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.

A Discourse on Empathy

If there is one thing I have learned in the past two years of studying philosophy, it is that the meanings we take words to have are often contestable with even the slightest of scrutiny. I was recently invited to take part in a discourse about ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’ and this learning held true once again.

When I say ‘contestable’, I mean in a specific sense. Broadly, we can look at definitions of these words and  come to a mutual, universal consensus, and that is what we basically do in everyday language and communication (otherwise we wouldn’t get through a sentence!). But when asked to consider these terms, we soon realise how nuanced, and sometimes divergent individual interpretations can be. Empathy, for example, can be defined in the following terms:

                “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.” (“empathy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 26 March 2014.)

This seems a good place to start, however, what the OED description lacks is any subjective account of what the word means. It tells us nothing of ‘how’ we empathise (nor is it intended to), but by striving to objectively define the term, it does offer us some initial insight.

 

There is a more commonly used, metaphorical description that I’m sure you’ve all heard before: ‘Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’.

We often find the use of metaphors in language to describe abstract concepts, perhaps because they tend to offer us a richer, novel, yet accessible way to explore an idea in terms we are more familiar with.  Just the simple idea of ‘walking’ the life of another conjures up sights, sounds, interactions and experiences – the imagination, consideration and appreciation of what it might be like to be somebody else.

But notice that in both the dictionary and folk definition of this term, no ‘normative’ description if offered, i.e. it makes no qualitative assessment of the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the act of empathising: its positive or negative virtues.

In considering this, I am led to thinking that empathy is in its nature a passive, innate ability within us. In my recent discussion I found myself saying  something along the lines of: “empathy just happens to me – I don’t choose it – but it does moderate how I then act”.

As a writer I often try (and actively seek out) the opportunity to empathise with characters and real world ‘like’ examples who I don’t agree with, or have little in common with. This is to help me try and understand their motivations, intentions and world view. Notice how the word ‘understand’ begins to creep in at this point. Of course, we can never fully understand anyone else’s states of mind, but empathy is the best tool we’ve got, and it is also necessarily intertwined with the imagination.

From this, I would propose, that judgement follows, and as a result, emotional states such as ‘compassion’ can be evoked. So although this blog, and my recent discussion, is titled ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’, maybe the order needs to be jigged around a little, (and a few words added):

 

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There may be a case to be made that ‘understanding’ and ‘judgement’ are one and the same thing, however, that needn’t affect the above, given their central positions in this chain of reasoning. The inclusion of ‘experience and imagination’ at the start of this chain is just an acknowledgement that without the sensibilities to experience and the ability of the imagination to ‘re-represent’ ideas in our minds, we could get no further anyway.

* I used ‘anger’ as another example in the ‘emotional state’ parenthesis to try and demonstrate that ‘empathy’ alone is no guarantee of positive outcomes, but I don’t think that this conclusion is in itself a negative one, or in any way lessens the importance of empathy.

Initial Conclusions

Perhaps the more we try and understand others, on an emotional and factual basis, the better judgement’s we will make, and the more apt our emotional responses may be. It seems obvious that empathy stands at the forefront of this process, but it needn’t be one way. If we imagine the above chain as a snake eating its own tail, rather than a straight line with finite ends, then we can ‘feedback’ our own resultant emotional states into our empathy, and come to new and more complex conclusions. (Think of a psychiatrist asking ‘how does that make you feel?’ and then that answer informing a new round of thinking which may shed light on deeper, more subtle emotional states once this is considered; a kind of ‘self-empathy’, if you like).

Similarly, it seems this process works in degree’s of fidelity: it’s quality is dependent on how much information we actively seek out about the subject (the preconditions). It seems obvious that the less know I about someone, the less I am able to empathise, but that will not prevent me from empathising to some degree. So, if we want to empathise better, we need to seek out and experience as much as possible about the subject, or our resultant emotional states may be misjudged, underdeveloped or erroneous. (I would argue that this is the cause of much hatred and misunderstanding in the world – not a lack of empathy, but an underdeveloped and ill-informed empathy – a twisted or broken empathy, if you like).

Maybe, therefore, a project to understand, measure, and even look (in some cases) to repair empathy, would need to consider the range of experiences and information available (and readily accessible) needed for people to build a greater knowledge, and as a result, experience a better quality of empathy and a more apt emotional connection with others in the world.

Authors plea!

Please feel free to dispute, elaborate and comment on this initial exploration of empathy as I have set it out here. I enjoy the use of philosophical methods to explore concepts, but I also get frustrated with some approaches that purport to ‘know’ the answer. The value of an exercise such as this (I believe) is to throw up new considerations, tease out assumptions, and lead to continued discourse about the topic in the hope of shaping ‘real world’ activities and inform considered thinking and outcomes. For example, maybe ‘empathy’ is the process I’ve set out above, not just part of it – or maybe it’s nothing like this at all! There is still a lot to be discussed and explored here – this is barely a scratch on the tip of a massive iceberg (there goes those metaphors again!).

Thank you for reading.

Garry Abbott

 

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The Philosophy of ‘Wahey!’

Here’s another routine that if I was a stand-up, I would do. But I’m not, so I’ve written it down instead:

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This year, all being well, I will finally get my degree. Only a few more essays and an exam to go.

