Tuesday, 18 February 2014

BBC's "The Case for God" - Rabbi Sacks and Prof Blakemore

I've commented before on this BBC TV interview between Chief Rabbi of the UK Jonathan Sacks and Professor Colin Blakemore "The Case For God".

It's on YouTube.

I remarked then on the pair regarding each other as being reductive.
Sacks sees the evolutionary-physicalist account as reducing or eliminating human subjectivity (or as Marilynne Robinson puts it, "dispelling inwardness from the modern myth of the self").
Blakemore apparently sees as reductive what he regards as a "short-cut to truth": people  "resorting" to "easy ways" to get to truth when they take up religion, cutting outwhat he regards as the only story with any value: modern science.
If so, this is a very large and unjustified generalisation, put to a lot of use.

In the film, Professor Blakemore aknowledged his stark reductivism, agreeing that "electrical impulses in the brain" are there but not "I" or "you". But to sweeten this, he takes exception to Rabbi Sacks' use of the word "just" (as in, "We are just electrical impulses"), to re-iterate that in using this word Sacks makes of the belief that we are indeed completely causal machines and without free will "trivial". In case we should feel any despair at our actual meaninglessness, Professor Blakemore urges us to consider "the beauty" (he uses the word "advisedly", he tells us) we can appreciate in the stupendous complexity and wondrousness that it is in fact the case that "I" and "you" are an illusion. But surely it is this very capacity to appreciate beauty that is trivialised, or rather eliminated, in the Professor's materialist philosophy? The freedom of claiming that this, and not that, is beautiful is denied to me, because (according to Professor Blakemore) I am not free. So there can be no beauty.

As the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi put it in 1959: "the naturalistic explanation of morality [denies] the very existence of human responsibility"
(Polanyi "The Two Cultures", Encounter, 1959).

In a similar "new atheist" vein, a report in the Daily Telegraph ('We are winning the war against religion', 12th Sept 2013) reads "[Professor Richard] Dawkins said he did not believe religion had any moral value, 'But I do believe it has had, historically, artistic value'".

Nothing of artistic value is without moral value.
Wittgenstein arrived at this conclusion in his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus:
6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics are transcendental. (Ethics and ├Žsthetics are one).

Sunday, 16 February 2014

"Please elaborate" - the bad idea that any complex thing can be re-stated in simple terms

I like this short film of Jacques Derrida, in which he tells what he finds typically "American" about a request that had been put to him by a journalist to "elaborate", presumably on some aspect of his thinking. The idea seems to be that such a question can be an act of levelling, or determination to eliminate difference in advance and make of whatever comes into view something totally assimilable to what I already am or know. Behind the question - so often a demand - is a determination to render everything of the same kind.

I came to the conclusion some time ago that it is impossible to demonstrate the existence of other minds to the "mind-blind". (The term "mind-blindness" is due to Simon Baron-Cohen, who is a cognitive psychologist exploring so-called autism-spectrum disorders. I'm not all that happy, myself, with this kind of talk, and it's focus on brains, but mind-blindness does seem to describe something). I arrived at this conclusion only after punishing efforts to do just this, having been caught in a difficult place, feeling compelled to justify or validate non-scientific practice to someone dear to me, for whom these things could contain, so he held, nothing of any value. For various reasons, at the time, I really needed him to understand why such practices could be of value and indeed are of value. It was very important for how I received his ideas, and how I addressed myself to him, that he conceived this value-less-ness as a fact of the world.

I had an inkling that what gave him to be able to pronounce this view so confidently, generally only in private (although it would show itself in his talk and expression in other situations too), that these practices could contain nothing of value, was his attainment of mastery, and through this a certain amount of power in the world, of science-based practice. It was the feeling of being in possession of a relatively small slice of scientific knowledge in the confidence that the rest of scientific knowledge, even though it may not be accessible to him, is of the same basic kind. With this, a further impression must have been there that the rest of science is the whole realm of knowledge. In other words, there was a sense of completeness, that even the few remaining unknowns must somewhere, sometime soon become known by the extension of this realm of knowledge by the same kind of investigation that has provided the slice of knowledge known to him.

