71. One Man’s Best Friend

My dog died yesterday.

He was a good guy. But his health began to decline rapidly over the past few months.  The last week of his life was awful.

I never understood why people who lose their pets, immediately run out and get another pet.  Sometimes the same breed.

Now I get it.

It is a way of short-circuiting the pain that follows the loss of someone you loved.

That will not be an option for us. Yet, I must do something. So, I have decided to spread his ashes electronically here.

71. My Dog

70. The Execution of Cecil Clayton: 3. The Rational and Emotional

I have been discussing the execution of Cecil Clayton and an opinion made about Clayton’s death by Jerry Coyne on his blog Why Evolution is True [61, 67]. Coyne states that free will is an illusion and that we are essentially organic machines running software programmed by our genetic and environmental heritage. As an illustration of this argument, Coyne chose to focus on the capital punishment of Cecil Clayton.

Cecil Clayton was executed by the state of Missouri on March 17, 2015 for the killing of Deputy Sheriff Christopher Castetter.  Clayton’s situation sparked interest due to Clayton suffering brain injury approximately two decades prior to his 1996 murder of Deputy Castetter.

In 1972, Clayton was injured while self-employed as a sawmill operator.  A piece of wood ejected from Clayton’s saw and entered Clayton’s skull impaling his left frontal lobe.  In order to remove the object, Clayton’s brain was resected in surgery and resulted in a 20 percent loss of Clayton’s damaged lobe.

Clayton’s injury was not insignificant.

70. Clayton Scan

In general, the frontal lobes serve important executive functions including planning, anticipation of future events, selecting optimal choices, and suppressing socially inappropriate urges. Contained within the frontal lobes is the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex is frequently implicated as one of the more important brain structures in understanding our unique personalities or that which makes us distinct from each other.

(I appreciate that Coyne does not accept that we have choice, but if free will or our sense of self could ever be said to have a home, the frontal lobes and, specifically, the prefrontal cortex would be the place to look.)

At Clayton’s trial and subsequent appeals, his defense argued that Clayton — due to his medical history — possessed diminished capacity to form intent to murder. The state of Missouri was not persuaded and Clayton’s defense was unsuccessful.

Coyne disagreed with the decisions of the initial trial jury and later judicial appeals.  According to Coyne, their error was not in that they failed to properly consider the impact of Clayton’s brain injury but that they assumed that Clayton could have exercised choice.  None of us, in Coyne’s view, can exercise choice or free will. As a consequence, the state should have incarcerated Clayton for life as a protection to society and should not have moved to execute Clayton.

Because Coyne is focused on the argument that all behavior is determined and not under volitional control, his discussion of Clayton’s execution, on first glance, seems odd.  Whether brain injured or not, Clayton’s behavior — according to Coyne — is determined.  So, apart from Coyne’s distaste for capital punishment, why focus on Clayton’s medical history at all?  If all of us have no choice, what difference does it make that Clayton possessed any damage to his brain?

It is even more puzzling that Coyne argued that those who executed Clayton should have acted differently. If none of us can exercise choice, is this not also true for the members of Clayton’s jury or the judiciary of the State of Missouri?

In part, the rational of Coyne’s logic focuses on the idea that there exists not one but two separate brain programs that determine action. One program is more emotive and primitive and the other more rational and civilized. Theoretically, Clayton, due to his brain injury, could not access his more rational program and his actions were driven by his emotive self.  Such a person, in Coyne’s opinion, is best treated through sequestration from society for his and our own protection. Any desire for execution is essentially an emotive response from the state. It is not rational (or scientific) and, according to Coyne, it misunderstands all that we know about the brain and how it works.

During Clayton’s trial and appeals, Clayton’s defense team presented a similar argument (absent the programmatic tone).  Quoting from Clayton’s appeal and brief to the Missouri Supreme Court [references removed]:

Foster reviewed numerous records including records of Clayton’s incarceration at the Lawrence County jail and the Jasper County jail, Clayton’s treatment at Nevada State Hospital, Clayton’s school records, Back’s raw data, Morse’s report, and all of the psychiatric and psychological evaluations in Clayton’s Social Security file. Foster interviewed several friends and family members of Clayton. Foster interviewed Clayton for four hours and discussed the events surrounding the shooting with Clayton.

