Monthly Archives: June 2014

Further Reflections, Consciousness & Free Will

On one hand, nothing is more familiar to us that our own consciousness, which can we safely assume is essentially similar to that of other humans. It seems equally obvious that we have free will. I make decisions constantly, and I change my mind just as frequently. And I can see that others are not able to predict, reliably, what I will do or say next; nor can I predict what others will do. Furthermore, we can observe very clearly that animals share many if not all of the same characteristics of human consciousness. We may never know what it’s like to be a bat, but more familiar animals like deer or cats are obviously aware of their environment in basically the same way that I am aware of my environment. Humans are aware of different things than other animals (notably, right and wrong), but animals may be aware of things that I can’t perceive, like the cat who refused to board the ship destined to sink (as I learned about at the Victoria Maritime museum).

In any case, we are surrounded by living organisms capable of more or less degrees of consciousness. Life is almost omnipresent on this earth, even in places that might seem very inhospitable. So consciousness is the plainest empirical fact in the world, perhaps, as Descartes observed, the only indubitable fact, the one thing we can’t doubt. There is nothing we know better. And we see conscious beings being born, growing, developing, reproducing, and eventually dying all around us. From this perspective, there is no mystery of consciousness, nor of freewill. Consciousness is simply the nature of my existence. Arguably, then, “the burden of proof,” so to speak, should be on those who wish to question the possibility of consciousness. It’s an artificial question without any pragmatic consequences. If the sciences can’t explain the physical basis of consciousness, then so much the worse for them. They either aren’t posing the right question, or their methodology is inadequate.

On the other hand, consciousness and free will are completely anomalous in our universe. The physical sciences tell us beyond any reasonable doubt that our planet is 4.5 billion years old, while humans have only been around for about 2.5 million. And for at least a billion years, earth harbored no forms of life at all. Multicellular forms appeared only in the last billion years. Furthermore, there is no evidence of life on other planets, within or without our solar system. Given the vast size and age of our universe, it is more economical to assume that we are not unique; but the fact remains that as far as we can see or recover, life on earth is anomalous, and human life even more so. From this perspective, the existence of life on earth appears nothing less than miraculous. That, by some completely random process, some mud should get up and start walking around appears highly unlikely, even impossible. We can only wonder, with Blake,

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

Reflections on reading Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind

The basic problem addressed by Tallis, it seems to me, is how matter becomes subjectively conscious. I say “subjectively” because we can’t directly observe the consciousness of another living being, and as Tallis points out, even the most advanced brain scans do not help us to understand human consciousness.

There are two basic approaches to the problem of consciousness. First is to say that consciousness is only possible for soul or spirit. This approach may or may not rely on a creator God, and it may or may not insist on a sharp dualism between matter and spirit. They can also be understood as two aspects of one living being.

The second is evolutionary. Once life develops, organisms evolve nerve responses that allow them to find food and mates and avoid predators. These responses are programmed into the DNA and are comparable to computer programs. In the case of extremely simple organisms, the nerve responses involved are also simple. The responses of more advanced animals are more complicated but directed to the same goals.

For some animals, notably the hominid line, flexibility in behavior, presumably involving some choice between alternative ways of responding to events, is an adaptive strategy. Consciousness can be understood, in Darwinian terms, as the ability to evaluate alternatives and adapt one’s behavior to different circumstances. While the neuro-biological basis of ape and chimp consciousness is still not well understood, this is arguably a problem of complexity. The principles are well-known; and their behavior, while more flexible than other species, is still, arguably, wholly the product of their instincts, conditioning, and learning (by imitation); and as a result is very predictable. Some chimps are presumably smarter than others, and thus better able to evaluate alternatives or invent solutions to problems, but intelligence is a genetic variable within the scope of an evolutionary paradigm.

It’s not clear that chimps have what we call free will. Significantly, everyone, even animal rights activists, recognizes that we can’t hold animals morally responsible for their behavior.

Human consciousness is in many ways comparable to chimps’—subject to instinct, conditioning, and learning—but in addition we have the subjective experience of free will. And objectively, humans are much more unpredictable than any other species. So in addition to consciousness, we have the philosophical problem of how a material organism, whose atoms and molecules individually are subject to all the laws of physics, is capable of free will, acts which seemingly cannot be explained in terms of physical causation, even given the vast complexity of the human body.

