Sunday, January 29, 2012

What Happens When We Die? Religion, Science, and NDEs.

What Happens When We Die? Religion, Science, and NDEs.

Scott Cawelti

Town/Gown Supper Club Talk

Nov. 15, 2011 at Ferrari’s

3,407 wds

FINAL VERSION as of 11-15-11

For certain Christians, what happens after we die makes perfect and certain sense: we go to meet Jesus and his Father in a celestial realm, mysteriously accompanied by the Holy Ghost, and we live in bliss for eternity. For saved evangelicals, that is--those who have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal savior. The unsaved billions—Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Catholics—will roast in eternal fire for their ignorance and/or wrong beliefs.

I heard this same story over and over in sermon and song weekly for the first twelve years of my life at Calvary Baptist Church in Cedar Falls, and came to believe it. Eventually I too became saved--saved from eternal damnation, and to hell with those wrongbelievers. To paraphrase the great old hymn: “’twas the church that taught my heart to fear, and the church my fear relieved.” What a deal.

Saved or not, we’ve all attended memorial services where a grieving loved one insists that the deceased has gone to a better place. Often they’re said to be smiling down, amused and honored by our comments. This happens even at relatively secular mourning events.

In one way, I still believe this message of comfort: if cessation of pain is a good thing, I know they’re better off. Death ends bodily pain, since pain begins with nerves located in the physical body.

However, if the “better place” is the fundamentalists’ celestial realm where Jesus and his Father reign like Kings of a Sky-Utopia, it seems preposterous. I lost my born-again evangelical religion before I could legally drive, and stopped believing in all formal religion not long after.

So I had none of the comfort that religious certainty provides when I lost my mother at nineteen, my close friend Dick Rackstraw a decade later, my brother Jim some 13 years ago, my father three years ago, and my oldest and dearest male friend Dale Phelps two years ago.

Except for their no longer suffering, never did I think of my mother or Dick or Jim or my dad and Dale as having gone to a better place, though at times I wondered if they had gone to a different place.

Much, much different. They might have discovered, as Walt Whitman asserted, “To die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” To even call it a “place” misleads.

Over the past five years I’ve been entertained by a lively and articulate bunch of atheists, partly as a reaction to my fundamentalist upbringing. I’m speaking of Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, Dan Barker, Christopher Hitchens, Roger Dawkins, and Carl Sagan, all of whom reinforced my semi-certainty about the fairy-tale nature of literal heavens and hells.

Just getting a religious person to define “God” is enough to reveal they stand on shaky ground, as Hitchens points out. Ask them to explain the massive suffering visited regularly on mankind and they stand on no ground at all, if their God is both omniscient and good. If He’s not neither good nor omniscient, what makes Him God? This, from former fundamentalist Bart Ehrmann, who cannot reconcile a loving and all-knowing God with massive suffering visited regularly on mankind.

Still, semi-certainty remained, my doubt about doubt.

I always felt when reading these atheists that they were just too sure of themselves, too set in their opposition to everything that religion supposedly represents. In a way, they themselves seemed like fundamentalists, the flip side of that same coin.

As a result, recently I’ve turned to a long-time favorite writer and thinker on these matters: Karen Armstrong. You may have heard of or read some of her books: A History of God, Buddha, The Prophet Muhammad, The Spiral Staircase, and her 2009 book The Case for God. Armstrong is a former nun who fell away from religion too, but unlike most, came back to it with new eyes, partly as a reaction to those specific atheists I just mentioned. In The Case for God she asserts that she cannot believe in religion as an ideology, but rather as an activity that leads toward respecting the vast mysteries of existence.

Armstrong insists that seriously undertaking the discipline of regularly contemplating what religions reveal at their mysterious best should incite not dogmatic faith-based belief so much as awe and wonder about the nature and mystery of the universe.

In her conclusion she describes the truly religious person who has found success in practicing what religion offers at its best: “Instead of being a mere workaday cup, they aspired to transform themselves into a beautiful ritual vessel brimful of the sanctity they were learning to see in life. They tried to honor the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being and create societies that protected and welcomed the stranger, the alien, the poor, and the oppressed. Of course, they often failed, sometimes abysmally. But overall they found that the disciplines of religion helped them to do all this. Those who applied themselves most assiduously showed that it was possible for mortal men to live on a higher, divine, or godlike plane and thus wake up to their true selves.”

Armstrong here articulates what I’ve been feeling about these ultimate issues. And I agree with her that hard-core atheists are refuting a straw deity. Armstrong calls fundamentalist beliefs aberrations, at least in the larger scheme of centuries of theologians wrestling with questions of faith and knowledge.

But non-evangelical Christian theologians believed that certain Bible passages pointed to a great mystery, and that whenever humans pretend to understand it on their own terms, and especially if they take any of it literally, they become idolaters. In other words, many Christian theologians were non-believers in a literal God too—they believed that religion at its most valid challenges us to contemplate the mysteries behind the veil, which must forever remain beyond our ability to even begin to understand, much less presume to use for daily needs. Just undertaking that journey requires a rare mix of humility and curiosity, a willingness to remain a permanent beginner. And a willingness to reject religions that have turned idolatrous.