I came back to higher education as a mature student, being in my thirties, which can be strange and socially awkward for some people, but not for me! I still tore up the town on Freshers’ week and drank my fair share of discounted drinks, oh yes – I mean, I study at the Open University so when I say town, I mean my living room, and the discounts were two for one on Cabernet Sauvignon from the local Bargain Booze, and when I say ‘tore up’ I mean I watched the hell out of the ‘Game of Thrones’ on box-set, and it wasn’t really Freshers’ week, just every week really – but it’s more or less the same thing isn’t it?

Anyway, I’ve been studying philosophy, which is a fascinating subject, it really is, but I do find it spends a lot of time asking the really big questions, like ‘is there a God?’, ‘what is the true nature of the self?’, ‘can we trust our senses to interpret reality when they can be deceived by nature and dreams? And therefore do we have any reason to believe anything exists at all other than our own consciousness, ergo cogito sum, do I think, and therefore, am I?’. But I sometimes wonder if the smaller questions in life might not be more illuminating, such as ‘why do we all go “wahey!” every time someone drops a glass in a public place?’

It might not sound like the cutting edge of philosophical study, but sometimes, looking in small and seemingly insignificant places can shed great light on otherwise dark places, a bit like finding a torch in a sock draw. And also, despite a lot of people thinking that philosophy is an inherently un-testable, highly theoretical subject, there are actually a lot of avenues for empirical research we can look at here. For example, it seems to me that the actual shattering of a glass is in some way tacitly connected to the utterance of the sound ‘wahey!’ in any instance. I can’t recall the last time I was sitting in a pub or restaurant and I heard the sound of a small plastic beaker bouncing off the floor and a group of total strangers all collectively cheered. Can you? No. Because it doesn’t happen.

So what is it specifically about the dropping of glass that causes this phenomenon and moreover, do the circumstances in which the glass is dropped impact on the resultant behaviour? Here’s a thought experiment for you, a popular tool in philosophy where we hypothesise a scenario and then think about how it might play out, and what implications this could have:

Say we’re in a chemical biological testing facility, and a man walks past holding a highly contagious and deadly strain of flu in a glass beaker. The man drops the beaker. It smashes. Does everybody in the laboratory go ‘wahey!’ before they break out into screams of ‘oh my God! We’re all going to die!’ and start sleeping with each other? Granted, we can’t test that theory literally, but we could mock it up, film it, and pass it off as a new cutting edge comedy series for the likes of BBC3’s new ‘online’ digital output.

Also, do factors like scale, volume, distance and number of participants make any difference? If we change one of these parameters, does it have a significant causal impact on the result? For instance, if I drop a small shot glass, 50 metres away from a solitary unaware subject (so as not to skew the results) will she just let out a little ‘wahey!’ to herself? Will she just think it, but be inhibited by the lack of social context in which to express herself? Or will she run away from the man who is slowly advancing towards her repeatedly dropping larger and larger glass objects and filming her? From this we can find if it is a matter of degree, a sliding scale as such, of ‘wahey!’ behaviour (that from here on I shall call W-behaviour, cos it sounds more academic), or if there is a critical mass and combination of factors required to elicit said W-behaviour.

And what can we learn from all this? Interestingly, we can learn that after studying philosophy for the last few years, I am prone to over-thinking. Which just goes to show, if you put a torch in a sock drawer, you may just find those pants you thought you’d lost.

It’s all connected.

The Board Room Game.

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My desk sits in the square bowl of a test tube corridor that marches away from my line of sight into a corner I never get to turn. On each side of the passage there are adjacent doors where my advisors wait for the ping.

The room is stark bur brightly lit. My desk itself has shades of oak and brutal corners. There must be a way to receive the ping, so I guess there is a screen now. Maybe once it was a plastic inbox, or even a telephone; but now it is a screen. I figure this screen is to my right, at an angle, so that it doesn’t obscure my view of the corridor. There are no other computer parts. The screen is already connected through its conception in this place.

As I reckon it, I am dressed in a white shirt with black trousers and shoes. I suppose I am Mr Formal. My job is to be formal, reasoned, measured. Perhaps that is why my desk has no adornments or decoration. It is a bare room, waiting for the ping.

I don’t know what the other rooms look like. I’ve never been in to see them. When the time comes, those who are interested will flock out and channel down to the angular bell bottom suite. They will argue their case and I will listen and judge, maybe interrogate, maybe ignore. It all depends, as you will see.

The screen lights up (for it was otherwise dark and unreflective), and there is a proposition, a ping.

“Should I care about this?” it reads. It is accompanied by images of sneering men making decrees upon those less fortunate.

Should I care? I don’t know. I will wait to see who shows.

Doors start to open at various distances, but that is no issue. The occupants move at different speeds to compensate. Some are quick to my desk, others drag their feet. Whether they come from near or far is really not important.

I can never be sure which doors will open. They all get a copy of the same ping, the same question, the same relevant supporting information from banks below or above us (I’ve never been). Some may join later as the discourse develops, late to the game but spurred by some new concern or data, or they may not.

First at my desk, looking much like me (exactly like me) is Pandora. A pretty name for a man. We gave him that name. None of us really have names. He carries a can of worms that he hasn’t been able to put down since we discovered the particularly strange metaphor, and is permanently topped by a neon question mark. Other than that, he looks exactly like me, right down to the black shoes.

