Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

The anti-guilt pill

For a while now I’ve heard of a particular drug that purports to dull the formation of painful memories. I’ve always been a little unclear on how it works but I believe it takes away the emotional sting of the memory while leaving the recollection of the events. Ideally it could aid people who have suffered horrible crimes or soldiers suffering from PSTD. I had not heard of a more controversial use: the pill as a way of ducking emotional damage caused by committing heinous acts, especially in war time. This article, from 2003, describes a scenario.

The artillery this soldier can unleash with a single command to his mobile computer will bring flames and screaming, deafening blasts and unforgettably acrid air. The ground around him will be littered with the broken bodies of women and children, and he’ll have to walk right through. Every value he learned as a boy tells him to back down, to return to base and find another way of routing the enemy. Or, he reasons, he could complete the task and rush back to start popping pills that can, over the course of two weeks, immunize him against a lifetime of crushing remorse. He draws one last clean breath and fires.

That sounds a little overdramatic but makes the point. The rest of the article is a very even handed look at the whole issue. Some might say we can never use the pill in this way as it will destroy our humanity. But the response is that, look, if a killer is wounded during his crime, he still gets medical treatment for his physical wounds. Why would we deny him treatment for his psychological wounds? And if the person is a soldier why should he be doomed to a lifetime of guilt why the politicians who put him in the position get off scot-free*? It’s quite an interesting ethical debate.

* Writing this sentence made me consider how the term “scot-free” came to be. You’d think it was based on some story about a guy named Scot, but not so. it’s derived from an old english term that means exempt from royal tax.

How does your self-driving car handle the Trolley Problem?

In the field of ethics, you often hear discussion of “The Trolley Problem“, a fictional scenario where a person is forced to chose the best outcome from a situation where at least one person is guaranteed to die. I stumbled across this web article which makes the case that the self driving Google car could bring the trolley problem to reality. If you car is headed into a crash should it sacrifice you to save bystanders?

How will a Google car, or an ultra-safe Volvo, be programmed to handle a no-win situation — a blown tire, perhaps — where it must choose between swerving into oncoming traffic or steering directly into a retaining wall? The computers will certainly be fast enough to make a reasoned judgment within milliseconds. They would have time to scan the cars ahead and identify the one most likely to survive a collision, for example, or the one with the most other humans inside. But should they be programmed to make the decision that is best for their owners? Or the choice that does the least harm — even if that means choosing to slam into a retaining wall to avoid hitting an oncoming school bus? Who will make that call, and how will they decide?

I would offer an additional moral question. If my car decides to sacrifice me can it be programmed to quickly and painlessly kill me as opposed to leaving me to the destruction of a car accident?

No one cares what YOU think

I’ve been noticing lately how often people’s statements, especially moral statements, really seem to be more about themselves than the topic at hand. “Well I find racism repugnant!” … that sort of thing. The point seldom is to convince others of a viewpoint, but to stake out one’s moral high ground.

I’ve been reading a short book called “Crimes Against Logic” written by a London based philosopher and towards the end he captures this problem nicely.

The idea that sincerity may substitute for reason is founded on an egocentric attitude toward belief: that what I believe is all about me, not about reality. What matters is not that the position I favor will have the best or intended effects, or that the problems I worry about are real or grave, but only that I hold my position from the right sentiments, that I am good.

So how does one avoid this? The trick is to take yourself out of the statement. Say, “racism is bad,” and then explain (the objective) reasons why. But it’s trickier ground requiring heavier thought.

Damasio, Jaynes and Sarno

In past writings I’ve mentioned my excitement when I first read Antonio Damasio’s neuroscience tome “Decarte’s Error.” In that book Damasio laid out his observations that emotions are really physical sensations, particularly sensations of our internal body: guts, lungs, circulation etc. If you take away the physical sensation of an emotion you take away that emotion’s “sting.” (One way to mitigate a negative emotional state is, of course, through booze and drugs which bring about a pleasant body high. Not that I advocate such activities.)