Modern atheists don’t seem to notice or care about this powerful insight, which sits firmly in the Christian and Jewish tradition, according to Armstrong. We can attempt to explain what God is not, but can’t begin to comprehend what He/She/It is.

Armstrong’s insights have helped me explain some experiences that anti-fundamentalist atheism cannot.

I’m speaking of NDEs, or Near-Death-Experiences. Atheists of the Hitchens variety will dismiss what follows as patent nonsense. For them, life begins in the womb and ends in the tomb. I’m not so sure.

I’ve had two experiences, one first-hand and another second-hand that have made me wonder whether the tomb is the end of our road.

The first happened the night after Dick Rackstraw, a dear friend and colleague, committed suicide in 1974. He died by inhaling carbon monoxide from his car exhaust in his garage the previous night about four blocks from where I was sleeping near the UNI campus. The next night he came to visit.

I woke from a sound sleep well after midnight and realized that some version of Dick Rackstraw was sitting in the living room, waiting to talk face to face about his passage to another realm. Understand, he didn’t talk out loud; there was no human voice literally speaking to me. But I understood everything he was communicating.

Dick insisted that if I wasn’t ready to talk, it was no big deal. He knew I would find meeting my deceased friend beyond strange.

I wasn’t exactly scared, but I knew that communicating directly with a spirit I could actually see was going to change my life forever. I had no frame of reference that allowed me to talk to ghosts, holy or otherwise. So I didn’t.

I still wish I had, and would now in a heartbeat, assuming my heart could take it. However, if I had, I doubt I would ever talk in public about it; it just sounds too crazy.

The second experience involved two conversations I had with a friend’s wife. I visited them in Arizona years ago when she first talked about it and again at the end of September when we dined before my fiftieth class reunion. Both times she grew too emotional to talk about it, and after catching her breath, talked about how utterly beautiful it was, how much she wanted to stay there, on the other side of this bright tunnel. She regretted coming back, since she had gone through a car windshield and was in considerable pain. After that, she never feared death at all; in fact, she was looking forward to it, realizing that she had in fact come back from being dead, or near-dead.

So, what is this “Near-Death Experience,” or NDE? What do materialist-minded scientists say about it? Religions, by the way, are fairly quiet about it, some of them even claiming that such visions are the work of the devil.

I’m drawing here on Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, by Pim van Lommel, Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death, by Chris Carter, and Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences, by Jeffrey Long with Paul Perry. There are many others, beginning with Raymond Moody’s 1975 book, Life after Life, and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s earlier studies on death and dying. There’s also a web site you may want to visit if you find this subject engaging: NDERF, for Near-Death Experience Research Foundation.

So, what is an NDE? A “Near-Death Experience” is actually fairly well-reported among humans in all cultures and times. Plato reports on the story of Er, a soldier who died and came back on his funeral pyre after 12 days and reported on what he saw, which bears a few striking resemblances to modern NDEs. According to Pim Van Lommel, “a near-death experience is the (reported) recollection of all the impressions gained during a special state of consciousness, which includes some specific elements such as witnessing a tunnel, a blinding light, a panoramic life review, meeting deceased relatives, or observing one’s own resuscitation. This special state of consciousness can occur during a cardiac arrest, that is, during period of clinical death, but also in the course of a serious illness or without any apparent medical indication.”

I’m convinced Walt Whitman had such an experience, and in fact all mystics, including the founders of world religions, seem to have undergone a visitation to an afterlife realm or beyond life realm—another form of existence, but not really “life” as we understand it. When someone asks me whether I believe in either God or life after death, I offer my best answer: Depends on what you mean by God and life. Definitions change everything.

Now, thanks to new and widespread use of resuscitating devices after heart attacks, people can be revived after losing consciousness and in some cases all signs of life, including heartbeat and brain waves. Flatliners returning to talk about what’s over there.

In some cases, doctors had completely given up (these are rare) yet the person seems to snap back to life spontaneously. These people have been reluctant to report what they saw and heard, but now they’re actively sought out and interviewed at length. (See the NDERF web site) [Near-Death Experience Research Foundation]

They describe these aspects, and I’m giving them here arranged here from most to least frequently reported:

· feelings of peace or joy

· out of body experience

· encountering a light

· meeting the deceased or a being of light

· unearthly realm

· entering a tunnel or darkness

· life review

How does science explain these anomalous reports from

people who were supposed to be deeply unconscious? Pim Van Lommel explains, “I grew up in an academic environment where I was taught there was a reductionist and materialist explanation for everything. And up until that point, I had always accepted this as indisputably true.”

His large-scale NDE research project changed his mind completely.

Conventional science (and common sense, for that matter) leads to what seems clearly and obviously true: brain and mind are one and the same. Whatever happens to the brain affects the mind, directly and indisputably, and whatever happens to the mind seems to connect to and directly affect the brain. This is the standard “materialist” explanation, and would lead to the logical conclusion that when the brain dies, the mind dies, along with all memories and personality of the brain’s owner. Just like our senses tell us the earth is flat and sits still while the sun orbits around it.

