Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Thoughts that pop into our heads

Having finished Sam Harris’s tome on meditation, “Waking Up,” I’ve decided to re-read the first Ekhart Tolle book, “The Power of Now” which explores similar themes, albeit from a point of view Harris would probably criticize as unscientific (although Tolle largely avoids ethereal, new-agey content.)

Both Harris and Tolle would say, I think, that our “self”—the entity with particular likes/dislikes, political beliefs, favorites movies etc.—is nonexistent. And most of the dialogue running through our head is basically just noise caused by the mental tics of the brain. Both books are about getting that noise to silence and to experience a more pure form of consciousness.

Of course, that’s contrary to how most of us view ourselves, including me. I operate (most of the time) on the assumption that those voices in my head are me. But I had an experience while reading Tolle’s books that gave me another way of looking at things. I was reading a section where he was making a point about why we shouldn’t look to our past or our future (or possible future) to define ourselves. I put the book down and thought something like, “Got it. No more looking.” Into my head popped the words “I know that I’ve been tooken.” These are drawn from the Hank Williams song “Hey Good Looking” which has a verse that says:

No more lookin’
I know that I’ve been tooken

It’s one of my favorite lyrics and one I’m familiar with since I sing the song often.

The thing here is that I was aware that “I” wasn’t thinking the lyrics, they just kind of popped into my head (because I happened to think the first part of the lyric.) So maybe we need to make a distinction between thoughts that you feel that you are the author of and thoughts that just sort of appear there. We’re all familiar with this second kind of thought. For example, if I say, “The early bird…” you almost cannot avoid hearing “gets the worm” in your head. It just pops up.

I think Tolle and Harris’s argument is that most thought is of this variety. Your brain or mind is doing some processing and the words just pop up. You think you are the author of these thoughts (unless you are schizophrenic and feel disconnected from the voices in your head) but if fact, the entity saying these things is not you. Rather, you* are the person hearing them.

*To reinterate a point, both authors would ultimately say there is no “you.”

I also feel these “thoughts that pop into your head” instances aren’t that different from another common occurrence. Say someone walks up to you and says, “Can you show me how to get this printer working?” You launch into a spiel about how frustrating the printer is and how you have to set it into this mode before it will print in color, blah, blah. But you don’t really plan this spiel out, it just kind of pours out of you. You direct the larger themes and points, but it many ways it just seems like the words are being handed to you. Again, perhaps it’s not you doing the talking, but rather “you” doing the listening.

Taking seriously the possibility of multiple consciousnesses

Years ago I posted a blog posted asking whether we have multiple consciousnesses in our heads. I described the basic concept thusly:

A while back I was considering an idea for a fiction character. The conceit was that the character had multiple consciousnesses in their brain, but each consciousness generally arrived at the same decisions. So, if this person received an coffee from a waitress, one consciousness might think, “Wow, she sure brought the coffee fast, I better thank her,” while another consciousness might think, “Look at this whore. I bet she thinks by bringing me coffee quickly she’ll get a tip! Oh, well, I better thank her in the interests of conforming to society. Bleg.” In addition, neither consciousness was aware of the other.

I was, frankly, only half serious. But I’ve been reading Sam Harris’s recent book, “Waking Up,” and he takes the possibility seriously. Referring to the famous split brain experiments, he throws out the possibility of one consciousness in the right brain and one in the left. He even addresses an obvious problem: if we have multiple consciousness, how do they avoid conflict with each other (especially if they aren’t even aware of each other)? The answer is found in the theory of a philosopher quoted in the book.

The non-speaking hemisphere has know about the true state of affairs from a very tender age. It has known this because beginning at age two or three it heard speech emanating from the common body that, as language development on the left proceeded, became too complex grammatically and syntactically for it to believe it was generating… Being inured to this status of cerebral helot, it goes along. Thankless cooperation becomes a way of life.”

The idea is that you have this other consciousness sort of enslaved to “your” consciousness. It is so used to being powerless that it goes along with the dominant self.

Of course Freud’s theories were all about inner conflict. Perhaps that conflict is between these two consciousnesses.

And, I believe Harris leaves open the possibility of even more consciousnesses within one brain. What a trip that would be.

UPDATE: I feel I should clarify one thing here. In the case of the split brain patients, each hemisphere has been separated from the other and the pateints seem to behave as if they are two selves in one body. Us normal folks have connections between the two hemispheres and most of us behave as one self. But Harris argues that the connecting tissue cant possibly pass all the information in one hemisphere to the other, so were are really more like two selves that have some limited communication with each other.

Why facts are worthless in politics

Much of what I’ve been saying lately in regards to politics is that people do not make political decisions based on cold, rational logic. They make decisions based on emotions, particularly emotions like fear. If a politician can make the electorate fear his or her opponent, he or she has gone a long way to getting elected.