I’ve also mentioned that I’ve recently been reading Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness.” In the chapter I just finished he examines the famous Greek stories The Iliad and The Odyssey. He argues that several of the Greek words frequently used in these stories have been mistranslated. Words such as thumos and phrenes have been translated to mean soul and heart (in the figurative sense) respectively but he argues they refer more correctly to particular sensation of the body, exactly the sort of sensations Damasio wrote about. (Jaynes believes thumos, for example, really refers to the sensations present in the activation of the body’s stress response: increased blood pressure, increased energy etc. Basically, being “amped up.”)

Essentially, Jaynes argues that in the Greek era people were much more conscious* of their body state. When modern people say, “I feel angry” they are only tangentially aware of their erratic heartbeat and hot face, whereas ancient people, Jaynes argues, were acutely aware of their physiological state. He also alleges that people didn’t always feel “ownership” of these emotional states, e.g. they were aware of the sensations but did not ascribe the sensations to a particular self (the way we do.) But that’s a more complex discussion.

* Well, this isn’t entirely true as Jaynes famously argues in the book that for some parts of history men weren’t conscious at all! I use the word “conscious” as a synonym for “aware” here.

I’ve also talked much in the past of Dr. John Sarno’s notion that much recurring pain, gastrointestinal issues and other maladies are actually caused by a distraught subconscious. Jaynes hints at the very same idea with no knowledge (to my knowledge) or Sarno’s work.

I think it is obvious to the medical reader that these matters we are discussing under the topic of the preconscious hypostases have a considerable bearing on any theory of psychosomatic disease. In the thumos, phrenes, kradie and etor we have covered the four major target systems, of such illnesses. And that they compose the very groundwork of consciousness, a primitive partial type on consciousizing, has important consequences in medical theory.

Rethinking The Fountainhead

A while back there was an interesting blog post on Andrew Sullivan’s site (written by a guest writer) tying Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead in to the issues surrounding the hacking of the Sony Corporation. Rand’s writing is, of course, often lauded by libertarian free market types. This post had a different take… (Warning: Major Spoiler Alert about The Fountainhead.)

The problem of willingly selling out to the Chinese reminded me of Ayn Rand, whose bracing moral lessons I’m sure Freddie had in the back of his mind. Rand’s finest novel,The Fountainhead, is an anti-capitalist screed about the spiritual and cultural evil of catering to market demand. Forget the problem of giving the commie censors what they want. It’s wrong to give the free market what it wants, when what it wants is aesthetically debased, which it always is. The architect hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is the ultimate in spine, the patron saint of never selling out. When one of his perfect, austere modernist buildings is bowdlerized the better to suit the public taste, he blows it up. That’s right, Howard Roark is a terrorist, a jihadi for artistic integrity.

This is the first time in writing I’ve ever seen someone wrestle with what I always found confounding about the novel. When I read the book, I was struck by how anti-libertarian Roark’s actions seems; he shows no respect for property rights when he blows up the building. I assumed it was a kind of glitch in the philosophy of the book but it could be that it is the philosophy of the book. It does, at least, present the trait I’ve always liked about Rand: love her or hate her she clearly did not give a shit what anyone else thought, so much so that she present a character who is essentially a terrorist as a hero. (I believe I’m correct that no one is actually killed when the building is destroyed as he does it late at night.)

What if everyone died?

There’s a particular conundrum I’ve been musing over but it’s hard to capture it in words. I guess I would say it comes down to this question: what is real?

For example, I’m sitting here at Starbucks. Is this Starbucks real? Well, I think the physical materials of the Starbucks are real; I think the wood of the table I’m writing on breaks down to molecules that are real, and from there to atoms, and presumably from there to quantum particles etc. I think those are all real physical elements (though I think there are some schools of philosophy and quantum theory that might dicker with even that seemingly obvious point of view. Let’s ignore them for now.)

What about the idea of Starbucks? The concept of Starbucks as an enjoyable coffee bistro, a place that welcomes both happy hipsters and urban professionals, a place that plays eclectic but inoffensive music, a locale with great coffee and astoundingly bland food… is that real? Obviously when I say, “I’m going to Starbucks,” no one questions its reality, but this idea of Starbucks is not really real in the same sense of the physical materials that make up an individual Starbucks store.

