Sunday, May 19, 2019

Humble Cognition: the Dread and Awe from Objectivity

Does scientific practice presuppose a philosophy or any nonscientific belief? As one philosopher, Nicholas Maxwell, points out, the rise of empiricism marked the breaking point between science and philosophy, when scientists began to assume that philosophy is irrelevant to science. Maxwell writes, “It was Newton who inadvertently killed off natural philosophy with his claim, in the third edition of his Principia, to have derived his law of gravitation from the phenomena by induction.”

In Newton’s words, “whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical…have no place in experimental philosophy [that is, in what today we would call “science”]. In this philosophy [i.e. science], particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction. Thus it was that…the laws of motion and of gravitation were discovered.” Whereas the standard picture of the scientific method posits the hypothesis, that is, the informed guess, which the scientist tests with experiments, Newton evidently thought that the scientist should bring no presumption to her observations. The scientist is supposed to derive the best explanation from the phenomena themselves, leaving no opportunity for philosophical, religious, or otherwise unempirical interpretations.

Strictly speaking, this empiricism anthropomorphizes nature, which is to say there’s a category error in asserting, as Newton does, that “particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena.” Like the word “imply,” “infer” has to do with unstated communication. The communicator suggests or implies a hidden meaning, while the receiver infers that meaning from what’s been communicated. Thus, a natural phenomenon, such as a planet’s orbit or a property of light waves doesn’t imply anything, nor can you infer any meaning from what isn’t alive and capable of literal communication. Of course, if you were to believe that a deity is behind all of nature, so that God speaks through natural patterns, you could speak well of receiving the meaning of natural messages. Rather than philosophizing about that meaning, you could read nature’s messages, as Galileo said, using the universe’s language of mathematics. Newton’s pseudoscientific occult studies notwithstanding, however, the theistic or deistic basis for this strict empiricism, according to which the scientist only reads off her explanations and theories from the observations, with minimal philosophical, aesthetic, or any other human interpretative contribution isn’t remotely scientific. On the contrary, the self-serving faith that nature originates from an all-powerful intelligent mind (who will happily reward the best of us, being that this god is one of us—only perfected) is the most hackneyed dogma and a classic prejudice which scientific objectivity and skepticism rendered quaint.

If nature doesn’t literally communicate any message to the observer and if “sense data” aren’t given—ready-made—by the phenomena, but are processed, as Kant argued, by the mind and brain, empiricism is erroneous. The mind isn’t a blank slate and nature doesn’t hand explanations to the scientist. Instead, the entire scientific or rational enterprise, together with the articulation of theories and explanations, and even the fundamental concept of truth are human anomalies. Rather than belonging to nature in Daoist fashion, a statement about, say, the orbit of planets is epiphenomenal, a bizarre byproduct to which the natural fact in question must be so indifferent that the most enlightened response to the statement is to appreciate the statement’s absurd futility.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Buddhists, Pessimists, and the End of Suffering

Should our ultimate goal be to end all suffering? Is the highest form of spirituality a state of bliss? Is enlightenment the learning of secret knowledge and the attaining of a cosmic perspective that free the enlightened one from having to suffer due to ignorance? Is that what’s left when we extinguish our egoistic illusions, when we discover the truth of what life and the universe really are: inner peace and what one writer who contrasts Buddhism with pessimistic philosophy calls “morally blameless delight and a peace that brings wellbeing, fearlessness, and generosity”?

That author points out that while the Buddha did seek to prove that life in ignorance is suffering, the Buddhist departs from pessimists such as Thomas Ligotti, Eugene Thacker, and David Benatar in maintaining that “life and nature also contain real pleasures and beauty,” which inspire the Buddhist to champion “the moral purity and joy available to those who practice the way of self-restraint, lovingkindness, and meditative training.” By contrast, the pessimist’s “sober gaze on the shortcomings of the world leads neither to the transcendental freedom offered by many classical spiritual paths (both Buddhist and non-Buddhist) nor, it seems, to a commitment to the service of others.” Pessimism is only Buddhism’s First Noble Truth, according to that author; the others are about how to be happy in a world in which suffering predominates.  

