Posts Tagged ‘Sociopathy’

How many times have you heard the pious intonation, “we’re all to blame”? If you’ve thought about the matter at all, the answer is obvious: too damn many. (Frankly, one time is too damn many.)

At best, this assertion — “argument” is too kind a term — is a malign form of virtue signalling indicating that the speaker has wisely and selflessly “accepted responsibility,” while you, you poor benighted sod, haven’t.

Beyond the unseemly self-congratulation, the humble-bragging inherent in the phrase, why is it malign? Why is it worse than useless?

Because it short circuits critical analysis. Because it let’s those entities and (to a lesser extent) individuals responsible for the world’s problems off the hook.

Let’s see how this works in regard to the most pressing issue of our times: climate change and resultant global ecological catastrophe. (Here, a popular variation on the “we’re all to blame” trope is that old people, as a class, are to blame.)

What kind of actions does assigning blame to everyone point to? With responsibility that diluted, assigned to an undifferentiated mass, with every individual treated as equally responsible, the “we’re all to blame” assertion points to nothing beyond what everyone can do: lowest-common-denominator individual actions such as recycling, reducing energy consumption, tending a vegetable garden, repairing rather than replacing, bicycling and using public transit, eating a vegan diet, etc., etc.

While these actions are all worthwhile, even if they were very widely adopted they would be grossly inadequate as an answer to ecological collapse. They would provide some amelioration, but they would do nothing to address the underlying structural reasons for impending and ongoing environmental cataclysm.

To find ways to address that collection of catastrophes, you need to go beyond pious platitudes, you need to look at the economic, social, and political structures that have produced the ecological crisis, and those sociopathic entities that benefit from the crisis. The vast majority of people are largely along for the ride, propelled by forces they neither understand nor control. (This isn’t to say that they can’t understand or control those forces, just that at present they don’t.)

So, let’s do a brief, necessarily very incomplete analysis of how global warming and its attendant ecological problems were created, and what can be done to address them. Let’s consider rising sea levels (inundating island nations and low-lying coastal areas, and already producing climate refugees), and ever-increasing extreme weather, with its droughts, floods, and hurricanes.

There are reasons for all this. The following list of factors is very obviously far from complete. But it points in the direction where research and consequent action is needed. Please note that this is not intended as a blueprint or detailed analysis, and is simply intended to show the direction we need to take to actually deal with the environmental crisis. How we need to start thinking about things. Given these provisos, here are a few of the most important factors producing global warming — there are many others:

  • Fossil-fuel burning. At present, the cost of renewables (solar, wind, etc.) is falling like a rock, and in many cases is already below the cost of fossil-fuel power generation. But the government continues to provide massive subsidies to the fossil fuels (and nuclear) industries, and to starve renewables of development funds. Why? That brings us to the next factors:
  • The profit motive. Many of the world’s biggest companies are fossil-fuels corporations, and make tens of billions annually (sometimes per quarter) from sales of compounds that are destroying the environment and the lives of future generations. Why are they doing this? Why this horrendous irresponsibility? It’s simple. Money, lots of it. Lots of it in the short term. Corporations are sociopathic by nature and have essentially a single duty: to maximize returns to investors, no matter the cost to others or the environment.
  • Our bought and paid for politicians and political system. Why do our “public servants” put up with, indeed support, this grossly antisocial behavior? Because it’s in their interests to do so. A great many of them receive campaign contributions from the fossil fuels industries, sometimes enticements beyond that, and many often go to work as well-paid lobbyists for those industries immediately after retiring from “public service.”

What does all this point to in the here and now (neglecting radical social-political-economic transformation, which will be necessary at some point soon)? Here are but a few possible steps:

  • Removal of fossil fuel subsidies.
  • Drastic increase of funding for renewables research and deployment.
  • Greatly increased taxation of fossil-fuels companies.
  • A ban on corporate political contributions; an upper limit on all political contributions; and a mandate that all political campaigns be funded by small donors.
  • A ban on lobbying by former “public servants.”

As noted above, this does not even begin to approach a comprehensive analysis nor a comprehensive list of recommendations. It’s merely an example of how we need to start thinking about these matters and start thinking about ways to deal with them, how we need to get away from the simplistic “we’re all to blame” assertion and look at actual causes and solutions.

(For more on all of the above, see John Grant’s excellent Corrupted Science (revised & expanded).

Health permitting, I’ll try to have a related post on habitat loss and resource depletion up shortly.

Quantum Night, by Robert J. Sawyer front cover(Quantum Night, by Robert J. Sawyer; Ace, 2016, 351 pp., $27.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

There’s a lot to like and a lot to dislike in Canadian science fiction writer Robert Sawyer’s new novel.

On the positive side, this is the most ambitious sci-fi novel I’ve read in ages. The writing is skillful — among other things, seamlessly switching between first person and third person narration — and the primary character is believable and sympathetic, if a bit on the irritating side. Sawyer uses the novel as a platform to talk intelligently about philosophical and ethical big issues — something all too rare in contemporary science fiction: Quantum Night makes you think. As well, Sawyer obviously did a thorough job of researching the novel’s background, the supposed quantum-related nature of consciousness — an area in which I’m totally out of my depth.

