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Kant’s Trouble With Romney: The Enlightenment Gap
by Nika Sabasteanski (guest blogger)
Immanuel Kant proposes a one-ingredient recipe for enlightenment: freedom. Provide individuals with the freedom to use public rationality, give them the tools to escape their “self-imposed immaturity,” and enlightenment is inevitable. Liberating yourself from intellectual proxies, though, is not so simple:
It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.
Kant recognized the seeds of enlightenment taking root in his time:
[W]e do have distinct indications that the way is now being cleared for [men] to work freely in this direction, and that the obstacles to universal enlightenment, to man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity, are gradually becoming fewer.
A little over two centuries later, Kant could not have predicted that enlightenment would be in such jeopardy. While he believed that reason was progressing on a steady linear track, the 2012 presidential election shows that quite the opposite trend is afoot.
The shape of the American body politic seems close to the republican ideal Kant advocated when he wrote that “a greater degree of civil freedom seems advantageous to a people’s spiritual freedom.” We have all the freedom that Kant spoke so highly of. Yet, not only is rationality scarce in the dialogue of the upcoming election, it is condemned by the very people Kant argues it will save. We have forsaken the intellectual, the public scholar, for Palin’s Joe the plumber — the common man who relies on proxies to lead him.
Evidence compiled from campaign speeches and polls exposing the opinions of the body politic shows a disturbing trend: the Republican candidates are using their freedom to speak publicly to lead us away from enlightenment while the constituents they represent gladly adopt them as their sources of knowledge. In fact, the very branches of intellectualism that Kant sought to protect from governmental intervention — art, science and education — have been the primary targets of the GOP candidates.
Although Mitt Romney has been more tactful than his fellow Republicans such as Rick Santorum — who criticized the very concept of a college education as “snobbish” — a few weeks ago Romney mocked President Obama for his stint as a law professor. Notice how the crowd reacts to Romney’s anti-intellectual bait:
Now, you know that yesterday I was giving a speech at the University of Chicago...[applause]... not — not very far from here, not far from where Professor Barack Obama taught law. [laughter] [booing]
It was a speech on economic freedom. And as I was writing the speech, I thought to my lifetime of experiences. I've had a lot of opportunity to learn about the — the unique genius of America's free enterprise system. It started, of course, with my dad. He didn't graduate from college. And he would tell me about his dad, who was a contractor....
For 25 years, I lived and breathed business and the economy and jobs. I had successes and failures. But each step of the way, I learned a little bit more about what it is that makes our American system so powerful. You can't learn that teaching constitutional law at University of Chicago, all right? [applause]
The emphasis on experience over education and labor instead of intellectual innovation has become part of the zeitgeist. Furthermore, the aims of education have been completely, and it would seem deliberately, forgotten. The children who require an education in order to free themselves from their dependency on proxies are being forced to remain reliant on the very political leaders who want them to remain captive.
In fact, the Republican candidates have consistently used the classical expression of American freedom in their rhetoric to discombobulate an already handicapped country. Freedom for them is purely economic: the freedom to buy or sell on the free market. They promote free market capitalism without adequate regulations, when this was the exact set of policies that led to the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008.
Inspired by references to freedom, half of Americans put their faith in the absurd leaders who Kant imagines would intentionally stunt our progression towards enlightenment. Turns out that freedom is in fact the tool that candidates like Romney are using to inhibit our maturity. He promises untenable freedom from taxation and regulation while pledging to thwart essential liberties that are fundamental to an independent citizenry. In the same speech he made these vows:
I will fight for a federal amendment defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman…I vetoed a bill that would have opened the door to cloning and embryo farming. I vetoed a bill that would have allowed young girls to gain access to abortion-inducing drugs.
Though Obama certainly stretches the truth at times, as any candidate for public office must, he seems more committed to advancing this country towards enlightenment. In a campaign speech delivered in May, Obama began with a sentiment similar to those in Romney’s patriotic stump speeches. But he used the speech to develop an idea rather than use freedom demagogically: “We believe the free market is one of the greatest forces for progress in human history,” but “the free market has never been a license to take whatever you want, however you can get it, that alongside our entrepreneurial spirit and our rugged individualism, America only prospers when we meet our obligations to one another and to future generations.”
Obama echoed Kant when he emphasized the duty each generation has to further the maturity of the successive one. The required level of maturity cannot be achieved if we do not pave the way for coming ages:
For this would virtually nullify a phase in man’s upward progress, thus making it fruitless and even detrimental to subsequent generations. A man may for his own person, and even then only for a limited period, postpone enlightening himself in matters he ought to know about. But to renounce such enlightenment completely, whether for his own person or even more so for later generations, means violating and trampling underfoot the sacred rights of mankind.
Yet after a difficult first term trying to reason with the GOP and the American people, Obama recognizes that the freedom to use rationality in public is not enough to reach enlightenment. In fact, the more rational he is, the more he is criticized. He cannot even get the American people to support a health care law whose main provisions they approve of.
If civil freedom and the public use of rationality are not enough, then education seems like the missing ingredient. When schools and political leaders scorn reason and science, children cannot help but grow up with an enlightenment deficit. We are bound not by self-imposed immaturity as Kant proposed, but by state-mandated immaturity, which is only perpetuated by our proxies. He could never have imagined the distrust that contemporary society has for truth and reason. With a renewed commitment to education, society might be able to lift itself out of the ignorance it has grown to love. An intellectual intervention must be staged to rescue the American public from its rational deficits.
If we take enlightenment as humanity’s destiny, we must acknowledge Kant’s error: freedom alone will not bring it about.
Nika Sabasteanski, a graduate of Bard High School Early College-Manhattan, will attend Johns Hopkins University in the fall. She plans to study neuroscience.
Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie
Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
Researchers figure out the average temperatures of the last ice age on Earth.
- A new study analyzes fossil data to find the average temperatures during the last Ice Age.
- This period of time, about 20,000 years ago, had the average temperature of about 46 degrees Fahrenheit (7.8 C).
- The study has implications for understanding climate change.
Surface air temperatures during the last ice age.
Credit: Jessica Tierney, University of Arizona
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy<p>Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a <a href="https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the_expanse" target="_blank">Rotten Tomato</a> average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.</p><p>Best.</p><p>Show.</p><p>Ever. </p>
Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.
As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.