As both Van Lommel and Chris Carter argue, the materialist explanation does not fit what research is beginning to reveal, nor what many relate as first-hand experiences. In fact, as Van Lommel observes, “On the basis of . . . studies of near-death experience, recent results from neurophysiological research, and concepts from quantum physics, . . . consciousness cannot be located in a particular time and place. This is known as nonlocality.”

He continues: “Complete and endless consciousness is everywhere in a dimension that is not tied to time or place, where past, present, and future all exist and are accessible at the same time . . .”

“Our brain may be compared both to a television set, receiving information from electromagnetic fields and decoding this into sound and vision, and to a television camera, converting or encoding sound and vision into electromagnetic waves. Our consciousness transmits information to the brain and via the brain receives information from the body and senses. The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness.”

Of course at the level of mere speculation, this assertion amounts to a Twilight Zone episode or ruminations of spiritualists and theosophists.

It’s the doctors and scientists, many of whom were former skeptics like Van Lommel who provide compelling evidence beyond anecdotes and wishful thinking.

Van Lommel devotes a chapter to reviewing the materialist explanations for NDEs and convincingly refutes them, at least for me.

Here’s an overview of his main refutation. NDEs, which are now accepted (even by skeptics) as actual experiences that about five percent of the population have had, are nothing more than an oxygen deficiency, which causes the brain to go into a kind of overload and produce so called “Near Death” hallucinations.

As Van Lommel states, “This used to be my own firm belief.”

Hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, however, and a related increase in carbon dioxide, will in fact produce fragments of an NDE experience, but not the whole integrated experience that affects people so deeply that it changes their lives. Nor can other chemical release explanations, since the experiences people report are more like extended lucid dreams, and in fact they can sometimes relate actual verifiable conversations among the living which took place while they were being resuscitated—hardly possibly while unconscious and barely breathing. In effect, Van Lommel insists, none of the many explanations—whether physiological, psychological, or hallucinogenic drug related—explain the NDE in all its complexity. He asserts “there appears to be an inverse relationship between clarity of consciousness and loss of brain function.”

Moreover, “There is no explanation for the fact that people across all ages and cultures have reported essentially similar experiences.”

Van Lommel conducted a large study in the Netherlands in the first part of this decade, which was published in Lancet, and replicated with essentially the same results in America and Britain. All three studies concluded that NDEs are real, they reveal a definite conscious awareness when the patient was unconscious, and that “This finding all but forces us to reconsider the relationship between the brain and consciousness.” “The fact that clear, lucid experiences were reported during a time when the brain was devoid of activity does not sit easily with current scientific belief.” --This, from Penny Sartori, the British researcher who replicated Van Lommel’s study.

These studies led Van Lommel to conclude “We have no direct evidence to prove if and how neurons in the brain produce the subjective essence of our consciousness.”

Now here’s the mind-boggler: Van Lommel asserts there’s no way our physical brains can both store and process the information needed to create consciousness. It’s like a computer putting out information with a processor that’s too small to have processed it. Van Lommel mentions Simon Berkovich, a computer expert, who calculated that “despite the brain’s huge number of synapses (each cubic centimeter has approximately 10 to the 11th power of dendrites connected to synapses, which means that the brain contains a total of about 10 to the 14th power of synapses.”

Yet at any waking moment the brain’s output in terms of processing and short and long-term memory requires approximately 10 to the 24th power of synaptic action. That’s not possible, given the number of connections within the brain itself, according to recent brain research.

Or as Van Lommel puts it, “On the basis of these findings, we are forced to conclude that the brain has insufficient capacity for storing all memories with associated thoughts and feelings or retrieving capacity for stored information.”

The only explanation for this disparity is that memories are stored not in brain tissue itself but in electromagnetic fields of the brain. Again, Van Lommel explains: “Neurosurgeon Karl Pribram was equally certain that memories cannot be stored in brain cells, but only in the coherent patterns of the electromagnetic fields of neural networks.” (p. 194) LOCATION 3678 of Van Lommel book.

To Pribram, the brain is less like a central processing unit and more like a hologram, which is “capable of storing the vast quantity of information of the human memory.” Some 90 years ago, psychologist Karl Lashley proved that “memories are not stored in any single part of the brain but throughout the brain as a whole.”

Moreover, the brain is highly plastic, meaning it can be physically altered by thoughts—thoughts can alter physical structures in the brain, which explains a good deal about the placebo effect, not to mention hypnosis.

The conclusion of all this speculating? The brain facilitates consciousness, but does not create or merely contain it.

And here’s the larger point: consciousness can be experienced independently of brain function. That’s what NDEs reveal.

We can and do leave our bodies at times, to put it more directly, since consciousness is not located only in our brain.

Van Lommel concludes, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that our endless consciousness preceded birth and will survive death independently of the body and in a nonlocal space where time and place play no role. According to the theory of nonlocal consciousness there is no beginning and no end to consciousness.”

Jeffrey Long, a doctor who founded the Near Death Experience Research Foundation and author of Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experience, asserts that “I long ago quit believing that death is the cessation of our existence. I was born into a scientific family. My father was the chair of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Iowa and a onetime contender for the Nobel Prize. Through him and others in our family I developed great respect for science.