On the negative side, it’s difficult to buy the political background in which Quantum Night is set, especially that in the U.S. border areas (where I live). As well, Sawyer sets up an essential (for the secondary plot) series of events (riots) for which he provides no explanation.  Beyond that, from the point of view of psychology (an area in which I do know a bit), it’s very difficult to buy Sawyer’s underlying deterministic premise about the nature of consciousness and how it varies in the population. Beyond that, Sawyer provides the most nauseatingly graphic description of violence I’ve ever read; I found the scene so disturbing that I put down the book for several days before deciding that I really did want to see how the novel concluded.

Yet despite the gruesome violence, Sawyer adheres to the standard sci-fi bowdlerization of sexual scenes. Why? Why is sex more taboo than explicit, horrifying violence in sci-fi? (The only exceptions to that prudishness that immediately come to mind are some of the works of Walter Mosley and Richard K. Morgan.)

Quantum Night begins with a cringe-inducing series of scenes in which the protagonist, academic psychologist Jim Marchuk, a specialist in diagnosing psychopathic tendencies, learns that he has no memory of six months of his life as an undergraduate, and that he apparently did terrible things — things totally out of character — during those six months.

Marchuk shortly reconnects with his girlfriend from those lost six months, Kayla Huron,  a quantum physicist who, to quote the endflap, “has made a stunning discovery about the nature of human consciousness,” and not coincidentally has developed what she considers a foolproof method of diagnosing psychopathy.

Her discovery is that the quantum state of electrons in certain portions of the brain determine whether a person is a “philosopher’s zombie” (“p-zed” — a non-self-aware being with no inner voice who merely responds to external stimuli–in Sawyer’s schema 4/7 of the population), a psychopath (a self-aware being without empathy–according to the schema, 2/7 of the population–an astoundingly high proportion, far higher than the common estimates of 1% to 5% of the population), or a self-aware being with empathy (1/7  of the population). I have essentially no knowledge of quantum physics nor brain physiology, so I have no way to judge whether this is plausible; however, Sawyer always does his homework, so I suspect (in terms of quantum physics and brain physiology) it is, however barely. (The breakdown of the numbers of p-zeds, psychopaths, and self-aware, empathetic people is purely arbitrary, purely a plot device.)

There are, however, nonphysiological reasons to doubt that it is plausible. If people were pure behavioral animals reacting mindlessly to external stimuli (p-zeds), they wouldn’t react radically differently to identical stimuli and wouldn’t be almost universally at least somewhat emotionally disturbed. (We’re talking about the garden varieties of emotional disturbance here, such as anxiety and depression, not trauma-induced PTSD.) Pertinently, the most effective type of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, is, to simplify, based on the premise that what people (often subconsciously) tell themselves largely determines their emotions: change what you tell yourself — deliberately tell yourself rational instead of irrational things — and you’ll minimize your emotional disturbance. And it works. So there go your “philosopher’s zombies,” who by definition don’t tell themselves anything.

Sawyer sets all this against a backdrop of ever-worsening rioting (for no apparent reason) in both Canada and the U.S., pogroms against Mexicans in Texas (based on a law restricting legal protection — including protection against murder — to U.S. citizens) , and belligerent psychopaths in both the White House and Kremlin. (What else is new?)

The unmotivated rioting is difficult to buy, the pogroms are equally difficult to buy, and it’s inconceivable that any U.S. court, no matter how reactionary, would ever declare such a law redefining murder constitutional, even in Texas. And if pogroms ever would break out down here along the border, it’s absolutely certain that there would be armed resistance; people would not meekly accept it.

The reason for this dire background is to set up a secondary plot — what can our heroes do about these things?  This is unfortunate, as the primary plot — Marchuk’s journey of discovery about what he did and why — is more than adequate, and the secondary plot seems implausible.

Even worse, much of the philosophical discussion in Quantum Night revolves around utilitarianism, the philosophy that ethical behavior is that which promotes the greatest good for the greatest number. Sawyer seems very much in favor of this concept. So far so good. However, he goes beyond this and seems to be making the case that it’s okay, in fact ethically necessary, to play god with the lives of other people as long as you consider it necessary to the “greater good.”  In other words, the ends justify the means. (My apologies to Sawyer if I’m misreading him, but I don’t think I am.)

This is a horrendous belief, one that is an integral part of the foundation of some of the worst forms of totalitarianism. Leninism, a conspicuously utilitarian political philosophy (which is supposed to produce the greatest good for the greatest number), is the example par excellence, and its terrible results when imposed are too well known to enumerate here. Suffice it to say that a very large number of human problems, both individual and societal, are a direct result of those (such as Sawyer’s protagonist) who consider themselves more enlightened than the great unwashed masses and play god with the lives of others — for their “own good,” of course.

Still, despite its warts, Quantum Night is well worth reading. The writing is first rate, Sawyer provides much thought-provoking discussion of philosophical and ethical problems (mostly in chapter introductions recounting Marchuk’s class lectures), the characters are believable and somewhat sympathetic, and the plot will have you on the edge of your seat throughout most of the book.


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Free Radicals front cover


Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

The first six chapters of Free Radicals, are avaukable  here in pdf form.