Thursday, August 18, 2011

From Kent Barshov on August 5, 2011

Kent wrote back to me a thoughtful email that contained ideas in the philosophy of science and his own philosophy of life and medicine:

Hi Frank,
This is in response to your email to me which originated at the Starbucks in Nyack.
It seems what we are debating and discussing between us is how to live out our lives in the face of the seeming or even real contradiction between determinism and free will--- meaning that we won't solve the contradiction, but we can talk about which way is the most fruitful in dealing with the contradiction.
I like you have had training in science and yet also feel an attraction towards the liberal arts; likewise, I enjoy philosophical discussions.
A well-known quotation from philosophy teachers is the quip that all of philosophy is simply a footnote to Plato--- meaning that for Western culture, all philosophy is contained in kernel-form in Plato and then expanded or modified down through the centuries.
Because of my day-to-day work in dealing with people in the context of physicality, I often turn towards medical understandings of things, which I feel is proper, because for me medicine is  like the Archimedean lever and fulcrum upon which we turn and move all other things.  Yes, astronomy has debunked man's earth--- and hence man--- from being the center of the universe, and quantum mechanics grounds our being in mysterious clouds of probability and uncertainty, but practically we are still at the center of things--- at least in how we live our lives.
The medical notion that immediately comes to mind is that of the left brain/ right brain divide: the LOGICAL vs the Artistic.  The logical says that all is determined; the artistic says that we have free will.   Plato was the artist and his student Aristotle was the logician.   For me, philosophy is like an endless argument back and forth between Platonists and Aristotelians.  But we carry that philosophical divide within our own being between our two cerebral hemispheres.
The doctor who taught me the soul of medicine relates that the left brain/ right brain divide moves into unity when we are being creative.  He writes how in his opinion, play is one of the highest forms of human activity.
Your e-book Metropolis Organism contained the sop to our logical side by writing prose with a neutral, dispassionate tone, but then you filled your e-book with striking photographs and videos which call our artistic side to wake up and pay attention.  For me, reading your book was like going out and playing, and in that playing I could perceive what you are getting at---- it would be hard for me to explain what I felt, but it's easier just to operate in the feeling.  
Here are some of the lines in your email which particularly struck me:

When you choose to think of a city as organism as a metaphor, it is implicit that you feel you have to choose between either a city is an organism or a city is not an organism. That makes perfect sense on the surface but I think it is more complicated than that.
My foundation for approaching dilemnas is that all knowledge and all existence is one--- meaning, for example where there is a perceived difference between science and religion, it's due to our lack of understanding and not a real difference.   The two cerebral hemispheres exist, but a higher order of existence is that both hemispheres are actually interconnected, and this interconnectivity is most easily activated through creativity and play--- through the words of the lyrics in conjunction with the music.  Or another way of putting it, science and religion are at loggerheads, but at a deeper level are one.   For Aquinas, the fountain of philosophy until this day, whether acknowledged or not, is an example of one who tried to unify all knowledge into one grand scheme.  I don't feel he really succeeded, but I feel he was on the right path.
Or another classic example, whether light is corpuscular or wavelike.    In my way of perceiving it, although in some instances light is definitely little packages of photons, and in other instances it moves in waves, it is not really a particle nor a wave, but something of a higher order which we as humans find difficult to comprehend.    I think most of us live our lives out of our left-brain--- because that's how Western culture has been built since the time of the Greeks and Romans, which we are the inheritors.   Creative writers, artists and musicians are a saving grace which provides some measure of balance.  But in my heart of hearts I feel that we should be living in creative balance. My medical mentor calls it living by being aware of the belovedness of all things.  Another way of saying it is that a life of creativity is Love.

On to another line:
Though people still debate the Determinism Dilemma, I think it is time to accept the results of our philosophical investigations "without further appeal."  We are both free and determined. Having spent some time with this result, it seems obvious that we don't have any other choice and that rather than debating the dilemma our time would be better spent trying to find out how contradictory realties can exist.
 What I would want to say here is that, to simplify things for the sake of this discussion, it's a left-brain approach that something is "either-or," and it's a right-brain approach which is comfortable with "both-and."   But what I would like to say is that it's somehow more than "either-or" or "both-and."     That's more of a right-brain statement, but so be it.  

