Thursday, April 29, 2010
/* These are some thoughts I had about the first 3 chapters of John Searle's The Construction of Social Reality. If anybody would like a copy of those first 3 chapters, I'd be happy to send it to you if you shoot me an email at email@example.com. Also, if anybody has a full copy ebook, please let me know because I'm having trouble finding the rest of it. */
In the first three chapters of The Construction of Social Reality, Searle makes a set of bifurcations in order to drill down on the nature of social reality. In his words, Searle is addressing the problem that “there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world, that are only facts by human agreement.” I will attempt to address Searle's argument first by highlighting the critical points as closely to the text as possible, then delivering my response. I will use Searle's recurring example of a screwdriver to help illustrate the key features of both my and Searle's argument.
The first bifurcation that Searle makes use of is the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity. In a nutshell, this distinction is motivated by the level that a given phenomena depends on the mental states (beliefs, desires, attitudes, etc.) of a perceiver for its existence. According to Searle, the difference between objective and subjective phenomena is a matter of degree, a point which we will revisit in my response. On top of the subjective/objective distinction, Searle adds the additional dimension of ontology versus epistemology. Roughly, ontology is the study of what exists, while epistemology is the nature of knowledge. Thus, we have four categories which we can use to conceptualize the world (ontolological status/epistemological status): Objective/Objective, Objective/Subjective, Subjective/Objective, and Subjective/Subjective. According to Searle, the fact that a screwdriver is a screwdriver is ontologically subjective, in that it requires an agent to construe it as such. However, the screwdriver can be considered generally epistemically objective in that the stance which those agents take towards it are intrinsic to them, and in turn those mental states are features intrinsic to the world.
Put simply, Searle is trying to allow phenomena to be both objective and observer-relative, which seems to be a contradiction in terms. In an attempt to reconcile to contradiction, Searle states that “the features of the observers that enable them to create such observer-relative features of the world are intrinsic features of the observers” (Searle, 11). My first objection to this is that Searle does not specify how this would change the subjective nature of observer-relative phenomena into objective facts. Why should something be considered objective just because it has been facilitated by the intrinsic property of something else? Searle agrees that all methods of characterizing the world must ultimately bottom out onto brute facts (facts which are intrinsic to the world), but it seems that if we extend Searle's process in the opposite direction (i.e. away from brute facts), everything could be considered objective. Furthermore, it seems that Searle's statement that the features which allow us to add these epistemically objective features to reality fail his own test to distinguish between observer-relative and intrinsic features of the world (namely, “Could the feature exist if there had never been human beings or other sorts of sentient beings?”). Searle seems to recognize the contradiction, and immediately qualifies his statement be reiterating his axiom that those features are intrinsic to observers. This leaves a lot to be desired.
I spent a lot of time trying to analyze the ins and outs of Searle's ontology given the limited information I had (only 3 chapters), and I did think it was good exercise. However, I did not find anything solid enough to base a serious ontology out of. It seems to me that Searle is trying to define reality as if it were in the domain of epistemology, while I believe that questions of reality must ultimately defer to ontology, since questions of reality ultimately ask “is the epistemological framework I am using consistent with what actually exists?” Furthermore, it seems that Searle is satisfied by saying that as long as something depends on a group of people, it is objective. I would object while this feature is necessary, it is not sufficient to make something objective: objectivity implies no dependence on any observers. Thus, I am not convinced that a screwdriver's existence as such can really be said to be epistemically objective. If this concept of social reality can be said to be objective at all, it is a variety of objectivity not worth having.
Posted by mindolovian at 6:19 AM
Monday, April 19, 2010
Hey guys, I decided to take a few ideas I had on the subject of beauty and just run with them for a page or so and see what ended up on the page. I've been meaning to address the issue for a while now, but I figured it would be better to throw something out and get some feedback rather than pondering about it relentlessly. So, please excuse the sub-par writing, and let me know about any thoughts you might have on the subject! Without further adieu...
I believe that a definition of beauty is hard to pin down because of its level of subjectivity. However, I do not believe that there is a principled, qualitatively unique aspect of beauty that would make it impossible to ultimately pin down. As such, I am confident that with enough analysis, we might as cognitive scientists formulate a working definition of beauty.
As stated, I believe that the challenges that arise when trying to pin down a definition are simply a matter of how much epistemological subjectivity is involved. I believe it would be possible to develop methods that could identify a workable “signal” identifying beauty, but we must approach it in a method that many may find counterintuitive. Instead of approaching the issue as if beauty (or any concept with a comparable level of epistemological subjectivity) were something that could be identified in and of itself, we must realize that the experience we call beauty is our own reaction to an external stimulus. Put another way, beauty (in this context) refers to our own reactions, and is emphatically not something that can be said to exist in the external world.
While this approach may not lend itself to our common methods of scientific inquiry, it has the power to exploit our own subjective experiences in order to tell us something about the world – much like a sixth sense. This turns the problem of having a loose mapping between theory and manifestation (of the sort discussed by Searle) on its head, affording us with more information as the amount of subjectivity being studied increases. The method would work by taking advantage of post-hoc trial sorting of experimental data, in which the experimental condition (e.g. the experience of beauty is reported by the subject) and the control condition is determined after data is collected, based on subject responses. I submit as a hypothesis that given enough of this type of analysis, we may come across certain patterns in the properties of presented stimuli which are highly correlated with what we experience as beauty. While this method is likely to be far less efficient than standard methods of analysis, I believe that increases in data processing technology and experimental design will soon give us the power to find meaningful “signal” amongst the background of noise resulting from the inherent variation arising from the subjective nature of the human mind.
