Tuesday, December 26, 2006

It's over...

Boy, the Christmas (secular holiday celebrating the ability of business to sell us tons of shit we don't need) season has ended. I must admit, it was a good one! The Wife and I did not exchange gifts. The kids, however, pretty much wiped out amazon and e-bay. The wife went a little bat-shit crazy on spending, but it was enjoyable. My daughter received a sewing machine. She has put a stitch into every single piece of material we couldn't hide from her. She is NOTHING like her mother. MY great wife wouldn't be caught dead sewing. MY son received a Zune. I spent much of my day downloading a DVD-to-Zune ripper program, and then ripping his favorite movies and transferring them to his Zune. I must admit, its pretty cool. They received many more gifts, but these are the ones they focused on.

As for me... my mother had a medical emergency last week. She recently had a radical hysterectomy. She was in the first week of recovery and began to have significant chest pain. She headed to the hospital (St. Mark's of SLC... Very good staff). They diagnosed her with a pulmonary embolism. Life threatening stuff. My sister called me at work and gave me the news. She was a mess. I was doing a training, and initially, gave it little thought or emotion. As the day progressed, and I had a chance to ponder what was happening, I became more and more useless at work. Eventually my wife granted me permission to leave work, and drive to SLC to see her. I didn't need her permission, just her push.

When I arrived at the hospital, she was surrounded by my siblings. She looked awful. I have never really pondered what my response would be to my parents deaths. Turns out... I am rather okay with it. I don't want them to rush to it, but death doesn't scare/frighten/bother me much (this includes my own death). She was released just 4 days later (earlier than expected). She is now home and doing well.

It is now easy to realize the life, at times, hands us what it hands us. Some things it is just more helpful to accept, than to fight with irrational wishes. My sister, knowing that I am an Atheist, asked me to "pray" for my mother. My brain stopped dead in its tracks. I was frozen on the phone. After a pregnant pause (one in which I began to weigh giving her a verbal barrage of personal insults, or hanging up as possible responses) I said that I would send her my most fervent positive wishes. Instead of wishing I did a more healthy thing, and just accepted that whatever was going to happen was well out of my control.

Is prayer (if no God exists) just self-soothing behavior? In a behavioral model it would seem that prayer is superstitious behavior maintained by an adventitious schedule of intermittent reinforcement. It pays off speciously every now and then, and people fallaciously attribute the hits and forget the misses of prayer. In my world it is people talking to themselves. I am always interested in what people say in prayers. It awe's me at times that people are not embarrassed by this behavior.

Speaking of superstition... my nephew (wife's brothers son) got some pretty cool toys at G-pa's and G-Ma's on Christmas eve. One toy was a hobby-horse-turned-Bull. He said, "Jesus gave the bull his horns." We all chuckled at his innocent remark. He then attributed another feature/toy to Santa's handiwork. I hope that relationship continues. If he sees Santa and Jesus as two -of-a-kind, then once he figures out the myth of one, perhaps, he will begin to think of Jesus in that same light. There is hope, albeit scant hope (his parents are blindly faithful and conditioning him hard). So much for free-agency eh? Control the variables of upbringing and you control the child's behavior. Contradictions abound with religious beliefs. Its too bad that religion is really a matter of where you happened to be born. In Utah you are likely LDS. In India... Hindu... In Asia... Muslim or Buddhist. Thank heavens I wasn't born in the south.

Have a happy New Year! 2007... Could be a good one.


Monday, December 18, 2006

A lot of heavy mental lifting

My colleague, a real genius, sent me a short treatise on emotion. She explained that emotions are by-products (collateral) of contingencies of punishment and reinforcement. She and I are both classical Skinnerian's. But she exceeded the boundaries of research and delved into the philosophy of behaviorism. She was extending it into our (educational peripheral professionals) relationships with educators (read teachers).

Her brilliant insights made it clear that we are behaving organisms too. How often we refuse to analyze the functions of our own patterns of behavior. What is it that I do that tells me what my motivations are in this life? Can I trace my actions to their source consequences and see if my reported motives are consistent with my real motives??

Now, there are a lot of mentalists (cognitivists) out there that report that Behaviorism is too shallow. It stops at the level of the body's contact with the world, and does not delve into the processes that physiology goes through to transform the outer world into and interpreted set of data which processes, and then acts upon, the stimuli. I do not deny the existence of a world hidden inside the skin, but I refuse to think that because it is out of view, that it is of a different nature from the world outside. I don't think Cognitivists have anything useful to offer. I think that neurologists and Physiologists will fill in the few blanks left by behavior analysis.

I often forget that emotions are often a clue as to what type of consequence I am delivering to teachers, parents, or any I professionally consult with. Tears, throat-clears, red-faces, etc., all tell me that I am introducing punishment of one type or another. Smiles, tears of pride, lighted eyes, etc. tell me that I am providing reinforcement. This type of thinking, on my part (yes thinking is behavior, it is just hard to observe unless I talk out-loud), has been beneficial just today. Circumstances during a meeting became heated with a defensive parent. I began to deliver hard facts followed by compliments and praise (sincere praise). The parents behavior began to change quickly and we ended the meeting on a very positive note.

Does it sound like I was manipulative? Well.. I was. You can't have a world in which you are not controlled by conditions. All one can do is change the controlling conditions. This leads me to "morality." There has been great debate about primary morality. Are there innate sets of behaviors which are "right" or "wrong?" As a behaviorist I have concluded that moral qualities are secondary. Actions & choices are not right or wrong, they are what they are. We attribute rightness or wrongness to conditions secondarily. The reason we all differ in what we call moral is that we make those attributions through a different set of fundamental rules (e.,g., God, mom & dad, experience, Flying Spaghetti Monster, Scripture, etc.). I propose an axiomatic set of rules by which all morality could be rationally judged. Here they are

1. If it helps self and harms other--- Refrain
2. If it harms self and helps other --- refrain
3. If it helps self and helps other --- do it
4. If it harms self and harms other ---- do its opposite

Now, I need to define harm and help, but that is going to take some more tweaking in my head. But if we could, as rule-seeking beings, adopt these fundamental rules I think it could make a solid foundation for a universal moral code. Is it humanism? Thank Baal that the holidays are coming. I need more time to ponder, and edit these thoughts.