At his [2000] post-conviction hearing Clayton presented the testimony of Dr. Daniel Foster and a complete set of Clayton’s records. Foster is a forensic psychologist and is trained in neuropsychology. Foster was employed with the United States Bureau of Prisons for approximately fifteen years. He has performed hundreds of forensic evaluations and has supervised thousands.

Foster explained that in 1972, rehabilitation for brain injuries did not exist. From 1985 to 1986, Foster worked at the hospital where Clayton had his surgery. The hospital did not begin developing a neuro-rehabilitation facility until the mid-1980s. At the time Clayton was injured, a brain-damaged person was considered recovered if he could walk, talk, and use the bathroom.

Foster explained that cognitive rehabilitation therapy is important, because a damaged brain has to be retrained to find neural pathways around damaged or missing brain tissue. It is critical, however, to begin rehabilitation therapy within twelve months of sustaining the injury. Once twenty-four months have passed, rehabilitation therapy does not provide significant improvement.

Foster explained that the frontal lobe is in charge of executive function; in other words, it is the boss of every conscious decision. The frontal lobes are responsible for all of the behavior unique to human beings. Information travels from the limbic system to the frontal lobe so the frontal lobe can give meaning to the information. If information, or a signal, cannot reach the frontal lobe due to damaged or missing brain tissue, the signal bounces back to the limbic system and causes a flight or fight response. The person will become aggressive or will retire and hide. This is why frontal lobe damaged people have high anxiety levels. Their frontal lobe cannot interpret all of the information coming into their brain, therefore the person has no explanation for the incoming stimuli.


Although Clayton’s defense was rejected by the court, Foster’s explanation did represent a common (if somewhat abbreviated) version of how many thought the brain might theoretically function. That is, there exists an evolutionary lower or more basic brain system that is morphologically well defined and holds the repository of our emotions.  It was thought that this system — the limbic system — can operate independently from the more higher (or more evolutionary recent) rational system of the frontal lobes or neocortex.  Under most circumstances, those systems would normally “talk” to each other to arrive at a synthesized interpretation of a person’s reality and ultimately drive behavior.

However, should that conversation be disrupted due to disease or damage (as argued with Cecil Clayton), then the emotive — the primitive — would reign supreme and possibly run unchecked.

This concept of distinct brain systems or complexes operating in conjunction but independently is at the heart of both Clayton’s defense and Coyne’s rationale against capital punishment. It assumes that the rational and the emotional are unique and are represented as such within specific preserved brain structures.

I will talk more about the limbic system later due to its strong influence in neuro-cognitive theory as well as its dominant presence in our cultural and personal beliefs about human behavior.  But not just yet. However, to give you some background,  I will point you to the Wikipedia entry on the limbic system.

It is a fascinating read.  And it is possibly wrong.

But next I want to discuss the law and then add in some facts.

Then I will return to the limbic system.

70. Limbic System

69. How to Listen Like A Man

Your female partner does not want to talk about you to her friends, her sister, her mother, her hairdresser, or her therapist.  She wants to talk to you about you.  But if you will not listen, she will talk to others.  The words must come out.

If you choose to only listen to those emotions that do not cause you discomfort, you slowly create distance between yourself and your female partner.  While it is true that you can be wonderful and amazing, you also can be less than perfect at times.  If you wish to hear words of adoration and love, you must also be prepared to hear words of irritation and anger.

Most men have difficulty with this basic fact and they often confuse hearing negative emotions as a sign of pending conflict and potential loss of their intimate relationship.  But, in fact, the opposite may be true.  If you are not willing or able to hear the bad, you slowly create a gap between yourself and your female partner and she begins to feel that she cannot confide or share her emotions with you.  If she cannot share with you, she feels apart from you, and that very well may be the beginning of the end of the relationship.

Do you truly believe that by becoming defensive and arguing that her emotions are untrue or misguided, that you can convince her to eliminate those emotions?  They do not disappear, they merely go underground.  Out of your sight, however, is not out of her mind (or her heart).

I do appreciate that hearing not-so-nice things about yourself from someone you love is hard.  It is a struggle.  However, as unbelievable as this may sound, if you able to hear all your female partner’s emotions, you create intimacy and closeness.

Your challenge is not how to control what you will or will not hear.

Your challenge is to encourage your partner to be comfortable with expressing all of her emotions.  And when that occurs, be grateful that she chose you to share them with.