By scientifically studying the more than 1,300 cases shared with the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation, I believe that the nine lines of evidence presented in [his] book [mentioned earlier] all converge on one central point: There is life after death.”

Again, I want to remind us that it’s not “life” as we know it—it’s an ineffable state of consciousness free of time and space—whatever you choose to call that. I would avoid calling it “heaven,” which sounds like a place with definite features—clearly a projection that arises from our bodily attachment to time and place.

To close, I’d like to quote what Mona Simpson related about her brother’s death. In her printed eulogy printed recently in the New York Times she said that he spoke three sets of two monosyllables as he looked over his family’s shoulders: Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow. Those were his last words.

Mona Simpson’s brother, of course, was the lucky Steve Jobs.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Slaves Rule! Agency and Autonomy in the Age of Technology

Supper Club Speech: Slaves Rule! Agency and Autonomy in the Age of Technology

David G. Sparks | January 17, 2012

Agency vs Autonomy,
Competence vs Dependency,
Citizenship vs Entitlement,
and what's all that go to do with sourdough anyhow?

It has always been easy, but never easier than today, to form an opinion without the effort of thought.
Today, social media degrade opinion down to vacuous extremes of “Like” versus “Dislike”. On any
subject whatsoever, the owner of a handheld information appliance can instantly access a
contemporaneous, global tally of likes and dislikes. She can consult her online friends' consensus just
as easily. Far beyond the freedom to think for herself, our modernist attains freedom from thinking
itself. The effortless certitude of knowing the likes of others affords her a blissful elision into decision.
Who wants anything more?

What matters if the consensus is wrong? Most people would agree with John Maynard Keynes who
said, “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed
unconventionally.” Failure by convention is no one's fault because everyone's fault. Safety in numbers.

This introduction on the difference between making up your own mind and allowing others to make it
for you is just a special case of a general challenge that I believe is central to our current situation and
our social future. My talk explores the ancient topic of autonomy and agency, and its current
significance for education, technology, citizenship and economic justice.

Contemporary society is having trouble finding work for all its members. This is a symptom of a deep
illness. One of the questions I will ask you tonight is whether, in our modern zeal to get freedom from
all manner of unpleasantness, we accidentally acquired the idea that we should be free from work.

Agency and Autonomy

Autonomy, as I will address it, means the freedom to determine one's own actions. Agency, I will
propose, is the action itself. Philosophy sometimes sounds like these are two different things. They are
not, but part of the same thing. To divide them is to divide the mind against itself.

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 1 of 14

I am not talking about agency in the sense of two parties, such as the kind of ethical problems between
agent and principal that can come up in employment or commercial dealings.

I will invoke but ultimately disagree somewhat with Immanuel Kant's top-down assertion of autonomy
as an a priori freedom of will in the sense of writing one's own rules subject to instrumental and moral
principles, distinct from a lesser thing called Agency that follows downward from autonomy based on
will toward some definite end.

A different perspective comes from the scholarship of technology, especially artificial intelligence. In
this realm agency in human service is the a priori condition, then in a bottom-up kind of way autonomy
grows out of it based on motivationi. That is, we have a machine that does things for us—an agent, if
you will—then we imbue it with a task and grant it autonomy to decide its own actions.

So, what kind of task would motivate a mechanized agent enough to warrant the autonomy to decide
action for itself? An example of where this can lead appears in an unclassified publication by the U.S.
Air Force in May, 2009 titled “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Flight Plan.”ii At page 41, under the
heading “Path to Autonomy”, the document looks at the future of combat machines.

Today the role of technology is changing from supporting to fully participating with

humans in each step of the process. In 2047 technology will be able to reduce the time to

complete the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop to micro or nanoseconds. UAS will be

able to react (in nanoseconds) and therefore (move) toward becoming a “perceive and

act” vector. Increasingly humans will no longer be “in the loop” but rather “on the loop”

– monitoring the execution of certain decisions. Simultaneously, advances in AI will
enable systems to make combat decisions and act within legal and policy constraints
without necessarily requiring human input.
One can only hope that the word, “think”, will stay in there somewhere, otherwise deadly devices may
become “jump to conclusions” machines. Terminator, anyone?

To repeat: Autonomy, as I will address it, means the freedom to determine one's own actions. Agency, I
will propose, is the action itself. Here, one's actions are constrained by the properties of the materials
we work with and overarching, widely shared moral principles.

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 2 of 14

We need not arrange the two concepts into a hierarchy. To me, attempts to relate agency with autonomy
become something of a chicken-egg problem. You can't have one without the others. But with so many
eggs and chickens in the world it is possible to consider each separately. Action toward a goal without
freedom of will? Sure, ask any soldier. Autonomy without action? That is our modern media consumer,
reductio ad absurdem. But is she free?

At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas, Audi unveiled an autonomous driving
system for your car that it calls Traffic Jam Assistant. Says Audi on its corporate web site,iii the system
will be designed to

relieve the driver at times when driving is not much fun, such as in congested traffic. At
speeds between zero and 60 km/h (37.28 mph), the system helps to steer the car within
certain constraints. The traffic jam assistant can be used on expressways or in cities,
provided that the course of the road is not too complex. (It handles) accelerating and
braking (autonomously;) it also reacts to cars moving into or out of the lane.