‘Is there something more to this?’ he asks.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well there’s what we’ve been told, and what we know already, but is there more we don’t know? Can we look further, deeper?’ he continues.

‘Not before I’ve heard the others’ I reply as usual. And here they come.

The next, Pyrrho, has joined us. He is a lot like me, but his shoulders ride higher.

‘What difference does it make? I mean, to us. Will it affect us?’

‘Maybe’ replies Pandora, ‘we’d need to know more.’

‘Do we? Do we really? If we don’t know it, and it’s not apparent, then what’s the problem here? Other than those we go and find’ he persists.

Before Pandora can answer Lyssa has pushed through the others and slammed his hand down on my desk. He is my image, but red in the face and he rarely stops moving.

‘This pisses me off!’ he screams at me, and the others, ‘who do they think they are? They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it! We should do something, NOW!’

He circles around, hand over mouth and eyes bulging, but of course, he cannot decide what to do: only I can decide. Though he does scare me, I don’t like him. On rare occasion he has held me by the throat and forced me to consider no others. But usually, he goes back to his room and seethes quietly to himself.

‘We should get more information first’ suggests Pandora.

‘Why bother?’ intervenes Pyrrho.

‘Why wait!’ demands Lyssa.

Anyone else to the table? Not just now. They may come out and appeal soon, but it is time to make a decision. I address the lobby.

‘Okay everybody. Here’s what we’ll do. Go back to your rooms and watch your monitors. I’ll call up what we’ve got, and we’ll go from there.’

‘What’s the point?’ says Pyrrho, whose memory is long but selective, ‘it will be the same as always. The options will be many and unrealistic. They will deter us from our primary objectives. Lyssa will calm down eventually, as usual, and Pandora, well he’ll get his day when we have a moment to spare I’m sure. Why not make the decision then?’

‘Go back and watch your monitors’ I repeat, and they do.

Moments later we are all appraised and gathered once again.

‘Has anyone anything further to add? Now you’ve seen the options?’

A more sedate Lyssa steps up.

‘Maybe I overreacted before. I’ve been talking to my colleagues. I mean, we’re not happy about this, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t want to take the lead. Not just yet’.

A predictable response. I look to Pandora.

‘It is something we would like to look into further, but not at this time, not as a matter of priority.’

‘And what of you Pyrrho? As if I need to ask.’

‘Whatever’ he says.

We are all sick with guilt. I know they feel it because I feel it too. It rumbles in our stomachs which are otherwise devoid of contents. There is still time for this to change what happens next: unless we take our medicine.

‘Let’s see how we feel after this’ I suggest. On the desk there are four small misty plastic caps filled with a dose of elixir. It is hard to tell from the colour, being a deep plum purple, but I suspect it is strong in pragmatics.

We all pick up and pour down, and wait. It soothes the guilt somewhat, not entirely, but it bolsters our resolve. It has a hint of selfish determination followed by notes of possible future action.

‘I think we all know what we need to do Gentlemen’ I conclude, and obligingly the screen presents me with the preferred option written in bold type, enclosed in a shaded grey box. It reads:

“Stay the course. We can do more about this later.”

Underneath there is the a tick and a cross. I press the tick and the image flicks to black. The others recede back to their rooms.

Inside me the concoction stirs and repeats a little. Outside of me the television changes to the next news story as I drain another cup of tea and think about what I need to do today, how I can ‘stay the course’.

My screen flicks into action with the next proposition and we start again. This will happen a million times at a million moments today, but not all will make it ‘to the top’ otherwise we’d all be for it. We would crank to a grinding halt and make no further steps, for the choices of so many. And we can’t let that happen because, well, because we just can’t.

In search of the immaterial: A short discourse on the mind.

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Prior to the enlightenment movement of the late 17th and 18th Centuries (a movement towards rationalist logic, usually characterised by empirical research and reasoning) there was a place in philosophy (and science in general) for the concept of ‘immaterial substance’, or the soul if you prefer.

This view dates back to Aristotle (and beyond) and still persists today in some branches of philosophy, but to a much lesser degree than the alternative ‘mind-function identity theories’ that were popularised by scientific rationalists (in which all states of the human mind, our capacity for reason and such like, are equated purely to the physical function which performs them, and nothing else).

To put it in more accessible language, the prevailing theories (that have undoubtedly been of use to science) is that we are merely a bag of bones and matter, nothing more, whereas dualists (as coined by Rene Descartes and following in the Aristotelian tradition) believe there is an unseen, (as yet) immeasurable quality to our being that works in conjunction with the body but is a distinct entity.

One of the features of the enlightenment and subsequent thinking is that it allows for atheism and the absence of a deity, indeed this is a prerequisite for much of the work it achieved. Prior to this it was not only a cultural assumption that had to be built into theories, it was often enforceable by law and punishment.

Due to this there has been a kind of conflation between the notion of the immaterial soul and the existence of deities in subsequent discourse. To believe one, the assumption goes, is to believe the other. Furthermore, to believe in the notion of deity, one is usually assumed to be prescribing to one of the many cultural doctrines that have formed around this concept. So, it follows in our culture for example, to believe in the immaterial, is to believe in a deity (or deities), and to believe in deities is to believe in the ‘God’ from the Christian tradition and to ascribe to the teachings and laws of the Bible.