OK, so people make political decisions based on emotions. What should they be basing them on? Well, the cliche idea is one of an informed electorate who thoughtfully research the issues and come to a sound decision. That is the model for beautiful democracy. Of course, it’s total horseshit. Very few people do that.

So why is this? I think partly because many of the issues facing us are pretty difficult to figure out. Let’s take a popular one: illegal immigrants. You can approach this problem from various angles; let’s just ask a basic question: Does illegal immigration lower wages for everyone?

About two months ago I would have said, yes, and clearly yes. Let’s say you have two hundred unemployed people in a town all competing for whatever jobs are available. Then, suddenly 50 new immigrants arrive (illegal or not). Doesn’t that mean employers can get even pickier about who they hire and demand lower wages?

It would seem so. But I read up on this and it’s not so simple. The addition of 50 new people does mean that there’s more competition for jobs, but these new people also create new jobs. It’s 50 more people who need dry cleaning, who need groceries, who want to catch a Saturday matinee. So the dry cleaner, grocery store and movie theater all need to add an extra shift.

So, do immigrants add enough jobs to make up for their negative effect on wages? I dunno… I looked into it for about an hour and got a sense that I could research this stuff for years an never really know. The data is dense and complex and clearly biased by the political beliefs of its presenters etc. On top of that, it’s seems likely that the answer would vary by territory. Some towns might suffer under the influx of immigrants while others prosper.

Of course there’s also a moral framework to this. Some would say we should accept illegal immigrants no matter what their effect on the economy. Others would say we should look after Americans first.

So you throw all that into a stew and it becomes, in my mind, very difficult to know what the “right” answer is.

Let’s consider a related issue: Trade Agreements. The past 15 years have seen various trade agreements that allow for more fluid trade between the U.S. and other countries. These agreements have lowered tariffs and protections for various industries. All lot of people, including both Trump and Sanders, argue these agreements have cost American jobs as factories are moved to cheaper locales. Other people including Clinton (though she’s a bit waffly) argue that these agreements create cheaper goods for Americans as well as create a different class of jobs.

Again, I looked into this issue for about an hour. Jesus that shit is complex; it’s worse than the illegal immigration debate. I really have no idea who’s right. (Read here if you want to get into this morass.)

Let’s consider Syria. What the best course of action there? Fuck if I know. To really address the situation would require months of studying the local politics, the history of the middle east, the psychology of the main actors etc.

So you see where I’m gong with this. A politician running for office has two choices. One is to try and impress his or her audience with his broad command of the facts of all these issues. The other is to appeal to people’s lizard brain and rile up their emotions. People mock Trump for his lack of knowledge about political issues but, frankly, that shit just gets in the way. He could bore people to death with a two hour dissertation about why illegal immigrants ultimately take more jobs than they create (whether of not that’s true) but what’s actually effective is reminding voters that the guy who just killed 50 people at a gay nightclub was Muslim.

This is why democracy basically sucks (though I agree that there’s no better system.)

Howard Bloom on information theory

I’ve been reading through Howard Bloom’s book “The God Problem.” What is this book about? I’m not totally sure. In essence, Bloom is trying to figure out how the universe creates things of degrees of complexity if there is no intelligent God to guide the process. Human beings would be a good example of one of these things.

At the point I’ve gotten to, he is criticizing the idea of information theory. This sits well with me because I’ve never really understood information theory. As I basically get it, it’s the idea that “information” is somehow the core currency of the universe. All things—sub-atomic particles, dogs and cats, human beings, galaxies—pass information to each other (according to the theory.) But what does the word information really mean?

Bloom separates the term “information” from “meaning.” (I think I’m getting this right.) He applies the use of the term information that was devised by Claud Shannon, the inventor of information theory. In this use, information is more like a signal. For example, let’s say I picked up the phone and heard a bunch of sentences in Japanese. These sentences (which are really sound waves that have been converted from the electronic signals of the phone line and system) are information. But they aren’t meaning. Because I don’t understand Japanese.

So, I guess, for things to have meaning, they have to be observed by a conscious agent. Well, not exactly, according to Bloom. Two sub-atomic particles like quarks can interact—they can attract or repulse each other—and even if they don’t consciously feel anything (and Bloom says they don’t and I tend to agree) they are still passing on meaning.

This is dense, complex stuff. It seems to me, ironically, to lead to the question of: what is the meaning of the word meaning? Of course as you define the word, you are defining your definition of the word, if that makes any sense. What a headache.