Admittedly, the specification of a method is not enough to answer the question at hand, namely the problem of defining beauty. Unfortunately, I cannot pretend to have any true knowledge of what beauty actually is, beyond my hypothesis that it refers to a human response as opposed to an intrinsic property of the world around us.
At this point, we must consider whether or not this stance really gets us anywhere. Indeed, one might be warranted in objecting that whatever data we gather about psychological responses has nothing to do with what most people mean by beauty in the first place. How might our findings be useful outside of their role as an experimental proxy? While I do believe these are serious objections that cannot be left unanswered in a viable scientific paradigm, I am confident that the method set forth will ultimately yield meaningful results on a human scale. To show this, we must consider the role of aesthetics to begin with. While a full survey of the human capacity for appreciating beauty is outside the scope of this analysis, I will present as axioms two potential answers for the value of beauty, and give a brief preview of how the reactive identification of beauty might fit into those functions.
The first potential service that an understanding of beauty might grant us is to tell us something about ourselves – to make us more human. To place ourselves in a state where we might feel the rich, deep emotions that we feel when we are truly moved by something might give us a glimpse of who we are on the most fundamental level. In this light, beauty is that which resonates with us at the core. It is my contention that a systematic understanding of beauty provided by a data-driven analysis can at the very least focus our attention on the specific aspects of beautiful experiences that separate them from the mundane. Should this be the case, we may be able to shape our reflection to address the fundamental features of beauty while ignoring the other factors in a given experience. In this way, a data-driven analysis of beauty can be dovetailed with the more traditional, philosophical reflection in order to guide us in the right direction by eliminating inappropriate avenues of research.
The second axiomatic role of art is what I would describe as a purely teleological function – one that serves a speific purpose in facilitating the rest of our cognitive abilities. An example of this type of explanation would be catharsis, in which the aesthetic experience is characterized as a purifying process of shedding emotional baggage. Ultimately, any functional description of beauty can benefit from a more data-driven approach in a very straightforward manner by affording us with potential targets to manipulate and exploit as a shortcut to the benefits that the natural experience of beauty may afford us. Being powered by such hypothetical imperatives pretty much allows us to legislate the definition of beauty in this instance, and as such I do not consider this avenue to be challenging nor rewarding.
While I do not pretend that the method I have specified is nearly sufficient to define beauty, I do believe that the formulations presented above are indeed more useful than a standard specification of a definition, in that my method refers to a flexible system for uncovering new information that is actually grounded in data. I am confident that accounts such as these will ultimately be more useful as our field of Cognitive Science evolves.
Posted by mindolovian at 11:23 AM
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
NOTE: I wrote this paper my freshman year at Case, and I haven't thoroughly looked at it since.
Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. The despair described here by Albert Camus is the foundation of what is known as the human condition, a broad study of the ongoing struggles characteristic of human existence. The most fundamental and essential question of the meaning of life has plagued man since his inception. The drive to escape from the suffering caused by man’s unique awareness of death has been the driving force behind the development of everything we know today. The age of reason marked the birth of a revolutionary way to address the apparent insignificance of life, but not without grave consequences.
The prospect of looking at the world such that it can be manipulated by man that marked the age of reason was highly liberating. The fields of chemistry, astronomy, biology and physics led to the conception of the notion of a mechanical universe, one which was governed not by miracles but by scientific law. Copernicus and Galileo demystified the heavens. Boyle and Newton documented the secrets of physics, while Lavoisier devised an explanation for the phenomenon of matter. Luigi Galvani found that the motion of living creatures was not a miracle, but a product of electrical currents; Da Vinci studied the interplay between human emotion and physiology. Man no longer had to seek mystical or spiritual intervention in maintaining health with drastic advancements in medicine. Biology and the theory of evolution even accounted for the origins of life itself. Scientific discovery had liberated man by destroying the notion that man existed in a world governed by an overseeing deity, replacing it with the concept of God as a clockmaker.
The promises of science seemed to be a panacea, and an empirical method of thought was stretched beyond the physical sciences. As a result of advances in the physical sciences, Deism was prevalent with the intellectuals of the time, and the regulation of good and evil were no longer heaven’s dominion, but man’s. Enlightenment thinkers turned their attention towards the ways in which man governs himself, and the social sciences emerged with a drastic impact on political philosophy. Karl Marx declared religion to be the opiate of the people, prescribing a shift in attention towards the potential of collective action in government to eliminate suffering. Locke, Hume, and Voltaire promoted the freedom of the individual to determine the course of their own lives, as opposed to totalitarian governments. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations justified free markets in which individuals could embrace their individual strengths. The series of revolutions that resulted from this new breed of humanist thought gave rose to an environment that fostered man’s search for meaning, freeing the individual from the irrational structures of government and religion that hindered him in the past. Reason had succeeded in improving the human condition.
Unfortunately, the improvements which science and reason had bestowed upon human life were only superficial. The despair resulting from the fall of faith was foreseen by Nietzsche, of all people, and summarized by James Sire of The University of Missouri in his book The Universe Next Door: “A culture cannot lose its philosophic center without the most serious of consequences, not just to the philosophy on which it was based but to the whole superstructure of culture and each person’s notion of who he or she is. Everything dies. When God dies, both the substance and the value of everything else dies with it.” The identity crisis resulting from the industrial revolution confirms Nietzsche’s prophesy, well illustrated by Dickens’ Hard Times. Thomas Gradgrind, one of the book’s central figures, is a fierce proponent of an “eminently practical” way of life, dismissing the beauty in life as “destructive nonsense.” Instead, he raises his children in an environment completely devoid of what can best be described as a soul. Gradgrind’s sterile perspective is representative of the industrial concept of the value of human life – and individual’s valuable is best measured by his or her utility in industrial production. By applying the empiricism of the Age of Reason to a value system of human lives, Gradgrind and his Industrialist contemporaries effectively reduced individuals to numbers. His stone-cold outlook on life eventually led to his downfall, as it ultimately destroyed his entire family. Specifically, Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa is representative of Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, who suffered a crisis of existence resulting from his sterile, empty outlook.
