Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt

March 29th, 2014


The goal of Stephen Meyer’s recent book, Darwin’s Doubt, seems straightforward: clear an ecumenical path for the scientific viability of Intelligent Design. Of interest to me was Meyer’s detailing of allegedly non-Darwinian theories recently spawned from within the scientific establishment, the inevitable response – so the argument goes – to the still unexplained proliferation of new animal forms during the Cambrian period. Given Meyer’s humble underdog appeal, patient tutoring, and respect for the relevant sciences, I even found myself appreciative of his eventual philosophical argument for the classification of Intelligent Design as a ‘scientific’ theory.

But I wondered. What would the ‘other side’ have to say about all this? Gareth Cook’s review for the New Yorker satisfied some of my curiosity. Cook tells us that the “aim” of Meyer’s book is to “rekindle the ‘intelligent design’ movement” [all emphases here are mine]. The theory of intelligent design is “Probably best understood as the central element of a cunning legal argument,” for which the “engineers” of intelligent design “improved the disguise” of creation science. “Their agenda” was setback in 2005 when a federal judge declared intelligent design a “religion.” Darwin’s Doubt is “pseudoscience.” Meyer “appears” serious and reasonable. Those “who sense that science is a conspiracy against spiritual meaning will find the book a thrilling read.” The most “honest moments” come at the very end of the book, when Meyer offers a few personal reflections on meaning and the universe. “Here, at last, Meyer is not pretending to be a scientist.”

If Cook was after an accurate and informative book review, he failed. That may not have been his goal, however, in which case, he perhaps succeeded brilliantly. But I have saved Cook’s most striking comment for last:

Most absurd of all is the book’s stance on knowledge: if something cannot be fully explained by today’s science—and there is plenty about the Cambrian, and the universe, that cannot—then we should assume it is fundamentally beyond explanation, and therefore the work of a supreme deity.

This is decisively not the book’s explicit stance on knowledge. Meyer offers his theory as the ‘best explanation’ according to ecumenical criteria such as falsifiability and the ability to make predictions. I think the New Yorker owes a correction, and given the word “absurd,” perhaps also an apology.

If this is what the ‘other side’ has to say about Darwin’s Doubt, then I encourage everyone to buy Meyer’s book and read it.

But I pause. Crucial to Meyer’s argument is the satisfaction of this criterion: our scientific theories must appeal to causal connections observable in the world today. Meyer argues that good science can talk about design by non-physical Intelligence, even if we have no idea how this could work, since this is the explanation we give every day for the information-rich products of our own conscious, intentional acts. I do not think this argument works. That our intentionality and creative acts are themselves constituted by physical mechanisms is a defining assumption in current mind science.

Meyer side steps this problem, perhaps inadvertently, by appeal to the conventional ‘mind-body problem’ philosophers like to talk about, a reference to our apparent inability to explain, in principle, the subjective ‘what it is like to be me’ (consciousness) in purely objective terms. This might make for an interesting argument for the limitations of science, but that would not be what Meyer needs. Meyer needs to show that we do observe today, even though we cannot explain it, non-physical minds causing physical items rich with information. To do this, Meyer conflates this mind-body explanatory problem with an outdated Cartesian metaphysics. To complete his argument, Meyer appeals to a “principle” we see operative in the world today by which “immaterial thought” and “rational activity of mind” impresses “itself on the physical world.” Thoughts, decisions, and choices “occur in our conscious minds” and then somehow “affect our material brains, nerves, and muscles.”

Given the current state of the mind sciences and the now entrenched concern over ‘embodiment,’ Meyer’s centuries-old metaphysic is not going to work as part of an argument that otherwise seeks to appeal to the most current scientific questions and data. The problem extends beyond the abstract question of what kind of thing the mind is. The idea of ‘thoughts’ and ‘decisions’ existing inside ‘conscious minds’ gives expression to the lingering myth of the Autonomous Rational Self. If we are not god-like in this way – and we are not – then we do not have an observed model by which to conceive of a disembodied spirit willing new animal types into existence.

There is one other thing. Meyer’s overall story and argument suffers from a high degree of implausibility when set in proper context: After hundreds of millions of years of the natural development of the worm, a supreme intelligence decided to help things along by morphing the worm into a trilobite?

