Monday, May 24, 2010

Snowy June. I should find a metaphor for that. Or a rockband.

Hello again, my empty space of absent readers. If there's any hope of me ever shutting up before August, we'd best find me a job.

Anywhoozle, I said I'd talk about finding morality without religion, so here goes:

I operate on what I've affectionately labeled "The Empathy Principle."

Mirror Neurons
A new and stunning area of research in neuroscience deals with cells called mirror neurons. Primarily, it is believed that these cells are responsible for action learning, as well as language acquisition. These neurons are essentially the "monkey see, monkey do" of the brain. Sort of (too much of the brain's adaptive mechanisms are devoted to learning that such a function can be attributed to a single type of cell found only in certain regions of the brain).

Anyway, in neuroimaging studies, they've found that these neurons not only activate during learning processes, but when we experience and witness emotions. In one study, people who were determined "more empathetic" (via self-report questionnaire) showed greater activation of mirror neurons when they witnessed emotions. It is possible that these strange little neurons are at least partially responsible for empathy. I see some one crying, my mirror neurons activate and I feel a slice of their pain without knowing what made them cry. I feel empathy and want to stop their pain, which I am feeling too. On the other end of the spectrum, ever wondered why they say laughter is contagious? Thank your mirror neurons and enjoy the experience; laughter is a healthy activity for the body.

Interestingly, mirror neurons also play a part in sociopathy (or rather, they were never cast at all). Further, many researchers believe mirror neurons to be another piece to the puzzle that is autism. (This is not to say autism and sociopathy have any link at all, only a common factor with very different implications and results). There you have it: a run-down of mirror neurons, unfit for wikipedia.

Sociopathy is a relatively rare phenomenon that is often rather poorly understood. Ironically, this strange phenomenon was also one of the things that lead me to my current moral understanding.

Picture yourself as an empathetic being, sometimes wracked with guilt. Now imagine that sensation has an off-switch. This is the core of sociopathy. In terms of mirror neurons, the theory is that sociopaths simply bypass them. They utilize the language-related areas without using the emotion. The misconception arises when people like Ted Bundy hit the scene. Why do you think he was possibly the greatest liar that has ever lived? Speech with literally no emotion. After Ted Bundy gained popularity for savagely killing over thirty women, people got the wrong idea that sociopaths are violent, uncontrollable deviants.

The fact is, they have an exceptional level of control. Ted Bundy and others like him are red herrings because they had total control in social situations, but an insatiable need to kill. In the more garden-variety sociopaths, this is not the case. A true sociopath understands social rules and adheres to them at will, but is not constrained by guilt or active remorse. The reality is that sociopaths comprise an estimated 1% of the population and make exceptional C.E.O.s because of their unrivaled abilities in "climbing the ladder." I'd wager there's an unusual number of sociopaths sitting on Wall Street.

The Empathy Principle
So how does all of this relate to morality? For me, it IS morality. Initially, I saw no difference between a life without religion and a life as a willful sociopath. I think it is this way for many people because religion is their basis for morality. The fact is, I looked at the research behind sociopathy and knew there had to be something more, something that made it worth it to be one of the other 99%. I saw in myself that I was still something more, even without religion. I still felt the pain of others and my desire to go on a killing spree was still at absolute zero. There is something that makes me moral and I believe it starts with the mirror neurons. I adopted the Buddhist code of "do no harm" and set to work figuring out why I should have morals if I don't even believe in good and evil.

I do not harm others because I do not wish to be harmed. Who would have thought this ramble would come down to that obnoxious Golden Rule they teach you in elementary school? It's true though, I got to that annoying "treat others the way you want to be treated" line by pure accident.

I understand the physical pain of being hit, so I don't hit people unless I have to defend myself.
I value my life and the people in it, so I assume others do as well. Good reason not to kill people.

This system makes sense to me, and rather than suggesting we all live by a uniform code of action, it is only a uniform code of principle. This is because it introduces what is essentially a system of weights and measures. Here's a bad example:
If I'm being mugged, yes it will (hopefully) hurt him if I punch my mugger. In this case, my need to get out of the situation and be safe again far outweighs the pain he will feel when I attempt to break his nose.

My morality simply adheres to Newton's third law of motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Whatever action my mugger takes to get me into that situation initiates a reaction strong enough to get me out of that situation (or if I throw a weak punch, a reaction that will sue him for my medical bills).

The "Empathy Principle" is my balance of emotion and reason, my belief that there can be, not just peace, but happiness in a reason-filled world. It just passivity; I believe it can also trigger action. I see pain and do what I can to end it, helping me to become more charitable, more earnest and more friendly. For me, the Empathy Principle is a greater good than my ethical religious code because it literally makes us all equal and it is internal. It is a morality that comes from within, meaning I am choosing to be a better person. I am choosing to help others, rather than being told that I should.