Here we have the New Autonomy, a Technautonomy. Wish I had coined that word. Alas, it is out there
already. Technautonomy is the point of this talk. But I get ahead of myself.

Competence and Dependency

In this section I re-interpret Autonomy and Agency as Dependency and Competence, that is, in
practical terms of who does what for whom. On this continuum, autonomy detaches toward
dependency while agency moves toward competence respecting the action. Technology already in some
cars is shifting the paradigm. Matthew Crawford's article on Agency and Autonomy in the Hedgehog
Review of June, 2010iv began with these two paragraphs.

Some of the current Mercedes models do not have dipsticks. If the oil level gets low,
the owner is sent an email. This serves nicely as an index of a shift in our relationship
to machines. Lubrication has been recast, for the user, in the frictionless terms of the
electronic device. In those terms, lubrication has no rationale and ceases to be an
object of active concern for anyone but the service technician. In a sense, this
increases the freedom of the Mercedes user. He has gained a kind of independence by
not having to futz around with dipsticks and dirty rags.

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 3 of 14

But in another sense, it makes him more dependent. He has outsourced the burden of
paying attention to his oil level to another, and the price he pays for this
disburdenment is that he is entangled in a more minute, all-embracing, one might
almost say maternal relationship with ... what? Not with the service technician at the
dealership, at least not directly, as there are layers of bureaucracy that intervene: the
dealership that employs the technician; Daimler AG, Stuttgart, Germany, who hold the
service plan and warranty on their balance sheet; and finally Mercedes shareholders,
unknown to one another, who collectively dissipate the financial risk of your engine
running low on oil. There are now layers of collectivized, absentee interest in your
motor's oil level, and no single person is responsible for it. If we understand this under
the rubric of "globalization," we see that its tentacles reach down into things that were
once unambiguously our own: the amount of oil in a man's crankcase.

But facts are stubborn things, and the requirement of lubrication is in the nature of engines. Crawford
begs the question: if the engine seizes up whose fault would that be? The driver without a dipstick will
not share the blame, but call his lawyer to pursue a claim. Perhaps he rationalizes that he can justify a
deliberate, personal helplessness before the fact by reliance upon a post hoc, social entitlement to
money damages. In his technautonomy, he is never to blame; always it is “they” who are.

Crawford is an important scholar and writer on this subject, in my opinion. You can read a pretty good
synopsis of his popular book online thanks to The New Atlantis. I will include a link in the endnotes of
this article for your information.v

My view is that such a driver is making a big mistake. He renders himself not autonomously free but
technautonomously dependent. Metal is metal and it needs oiling. It is merely prideful to assert a
heedless will against the properties of of his machine. I will come back to this thought.

Citizenship and Entitlement

In this section I will argue that the vector of Agency and Autonomy in contemporary society runs away
from freedom-to, towards freedom-from.

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 4 of 14

A driver who desires and retains the responsibility to check and fill her own oil, drive her own car, and
plan her own route, may go where she will and it's nobody's business.

Today's luxury car inhabitant keeps General Motors constantly apprised of his location and speed, and
tells Google where he is going so it can determine his every move in real time. He should care what
this freedom from care might be costing him.

Last December in Milwaukee two men stole a new Cadillac Escalade. Soon after, the police were on its
tail because the car was reporting its location through the OnStar system. It even transmitted the
conversations inside the car. At a point where the interstate ran down through a deep road cut with high
retaining walls on both sides, General Motors sent a signal at the cops' request—and stopped the
engine. Maybe you like the idea of catching car thieves that way. Keep thinking.

In October 2007 the U.S. Justice Department published a special report on Investigative Uses of
Technology: Devices, Tools, and The document discusses the rich trove of information
available from in-vehicle technology and how to get it. As far back as May, 2004, the Wisconsin Bar
Association reported that courts are increasingly admitting GPS evidence into trials. You would be
surprised to learn how far back your handy dandy navigator remembers, accurate to within the length
of your car and the tick of the atomic clock, where you were, and when, and how long you stayed there.

GPS sells you a narcotic technautonomy in the freedom from having to find your own way. Soon you
are hooked; you forgive it for times it sends you the wrong way around because you would feel literally
lost without it.

But let me steer back to citizenship and entitlement with a modern problem of the commons. What does
technautonomy teach young people concerning finite, community resources? The owner of a new
Apple iPhone 4-S feels a delicious surge of entitlement when she commands SIRI, the inner voice, to
tell her what cool restaurants are offering discounts within walking distance, and how to get there from
here. Kings could not command such sorcery, yet now we commoners take it for granted. Get an
iPhone, get SIRI, and get going! That's the pitch. But this individual benefit comes at a social cost.

The iPhone 4-S consumes twice as much capacity in a cellular infrastructure compared to its
predecessor. Bandwidth hogging is a massive example of the tragedy of the commons. Even today's
tiered-price plans do not begin to level the playing field between bandwidth bandits and people who

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 5 of 14

just want a phone. User hogging explains most of your dropped calls.