As a side note: I was inclined to offer more protest here to the arrogant ‘priesthood’ of science, but ambivalence settled in once I remembered the history from which this metaphor draws its power.

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To Surf or to Blog . . .

January 4th, 2014


I do actually intend to blog again.  It’s just that the surfing keeps getting in the way. . . . perhaps if I blog about the poetics  and philosophy of surfing?   It has been a watery world for our household: reading through Moby Dick,  inching through the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and 10 hours over Cardiff Reef each week (dolphins, seals, whale spouts . . .).

I do happen to have news regarding the events of 2005, the same events that gave birth to the original Pooh’s Think of 2006 (hacked and destroyed by the opposition a while ago, sorry).  I have just completed a letter to my friends: an introduction to the American Kirk and the story behind the story — some of you might recall I promised this some years ago.  If you do not receive this and are interested, please shoot me a note.

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Ayn Rand on Homeschooling

July 27th, 2012


While exploring a bit of American literature last year, I stumbled onto a topic that many folks today would call “homeschooling.” I was surprised by the author who provided the occasion: it was Paul Ryan’s preferred sage, the extravagant Ayn Rand.

I have inferred from Jennifer Burns’ outstanding autobiographical work on Rand (Goddess of the Market, Oxford, 2009) that Rand’s cultish authoritarianism, her drugs, her infidelity, and her own irrational rage—while protesting anti-rationality—have not entirely eclipsed  her greatness, and her legacy they never could (you might recall Ted Turner’s 248 billboards asking, “who is John Galt ?”).  Perhaps some social conservatives will consider the truth of this suggestion after venturing the following passage from Atlas Shrugged (page 785 in my Plume by Penguin, 1999):

She often saw them wandering down the trails of the valley—two fearless beings, aged seven and four.  They seemed to face life as she had faced it.  They did not have the look she had seen in the children of the outer world—a look of fear, half-secretive, half-sneering, the look of a child’s defense against an adult, the look of a being in the process of discovering that he is hearing lies and of learning to feel hatred.  The two boys had the open, joyous, friendly confidence of kittens who do not expect to get hurt, they had an innocently natural, non-boastful sense of their own value and as innocent a trust in any stranger’s ability to recognize, they had the eager curiosity that would venture anywhere with the certainty that life held nothing unworthy of or closed to discovery, and they looked as if, should they encounter malevolence, they would reject it contemptuously, not as dangerous, but as stupid, they would not accept it in bruised resignation as the law of existence.

“They represent my particular career, Miss Taggart,” said the young mother. . . . “They’re the profession I’ve chosen to practice, which, in spite of all the guff about motherhood, one can’t practice successfully in the outer world. . . . I came here, not merely for the sake of my husband’s profession, but for the sake of my own.  I came here in order to bring up my sons as human beings.  I would not surrender them to the educational systems devised to stunt a child’s brain, to chaos with which he’s unable to deal, and thus reduce him to a state of chronic terror.  You marvel at the difference between my children and those outside, Miss Taggart?  Yet the cause is so simple.  The cause is that here, in Galt’s Gulch, there’s no person who would not consider it monstrous ever to confront a child with the slightest suggestion of the irrational.”

 

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Picture of the Family – Summer 2011

January 12th, 2012


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Book Update

October 10th, 2011


I am still writing my book.  I have been writing it for about five years. If you have no idea what book I refer to, this post might not be intended for you.  This is a friendly update for those who periodically check in.

The five classes I now teach (Philosophy and Humanities) have permitted me a day each week to continue the book steadily, although this might change with my firmer commitment to philosophy and cognitive science research.  I hope to have at least a rough-draft proposal by July 2012.  I do not, by the way, begin addressing The Kirk until Chapter 7.

The book has taken on different forms and sizes and purposes—in my imagination, in my notes and outlines, in the actual drafts spanning a number of genres. Last summer, after wrapping up some research on cognitive neuroscience, metaphor, and philosophy of freewill, I had some time to work on the book at Steamboat Springs’ public library, which provided me a more than sufficient setting of geography and architectural space – river rolling down from the last bit of melting snow, just outside the library window . . .   We also made it back to Moscow, Idaho for the first time (May/June) and our five weeks there was important. I enjoyed daily liturgical progressions through University of Idaho’s beautiful campus (running into The Beast on one occasion – ‘good to see you’, etc.).  I spent some time in Evan Wilson’s library, of course (and in the home of some Kirkers), and I regularly walked to Bucers for some note-taking time as the northern winter came to an unusually slow halt.