Growing up, this sense of limitlessness impressed itself powerfully on my mind. I carried around a belief that whatever I might encounter in the world, or what I might begin to set about doing, the thing could already, in principle, be known in the same terms that all these other things are already known, by the same kind of investigation. There would be an inexorable logical chain through which whatever I imagined could be reached simply by following this chain, and this rendered whatever I imagined already known. Later this became intolerable, suffocating. But in my earlier life, it seemed quite pleasing. It was a way to explore things. However, along with this impression of the understandability of every phenomenon, I would experience a sense of injustice when I met things in the world, specifically people's creations or expressions, which had not been arrived at through this process of knowing. I had internalised an idea that only those people can be justified to make such expressions - say things about the world through which to affect others - who could demonstrate the truth, which meant the "correctness", of what was expressed.

Eventually, and not too late I hope, I came to have to dismantle this world-view. In retrospect I see it as the means to protect oneself from an awareness - which may be profoundly frightening - of difference (and therefore one's own difference) in the world.

Here is a quote from G Leibniz (which I found in a book review by Galen Strawson, the book was "Soul Dust" by psychologist N Humphrey):

'[C]onsciousness, [said Leibniz], "cannot be explained on mechanical principles, ie by shapes and movements…. imagine that there is a machine [eg a brain] whose structure makes it think, sense and have perception. Then we can conceive it enlarged, so that we can go inside it, as into a mill. Suppose that we do: then if we inspect the interior we shall find there nothing but parts which push one another, and never anything which could explain a conscious experience."

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Richard Feynman - not very interested in philosophy

The famous physicist Richard Feynman gave an entertaining and informative lecture on "The Relationship Between Mathematics and Physics", as part of his 1965 "Messenger Lectures" at Cornell University, USA. This is available to watch on youtube, and elsewhere. The lecture is punctuated with moments when Feynman appeals to his audience not to be tempted to ask why the mathematics that describes the phenomena works. In his closing statement there is a clear note of exasperation with those of the "other culture" (a reference to C P Snow's Rede Lecture of 1959, "The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution"): "The horizons are limited which permit such people to imagine that the centre of the universe of interest is man!"

When I came across this lecture four or five years ago, I was very alert to the seeming cultural divide between the sciences and the humanities, and I was interested to find out how it surfaced and how it originated. My interest was fuelled by a problems that emerged in my working life and personal life connected with the extension of scientific thinking into realms outside science. (I think the problems I met are not unusual. I have been very glad to find and be able to access writing on this phenomenon, even very recent writing, such as that of Marilynne Robinson in “Absence of Mind” (2009)).

Richard Feynman was evidently frustrated with the very idea of people, philosophers, setting out to ask why mathematical descriptions of the universe work, seem to give the “right” answers. When he presented this lecture, there was probably a good deal of academic debate, even within the world of theoretical physics, generated by the 1962 publication of Thomas Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. “It works” was evidently enough for Feynman. Yet I wonder if he might have been less averse to such questioning if he had been able to appreciate the philosophical problem, and why people had asked these questions so persistently, not just in the 1950s and 60s, but ever since the time of Newton. Meaning is the concern of disciplines in which "the centre of the universe of interest is man". It is meaningful for humans if, as Hume showed, certain knowledge of the world is not attainable through our senses, because a world that is purely contingent and governed by laws is emptied of meaning.

In the 18th century it was held that true knowledge had been attained in science through Newton's mathematical theories of dynamics, gravitation and light. This attainment of true knowledge had been anticipated ever since Descartes set down his method in pursuit of the indubitable ground of knowledge, fifty years before Newton. Martin Heidegger wrote an essay on the development of Aristotelian into Cartesian metaphysics and Aristitelian to Galilean and Newton's mathematical descriptions of the universe, called "Mathematics, Metaphysics and Modern Science", which I recommend to any reader. Kant saw that the attainment - or what he believed to have been the attainment - of precise warrantable knowledge of the world based on mathematics contradicted Hume’s argument that no such knowledge can be had through our senses. The rationalism of his time, the belief that truths of the world, and of God, can be attained through reason alone, was supported by Newton’s achievement. Hume’s argument placed rationalism, and metaphysical speculation in total, in doubt and Kant regarded all such speculation as having to stop until Hume's challenge could be answered. Kant's response, surely the most profound philosophical effort since the Greeks, was his dualist idea of human mental apparatus through the active use of which we can attain knowledge of appearances of things, but never of "things in themselves".