Nihilism and Buddhist Values

I want to focus here on that notion of “morally blameless delight.” This delight or peace or enlightened happiness is supposed to be superior to pessimistic depression or cynicism. Both the Buddhist and the pessimist are clear on the horrific nature of reality, but the Buddhist transcends that knowledge by realizing that if nothing matters, because all events are morally neutral, dependently arising probabilities, there’s no point in wanting anything. The loss of ego and the surrender of personal preferences free the mind and body to stop caring and thus to stop wasting time suffering from disappointment. While the pessimist wallows in misery and guilt, the Buddhist can excel at selfless action, since the Buddhist views the world from a cosmic perspective in which there’s only amoral causality.

But why help others if nothing really matters, because there’s no God or supernatural self or metaphysical purpose? Perhaps nature appears beautiful from the Buddhist perspective, and when she appreciates that beauty she’s naturally inspired to seek to end other people’s suffering, in which case Buddhist morality would be aesthetic. Suffering would be uglier than happiness. Meanwhile, the pessimist would be like the decadent Frenchman in The Matrix Reloaded movie, who is only bored by his unsurpassed knowledge of causality. However the Buddhist leaps into morality, there’s that author’s contention that Buddhist delight would be “morally blameless.” Presumably, the Buddhist shouldn’t be condemned because she no longer has a self that seeks to dominate others due to willful blindness to the real causes and effects that make nonsense of conventional beliefs and interests. For the Buddhist, conventional pseudoreality is only a field of hallucinatory illusions that traps us and imposes a sad regime in which we suffer from cravings that can never be fulfilled, because real causality is indifferent to our myths and ideals. We want to be happy even at the cost of harming others to get ahead, because we don’t realize there’s no such thing as the self in the first place; instead, there are natural mechanisms that give rise to particular events that can be aesthetically appraised. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Is there a Conservative sense of Fairness?

According to Dan Meegan, author of America the Fair: Using Brain Science to Create a More Just Nation and an Atlantic article, Conservatives Have a Different Definition of ‘Fair,’ liberals miss the point when they presuppose that “fairness” should be defined in terms of need, so that those most in need—the poor, the disenfranchised, the physically or mentally challenged—are most deserving of government assistance. Liberals fail to appreciate that conservatives have an alternative view of fairness: conservatives care more about equity or proportionality, so that for them your benefits should depend on your contributions. Any helping hand, then, would be unfair unless we somehow earn that assistance. There’s no universal right to government assistance just because we’re in need of it if we’ve failed in life; on the contrary, in that case we’ve earned the barriers that result from those failures, given this conservative value of equity, of deserving to receive no more and no less than the fruits of our labour.

This appeal to conservative values—along the lines of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory— allows Meegan to explain why the Tea Party, for example, used to defend the Medicare health insurance program even though this program provides aid to those most in need, such as the elderly. Medicare is also equitable since it’s funded by a payroll tax, so that working people expect the program also to reward them for their contributions. Social Security in the US is likewise funded by a payroll tax so that while the poor receive more than they contribute and the rich receive less, the middleclass receives equitable benefits, more or less proportional to what they contributed from their personal earnings.

Meegan points out that, “This conservative version of fairness is wired deeply in the human brain, and liberals ignore it at their peril.” In experiments, primates will reject a reward if they see another monkey receiving a superior reward for the same effort. A monkey would rather throw away a meager reward than concede to the unfairness of arbitrary or free-loading extraction of benefits. For Meegan the genetic message is clear: “Don’t take advantage of me [in the future], and don’t help yourself to more than you deserve.”

