people that reflected something about their personality. Perhaps the author was hesitant to say what this portait said about Miss Crowe, because it struck them as it did me: highly unflattering.

The background is nothing but darkness, and Miss Crowe is looking determinedly away from the viewer, staring into space, with shoulders slightly hunched. I was struck with sadness that she seemed as one very carefully contained, as one deliberately withholding herself from the world with a secret rage and bitterness at those who had hurt and rejected her. Her face is carefully neutral, revealing nothing, and her hands are folded in front of her as if at once to protect herself, and to maintain an external calmness.

Probably others viewing the same portrait have a different interpretation of Miss Crowe. She could alternatively be read as merely the quiet, introspective type, lost in her own world. Or perhaps as one who is facing severe disappointments but has steadfastly maintained her composure. The woman herself could easily have been all of the above.

But the way she appeared to me--as one embittered, choosing isolation--reflects the "cautionary tale" I need to hear at the moment. Because at times I feel that the gifts I have to offer others are scorned, rejected, misunderstood. It's hard to put myself out there, knowing the risk--but it is a risk I must continue to take every time I feel compelled to offer my often unusual perspective. It is a risk worth taking no matter how many times I am dismissed or ignored or even attacked, because I do not want to become a bitter hermit.

And I will try to become better myself at listening to others, accepting and affirming whatever they have to say and to offer of themselves. It is an immeasurable loss when any person withdraws from others because they have been hurt and rejected. And it happens all too often.

"Lord, I want to be more loving in my heart ... "

[The photo comes from the Hammer Museum website]

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

On the Bogus and Absurd Idea that "Corporations Are Not People"

The Citizens United case has been coming up in the news again, and I felt I just had to write this:

If a corporation has no right to free speech because it is not a person, then, since it is not a human being, it also cannot hold political opinions. An impersonal entity cannot decide to support a political candidate. It also should not have property rights, and certainly cannot make decisions about how its monies will be spent. And yet somehow, “corporations” do support candidates, do make decisions, do spend money--well, that’s very mysterious--Oh, wait, I get it now--there are people running the corporation! Aha--it’s not the “corporation” that wants to say something about politics--it’s the human beings who control the corporation. Well, that explains a lot. And do the people controlling corporations who want to run political ads have a right to freedom of speech? Damn right they do.

Do progressives really believe that a corporation is a soulless, faceless, inhuman, yet intelligent entity--perhaps a sophisticated computer programmed to maximize profits without regard for human life? I doubt it. I think if progressives really stopped and thought about it, they would realize they’re not trying to limit free speech of non-human entities; they’re trying to censor wealthy businesspersons whom they assume to be conscienceless cut-throats, motivated by greedy self-interest.

The idea that corporations have no right to free speech "because they are not persons” is bogus and absurd. Limiting corporate speech means limiting the speech of the persons who control the corporation.

On the other hand, it is indeed disturbing that people with buckets and buckets of money at their disposal can presumably influence elections in a way that the average citizen cannot. I do think we should be concerned about the influence of big money on elections (and that’s not limited to Fortune 500 companies--unions, police and fire departments, special interests groups, etc. do the same thing).

But the real problem seems to be that we don’t trust the American public to educate themselves enough to make an informed choice when voting--we think of the voters as ignorant sheep, easily swayed by whatever fool thing they see on t.v. If that is true, it is disgraceful and unfortunate, but curtailing other people’s constitutional rights is not a realistic nor a just solution to that problem.

There is no easy or simple fix for this (as mentioned here), but a step in the right direction is to increase or maintain (not decrease) protections for freedom of speech--particularly on the internet, where one can publish for free and creativity can actually speak louder than money. If we are concerned that only some voices (those of the wealthy) are being heard, while others (the voices of the poor) are not, the solution* is not to silence the wealthy, but to give voice to the poor.

Another step forward would be for the average apathetic voter to start taking more civic responsibility (and I really should write another post about that sometime)--also, to fix public education so that people learn how to think ...

*I guess I should say, “the solution that is in accordance with the First Amendment of our Constitution”--since some people don’t seem to mind a solution that violates the First Amendment.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Does the English Language Foster Elitism?

A little while back I read an interesting blog post arguing that part of the success of Finland’s public school system (as measured in the PISA study) may have to do with the Finnish language itself—in particular, the highly regular pronunciation and spelling, as well as the simple, logical morphology.

So I was thinking that conversely, perhaps the English language fosters elitism:

- The grammatical rules are confusing and complex enough that a large percentage of the population makes errors all the time (e.g. using “I” instead of “me,” confusing its/it’s, who’s/whose, to/too, less/fewer, forgetting the predicate nominative, etc.).

- The pronunciation of English is not just irregular in terms of spelling, but is the result of many languages mixing together, which makes it very unmelodious (as opposed to, say, the romance languages)—and I would imagine this makes “foreign” accents particularly pronounced.

- English has a lot of words, and knowing a lot of words not only facilitates communication, it facilitates complex conceptual analysis—because the subtleties in meaning between similar but distinct words help the mind to distinguish between similar, but different concepts.

So anyway, although people often say English is easy to learn, I presume they mean it’s easy to learn enough to be able to converse with people—but even after a person has become fluent, there are many, many more words and rules to commit to memory.

The vast complexity of English makes it easier for people who grew up in more “educated” households to look down on people either who didn’t or whose parents spoke English as a second language, etc.--and not just to look down on them for their mistakes, but actually to disdain their lesser facility with the language.

And then of course, you can throw in the differences between the English of dominant white culture and the English of African-American sub-culture and you have a whole new layer of language-based elitism to consider …