An Identity Thought Experiment Concerning You and Your Eyeballs

With all of the research that has been done on the brain, there is no question that the brain is a special part of us.  We often think of our mental activity–thoughts, ideas, feelings, anger — taking place in the brain.  When we think of a tree, the image of the tree is being viewed in the brain.  When are trying to remember, we sort through the mental hallways and bookshelves of our brain to find the memory we are looking for.  Furthermore, when we look at the world, our eyes almost serve as the windows to our mind/brain.  I do not think of my personal identity, the most essential part of me that cannot be swapped out or shared, as residing in my left foot or my right index finger.  I think of it as being in my mind/brain, and my eyes, fixed right in front of my mind/brain, allow me to look out at the world.

Try it yourself.  Look down at your coffee cup (or some other object) and then your hands at your keyboard (or some other body part).  Now ask yourself, where am I?  Obviously, you’re not in the coffee cup.  But how about your hands?  Your hands are part of you, after all.  But no, you feel instinctively that you are not at all the same as your hands, and since you are looking out at your hands, you naturally feel like you — the mental, psychological, spiritual you — are tucked safely and securely somewhere behind your eyes.  Which makes perfect sense, you reason, because your brain is also behind your eyes, and everybody knows that our mental activity takes place in our brain.

Now consider how things would change if your eyes were not specially located right in front of your brain.  Let’s imagine them transplanted into the palms of your hands.  As far as I know, there is nothing biologically impossible about this — the optical nerves and connectors would just need to be wired to the brain over a longer distance, up the arms, past the shoulders, and maybe plugged into the spinal cord somewhere up around the neck.

eyes in hands

Imagine now looking up at your head — the place where you had just imagined that the mental and spiritual you resides — from the perspective of your hands.  You are looking up at yourself, admiring the shape and contours of your head and face.  Your eyes are no longer there.  Your cheeks connect to your forehead without interruption.  Your nose, mouth, and ears are all still right where they have always been (for this experiment, though, there are no noises or smells).  The big difference is now, instead of looking out from the mind’s lofty penthouse of your head, you are now gazing up from the street-level perspective of your hands.  Your own familiar head now is “out there.” It is “out there” just as everyone and everything else is “out there.”  But you still feel have the “in here” feeling, only now, “in here” is in your hands.

Now ask yourself, is it still true that you and your brain are the same, even when you are separated from it and looking at it?  Or does my sense of “me” naturally linger “behind” wherever I view the world from?


Religion: What’s to Like?

I missed out doing much for Palm Sunday this week.  I miss out on a lot of observances that in principle I consider myself obligated to tend to.  I was not raised in the rituals of any church, nor was I raised with a coherent orientation toward religion.  My dad wavered, and continues to waver, between atheism and agnosticism.  My mom was more faithful, but not by much.  Still, it was enough to get me baptized eventually, which occasioned my receiving of my first Bible.  And, I was invited by the baptizing priest to read some of the Gospel of Mark.  I can still remember the smell of the pages, which isn’t all that impressive given that most Bibles have a similar smell.  Anyway, the cover was red and shiny.

I believed in God right away.  I was always told by my mom about God and Heaven, and saw no reason to argue, but that isn’t the same as reading the Bible and feeling a strong sense that it is real.

As an adult, I realize that I was dyed in the wool as a Christian.  A Catholic, actually.  And I recognize that I was dyed in the wool as a Catholic because my mother’s mother is Irish Catholic (hi Nana!).  And the Irish that are Catholic are so because of St. Patrick, or something to that effect.  Anyway, it’s a faith I inherited.

baghdad dirt devil

So why stay religious now?  Well, I still believe.  Faith is gift, and I have it, for better or for worse.  I don’t believe every second of every day, but I don’t ever not believe for very long. I actually feel terrified during my moments of doubt — and again, to emphasize, this is a near daily occurrence.

What am I terrified about?  Actually the main root of this emotion is a completely self-absorbed concern with my own existence.  I can’t stand the thought of oblivion.  I think about it the way one touches a bruise to still see if it hurts.  And it always does.

This hasn’t made me overly dogmatic in the sense of believing in an old man that lives in the sky or something like that.  No fan of George Carlin is capable of that.  The truth is that I can’t fathom the essence or nature of God.  I can address this spirit in prayer, and I do feel connected to it when I experience remarkable coincidences and deja vu.  I feel connected when I take communion at church, when I hold hands and say the Lord’s Prayer.  When I live my life according to good principles I learned from the Bible, and see myself rewarded by the world over the long haul for living that way, I feel connected to it.

And this is why I like religion — the sense of connection with this spirit that I don’t understand, a spirit that somehow alleviates my terror over the prospect of death.  And this is why when I miss Palm Sunday I find a way to observe my faith, and do something like I’ve done here in writing this post and sharing it with you.  And it makes me feel good having done so, even if it isn’t quite what my faith expects of me.

Trump, Jerry Springer, and the Destruction of Our Cultural Institutions

In a recent interview, Jerry Springer opined that the public’s dislike of Washington has been brewing for so long that it was inevitable that an outsider would be chosen to shake things up.  Springer smartly observed that such a person would have to be famous, and the main ways of getting famous are through sports and through entertainment celebrity.  So we were bound to one day have an athlete or another type of celebrity with zero political experience make a serious run for the White House.  Springer has endorsed Hillary and is adamantly opposed to Trump’s candidacy.

jerry springer

Springer was asked of course about his violent and trashy tv show, and whether he had more in common with Trump than he was willing to admit.  His defense was that on his show, everyone is a complete unknown.  He said he would not involve famous people in his show because that would harm our society.  It would harm our society because when famous people act badly, people pay attention and copy what famous people do.  If famous people quickly resort to violence, then the rest of society will follow suit.