The radio frequency spectrum is a finite, community resource. Happily, we keep learning how to
squeeze more data through it. Sadly, our technological success in doing so relieves phone users of any
care for one another. Applauded behavior these days goes beyond mere conspicuous consumption to
competitive consumption. The fastest phone with the most apps and streaming videos wins!

My notions of citizenship formed around more altruistic behavior such as contributing to a community,
limiting personal use of shared resources, giving back more than I get, and trying to leave this place
better than I found it. The culture of entitlement I see taking shape in this era of dependent
technautonomy seems to emphasize the opposite: maximizing personal use of shared resources, getting
more than you give, and grabbing all you can before the next guy takes it all. How do you celebrate

Self control and self-esteem

I once fitted a cornet mouthpiece into a Sousaphone to hit higher notes with it. It was for a summer
orchestra performance of Schuman's Circus Overture. There is a moment in the score where all the
animals go wild. I found I could do glissandos in the upper register without fingering the valves. The
conductor enjoyed a good laugh, thought it sounded like a love-struck elephant and left it in the piece.

Now, consider learning to play an instrument. Scott Cawelti talked to us a while back about the guitar.
It is easy to learn to play one, he said, but very hard to learn to play it well. Angeleita Floyd would add
that the flute is no different – well, maybe harder even at first. I can play a guitar but never managed to
get a toot from a flute.

The would-be musician must choose an instrument, learn its properties, submit to the discipline
required to invoke its voice reliably, then master the literature of it. The process takes years. The
evidence is in every performance. The musician says, live and in person, “You have heard me. Judge
for yourself.”

Yet even upon mastery, the instrument will constrain the player. A violin cannot produce the Oom Pah-
Pah of a tuba. The tuba cannot hit the piccolo's pitch. Well, it can with a cornet mouthpiece but it's not
the same and we would hope to laugh at the attempt.

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 6 of 14

An instrument, including electronic ones, is just a way to get air vibrating at an audible frequency. The
vibration is just a way to manifest a certain thought. Even that is just our need to touch the face beyond
the reach of consciousness. And that? Who knows. Which is the point of all our striving.

Even though electronics figures into musical performance these days, technology corrupts us to
surrender. Why learn to play when we have iTunes?

It seems to me that the choice we make over and over again in life is between being a user and a doer.
Users have things done for them, while doers want to do things. Doers make things. Users, well, use
them. Users want it easy. Doers don't mind difficulty as long as it is interesting and seems tractable.

This difference defines one of the dimensions that measure a person's individuality. Take art for one
obvious example. Users like to look at art, and might even learn to display it very effectively. Doers, of
course, produce it. Think about audiences and actors, playwrights and critics, cooks and diners. You see
this dimension everywhere.

A doer will submit to evaluation based on the work itself. Crawford describes the test of a bricklayer: a
wall. It says to any who look at it, “Here stands the work. It is level and plumb and finished; check for
yourself.” Its maker takes an important measure of his worth from his work. He earns not only his
living but his self-respect thereby.

By contrast, a user has walls built, then needs a narrative to inflate his reputation with it. He will say,
“those bricks are of special clay from Habersham County, the last of its kind dug from the banks of the
Chattahoochee where it crosses the ancestral home of Sidney Lanier. The brickmason, an Italian known
to fame in both Tuscany and the Vatican; I flew him here on my Gulfstream for the job.”

All of us are users of many things most of the time. So merely using technology does not signify. The
continuum describes a preference between doing-ness and using-ness as a personal lifestyle. Doing is a
somewhat lonely choice in the social sense because most people incline toward the other side. But I
find it a wonderfully interesting way to live. Never a dull moment.


Every time I contemplate a speech to Supper Club I reconsider giving one I call “The Sourdough Life.”
This looks like the time.

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 7 of 14

The Sourdough Life means to pursue an artistic hobby with the hands. Former Merrill Lynch Chief
Executive Officer, U.S. Treasury Secretary and White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan explained it
at the first gallery showing of his paintings. He started painting at close to age 80, some time after his
political career ended. He said to someone attending the gallery, “After Wall Street and the government,
I decided there had to be more to life than the stock market, golf and drinking."

My response to that is, Why wait? For me a lifelong interest in sourdough bread has provided recreational
relief. I learned to bake from my mother. In college I started experimenting with sourdough
cultures captured from the air. The one I use now showed up around 20 years ago. I devoured books, of
course, but most of what I know the bread and yeast taught me. Finally the day came when I could
reliably produce well-raised loaves with labyrinthine crumb enclosed in deep brown, crackly crust,
made from nothing else but whole wheat and water.

Several speeches ago, my talk would have been about working the sourdough process into a busy life
by spreading the different steps across several days. I probably would have gone on from there to extoll
the virtue of household chores to anchor a life pulled this way and that by markets and sales goals.

Now, however, I see a different dimension. I see a continuum between the work of the head and the
work of the hands. I think part of our sickness as a culture may be that we live more in our heads these
days and less by our hands. For evidence, consider TV reality programs showing manual work. It is
exhibited as odd, dirty, the people who do it being obviously very different from you and me. But
sourdough says, Hold on there. You can reconnect with your hands, and you ought to.