The Absence of Conservative Values

But there’s a giant flaw in Meegan’s analysis, which is that so-called American “conservatives” save their objections to the free-loading poor, as though the rich earn every penny of their millions or billions of dollars. You hear a “conservative” rail against the welfare state when the issue is whether the government should redistribute tax dollars to help the needy poor (since the conservative rejects this liberal sense of fairness). But you don’t find the conservative repudiating unearned, inherited wealth or the lobbyist-concocted financial system that multiplies wealth through monopolies and rent-seeking behaviour, which conflict with the value of equity. If you have a monopoly, for example, you engage in price gouging not because your efforts or contributions increase to justify the higher price, but because you can take advantage of the lack of competitors. Nor do you find the conservative castigating the rich with anything like the vitriol he or she reserves for the poor, despite the obvious fact that all private concentrations of wealth are created in part by luck, which means no fortune is ever wholly earned.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Nerds and Predators in World Affairs: Déjà vu from Childhood

In the schoolyard, the most aggressive children—typically boys—dominate the weaker kids, bullying and harassing them. The bullies know they’re only children themselves, not invincible, so secretly they’re afraid they’re overstepping their bounds. When society discovers a predator in its midst, the predator is locked up or slaughtered like a rabid dog. So the bully learns to conceal the depth of his depravity, acquiring the con artist’s knack for lying. This is the birth of the subcriminal psychopath, of the real-world monster that’s the source of all fictional villains.

On the other side there are the girls and the nerdy, effeminate boys, the budding intellectuals and gentle, proto-spiritual souls who are physically weak but mentally too strong for their good. These weaklings are ignored, dominated, or exploited as the case may be. For example, nerdy or unattractive girls may be teased or sexually abused by the popular boys who have wealthy parents and thus the apparent right to victimize the lower classes.

This dynamic between the thugs, con artists, and psychopaths, on the one side, and the girls, effeminate nerds and idealists, on the other, doesn’t disappear in adulthood; on the contrary, the divisions deepen.

In Europe, the elite bureaucrats are facing a backlash against antiglobalist authoritarian nationalists, including white supremacists who are opposed to immigration from Arab countries. In England, for example, the naivety of the elite neoliberals in the Labour and Conservative parties, protectors of the Establishment and of the Rule of Law, was revealed by their having been outmaneuvered by the demagogues who had whipped up anti-Europe sentiment in England, prompting the elites to promise the angry masses a referendum on the question of remaining in the European Union. Having underestimated the resentment from the many who were struggling under globalization, David Cameron held the referendum, campaigned that England should remain in the EU, and lost the referendum with only a bare majority of 51.9% voting to leave the EU. Despite the obvious split in public opinion, the elite intellectuals running the country refused to consider a do-over, and moved for the country as a whole to leave. What happened, then, is that half the British public was terrorized, fed misinformation, and bullied into surrendering Britain’s role in world affairs, by a pack of con artists and short-sighted anarchists (also known as “libertarians”).

Or take the war between Donald Trump’s Republicans and Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats. The former represent the free-loading, anarchical predators and powerful evil-doers (that is, the selfish parasites who are incapable of empathy). In counting on the Mueller report, the rule of law, and the wisdom of the founders, the Democrats, by contrast, represent the naïve pencil-necks and girly-men, the pie-in-the-sky spiritualists, artists, and intellectuals who are guided by utopian dreams.

The Democrats have their heads in the clouds and can’t bring themselves to fight dirty against the Republicans, because the Democrats are loath to admit the depths to which their society has sunk; in particular, they’re embarrassed by the fact that their political debates are driven by advanced renditions of schoolyard squabbles. The idealistic, “progressive” Democrats haven’t grappled with the catastrophic existential implications of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016. If a psychopathic predator can legally become president even in the country that’s supposed to lead the free world, why trust that democracy is an alternative to the authoritarian state? Why trust in the law if obvious evil has been rendered legal by decades of cynical lobbying? If nature wins in the end, why pretend the world can be improved, when you can just go with the flow of jungle law, as in theocracies, dictatorships, and oligarchies? 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

New Atheism and Godless Spirituality

New Atheism isn’t so new anymore. As others have pointed out, what began as a rationalist backlash against the religious war between Islamist terrorism and George W. Bush’s neoconservative crusade has split and faded. When Obama succeeded Bush, the New Atheists found themselves divided along political lines, between progressives and the dawning alt right. Thus, New Atheism as a mainstream movement has been eclipsed by the “woke” liberals, fighting for social justice on the left, and by the “classic liberals” and enemies of political correctness, on the right.

