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The ‘deus’ in ‘ex machina’

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By Wes Alwan, former BGSP student


While the “deus” is missing from the title of Alex Garland’s incredible film Ex Machina, it figures prominently in its reflection upon the nature of artificial intelligence. Would the advent of conscious machines aid humanity—even save it—by leading to the kind of super-intelligence that we could harness to our own ends? Or would it mean the end of human beings, their replacement by creatures with godlike powers? If the former, the end of the human story is more like the deus ex machina of ancient Greek drama, a plot device in which divine intervention saves characters from an otherwise irredeemable tragedy. If the latter, it has more in common with the contrived ending to which the phrase now generally refers: radically incongruent with the events that have preceded it, to sinister effect.

These alternatives might amount to the same thing. Perhaps it is not humanity that needs saving, but intelligence. Earth is a finite resource, and human lifespans ill-adapted to the scale of space-time. What is required then, is a smart new suit of armor, an immortal coil, to serve as a permanent vehicle for the universe’s improbable project of self-consciousness, once earth and flesh and even their cosmic center have long been displaced.

To eliminate the “deus” from “deus ex machina” is seemingly to sideline this question concerning the consequences of artificial intelligence in favor of the question of its possibility: to focus on whether consciousness could ever emerge out of a machine (a phrase evocative of the philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s criticism of mind-body dualism as involving a “ghost in the machine”). But then the question is how we could ever tell whether a machine is conscious, when computers are very good at producing simulations whose faithfulness implies nothing about their reality. The classic proposal for a method of making this distinction is the Turing Test, developed by computer scientist Alan Turing in his 1950 paper “Computer Machinery and Intelligence.” The test is premised on the notion that behavior is a good-enough criterion for sentience, and that if machines can “do what we (as thinking entities) can do,” then they must also be thinking entities. Consequently, we should be able to tell whether a machine has a mind simply by having a conversation with it: language is a complex enough phenomenon that a non-sentient machine would be easy to manipulate into producing a distinctively non-human response. A machine that consistently leads us to believe it is sentient—assuming we can communicate with it without seeing whether it is a machine or a human being—must in fact be sentient.

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Moral Injury Talks Pt. 2

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In early April, BGSP hosted a continuing education event, Moral Injury and the Long Road Home From War. This event featured a talk by Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, with discussion by psychoanalyst-psychologist Jaine Darwin. Last week we posted the talk by LTC Pryer. This week we post Dr. Darwin’s comments.

Image from BGSP's Moral Injury Event
Image from BGSP’s Moral Injury Event

By Jaine Darwin, Psy.D., ABPP

I am pleased to be asked to discuss LTC Pryer’s talk, a talk I processed through multiple lenses as a psychoanalyst who has worked with trauma for the past thirty years, as someone who Co-founded and Co-directed a pro bono mental health project working with family of service members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and as the daughter of a man who served and was wounded in WWII. First I would like to thank LTC Pryer for his service and to admire the curiosity and courage it takes to enter the alien culture of mental health and to ask the mental health professionals to enter the culture of the military.  This issue of culture impacts the concept of moral injury as I will discuss later.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were notable for their length, for the multiple deployments, for being fought by an all volunteer fighting force and for signature wounds, PTSD and TBI, Traumatic brain injury, that were invisible to the untrained eye. They involved 360 degree kill zones with no safe area. With IED’s, improvised explosive devices, and suicide bombers, the green zone was a concept, not a reality.  It was as if we were designing a breeding ground for injury and trauma, physical, emotional and moral. Read the rest of this entry »

Moral Injury Talks Pt. 1

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Image from BGSP’s Moral Injury Event

In early April, BGSP hosted a continuing education event, Moral Injury and the Long Road Home From War. This event featured a talk by Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, with discussion by psychoanalyst-psychologist Jaine Darwin. We post here LTC Pryer’s talk. Next week we will post Dr. Darwin’s comments.

By Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

So, where to begin? When writing about combat veterans, Dr. Meagher, the eminent classicist, likes to emphasize the role that stories play in helping veterans’ lives.  “For veterans,” he recently wrote, “stories are often a matter of life and death, sacred stuff, the road out of darkness, the path to healing.” Or, as Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried:

All those Stories. Not bloody stories necessarily. Happy stories, too, and even a few peace stories.… That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story. Read the rest of this entry »


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By Dr. Mary Shepherd

Life is a race.  Out of death.  Against death.  Toward death.  Every move forward carries with it a weight of undoing.  Life is heavy-hearted.  A billion sperm lunge.  One wins.  A startled egg stirs.  Cells divide.  Begin dying.  A baby grows to bursting.  A mother evicts.  They survive.  The screaming killer devours.  Sleeps.  Devours.  Sleeps.  Dreams.  These are the first pictures.  This is mind.  Pictures painted on your retina by the forces of life and death, pleasure and pain.  Deep within the old reptilian brain, forces swirl toward.  And away from.  This is your engine, the boiler-room of your desire.  Blind lunging toward.  Away from.  Toward pleasure.  Away from pain.  Pain.  Pain.  Spit it out.  Squirm.  Cry.  Sleep.  Dream.  Pictures of fulfillment; pictures of rage.  What satisfies?  What blinds?  In this the rhythm of the first days, the patterns are formed, cuts and ruts form the runways of to and fro.  To the extent that pleasure is maximized and synchronized, the paths complexify, soften, bend, take new turns, seek new pleasures, make pictures of green and gold.  Life is union, expansion, multiplication.  To the extent that pain replicates, it congests, contracts, coagulates, chokes, distends, repeats.  The roads stiffen into limitation.  The ruts toward destruction deepen and dominate desire.  Death is older than life, tougher, darker.

Mary Shepherd, Psya.D., M.A., Cert.Psya.
Mary Shepherd, Psya.D., M.A., Cert.Psya.

(Pretty soon) there you are.  Barely animate bundle of desire straining against fixity.  Some mind.  Colors for the world you look out on.  Is it black, or green?  Is April the cruelest month? Or the most joyful?  Do you see what you have?  Or what you do not have?  What avenues are available to you to satisfy your desires?  Can you go down the road you want to, or do you get stuck?  Writhe?  Careen?  Hit trees?  Freeze?  Run in circles?  Shrivel up?  Go nowhere?  Go Backwards?  Mark time?  How congealed in you are the downward pulls?  How far did you get in the amalgamation of life and death which is character?

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Mental Health Professionals & Insurance Companies

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By Michael Birnkrant

Recent legislative changes affecting mental health insurance coverage coming about due to The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (2008) and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA, 2010) will result in more people than ever having access to mental health treatment, especially those who can’t afford out of pocket treatment.

Michael Birnkrant
                 Michael Birnkrant, M.A.

All good things can have a cost, though, which brings me to thinking about what it means to have a metaphorical third in the room. Today, the most commonly encountered third party involved in mental health treatment is the insurance company. As more people seek mental health treatment through their health insurance plans, it is a good time to slow down and have a dialogue about how these changes will affect the work.

How ethical and accurate is it to diagnose a patient on the first visit—which is required if the therapist wants to get paid right away? What will it mean to keep patient records electronically (a requirement of ACA for all providers by 2017)? I read almost daily about breaches in security and identity theft (see the recent attack of 2/4/15 on over one million Anthem/ Blue Cross Blue Shield customers). When a third party is paying, how much can they dictate the duration and type of the treatment? Currently, that is an issue for many who feel it is impossible to disclose to a client the duration of a course of treatment before it starts—even though that is included in some insurance company agreements with providers and in some fields’ ethical codes.

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U.S. Ambivalence about Torture: An Analysis of Post-9/11 Films

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By Dr. Stephen Soldz

BGSP graduate Dr. Jean Rahbar has just published a paper in the online film journal Jump Cut that was based on her dissertation research in BGSP’s doctoral program on Psychoanalysis, Society , and Culture. She investigated post-911 American Iraq war films in which torture by Americans or their allies is depicted in order to  gain insight into the ambivalence of American audiences toward torture.

We asked Dr. Rahbar to write a brief description of her research:

I began my research project examining the nature of American ambivalence about torture in 2011. What I learned was that Americans were able to metabolize their guilt surrounding the topic of American involvement in torture through a third individual who passively participates in the torture while he/she simultaneously objects to the human rights violations occurring before him/her. On the one hand, we are a pro human rights country, while on the other, horrific acts of abuse have occurred and continue to occur by American hands. This led me to wonder how torture, specifically torture in post 9/11 Iraq War Films, would be portrayed on screen and if I could gain any insight into the nature of American ambivalence about the topic.

Through the persistent nature of a third American individual whom I call the “observer,” Americans watchers can maintain their disgust in regards to human rights violations, while passively participating in it and reaping the benefits of torture (i.e. garner supposed information that could potentially save lives).

This third position also allowed for a number of psychoanalytic mechanisms to be employed, affording Americans the privilege of being freedom loving individuals who can deny their own aggression while gaining any of the supposed benefits that come with torturing another individual.

Her complete paper, U.S. Ambivalence about Torture: An Analysis of Post-9/11 Films, can be read here.

American Sniper

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When asked to write an entry on the BGSP blog site about the film American Sniper memories of my time in the service, unexpectedly, came back to me.  I recalled the moment I was handed my M1 rifle and how the drill instructor shouted a chant we all had to repeat.  “This is my rifle this is my gun, one is for killing the other for fun” and then the Rifleman’s Creed.

This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.

My rifle, without me, is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will…

My rifle and I know that what counts in war are not the rounds we fire, the noise of neither our burst, nor the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit…

My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its sights and its barrel. I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will…

Before God, I swear this creed. My rifle and I are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life.

So be it, until victory is America’s and there is no enemy, but peace!

That creed, a powerful prayer-like chant is one of the first experiences a young marine has and it is followed by many such injunctions and testaments to a new way of life. Yet, no matter how many others follow the rifleman’s creed, the rifle gets embedded into one like nothing else.

In the Marine Corps, no matter what eventual MOS (military occupation specialty) you draw, at heart you are a rifleman.  On the sands of Iwo Jima during the Second World War, a veteran of that invasion told me that his duty as a supply sergeant made no difference as Japanese fighters attacked; he was called to be part of a defensive effort that had him firing his rifle all through the night till the attack was repelled.

In boot camp, once you are issued your rifle it goes everywhere with you and cannot be more than 12 inches from where you sleep.  Sometimes, if you messed up in training, those 12 inches would disappear and it became your bunkmate.

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