Jeffrey Hamelman, a master baker and head of King Arthur Flour's Baking Education Center, wrote
these words in his book, titled simply, “Bread.”

So much of baking is about the sense of touch. We feel the dough as it mixes, in order to

learn to understand in a tactile sense the changes it goes through from the beginning of

the mix to the end. … (W)e slowly train ourselves to understand what is happening

inside the dough simply by feeling the outside...

The baker is lucky, lucky indeed, to have this life of the hands... For thousands of years,

most of the world's work—the “days of hands,” as T.S. Elliot called it—was manual and

required the ineffable sensitivity of the human hand. To be sure there were people of

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 8 of 14

wealth and power whose hands had little purpose. But for the bulk of humanity, the
hands were the conduit between effort and result. Then, perhaps 90 percent or more of
the population was engaged directly in hand work of some form. And now, perhaps the
number is reversed. Today, increasingly the primary use of the hand seems to be for
computer and telephone.

It's true that the machines of today can with certainty guarantee a consistent output of
predictable good quality. On the other hand, the baker who relies on his hands will
surely have mishaps. At times his efforts might yield only a 75 percent level of quality.
But at other times he will coax loaves of incredible beauty and taste, and score a 95
percent! He lives for this, and the memory of those surpassing loaves lingers. He strives
for perfection, but wonders; where would he go from there?

Hearing, touching, smelling, seeing, and tasting—bread is about all of these. The bread
is always talking to us, and only when we open ourselves fully—mind and senses
together—do we slowly begin to learn the subtle, but quite articulate, language of


Well said, say I. Work is fulfilling when it fills us to the full. We must be open to it. Work informs our
self respect when it teaches us to trust ourselves through disappointments and savor moments of
excellence for the special occasions they really are. We must work in order to know these things. A
society that organizes its laws and economy in a way that excludes some people from access to dignity
through work is beyond unjust, beyond unwise; it is unwell. Even if in doing so it means well.

Education, Work, and Economic Justice

A life lived on the using-ness end on the preference continuum would be a fully entitled existence,
where one does nothing but consumes everything. A cartoon many years ago captured the idea with an
executive sitting in a corner office. Obviously very high up, his floor-to-ceiling windows look down
onto birds, circling above the tops of other buildings. He occupies an ornate chair, but otherwise the
room is bare. No bookshelves, no computer, no phone, not even a desk. He explains to a visitor, “I
delegate everything!”

I saw this using-ness preference in my corporate finance classrooms. Corp is basically an applied math

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 9 of 14

course. The math makes the concepts accessible to thought. We encouraged students to use financial
calculators for speed and accuracy with computations that would otherwise be tedious. My motivation
as a teacher was to furnish their minds with knowledge, skills and abilities, namely the basic financial
decision making concepts and some discipline to exercise them correctly. Silly me.

Most of my students had a different idea. Their idea was to use me to get the grade they need, to check
the course off the list of requirements. They would have me teach them how to press keys on the
calculator to get right answers on exams. My effort to make them think in class consumed time that
they felt could be better spent memorizing keystrokes for the next test.

Thank goodness a few actually came there to learn. These students lived on the doing-ness end of the
preference continuum. Unfortunately, most just wanted to pass. They were at the using-ness end. I
never understood how they figured to survive in business. Perhaps they just plan to delegate
everything. I wonder how many of them really did not belong in college.

I think sometimes about Charlie Garrett, a shade tree mechanic in Fountain Inn, South Carolina where I
grew up. The man worked miracles in the shop down behind his house. The ten teeth in his head were
more than the number of years he went to school. But cars talked to him, told him what needed fixing.
With his screwdriver and a timing light he could teach them how to sing. He mattered to his customers.
You had to wait your turn to get in Mr. Garrett's shop. He raised his family, took care of business, and
made his way in the world.

Today he would need at least a Hawkeye Tech diploma. He would work at a dealership where they
would not let him talk to customers; they have unskilled, form-filling employees for that work. Nobody
would know about Mr. Garrett and his music with machines.

I wonder if he would have gotten that diploma. We have increased the cognitive demands of so many
jobs that we are in danger of creating a permanent underclass that cannot find good-paying work at all.
There are no jobs down at the plant for Gus when he drops out of school. Just a generation ago, there
were. He just had to know somebody to get in. They would train him on the job. Not any more.

Our society's demand to live free from hassles has made us intolerant toward error in the products and
services we consume. The best-possible becomes the minimum-acceptable. Every defect is a warranty
claim, every fault a tort. It would be too dangerous to keep Gus on the line when he makes mistakes.

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 10 of 14

My thoughts on public schools are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of my wife. What is
this notion in mass testing that all children will perform at or above “grade level?” If grade level is a
norm, then statistically there must be scores both above and below it. Only in Lake Woebegone do all
children score above average.