 

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Accommodations for COGSCI 2011

April 13th, 2011


I will be attending this year’s Cognitive Science conference  in Boston: CogSci 2011 (33rd annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society).  I am looking for an economical room sharing opportunity for the nights of July 19th to July 23rd.  Please contact me if interested or, if you are so kind, please direct me to folks who might be interested: michael.p.metzler@gmail.com

(I am presenting a poster on Action, Imagery, and the N400)

Thanks!

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Picture

December 20th, 2010


Well, for a second time I forgot I had a blog. Don’t believe me?  Look at the date of the last entry for supporting evidence. But then, last week, I needed The Wood for a quick search—‘oh, yes, my blog-the-database-thing’ I said to myself.  Since this recollection I have been tempted to make another post, most recently an entry relating the new neuroscience findings reported in the New York Times. But why do a thing like that? That might lead to some readers, which could lead then to another readership, which would then lead to the unconscious itch to feed more material to that readership, and then I would have a blog again. But I do not at the moment want a blog. So instead, here is one piece of information I intended to make available for the last year but never got around to, my picture:

 

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Glen Beck’s The Overton Window & “Restore America”

August 27th, 2010


Last night, I completed Glen Beck’s The Overton Window, although I am not sure why – light reading that was just sitting there, perhaps, to punctuate my progress through Gone with the Wind.  In many respects, I did enjoy the book. No doubt less noble material currently sits on the shelves of the local book store. Yet, I was left confused over just what precisely I had read.  Still sorting it out, here are some timely thoughts. Today is the day before Beck’s “Restore America” event.

Beck is not a conspiracy theorist, he tells us.  In the opening “Note From the Author,” Beck prophecies that his enemies will try to spin such an attack without even reading the book – so goes Beck’s spin against his critics before they have yet written anything to not read.  No, not a conspiracy theorist, nor a spin-scum sophist appealing to the more crass emotions of the populist. Beck is rather a novelist, a master of humanities and critical thinking, a creative artist fostering “deeper conversations”.  In the Afterward, Beck writes:

It’s one of the intriguing potentials of this sort of fiction: When your mind suspends disbelief, it may also become more willing to consider a broader spectrum of possible outcomes to the events and agendas that are playing out around us every day (294).

But even here, in this one brief didactic attempt to set the record straight and explain his sober educational intentions, Beck cannot help but suggest a little bit more:  “It’s unlikely we’ll face anything close to the challenges” the protagonists are up against in the story.  “But after experiencing their scenario in its fictional setting, maybe it will become a little easier to have deeper conversations about the important forces that are actually at work in the real world.”  I call your attention to the critical phrases “anything close”, “experiencing their scenario,” and “the important forces that are actually at work in the real world.”  So the reader is given the green light to imagine just how non-fictional the simplistic, conspiratorial plot really is.

Character development within the story does little to mitigate a concern over conspiratorial intentions, even though Beck seems to make great efforts to moralize just here. The popular rhetorician, Danny Bailey, learns the importance in setting up careful boundaries on his own rhetoric and lust for attention, but only in so far as Danny might unwittingly incite literal violence, more specifically, the use of an atomic bomb on the city of Las Vegas.  That is not setting a high bar for carefulness, scholarship, self-critical inquiry, humility, and sobriety – to put it mildly. 

Therefore, despite how much I did enjoy the story and many of the interesting facts and cool quotes about authoritarianism and freedom, I can find little evidence from The Overton Window to warrant a rejection of Steven Benet’s hypothesis today regarding Glen Beck’s mental state (found in his Washington Monthly article ‘Political Animal’). This hypothesis was captured well by Benet’s quote from Atrius of the Eschaton blog: “The slightly interesting thing about Beck is that he appears to be an insane megalomaniac who is self-aware enough to be aware of that fact. It’s what allows him to be a huckster clown on top of it.”  

Benent’s on-line article provides Beck’s brief video advertising the event set for tomorrow.   The video’s narrator explains that “Man has always searched for a better way. . . . a new world founded on faith . . . by a people who believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was a power greater than man guiding them.” Beck gets the nature of faith right here.  Faith is the unquestioned certainty that one knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that one’s thoughts are in fact Gods thoughts and that one’s will is in fact God’s will.  A monstrous proposition of course, and so it is not surprising that the narrator double-speaks: “Men guided by their own reason.” 