Progressives such as an atheist blogger on Patheos diagnose the problem with New Atheism this way: “When people walk away from religion, they should also have discarded racism, sexism and all the irrational prejudices that were propped up and legitimized by faith. In too many cases, that’s not what happened. The decent people who were non-religious but also cared about social justice quite rightly wanted nothing to do with this movement, and that’s caused a decline in its prominence and visibility.” Meanwhile, classic liberal atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher along with their fellow traveller, Jordan Peterson, accuse the young progressives, known pejoratively as “snowflakes” or “social justice warriors,” of being akin to religious fundamentalists for shutting down debate about unpopular opinions. Instead of playing the religious faith card to avoid following reason, progressive secularists would prohibit all anti-progressive ideas and policies on the grounds that they’re oppressive and unjust.

Scientism and the Nonrationality of Politics

The fracturing of New Atheism due to politicization shouldn’t be surprising, since all that was new with this atheist movement was the application of doubt about God to politics in popular Western culture after 9/11. Atheism itself is, of course, global and ancient. For a great elaboration, see Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book, Doubt: A History. The notion that godlessness might be politically useful, however, is dubious, regardless of whether the applications are proposed by liberals or by conservatives. Thus, the problem with the above quotation from the progressive atheist is that religion isn’t what’s propping up racism, sexism, or other irrational prejudices. What props them up is biology, and reason is the messenger that alerts us to that fact. The cross-race effect, for example, means that we more easily recognize faces with racial characteristics similar to ours, since those are the ones with which we’re most familiar. Our inherent biases can be altered by environmental factors, which is to say we’re not fated by biology to be troglodytes. But the ancestral (Paleolithic) environment to which our brain adapted does irrationally prejudice us in spite of our civilized conceits. Just as a domesticated tiger or pit bull or killer whale can fall back on its wild instincts and wreak havoc, we’re prone to defying civilized norms, especially if we think we can evade the authorities that would hold us to a higher standard. This is, of course, how most criminal misconduct unfolds.

But reason goes further in the Humean and Nietzschean direction, directing our attention to the fact that the condemnation of “irrational prejudices” is itself foolish. Scientism on both the progressive and classic liberal or alt right sides is far from a rational position. You can have all the facts you want and all the logical powers of deducing which facts would follow causally from others under various conditions, and the sum of that knowledge wouldn’t prove that one type of behaviour is superior to another. You’d know which is most effective or useful, yes, but not which is morally best. For that prescription you need an irrational leap. You need a value judgment, a desire and more likely a vision of an ideal world that feels right to you according to intuitions arising especially from your formative experiences. Needless to say, atheism doesn’t entail scientism or the idol of hyperrationality. Atheism is the denial that the universe likely has a personal creator who intervenes in nature. Science and naturalistic philosophy have spread atheism and enriched our interpretations of what a godless world is like, but it’s far from obvious that atheists should strive to be rational in all their affairs. True, the main problem with theism is that the core theistic beliefs are preposterous, as has long been rationally established, but that doesn’t mean all irrational behaviours should be avoided.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

American Atheism and the Lie of Conservative Christianity

Michael Knowles is a conservative American Catholic, a podcaster and columnist at Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire website. According to his Wikipedia page, Knowles graduated from Yale with a degree in history. More recently, he wrote a howler of a short article at The Daily Wire, called God Help Us: Atheism becomes Largest Religion in U.S.

Knowles laments that, “For the first time in history, atheists constitute the largest religious group in America.” According to the General Social Survey, those who say they subscribe to no religion have “increased 266% over the past three decades and now account for 23.1% of the population, just barely edging out Catholics and Evangelicals as the nation’s dominant faith.” The problem with this increase, says Knowles, is that, “As religiosity has declined, social ills have abounded.” Americans have seen an increase in mental illness, in the use of antidepressants, and in suicide. “American life expectancy declined again last year, as Americans continue to drug and kill themselves at record rates.”

Lest you think there’s only a correlation between the rise of “atheism” and of those social ills, Knowles hastens to add that, “Social scientists have long since established the link between religiosity and life satisfaction.” People who regularly attend religious services ‘are nearly twice as likely as those who worship less than once a month to describe themselves as “very happy.”’ And religious people are “more likely to engage in happy-making behaviors, such as getting and staying married.” Thus it’s “obvious,” says Knowles, that “the belief that God loves you and that you will live with him in eternity offers greater consolation” than the view of death as a dirt nap that stiffens you into worm food.”

