Pallin' Around with the Godless

There are much better ways to handle this smear campaign -- rebuking the ads is certainly fair, but it doesn't appear that Hagan nor her campaign are doing so for the right reasons.

It shouldn't be that Kay Hagan really is a "good, God-fearing Christian," but that she seeks to represent North Carolinians of ALL backgrounds. My inkling, however, is that atheists are considered an expendable demographic. Replace this with any of the other, similar, base accusations made all over the country during this campaign season where the name of one voter base is being used as a pejorative to scare another. ("No, ma'am, [he's not an Arab], he's a good, decent family man.")

Atheists? It could be worse, huh? She could have been caught "pallin' around with those Muslim Arabs and Terrorists!" I'm disappointed in Kay Hagan, Elizabeth Dole, and North Carolina. Most importantly, though, I'm disappointed in America.

This isn't the country my teachers gave me so many reasons to be proud of.


The Most Important Question

Whether by way of the recently-resurgent Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Chomsky's Universal Grammar, Alan Turing's famously eponymous intelligence test, or the various shades of pseudo-scientific neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), language is often alternately described as the seat of human consciousness or the pinnacle thereof. On one hand, we can hold few -- if any -- thoughts which aren't immediately underwritten by our own internal monologue; on the other, we're largely and arguably unable to provide each other with any evidence of our personal worlds' existence except, as Huxley wrote, "through symbols and at second-hand."

For which reasons I say language is both. And neither.

Vernon Mountcastle, Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and discoverer of the the cortex's columnar organization, postulated the existence of a common algorithm by which the functionality of any region of the cerebrum was largely identical to that of any other. Despite superficial physiological differences among neurons, he posited, what largely accounts for the functional differences between regions of the brain is proximity to a sensory input area. More recent research bears this out in many ways; as we find the neural activity in hierarchically-lower, primary sensory areas somewhat erratic and prone to shifts nearly concurrent to the outside world, the "upstream," hierarchically-higher areas behave much more statically, consonant to the notion of object permanence often considered a hallmark of higher intelligence. That is to say, while we hear, view, or touch the world with the respective sensory apparatus, we "listen," "see," and "feel" in a largely homogeneous, non-unique way -- whether the converging association of neurons (or their host columns) represents a diagonal line, a set of eyes, nose, and mouth comprised of the same, or the lovely female singer they belong to.

Armed with this premise we may begin using language as a powerful inductive tool to offer us a glimpse into the mechanisms of cognition unrivaled by modern cerebral imaging. But how?

As Jeff Hawkins, founder of the companies Palm and Numenta, writes in his 2004 manifesto On Intelligence, there is an inherently "nested" structure to the universe around us to which hierarchically-associative modeling is well-adapted. Additionally, the time-delayed feedback by which the system is modulated provides the temporal context necessary to recognize the sequences in which natural phenomena occur.

As we've described, all cerebral activity must follow this formula in one capacity or another and language, being just one among the myriad faculties of the brain, is no exception. Phonemes beget morphemes, beget words, beget semantically-meaningful phrases, beget conversations, and so on... but the sequence of the inputs is just as important as the set of sounds or words. While this process is evocative of the underlying neural mechanisms of thought, we absolutely cannot discuss it in terms of consciousness without involving an ultimate reference to the organism and a persistent sense of self-agency. I do hope to explore this premise in depth later, but at present let us consider language only in terms of its value in externally representing a universal cortical process.

Throughout this discussion in the days and weeks to follow, I aim to shamelessly exploit language to illustrate the manner by which the brain models and forms predictive associations (and meaningful behavior) from sensory stimuli both top-down (linguistically and psychologically) and bottom-up (chemically and physiologically), eventually reconciling the two in a discussion of the embodiment principle and proposing a practical means by which to test our theory.

I know there aren't (m)any of you out there, but I invite you all to provide your feedback and sharpshoot me at any and all opportunities!

Using Biology, Not Religion, to Argue Against Same-Sex Marriage

My iGoogle news feed served me up an article from the New York Times' "Region" section this morning entitled Using Biology, Not Religion, to Argue Against Same-Sex Marriage.  In the article, Patricia and Wesley Galloway, a couple who ironically married late in their reproductive lives and were thus unable to produce any children, make the familiar argument that marriage serves a largely procreative role and that, following logically, since homosexual partnerships did not meet this criterion should not be afforded the same privileges nor protections.

Notwithstanding a compelling and growing body of evidence that homosexual/bisexual proclivities extend well into the animal kingdom and serve an important social purpose, we might take this opportunity to reconsider the scope and purpose of marriage in modern Western society:  if, in fact, as the Galloways' premises indicate, marriage is a contract predicated upon "replenishing the population," then theirs ought to be annulled.

Of course, this is both a cold-hearted and disingenuous notion: as any romantic Hollywood rag could clarify, marriage is about far more than an impersonal transaction involving gametes and a nice warm house in which to grow 2.1 little boogers until voting age.  Rather, marriage is about people -- people who care about and are committed to one another.  

Which begs the real question, then: does marriage actually serve a biological purpose or is it simply cultural contrivance?  Although there is almost as much debate on the subject as there are traditions involving it, consensus is that marriage emerged several thousand years ago (back when the Judeo-Christian God was seeding the planet with dinosaur bones if you subscribe to that notion, or shortly after the emergence of private property and possibly agriculture, if you don't).  Not miring ourselves in the myriad flavors of polygamy, polygyny, matriarchal polyandry, nor tribal endogamies, nor suffering any sweeping generalizations, we can identify the most modern Western incarnation of marriage to have evolved between 2-300 years ago.  Before this (and to a large degree during), marriages served the principal purpose of consolidating wealth or sociopolitical power, secondarily to produce children, and finally, if one was lucky (or poor), for personal romantic reasons.

While this doesn't tell us much about what marriage isn't, on some ethnological level it does indicate what it is:  people like sex.  And people like people.  It's the story of mankind's victory over its humble and nomadic beginnings that together we are capable of more than we are on our own.  However we choose to engage these concurrent drives is under large influence of our cultures and places within it, but one thing can be certain:  marriage is not innate, and is but one of many of the artifices we use to navigate the human currents.

While the Galloways' argument may be valid -- that only a man and a woman can produce a human baby -- it's an entirely semantic premise to which I doubt that they're prepared to demonstrate their commitment.

And they shouldn't have to; they're not hurting me.