The Overton Window is not silent here.  The wisest sage of the story, Molly, explains that the difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution was that “We believed we had the will of God behind us.”  Beware, I say, of someone who makes a career out of mocking Ivy League institutions and the ‘elitists,’ for it is perhaps only there where our history may be rightly preserved. 

But all this is perhaps too much rigor over the profoundly banal. If Beck wanted to gain the respect of someone like me, he would not be sharing the stage with Sarah Palin, and he would certainly not then state on Fox news that her presence was “nothing political.”  But we need not ponder even these facets of the man’s psychology. The tail was already pinned on the donkey. Earlier, Beck explained his expectations for tomorrow’s event:

And that’s kind of the point of 8/28: you just have to stand where the Lord wants you to stand. He’ll explain it to you when the time comes. You can feel the presence of the Lord. I mean, the Spirit is so strong. When you, two hundred, three hundred, five hundred thousand people on the Mall in that space right there between Washington and Lincoln with the Reflecting Poll – a spiritual space in our nation – the Spirit of the Lord is going to be unleashed like I think you’ve never felt it before. 

I comfort myself with the possibility that within some halls of our Universities, there remains a small flickering flame of what we are inclined to call progress.

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Embodied Cognition Conference, Book, Hitch-22, & Prop 8

August 8th, 2010


 Four Items:

1) Mind Science
Benforado (of the Situationist) let’s us know after the fact of the interdisciplinary embodied cognition conference at Columbia University in NYC.  Or maybe he did let us know. I’ve been too busy writing my book the last three weeks to be checking up on these things.  But crickets!  Gallese, Barsalou, and Lakoff, three of my favorite mind researchers, were there.  And here is a list of the others with links to their websites.

2) Novel
So far coming to 50 chapters and 380 pages. 

3) Hitch-22
I completed Christopher Hitchens’ Memoir Hitch-22.  I think I am going to frame the last three pages for my . . . well, for walls of willing hosts?  . . . makes a nice metaphor anyway.

4) Making of Law, Science, and Prop 8
Dahlia Lithwick writes in Slate magazine on the “Brilliant Ruling” of Judge Vaughn R. Walker:

It’s hard to read Judge Walker’s opinion without sensing that what really won out today was science, methodology, and hard work. Had the proponents of Prop 8 made even a minimal effort to put on a case, to track down real experts, to do more than try to assert their way to legal victory, this would have been a closer case. But faced with one team that mounted a serious effort and another team that did little more than fire up their big, gay boogeyman screensaver for two straight weeks, it wasn’t much of a fight. Judge Walker scolds them at the outset for promising in their trial brief to prove that same-sex marriage would “effect some twenty-three harmful consequences” and then putting on almost no case.

Walker notes that the plaintiffs presented eight lay witnesses and nine expert witnesses, including historians, economists, psychologists, and a political scientist. Walker lays out their testimony in detail. Then he turns to the proponents’ tactical decision to withdraw several of their witnesses, claiming “extreme concern about their personal safety” and unwillingness to testify if there were to be “recording of any sort.” Even when it was determined that there would be no recording, counsel declined to call them. They were left with two trial witnesses, one of whom, David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values, the judge found “lacks the qualifications to offer opinion testimony and, in any event, failed to provide cogent testimony in support of proponent’s factual assertions.” Blankenhorn’s credentials, methodology, lack of peer-reviewed studies, and general shiftiness on cross examination didn’t impress Walker. And once he was done with Blankenhorn, he turned to the only other witness—Kenneth P. Miller—who testified only to the limited question of the plaintiffs’ political power. Walker wasn’t much more impressed by Miller, giving his opinions “little weight.”

. . . The real triumph of Perry v. Schwarzenegger may be that it talks in the very loftiest terms about matters rooted in logic, science, money, social psychology, and fact.

Conservative response?

“Abusive”. “Tyrannical”.  “Judicial arrogance”.