So how do we define reality? Let me approach this a little differently. What if everyone on earth died? What would be left? I think the Starbucks I am at would still be around (for a while) but the idea of it would be gone. In fact, all ideas would be gone. There would be no more communism, sexuality, chaos theory, social justice, individual rights, copyright protection, evolution and on and on. All ideas would be gone. We would just have stuff and time.

(I haven’t really said whether or not all animals or even all life on earth are gone with humanity in this scenario so maybe some of these ideas would survive in the minds of animals but, again, let’s ignore those issues.)

This unreality of ideas seems pretty obvious. However, most of the joys and miseries throughout history and the modern world are derived from these unreal ideas. For example, I was a big fan of Spider-Man as a kid. The sight of his red and blue costume excited me. But Spider-Man is not real. The Spider-Man comics are real, in so much as they are created from real materials (paper, ink etc.) but the idea of Spider-Man is completely held within the minds of humans.

I love music but, Jesus, what could be less real… sound waves in the air that create certain psychological perceptions when experienced by the human brain?

In some sense, a weight lifts off your shoulders when you realize this. None of the bullshit people are constantly yammering about – politics, culture, art theory, sex games, gender wars etc. – really exists. These are simply the ideas mankind has constructed and agreed to bicker over. If we are all wiped out by a radioactive space comet, these ideas will fade away… well, that’s not really correct; they can’t fade away because they were never there in the first place. Let’s put it this way: their impermanence will be revealed.

And yet these things, these ideas, actually feel more real, or at least more meaningful, than what actually is real (materials and time.) Again, these ideas are what provide most peoples’ joys and pains.

Even the idea I’m touting here, that ideas are not real, is not really real.

Ain’t that a motherfucker?

Out of Our Heads

Recently I read yet another brain related book. This one was more philosophical than medical and was titled “Out of Our Heads: Why You Are not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness.” The author the academic Alva Noë

What was the book about? Umm… hard to say… it was pretty vague reading. It seemed to be a rebuttal to the materialistic neuroscience view that argues that every facet of consciousness can be explained as the result of (not yet understood) machinations in the brain. However, the book’s argument was not spiritual; it did not argue for the existence of the non-material soul (I think.) Instead it seemed to argue that a conscious experience involves many systems and is not limited to the brain. If you reach out and poke a bear with a stick then your arm, your stick and perhaps even the bear are part of this experience. The environment the brain is in (including the body surrounding it) are somehow part of the conscious experience.

Hard to understand? Yeah, I didn’t get it myself. However, I do get the sense that there maybe some kernels of truth in the book’s ideas. There is a popular view that we are totally self dependent entities and we “make our own fate.” In this view, environment is not really an issue. But Noë would probably argue that where we are is as important as who we are (and in fact the two aspects are intertwined.) I found myself thinking back to my days in LA. I was, before I moved there, not much of a fan of country music. But I stumbled onto the country scene at the Cinema Bar and fell into it. It was my environment that determined, in essence, who I became (e.g. an alt-country fan of sorts.) Now that I’ve moved away from that I really don’t listen to or associate with alt-country much – that self-definition has faded. The point being that without that environment, I would have been a different person.

This all sounds rather obvious I suspect, but there seem to be a few ideas here contradictory to a lot of the philosophies at work in modern culture. One being: you are not entirely self determined, you are subject to the winds in your environment. (I personally doubt the existence of free will entirely but that’s another story.) But on a sort of flip side, you can determine you sense of self but aiming to place your self in certain environments. (Sort of like the scoundrel characters in much of fiction and real life who assume an identity and hobnob with the wealthy elite. But placing themselves in a different environment, they become a different person.)

