Friday, February 29, 2008

'Association' is preferable over 'Community'

I like 'associations' better than communities. A union of persons in a company or society for some particular purpose prevents the rise of group think. In associations, when the explicit purpose is no longer evident, one is freed from the ties of a value system that might no longer serve individual interests. New social contracts can then be initiated by autonomous individuals for new purposes. The idea that I must (or might need to) subordinate my interests for the benefit of the whole compromises my freedom of movement, and somehow assumes the group is of more value than the individual. Groups don't have value; only people have value.

I am against egoism; it's wrong to be selfish. But that does not mean one must be duty-bound to any socially-imposed morality. Nor are people somehow moral atoms, for humans are social creatures that need others to identify and reach their potential as individuals. (Ayn Rand, for example, was too simplistic of a thinker to recognize this.) Reasonable individuals, when allowed to determine their own goals, are in the best position to identify their own purposes. Again, this makes voluntary 'associations' the best vehicle. There are other reasonable people in this world, and I want them to have the same opportunity to set goals and identify purposes as I do. Communities make it too hard to reset goals and identify individual purposes. Associations allow flexibility.

I am not advocating relativism, either; for, an external society should interfere in an individual's acts, but only when a very compelling need to do so arises (such as someone threatening a person's life, or commonly granted freedom of movement, or pursuit of others' fair resources for self-advancement.)

This is why the whole emphasis on 'community' creeps me out, especially when repeated as a mantra by religious people.


[image] "Walking Man"


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Monday, February 25, 2008

My notebook + my brain = my mind?

{ Podcast this essay } If you were to ask someone to find the exact location of their mind, they would be unable to reliably do so. Obviously, there would be the common sense response that the mind is in the head; and, true enough, we are not completely lacking information about the brain. Still, the precise location of the mind is unknown, for there is not some special part the brain (the cerebellum, hypothalamus, or the like) wherein is held the location of "the mind." But of the many attributes which are often associated with the mind, relationships with physical components of the brain have been noted -- i.e., firing of neuron set X in some particular pattern has some correlation with varying beliefs, desires, or actions.

Since observation locates the mind as somehow in the brain (due to its relationship to the brain), it seems allowable that we could make similar claims regarding the mind’s location if it participated in similar relationships with (or within) other objects. There are some philosophers who have considered the possibility at length. In their article “The Extended Mind,” authors Andy Clark and David Chalmers take up this possibility seriously. They conclude that this relationship between the mind and various external objects is such that we should believe “the mind extends into the world."[1] In some ways this is obvious. The mind is in the brain, and the brain is in the world; therefore, the mind is in the world. Yet Clark and Chalmers have something a bit more radical to offer. Yes, we might agree that the mind is in the brain, but does the mind have to be completely and only in the brain? They think it does not, but the issue isn't so clear, as I'll try to suggest in a moment.

I. Otto and Inga

The authors argue their point in regards to the beliefs of two hypothetical people, Inga and Otto, who are described in the following way: Inga hears from a friend that there is an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. She thinks for a moment and recalls that the museum is on 53rd street, so she walks to 53rd street and goes to the museum. On the hand, there is Otto, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which necessitates him carrying a notebook around with him everywhere. When he learns new information he writes it down. (Otherwise, he's likely to forget the information.) Like Inga, Otto also hears about the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. So he consults the notebook, which says that the museum is on 53rd Street, so he walks to 53rd street and goes into the museum.[1]

At this point a philosophical question arises -- Is Inga’s relationship to her beliefs sufficiently the same to Otto’s relationship to his notebook (an external object) to warrant calling both an extension their mind? The notebook fulfills an informative role for Otto that Inga’s beliefs fulfill for her, so the two cases are analogous in this respect. There are some other minor differences between the two cases but these are shown to be shallow differences that should not hinder one from drawing the conclusion that the notebook is, somehow, an extension of Otto's mind. Granted, Inga's beliefs are somehow coded in gooey material called brain matter, while Otto's beliefs are encoded in paper within a spiral notebook. But that doesn't make any relevant difference. Imagine a friend arguing that since you recorded your piano recital on a laptop's hard drive, but that since he recorded it on a .mp3 player; therefore, he has the real recital recorded, but you don't. You would rightly chide him by saying the media doesn't make a difference. Perhaps Otto mumbles such rebuttals under his breath about his friends and their so-called "real beliefs."

The similarities do tempt us to say Otto has (some of) his beliefs about an art museum in a notebook, and Inga has some of her beliefs about an art museum in a brain. Yet, there is one problem which might be considered a “deep difference.” This difference is in regards to the directness of the relationship between Otto and his notebook. Clark and Chalmers incorrectly believe that Otto’s notebook contains his beliefs but in reality Otto’s belief is about the notebook. To see this consider the following scenario: Suppose you were to sneak over to poor, unaware Otto, momentarily filch his notebook, and then write in it a completely untrue fact -- i.e., 2+2=5. Nothing changed with Otto at the moment we did this. It's uncontroversial that someone who believes 2+2=5 is irrational. If Otto’s notebook really does contain Otto’s beliefs, and among the list of his beliefs is '2+2=5', then we are forced, after the filching incident, to call him irrational. But Otto is not irrational because of a change we made to his notebook! Thus, it seems Otto’s beliefs are not contained in the notebook after all.

This difference between Otto and Inga hinges upon the very location of the notebook: its external relationship to the brain. Due to this relationship, the notebook is not linked in the right way into the rest of Otto's beliefs. Consider how this is different from Inga's beliefs and their linkage. If Inga’s belief were to be change from 2+2=4 to 2+2=5 she too would believe the latter equation. And we would thereby consider her irrational for holding such a belief.

II. What is, and where is, the Mind?

At this point in considering Otto's case, is one in a place to argue that the mind is not, or even cannot, be external to the brain? Such an argument is difficult to get started, because it requires a definition of ‘mind.’ But since there is no universally agreed upon definition, this means the debate could quickly deteriorate into a battle of deciding by definition -- i.e. by finding the answer in the way the question is asked. Instead, just outright grant that Clark and Chalmers are right: namely, that given the mind’s relationship to the brain and its relationship to external objects which encode beliefs, the mind is partly external. What does this entail about our concept of the mind? The mind now could become extremely extended; because, there is in principle no limit which need ever be given to extension (excepting the limit, of course, to the volume of available space in the physical universe.) Furthermore, almost any physical object can hold information (or, in this case, beliefs) for a person; and, therefore, would be an extension of one's mind. Yet we often equate the mind, to at least some degree, with being personal property, as it were; or with being unique to an autonomous, thinking self.

Consider the more mundane course in real life: when a student's notes from a class get lost in a windstorm, we do not say that the student lost part of his mind or accumulated beliefs from the class! Likewise, we should not say of Otto's notebook that were he to loose lots of scrawled notes in a windstorm, he has thereby lost lots of accumulated beliefs from his life.

Here is the best way to look at the Clark and Chalmers case for there being an extended mind. They have merely fancied up an uncontroversial position: The mind is involved in causal chains with external objects. Very few would deny this position. But they try to extend this point by claiming that this causal chain relationship between external objects and the mind entails an external component to the mind. They err in subtly slipping from talking about information channels into the mind with talking about the mind itself. Object x (a mind) being in object y’s (notebook) causal chain does not make x equivalent to y. For example, a bat hitting a baseball or a bat being hit by a baseball does not make a baseball and a bat the same kind of thing.

III. Conclusion

So here is the overall summary of the issue. Clark and Chalmers start with commonly accepted notions about the mind’s interaction with the physical, brain-external world. Their whole argument is set around the claim that there are not enough differences between Otto’s relationship to his notebook from Inga’s relationship to her brain to warrant the two cases being distinct. Though the cases have similarities, and though external objects can have causal effects on the mind, these philosophers take things too far in saying that the mind is external. The mind can be in causal relations with objects, but need not be accounted as wholly identical or even partially composed of those objects. This is often the problem with philosophers -- they just bewitch us with their thought experiments and subtle confusions about things which are already difficult enough on their own.[2]


[image] from Terrami blogsite. (Accessed Feb 24, 2008)

[1] Andy Clark and David Chalmers “The Extended Mind” in Brie Gertler and Lawrence Shapiro Arguing About the Mind (Routledge, 2007) , 185.

[2] This essay is substantially indebted to ideas and analysis put forth by Chris Schafer.


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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The (odd) faith of a paleontologist

{Podcast this essay} In matters of piety, how do scientists separate wishful thinking from careful thinking? I was recently in a seminar with a Christian scientist who was especially informed about paleontology. He was there to defend the proposition that Christian belief is not threatened by paleontology (as regarding what it tells us about evolution).

Thus guy was a real scientist with no detectibly "crazy views" about biology or the fossil record, as will sometimes be encountered in such people with conservative viewpoints on life and religion.

In one of his religiously reflective pieces (following his long book chapter discussing transition fossils), he claimed that the biological creation by God, along with its awe-inspiring past, evoked worshipful feelings in him. I asked him how how such wonderful creations like fish pox, small pox, ebola, aids, malaria, and tuberculoses managed to evoked such worshipful feelings towards God, especially seeing how these pre-date human beings.