The Mormon church, on the other hand, says  (from Rawstory.com):

 ”There is no doubt that today’s ruling will add to the marriage debate in this country and we urge people on all sides of this issue to act in a spirit of mutual respect and civility toward those with a different opinion,” church spokeswoman Kim Farah said, as quoted at the Associated Press

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Anonymous Leaks & Primary Evidence

July 29th, 2010


In a recent article  for SlateFarhad Manjoo offers a critical look at WikiLeaks  through the lens of the release of Afghanistan war logs. Manjoo asks, “Is radical transparency compatible with total anonymity?”.  With total anonymity of sources, which means that even WikiLeaks does not know and cannot know the sources of the leaks it provides, WikiLeaks has become “an opaque, insular organization” and has “shrouded itself in secrecy.”  As if the pejorative ‘insular’ and ‘shrouded’ and ‘secrecy’ were not enough, this is “a problem” Manjoo informs us, since “most whistle-blowers” have “some sort of agenda” and this agenda is “part of the story” and “could provide valuable context.”  Manjoo concludes, “would many leakers balk if WikiLeaks began asking them simple questions? Let me offer a few suggestions: Who are you, how did you find this document, and why are you leaking it now?”

As one who has been on the WikiLeak side of this kind of criticism (an experience originating a mild theme for my book in progress), I felt compelled to offer a reply.  I have not in the past spent much time on the political.  Perhaps I am finally getting drawn in, or perhaps it is not just politics at stake here. This issue regards our appreciation, or lack thereof, for the endearing role totalitarianism has played through human history, particularly with respect to the gruesomely attained discovery of that still globally rare and precious form of life we call freedom.  Freedom to think, freedom to know, freedom to talk, freedom to act.  Freedom from unknown microphones in one’s bedside phone and freedom from imprisonment and torture for failure to whoop it up for the local big-mouthed pathological monomaniac.  I speak of a Freedom not only for the guru or the state sponsored saint or the patriarch or the dear leader or all those deluded murderous tyrants we apparently cannot live without. I speak of a Freedom of the human mammal, which, by categorical definition, possesses some extent of at least a rough similarity to my own consciousness, emotions, and nervous system.

In answer to Manjoo’s question then—and I am glad he asks it—‘NO’, I do not think many leakers would “balk.”  They after all are in a position of simply trying to find a way to “balk” about their own immediate affiliations and social ties and daily life routines without the ramifications of, on the mild end of the whipping stick, the fine-tuned mechanisms of discrimination, shunning, ridicule, shame, and psychological torture.  These leakers would hardly have the arrogance, motivation, emotional energy, or concern to “balk” at WikiLeak for asking such questions.  These would-be leakers would simply not leak, but go on, oppressed by their knowledge of the truth that powerful people have so far succeeded in keeping under wraps.  The suggestion that “most whistle-blowers” have some “sort of agenda” is an insult to all those men and women who have suffered for the cause of truth.  I do hope that Manjoo’s easy dismissal of this possibility from even a quick reference does not reflect his own inability to empathize with this kind of “agenda”.  As WikiLeak alleges, globally, “Whistleblowers account for around half of all exposures of fraud.”  It is hard to imagine that this important source of truth in the world is primarily guided by private ambitions or more neutral selfish drives like “agendas”, irrelevant if not counter to, the knowledge of the truth. 

As for the charge of insularity and secrecy:  How does this smear—that is all it can be, right or wrong: a smear apt to cue strong emotions—fall even near the argumentative crux?  The military needs a mechanism to secure some information.  In this case, this mechanism failed. This was only ‘secret’ information though. So far, we have seen no ‘top secret’ information.  We have laws about leaking this information.  The leaker still stands the risk of discovery and prosecution according to law and under the protections of the U.S. Constitution—although the leaker is currently ‘innocent’ and will remain so until declared guilty by someone other than Obama and James Jones—while Wikileaks has established itself even more as a safe source to leak important information from within oppressive regimes throughout the world.

Manjoo stays clear of this more sticky point of law and the peculiar power of the executive branch and military to the more interesting epistemological point: how do we know? How do we know why the documents were leaked, or if these are all the relevant documents or if the documents have been tampered?  But the argument here is mangled.  Manjoo confuses two kinds of evidence: the evidence of primary documents and the evidence of testimony.  Understanding the source indeed will provide narrative context and such context is always “helpful”—as well as entertaining—but after 90,000 of official military documents have been presented to the court of public opinion, such “helpfulness” diminishes up an asymptotic curve.  The media has been concerned about what these documents say, with the interpretive context well secured over the fact that they do not know who leaked, why, if these are all the documents and, prima facie, if they have been tampered. And alternatively, the government simply wants the leaker’s head on a stick, regardless of who he is and why he leaked the information.  Manjoo has therefore simply played into the hands of the authoritarian and helped weaken our always tentative grasp on freedom.  