Tallis and others observe that humans are conscious of other humans in ways that other animals are not of their fellows. Human consciousness is somehow tied up with our relations with other humans—relations which by definition are not contained within the brain. They are relations, not physical objects or neural events. This approach fits in well with Generative Anthropology and the Originary Hypothesis. But the question still remains: is the resistance of human consciousness to scientific explanation basically a problem of complexity? If so, then the mystery of human consciousness and free will are in principle capable of scientific explanation, and existing studies of human evolution and neuro-phenomena are at least on the right track, even if still largely unfruitful, as Tallis argues.

Even when the dimensions of social relations and language are added in, we are still dealing with beings composed of molecules subject to the law of physics. While this adds a layer of complexity, it doesn’t refute the proposition that human behavior and the subjective experience of consciousness are ultimately reducible to physics, in the form of evolutionary processes and the neuro-phenomena of individuals in groups. It doesn’t make sense to say that consciousness is not a physical phenomenon, since the only place it’s found is with physical bodies. We should also remember that neuro-phenomena are already well-recognized as responsive to the environment, so the social nature of non-human consciousness is a given.

It’s also possible that the problem is somehow not ultimately reducible to physical processes. But if human consciousness is not so reducible, then the philosophical problem of explaining how material beings can experience consciousness and free will remains. Saying that human consciousness and free will are a function of our unique cultural/social “nature” may well be true, but it doesn’t seem to answer the philosophical problem of how exactly this is possible.

After Liberalism

If we can’t distinguish between defending, or at least accepting, someone’s right to say something, on the one hand, and agreeing with them, on the other, then liberalism, in the classic Enlightenment sense, no longer exists. This seems to be, increasingly, the case—marxists and other antiliberals have long argued that the “bourgeois” freedoms are disguises for the bourgeois privileges (the poor and the rich equally forbidden to sleep under the bridge, etc.), but it seems to me that something a little different is happening now. It’s not so much that people argue against the distinction (while implicitly acknowledging that under new, more just conditions, it would be legitimate), but that it is simply unintelligible to more and more people. If you say that those opposed to same sex marriage should have the right to voice their opinion, or that people who have expressed views that many or a majority would deem racist do not thereby surrender their property and other rights, the increasingly likely response is: why do you hate gays? Why do you support racism? There are many reasons for this development, which, not surprisingly, seems especially common among the young, and is complemented by the libertarian inability to distinguish between what is permitted and what is good (if, for example, you wonder about the effects of excessive consumption of pornography, the most likely response will be an indignant insistence on one’s right to do what one wants with one’s computer screen and body, along with aspersions about one’s own presumed puritanism, etc.). In short, more and more people want to do what they want to do, and to (not) have done to them what they (don’t) want done to them, and the whole question of grounds for doing one or another thing and of legitimate grounds for doing or not doing, is something we no longer seem to have the language for. The problem, as always, is that what some want to do is what others don’t want done to them, and the always largely fictional discourse of “rights” was there to adjudicate the competing claims—or, at least, establish an equilibrium as both sides use right-talk to entrench their interests within the state apparatus. If the means of adjudication collapse, and it’s too tedious to try and retrieve them from the 19th century, what happens? We have a standoff between the victimary and the libertine (I know that not all libertarians, maybe not most, are libertine—but the libertines have the most powerful cultural and political presence, since arguments in favor of drug legalization and against the regulation of various pleasures draw far more supporters than arguments about the evils of central banking), both equally plausible and legitimate children of modernity.

Let’s further factor into this Eric Gans’s most recent Chronicle (#463: More on the Victimary), which advances the discussion into what Gans seems ready to concede is likely the predictable result of the market system: a polarization in wealth that doesn’t produce immiseration at the bottom, but rather eviscerates the “middle” where normal forms of recognition (“respectability) can reasonably be expected. With the respectable middle cut out, what are left are pathological forms of “theater”—mass killings and other forms of cheaply and/or viciously acquired celebrity. The victimary, in this context, seems less a driving force in history than a rather feeble “sacrificial substitute” for this more devastating form of inequality that is beyond repair. To continue my own discussion, one might say that the victimary symbolically rebels against this polarization while the libertines vicariously identify with it. Both sides live in fantasy worlds.

But even if Picketty’s analysis, referenced by Gans, to the effect that today’s polarization is more representative of the trajectory of the market economy than the rough equality of the post-War years, is accurate, the two questions, distribution of wealth and distribution of recognition, can be delinked. It is not the emergence of billionaires that has destroyed “Fishtown,” or the “middle.” Even the much bemoaned decline in manual labor has been exaggerated—plumbers, roofers, contractors, carpenters and others employed in improving and fixing up can still make a very good living. In fact, there seem to be too few of them. Government enforced unionization destroyed Detroit, not the greed of the Big Three automakers. The welfare state’s assault on the family and victimary eruptions in the inner cities that crippled law enforcement and education destroyed wide swathes of black America (and ever larger pockets of white America), not the desire of corporations for cheaper labor overseas.