I don't know whether Feynman could have found interest in what interested Kant. I suppose not.

When I had a good deal more focus and energy than I can muster today, it became something of an obsession to fathom why German philosophers after Kant were not only dissatisfied with Kant's dualism, but driven to overcome it and in so doing developing that strand of philosophy known as German Idealism, and in turn opposed to that, German Romanticism. What could have been the motive for such fantastic efforts of thought? The most plausible idea I came across was that in late 18th century Germany (and just about everywhere else) there was a belief, a very deep conviction, among thinkers that Newton's mechanical theory was true.

There is evidently a very large literature on Kant's  Critique of Pure Reason, and in particular the "transcendental deduction of the categories". Kant seemed to find it to be logically necessary that our mental apparatus should have resulted in the discovery of Newton's theory. This is the contested characterisation of Kant's project as one primarily setting out to show how natural science is possible.
I think this was only part of Kant's project, which I presently conceive of as a wider enquiry into the nature of the experiencing subject. However, I think it is a very penetrating characterisation because it reminds us of the sheer intellectual grip that Newtonian mechanics must have exercised in Kant's day and after.

Wittgenstein's Tractatus - what can be shown but not said

Recently I have exposed myself again to recordings of some of the outspoken so-called "new atheists" out of a kind of masochism. I must stop this, because I know my morbid interest, seeking again to be shocked at the learned ignorance and self-importance being displayed, only serves to keep them in demand as speakers and writers generally. I understand that many do not take them seriously, perhaps because (if they are like me) they find that the things about which they like to pontificate, having us - the cretinous public - giving them serious attention, they themselves cannot take seriously: say, "the varieties of religious experience", if you prize William James' writings, or "the whole unanalysed experience of the human race", if you prize those of J S Mill. (Of course, they would regard this as a compliment). One feels compelled to take them seriously because they are (still) being taken seriously. But this is self-defeating.

I suppose I only want to be reminded of the kind if thinking which eliminates subjectivity, even its own, because then I can once again piece together some sense of value for mine.

I have found Bryan Magee's auto-biography "Confessions of a Philosopher" valuable. Of course he spent time in a committed way with philosophy which "new atheists" generally don't deign to do.

In the chapter entitled "What Can Be Shown But Not Said", he includes a wonderful quotation from Paul Engelmann on the mistaken attribution of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus as a support to Logical Positivism.

"A whole generation of disciples was able to take Wittgenstein as a positivist, because he has something of enormous importance in common with the positivists: he draws the line between what we can speak about and what we must be silent about just as they do. The difference is only that they have nothing to be silent about. Positivism holds - and this is it's essence - that what we can speak about is all that matters in life. Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about."

(Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein)

Notes: when Wittgenstein developed and wrote TLP, 1913-1919, he was apparently gripped by the idea in Frege and Russell of locating, building, a pure language, which would be in a logical relationship with the world: the idea that ordinary language is a kind of screen, keeping humans out of touch with the world. Yet himself knowing (surely what impressed him in Kierkegaard's thought) that he had an ethical life that could be in our out of alignment with .... something. He strove for a kind of honesty with himself. He seems to have been gripped by the idea of there being no philosophical problems, only linguistic confusions. He sought to define the limits of what can be proven to be true within language, and declaring all else that calls itself philosophy to be efforts to say what cannot be meaningfully said ....
Art, the poem, music, however, these are not declaring themselves to be philosophy. He apparently urged FR Leavis to give up literary criticism. Perhaps he saw it as an attempt, like philosophy, to say what can't be said. Leavis seems to have sympathised with Wittgenstein, but also to assert that the literary critic is "anti-philosopher".