I leave you with Wikileak’s nailing of the epistemological point:

WikiLeaks believes that best way to truly determine if a story is authentic, is not just our expertise, but to provide the full source document to the broader community – and particularly the community of interest around the document. So for example, let’s say a WikiLeaks’ document reveals human rights abuses and it is purportedly from a regional Chinese government. Some of the best people to analyze the document’s veracity are the local dissident community, human rights groups and regional experts (such as academics). They may be particularly interested in this sort of document. But of course WikiLeaks will be open for anyone to comment.

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Update

July 22nd, 2010


Even with the six dependents of spouse and children, I attempted the life of a gypsy after moving from Cardiff-By-The-Sea a couple months ago. After only two weeks of camping the attempt failed. There have been so far too many ‘house sitting’ opportunities in residences that outdo what had been my own. As I write, I sit with windows to my left that overlook rolling hills and a meadow with a winding stream. A darker mountain ridge stands further up, backgrounded by storm clouds. We are in the mountains of Colorado, ten miles out of what is already a fairly small town.  As I pause and look now, cattle roam, a green tractor mows a large field at a distance, and two horses graze nearby at the foot of the hill on which I am perched.   To my front is a view of a barren hill that towers just above the house roof on which I see the three horses of this household—brown, white, gray—walking casually side by side. Two friendly dogs, at all times on this acreage somehow omnipresent, are still felt and seen in the abstract.  On the way here, we passed through what a sign labeled ‘open range’, a phrase I understood only after swerving to the left of the paved road so as not to rudely disturb the cows grazing on the road’s edge and for fear that a cow’s lazy decision over what side of the street to munch could end in its instantaneous death.

For some days or some weeks I had forgotten that I ‘have a blog’. Remembering caused a faint but irremediable twinge far on the periphery of what seems my background experience of agency and personhood.   Nothing remedies such feelings like swift action in the pseudo-social world of the internet and so I was not surprised by my quick resolve to provide those still checking on progress here in the Wood with something like an ‘update’.  This is the strange result.

As for things more academic or otherwise philosophical or scientific or literary: ‘my book’ was simmering in a crock pot that had eventually been unplugged. The unplugging came about for a variety of reasons. I will mention one: I was finding non-fiction too meager for my purposes and I had no alternative set of tools in my pouch.  Then, around January, independent of any book writing efforts or plans, I began reading fiction. I first read Melville’s Moby Dick for no specific reason I am aware of outside of having a copy at hand; yet a number of classics later, I still consider Moby Dick to be my favorite, and more than a favorite; I consider the work sui generis.  I then read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  By the time I was half way through with this second classic a thought flashed: why not make my own use of the literary craft? On further thought, and a couple classics later, I determined that building from my first book attempt would require just this sort of retooling. With the art of literature, I could do almost everything I had set out to do with my first book and much more.

In March and April I invested time on mirror neurons, grounded cognition, conceptual blending, metaphor, vision, and the N400 ERP component (EEG)—not to be confused with my thoughts   from last year. By June I switched gears in my reading with the switch in living situation. While living out of a tent, I gave a start to a work of fiction. I have so far found the task sufficiently rewarding and productive. A number of chapters are close to rough draft form and the outline is fairly settled: 45 to 55 chapters for a total of 400 to 500 pages. Even with the change of genre, the title could remain the same, which has been The Kirk: Mother of War.

In order to compare notes: some of my recent reading also includes Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Yate’s Revolutionary Road, and for read-alouds to the kids: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. I have started Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Tom Sawyer and Gone With The Wind (a better mix is hard to imagine, no?), and due to familial relatedness to the author, I am winding through the new thriller The Radix  (written by a psychology instructor; the best thing since ’24′ and only eight bucks at a fine book store near you). Recommendations for further reading from those who are familiar with the Kirk are welcomed.

