Monday, January 31, 2011

Dreams of freedom

I have no expert knowledge of Egypt or of other countries of North Africa and the Middle East and so am, and will remain, just another observer of events as they unfold. I do, however, express the hope that the protesters realize that the euphoria many of them are feeling as they topple or seek to topple repressive governments (a mixture of high expectations and the sense of power?) will fade, and the subsequent reality won't measure up to today's dreams of freedom. It never does. Even if these movements don't end in tears (like the Iranian revolution which ousted the Shah), they will end in compromise and relative dissatisfaction.

Ultimately, I suspect that what most of the non-Islamist protesters want approximates to a European-style welfare state. What is insufficiently appreciated is that European and American societies have for more than two centuries been sustained not only by a complex tradition of political and religious thought and custom, but also by wealth (derived largely from invention, manufacture and trade). The balance of wealth in the world is now shifting dramatically away from the US and Europe, but not towards North Africa and the Middle East; rather, towards East and South Asia.

In my view, the best the people of the non-oil-exporting countries of North Africa and the Middle East can hope for is peace, modest economic progress and gradual political reform. No cause for euphoria, but no cause either for despair and continued submission to secular or religious tyrannies.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rhubarb to you

As I have been immersed for a while now in deep and serious topics (to say nothing of a brief exchange on another site on the use of explosive rhetoric in the discussion and analysis of contentious issues of global politics), I feel the need to rebalance and recalibrate. And nothing assists the recalibration of one's reality sensors more effectively than the mundane and the superficial.

A friend recently baked what she called a 'cottage pie' (potato topped mince-meat pie); my family calls it a 'shepherd's pie'. What do you call it?

In my mother's family it was a Monday-night dish made with left-over meat from Sunday's roast lamb. My maternal grandmother - not a stickler for accurate nomenclature - rather unhelpfully called it 'potato pie'.

Which reminds me of something in Willard Van Orman Quine's account of his childhood. He referred to 'pie plant' growing in the garden - "rhubarb to you," he wrote.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Scope for dialogue between liberal conservatives and conservative liberals

The word 'ideology' has negative connotations, associated as it is with the polarization of political opinion and consequent breakdown of social cohesion. But arguably we all have an ideology of sorts - a value-system related to social and political matters - implicit if not explicit.

Genetic and environmental influences all play a role in predisposing one towards the left, right or other putative dimensions on the political scale. And there is not much one can do about that, other than to be aware that such influences are potent. One should definitely not take one's social and political views to be self-evident.

Without denying the very real differences between them, intelligent liberals and conservatives can agree on a number of important things - for example, the desirability of good manners, the need for long-term fiscal planning and the need for some kind of system to assist those who have been afflicted by acute misfortune or who simply cannot cope.

Extreme views are problematic. It seems to me that those who hanker for some kind of revolutionary (or reactionary) apocalypse are beyond the pale, probably harmless dreamers and schemers, but just possibly dangerous. For there are dark depths in all our minds and sometimes one senses primal resentments (and psychological problems) behind the words and actions of extremists, whether they be loners or members of extremist groups.

So much of the trouble in today's world is based on ethnic grievances, and the kind of group-think encouraged by many supposedly oppressed groups feeds these resentments and easily erupts into violence.

I identify as a conservative, but, like many conservatives, I also draw on the classical liberal tradition. Unfortunately, the word 'liberal' has been effectively hijacked by those with 'progressive' opinions, many of which have little to do with the freedom of the individual (a commitment to which lies behind classical liberalism) and much to do with the machinations of advocates for 'oppressed' groups.

From my point of view, there is something very powerful and positive about the old liberal notion of blind justice - treating everyone simply as a person rather than as a representative of a group or class. I know all the arguments about unconscious bias and structural inequities, but identifying as oppressed, identifying with a particular oppressed group, is, I think, in most cases counterproductive to the well-being of the individual or family in question. I have the strong sense that those from disadvantaged backgrounds etc. who refuse to dwell on these matters and just get on with their lives are giving themselves a far better chance of success and happiness. Advocacy for women and various ethnic groups has become an industry in the West, and just who this industry serves is a moot point.