Sunday, 9 February 2014

"Personality Disorder" as a "Mask"

After rage, despair & loss there needs to be compassion, not abuse I don't wish to downplay the hurt and damage that "personality disorder" brings to lives. This is sometimes reflected in writing about PD which conveys the idea of individuals more or less out to hurt others. I think this takes us away from the compassion that is it's antidote. The notion of a mask is often called up, and in this way of writing about personality disorder, a lot depends on how we conceive of the "self" behind this mask. The mere naming of ways of relating (to self and to others) by writers is a step towards isolating and containing the phenomenon in individuals, when it is clear that it arises from patterns of socialisation in which we are all, one way or another, involved. Even sympathetic accounts by learned people will use terms such as "mad, bad and sad" to characterise different manifestations of personality disorder. (See Hannah Pickard, for example). No doubt there has been a lot of learning about this psychopathology, and writing about it is an indispensable part of conveying that learning. In doing so, there is inevitably a strain between the urge to describe, outline and understand, as an enquiry into this phenomenon, and the need to maintain a sympathetic stance towards individuals in whom it manifests. It's been part of my journey to encounter "narcissistic personality disorder" (NPD), and more specifically what James F Masterton called "closet" NPD. Readers will find other posts on this topic in my blog, in which I have tried to relate the kinds of thing, generally lack of empathic parental care or active parental abuse, which give rise to this personality disorder. I hope my posts do something to balance what I see as pervasive misrepresentation of NPD ("closet" or otherwise) as a mask more or less consciously worn by wicked people. This metaphor goes some of the way to getting a grasp of personality disorder, but I think it misleads because it suggests the presence of self apart from the "disordered" self. The word "personality" derives from the Greek "persona", the mask worn by players in early Greek theatre. If we are accustomed to seeing our own personalities as rooted in our early lives, we do not tend to look at the ways we relate to others as a mask. We have some sense of the difference between being ourselves and behaving in a socially appropriate way when necessary, but do not regard the latter as causing our "selves" to disappear. We are adaptable and there is a more or less continuous sense of our self through different situations and through different phases of life. "Personality disorder" is not to be thought of as a self donning a mask, because it has emerged where the self should be. There has been early experiential trauma (for example persistent maternal neglect or rejection, lack of mirroring, abandonment) to which an infant adapts by being what is perceived by the infant to be desired by the mother or primary carer. At this early stage - let's say, before two years - there is no language, so no thinking which could be construed as the infant perceiving mother's unhappiness and reasoning that such and such things "I" do ought to be kept out of sight or changed. There is, as yet, no "I". But there is an innate need for love and connection with the mother, and some kind of reasoning - at the level of emotional or existential being - occurs, for example, when mother keeps not smiling back: the connection is lost and with it goes "my" self. Effort is made to have that connection again with mother.'What do "I" need to do to keep her attention and love on me?' Perhaps the infant will need to never be depressed, not be needy, not be angry, always shine, always be helpful, always be good, always be strong, always win. But the neediness won't go away, envy will remain, anger will remain, failures will happen, only it will not be accessible to the child as he grows. They won't be integrated aspects of his self, his "I". An infant will be whatever is needed in order to keep mother's love and those aspects of his innate self which cause mother's love to go will be, as Melanie Klein put it, "split off" and denied to consciousness and expelled from it. Patterns of relating to self and others emerge which support this necessary self image, the image that mother loves - not "my self" with all my rage and neediness - even at the expense of denying reality. What D W Wnnicott called the "false self" is the only self-image available. I think echo.me.uk is one internet resource that provides a compassionate and broad view of narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissistic abuse is real. Don't put up with narcissistic abuse! Seek help from established organisation and the professionally trained people associated with them. Treat internet resources with scepticism.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A response to hearing Lewis Wolpert

As I anticipated (yet still went ahead) listening to the biologist and populariser of science Lewis Wolpert left me feeling quite depressed. But then, it might be useful to be reminded by his performances (such as at iai.tv) of all the tremendous difficulty of trying to communicate to the "mind-blind" what it is like to be a person! Unconsciously, through his condescending tone, borne of what must be some inner feeling of completeness, he is so deeply devaluing of people. It is in his confident, persistent dismissal of every kind of activity claiming to be of value, and aspiring to command general assent, that is not science.

It is useless to attempt to prove the existence of minds to the "mind-blind".

I am cautious about the scientific endeavour which wants to "locate" "mind-blindness" in one or other parts of the brain ("damaged" or not). Fair enough, if it wants to denote "mind-blindness" as the possession or not of this or that part of the brain. But I believe that it is possible for the "mind-blind" to become aware of that blindness, and in so doing become aware of the blindness to its own mind.