This makes having a sensible debate on the issue of the immaterial soul rather hard to have, as the existence or otherwise of a God and the cultural implications (perceived or otherwise) that these beliefs have caused are contentious issues.

The trajectory of logical empirical thinking is to ‘reduce’ (reductionism). So for the functions of the mind responsible for high-reasoning and creative thinking (key areas of study for philosophy as these abilities seem to mark us out from other biological life), a reductionist can simply scan a human, ask them to make a series of reasoned or creative decisions, and identify areas of electrical activity in the brain that appear to correspond. The hope of such endeavour is that we can then make statements such as “when the human mind is reasoning about x, the brain state y is evoked, therefore, reasoning about x is the same thing as brain state y” and so on.

As a result, we have the ‘demystification’ of the human condition. Identity matches are catalogued, described and reproduced as reference for further study. As science continues to advance, the ability to trace these states down to smaller and more specific conditions increases. In theory, we should eventually have a blueprint for a human mind and be able to understand from scientific methods alone, all we are thinking, feeling and how we view the world.

The problem is, we haven’t arrived at this unified theory, and many would argue, each layer of reduction reveals such complex interrelations between all the component parts, that in fact, it becomes harder and harder to comprehend the whole in any useful way.

I will try and demonstrate what I mean with a little diagram.

M

/          \

A1                           A2

/\                            /\

A1(a)     A1(b)             A2(a)  A2(b)

/\             /\                    /\         /\

A1(a)x /A1(a)y    A1(b)x /A1(b)y  A2(a)x/A2(a)y  A2(b)x/A2(b)y

Okay, so my mathematic conventions may not be strict here, but hopefully it should follow. If we say M = mind (the thing we are trying to look for a unified theory of), and A1 and A2 represent such a simple binary decision matrix for an action-decision, such as ‘Shall I go for a walk?’.

So it could follow along these lines:

A1 = I will go for a walk. where

A1(a) = Is it cold? And A1(b) = Is it warm?

A1(a)x = Do I need a jacket or A1(a)y = Don’t I need a jacket?

A1(b)x = Do I need sunscreen or A1(b)y = Don’t I need sunscreen?

Where:

A2 =  I won’t go for a walk and

A2(a) = Should I go later today? And A2(b) = Should I cancel the idea?

A2(a)x =  Do I have anything else to do later today? And A2(a)y = Is the rest of the day free?

A2(b)x = Does not going for a walk make me feel good? And A2(b)y = Does not going make me feel bad?

And so on. Now the point of this little diagram is to demonstrate that even with a massive simplification of a basic decision tree like this, it is hard to see how identifying each mind state involved with each variable in isolation is of much use to anyone. If I spent my life studying the part of the mind that is responsible for A2(a)x (Do I have anything else to do today) – I am not going to be much closer to understanding what it is to be ‘M’ having decided to go for a walk.

Okay, so perhaps we don’t want to be looking in isolation then, no, we need to understand how each component relates to those above and below it in the chain of reasoning. But remember that this is a ridiculously simple rendering of a decision that pays no attention to multiple factors that could be considered. For the sake of demonstration I have manufactured a binary example, but in reality, we would be checking (consciously or not) a whole series of considerations, each leading to the unified ‘M’, and each with their own multiple conditions. On top of all that, our decisions seem to be modified by moods and emotions, which can alter states of thinking for none rational reasons and lead to unexpected outcomes – where do they come into the picture?

Now the purpose of this isn’t to ‘set the bar’ or turn away in defeat from nature’s complexity. This approach (as I mentioned) has led to some broad and specific advancements in science and psychology. What I am attempting to demonstrate it that as an absolute approach to understanding what it is to be mindful, to be of a mind, it is inadequate.

It strikes me that when considering the mind, we need to be expansive rather than reductive, in order to make sense of it, find out it’s limitations and abilities, and appreciate the holistic functions it has so brilliantly evolved. If we compare this to something that we do understand fully, like a television (because we invented it), it might make more sense. After all, a TV is nothing more than a series of lights being triggered in a particular pattern and order, repeatedly, to give the impression of a unified set of images. The show on the TV may be the most informative and life changing documentary ever to be broadcast. I am unlikely to get much from it if I am concentrating on one specific diode, relating to one specific pixel, in one corner of the screen. Indeed, learning that that one pixel goes from green to red to blue, isn’t going to tell me anything about the show.

But TVs aren’t like human minds are they, because a TV, without charge or signal, is just a vessel waiting to be activated by a force from somewhere else. To all intents and purposes, a force we can’t usually see, that carries information useless to anything but the device designed to receive it. We would find the notion of a TV operating without the added element of a signal to be ridiculous, and in comparison to the operations of the human mind, it is simple to the point of primitive.

What then if we replace the TV with a computer? Much the same in basics, but with added complex functionality. The reason I mention this is because one of the prevailing reductionist theories of mind is the ‘Computational Theory of Mind’ (CPM) – in which, as per my diagram above, the hope is to find the ‘programme’ behind our mental states in such a way that  is useful to the sciences. But as I have hopefully raised here, there are at least two problems:

1.            The programme of reduction in the time given:

A simple analogy should work here. You sit two people down in front of two identical computers and ask each to make use of it. One (the reductionist), proceeds to dismantle the facia, remove the motherboard and study the component parts. The other, the expansionist, switches it on and starts experimenting with the buttons and functions that have so obviously been presented for such use.