Knowles ends by connecting a decline in the quality of American politics to the rise of “atheism.” Says Knowles, ‘A materialistic culture worships wealth; a licentious culture worships sex; a godly culture worships God. But “our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people,” as John Adams wrote to the Massachusetts militia in 1798. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”’ Thus, “A miserable politics awaits us when the irreligious rot flows downstream. Who but God can help us now?”

A Litany of Errors

I don’t believe the content of Knowles’ article merits refutation, since it seems written as a careless provocation—not so much to atheists but to American “conservatives” who prefer to view themselves as victims so they can feel as though their attitudes, values, and behaviour have something vaguely to do with Christianity. Knowles’ task is just to scare the gullible, not to argue with intellectual integrity. The statistics and the arguments he cobbles together are window dressing, since his rightwing readers don’t trust in fancy displays of rationality. The wisdom of this world is foolishness to God (1 Cor, 3:19) and all of that. Even the Catholic defense of reason is so much casuistry meant to use the devil’s weapons against him, to feign an interest in reason to prove to the ignorant faithful that there’s nothing to see here and it’s time to move on from the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason and to return to some dystopian theocracy that stands in for God’s kingdom. So Knowles’ foray into this foreign territory of rational argumentation is only for show, which explains the speciousness of just about every sentence in his article.

Here are just some of his errors, which I’ll list only to brush them aside to get to the more interesting issues. As many commenters on his article point out, Knowles confuses atheists with those who say they have no religion. As CNN’s report on the survey points out, ‘“Religious nones,” as they are called by researchers, are a diverse group made up of atheists, agnostics, the spiritual, and those who are no specific organized religion in particular. A rejection of organized religion is the common thread they share’ (my emphasis).

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Gods, Heroes, and the Self: Our Life in Stories

What is the first genre of fiction? In other words, what purpose was served by the invention of the story, that is, of communication that departs in some respects from what’s really happening?

Strictly speaking, the very first verbal departure from reality would have included memories (confabulations) and prescriptions (statements meant to depict how things should be). Indeed, any statement that doesn’t capture exactly how events are playing out is to some extent counterfactual. This includes predictions of how events will probably unfold, since predictions are at least partly conjectural. Even commonsense generalizations, such as, “Tomorrow the sun will rise” don’t limit themselves to reporting how precisely certain sense data are received and processed, and so these, too, are fictional. For that matter, since all words in natural language are partly analogical and idealistic, there’s no such thing as nonfiction in ordinary discourse. Even artificial languages that are designed to be rigorously literal and precise aren’t purely adequate to the facts, since scientific languages are motivated by the desires to understand and to control, which add human spin and interpretation to proven theories and laws of nature.

But let’s put aside that hyper-skepticism, to inquire about fictions in the sense of stories that are intended to depart somehow from the facts, as opposed to statements that are meant to be factual but that nevertheless fail to be perfectly fact-based. Notice, though, that there’s no such thing as pure fiction in that sense, since no one would bother to tell a story that had nothing to do with reality. Even a lie that’s therefore known to be false is told as if it were true to protect some hidden interest. At most, a genuine fiction is a story that’s entertained as true as we suspend our disbelief because we ought to know the story is false in certain crucial respects.  

Fear and Arrogance, Gods and Superheroes

What, then, motivated the first tall tales? Two impulses seem likely influences on the invention of fiction: fear and arrogance. In so far as nature was frightening, we escaped into soothing fantasies. Also, pride in our accomplishments easily corrupts our character, leading to overconfidence, and some of us are victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect, meaning we’re often not smart enough to recognize our tendency to err, which frees us to exaggerate our cognitive skills. We likely expressed such ill-gotten pride by boasting in story form, identifying ourselves with our favourite heroic characters. The former mechanism (fear) amounts to ignoring or suppressing facts belonging especially to the external world that frightens us because of its alienness or indifference to our preferences, while the latter (arrogance) deviates from internal facts, from how we, too, fail to live up to our conceits. 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Mueller and Trump: Partners in Crime

CONGRESSMAN GIRLYMAN: Mr. Mueller, thank you for appearing before this congressional committee. We gather from William Barr’s summary of your report that you didn’t find sufficient evidence to prove at trial that President Trump had obstructed justice or that he conspired with Russia to get him elected in 2016. Can you explain how you reached those conclusions?