And another line:
 Philosopher of science Ernest Nagle described theoretical science as looking at "the relations of dependence among things irrespective to their bearing on human values."
This is of course one of the lines you begin your e-book with.  I find Ernest Nagle's statement to be a left-brain statement, which I guess is a badge which theoretical science would proudly wear.  For me, running totally along a left-track or a right brain track at some point exhaust its fruitfulness, which then needs to be brought into a creative synthesis between the two tracks.  
To reiterate, your e-book's written sentences were left brain, your videos and pictures were right brain, and then in the end you touched on transhumanism and a hope we would live better lives, which is a call for creativity.
An area where you could expand your book is in the "so what?" category--- meaning, OK, if cities have a reality as a metropolis organism independent of humans, what difference does it make for our lives? I realize that there is pure science for science's sake, without any current utilitarian justification. I realize that you can leave your book as it is and let us come up with the "so what?"  It seems that your concluding your e-book with transhumanistic ideas--- the combining of the machine and the human--- would be where you see the metropolis organism heading.

Here are a couple books which also come to mind in discussing all this.  I picked up this book several years ago but have really read only the first few pages.  It's entitled The Robot's Rebellion (University of Chicago Press) by the psychologist Keith Stanovich (his title when he wrote the book: Canada Research Chair in Applied Cognitive Science at the Univ. of Toronto); published in 2004.  To me it's a dry, somewhat dully written book, but sometimes I make myself plough through such materials.
The line in his book, on the first page of the introduction, which drew me in was: "The purpose of this book is to explain to the general reader the conceptual reorientations that the biological and human sciences are forcing upon us."  I'm not sure I would agree with this author, but I like reading things that challenge what I think or belief.

Another pertinent book which I have read cover-to-cover is this book: Anatomy of the Soul by the psychiatrist Curt Thompson, MD (2010).
A line that strikes me as I'm thumbing through his book for this email is: "When we ask the question 'why?' we're not so much looking for a left-brain explanation (that is generally an answer to a 'how' question) as we are seeking validation for feelings that feel far too overwhelming to be understood. We use why as a substitute for the difficult work needed to integrate our right and lower brain emotional states with our left hemisphere linguistic function."

Here's a photographic of Dr. Curt Thompson

And finally, since this round of emails was generated at Starbucks, I thought you would like to read the following article which came out a few years ago. It's written by Howard Schultz, one of the founding partners of Starbucks.
So, I sincerely submit all this to you,