Now, in time, the reductionist may emerge with a detailed knowledge of the machine, down to the last microchip, but in the end, they are still going to have to switch it on and use it as intended to find out the rest. In the time given is important here, because when it comes to the human mind, the most complex computer we know of, if we give too much time over to the reductionist and neglect the expansionist, we may be missing valuable insight.

2. The implication of outside force.

What strikes me about the CPM and the whole notion of an ‘inner-language’ of thought, is that it leads logically to an agent, capable of using the mind in the way we would use the computer. Yes we can explain where the energy comes from to power it (we are after all, just walking furnaces of sorts), but that wouldn’t be enough to explain a computer. A power source is just one thing, we also need a useful functionality and an operator for it to mean anything. Now, I’m not going into design theory here, I’m sure the brain has evolved, but we do end up with a causal circularity between what is the programme, what is the programmer, and who is using it.

I’m not saying that proves anything, but if the reductionist programme is going to insist on using the computer analogy as a basis for theories, does it not have to solve this problem?

Dualism on the other hand, could explain this problem. As I said before, we would find it absurd for a TV to work without having a signal to contextualise the functions. And for the computer, if the programmer is evolution, the agent using this programme could be the immaterial substance. Drop a TV on an island isolated from the rest of humanity but within range of a transmission tower. Give it an incorporated power source and make it constantly ‘on’. Would we believe that the inhabitants of this island (presuming they don’t yet understand about frequency transmissions or TVs) would be wrong or stupid  to come up with the theory of a designer and a source substance? The fact that we don’t yet understand the spatial-temporal (or even dimensional) source of this agent, doesn’t imply it isn’t there.

Neither does it prove it is there, but the point of all this is to open up some more ideas and thoughts on the subject. I am not one for absolutism in theory, and I find that assumptions against dualism have crept in to modern philosophy and culture to a degree where we may be in danger of ‘taking the computer apart’ without even switching it on.

As with all things a balanced approach is preferable. We should perhaps give as much credence to those looking to expand our minds by exploring its functions (through meditation and spiritual practice for example) as those looking to reduce it to component parts. In the end it is all part of our thirst for knowledge and each is useful.

Thanks for reading. I would be happy to respond to any arguments or thoughts on these ideas.

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.

‘No Suitable Candidate’ or ‘To vote or not to vote in a negative democracy’

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I could be accused of missing the hype with this blog, following Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman a fortnight ago, Paxman’s own admission that he didn’t vote in the last election, and various backlash commentaries such as that made by Robert Webb and others, ‘branding’ Brand as irresponsible and even dangerous.

But then, this issue doesn’t go away just because the flash in a pan media hype has died down following one interview with a high profile celebrity. I’ve been having this debate internally and with my peer group since the last election. My feeling is, many, many people have been having this debate since the last election, even if they don’t realise it. I say that because if you’ve ever seen the news or some political commentary and had even the slightest feeling of, ‘Oh this is all bullshit’ – you may not have realised it, but that means you are a disillusioned citizen, utilising your most natural judgement mechanism, your instincts.

We underestimate the power of our own instincts in a world where we are increasingly asked to trust others who ‘know better’ than we do. This is the usual defence position against the voice of dissent. We can see this exercised in the Brand/Paxman interview in the typical ‘journo’ way – challenge the authenticity, intelligence or coherence of the voice raising the objection. Politicians use it to dismiss massive popular rallies all the time. Hundreds and thousands of people turn up to the countries capital to protest about the general cosy state of politics and big business, and are greeted simply by the line ‘What’s the alternative?’ The implication being that none of these people are either capable or coherent enough to articulate their dissatisfaction in a constructive manner.

There are a few problems with this argument. Firstly, it just isn’t true. At the one major rally I attended in London, the streets were awash with pledges and demands, printed in leaflets and with supporting websites to offer more detail. The message was, at the time, that we need to start with claiming the tax owed by massive corporations (rather than do the opposite and bail them out), before we start taking services and money away from the most vulnerable in our society. “But what’s the alternative?” they said. Well… that.

Secondly, how are groups of like-minded people who genuinely believe they’ve got no choice or chance using the current electoral process to affect any meaningful change, meant to construct alternatives and offer these to the wider population if they don’t have the ear of the media or the resources with which to do this? Let’s not pretend that it’s as simple as paying your deposit and standing for election in your local area. Inherent bias exists in the electoral system as it is, let alone the addition of millions of pounds of outside funding to the major parties which ensure they can field candidates in most constituencies, buy prime media column inches and airtime, and already hold ‘the high ground’ as it were. Before the last election, it was generally assumed that although the Liberal Democrats were looking strong, it was a near impossibility that they could actually win the election because of the inbuilt bias. As it happened, they became an ineffectual bit part player in a coalition, and have as a result, destroyed their own voter base (and try to find someone who disagrees with that prognosis). So no – if some of the oldest and most established parties in British politics are unable to make an impact, how are we, the unorganised electorate, even meant to do so in any kind of dynamic and immediate way? I suppose if you have a spare few hundred years to go at and a trust fund or wealthy benefactor somewhere you could do it, but that’s hardly dynamic and immediate, and many people feel that the crisis is already upon us.