The book’s critique of Utilitarianism’s shortcomings holds true for society as a whole as it underwent the industrial revolution. Utilitarianism, another product of the Age of Reason, sought to assign value to every aspect of the world based upon calculation. While focusing both on quality and quantity of happiness with the tenet of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”, utilitarianism shared the industrial society’s shortcoming of an overemphasis on that which is quantifiable. It must be recognized that a system of value which depends solely on that which is tangible cannot be successfully applied to all aspects of human life. The industrial revolution and the advent of utilitarianism are evidence of the dark side of the age of reason – a complete dependency on reason at the expense of that which separates man from machine. The dire consequences hinted at by Dickens were explored further by sociologist Emile Durkheim and documented in his book Suicide. Durkheim coined the term anomie to describe a state of despair that inevitably arises out of an individual’s loss of a perspective which allows for a sense of purpose, drawing on a system of values and meaning. In the context of society, anomie can arise out of a discrepancy between professed values and that which is attainable. It can be said that the post-Enlightenment world of the industrial revolution generated such a discrepancy by ignoring the inherent subjectivity of human existence, and the value of human emotion. The despair experienced by Thomas Gradgrind would be consistent with Durkheim’s model. Paradoxically, it came to pass that in looking to science for meaning only brought about a deeper sense of despair.
The impact of the age of reason and enlightenment thought are not only a thing of the past. With the passage of time, society’s dependence on reason has only become more troublesome. Not only did the departure from faith precipitate the aforementioned emptiness of the industrial revolution, it has also prevented man from filling that vacuum. By pursuing the power to manipulate the world, mankind has opened a Pandora’s box, crippling his ability to put faith in anything. Like scratching an itch, the search for knowledge only breeds more questions, leaving little room for anything else. No belief is safe and, by the nature of the scientific methods which are now inseparable from human thought, it appears that no conclusions can ever be satisfactory. As ideas are becoming more and more treated like hypotheses, there is nothing left to serve as an anchor for human thought. Aldous Huxley’s early works of Crome Yellow and Antic Hay, were described as an examination of "the life and opinions of an age which has seen the violent disruption of almost all the standards, conventions and values current in the present epoch." According to Sire, “pluralism and the relativism that has accompanied it have muted the distinctive voices of every point of view. Furthermore, Sire contends that “it is no longer the unexamined life that is not worth living, but the examined one.”
If Sire is right, and society doesn’t undergo an collective reality check, it is unlikely that humanity as we know it will survive. Indeed, science and technology may very well rob humanity of itself. The seeds have already been sown, as evidenced by the rise of transhumanism. Not unlike Huxley’s Brave New World, the transhumanist movement seeks to manipulate science and technology into making a more capable race of individuals which can only be said to be greater than human. The idea of a template human being may become a reality, transforming the complexities of human life to a bleak, programmed existence. Like Gattaca and Equilibrium, technology without a conscience may reduce life to a sterile chore of procreation, devoid of beauty. 20th century science, notably cognitive science, psychiatry, and psychology have only brought us closer to such an end, as evidenced by the rise of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, toting that “the behavior of man is no more free than his digestion.” Like Soma in Brave New World and Prozium in Equilibrium, today there exists an ever-increasing dependence upon pharmaceuticals to create artificial happiness. A 1987 advertisement for anxiolytic drug Ativan (similar to Valium) serves as a frightening testament to the reality of this trend, heralding that “In a world where certainties are few… no wonder Ativan (Lorazepam) C-IV is prescribed by so many caring clinicians.”
Unfortunately, just like any hard-core addiction, our dependence upon science cannot be quit cold-turkey. A school of thought known as post-modernism has arisen from the slow realization that science cannot answer everything, founded on the premise that truth about anything is simply impossible to achieve, thus humans can do nothing but share “stories” about the world which only exist in their own minds. To a post-modern thinker, science is merely one of many “languages” which man can use to share such stories. Essentially, if the Enlightenment abandoned the clockmaker, post-modernism has thrown out the clock itself. The resulting anarchy of ideas is something which, according to Feyerabend, must be guarded against by giving individuals the opportunity to regulate the impact of scientific thought in their own lives just like they would any other ideology. The only option man has is to endure a “withdrawal” period, in which our dependence upon science is slowly reigned in. The green technology movement can be seen as the first concerted effort to this end, putting a conscience on scientific development beyond environmental concerns, as discussed in Our Biotech Future.
If any true improvements are to be made to the human condition, the divide between faith and reason must somehow be reconciled. The pace of technological development must not surpass that of philosophical understanding. The only course of action is to continually check scientific progress for its human implications, much like its empirical conclusions are constantly scrutinized. Man must proceed with extreme caution.
Olson, Robert G. An Introduction To Existentialism. New York:
Dover Publications, 1962.
Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. Downers Grove, Illinois:
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Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Science of Freedom. New York:
W. W. Norton & Company, 1970.
Durkheim, Emile. Suicide: A Study In Sociology. New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1979.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World: Revisited. New York:
Harper & Row, 1958
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York:
Huxley, Aldous. Letters of Aldous Huxley. Ed. Grover Cleveland. New Work:
Harper & Row, 1969.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Whitefish, Montana:
Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
Skinner, Burrhus Frederic. Walden Two. Indianapolis, Indiana:
Hackett Publishing, 2005.