Even crazier, comes now an idea from Governor Branstad that all children must sit a college entrance
exam—SAT or ACT—before graduating high school. Hey, I know from experience that not every kid
should go to college. Where did we get this idea that there is no avenue to human worth without a BA

Pure piffle. Parents may rejoice their child graduated business school and now makes $40,000 a year
salary working 80-hour weeks in a marketing firm, yet never register that their kid carries a quarter
million in college debt and is making $20 an hour. Meanwhile, the plumber who graduated high school
with their precicious child charges $100 just to pull in the driveway plus $80 an hour, and they thank
him. If he has debt, it is likely on a house that can be sold to repay most of it.

Alas, there is no market for used MBA degrees. The parents may hope their budding magnate will hit it
big, and she might. For future wealth, however, the plumber has a huge head start.

Crawford points out that repair work is actually cognitively heavy, exercising both knowledge and
differential diagnosis. A factory can crank out identical copies by a rote procedure, but the diesel
mechanic faces a unique object that has worn and broken not quite like any other. She must judge
which parts to replace and which ones just need cleaning. She stakes her reputation on it. She looks you
in the eye. Such a job brings dignity and a paycheck that cannot be relocated overseas. Sounds like a
great job! Yet we discourage our children from aspiring to such worthy work.

Why do schools no longer teach trades? Is it because we do not want our children to work?

Frankly, I agree with Crawford that everyone should learn a trade. Work with your head, too, that's fine.
Use a computer, a tablet, a phone. But know how to do work with your hands, be part of a crew, be
known by what stands after you. We should all add a bit of the sourdough to our lives. It would civilize
us, and I mean make us more civil, better citizens; teach us not only to appreciate quality but also cut
the other guy some slack because we know things don't always go right.

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 11 of 14


Sourdough opened my eyes to the possibility of competence with natural materials, flour and water, to
make bread, food for myself and others, provided I work within the rubric of the materials themselves
and honor their properties. The experience prepared me to understand agency as the work itself, my
skill subsumed within the task and ingredients and not the other way around. My claim to autonomy,
including citizenship and standing in a community, in some way relates to a manifest ability of the kind
that shows in the work. Money wealth cannot supply this kind of standing because money can be got in
many ways but good bread can only come about the right way. Somehow, in our souls, we all know
this. I think that realization makes us uncomfortable in our conflation of money and worth, because
money spent on technautonomous dependency does not buy happiness.

As an aside, it does buy a quick thrill. But after a while, that iPhone 4-S is just your old phone.

As a baker I can rightly expect competence and self control of myself. To this end I must subordinate
myself to the nature of the task at hand and the materials the world affords me. When I enter that state,
I am free-to and thus sustainably autonomous. I gain by giving bread away. I fill up by opening up.
This kind of freedom is quite different from one where self-esteem requires continuous affirmation
from online friends, agency is for others to fuss with, where freedom from burdens and cares brings the
illusion of entitlement but reality of dependency. Poor man he, the Technautonomous, constrained to
live within the choices made for him by inscrutable providers of his conveniences.

Autonomy and agency are distinguishable, but only in the way that hands and feet are from each other.
Detached them from each other, and something important diminishes.

The technautonomous one who does nothing is not free; he is slave to his servants and their true
masters who program his dependency upon them. The one who works without authority over his skill is
not free either. There is no separation of the two in a free man, therefore no inherent hierarchy, no a
priori status of one over the other. In a competent and well settled soul, agency is autonomy; autonomy,

The autonomous self will be a complex function in three dimensions:

1. what it know it can do objectively, and does in fact: that is, its agency,
Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012 Page 12 of 14

the subjective pleasure it gives and the good that others find in the work: its competence,
self-governance under an overarching moral stricture derived from avoiding harm to others and
accepting the acts of others who self-govern according to the same principles; its citizenship.
That in a nutshell is the autonomy I seek. Freedom to do what I choose rooted in submission to the
work that it requires. That is the balance I fear the children of our “freedom—from” society may be
missing. I wish I could call their attention to the wisdom wheat and water can teach them: the serenity
to say, “I just baked bread. Here, would you like some?”

Speech of David Sparks to Supper Club January 17, 2012
Page 13 of 14

D'Inverno, Mark, and Luck, Michael. A Formal Framework for Agency and Autonomy. 1995. MIT Press. Retrieved
11/20/2011 from

United States Air Force. Michael B. Donley, Secretary of the Air Force, and Norton A Schwartz, General, USAF, Chief
of Staff. May 18, 2009. Downloaded January 14, 2012 from

“Driver Assistance Systems”. Online news release January 10, 2012. Audi of America. Accessed January 14, 2012.

Crawford, Matthew B., “Agency Versus Autonomy”, The Hedgehog Review – Critical Reflections on Contemporary
Culture, Vol 12, No. 2 (Summer 2010). Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. University of Virginia. Charlottesville,

v, Summer, 2006 edition.

Keisler, Peter D., Acting Attorney General., Daley, Cybele K., Acting Assistant Attorney General., Hagy, David W.,
Acting Principal Deputy Director., October, 2007., Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, U.S. Justice
Dpeartment. Accessed January 14, 2012.

vii Hamelman, Jeffrey., Bread, A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes, 2004., Hoboken, N.J., John Wiley & Sons, Inc.