On a more philosophical point of view, it is hard to see how we can ever expect our leaders to genuinely try and deal with the ‘problem’ of disaffection and distrust in the whole system, when they refuse to acknowledge there is one. Yes, they go on TV and Radio and say reassuring things like – “we know it’s a massive problem engaging people with politics, and we want to be seen to be doing this” – but putting words aside, we can just look at the evidence, look at the faces in the cabinet and commons, look at the statistics and biographies, and there we have it. A tight knit, interconnected group of people, in both parliament and the media, and even the judiciary, who hail from a narrow social background, closely linked to wealth and status of family members and peers. It is laid bare, we’re not making it up.

Another philosophical point of view when it comes to the actual act of voting is that of consent. As a collective we are providing a mandate, a 5 year contract, each time we go to the polls, irrespective of whether we want any of the options available. Remember, we don’t actually have any rights to terminate the contract or change any aspects of it during that period, we have to rely on opposition MPs for that, who we also don’t have any power to change during the term. What’s more, we don’t really know what the contract is, as pledges are notoriously, laughingly, different from what actually happens when parties are elected. What kind of a deal is that?

But, because of the clever constructs of our democracy, to not vote has no impact on any of this. The counter-argument to not voting is that it makes the democratic sample smaller, and makes it even easier for ‘them’ to win. But hang on, I don’t want to exercise my one power in the world that is meant to represent my whole ethos and opinions about how things could be simply by voting out what I don’t want – I would quite like to approach this with the view of voting in something that I think closely represents my views. This negative democracy model is hardly an argument that implies a working system, constantly retreating away from bad choices and hoping that the previous bad choice has magically become a good choice in the meantime, and so going back to it ad infinitum.

So to conclude, I want to offer some alternatives that may help ‘kick-start’ the process of creating pressure in a way that can’t be branded  as apathy. I just can’t accept the negative ‘vote them out’ ideology as my driving principle for talking part in this democracy, and I also don’t believe that any current party actually capable of gaining power (thanks to the inherent bias) is suitable to do so. Therefore, these three options seem to present themselves:

1.            Just don’t vote (and as discussed above, be accused of apathy, and potentially just make it easier for the system to maintain itself in its current form)

2.            What I like to call ‘Don’t Vote +’ – Don’t vote, but instead, find a way to register your reason for not voting in a coherent way. Ideally some kind of petition. This will of course mean someone setting this up. For example – a new petition called “No suitable candidates”. If this was done right, we could potentially show that more of us didn’t vote for this reason than did vote. It isn’t official, and doesn’t guarantee anything, but I think it may help satisfy people who don’t want to be branded apathetic, but don’t want to take part in the negative democracy model we seem to be part of.

What would they do if this happened? I guess that during the process they would discredit it and try and multiply the available petitions to ‘water down’ the impact. But presuming that can be overcome, they would be faced, as would the country (presuming the media reported it) with a natural democracy – outside of the system but expressing the view of a section of society all the same, maybe even a majority. Perhaps they would then  introduce official ‘No suitable candidate’ boxes to mitigate the loss of popular opinion this causes? It may be a start to a truly more accountable and representative version of politics, where we actually have the power to change manifestos and representatives before we vote them in, not after 5 years of wreck and ruin. The same approach could be done with a call for genuine ‘right to recall’ powers and other aspects that would help us be better represented. The important thing here is to match a no-vote during the time of the election with a principle – the petition must reflect this.

3.            Do vote – but vote for an independent or small party. This could have the affect of creating a rainbow cabinet (and we all like rainbows don’t we?) which dilutes the influence of the big three. I have some interest in how this might work, but my concern is that it would be hard to coordinate and you are limited to who is standing in your constituency. To try and harmonise this approach would be to try and launch a challenger party, which as I covered earlier, involves financial and influential factors not at our disposal. However, even just vastly cutting the number of the big three in the commons could potentially have a dramatic effect, and lead to better debate and compromise that suits local communities and a broader social range. This was akin to the promise of the coalition that never surfaced because it was a coalition of the established where we perhaps need a coalition of dissent.

So those are my options. It may be fairly obvious that option 2 seems my favourite at the moment, and I doubt I’m the only one to have thought of it, so hopefully I will find a petition I can back if I don’t feel I can vote at the next election in good conscience.

Just for the record, I have always voted before, this isn’t something I take lightly, and if you’ve got this far in the blog, it obviously isn’t something you take lightly either and I would be very interested to hear what option suits you, or your alternatives. Also, feel free to try and convince me why simply ‘voting out’ what I don’t want, in favour of something else I don’t want, is the way I should approach this, but I doubt you will succeed.

Thanks for reading.

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.

The ‘C’ Word.

No, not that one (but I got your attention yes?). I mean the other ‘C’ word that for some has almost the same connotation: Conspiracy.

Before I get started, I would urge anyone who has an instinctive negative reaction to the ‘c’ word to read on, regardless of any existing prejudice. To dismiss it at this point would defeat the purpose of me trying to discuss the subject in a balanced way and engage with both sides of the issue. It is hard to declare a position or talk about such matters when the received view of this type of thinking is that it should be mocked and ridiculed. So please, don’t receive a view, at least for the next few minutes as you read on, instead disseminate my ramblings and form a view of your own, even if this ends up being the same as the one you started with. Thank you.