I think Springer is probably right on everything except in his belief that his hands are clean.  (But who cares about him?)  As much as we hate to admit the we are all influenced by others, especially our close circle of friends and family, and the famous people our close circle of friends and family talk about.  Every time I see someone important in my life doing the right thing, I’m a little more motivated to do the right thing.  Every time I see someone important in my life doing the wrong thing, I’m a little more inclined to do the wrong thing.  Examples matter.  The power of suggestion is real.

This isn’t to say that a famous person can do anything he or she wants and people will imitate him or her.  The rules that we have internalized about right and wrong over the long course of our lives limit what we can be influenced to think, to feel, and to do.  But this is where cultural institutions matter.  Institutions are sets of rules that have acquired an air of authority.  There are institutions shaping the family, shaping religion, shaping national pride.  Parents should take care of their children, God is good and rewards the faithful, the American flag should not touch the ground.  Why do we believe these things?  Because we recognize them as authoritative, rooted in tradition and popular agreement.  We often have little need to question them.

But institutions are on the decline in our culture.  Everything is being challenged and re-thought.  The traditional family, religion, national pride — these things are criticized by us more and more, not respected at all as authoritative.  Why we challenge them is a complicated question we need not answer right away.  What can be observed is that these sources of authority are what compete with the influence of famous people over our lives.  It is no surprise, then, that famous people so often undermine the authority of these institutions. Once they are completely discredited, a new authority — the authority of their own popularity — can emerge.

The reason so many blue collar whites are supporting Trump may not be first of all their economic anxiety, but the slow erosion over time of their respect for the family, religion, the laws, and the Constitution.  They may lack the internal rule set offered by these institutions to resist the external temptations of a flashy, brash-y, celebrity.  They may be hungering for order, for purpose, for meaning, for trust, and for hope.  And they may want to enjoy all of these things while they last, because the alternative they had just been experiencing is a vast internal emptiness.

Trump and the Wall

Trump’s Wall is similar to JFK’s call to put a man on the moon.  It is big, it is ambitious, and it is declared in the face of tremendous skepticism.  It promises a great sense of accomplishment for our nation, a great act of self-assertion.  Gingrich last time around tried something like this in proposing to start a colony on the moon.  It was ambitious, but there wasn’t any appetite for it.  A great nation project can’t just be big, it has to match the taste of the nation.  Romney called Gingrich “zany” for proposing it, as I recall, and it hurt his campaign.

The Wall has sustained Trump’s campaign and shows that it does match the current taste of the nation.  Why is that?


It serves a variety of purposes.  One, the Wall is the cornerstone of any Republican plan to fix illegal immigration.  This is the lesson of history from Reagan’s amnesty for illegal immigrants — the border wasn’t secure and the problem returned.  The problem matters to blue collar Americans because it is hard enough to make a living while competing with those here legally.  Employers will hire illegal immigrants because they will work for cheaper wages.

The Wall appeals to our national pride and the desperation of many to find a good job, to get a better car, to pay down some debt.  We’ve had 9/11, the recession, and a transforming global economy.  The Wall isn’t just functional.  It’s symbolic of a country than can do anything it puts its mind to and is willing to take care of its own.

So why does Trump take so much heat?  The answer is simple: he used the idea of the Wall to go hard after a big slice of the white vote.  He depicted Mexico as the great villain.  Mexicans coming into the country illegally were called rapists and drug dealers.  The drug epidemic in places like New Hampshire is said to be the work of Mexicans.  Many of the jobs leaving the country are said to be going to Mexico.

He made Mexicans into villains in order to justify tough anti-Mexican policies.  Mexico will pay for the Wall or suffer a trade war. Mexican illegal immigrants, along with all other illegal immigrants, are going to be deported.  Even the children of illegal immigrants born here will be deported.  The precedent he cited for this government action was Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback.”  He threw Jorge Ramos out of a press conference, got in a public dust up with Telemundo, later said he doesn’t trust anything Univision says.

There have been no olive branches extended by Trump or his campaign to Mexico, to the Mexican-American community, or to the Latino community, beyond saying that “the good ones can come back in.”  He proudly accuses everyone else running for president as being “weak on immigration.”

There are a lot of good reasons why we probably should build some sort of Wall on the southern border.  Trump acknowledges some of them.  But he goes way beyond that because he clearly doesn’t believe that a great national project matching the taste of the nation will win him the election.  He therefore self-consciously juices his sales pitch by appealing to white Americans in a racist way.  This embarrasses his supporters, and they often admit to feeling the heat, because 1. they are seen as biting on a racially infused message, and 2. we all see them cheering as much or more at his anti-Mexican applause lines and confrontational theatrics as they do at his calls for jobs, national pride, and taking care of our own.

It’s too bad Trump estimated America’s current greatness as non-existent.  He might have calculated differently, that a respectable campaign would be the key to victory.  He might have worried about the harm such a campaign would cause.  Instead, he’s motivated by a dog-eat-dog attitude, and he doesn’t care.