Feyerabend, Paul. Conquest of Abundance. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Camus, Albert. The Plague, The Fall, Exile and The Kingdom, and Selected Essays. New York: Random House Publishing: Vintage Books, 2004.
The World Humanist Association: Transhuman Declaration. March 4, 2002.The World Humanist Association. 28 November 2007
Dyson, Freeman. “Our Biotech Future.” The New York Review of Books.
Posted by mindolovian at 7:22 AM
NOTE: This is an old term paper for a class taught by Mark Turner. I haven't gone back to reread it, but have at it:
Inscribed upon the temple of Apollo at Delphi was “Know Thyself”, a statement that has underlined countless formulations of philosophy and religion in recorded history. Paradoxically, this maxim has never been truly acted upon with respect to religion. Only now is it becoming legitimately possible to “know ourselves” in this context – that is, to understand religion in terms of the working of the human mind. According to Pascal Boyer, author of Religion Explained, the question of why humans have religion has only recently become a valid question following advances in anthropology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology. Perhaps even more significant than the classic example – language – of the unique sophistication of the human mind, religion has always provided its followers with insight into their place in the universe. Continuing this tradition, a cognitive scientific analysis of religion is in position to give us a sense of its place in our minds, bringing the ancient maxim “Know Thyself” around full circle.
This paper considers the possibility of “religious cognition” having a special status within the human mind. Evolutionary psychology has contributed to the framework of the present discussion, particularly Steven Jay Gould’s discussion of exaptations entitled The Spandrels of San Marco. Specifically, we will consider whether or not religious thought can be explained by pre-existing cognitive faculties and conceptual structures. The technical details of cognitive function will be fit into a framework of philosophical consideration, highlighting the notion that any inquiry – scientific or otherwise – truly derives its value from its relevance to the greater questions of humanity, not from the richness of its technical minutia or even from its ability to enhance humanity’s control over the environment. While the questions at hand are not necessarily at the forefront of the cognitive sciences – indeed, their tractability necessarily came secondary to advancements elsewhere in the cognitive sciences – the implications that may follow this cognitive approach to religion are of the greatest importance, relevant not only to a select set of interested individuals trained in the cognitive sciences but to humanity as a whole.
The present inquiry will be analytic in method. Beginning with a discussion of the ontology of religion, we will see that the relevant feature that unifies all religion is likely to be found not in the contents of religious systems themselves, but in the special processing of that information. For this reason, the remainder of the discussion will be centered around the cognitive processes underlying specific facets of religion as opposed to its function or origin. Using a theoretical analog of the technique of dissociation common to fMRI studies, we will compare religious and mundane information processing to explore the possibility of functions or concepts unique to the domain of religion.
Ultimately, this discussion is intended to introduce the theoretical underpinnings of a methodology that may prove useful in guiding future inquiries regarding religion. Critically, what follows should not be taken as a defense of a given hypothesis about reality – that is the domain of experimental data. Instead, the proceeding formulations should be considered a demonstration of how a new paradigm, pertaining to the modern enterprise of the cognitive science of religion, might work. Instead of generating explanations for particular phenomena, the present discussion will generate more questions than answers. What is important is that the theoretical basis for this form of inquiry is understood.
With this “big picture” in mind, we may now take up the task of defining religion. According to Pascal Boyer, such an endeavor may seem peculiar or inconsequential, as everybody intuitively “knows” what religion is (Boyer, p.5). However, intuitions are not enough to adequately define the scope of a research program, so the task of defining the object of inquiry is unavoidable. In order to use the method of dissociation mentioned above, there must be some way to designate what is and is not to be designated “religion.” Unfortunately, the notion of religion is especially resilient to definition in the traditional manner because, as we shall see, the concept of religion has no clear features that are universally necessary. In other words, it appears that every attribute of any given member of the set of ideas which tend to be classified as religious has a counterpoint. Generally, classifications depend on necessary and sufficient features of the structure or function of an object. Logically, if two things differ with respect to a given feature while retaining their membership within the same classification, that feature cannot be a necessary requirement for that class. Boyer suggests that such differences are present for every aspect pertaining to the structure and function of the set of ideas which are nonetheless all identified as religion.
Boyer lays out a representative list of common functional explanations for the origin of religion: that religion provides an explanation for the nature of the world, that it provides comfort in an unsympathetic world in which everyone dies, that it provides order and ethical solidarity in society, or that it is an illusion resulting from the imperfections of human reason (Boyer, p.7). To be certain, these functions are often performed by some religions. Critically, though, not all religions confer all or even any of these benefits, so none of these features can be necessary for category inclusion. As Boyer points out, there are many cases in which notions that are actually counterproductive to these functions are still considered religious. To illustrate, many religions necessitate characterizations of that world that are more mysterious than before, such as the idea that one might benefit from praying to a material object that is present everywhere in the world (which is in itself contradictory, as material objects have boundaries by definition). The set of functions provided by Boyer is not intended to be exhaustive, but it implies that functional descriptions of religion are probably not good candidates to explain its importance.
The content of religious thought – the structural elements – are even less uniform, even when generalized. We are not surprised to find that religions around the world have highly variable concepts of deities and other supernatural beings. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to expect that some uniformity should arise when we move away from the details to a more abstract conceptual foundation. Again, this is simply not the case. Not all religions contain concepts of immortality, salvation, afterlife, omnipotence, omniscience, creation, etc. Nor are the objects of religious thought necessarily considered supernatural. Boyer uses the example of the Fang people of Cameroon, who hold that realistic yet improbable occurrences are best explained as the result of the intentions of ordinary people who possess a special internal organ called an ewur (Boyer, 66). The diversity of the content of the world’s religions makes a structural description of the category of religion even more troublesome than a functional one.