I think we can ignore some of these problems and at least theorize that appreciating meaning requires consciousness (contra to Bloom.) Basically we can say that humans can appreciate the meaning of a statement like “I’ll meet you at 6 PM at Burger King.” and sub atomic particles cannot. Humans mentally digest such a statement whereas quarks just kind of respond. But not every statement passed to humans is consciously appreciated; some meaning is passed only to human’s sub-conscious. (Look up priming experiments
or the work of Micheal Gazzaniga for discussion on this.
) In this case we are sort of appreciating meaning in the way a quark would—un-consciously.

Is Miles Davis the music of atheism?

Readers may recall my classic post in which I postulated that as our minds have gotten more stimulated over recent centuries we’ve had less ability to focus on art. Baroque music was dense and complex because listeners of the day had the mental bandwidth to absorb it. Modern music is less complex (and usually shorter in length) because we don’t have the free cognitive processing power (because we’re too busy with the bullshit of life, the media, etc.) to pay attention.

There’s a knock against minimalism inherent in this theory. Minimalism is about using less—less musical notes, less colors and shapes etc—to make a point. If, according to my argument, complex art forms have lots of elements then art forms using less elements must be simpler and easier to grasp. And to some degree I do think minimalism became popular because —on one level—it’s easier to digest. But I also think minimalism is pretty sophisticated. When Miles Davis or Chet Baker used silence in a solo they were actually focusing our attention on that silence, kind of saying, “this nothing is actually something.” A lot of other modern composers and visual artists applied similar ideas. So what sounds empty and barren is kind of rich. But I freely admit, many people, myself at times, don’t get this richness and let minimalistic music’s use of space allow it to fade to the background.

There’s another interesting angle to approach this from. At the end of this article I commented on an idea of Jaron Lanier’s. He has a notion that modern communication technology (the internet, texting and so on) infantilizes us because it allows us to maintain a constant umbilical-cord-like connection to our fellows. We never have to be alone with ourselves. You could say this allows us to avoid confronting our essential aloneness, our separateness, not just from Mom but from the big guy, God. Is the music of Miles Davis asking us to confront our essential aloneness, even embrace it?

The war within ethics

So I just finished the book “Soul Machine” which I have been commenting on recently. Its main focus is on the mind, but the mind is related to ethics and politics and I find myself musing upon those subjects as well.

It all leads me to wonder whether’s there’s an interesting schism in the world of ethics that can be explored. I break it down to this…

On one hand, we’ve been trying to use logic and empiricism to figure out the proper ethics for living in our world. We’ve been trying to figure out if there is a god and what he wants, or whether or not ethics can be somehow divined the way the law of gravity or the boiling point of water were deduced from observation. And I would have to say that these efforts have all failed. There’s no convincing proof of god, nor is there any proof of any sort of built in moral ruleset to the universe. (I refer to my timeless piece on Arthur Leff for more thoughts related to this.)

On the other side, we do seem to have some kind or moral behavior encoded into us (probably via evolution.) By this I mean, behaviors generally thought of as immoral—drowning a baby, for example—provoke a negative response in our bodies when we seriously contemplate performing them*. Morality seems to be built into our brains in some way

* This isn’t true for everyone, of course; psychopaths being an obvious exception.

So it’s the age old battle between the heart and the brain. We intellectually recognize the moral emptiness of the world but refuse to acknowledge this because our bodies revolt.

Democracy blows

As I’ve mentioned many times now, Scott Adams has been making the argument that Donald Trump’s un-anticipated (and controversial) political rise occurred because he is great at the art of persuasion. And persuasion, according to Adams, is not a matter of appealing to reason and logic but rather the emotional brain and people’s sense of identity.

Adams further notes, as does common sense, that Trump is not the only politician to do this. All, to varying degrees, use this kind of persuasion to get elected.

Now, that argument really needs to be unpacked and examined before we can sign off on it. But I’ll say here that it at least feels right. Most political debates don’t have the feel of people arguing about math, they have a great deal of emotional element.

If Adams is right, does this not point to a deep flaw in democracy? Democracy is based on a kind of “wisdom of the masses,” but if the masses are easily manipulated dum-dums, should we not consider a different form of government?

Now, of course, “what is the best form of government?” is a question humanity has sought to answer for centuries and every system of government has had flaws. Monarchy is ok until you get a idiot king. Oligarchy has similar problems. I don’t really know the answer here but I start to find myself suspicious of the ‘rah-rah” approach most take to democracy, as if it’s clearly the superior system.

There’s a point madde in the book “Soul Machine” that ties into this. The author notes that “Locke’s tabula rasa gave philosophical and scientific standing to Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation that “all men are created equal.”" John Locke had argued that people are born as a blank slate and how they developed was determined by their environment. Put a kid in the right environment and he could be a genius scientist, put him in the wrong environment and he becomes a dull-witted criminal. But at the start, everyone has equal talents.

