Another Week Ends

Filling in for DZ, who is on vacation this week. 1) Little, Brown released details […]

Ethan Richardson / 5.25.12

Filling in for DZ, who is on vacation this week.

1) Little, Brown released details regarding J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It is due to be released in the UK and US September 27. Here is the back blurb:

When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Seemingly an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

2) The cover piece for this month’s issue of the Atlantic is, get this, “The Perfected Self,” and has some interesting insights into the behaviorist approach, first introduced by B.F. Skinner in the 50s, and its potential to help us reach our goals. The Skinnerian approach–which the author attributes to the success of programs like AA and Weight Watchers–is good at coming to grips with human weakness, of being subject to one’s environment. Skinner’s Box takes the subject from his/her environment and into a controlled one, an adapted environment which allows for the right kinds of decisions to be made. The approach, at least from the standpoint of the article, seems to give short shrift to human weakness being fundamental enough, that is, even choosing to put oneself in the right kinds of environment for their benefit. Still, the article has some interesting perspectives into the “perfectable” narrative in human psychology. It just sounds a little creepy (ht CR)…

Cameron helped my brother Dan notice, for example, that he tended to take the longest walks when he set out after dinner, with a family member, and recommended making that a daily routine. A smartphone, by using GPS to track when Dan walked and a family-and-friend-tracking app to note whom he was with, could easily have done the same. Eventually, Cameron says, phones will be able to track swallowing and stomach distension to provide even better analysis of eating habits, without requiring the user to so much as tap the screen.

Dozens of research centers and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in mobile-health technology have made such capabilities imminent possibilities. “It’s all about finding ways to automate Skinnerian conditioned reinforcement,” says Stephen Intille, a researcher at Northeastern University’s new doctoral program in “personal health informatics.” “You put sensors in phones and throughout the home, you develop algorithms that can infer what people are doing, and then you provide tailored automatic feedback that reinforces the right behaviors.”

…The central irony of Skinner’s theory is that to control our behavior, we must accept a fundamental lack of control, acknowledging that our environment ultimately holds the reins. But an individual choosing to alter his environment to affect his behavior is one thing; a corporation or a government altering an individual’s environment to affect his behavior is another. The line between the two scenarios can blur. Nowadays most of us aren’t likely to wonder about the DOT’s motives when it urges us to take the light-rail instead of a cab. If it benefits the commuter, the government, and the environment, then what’s the problem? But the very definition of the Skinner box is that the inhabitant is not in control. In fact, he may not even know he’s in the box.

3) Speaking of perfectability, the death of neo-romanticist, department store painter Thomas Kinkade has made waves of investigation into what was behind the work–including this incredible piece by Dan Siedell on Patheos which painted (ahem) Kinkade as a theologian of glory, a depictor of a dishonest, even hurtful gussying of human reality. The article seems damning, but it is helpful, is it not, to know that he struggled with alcoholism and depression? A gloried re-depiction of your surroundings is really just the same (ht KW).

But Kinkade’s work refuses to take us to the end of ourselves, refuses the confrontations and disruption that could open us up to grace. His images give us a world that’s really okay, a world in which all we need is home and hearth, a weekend retreat, a cozy night with the family to put us right with God. It is a world devoid of pain and suffering; devoid of any fear of insanity or suicide. As a result, it is also a world without grace, without the Word that offers it. Kinkade’s multi-million dollar empire was built on our fallen human refusal to confront our innate hopelessness and our need to do what the Ninevites did in the book of Jonah, rip our clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and beg for God’s grace. “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3: 9).

When we refuse to make that kind of confrontation with hopelessness, we live and die by moral exactitudes, which is exactly what a recent psychology study said about what is called “moral licensing.” Apparently the purchase of organic foods has an directly inverse relationship to our engagement with ethical behavior. So says the study, that “Organic Food Makes You a Monster“:

Kendall Eskine, a psychologist at Loyola University New Orleans, examined the psychological impact of organics in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. His work builds on the concept of “moral licensing”—the notion that the doing of some kind of virtuous deed gives us license to engage in less than ethical behavior…“These findings reveal that organic foods and morality do share the same conceptual space,” Eskine concludes, adding that the study “suggests that exposure to organic foods helps people affirm their moral identities, and attenuates their desire to be altruistic.”

Also, Brain Pickings did a review of a new book called Internal Time: The Science of Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired, which seems to be looking into the perfectability of sleep patterns, the Law of Progress that Americans feel towards sleep, and the baseless mythology of both (ht JD):

This myth that early risers are good people and that late risers are lazy has its reasons and merits in rural societies but becomes questionable in a modern 24/7 society. The old moral is so prevalent, however, that it still dominates our beliefs, even in modern times. The postman doesn’t think for a second that the young man might have worked until the early morning hours because he is a night0shift worker or for other reasons. He labels healthy young people who sleep into the day as lazy — as long sleepers. This attitude is reflected in the frequent use of the word-pair early birds and long sleepers [in the media]. Yet this pair is nothing but apples and oranges, because the opposite of early is late and the opposite of long is short.

4) A worthwhile little article about belief here from the This View of Life blog, especially at the end. Basically, David Sloan Wilson is an atheist scientist calling out New Atheism, and Richard Dawkins a bit, for distorting the actual conclusions of evotionary religious studies (ERS), which show religion to be complexly adaptive, similar in function to a number of other ways of viewing the world, rather than simply a mistake and purely a byproduct of other factors (ht SZ).

Also in the field of belief crises, Religious Dispatches has a very gracious piece on the radical apocalypse believers, “A Year After the Non-Apocalypse“. In it you find the universal power of confirmation bias, the human capacity to radically believe, even after all is lost (ht JWH):

In the beginning, I was curious how believers would react, as if they were mice in a maze. But as time went on I grew to like and sympathize with many of them. This failed prophecy caused real harm, financially and emotionally. What was a curiosity for the rest of us was, for them, traumatic. And it’s important to remember that mainstream Christians also believe that God’s son will play a return engagement, beam up his bona fide followers, and leave the wretched remainder to suffer unspeakable torment. They’re just not sure when.

Among those I came to know and like was a gifted young musician. Because he was convinced the world was ending, he had abandoned music, quit his job, and essentially put his life on hold for four years. It had cost him friends and created a rift between some members of his family. He couldn’t have been more committed.

In a recent email, he wrote that he had “definitely lost an incredible amount of faith” and hadn’t touched his Bible in months. These days he’s not sure what or whether to believe. “It makes me wonder just how malleable our minds can be. It all seemed so real, like it made so much sense, but it wasn’t right,” he wrote. “It leaves a lot to think about.”

5) And then we have another great look into the minds of the men of Dawes. Taylor Goldsmith talks about the love affair with Till We Have Faces, that inspired the song “That Western Skyline” (ht AC):

But Goldsmith does acknowledge that because the guy is at a bar, he might tend to give himself the upper hand and downplay his faults, saying “It’s a bit of a myth in his own head that is not accurate, not fair to himself or fair to her. And it turns into that kind of thing where you’re sitting in a bar and exaggerating. I read this really cool book Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis. He says that we think we drink to do away with ourselves, but in reality we do it to seem more grand and noble.” But all nobility is cast away through his summary of his situation alone in Birmingham, in what is probably the best line of the whole song, he comments “Oh Lou, my dreams did not come true; no, they only came apart.”