The problems with functional and structural criteria for categorization necessitate a novel way to define the class of religion. Some guidance may be found by building off of Anthropologist Dan Sperber’s “epidemiology of representations.” According to Sperber, an accurate account of the prevalence of ideas within a given culture must focus on how individuals within that culture respond to those ideas internally, store them, and transmit them to their peers (Sperber, 315). The analogy of an epidemic is fleshed out by Boyer in Religion Explained:
“An epidemic occurs when a group of individuals displays similar symptoms – when for instance people in a whole region in Africa get high fevers. This is explained as an epidemic of malaria, caused by the presence of mosquitoes carrying the Plasmodium pathogen. But note that what we call the epidemic is the occurrence of fevers and assorted symptoms, not by the presence of mosquitoes or even Plasmodium” (Boyer, 46).
Effectively, the properties of the protozoan Plasmodium and the mechanism of its pathology say almost nothing about the definition of malaria. Instead, the human body’s response to the pathogen is what characterizes the illness. The metaphor can be built upon by considering the condition infective endocarditis, an inflammation of the outer tissue of the heart, which can be caused by a wide range of bacteria as well as one species of yeast. The diagnostic definition of infective endocarditis is the same regardless of the microorganism responsible. Boyer, building off of Sperber’s formulations, is emphasizing the idea that mental representations are perhaps best defined by their impact upon the human mind in a manner analogous to the classification of diseases. In essence, Sperber has prescribed a method for analysis that uses interactions to constrain concepts in the place of necessary and sufficient conditions.
Sperber and Boyer, both anthropologists, use cultural phenomena as an indirect measure of how the human mind responds to a given mental representation. Specifically, they exploit the notion that the proliferation of ideas within a culture is essentially memetic. A meme is a unit of information that has the potential to replicate itself by inducing its own transmission amongst hosts (people, in a cultural context). The concept of a meme is rooted in evolutionary biology (it is essentially the conceptual analogue of a gene), coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Using the approach of the “epidemiology of representations”, memes should be characterized by their impact upon the human mind instead of their specific content. Hypothetically, the more significant the cognitive impact of a given meme is, the higher its chance of being soundly stored within a given human mind, increasing both the rate of transmission and the length of time the meme will be transmitted for. According to Boyer, “if you find that a particular concept is very stable in a human group, it is because it has a particular advantage inside individual minds” (Boyer, p. 37). While the cognitive response to a meme is a function of that meme’s ontological content, it is critical to recognize that the focus of this approach is ultimately the human mind – the memes themselves are merely tools used to trace human cognition.
Despite being a tour de force in theoretical experimental methodology, the memetic approach has significant potential flaws. As an indirect probe of the human mind, the resulting data is potentially ambiguous. The subjective nature inherent to human cognition is but one example of a potentially insurmountable confounding factor in an experimental environment polluted with complications that are likely too numerous to catalog, let alone control for. The transmission of a meme also depends upon an inescapably symbolic medium – language – which necessitates a full round of modulation and demodulation in its transfer from one mind to the next and increases the opportunity for ambiguity. However, the enterprise has given cognitive science a paradigm with immense potential in its method of empirically deriving definitions in terms of its impact upon the human mind. Coupled primarily with developments in brain imaging, concept formation, and the information processing approach to cognition, Sperber’s contributions could give rise to a flexible yet direct and tractable approach to studying the cognitive underpinnings of religion.
Such a methodology would likely be concerned primarily with the information processing requirements underlying specific facets of religion. Ultimately, the potential existence of a domain-specific set of cognitive processes would be the fundamental question being addressed. Established research pertaining to mundane cognitive functions could potentially guide the generation of processing models designed to facilitate selected prototypes of religious thought. Such models could then be empirically verified by examining the prevalence of decidedly religious thought in populations with cognitive deficits in single aspects of the processing model. It is not necessary that the religious phenomena under scrutiny be strictly necessary for all religions, but they should be significantly prevalent across cultures and amenable to description by documented information processing functions. A good candidate for such an analysis would be the phenomenon of prayer or worship. These occurrences are not likely to genuinely make sense without the ability to postulate that there is some form of mind that is potentially open to influence. In other words, understanding these facets of religion requires an intact Theory of Mind. Fortunately, there is a readily available pool of individuals with selective impairments in this cognitive faculty (autistic spectrum patients). Hypothetically, if Theory of Mind was truly implicated in religious thought, its impairment would be detectable in statistically significant differences in the proportion of religious to non-religious classifications made between impaired and neurotypical subjects. A series of dissociations could then be performed on each component of the information processing model in order to examine which operations were strictly mundane and which ones are particularly relevant to religion. Similarly, the capacity for pretense may be a good candidate to compare with religious cognition, as a dissociation between how “invisible” and “imaginary” could help characterize the phenomenon of belief. Pretense, however, is perhaps best understood as it develops in children. Unfortunately, it is conceivable that children lack the communication skills necessary to convey the difference between religious and non-religious intuition to the experimenter, if they even possess the underlying information processing functions. Mechanisms shared by both mundane and religious information processing tasks might also be empirically evident in reaction time studies. In this design, functional elements will be the source of priming effects instead of the classic conceptual similarities. A potential candidate for a priming effect might be the impact of subjects’ emotional states when asked to classify a statement as religious or non-religious. Reaction time studies may provide more information about the structure of information processing in that the location of a given function with respect to the entire sequence of processing may be deduced.