Despite inevitable differences between conservatives and liberals, the old-fashioned liberalism espoused by many conservatives creates the potential for productive dialogue between these liberal conservatives and old-fashioned - or conservative - liberals.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Deeper than language

Polonius: ... What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

I suspect that the strings of words we use to explain and justify our behavior may be insignificant froth compared to the deep neural sources of our convictions and our actions. As split-brain and similar experiments have shown, we have a natural tendency to confabulate, to rationalize behavior after the event - and the stories we tell (and believe!) are often utter fictions.

Arguably, most of our decision-making occurs below the level of conscious awareness. As a schoolboy, I was taught to make important decisions by creating lists of fors and againsts, and weighing them up rationally. This never worked, and I thought the fault was with me. But the recommended technique was based on an utterly false view of the human brain, one that saw consciousness as all.

Intuition is an important element in certain types of complex, real-world decision-making, especially in relation to pattern-recognition and also in relation to judgements about other people. The trouble is that, though intuitions can usefully draw on sub-conscious processing of complex data, they also incorporate input from primitive, value-related systems of the brain which were appropriate to the sorts of quick, rough-and-ready judgements required by our ancestors, but are inappropriate to people living in technologically-advanced societies.

Of course, language affects cognitive processing (conscious and unconscious) in complex and subtle ways. But it is a mistake to think that the structure of language - its concepts and categories and so on - reflects the underlying nature of reality. The most one could claim in this regard is that it enhanced our ancestors' ability to deal with their environment in a practical way. And language itself is a key component in the social environment which makes human intelligence possible.

Natural language is good for many things - for sharing knowledge and enabling complex group operations, for inspiring and encouraging, for misleading and discouraging, for cementing social bonds, for fomenting rebellion, etc. But one thing it is not good for (except as an adjunct to scientific methods) is discovering new truths.

Metaphysics was the ultimate armchair discipline. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries metaphysicians in Europe and America created vast linguistic and conceptual structures which purported to explain the underlying nature of reality and much else besides. But they were blinded by the structure of language and their own rhetorical flights, and their prolix works now gather dust in library basements and warehouses.

Of course, there have always been those, of an empirical cast of mind, who saw little value in metaphysics, but perhaps the most formidable attack on this style of thinking was mounted in the 1920s and 1930s by the so-called logical positivists. They sought to discredit metaphysics entirely and had a huge impact in the middle decades of the 20th century.

In the latter part of the century, however, certain philosophers tried - with some success - not only to attack logical positivism but also to rehabilitate metaphysics. They claimed, for example, that the logical positivists' anti-metaphysics campaign was flawed and indeed ultimately metaphysical itself.

In general terms, though, I think the logical positivists were right - science (broadly understood so as to incorporate the historical disciplines) is the only way to push back the frontiers of knowledge. Not only do metaphysics and philosophy lack the empirical dimension of science, they are generally pursued via the medium of natural language, whereas the underlying structure of the world is amenable only to approaches which are heavily reliant on quantitative and mathematical methods.

But science has little or nothing to say about right and wrong, or about political and social ideals. By contrast, natural language might be seen to be ideally suited to deal with such issues. Perhaps, but caution should be exercised in this area. The trouble (as I see it) is that value-based political and ethical theories proliferate, not unlike the metaphysical theories of the 19th century, without any way to test them and weed out the rubbish.

I am inclined to think (like Wittgenstein) that value-related issues are real, and they can of course be discussed, but they are not the sorts of things one needs to have theories about.

Value systems are real and inescapable aspects of social relations, built into the manners and customs and expectations of any society. And, of course, individuals and groups may and do challenge certain conventions, but always within the context of a complex network incorporating many other conventions. (Such a view seems to me compatible with virtue-based approaches to ethics, by the way.)