A Blanket of Trust

I grew up in federally subsidized housing in Brooklyn. I was part of a generation of families that dreamed about the American dream. My dad had a series of blue-collar jobs. An uneducated man, he was kind of beaten by the system. He was a World War II veteran who had great aspirations about America, but his dream was not coming true.
At the age of seven, I came home one day to find my dad sprawled on the couch in our two-bedroom apartment in a full-leg cast; he had fallen on the job and broken his leg. This was way before the invention of Pampers, and he worked as a delivery driver for cloth diapers. He hated this job bitterly, but on this one day, he wished he had it back. In 1960 in America, most companies had no workers’ compensation and no hospitalization for a blue-collar worker who had an accident. I saw firsthand the plight of the working class.
That experience had a significant effect on how I see the world. When I got into a position of responsibility at Starbucks, what I wanted to try to do was build a kind of company that my father never got a chance to work for.
We at Starbucks have been trying to create an industry that did not exist, and a kind of brand that was very unusual. One real anomaly is that we have spent very little on advertising. We’ve had corporate executives try to understand how a brand could become so powerful and ubiquitous with so little promotion. The truth is we had no money to advertise, so we had to figure out a different way. We said to ourselves that if we wanted to build a large enterprise and a brand that had meaning, relevance and trust for all its constituencies, then we first had to build trust with our employees. So we tried to co-author a strategy in which those who worked for the business were really part of something. As a result, in 1989 we began to provide equity in the form of stock options to our employees.
When we did this, we had a couple hundred employees and fewer than 50 stores. Today, we have close to 50,000 employees, whom we call partners, and we will open up our 3,500th store at the end of this month. We have built, I think, an enduring business upon a premise that says the experience that we create inside our company will be the defining mechanism of building our brand. We said we must first take care of our people.
It’s critically important in building a business that every single strategic decision go into the imprinting of that brand. If you don’t tell the truth to some constituency, you can’t later say that decision just didn’t matter. Everything matters. A business must be built on a set of values, a foundation that’s authentic, so you can look in the mirror and be proud of what’s going on.
Recently I was walking down a street in London that was a very high-fashion piece of real estate. It had one designer store after another. Expensive stores, expensive rents. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a storefront that just did not fit. It was about 12 feet wide, and no more than a 500 square foot store. In the midst of all these fancy signs and fancy stores, this store had one word on top of the door: “Cheese.” I couldn’t figure out what it was, so, curious, I went in.
Behind the counter was a poorly dressed 70-year old guy, and I was the only customer. As soon as I walked in, he came to life. I said, “I don’t know much about London, but it appears to me that this store really doesn’t fit on this street.” He replied, “Many people have said that to me, young man. But the truth is, it’s been here over 100 years.”
I said, “I’m sure you can make a lot more money on this store if you leased it or you sold your business.” He replied, “Well, I wouldn’t lease it because I own the building. The legacy, responsibility and pride that I have is to the generations of my family who have come before me. That is why I come to work every day to be a purveyor of cheese to honor the people who’ve come before me.”
The cheese just came to life with his words.
Think about all our experiences every day. How often does anybody honor us as a consumer? Rarely. But when it does happen, the power of the human spirit really does come through. At the end of the day, when business is really good, it’s not about building a brand or making money. That’s a means to an end. It’s about honoring the human spirit, honoring the people who work in the business and honoring the customer.
When I was in Israel, I went to Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox area within Jerusalem. Along with a group of businessmen I was with, I had the opportunity to have an audience with Rabbi Finkel, the head of a yeshiva there. I had never heard of him and didn’t know anything about him. We went into his study and waited ten to 15 minutes for him. Finally, the doors opened.
What we did not know was that Rabbi Finkel was severely afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. He sat down at the head of the table, and, naturally, our inclination was to look away. We didn’t want to embarrass him.
We were all looking away, and we heard this big bang on the table: “Gentlemen, look at me, and look at me right now.” Now his speech affliction was worse than his physical shaking. It was really hard to listen to him and watch him. He said, “I have only a few minutes for you because I know you’re all busy American businessmen.” You know, just a little dig there.
Then he asked, “Who can tell me what the lesson of the Holocaust is?” He called on one guy, who didn’t know what to do-it was like being called on in the fifth grade without the answer. And the guy says something benign like, “We will never, ever forget?” And the rabbi completely dismisses him. I felt terrible for the guy until I realized the rabbi was getting ready to call on someone else. All of us were sort of under the table, looking away-you know, please, not me. He did not call me. I was sweating. He called on another guy, who had such a fantastic answer: “We will never, ever again be a victim or bystander.”
The rabbi said, “You guys just don’t get it. Okay, gentlemen, let me tell you the essence of the human spirit.
“As you know, during the Holocaust, the people were transported in the worst possible, inhumane way by railcar. They thought they were going to a work camp. We all know they were going to a death camp.
“After hours and hours in this inhumane corral with no light, no bathroom, cold, they arrived at the camps. The doors were swung wide open, and they were blinded by the light. Men were separated from women, mothers from daughters, fathers from sons. They went off to the bunkers to sleep.
“As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket, when he went to bed, had to decide, ‘Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself to stay warm?’”
And Rabbi Finkel says, “It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to five others.”
And with that, he stood up and said, “Take your blanket. Take it back to America and push it to five other people.”
by  Howard Schultz

(His photograph below.)

No comments: