Stalked by Philosophy.

scary soc

Well, I’m happy to say that last Thursday I completed my final exam for my Open University degree, specifically (for this particular module) in Philosophy of mind.

Over the last four years I have completed six modules (in this order): Creative writing (Levels 2 & 3), Arts Past & Present (level 1), An Introduction to Philosophy (level 2), Introducing the Social Sciences (level 1) and Philosophy of Mind (Level 3).

It was a funny order to do things in, but then, I never actually intended to do a degree. I started with creative writing in order to become a better writer, and spread the first two courses over two years. Then I thought… what the hell. I enjoyed the experience, and I thought that philosophy, arts and social sciences would give me a good understanding of universal themes and thoughts in the world that could only benefit my writing and general creative activities.

All in all, I was right! It turns out that philosophy has been the real stand-out component (after the creative writing), and although I don’t necessarily ascribe to a great deal of Western philosophy conclusions, I have, and do, find the questions it raises fascinating and very important.

That said, since completing the exam (where I had to answer three questions in three hours with nothing but one of them old-fangled pen things and no notes) I was looking forward to a break from the concepts of life, the universe and well, everything. But that was not to be, because now I don’t have to think about it for exam-passing purposes (fingers crossed) – I’ve only just started to realise IT IS EVERYWHERE.

I always knew in principle it was everywhere – it’s quite hard to think of any subject that isn’t touched by fundamental questions of reality. But now, more than ever, it is reverberating around my head, as if the pressure from the exam has been alleviated and released a kind of dense thought-steam into my noggin. Not only that, but it seems to crop up on everything I watch, read and hear, and in so many conversations. It’s like I’m being stalked by Socrates, constantly around the corner and occasionally shouting ‘But why Garry? But why? Why does the cat meow? Does it even understand the concept of communication and that you are a separate entity with your own thoughts and feelings? Does it Garry? Does it?’.

‘Go away Socrates!’ I shout back. But he was never there… He was never there.

Even trying to escape into a film didn’t help. As I watched the passable remake of ‘Robocop’, and considered the main character ‘Murphy’: nothing but a brain, face and spinal column, hanging in a Robotic shell, having his emotions suppressed and losing his sense of ‘self’, I thought ‘hang on!’, and up popped Daniel Dennett, the modern philosopher of mind – ‘What is consciousness? Is it just the processing of information? Why are we different from machines? ARE we different from machines?!’ he screamed.

And I shout back ‘Go away Daniel Dennett. Go away with your physicalist theories that struggle to explain the phenomenological nature of experience and therefore redefine it in order to solve the problem.. .’ But this time, he really was there, and I had to chase him with a stick. (On a real note, it was as I was contemplating that Robocop was actually one big metaphor for the nature of consciousness that I realised one of the characters is actually called ‘Dennett’ in a not very subtle nod to the philosopher).

Not only that, but one of the first conversations I had after my exam was a friend asking me “what actually is philosophy?” in order for me to explain to a child she was looking after. I started to answer, but then I thought… hang on! And in the corner of my eye I spotted Plato, pointing a gun at me, saying “yeah Garry, what actually IS philosophy? Tell me! Tell me so I can write it down many years ago and then use this gun to make people listen”… which led to all sorts of causal loop and possible quantum world problems, I can tell you.

How was I to escape? I needed some kind of activity that wouldn’t challenge me to think about all these grand metaphysical and empirical questions. Something… easy.

Thank God the football’s on.

Not to have a go at the sport. I actually do watch and enjoy it (international matches at least). But it ain’t half easy on the brain.

Man kick ball. Other man kick man. Man blow whistle. Man kick ball again. Etc… It’s almost like it doesn’t matter what happens… in fact, it’s exactly like it doesn’t matter what happens. There is something in the relative pointlessness of it all that I relish. It matters to some people, some of the time, but only subjectively, not actually. Yes, football is just what you bring to it. Those men are not kicking a ball, they are kicking projected desires and hopes on your behalf in some kind of socially accepted contract and… hang on… there’s someone in the room with me… it’s only bloody Immanuel Kant! ‘Tell me about the nature of football and human desires!’ he is shouting, brandishing a machete, ‘construct football as a metaphor for the transcendental presupposition of experience itself!’ he continues…

It seems there is no escape.

