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.

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.