Edit: I wanted to add something that I find to be unfortunately reminiscent of what Bill Maher has to say (Maher is one of those people who I consider to be "a necessary asshole"). The idea that there can be no morality without religion is fundamentally flawed because it behaves as an admission that one is moral because of a system of punishments and rewards. How is being "good" (a rather arbitrary term, in my opinion) in order to enter Heaven so much better than being "good" for innate or empathetic reasons. I propose that "morality" without religion is truly moral (pardon the redundancy, but I need it to make a point). The system of reward and punishment which religion advocates is no different than a behavior lab in which I trained a rat. Being "good" so you'll go to Heaven is hardly different than pressing a lever in order to receive food. It is my belief that this religionless morality allows for a moral person, not simply a moral life.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What's goin' on in the world today?

Goodness me, I hate unpacking more than I hate mushrooms slathered in mayonnaise and cabbage. So, here I am, blogging.
It's been interesting so far: broken water heater, broken shower head, the university that sent me an acceptance letter can't find my application. Ah, yes, what a lovely day indeed.

There's also this weird business of being cut off. It's both liberating and terrifying and I have to say, it sometimes treads the fine line of disownership. Emotionally, anyway. But, it's the Internet and I don't need to get into that stuff today.

I spent far too much of my day yesterday investigating some material on my former religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, affectionately known as the Mormons. I don't wish to go offending, of course, but I found a great deal of the material quite interesting. My queries resulted in an idea for a series of blogs, essentially addressing my relationship with the church, as well as my views and reasons for leaving. I'm not trying to offend anyone, this goes against my nature. I'm just doing what I do, which is simply writing to write. I'm opening my brain to the airwaves (so to speak) and wondering what literary samples may unfold. There's also the fact that this is not really something I have covered before. Before I start into anything, let me say this: I do not wish to be labeled an "anti-mormon." This term is far too black-and-white and suggests some relationship of villain and victim. Far beit from me to try and pick on a major religion and multi-million dollar corporation. (not that I'm a bailout package, either *ba-zing!*)

No, I do not consider myself "anti-mormon," such a title is absurd, especially because I am one of only a handful of people in my extended family who does not participate in the church. As for atheists in my family, I believe I have a cousin-in-law who would back me up and that's it. Oh, and my parents each have 6 siblings. Yes, it gets lonely. As for immediate family, I am easily the only one to wander off on my own. Also a bit lonely at times.

Now, to start, I'd like to begin with the generalities. Let's start with organized religion. Generally, I am not a fan. Buddhism is probably the only one I really find appealing and this is because people seek it out if they wish to convert. In order to become a Buddhist, you must first have what is known in English as "The Thought of Enlightenment." Then you seek out the Dharma, or doctrine. Should the urge strike you after learning the basics, you can take the Bodhisattva vow. But, I digress. All I'm really saying is that proselytizing isn't really their style and I like that. They support the idea of free will and of people finding the truth in their own time. I also think several other religions have borrowed teachings and ideals from Buddhism, which is why they are probably one of the only religions to which I will profess liking what they think.

Other than that, I find organized religion (parts of Buddhism included) to be inherently flawed. Because I live in a primarly Judeochristian society (dominantly christian and, more specifically mormon) I am addressing these things from such a standpoint. While I may have some opinions about Islam or Hinduism or Taosim or whatever, I can't say I know enough about them individually to have a valid opinion. For that reason, consider them excluded from the diatribe that should follow.

The inherent flaw that I see in the bulk of organized religion is its assumption that people can all follow one path and adhere to one code. Do I agree that all people should adhere to the conduct of being good neighbors and not killing or stealing? Generally yes. But of course there are situations where even these do not apply completely. Case and point: a home break-in and the Heinz Dilemma respectively.

The fact is that people differ with widely differing experiences. Universality is a flawed assumption because each situation is unique in one or multiple ways.

But N.D., you may ask, if you're an atheist, how can you say morals exist, let alone that we should adhere to them? Don't worry, that's the subject for the next post.

For now, I've gotta unpack like a crazy person, but I'll be back. Fear not!
Hasta Luego!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hello, Hello again, sha boom be doo be do!

Hello, blogosphere, I've missed you too. What a week it has been.

For those of you who read my blog regularly (Anyone? Anyone? No? Ok.) I've been off discovering the world and how much it sucks. Seriously, life is fricking expensive. I paid $4 to do a load of laundry today. UNO load...o. And I've probably purchased twice my weight in shelf-liner. Eesh. I mean, I've been in the world, but not THE REAL world, you know? I lived on campus for three solid years and that doesn't really count. Especially at the university I attended; they totally baby their residents. I would know, considering the fact that I was a glorified babysitter for two of those three solid years. Time well spent and money well lost...*sob*

I suppose it's all worth it though. It's so nice to roam around naked and NOT have residents knocking on my door. Instead, it's my awkward building manager. He's a nice guy, I just find it funny that when I went to ask him about my elderly water heater, he greeted me in his boxers, dachsunds trailing at his heels. These are the little moments I live for. I think it's the underfed writer in me. I make mental documents of the manager in his boxers, the farting white-collar on the airplane, or the hispanic man who snorts REALLY loudly as he passes behind me in the cleanser isle at the supermarket.

My building is an interesting place, one that I get to spend a lot of time observing, given my joblessness. The people across the hall keep to themselves, but seem to like throwing parties. I can hear them right now. The apartment below me is empty and is also where I'll be taking showers until the shower head is operational (the water heater took a full week, so here's hoping...) The woman next to me has a brown pointer dog of some kind and she has very large paws (the dog, not the woman). Let's see, who else? Across the hall and to the right is a man who smokes a cigarette nearly every hour. That's probably my biggest complaint with my building. It's a non-smoking building but people smoke right under my living room window. Being allergic to cigarettes (as well as dust and the things you use to clean dust...) this is really annoying. Plus, I hate the smell. He seems like a fairly nice guy, just VERY awkward.

There's also the man who lives downstairs, below the apartment across the hall from mine. He appears to be a recluse who lives alone and even has his own mail slot (damnit, I forgot to ask the super for the mail key. Note to self: ask the super for the mail key). The rest of us have mail boxes. I've met a couple of the people on the third floor in passing and they seem to be the most friendly (although the lady with the pointer was quite friendly as well, or maybe it's just that I have a bias for dog owners).

Incidentally, I'm working on getting a dog, probably harder than getting a job. Not good. I need to fix that. I figure I can't get a dog until I get a job, so it all works out in the end. I found a pit bull mix that I'm looking at adopting though, just because she's only a puppy and already very well trained and well-suited for an apartment. Plus, I think it would be hilarious to see a skinny little white girl walking around a city with a pit bull. They're usually owned by big burly guys who are covered in gang graffiti. That's how I role, baby.

I can't say it's been unexciting, but I don't know that "thrilling" is very fitting either. I put on the funny hat and walked across the stage, receiving the empty pig skin while shaking the hands of people I've never met. I moved myself and all my crap 86 1/2 miles to a new, much larger city (ok, my family actually did the majority of the moving since I was stuck working and graduating). I do miss some people in the old town though. It seems like it was kind of lonely until my last semester, during which I made a few really good friends. One of them graduated with me and she said something profound as I lifted the cover of my pig skin: "That's was $10,000 looks like. Instructions on how to get your degree."

Well, that's about all I have. These should get a little less personal soon. I've just had a lot going on and not enough time to develop any ill-informed and outlandish opinions on current events. (although I did just watch Avatar. Maybe I'll find something to say about that)

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Alright, kiddos, I wanted to do one last blog update before I move off to Never Never Land, and not the ranch (too soon?)

This may be a rather drunken entry, despite the fact that I don't drink. Sleep deprivation does strange things to slow the brain, that is for certain. I had all this stuff I wanted to blog about and all these witty comments, but my brain is now screaming in protest.

Remind me to blog about sexuality, I actually had a lot to say on the topic (DUN DUN DUNNNN!)

Anyway, it's been a week from Hell, but it's almost over. Despite the hellishness, it's actually been one of the single greatest weeks of my college career. I hate my job, wasn't able to get a single hour at the job that actually pays me and I don't have an ounce of good customer service left in my entire body.

Still, the week has been fantastic. I've lost sleep to homework, but also to all-nighter chats, which I absolutely adore. I made a new bestie right as I'm moving away, go figure. I'm really thankful though because what they say is true: good friends are incredibly hard to come by. (My dirty mind is overactive these days)

In news that I find hilarious, my partner has confessed a celebrity crush on Miley Cyrus. Let this fact be broadcasted throughout time and space across the vast emptiness of the internet! I managed to salvage a poster of Miley Cyrus from one of my residents and she looks 14 in the picture. I figured it will ease my partner's pain in feeling slightly like a pedophile for finding her attractive. I personally am not a fan. Except for that damn Party in the USA video. It's a blatant statement of "I'm not owned by Disney anymore," and the sex appeal is glaring, but God help me, it's a hot video. Eww, now I feel like a pedophile. Yucky...As that disgusting poster glares down at me from the wall...

In pertinent news about my life (I know I said I'd avoid this, but I'm just sa durn excited!) I'm headed out tomorrow. I'm moving on to a bigger and better ballgame. I'll spend my summer in a cardboard box, begging for money, after which I'll start my Master's. The University has very generously decided to fund me and waive my tuition and I could not be more grateful or more excited. I'll be living on $15,000 per year, which is almost double what I'm making now. Anyone who says the recession is over deserves a wallop in the face. Welcome to America, folks.

Just to end on a positive note (because there is much about which I am happy and a great deal for which I am truly thankful), I have wonderful people in my life. They inspire and save me and love me in every realm of my ridiculous, spaztic personality. Without them, there would be little of me to speak of. Thanks guys. (even though only one of you knows about my blog...)