Despite the potential benefits of this methodology, there are (at least) two theoretical conditions which it cannot account for. The first scenario is if the distinction between a religious and a non-religious concept is made purely on phenomenological grounds. Hypothetically, the human mind may evaluate a scenario using simulations, allowing religious decisions to emerge from the experience of running a given simulation. Translating something so subjective into useful empirical data is, right now, an intractable task. In such a situation, it would be best to employ an alternative method. fMRI data may be the best option, as it can generate empirical data for any cortical event, which can then provide some basic insight as to what types of experiences are evoked by religious cognition. Additionally, there is the possibility that there are simply no necessary attributes in classifying notions based on their religious status. Instead, it may be the case that there is a certain cognitive threshold that, when reached, qualifies something as religious. Such a scenario would be consistent with the proposal that the phenomenon of religion is really just a exaptation over certain pre-existing functions. In this scenario, any given input is potentially sufficient yet never necessary to characterize a classification. As such, the method of theoretical dissociation could only generate false positives.
These particular applications are simply a demonstration of the potential methodology built upon the use of information processing functions in order to define the objects of research. This technique gains its strength in the fact that it does not depend on the necessity or sufficiency of a potentially unrestricted set of notions generated by the human mind. This flexible yet direct approach to hypothesis formulation and subsequent testing has the potential to open up new avenues for research in the cognitive sciences.
Posted by mindolovian at 7:20 AM
Critique of Meaning
It is no small task to find comfort in Dostoyevsky’s statement that “freedom will occur only when it doesn’t matter whether one lives or dies” (Dostoevsky 121), nor is it easy to find beauty in the face of the horrors of Auschwitz. Indeed, pain and suffering are so fundamental to human existence that one may wonder whether or not we are doomed to misery, ultimately prompting a sincere search for a single reason not to end one’s own life. The emptiness and seemingly infinite sadness we face, exacerbated by the acute knowledge of the finitude of our existence, leaves many to abandon the prospect of happiness and instead seek something else to make it all worthwhile, some meaning which will justify our being. With the frenzy of men on fire, many take up this search for meaning in a blind, dogmatic haste which to this point has only fanned the flames. Thus, I will attempt to take a step back and ask a fundamental question: how might non-suffering be anything but impossible?
In order to avert the risk of “groping in the dark”, we must proceed slowly and deliberately, and secure a sound method for testing any formulations. As such, we cannot avoid the task of solidly defining our problem set in such a way that it can be evaluated in propositional form. Thus, we will begin by identifying the roots of our human misery. As a foundation for this procedure, we will hold as an axiom that human beings have a tendency to find happiness in a sense of self-worth. This self-worth is challenged by the inescapable finitude and contingency of life, making it therefore impossible to find value in an ambiguous future. However, as Victor Frankl points out, we may solidify ourselves in our past achievements, securing our existence every time we actualize our potential to form a legacy, stating that “having been is the purest form of being” (Frankl 124). As echoed by Barrett and Nietzsche, the loss of this grounding of our existence results in the despair referred to as noogenic neurosis by Frankl and anomie by Durkheim. It is critical to note that this despair is epiphenomenal, resulting from the realization of groundlessness as opposed to the lack of meaning itself. It follows that this effect is a subjective reality. This is pointed out by Frankl, as he notes that “even if each and every case of suicide had not been undertaken out of a feeling of meaninglessness, it may well be that an individual’s impulse to take his life would have been overcome had he been aware of some meaning and purpose worth living for” (Frankl 141).
Following from the epiphenomenal nature of meaninglessness is the possibility of dismantling its manifestation. While questions of existence can hardly be avoided, it may be possible to undermine their affective salience. In order to do so, we must examine the psychology of how one may come to associate meaning with self worth. According to Frankl, the fundamental existential questions revolve around knowing what it is to exist, knowing what the meaning of that existence is, and then willing the unification of the two within oneself (Frankl 100). These aspects of human existence then form a “measuring stick” that we may use to evaluate our self worth (Frankl 146). This process is a good candidate for the associative mechanism which gives meaninglessness its affective bite. In this way, ‑
Frankl has provided us with a target whose elimination may pave the way for the possibility of escaping misery.
Potentially, if the desire to complete this logical function can be eliminated, the pain carried with it will in turn disappear. Put simply, proving such a synthesis impossible might stop us from fretting over our inability to resolve it, therefore overcoming the “existential vacuum” which results. The plausibility of such a maneuver is consistent with Frankl’s contention that although we may not escape the circumstances presented to us in life, we have control over the way in which we stand against them. This is also present in Devils, one example being Kirilov’s statement that “there’s no pain in the stone, there is pain in the fear of the stone” (Dostoyevsky 121). We must not confound this procedure as a simple “willing” to be happy – an absurd task – but observe instead that the subjective stance toward the source of unhappiness is modified, thus preventing the ensuing affective harm.
Extrapolating from Frankl’s contention that “one must have a reason to be happy” (Frankl 140), it may also be true that one must have a reason to be unhappy. As mentioned, the source of existential misery follows from the realization of the failure to form a rational concept of self worth, and as such its rendering impossible may deliver us from such pain. So, we will now attempt to deconstruct the mechanism in order to disable it. The first component of Frankl's noogenic neurosis is “knowing what it means to exist.” Unfortunately, any attempt to disrupt this component is doomed to failure. The first complication is that in order to renounce any knowledge of existence, we must first somehow comprehend non-existence. But how could such comprehension really occur? If we observe that the only way in which we come to know anything, as phenomenal subjects, is through receiving it as an object, we shall see that the simple event act of apprehension implies that something exists. Echoing Descartes' cogito, nothingness cannot logically be experienced. Nor can non-being have a subjective reality, as it would mark the end of subjectivity itself. Perhaps this is what Kirilov means when he denies the existence of death (Dostoevsky 249). So, we are unlikely dismantle Frankl's synthesis through the first route. We must assume that existence is.