This isn’t a formal philosophy essay, so I have no problem declaring a position of my own before I really get into things. I am open minded. I don’t seek out conspiracy theories (I’m not a regular visitor to those website and such like), but I do know people who tell me interesting things, and I may occasionally go and check them out to see what I think for myself. It’s not much of a position, but I still think it preferable to being totally closed to something that is evidently important to a vast number of people. Therefore, as I am interested in people and what they think, and the state of the world and how we live and donate authority etc… I am more inclined to listen and make up my own mind than I am to mock those with ‘alternative’ views.

And that’s the nub of this article really. I’m not here to condemn or condone any individual conspiracy theory, as for one, that would be an almost impossible task, there being as many theories as there are opinions. I am not here either to convince those who are opposed to such things to change their mind. I am here to point out a few broad thoughts that I think should be of interest to both sides, and if this leads to anyone having new and distinct thoughts of their own, then that is always a good thing.

Now, the definition of a conspiracy is:

“A secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful” or the much more vague, “action of plotting or conspiring” (Google).

So we need to separate this real definition from the connotations it brings with it. For many, the definition of a conspiracy theorist  probably runs along the lines of:

“A tin foil hat wearing lunatic who believes the Queen is a lizard and Elvis lives on the moon and that 9/11 was an inside job, these people’s opinions are of no note or concern whatsoever.”

Hands up if that’s your definition? I know it must be some people’s because I encounter this all the time, in life, in the media etc… Well, let me offer a more balanced definition:

“A person who believes that there may be groups that have a secret plan to do something unlawful or harmful.”

That definition doesn’t seem so inflammatory, and it is strictly limited to the definitions of the words ascribed to them. So, on the face of it, is it reasonable for anybody to think that there may be any groups of people hatching plots to do something unlawful or harmful?

Now don’t get concerned if there is one over-arching group of people, you know, the ‘illuminati’, that’s not important. What is important is that we know, and can identify, at least the first part of the definition – i.e. groups that meet in secret. By secret I don’t mean wearing hoods, I mean there is no published, accessible minutes or information available about their meetings. So, let’s quickly list some examples of things that have happened recently that were not meant to be common knowledge and so, supposedly, took place in ‘secret’ to some degree:

(to give these stories the credibility that some desire, I have added links to BBC articles that support them – also, I am not commenting on the validity of these cases or otherwise)

1. The ‘Prism’ data gathering project as leaked by Edward Snowden.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22836378

2. The documents and footage of alleged war crimes leaked by Bradley Manning

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22749745

3. Alleged use of under-cover police to spy on and discredit the family of Stephen Lawrence

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23026324

4. Payments between the media and senior officials for private information (as revealed in the Leveson inquiry)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17173438

5. A high level cover up of pertinent details concerning the events at Hillsborough

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19610226

6. A cover up in the NHS around baby death rates

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-22980803

7. Politicians ludicrous expenses claims

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/uk_politics/2009/mps’_expenses/default.stm

8. HSBC money laundering for Mexican drug cartels (and now it seems, Argentina)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21840052

9. The whole host of banking practices that led to the 2008 crash and continue today (that we are only now starting to suggest should result in prosecution, like that will ever happen)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22382932

10. The questionable intelligence reports that led us into what is now widely considered to have been an illegal occupation of Iraq.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3661134.stm

So you can see, I’m not treading into the more contentious issues here, I’m just spelling out some of the well reported cases that we are told about due to one reason or the other (usually a kind of ‘critical mass’ point where it must just become impossible to maintain the lie, or due to very brave and selfless whistle-blowers). And these are just a handful that I can think of without consulting the internet or looking further.

As all these examples were not intended to be known about, there must have been at the core, a ‘secret’ group who did know about it, and tried to keep it that way. These may well be bespoke groups, formed by incident and circumstance, but by association, they definitely form a unit. Did they intend to do something unlawful or harmful as per the definition? Well, in most cases, they started by doing something unlawful or harmful, and then chose to try and evade discovery.

This may not be the earth-shattering revelations that you may hear from certain quarters of the conspiracy community, and I know some people go a lot further in their interpretation of events, which can often harm the credibility of what they are trying to say. What I would point out is that by matter of degree, if these things are known about, and as serious as they are, then the next one is only ever around the corner and is happening right now. So yes, some people may go too far with the conclusions they draw, but is it any wonder they are asking the questions?

Before the proliferation of the internet, the global financial crisis, the riots and uprisings around the world, the word ‘conspiracy’ was usually ascribed to the likes of UFOs and Elvis etc… But now, perhaps not surprisingly, it is about global banking corporations giving dictates to sovereign countries and stealing their wealth. Political parties that seem more interested in removing civil liberties and rewarding private companies and wealthy individuals for helping them to do so, and about the bastardisation of our food supply and ruthlessness of our pharmaceutical companies. Oh yeah, and fabricated intelligence to lead us into illegal wars.

I would argue that it is a self fulfilling phenomenon. There are conspiracy theorists, because there are conspiracies. To believe there is not would be extremely naive. But where is the demarcation point? The people I meet who scoff at the idea, would accept the cases I raised earlier I’m sure (being generally intelligent and well reasoned people). So it’s time for a good old analogy.