As for non-fiction, I found Burns’ Goddess of the Market (Oxford 2009) vital explanation of Rand’s secondary world of Atlas. Damasio’s Descartes’ Error, an international best seller I discovered in the footnotes of the cognitive neuroscience literature, was excellent and I have started his The Feeling of What Happens. I also began Kennaelly’s The First Word, a laymen’s guide recommended by Pinker introducing the new field of the origins of language.  Curiously, Burns documents Rand’s cultish life and Kennaelly hints in this same direction for Chomsky.  I am also enjoying Hitchens’ Hitch-22 (of course!), in which he curiously details his own ‘cult’ experiences in prep school. I have just now finally started to read Nietzsche—a cult all to himself—beginning with Beyond Good and Evil and the collection The Will to Power. I hope to begin the two volumes I have here of Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar.

For your ongoing internet viewing I continue to recommend Harvard Law’s The Situationist.   They still ‘have a blog’ over there without question.  

Without ‘job’ and homeless and still responsible for six dependents, I am now accepting donations for a trip to Washington DC, Philadelphia, NYC, MIT, and Harvard. Donors decide what I blog on during and one month after my trip (you know that’s gotta be worth big bucks). My point of departure will be Florida. After that, the plan is Miami and Key West. At any point in time I would be happy to be dropped into any contested area elsewhere in the world.

Be back later with some book excerpts and further thoughts on semantics, meaning generally construed, and the ERP N400.

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Self-Knowledge, Narrative, & Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Part 1

March 6th, 2010


    “So, it would seem, then, you love this . . . young man?”
    “No-no-no! I can’t stand . . . your young man, I can’t stand him!” Aglaia suddenly boiled over and raised her head.  “And if you ever dare again, Papa . . . I’m serious; do you hear? I’m serious!”
     And she was serious indeed; she flushed all over and her eyes gleamed. Her father faltered and grew alarmed, but Lizaveta Prokofyevna gave him a sign behind Aglaia’s back, and he took it to mean: “Don’t ask questions.”
      . . . [a bit later] “Well, what’s the meaning of this? What do you think?” Ivan Fyodorovich uttered hastily.
     “I am afraid to even say aloud,”  Lizaveta Prokofyevna answered as hastily.    
     “But, in my view, it’s clear.”
     “And in my view, it’s clear.  Clear as day. She loves him.”
     “Not only loves; she’s in love with him!” echoed Alexandra . . .   (559-560).

In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, routine social events and conventional loves and hates are depicted with an intimacy that reveals their life and death significance. The reader is pulled into the social situation to accept without question the cosmic importance of a dying young man’s bitterness or a young girl’s prideful and fickle attachments.

As I gave myself to this text I began to muse: is not this dabbling in a bit of vain anthropomorphism, at least from the point of view of the serious minded philosopher and scientist?  At the very least, these romantic, imaginative constructs of the poet do not help get us at the hard science of the human animal, do they?

But I was also reading, it so happened, another book: Strangers to Ourselves (2002), by Timothy Wison. T. Wilson admits that key points of his thesis are considered controversial. For example, his thesis regarding our inability to accurately introspect our own psychological states has received even more skepticism than his sympathy with Wegner’s (2002) wild thesis regarding the illusion of conscious will. This was of interest to me since I took both claims, mildly construed, to be persuasive, and this all without doubt pertained to the more serious issues of science and philosophy – as hard and bizarre as they might be to our comfortable folk conceptions. I was therefore struck – with a chuckle, considering the mild discomfort I felt over Dostoevsky’s anthropomorphic craft – by the seminal role that literature plays throughout T. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. These ‘controversial’ claims are introduced, for example, in the very first two pages of the book through a discussion of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

These words: ‘Mademoiselle Albertine has gone!’ had expressed themselves in my heart in the form of an anguish so keen that I would not be able to endure it for any length of time.  And so what I had supposed to mean nothing to me was the only thing in my whole life, How ignorant we are of ourselves.” 

T. Wilson goes on to talk about a friend, Susan, who thought she was in love with a man, only to realize a year later what her friends had known all along: that she had never been in love with this man.   T. Wilson then notes how Elizabeth, in Pride and Prejudice, could not “exactly define” her feelings for Mr. Darcy (2). Later, a short story by Mary Kierstead is cited (118), involving two cousins that come to realize that they had always hated Topper, a pony, even though they had been, for years growing up, “conned into loving him”. T. Wilson notes William Carpenter’s over a century old observation that young people often have “unnoticed” feelings, powerful attachments “between individuals of opposite sexes, without either being aware of the fact” (129).