Turning to the second aspect, “knowing the meaning of existence”, we run into the more insidious problem of nihilism. Destroying this component is to embrace the idea that existence has no meaning, or at least that the meaning can be known. Accepting this as true, however, renders the individual powerless against his own emotions, reducing the value of his life to the pleasure principle. Perhaps this is the root of Frankl's observation that the majority of alcoholics and other addicts overwhelmingly report the feeling that life means nothing. In the absence of meaning, one's life becomes completely at the mercy of chance – those who are granted happiness live, while everyone else is doomed. There is simply no salvation for the one who suffers. So, any attempt to escape noogenic neurosis by denying the possibility of meaning moves one out of the frying pan and into the fire.
At this point, we are bound to accept that existence is, and that meaning is somehow possible. We are now left with the final alternative – denying the will for the two to be unified within ourselves. However, it is not enough to simply negate this willing within an individual – it must be proven impossible. To do so, we must somehow show that the individual is mutually exclusive with the synthesis of meaning and existence. It is this task that seems to lie at the heart of existentialism, which becomes clear if we are permitted to substitute the word essence for meaning. Such a substitution makes sense if we consider the concepts of the summum bonum and entelechy – the highest good and the reason for being. If the denial of the objective existence of a highest good as a reason for being is at the core of existential thought, as implied by Barrett's contention that “man does not have a ready-made essence” (Barrett 102) the scope of our negation comes into view.
By taking the synthesis of the individual with the unity of meaning and existence as impossible, we are presented with another set of alternatives – the individual as meaning and the individual as existence. Note that conceiving the individual as existence and not meaning is not synonymous with nihilism, but is instead the negation of it facilitated by holding meaning to be something which transcends objective existence. In other words, this is to say that universal meaning and individual existence refer to two different modes of being, thereby sidestepping the question of meaning while leaving it intact.
The individual as existence is the existentialist. He embraces his phenomenal nature, emphasizing the subjective realities inside himself. But what exactly is the individual as existence? At his core, he is his own awareness of his position in time and space, while at the same time the ability to act as an agent. This is reflected in Existence, edited by May, Angel, and Ellenberger, where man is characterized as neither pure subject - “that is, as having reality only as a thinking being” nor “as an object to be calculated and controlled” (May, Angel, & Ellenberger 12). Quoting Kierkegaard, they point out that “truth exists only where the individual produces it in action.” Coupled with Barrett's statement that “all truth is historical” (Barrett 107), we find the ground for Frankl's contention that the individual is secured in himself as he actualizes his potentials and solidifies them in the past. This is echoed in Irrational Man, where Barrett quotes Gasset in saying that “man has no essence, only history” (Barrett 102). In the place of the objective meaning which has been taken out of the picture by emphasizing the individual as existence, the source of worth which forms the measuring stick mentioned by Frankl is simply his own genuine being.
The qualifier “genuine” seems to be the source of Barrett's primary focus on the “Irrational Man.” According to Barrett, “intellectuals suffer a detachment from mankind” (Barrett 135). From this it may be drawn that a human being's genuine existence is outside of the comprehension of reason. Furthermore, the grounds for the worth of the individual as existence are to be found inside oneself, as Barrett says “the self's craving is beyond good and evil – it's the source” (Barrett 129) and that “mankind must become better and more evil” (Barrett 125). This meaning of this seemingly paradoxical statement becomes clear when we recall that in embracing the individual as being, the existence of an objective meaning is suspended, and thus is done no harm by mankind's actions, thus resolving the antimony.
From Man's Search For Meaning, we find that even in the face of suffering we may find comfort in our own being, ultimately rising above all misery. By viewing our own suffering as a chance to better ourselves, we may reroute the pain of suffering and recast it as a human achievement. Thus, “life's meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the meaning of unavoidable suffering” (Frankl 118). It must be pointed out that in Frankl's use of the word meaning, he is still embracing the individual as existence, for the meaning of one's own achievement can only be a personal one, not a universal one, thus his own existence grounds itself. Frankl explicitly says that “what matters is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment” (Frankl 113).
Again, Frankl has provided us with an opportunity to further our investigation through a potential negation and subsequent rejection of the individual as existence. The problem arises from Frankl's statement that “what can never be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering” (Frankl 118). In Frankl's formulation, this suffering may be overcome by casting it as an opportunity for human achievement. As the suffering itself is unavoidable, it follows that its conception as an achievement does not negate the suffering which has caused it, but outweighs it with satisfaction. While this may be sufficient for some people, we must now address the possibility that the achievement itself produces insufficient satisfaction to overcome suffering. Perhaps the satisfaction is tainted by a recognition of its transience. More problematic is the dependence of any satisfaction in achievement upon an individual's own association between the achievement and himself. For it is not enough to simply have achieved something, that something must be intrinsically valuable, otherwise all achievements are theoretically neutral. To illustrate, we may examine Frankl's “paradoxical intention”, in which the logotherapist directs the patient to come to find satisfaction in conclusions such as “now I will show them what a good scribbler I am” (for a crippled bookkeeper in danger of losing his job due to his inability to write clearly) or “now I will sweat ten quarts” (for a man afraid of sweating). In these examples, the patients derived their satisfaction from the fact that they were the ones who had achieved something that others could not do. As such, these people associated the achievement with their uniqueness, thus finding some worth in themselves.
However, the possibility remains that one might not see any intrinsic value within himself, and as such derives no satisfaction from associating an achievement with his being. For such an individual to achieve any satisfaction, he draw his worth from an association with an achievement which is valuable in itself. If human misery is truly to be overcome, these individuals are perhaps in the most dire need. This form of existential misery is potentially the most insidious, as the subject draws pain from inside himself as the default state. Finding no relief in the existential solution of the individual as existence, such a person must reject himself and become an individual as meaning. In order to render the synthesis of meaning and existence impossible, this person must choose to reject his individuality. Such a person must look out into the world and find something to subsume themselves into something they identify as possessing a value that they may obtain through communion with.