Think of the conspiracy community like the fashion industry. No-one really wants to wear the outlandish outfits that are hung on human-skeletons and teetered up and down the cat walks, but it is seen as the bench-mark of imagination and flare that will ‘trickle down’ to the rest of the market in a derivative way. Small features and elements of the designs may work their way into every-day fashion and accessories as a result of a few people taking the practice to its extreme. It is the same with the world of conspiracy. A few determined people are stretching the bounds of imagination to allow us to explore the possibility that all may not be right with the world, and in many cases, though perhaps not as dramatic or extreme as they may have originally purported, we see evidence that things like that do happen, and eventually, these derivative claims become substantiated and accepted.

At the core of these inquiries however, are some very sound principles:

1. The huge inequalities in the world.

– There is no secret about this, we all know they exist but we are relatively happy as long as it isn’t happening on our doorstep (we may be morally repulsed, but distance is a great healer). We can look at parts of Africa and feel sorry for them. They have drought, disease, oppressive regimes and what not. However, they do also have vast tracks of land owned by Western countries who prevent them being self sufficient, destroy their way of life and sell them back the products they produce at a higher price than they can afford. (ref: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17099348). The point to be made here is, there are huge avoidable inequalities in the world, so if they are avoidable, why are they are still happening? Business interests? Most likely. Does this constitute a conspiracy?

2. There are people making a lot of money in the world for doing nothing.

– Again, no secret here. By ‘nothing’ I would add the words ‘of value’ to make this clear. Yes, some people may do the arduous task of pressing buttons or making a phone-call, or employing someone else to press buttons and make phone calls, in order to speculate and gain massively on stock and money markets, but this adds no value to the world and over inflates the cost of fuel, food, medicine and other resources. Someone speculating on a stock doesn’t go down to the warehouse to inspect it, take an interest in the company, have a passion for the benefits it will bring, declare a moral interest. No, they see numbers on a screen, and the better return, for the least effort and cost, the more attractive the prospect. Is this a conspiracy? Well, when you think that we are suffering self-imposed austerity measures which, lest we forget, derived from the global financial crisis of 2008 and not from public spending, then why exactly are we allowing ourselves to be subjected to these measures because some super rich people made some dodgy deals? Do you remember the sentiment of 2008? We were ready to put them in prison, the bankers, the traders who caused this, but now we seem happy to be paid less, to pay more, to be less secure, less educated, less socially mobile, to lose our jobs, to lose our rights, to lose our benefits… and not one banker or politician responsible for overseeing the system went to prison? Whatever the reasons, this just doesn’t add up in a reasonable world, and the scary thing is, we seem to have gradually accepted the semantic shift from ‘global financial crisis/bank bailout’ to ‘structural deficit’ & ‘public spending savings’. When did this language change, and when did we adopt it? And why do we accept it?

Both of these reasons, which are pretty fundamental, cause people to suffer, for harm to befall them. And in both cases, you can easily draw parallels to the prosperity of a few companies/organisations. For me, these are enough to demonstrate why we have conspiracy theories, that, by matter of degree derive from easily observed truths. However, because of the tendency to ‘go further’ in such matters, some theorists ruin their chances at being taken seriously on such matters by the majority. They do the governments and businesses a favour by adding conjecture and speculation to the debate and effectively debunk themselves before they get started. They must love it, the people who benefit from all the misery in the world, when they hear something like:

“I believe there is a conspiracy between the FDA and Monsanto to prevent people growing their own food and to patent nature by only allowing GM crops to be sown…”

… at this point, someone somewhere may well be thinking, oh dear. Until…

“… and that nano-technology in these crops is going to re-programme our hormone levels and make us more malleable to hypnotic trigger words hidden in broadcasts…”

And that’s where the credibility suddenly disappears, and the man in the suit lights up another cigar and carries on. Because here we see the move from observations and reasonable assumptions, to speculation and (what some will term) fantasy. I just made that last example up, and maybe (because anything is possible) there are schemes in the world as ridiculous sounding as this which are true. But people have been programmed to want evidence for these things. And when I say programmed, I mean by a culture of thinking and inquiry that has dominated our view of knowledge for centuries – empiricism. This doesn’t make it right, but it is the default for the majority and without it, they will turn their heads, make silly gestures about you, and do nothing.

I tend to conclude with a plea for tolerance and reason, and individual thought, and this is no different. For the people who readily mock the conspiracy theorists, consider this:

Even if you think they are wrong or even deluded about some things, in general they are just observing injustices in the world and trying to find out why we allow this to happen. Give them that modicum of respect and credibility if nothing else and don’t accept the world as presented just because someone else may go too far (in your opinion) in pointing this out. Maybe it is as simple as business interests, bribery and corruption that lead to a lot of the problems we see in the world, but does that make it alright? Can you not see why some people would have concern for the world and its people and want to get to the bottom of it all?

And for the theorists:

Many people are looking for reasons to discredit and doubt you. Try not to give them that reason. The injustices you stand against are reason enough to raise awareness, the leap into speculation and complex, divisive theories, deters peoples from engaging with the underlying issues and taking them seriously. Until you get people on board and demanding answers to the basic problems that are evident, it is hard to see how progress will be made.

So there we are. I hope, my opinion goes some way towards reasons for us to all move closer together rather than further apart, even if respectful distance is maintained.

I can but hope.