This process of review and revision happens. Conservatives may prefer that it happen more slowly, liberals may prefer that it happen more quickly, but it is an inevitable part of the life of society.

And though language constitutes a key element in the social environment and so profoundly affects cognition, and though words may inspire, instruct, clarify, warn and all the rest, the ultimate driving forces of human existence will always be wider and deeper than language, in the still obscure dynamics of social and somatic processes.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

John Bickle on Antonio Damasio on consciousness

Late last year, John Bickle, a professor of philosophy and neuroscience at Mississippi State University, wrote a review* of Antonio Damasio's new book, Self comes to mind: constructing the conscious brain (Pantheon). Unfortunately (as with many such pieces) this review tells us more about the reviewer's beliefs and convictions than we need to know and consequently less about the book in question than it could do. Here is the first sentence:

"When combining neuroscience and philosophy, one popular strategy is to present many surprising neuroscientific results and then breathlessly assemble them into a grand speculative claim about 'what it all means'."

This bad strategy is contrasted with a second, and supposedly good, strategy (on which more in a moment), so that Bickle is setting up a simplistic dichotomy - as our brains are wont to do, but you would think a philosopher of neuroscience would resist the temptation. "Popular" obviously has a negative connotation for Bickle. (This in itself says a lot. I suspect his books don't sell as well as Damasio's.) Furthermore, breathlessly assembled facts and "grand speculative claims" are clearly out; and, whatever you do, don't ponder "what it all means"!

The second strategy, the one Professor Bickle follows, is "to roll up one's sleeves and dig into a specific area of neuroscience, presenting not only the eye-opening results but also the methods and rationales behind them to argue precise philosophical points."

Self comes to mind is, Bickle claims, an example of the first strategy. But is it?

Grudgingly admitting that Damasio's book is "an interesting read", the reviewer characterizes a central hypothesis (regarding homeostasis) as being "worthy of serious investigation". He also admits that Damasio "offers an intriguing link between the evolution of consciousness and the brain's propensity to create 'maps' - networks of neurons that represent body states... I was grateful to see Damasio apply real neuroscience to this often hand-waving notion of 'embodied cognition'."

Hang on. Isn't this book supposed to be of the hand-waving kind involving breathlessly assembled facts etc.? Not entirely, it seems.

The book provides "a nice continuation" of Damasio's previous writings on the role of emotions in consciousness, but has a new focus on memory: "... the brain's evolved capacity to store vast records of motor skills, facts and events, combined with its ability to process memory records while continuing to perceive the present moment, result in the fully human 'autobiographical' self - the key ingredient, he argues, that allows for the mysterious leap from mind to conscious awareness."

But, unfortunately, "[w]hen the philosophical going gets tough (that is, interesting), Damasio often switches topics." What is interesting for a philosopher may not be interesting for a general audience. And note the "often".

Bickle concedes that, "... when fleshing out a 'synoptic vision', it is not practically possible to explain all of the scientific processes that formed the basis of one's speculative reach. Still, there's something deeply worrisome about books like this. Expounding on scientific results and using them to engage in philosophical speculations without explaining or criticising the processes that generate the data can create a dangerous intellectual conformity paraded as 'scientific'." Books like this? Does he mean this book? As Bickle notes: "Damasio knows his science ..." Nonetheless, "... he and others would do well to remember that many readers don't." Really?

Bickle continues: "A little explanation of the scientific process lurking behind the philosophy would go a long way." Maybe, but then it would be Bickle's book and not Damasio's.

So, if ever you feel like rolling up your sleeves and digging into a specific area of neuroscience and making a minute examination of the methods and rationales that generate the data and using this as a basis to address precise philosophical points, you will know whose books to turn to.

*New Scientist (Nov. 27, 2010)