His response was telling. He claimed that these where "natural evils" (i.e. not implemented by any moral agent, since there were none on the planet at that time) and that it is indeed mysterious just why such things are around. In his opinion, he believed that they might contribute moral lessons in our learning more about helping one another through suffering; moreover, they might also contribute to some unforeseen good known only to God, their creator.

I found this position problematic, and pointed out two issues to him. First, I noted that when someone dies suddenly of one of these microbiological diseases, there is no ability to learn any moral lesson for later life (since it was snuffed out), and perhaps there is no lesson to anyone else, seeing how they couldn't' prevent it, and since they probably didn't even understand it (as do we, though only very recently, as human history goes.) In fact, people often die alone by naturally destructive mechanisms, and nobody, much less the dead person, learns any moral lesson by such an event. I added that I could not see how, for example, a three-year-old being swallowed by a quickly exiting Anaconda (while the child was temporarily out of sight of the parents) was ultimately good or morally instructive for anyone. Second, I noted that even if such bio-nasties do contribute to some unforeseen good, it is just that -- "unforeseen". Therefore, if not outright counter-evidence, at the very least one should reserve judgment on whether their presence makes any sense, given certain other Judeo-Christian, theological commitments to God's creation being "good."

So what was his scientifically informed, carefully articulated position to this conundrum? "We just have faith and trust God."

While this pious response did strike me as wishful thinking, it certainly did not strike me as careful thinking.

Perhaps I can offer a more careful response, if not one so pious. It would seem that generic Christian dogmatists have confused an attribute of moral relationships between self-aware creatures -- namely, "good" -- with attributes of their aesthetic encounters with nature -- "beautiful". How fine for us that nature no longer threatens technologically advanced citizens in their day-to-day lives. (But it will get us all in the end.) How fine for us that we can study complexities of a small pox virus or an AIDS virus and discourse passionately on their "beauty" as efficient organisms. (They would think we are beautiful as well, much the way we might sit down and adore a fine holiday meal.)

And I have documentary suspicion too. I suspect that the writer in the Old Testament dubbed creation as "good" because s/he was sitting in healthy circumstances, fairly young; a person well-educated and otherwise highly placed among thousands of illiterates who had to scrape by in their meager, short suffering lives. He or she was probably at the time comfortable, not threatened by nature, and therefore fell into confusion about just how nasty common human existence could be. I'm sure the author was cured of all that quickly enough. But, at the time, it was pretty talk and easy to re-tell around campfires, so it stuck around, and became classical literature, as these things do.

Fortunately for the tradition, it has two, even better witnesses testifying against it: Job and Ecclesiastes.


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Monday, February 11, 2008

On disemboided minds

Suppose someone wants to convince me that my mind and my body are two different things, not just two words for the same thing. They might make this sort of claim:
"Embodied people are (at least typically) located in space where their bodies are. But since a disembodied person has no body, where is he? Any person, even disembodied, who exists in this world must be somewhere."[1]
What could I say to such a person? A body takes up space. So am I to think that my disembodied mind -- i.e. a thing that take up no space -- is located at somewhere, at some point in space? What an utter confusion!

Consider a parallel kind of objection. Behold the disembodied number "Twelve". Now behold the disembodied number "Google". Does the number twelve take up more or less space than the number google? Again, what an utter confusion to ask such a question!

Someone might retort that the question about two numbers is not analogous to the question about the two substances that make up a person, since a number as compared to a number are the same types of metaphysical thing, but brain as compared to mind are different types of metaphysical things. Yet this would be begging the question, for it assumes what is to be shown -- namely, that the brain and the mind are, in fact, two different kinds of things.

Again, someone might retort that numbers are not existing things, but only a way of describing relationships of succession. Here I could agree, and likewise say that the mind is not an existing thing, but only a way of describing what the brain is doing. Either a mind is what a brain does (and has done), or it is nothing at all.

If someone is still obstinate and says the mind is not just what the brain does, but is some non-material substance which is, nevertheless, located someplace; then, I can only reply that such a view of "mind", therefore, means nothing. But s/he will say, "I'm using the term now, it must have meaning." I will say, "It refers to brain function or to nothing."

The use of a word and the reference of a word is a tangled debate in itself.


[image] Yeachin Tsai "Nothingness" (Accessed 02/11/2008)

[1] W.D. Hart "An Argument for Dualism" in Brie Gertler and Lawrence Shapiro Arguing About the Mind (Routledge, 2007), 123.


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