69. Angry Man

68. Irony and the Open Science Collaboration

Recently, some press has been generated following the publication of an journal article authored by the Open Science Collaboration.  The Collaboration consisted of hundreds of contributors and volunteers who duplicated 98 (*) studies that had been published in top-tier psychology journals. The key outcome of the Collaboration’s paper was that the majority of studies could not be replicated. 

So, what does this say about the quality and practice of psychological research? For some, it represents a harbinger of the apocalypse.  For others, it is merely a benign demonstration of the ultimate self-correcting nature of science.

The Open Science Collaboration was a signature project developed by the Center for Open Science. The Center’s mission is to promote openness, transparency, and reproducibility in science. Its aim is to encourage the sharing of data and research protocols and ideally improve the validity of empirical research.

For sure, it is disappointing that many psychological studies failed to replicate.  Yet, in a more broader sense, the Open Science Collaboration is amazing in its sheer scale of participants and the generosity (and courage) of the original researchers who shared their research data and protocols.

However, an irony lurks in how the Open Science Collaboration published its results.

The Open Science Collaboration results were published in the journal ScienceScience is the prestigious flagship journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  In their own words, AAAS is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.

A brief summary of the Collaboration’s results and a link to the full text can be found on  the AAAS website.  It looks like this:

68. OSC Summary

As you can see there is a link to the full text of the article and when you hit that link you get:
68. Paywall

A paywall.

No problem, I understand. This is an important journal and publishing in it promises attention and a wide dissemination of your results (sort of). And it would certainly be a major coup to have your manuscript accepted to Science.  Now, access to this article is no big deal if you are a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science or belong to an institution that subscribes to the journal.

But not everyone fits those categories.  And it is a little hard to swallow a lecture on openness and transparency when the authors themselves (all 270 of them) place their work behind a paywall.

I suspect some of the authors of the Collaboration also saw the irony of a restricted article that promoted openness and transparency. I say this because you can find the full text of this article with a little navigation on Research Gate.

Let me save you the trouble. I have included the full paper for download below.  I am confident you will only use it for personal or educational purposes.

What else would you do with it?

[*] I understand that the abstract and summary for this article indicates that 100 studies were replicated. However, from my read of the paper, 98 studies were successfully replicated with two studies replicated twice. (See second page of the paper, first column, last paragraph.) So that makes 100 replications from 98 studies, not 100 studies replicated.

67. The Execution of Cecil Clayton: 2. Change But Not Choice

“Are you here of your own free will or by compulsion, my good youth?”
“Largely of my own free will, and twice as much by compulsion!”

Alexander Afanasyev The Maiden Tsar

I have been discussing [61] the execution of Cecil Clayton and an opinion made about that execution by Jerry Coyne on his blog Why Evolution is True.  Coyne’s perspective is that none of us can exercise any free will and that all of us are, at best, organic machines running software programmed by our genetic makeup and environment.

Coyne states:

  • “This execution is a prime example [of the] tragic results that come from people’s failure to understand determinism and its consequences for justice, reward, and punishment. What happened to Clayton is a direct and unavoidable consequence of his background and genes, but also of the public’s erroneous notion that people have “free will”—that in many situations we (and Clayton) can freely choose to act other than the way they did. In fact, science tells us that Clayton had no such choice, whatever the prosecutors say. Our brains are computers made of meat, and run programs based on their wiring, which comes from the genes we inherited and the environments we experienced. There is no ghostly “we” that can override the output of those programs.”

That’s fine. I don’t totally agree with that theory but I do try to keep an open mind. It is also important to note that Coyne was not arguing that Cecil Clayton could not override his program because of Clayton’s well-documented brain injury (as did Clayton’s defense attorney) but that none of us can override our programs.

However, what did puzzle me was Coyne’s ultimate conclusion that those who executed Clayton could have acted differently if they had practiced their rationality and tempered their more base need for retribution.  Specifically:

  • “[Outrage is] not a useful emotion to feel towards any crime, although such emotions, and the desire for retribution, may have evolved as a way to protect society from offenders. But rationality has taken us beyond these primitive feelings: we understand determinism, we understand that people’s actions are completely determined by factors over which they have no control, and we can put aside our childish emotions and adopt a truly humane approach to justice. When we realize that criminals never had a choice, we can then let science rather than knee-jerk reactions guide our actions.”