SPECIAL COUNSEL MUELLER: Well, it was an arduous process. Nineteen lawyers and forty FBI agents. And for two years I had to ensure that they all kept their thumbs up their asses. That’s day in and day out, mind you.

GIRLYMAN: I beg your pardon.

MUELLER: Exactly, it wasn’t as easy as you might suppose, because I too had to show up for work with my thumb up my ass, all while overseeing the team members with their thumbs up their asses. So for example—if you want details—I’d arrive at the office bright and early, insert my thumb up my ass, have a meeting with a few lawyers and we’d sit around with our thumbs up our asses. On one occasion, Miss Legalese coughed and accidentally dislodged her thumb. “Uh, uh, uh,” I told her. “Shove that thumb back up there. We have a duty and the nation’s counting on us. So we’ve got to sit here in silence and strive to keep our thumb up our ass for the entire day. No matter the cost!” She apologized, of course, and swiftly returned her thumb to its station, because she’s a fine lawyer.

GIRLYMAN: Mr. Mueller, I fail to see—I mean—what? What exactly are you telling this committee? That for two years you and your team did nothing but sit there with your thumbs up your asses?

MUELLER: That’s essentially correct. Luckily, I was able mostly to stay seated, because I had cameras installed in the other offices and I had screens brought in so I could confirm for the record that the agents and lawyers did nothing but sit there with their thumbs up their asses. The system broke down once or twice, and I had to leave my chair and rush over to the other offices, all while keeping my thumb up my ass.

GIRLYMAN: That’s appalling, but I suppose that process does explain your findings.

CONGRESSWOMAN SNOWFLAKE: I beg to differ—if you’ll pardon the interruption. How did you get any work done for the American people if you just sat there all day long doing nothing? How did you investigate these important matters? The Russia connections, the threat to national security, the corruption, the cover-up, the obstruction?

MUELLER: We didn’t address those matters, since the facts have been out in the open. The pattern of lies about Russia, the Moscow development project, Manafort’s ties to Russian oligarchs and his sharing of campaign polling data with Russia, the Trump Tower meeting that was explicitly about Russia’s attempt to help with the campaign, President Trump’s subsequent deference to Putin and his pro-Russia realignment of American foreign policy—no further investigation was required since Mr. Trump’s relationship with Russia is obvious, as is the danger he poses to America’s national security. No, my team had to consider an altogether different question.

SNOWFLAKE: Which is?

MUELLER: Do the American people deserve four more years of Trump as president? That was the only relevant question. And sitting there for two years with our thumbs up our asses, watching the inane media coverage and the fallout from Trump’s election, we decided that, yes, Americans deserve Trump. So we wrote our report as a gift to the Republicans.

GIRLYMAN: Appalling. Just appalling.

MUELLER: Yes it is, isn’t it!
****
After Mr. Barr presented his interpretation of Robert Mueller’s principal conclusions, Mr. Trump reiterated for the eleven-thousandth time that there was no collusion.

“The radical Democrats said there was collusion,” shouted the president at a press conference. “They called me a criminal mastermind. And now the wonderful Mueller has completely exonerated me.”

A reporter then asked, “Isn’t it possible, Mr. President, you were never competent enough to be a Russian agent, because you’re just a bumbling, senile, childish, psychotic buffoon—which makes you the perfect useful idiot or stooge of Putin?”

“Even if that’s true,” said President Trump before shooting the reporter dead, “that’s better than being a stooge of American oligarchs like the other US presidents.”