The difference between objective and subjective

In a recent New York Review of Books article entitled “What Your Computer Can’t Know” philosopher John Searle provides a fairly helpful analysis of the different kinds of knowledge. He states:

The distinction between objectivity and subjectivity looms very large in our intellectual culture but there is a systematic ambiguity in these notions that has existed for centuries and has done enormous harm. There is an ambiguous distinction between an epistemic sense (”epistemic” means having to do with knowledge) and an ontological sense (“ontological” means having to do with existence). In the epistemic sense, the distinction is between types of claims (beliefs, assertions, assumptions, etc.). If I say that Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam, that statement is epistemically objective. You can ascertain its truth as a matter of objective fact. If I say that Rembrandt was the greatest Dutch painter that ever lived, that is evidently a matter of subjective opinion; it is epistemically subjective.

Underlying this epistemological distinction between types of claims is an ontological distinction between modes of existence. Some entities have an existence that does not depend on being experienced (mountains, molecules and tectonic plates are good examples.) Some entities exist only so far as they are experienced (pains, tickles and itches are examples.) This distinction is between the ontologically objective and the ontologically subjective. No matter how many machines may register an itch, it is not really an itch until somebody consciously feels it: it is ontologically subjective.

This seems quite useful and is worth keeping in mind. But I feel there are blurry lines that need to be acknowledged. Let’s look at what a mountain is. We can break that entity into a couple of “parts” – there’s the fact that the mountain is there in some objective sense (some people who question the very nature of reality might dispute this point) and then there is my observation of the mountain, my act of seeing* the mountain. The first part is objective, the second subjective. But let’s now look at an itch. An itch is similar to pain and caused by some minor degradation of your physical body. Maybe a bug bit you, maybe a wound is healing. The actual sensation of the itch is your sensory awareness of this degradation. So again, there are two components—the objective part (the biting bug or whatever it is) and the subjective (the itchy feeling.) My point being that a mountain and an itch are not all that different; they share these two components. An itch is really just a way of sensing the thing that attacked your skin.

* Sight is really the only sense that allows one to get a clear representation of a mountain. There are other objects, however, that one can use various senses to appreciate. A lasagna can be seen, smelled and tasted for example.

And going to the first quoted paragraph: We can say that it is objective to say that Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam, but is it really? It is dependent on us agreeing to the human convention that this particular place on earth is called Amsterdam and that this particular bundle of historical matter was called Rembrandt. For the statement to be true we (the observer of the statement) need to agree to various taxonomies. If I could get everyone to agree on some system by which we could judge art, I might very well be able to objectively claim that Rembrandt was the greatest Dutch painter. That really is the difference between the two statements: how may people agree on the terms. (There is near universal agreement on terms like “Rembrandt” and “Amsterdam, less so on “great painter.”)

It may seem I’m trying to be difficult here, but I’m merely pointing out how hard it is to really define these terms.

Nothingness

As astute readers are doubtless aware, I recently posted a post entitled “What is Real?” in which I posited that most everything we encounter does not exist. My point wasn’t that physical matter doesn’t exist (though maybe it doesn’t) but that the objects we group matter into are not objectively real but are formed from subjective, man-made categories. So the atoms and molecules* that make up a cup, or a cat, or a hat exist, but the objects—cups, cats, and hats—are dependent on humans for their existence.

*Of course, “atoms” and “molecules” are themselves man made categories.

Todays I stumbled unto an interesting rumination by someone named Alan Lightman. He’s titled his piece “My Own Personal Nothingness” and uses it to explore this “nothing is real” conceit. At one point he argues that institutions—churches, organizations, governmental bodies, political parties—are not real. They, as everything else, exist only in the minds of men.

Likewise, our human-made institutions. We endow our art and our cultures and our codes of ethics and our laws with a grand and everlasting existence. We give these institutions an authority that extends far beyond ourselves. But in fact, all of these are constructions of our minds. That is, these institutions and codes and their imputed meanings are all consequences of exchanges between neurons, which in turn are simply material atoms. They are all mental constructions. They have no reality other than that which we give them, individually and collectively.

This might seem an innocuous, even boring statement but, as I’ve argued elsewhere, this has huge ramifications for morality. In modern society, if you commit an evil act, you are (hopefully) caught and placed in prison. But if our institutions of law and morality are mere figments of our imagination, how do we know how to objectively separate right from wrong?