I was a little confused by Coyne’s logic. If Cecil Clayton had no ghostly “we” to override the output of his program to murder, how can his executioners use their ghostly “we” to override the output of their programs — that is, to seek lethal retribution?  How can we exercise our rationality, if we have no say in the matter?

Because Coyne’s solution to capital punishment sounded similar to one that assumes a capacity to freely exercise choice, I commented on Coyne’s blog with words to that effect (I also note that there are a number of other comments on Coyne’s blog that make the same point).  Coyne responded that I did not understand determinism and that:

  • “People can CHANGE their responses based on input. And so people who formerly favored capital punishment can oppose it if they listen to arguments against it and those arguments are “convincing” (i.e. Makes them change their minds). Trying thinking harder about free will, and being a bit more polite when you make a first comment.”

Fair enough, I could have been less blunt in my comment.

(And, not to worry, I learned my lesson and I won’t be making any comments in the foreseeable future, insha’Allah.)

But I did follow his advice and did ponder free will and mused a bit on that in my last post in this series. Yet, I still remained unclear on the logic of Coyne’s position.

Clearly the word “change” is important. Hence, the capitals in his response. Specifically, it is not that people choose to change their behavior or opinion but, instead, that change is determined by an environmental event or some compelling rational argument.  In a sense, if the input is strong enough to trip or activate some switch within your biochemical cognitive machine (formally called your brain) then a certain output is assured.

What Coyne is arguing is that if you show people the “right” way they will make the “right” change.  The right way, I assume, is that science and logic should supersede passion and emotion.  Coyne’s assumption is that people must, or would be compelled, to change based on the irrefutable logic of a specific argument. They become “convinced” and, therefore, experience a fundamental change of state.  They move from ignorance to enlightenment.

As per a strict deterministic perspective, and within the current context, the agent of change rests not inside the system but outside of the system.  You, without external input, must rely on either your existing default rational program or, in the case of Cecil Clayton and his executioners (according to Coyne), revert to a more primitive and childish set of emotions.

Just as a machine or computer cannot reconfigure its internal mechanism without outside influence, you, by yourself, cannot choose to alter your program.  Even though you possess consciousness and introspection, those processes are viewed as mere evolutionary by-products and not of great meaning by themselves. They are viewed as no more than a passive monitor.

Behavior, in a completely deterministic universe, is essentially reflexive.  And conscious thought — at the end of a long chain of biochemical events — emerges like cognitive excrement.

Despite his impolitic and sensationalist choices of topic such as homicide and terrorism (not yet genocide that I am aware of), Coyne is not presenting a totally unreasonable argument.

His perspective is consistent with the general deterministic (and linear) model of the natural world:   That the universe is predictable and that effects cannot precede causes.

As such, arguments against free will typically focus on logical and quantitative evidence, such as the deterministic underpinning of the material world, the irreversible flow of time, and the role stochastic or random variables may play in natural events and our personal history.  (For a sophomoric view of the current zeitgeist of arguments supporting determinism see this video.)

I do see the considerable allure in a strictly deterministic perspective. It is the heart of the scientific method and it does offer a pure model from which to understand organic behavior — that existence is the byproduct of biochemical forces with growth and change driven by pre-encoded blueprints and external conditions.

And there is no doubt that the substrate of human life is biochemical activity and that much of that activity proceeds without conscious intent or direction.  Much of what we do operates below our awareness.

Although these arguments suggest that our ability to freely choose is circumscribed by a number of factors, they do not preclude free will or demand that it be discounted.  Instead, they merely constrain free will.

I think that some of the arguments for determinism and against free will confuse existence with relevance. I certainly can accept that free will or choice, under many circumstances, is highly restricted and of little consequence.  We are very small and the universe is very big.  Whether I choose chocolate ice cream over vanilla will have no impact on the universe (perhaps).

Just because my choice is trivial and of little importance, it does not follow that it cannot exist.  It may seem unnecessary.  It may feel meaningless.  And it may be futile.  Yet, there it is — the capacity to override or suppress a deterministic urge.

Does Cecil Clayton (or any one of us) have the right to life in a deterministic universe?  The suggestion that Cecil Clayton should not be executed because he had no choice is not a logical or rational argument — despite what Coyne believes — it is a moral argument.