Advertisements

Some thoughts on emotions – Friday Philosophy!

So, for the last four weeks or so I’ve been working my way through my Open University course material on the philosophy of emotions. It’s heavy-going stuff, and I definitely will need to revise the multitude of philosophers and theories covered, but as a revision exercise, and something I thought you might find interesting, here are some initial thoughts – based on a revision question posed at the end of the course-book.

Now, I’m not going for an academic essay here, these are my instinctive opinions, quickly formed. So no references or quotes; I want to see what comes out when I start writing my answers. Philosophy is often about the testing of intuitive response, and so, if you are interested in this, see how you think and feel about the topics and my answers.

Does it make sense to describe someone as being justified in feeling sad, jealous or loving a particular person?

Here we are talking about ‘justification’ when it comes to rational thought versus emotion. Much of this topic revolves around whether rational thought requires or is inhibited by emotion. To that ends: what does the emotion serve? What does it do that pure rationality cannot? (if anything).

Strategically, maybe feeling sad or jealous has a long term rationality. It may not help the immediate situation, and it could be argued that the physiological and psychological effects of sadness/jealousy are not very practical in the short term. i.e. When something bad happens, it would practically make more sense to deal with arising issues in a very ordered calm and measured way – not something that acute depression or seething envy is particularly good at doing. However, the event, the content of the reason you are sad/jealous, is the culmination (presumably) of causal factors, both internally and externally, that have led to the emotional response.

For example, I am jealous of another person’s success – this is linked to my beliefs about what I feel I am worth, the opportunities I’ve encountered, my abilities and so on. So, if I get passed up for promotion, and I believe it is unjust somehow (whether true or not), I may experience jealousy. In the short term, that doesn’t serve me well. It is an unpleasant emotion, it is likely to negatively affect how I interact with and think about that person and situation, and usually not in a very constructive fashion (being jealous about something rarely enables you to do anything about it – it can lead to resolve, but resolve doesn’t have to follow jealously, it can be independent and born of ambition, so jealousy seems an unnecessary step).

However, if we are creatures that learn from experience, if we are ‘in touch’ with our emotional responses, the unpleasantness of a jealous reaction to a situation may help us with future desires. After all, not to be jealous, implies an understanding of what jealousy is in the first place. If I go for future promotions and remember how my attitudes towards the last attempt led to a terrible envy, I will try and avoid those triggers this time. I will make sure I am as prepared as I can be, I will make sure my beliefs about the situation are well founded, and I will mentally prepare reasons why, if unsuccessful, either the situation or my abilities are the problem, not some negative paranoia or favouritism (I may well conclude that there is a negative element, but if so, logically I should want to avoid being in that situation in the first place).

So, to look at the alternative, what if jealousy is all bad? If you believe this then the logical ideal would be to not get that ‘shock’ of jealously when we encounter a situation like described. What would the result of that be? I would propose that not to feel jealous in certain situations would result in us fruitlessly repeating negative decisions and becoming dogmatic in our attitudes. There is perhaps a certain positive conditioning that arises from negative emotions. This doesn’t mean that it only takes one bout to be ‘cured’ of negative emotions and behaviours, just that each exposure should help us to learn something new and tailor our beliefs and attitudes to prevent, or reduce the severity of, a reoccurrence if possible.

We are multi-faceted beings, and I like the idea that we respond to all perceptions and thoughts with every emotion, it is just that some are so slight we don’t even register them most of the time, conditioned as we are to expect a surge in one over the other in less complex situations. This could explain why ambiguous events lead us to ambivalence, because more than one emotion is competing for our attention – leading us to make choices and take gambles on which may serve us best. But emotions, or logic, can never actually know which choice is right (epistemology shows us that there is no such thing as true future knowledge) and therefore all must hold court with our judgements to some degree.

So those are some initial thoughts on ‘negative emotions’ (feeling sad, jealous) – but what about loving someone? Can it be cognitively justified to love someone? This may seem a counter intuitive question (it seems obvious really) – but think about the judgements people make for love, the personal sacrifices etc… and then think about how that stands against rationality (if you imagine rationality to mean a practical and logical response) and it does a pose an interesting question. However, I still think the answer to this is yes, it is justifiable, and rightly so. Some philosophers completely take ‘love’ out of the category of ‘emotions’ as it has such unique properties, and requires a fair amount of classification (you can love your friends, family and spouse, even your car! But though we linguistically use the same term to describe these, they are qualitatively different) – so it can be argued it deserves its own category.

I’m not so sure about the categorisation of ‘love’ at this point, but I certainly think it is a justified response. It tends to (ultimately) lead to positive outcomes for the majority of people (stability, companionship, children, cooperation, comfort etc…) and any negative effects we might associate are probably either due to the mistaken belief that love exists when it doesn’t, or a categorisation mistake (mistaking the acts of lust for acts of love for example). So, yes, it seems cognitively justified to me.

In conclusion, I suppose my overriding feeling from just this small inspection is that emotions do play an important part in our reasoning, though I am not yet down to the finer details or whether or not they are actually part of or the same thing as our reasoning (I’ll save that for my proper essay next week!). But I also think that our emotions are not just simply evolutionary ‘left-over’s’ (a kind or pre-vocal language) that get in the way of justified reasoning and that we would be better without. Quite the opposite – I do believe they came first and led to stronger ‘base’ behaviours (fight or flight), but only when that was reflective of our evolutionary requirements at the time. As we have become socially and intellectually more complex, our emotions have evolved also, and perhaps when we feel that they are not serving us well in the modern world (who wouldn’t want to not be angry in a traffic jam?), it has more to say about the modern world than it does our emotions being ‘throw-backs to a simpler time’. If more of us made emotionally led choices, or were allowed to make emotionally led choices, perhaps we would see less anger, stress, frustration and depression as a result. But this is not because our emotions are not suited to the modern world, it is because many aspects of the modern world are not suited to our emotions.

I’m writing a blog instead of doing my University work…

Yes, that’s right, it says it all in the title. Not that I don’t intend to do my University work, it’s just that before I can get my mind in gear to try and understand the intricacies of computational mind theory, I need to prime my own mind somehow. So a blog it is.

The course I am studying is the level 3 philosophy offered by the Open University. I completed level 2 last (academic) year and surprised myself by coming out of it with a distinction. So the obvious next step, is level 3. The not-so-obvious ‘other’ step, is social science, which I am also studying, mostly because I needed one more course to complete my degree, and there was nothing else left I was really interested in. (so far the social science is quite interesting, if light)

The social science course is ‘level 1’ (are you following this?) – meaning it is roughly equivalent to first year study – so full of fluff, hand-holding, broad but with not much detail. Unfortunately for me, when I started studying with the OU (about 3 years ago) – I hadn’t really planned to get a degree, I signed up purely for the creative writing courses, which I completed, and then though “why not?”

The only small problem is that thanks to my impulsive approach to education, every-time I revert back a ‘level’ I have to put up with the introductory elements that presume you have just started learning – as the assumption is you will study a couple of level 1 courses, followed by level 2, and then onto the third level. I on the other hand have gone:

Year 1: Creative writing level 2

Year 2: Creative writing level 3

Year 3: Western Philosophy level 2 / History of the arts level 1

Year 4: Philosophy of the mind Level 3 / Social Science level 1

So it’s a mixed bag of difficulty and subjects, but I’m getting through them (I’m on year 4 now, my final year before receiving a BA Honours, all being well)

But why am I telling you all this? Well, because I tried yesterday to get ahead on my philosophy and absorb three chapters of theory of mind in one go, only to find my own mind melting somewhat when I arrived upon computational theory. As far as I can tell from what I gleamed before I shut down, is that CTM (computational theory of mind) believes our thoughts to be a semantic syntax, used, like a computer would use a programme, to respond to and trigger physical and mental processes. However – it’s not as easy as all that.