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Character and Freewill

Bioethicist Hazem Zohny argues that “behaviour-changing neurointerventions” (the prospect of controlling someone else’s mind) shouldn’t be so controversial, because we’re never in control of our behaviour in the first place. More precisely, we mistake the reason why we object to the possibility of having our thoughts or actions dictated by someone else, if we assume we’re in control of them. Instead, thoughts arise unconsciously and thus always have a mysterious origin in automated neural events.

“Even a cursory attempt at introspection,” Zohny writes, “will show that thoughts and impulses simply arise in consciousness without will or intent. The source of the contents of our consciousness is always a mystery to us: things just pop into our minds. We can no better predict our next thought than we can predict the next words to come out of a stranger’s mouth.” When we deliberate, focusing our attention on a line of thought, we’re only adding more thoughts that contribute to the automation: “a thought happens to arise at the time and with the weight that it does, which then triggers a cascade of further thoughts. But each of those cascading thoughts itself happens to arise the way that it does without any will, intent or foresight on our part.” To illustrate, Zohny points out that when asked to think of a number between one and 100, you’ll find when attending to the process that the “number simply comes to mind.” So there’s no such thing as freewill in the sense of choosing or even predicting our mental contents.

According to Zohny, a better explanation of our resistance to the notion of neurointervention is that we fear being alienated from our thoughts and behaviour. In alien hand syndrome, for example, when a patient feels that her hand acts of its own volition, the problem with the alien hand isn’t “that it behaves without our intent or knowledge,” says Zohny, “but that it behaves in ways that do not cohere with other wants or wishes—such as our desire to be able to stop such movements when we want to. In other words, there is a difference between directly controlling our actions, and finding ourselves behaving in ways that do not align with how we want to behave at a particular moment.” Zohny concludes, “perhaps the real problem with behaviour-changing neurointerventions isn’t that they might rob us of control, but that they might make us think or act in ways that are alien to what we have so far been, ways that are potentially disturbing both to us and to those who know us well.”

What’s frustrating about Zohny’s argument is that he unwittingly points to the source of freewill and thus undermines his case. Zohny assumes that if we can’t pinpoint something necessarily immaterial and magical, known traditionally as a “soul” or “spirit,” something that chooses what we think at any given moment without itself being merely another mental content following a stream of similar thoughts and feelings, there’s no such thing as freewill or as self-control. But this strawmans the idea of freewill. Of course we’re not omnipotent: we don’t have the capacity to stand outside our brain and all our particular mental states to decide, based on no prior mental state, what we think or do. Who or what would be the self that transcends those mental states? What would distinguish this proper self from anyone else if that chooser of thoughts weren’t distinguished by some set of mental contents that would likewise have to come from somewhere?

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Nature of Creativity

There are two kinds of creativity, the impersonal and the personal. Personal creativity arises as a cosmic joke from the impersonal. Indeed, the universe’s impersonal creativity is the source of bathos, a staple of comedy. In any situation, the ever-present potential for anticlimax is fulfilled when we recognize that underlying what we’re proud of is nature’s dumb indifference. Let’s explore, then, the relations between these two forms of creativity.

The Monstrous Creator

In informed circles, nature is infamous for creating all that populates its dimensions and orders with no plan or purpose in view. The universe’s natural, scientifically-explainable order arises from the evolution of particles and forces which are born in turn from the quantum foam of potentiality. The universe complexifies from atoms to elements to molecules and compounds and much larger-scale forms such as nebulas, stars and galaxies. Alternatively, the greatest complexity lies in the minutest of subatomic shenanigans, and the larger forms are so many tempting misapprehensions of the pointlessness found in quantum events. The universe also evolves through time and not just at the macro level, which gives rise to organic phenomena and to personal creativity, but in the entropic decay of systems.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett popularized the concept of impersonal creativity, by drawing from Conway’s Game of Life, which is a computer simulation of how organic patterns can emerge under the pseudo-guidance of very simple rules. I came across a simpler demonstration while using the software AutoCAD, which can produce elaborate mandalas by dumbly following simple rules of repetition, rotation, mirroring, and attraction to center points. Here’s an example of what I mean.


A simple shape
After rotating and merging a copy of the prior stage
Notice the changing newly-created pattern in the
center, between the two copies as they merge
After rotating and merging a copy of the previous stage