Even if we grant that free will is an illusion, I still remain puzzled by the problem of change of one’s personal belief or attitude within a deterministic universe.  As argued by Coyne, change emerges through input (or the external force of logic and empirical evidence) imposed on another’s cognitive apparatus. Because I have no say in this matter due to my lack choice or free will, that input can alter my beliefs — or my output — independent of what I think about the quality of the input.

Now here’s the problem. If that input does not alter my cognition or belief structure, then how should we consider the value of that input?  (Remember:  My consciousness is essentially meaningless in a deterministic structure and does not steer my cognition.)

Does this, by definition, make it null or false?  No, according to Coyne.  This input — that behavior is wholly determined by factors over which we have no control — is supported by science and one’s failure to accept this premise is most likely driven by primitive or child-like emotions.

Yet the statement that science shows determinism to be true is not completely accurate.  The jury still remains out on that.

As well, the perspective that those who disagree with determinism are, by definition, relying on somewhat lesser (emotional, primitive, or under-developed) cognitive processes troubles me somewhat.

Enough so, that I will expand on that in my next post in this series.

67. Free Will

66. Men Shopping Together

Male grouping, in the absence of alcohol, sports weaponry, or court order, is a rare event.  But the rarest of all male events is men shopping together.  The rules here are clear.  Men can shop together if they are related by blood or marriage.  Beyond that, you will not see men shopping together very often.

Now when I say together, I mean actually being beside each other and commenting on what each other is thinking of buying.  You know, sharing.  Whatever that is.

There are, however, some exceptions to this rule.

Men can shop together only upon invitation and only when one man is serving as the role of expert guide.  For example, if you do not know anything about riding lawnmowers and said lawnmower is a must-have, then you are allowed to ask your friend – the riding lawnmower expert – to accompany you to ponder such a purchase.  Now, your friend is not allowed to comment on the  wisdom of you purchasing a riding lawnmower to cut your postage stamp of a lawn.  That is reserved for your female person-of-interest.  Instead, he can only offer general advice regarding the pros and cons of riding lawnmower A as compared to riding lawnmower B.

Men who shop together under the expert-novice rule can evoke this rule for only one item per shopping trip.  To push this exception beyond one item creates a level of tension in a male relationship and skirts dangerously close to intimacy.  Put another way, you can ask your friend for his expertise on a lawnmower but you cannot then ask for further advice on some other item unless you had carefully and delicately negotiated that at the beginning of the shopping trip.

Now, it is perfectly allowed (and encouraged) for men who shop together to reverse the expert-novice role on the same shopping trip.  You help me with riding lawnmowers and I offer my expertise on the cost-utility trade-off between telescoping and non-telescoping toilet snakes.  This role reversal maintains harmony within the fragile male relationship universe.

If you are of the female persuasion, you may find all of this vaguely ridiculous and silly.  I hear you.  You may also be doubtful of the existence of male shopping rules.  If so, conduct a field study then next time you are in the mall and count all the men you see shopping together.

See, I told you.
66. Men Shopping Together

65. You Never Get Points. You Only Have a Record

All men like points.  We inevitably screw up.  We can’t help ourselves.  Upon said behavior, we try to redeem ourselves by cashing in our points.  For example:  “Look, I’m sorry I forgot to buy you flowers on Valentine’s Day this year (and last year, but let’s not rehash the past).  But, in my defense, I did re-grout the bathroom tiles last week.”

In mannish logic, the failure to purchase flowers equals a loss of 100 points.  Tile grouting, however, is worth a gain of 100 points.  Therefore, harmony is established.

It is always puzzling to men that the point system is not effective in ending an argument.  So, we then bring out the big guns — “Well, I did say ‘sorry’!”  That is our gentle reminder that re-grouting bathroom tiles plus a sorry (that we didn’t even charge for) is really worth more points than the whole forgetting-of-the-flowers episode.  Our female-person-of-interest is, in fact, ahead in points.  That’s a win-win for everyone.

Sadly, this logic escapes most women.

The reality is that no account has ever been created.  It only exists in our minds.   Therefore, no point exchange is possible and, unfortunately, we must take responsibility for our behavior.  This truly is a shame.  It would have been such a perfect system.

Instead, what we are stuck with is a record.  On this record there is no pardon or time off for good behavior.  Your record is permanent.

The question that most men need to ask is not how many points do I win or lose for this behavior but “Do I want this on my record?”

You know the answer.

Bill Gates Mugshot