So far, the philosophers I have covered in the first section on ‘the mind’, have said that we (our minds) are simply our outward behaviours, or we are the inner things that cause our behaviours , or that we are disembodied immaterial substance that communicates with, but is not part of, the material body (which I rather like but the upshot of Descartes rigid doctrine is that animals don’t feel pain – which is rubbish). But as with all Philosophy, none of them have a very clear advantage over the others, and some (CTM) are overly complicated to arrive at only a slightly different conclusion, that still has all the pitfalls of most other theories.

For example, to put it simply, if our thoughts are just the programming language of our bodies and our other thoughts, who is doing the programming? And why don’t advanced computers have any signs of free-will? Why the need for a biological component at all? Why don’t self-aware calculators spring from the dust? (I like that last one, I might use it for a short story).

This is hardly a comprehensive critique of this theories – if my essay looked like this I would be in for a hard time – but these questions are begged, and rarely, if ever answered.

A warning for you who may fall into these conversations with someone who thinks they ‘get it’ or know the answer – they don’t. This debate has raged for thousands of years, and will rage for thousands more. Advances in neuroscience have brought a new dimension to understanding what we are in our ‘eds, but not answered anything to do with the simplest thought ‘I am’ – which is what Descartes was getting at, even if he felt the need to place this in a rigid doctrine to try and encompass his particular faith.

My favourite dichotomy, put forward by David Hume, is that the self is a ‘fiction’ cause by the rapid mental processes, merely creating the illusion of a greater whole. It’s very easy to place this in an constructed argument as follows:

A. An illusion requires an observer.

B. The self is an illusion.

Therefore: The self requires an observer.

In the semantic logic of philosophy, if statement A and B are true, and the conclusion encapsulates both statements, the proposition must be true. This is a sound and valid argument, and one that defeats most theories of mind that try to ‘cut out’ the observer. Simply replace statement A with ‘A programme requires a programmer’, B with ‘The self is a programme’ and we have a similar conclusion, with ‘observer’ replaced by ‘programmer’, which arguably, is the same thing.

There is a lot of semantic and even syntactic argument in philosophy, as if we can unlock truth with combinations of words, or derail theories with scrutiny of the language used. This is necessary, as these concepts have a certain precision that needs to be communicated, so sloppy language can dilute conclusions. This is exactly what happened with Hume when he used the word fiction. A fiction can’t exist in a vacuum. (cue jokes about hoovering up Jane Eyre…)

Anyway, as I said, I just needed to get my mind going a bit, and this is a bit of a ramble. Maybe  you found it interesting, maybe you didn’t – but I’m off now to try and wrap my head around the details of CTM, and as interesting as it will be, I never expect it will answer these questions, I feel it is one of those causal riddles that lie at the heart of everything and we may never know – but we must try, as it keeps us linked to ourselves as energetic and intelligent beings, seemingly blessed with the rationality to have these debates out of all living things, a task we must at least acknowledge.

To lend or not to lend, is that even the question?

Before I get started, just so you know, I’m not an economist. Therefore, like most of you, I pretty much rely on one man, the BBC business/economics editor, Robert ‘The Drawl’ Peston, for all of my information about economics in this country.

This morning Robert told me (via Radio 4 – he wasn’t in my house, I don’t think), that we have somewhat of a conundrum in the banking world. The government want banks to lend to businesses and ‘the economy’ again, but simultaneously they also want them to hold higher ‘tier 1 capital ratio’s’ in line with BASEL III recommendations of around 7%.

You got that? Good, because here is the tricky part… The two banks that have been lending and meeting the governments targets, namely Barclays and Nationwide (which isn’t strictly a bank, but never mind) are now going to get penalised by the regulators for not holding the requisite 7% of capital against the loan books, and now have a ‘shortfall’ of capital… Oh no! Double oh no! Triple oh no!

Here’s the stickler, the best way for banks to hold the capital is by not lending. But we want them to lend, and we also want them to hold capital. Robert says, (and he makes clear this is in no way a criticism of politicians) that this is contradictory.

Thank God, or if you prefer, the purely random complexity of life to emerge out of just one of an infinite number of universes, for Robert Peston! Without him we would surely be ignorant. For now we know the two choices that face the economy, to lend, or not to lend, but is that really the question?