But there’s also something a bit freeing about the notion that institutions are meaningless. It means that we really don’t owe institutions any fealty, that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with them. I know a lot of people who defer greatly to their political party (and roundly condemn anyone who doesn’t support their party) and when a politician of that party is caught in a wrongdoing—say, fornicating with a goat—it pains these people. But these institutions only have the power we give them. I used to be much more deferential to academics or doctors and the institutions they represent, but I now see they’re taking guesses about how life works, just like the rest of us. (I don’t want to overplay this statement—I defer to doctors more than astrologers, but I recognize they aren’t perfect.)

Anyway, Lightman’s short piece is worth reading as are the comments it has generated.

What is real?

Science writer Nicholas Wade recently wrote a book about the role of race in the development of human culture. According to his thesis, the different races possess more or less of certain collections of genes and some of these genes are responsible for human behavior therefore certain races are genetically predisposed towards certain behaviors*. This is controversial because it implies that in some sense, races can’t change and efforts to help them do so may be doomed to failure.

* Summarizing what Wade is saying is close to impossible and I’m sure people could niggle with what I’m saying here but I feel it’s close enough for this discussion.

Many people disagree with Wade’s theory and one frequent rebuttal is that race itself doesn’t exist—it is, they frequently say, a “social construct.” By this they mean, the division of race has no real meaning in nature. For example, the term species divides animal groups who can’t reproduce with each other. In that sense, species is a real term. But race is much harder to define. Different races (called sub-species by people who debate this stuff) can have sex with each. One might point out the differences of skin color and appearance between different races but that gets messy quickly. There are plenty of light skinned blacks or Asian looking Caucasians etc.

In this sense, I tend to agree that race is a social construct. But, as you think about it, so in pretty much everything. Words have meaning because enough of us got together and agreed they have meaning. If we didn’t all agree that a cup was a cup and that its purpose was to hold things to drink, it wouldn’t be a cup. If everyone on earth died then cups would no longer exist. They might exist in the sense that their matter would still exist (assuming the earth wasn’t destroyed or what have you) but as an object—a category—cups would be extinct. The definition of cups is a man made distinction which has no objective meaning.

(Of course, definitions are kind of blurry. Some people might look at a tall cup and claim it’s a flower vase. And we also hear about weird German words that have no translation in English.)

This reminds me of a few tidbits I’ve read in relation to Buddhist thought. There is a notion there that you can experience an object before you apply all the man-made definitions and correlations related to it. I suppose we all do this for a nanosecond before we mentally identify an object. For the briefest of moment, before you identify a cup, you experience it as some undefined thing. (This moment is so fast it’s questionable whether you can say we “experience it” but there you have it.)

Watching my dad and his wife, both in their 90s, I see a certain breakdown of this system of categories, this taxonomy, that we apply to everything around us. They might be baffled by what a fairly basic object is, or they might understand it but mislabel it; there’s a lot of calling things with words that rhyme with the real name—cup could become pup for example. I suppose this is what life was like when we were babies—everything was just a thing, and often we probably couldn’t even differentiate between things. A newspaper next to an apple next to a kitten was just a pile of “stuff” in our new minds.

This leads to an interesting point. What babies and demented people have in common are essentially brains that don’t categorize well. The neurons of their brains have limited connections (either because the connections haven’t formed yet as in the case of babies, or because they have deteriorated as in the case of older adults.) This would imply that the meaning we apply to the objects we encounter is literally wired into our brains. It’s the structure of our brains that applies meaning. From this one can presume that a brain structured differently would find different meanings in the world. (Say the brain of an autistic child. Or an alien. Or a sentient computer.)

It really leads to the question of “what is real.” Our words are not real. Our categories are not real. The only thing really real that I can see is the physical matter of the universe. Even the distinctions between these bits of matter (e.g. molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks etc.) are not really real.

This is heavy shit to think about. It’s giving me a headache.