Now, two and a half centuries after Jefferson’s pronouncement, we know that genes do have some affect on people’s abilities. People are not created equal, some are intrinsically smarter, or more empathic, or intuitive than others. Thus a cornerstone for Jefferson’s case for democracy has fallen.

“Identity” voting

Part of Scott Adams theory on politics is that people seldom vote for logical, thought out reasons, but rather for emotional gut reactions. One gut reaction that drives people towards a candidate, in his estimation, is identity. Essentially people think “this candidate is like me, therefore he or she gets my vote.”

I think we all sort of suspected this and experienced it within ourselves. But as I’ve mused on this idea I start to see examples all over the place. For example, check out this section from a recent Washington Post article on the Clinton campaign.

Would Teresa VanDoorn, 44, a homemaker who had become a familiar face at the Sanders office, support Clinton if she became the Democratic presidential nominee?

“No,” VanDoorn said. “Voting for Hillary would be approving of the status quo and establishment — and I don’t approve of that. I would write Bernie’s name in. I consider Hillary equal to the GOP candidates, to be frank.”

What’s interesting about this comment is that the woman doesn’t exactly say Hillary’s policy positions are the same as the GOP (which, we should note, would be an insane thing to say.) The voter rather argues that Hillary is “equal” to the GOP in some undefined way. Basically, to use liberal academic parlance, this women is saying Hillary is like “the other.”

The point here is that this women, in explaining her lack of support for Clinton, doesn’t list her disagreements with Hillary’s policy positions or attack Clinton’s effectiveness, but rather argues that Clinton is on the wrong tribe, the tribe of the “establishment.”

I’m reminded of a comic memoir I was reading recently by a guy who had a drug problem for years and then became a fiction and comic author. He describes voting for Obama in 2008 and his main reason was something about sticking it to the old white boys club. Again, nothing about policies, but all about identity.

Now, I obviously don’t think policies have nothing to do with why people vote. A candidate’s policies are clearly tied up with the identity they represent. But identity does seem to be a trump card, if you will.

What is life?

I continue to read the book “Soul Machine” (a cultural history of the mind) and continue to get this sense that many of the philosophical quandaries of today were struggled with hundreds of years ago. For instance, in a recent acid logic article I reported on various theories that argued that life was not a distinct state separate from non-life. I quoted an article in a science magazine on a fellow who argues that what separates living things from the non-living is merely a matter of how the atoms of each structure were organized. He has derived a mathematical formula which…

…indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

This is written as if it is a new revelation (and in fairness, the details are.) But check out this passage from the book on the work of a German philosopher Reil who lived during the 18th century.

Reil discounted a number of theories and proposed that through a process of complex self-organization—his favorite metaphor was the process of crystallization—chemicals developed new properties that somehow made for living matter.

They aren’t quite the same theories—one describes the atomic level and the other chemicals—but there are a lot of similarities.

Francis Hutchenson on morality

Not long ago, in an article entitled “What is Morality,” I offered up the argument (not original to me) that moral behavior is built into our brains via evolution. I noted…

We want to believe that by being moral we are following a set of rules — perhaps divine rules, or perhaps rules dictated by some kind of universal logic. But I am saying morality is neither divine nor logical; moral rules are simply the rules of socialization that have evolved through the history of our species. Our brain applies these rules, much the same way it applies rules for emotions. When we are contemplating or performing an immoral action, we are prodded with a sting of discomfort, similar to the sting of fear. When we are contemplating or performing a moral action, we get a “good feeling,” similar to joy or pride.

The idea being that we literally sense which behaviors feel good and which feel bad. At the time I thought this was a fascinating development in moral psychology. But, while reading the book “Soul Machine,” a history of the development of the concept of the mind, I find…

Hutchenson accepted Locke’s argument that sensations created ideas which then furnished the mind, but he also believed with Shaftsbury that an innate moral sense was the primary motivation for humans, and the source of their emotions. Sentiments arose from that moral barometer—joy from acts of charity and remorse from deceit. Through this moral sense, we experienced another’s emotional state deeply and directly. Ethics and social stability rested, not on the Good Book, but on this natural state of shared compassion, what he called “sympathy” between human beings. Like muscles in the body, this shared emotion balanced private desires and yielded both personal and social harmony.

This Hutchenson fellow basically nailed the idea back in the early 1700s. Interestingly, his idea of experiencing others’ emotional states ties into the the recent, still somewhat controversial, discovery of mirror neurons.

The general sense I get with this book is that all the great philosophical thoughts were thunk centuries ago. Now people are just arguing around the edges.