Unfortunately, the happiness of these people depends on their ability to find something to rest upon which they cannot rationally reduce to meaninglessness, and as such happiness is indirectly proportional to mental acuity. Perhaps this is the reason why Barrett and so many existential philosophers have abandoned the faith in reason alone. And it is likely what Dostoevsky was alluding to when he states that “he was a man of conscience, and therefore very often depressed” (Dostoevsky 10). In a similar vein, Dostoevsky states that the loftiness of one's nature is associated with the propensity for cynical thoughts (Dostoevsky 15), and Frankl casts cynicism as a defense against nihilism (Frankl 153). From these fragments we can gather that these people need to believe in something (hence the lofty nature or need to defend against nihilism), and that they are prone to analysis of the objective value of things (evidenced by conscience and cynicism). These two features are somehow associated with depression. The individual as meaning, unable to find value in himself and having not yet found it in the world, retains the hope in possibly finding it someday by zealously razing everything which fails him. This fervor is what others observe as cynicism, pessimism, and mistanthropy.
For the individual as meaning, who has however renounced his individuality, forsaking his own being as a martyr to a greater cause, there are two escapes from unending suffering. The first is by subsuming himself into the pursuit of his object of meaning. Frankl alluded to this phenomenon in his statement that “the more a human forgets himself, the more human he is and the more he actualizes” (Frankl 115). By identifying himself more and more with the object of his pursuit in order to share in its value, he thus abandons his individuality. A caricature of this may be found in Socrates' statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Unfortunately, the possibility remains that he may not find a worthy pursuit, whether resulting from a clinical malfunction (which Frankl treats as a class outside of logotherapy, to be treated using psychotherapy or medication (Frankl 143), or from the potential reality of no objective meaning amenable to a legitimately superior intellect (possibly relating to correlates between IQ and mood disorders) which Frankl does not believe can be treated with therapy (Frankl 123). In the face of this possibility, there remains one final alternative – an end to one's being. Perhaps it is for this reason that Frankl found that some patients could be comforted by imagining looking back at their lives from the deathbed – cognitively, it was the context of the end of their lives as opposed to the ensuing reflection that eased their pain (see Frankl 120-121). Again we may recall Kirilov's statement that freedom only results when it doesn't matter if one lives or dies.
As mentioned, the task of transcending human misery was to ask how non-suffering was anything but impossible. One who is strictly concerned with escaping pain may hope for ignorance, or find relief in Aldous Huxley's three year plan. But the harder case, the individual looking to truly transcend misery itself, has potentially found an answer in aiming beyond the sěma, finding the strength to carry on with an unscathed hope that there is something greater than the finitude and contingency of their time on earth.
Frankl, Viktor. Man's Search For Meaning. New York: Simon & Schuster Publishers, 1984.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Trans, Michael R. Katz. Devils. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Barrett, William. Irrational Man. New York: Doubleday, Inc., 1962.
May, Rollo, Ernest Angel and Henri F. Ellenberger. Existence.
Posted by mindolovian at 7:16 AM
I snagged this from the wikipedia page on haloperidol, which is used to treat psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia. It is also used in emergency medicine to treat acute psychotic episodes. Anyway, I thought this passage tied in really well with the quote about psychological compulsion by Huxley on my info page. Here it is:
There are multiple reports from Soviet dissidents, including medical staff, on the use of haloperidol for punitive purposes or simply to break the prisoners' will. Notable dissidents that were administered haloperidol as part of their court ordered treatment were Sergei Kovalev and Leonid Plyushch. The accounts of Plyushch in the West, after he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1976, were instrumental in the triggering Western condemnation of Soviet practices at the World Psychiatric Association's 1977 meeting. The widespread use of haloperidol in the Soviet Union's psychiatric system has a simple explanation: besides chlorpromazine it was the only other psychotropic drug produced in quantity in the USSR. Due to the notoriety haloperidol gained in oppressive regimes, Nigel Rodley, a former United Nations special investigator on torture, said: "In the history of oppression, using haloperidol is kind of like detaining people in Abu Ghraib."
Haloperidol has been used for its sedating effects during the deportations of aliens by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), although its use has been reduced in 2008. During 2002-2008, federal immigration personnel sedated 384 deportees, an average of 64 a year, and haloperidol was used in 356 of those cases. The reduction in 2008 followed court challenges over the practice. Data collected through Freedom of Information Act requests by The Dallas Morning News show that ICE sedated only 10 people in the 2008 fiscal year, and haloperidol was used in only three cases. The documents show sedation was used disproportionately against Africans, but officials denied allegations that race was a factor. Following the lawsuits, U.S. officials changed the procedure so that it is done on the recommendation of medical personnel and it requires a court order.
The use of haloperidol for deportations from the United States was brought to public attention in May 2007 when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) investigated the drugging of two men, a Christian minister from Indonesia and a Senegalese national. In June that year the ACLU sued the Department of Homeland Security, ICE and a division of the U.S. Public Health Service over the drugging of the two men, and sought class-action status. In a report to the U.S. Senate, Julie Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for the ICE, acknowledged that over a seven-month period between Oct. 1, 2006, and April 30, 2007, 56 deportees were given psychotropic drugs, of which 50 were given haloperidol, but 33 of them had no history of psychological problems, and were given the medicine because of "combative behavior." Neuropharmacologist Philip Seeman pointed out that some deportees were given a total of 30 milligrams of the drug, which Seeman characterized as "really high," especially for people who have never taken the drug before.
Posted by mindolovian at 7:11 AM