As I said, I’m not an economist. Thank God, of if you prefer… etc. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a profession that gets itself caught in incompatible binary choices and still can’t see the utter pointlessness of its existence. Let’s put it like this, have you ever played Sudoku? I’m going to presume ‘yes’ or that you are at least aware of it. Now this may seem obvious to you seasoned players, but I used to think with Sudoku that if you arrived at a point where you had only two possible numbers in several boxes, and were unable to eliminate any others, you were faced with a choice. One or the other, and then see what happens. I was really pleased to (only recently) find out strategies that, although complicated, avoid you ever having to make a random choice in Sudoku. I still haven’t mastered them all yet, but I’m getting there.

Now imagine playing Sudoku where you were left with two choices, and there was no process you could follow, or any amount of computer analysis that could tell you for sure which number to go with. Now imagine that even if you chose either numbers, they could still inevitably fail, and no correct answer could ever be obtained. I think you would agree that it would constitute a rather poor, frustrating and pointless game.

Well, it is my opinion (remember, not an economist) – that the economy and the financial systems of this world are exactly that. A Sudoku puzzle that cannot be solved. We’ve been at it for years, but now it has come to the crunch. Two numbers in a box, and no reason to choose one over the other, as both make the solution invalid.

For the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, this would constitute a ‘paradigm’ that has been fully inhabited and rigidly defined by its architects, defended strongly by its adherents, and been more-or-less suitable for our purposes to a point. However, as Kuhn described with science and political structures, the dogmatic adherence to this paradigm will reach a revolutionary phase, where the underlying errors in its foundations and principles can no longer be ignored as they are causing catastrophic problems that can’t be reconciled.

An easy way to demonstrate this (courtesy of Open University author Jon Pike)  is with astronomy. For centuries we relied on a geo-centric model of the solar system (placing the Earth at the centre) which was fundamentally wrong. However, the principles were still sufficient to enable steady progress in navigation techniques and solve celestial puzzles. Eventually, over hundreds of years, as our needs became more complex and our techniques more advanced, little inaccuracies began to form and adjustments were made to the calculations. But the underlying false premise remained, and as real-world problems occurred in navigation and astronomical calculations, the opponents to the system, who had until that point been branded idiots or even heretic’s, were finally able to supplant the old system, firmly placing the sun at the centre of the solar system. And lo! Suddenly all the little errors were rectified by the truth of the new system, and humanity made a great leap forwards.

So it is that we have arrived at the same point with the current financial system. There is a false premise somewhere which unless removed and the whole framework restructured, will constantly prevent us from progressing. My guess (not an economist remember) is that this flawed premise lies in whatever function of the system also causes the huge wealth inequalities in this world by granting those with vast resources the ability to exponentially increase said resources via trading on loans/debts etc… I think that buying money to make money, with money that never existed, sounds like a pretty damn ridiculous concept that benefits a few people with access to such scams, and depresses everyone else.

But I’m not an economist, so what do I know? Maybe Robert Peston will wake me up one morning (not literally – look, I don’t live with Peston ok?), and say:

“The problem with the IMF’s plan to demand more capital ratio’s from the banks while stimulating the economy and avoiding further rounds of quantitative easing from the BOE is that they are the dogmatic defender’s of a paradigm based on a flawed premise and we need a revolutionary shift in how we structure and distribute resources if this world is ever going to progress to a more enlightened and equal age of shared prosperity.”

If he ever did say that, I would probably ask him to move in with me, but alas, I fear such words will never slowly drone out of his lips and through my radio to my anxious ears. You see the problem with a ‘paradigm shift’ is that those who have made a profession out of the current system will defend it, as it is in their interests to do so. This is why the mainstream media does not give us an accurate enough picture of the world, because it rejects the possibilities of alternatives that could render its expertise redundant. Not that it doesn’t have a place, it certainly does, but we need to think about and explore alternatives to all sorts of accepted truths that are actually just abstract concepts of our own device, able to be revised and replaced when they become unworkable and damaging to equality, which I would argue ‘economics’ certainly and irrefutably has.

But I’m not an economist, so what do I know?

References:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22983363 (Peston on Barclays/Nationwide)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Kuhn – (A good starting point on Kuhn and his philosophy)