T. Wilson admits that these stories are “just anecdotes” and appeals to the empirical evidence “for the idea that people can possess one feeling while believing they have another” (130).  But appeals to literature do not end. A short story by D. Eisenberg (150), and then one by Julian Barnes (163), are made useful.  In Barnes’ narrative, a man and a woman infer from a distance, based on cues given by others, their own love for one another, until their private personal narratives come in contact with a concrete meeting years later, at which time they to learned they did not even know one another (164). Proust is then analyzed further (169-170), and the book concludes with a personal narrative from Joan Didion (219-220).

Indeed, just yesterday evening down the Highway 101, John Perry appealed to an interesting story in answer to Paul Churchland’s question about how private thoughts might play a role-based way of managing information.

So: My tentative conclusion, based also on the continuing analysis of Melville’s The Whale and my more recent opening of Dickins’ A Tale of Two Cities, is this: The human psychology that novelists of 150 years ago took for granted cross-culturally – throwing the mysteries and complexities of the human mind up on stage to probe before a watching world – is now considered by American academics within philosophy, law, and psychology to be novel and controversial.  Given my continued interest – nay! my unfailing commitment as a soldier preparing for battle! – given my interest, I say, in metaphor and narrative, this tentative conclusion places a new shining edge on the old, largely failed battle ax of doing philosophy through literature – whatever this might be intended to mean, precisely.  Hats must be tipped to Martha Nussbaum’s Love’s Knowledge (Oxford, 1990) when noting such an idea, but with some reservation, given her courageous yet curious attempt at arriving at the necessary and sufficient conditions of an emotion in Upheavals of Thought (Cambridge, 2001); and one cannot forget her unblushing reference to ‘propositional content’ either. This result might have been inevitable though, at least after Nussbaum leaves aside Lakoff and Johnson’s revolution of embodied cognition and embraces an obscure and superficial substitute:

. . . we have at least a roughly demarcated category of phenomena before us that can be scrutinized to see what their common features might be, although we should be prepared, as well, to find that the boundaries of the class are not clear and that there are noncentral cases that share only some of the features of the central cases (24).

To my delight, I find something importantly different with T. Wilson, who crucially employees the word ‘narrative’ without trepidation or theoretical baggage when addressing the relation between the conscious and unconscious mind.  One cannot help but think of Lakoff and Johnson’s objectivism while reading T. Wilson’s concluding discussion – surprisingly simple and philosophically cogent – of narrative and truth (216-218).   T. Wilson’s success is found, I think, in the ability to self-consciously approach ‘personal narrative’ as an important analogy (162), and he notes that the “narrative viewpoint is perfectly compatible with the archaeology metaphor” [my emphasis].  T. Wilson makes no reference to Lakoff and Johnson. However, an entire chapter of Metaphors We Live By (1980) is dedicated to these sorts of ‘Complex Coherence across Metaphors’ (97-105), and the last chapter of Metaphors We Live By (four pages before the end of the book) foreshadows T. Wilson’s over-arching thesis:

But any really deep understanding of why we do what we do, feel what we feel, change as we can change, and even believe what we believe, takes us beyond ourselves . . . it comes out of our constant interactions with our physical, cultural, and interpersonal environment . . . The process of self-understanding is the continual development of new life stories for yourself (232-233) [emphasis mine].

 And so now I see another error in my thinking that crystallized about five years ago: Nicholas Maxwell led me astray by pitting literature against science according to the tension between the human world and the physical word, consciousness and matter.  But literature is a powerful tool in understanding the unconscious mind as well as the conscious; we perhaps have much to learn from the novelists of 150 years ago who wrestled with the physical complexities of being human despite the availability of a comfortable, conficting narrative of the Cartesian theatre. 

______

I will soon provide a ‘Part 2′ entry as follow up to these considerations, which will consist of an analysis of Part Four of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  I will offer mild disagreement with Joseph Frank’s (1997) interpretation of the changes in Part Four’s narration perspective and suggest that Frank overlooks Dostoevsky’s sophisticated psychology on display, particularly those features of the human animal now understood as novel, controversial scientific discoveries. 

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