This may come about when an effort is made to give views on, to communicate, to ask for agreement on, questions of quality that inevitably appeal to value. It may come if there is readiness on the part of the one making that effort to accept that they are exercising judgement, from which, if that has happened, there may be a path to acknowledging that others too have access to their own powers of judgement. From this it is perhaps possible to come to recognise that others are independent thinking subjects. Persons. Minds. If "mind-blindness" can become aware of itself, as I believe it can, then I think this poses serious questions for the scientific stance that seeks to locate minds in brains.

But even if I was clever enough to formulate them, I would be very wary and hesitant, because my experience has showed me that it is impossible to prove the existence of minds to the mind-blind (and no compensation for the enormous imaginative effort required to do so - a shrug of the shoulders perhaps) and I believe there is a strand in science that will not accept that mind is anything and has a vested interest, qua science, in not entertaining an alternative. When I hear a man, completely satisfied for himself in the correctness of his own views, by the station and plaudits he has attained in his science-based profession, taking to the public expression of his views, in the form of book after book, that there is nothing of the remotest value in philosophy (and with that, every kind of enquiry or effort of imagination and thought that is not science), simultaneously defending himself against ever having to reflect on and qualify his views by the useful tactic of reducing all human practices that are not the practice of science as the blind workings out of particles joined together in what happen to be living bodies, physics in other words, I hear someone defensive in the face of anxiety.

 It is precisely his anxiety that us communicated to others in the act of telling them (in the form of book after book, speech after speech) that there is not anything of the remotest value in philosophy (apart from Aristotle, he says, although his "science" was "awful"). It doesn't occur to him that the book he has written, the speech he has given, is not science. Then what is it!? It is a view of the world. Well, if it is a view of the world, then perhaps he accepts that it is his view of the world, a particular view of the world, and more, is a view of the world, his view, which aspires to command general assent? It is not science. When you say "Philosophy is worthless and contributes nothing", that is your view, isn't it, not a scientific proposition? "No", he will say "I am not giving you my view of the world. I am giving you the facts."

He will say: "There is only matter. And out of the random accumulation of particles of matter over billions of years has arisen this ball orbiting an ordinary star, and life forms - a particular life form - on it, in which matter has become aware of itself, so to speak, such that it has the illusion that there is such a thing as "value", of some things being of more or less "value", and the being that has this illusion also suffers from another illusion that it is a "self", and the presence of "value" to its "self" is oddly reinforced by the fact that only to "selves" can there appear "value". All this is illusion. That is my world view. Except it is not my view. They are the facts." <>

"So there is no sense in holding values, in you or me holding values? <>

"No." <>

"No sense in assigning more value to this, rather than that, way of doing things? <>

"No. "Value" does not exist. <>

To you it does not exist. <>

To me it does not exist.... No! It does not exist!<> <>

Depression is something this man has written on, maybe even from personal experience. I think there is every chance that the outlook, the world-view, which denies value has something to do with it. The scientific institutions researching "Autism Spectrum Disorders", including Asperger's Syndrome, have a serious project. And I think there is open-ness to the idea that ASD is not wholly genetic or bio-physically determined. I wonder sometimes, or often, whether the social impressing of the scientific attitude and it's imperialism (against everything that is good about, and in the spirit of, science) on people hasn't something to do with the depression that signals our disconnection from ourselves. Compassion is needed, which simply has no place, is extinguished, in the materialism espoused by some popularisers of science.

Max Weber wrote an essay on "Science As Vocation" (delivered as a lecture) in 1917, from which the following paragraph is taken.
"Today one usually speaks of science as 'free from presuppositions.' Is there such a thing? It depends upon what one understands thereby. All scientific work presupposes that the rules of logic and method are valid; these are the general foundations of our orientation in the world; and, at least for our special question, these presuppositions are the least problematic aspect of science. Science further presupposes that what is yielded by scientific work is important in the sense that it is 'worth being known.' In this, obviously, are contained all our problems. For this presupposition cannot be proved by scientific means. It can only be interpreted with reference to its ultimate meaning, which we must reject or accept according to our ultimate position towards life." Wolpert relishes insisting that had there been no philosophy (barring Aristotle) then the emergence of science and its development would have been unaffected. Isn't this plain silly ignorance?