But there’s a limit to such socio-economic and cultural explanations, a limit evident in the problem of explaining the explanations. Things were gradually improving on all fronts during the 1950s and into the 1960s, and yet the 1960s proved the most disruptive period in American history since the Civil War. Nor is this anomalous—the same was true of the years leading up to the French Revolution. Why were the massive social experiments of the 1960s deemed necessary? The steady, if uneven and unbalanced, improvement of living conditions wrought by the expanded market has been unsatisfactory for many people—and, in particular, for those people who make things happen, the politically astute, the “cool,” the ambitious, the well-connected. Why? What is missing? The editor of the conservative journal The American Spectator, Emmett Tyrell, often says, perhaps tongue in cheek, that we tremendously underestimate the effect of boredom on world affairs. Serious or not, he has a point—boredom, what as sociologists we might call “anomie,” or as theologians “despair,” must be given its due. Boredom is part of the structure of addiction that is so prevalent in (not only) contemporary life—the addict wants to recover a novel and exhilarating experience, and rather than realizing that such experiences must be granted by immersion in reality, seeks it out, and seeks to secure it, in the identical form in which it was first experienced. As we all know, larger and larger doses are needed to attain a less and less satisfying approximation of that original experience. And in the ever more vast in-between, there is nothing but boredom, an itching for the next, inevitably disappointing, fix.

An important element of illiberal critiques of liberalism has been the observation that liberal rights—to speech, religion, association, etc.—really imply reciprocal indifference more than reciprocal recognition. The peace of the late medieval religious wars turned into the grave of meaning—without the (exhilarating) possibility of martyrdom, without the urgency of universal salvation, “belief” doesn’t amount to much. In that case, maybe the battle between the victimocracy and the libertine will have salutary effects. There might be a real stake in the libertine’s insistence, against feminist objections, on his right to play a sociopathic pimp in Grand Theft Auto. The libertines can try to secede from the victimocracy, and they may succeed, certainly to some extent (e.g., the “man-cave”). But insofar as they must operate on victimocratic terrain, they will have to subvert it from within, thereby revealing victimocracy’s many antinomies and anomalies. Perhaps the question of recognition can be addressed in new, fresh ways. (The victimocracy is of course inherently paradoxical—what they do with more power can’t possibly be what they want to do.) One thing we can thank the victimocrats for is intensifying the question of the relations between representation and reality. The victimocrats have not answered it and, indeed, it is one of those great questions that can never be answered definitively. Kevin Williamson, the National Review columnist that Gans has been referring repeatedly to recently, had an article lately on transgenderism, in which he insisted “Laverne Cox [a well-known “transgender” actor] is not a Woman.” On latest count, the number of comments is 8,195. The most interesting passage, for we Generative Anthropologists is, I think, the following:

The phenomenon of the transgendered person is a thoroughly modern one, not in the sense that such conditions did not exist in the past — Cassius Dio relates a horrifying tale of an attempted sex-change operation — but because we in the 21st century have regressed to a very primitive understanding of reality, namely the sympathetic magic described by James George Frazer in The Golden Bough. The obsession with policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality is itself ancient — see the Old Testament — and sympathetic magic proceeds along similar lines, using imitation and related techniques as a means of controlling reality. The most famous example of this is the voodoo doll. If an effigy can be made sufficiently like the reality it is intended to represent, then it becomes, for the mystical purposes at hand, a reality in its own right. The infinite malleability of the postmodern idea of “gender,” as opposed to the stubborn concreteness of sex, is precisely the reason the concept was invented. For all of the high-academic theory attached to the question, it is simply a mystical exercise in rearranging words to rearrange reality. Facebook now has a few score options for describing one’s gender or sex, and no doubt they will soon match the number of names for the Almighty in one of the old mystery cults.

Williamson’s position is the classically modern, Enlightenment one: the point of language is to represent reality accurately. We can see here the privileging of the declarative sentence over the ostensive and imperative that Gans has associated with Western metaphysics. (Williamson even alludes to the displacement of pagan polytheism by the one “Almighty” discovered/invented by the ancient Hebrews.) One’s genitals, and, perhaps, one’s hormonal and chromosomal structure, which can be observed by everyone according to shared clinical and experimental criteria, determine one’s gender—not more amorphous and “unfalsifiable” criteria like what one feels fated to be. Of course there are anomalies—the rare individual with an extra-chromosome, extremely unusual hormones, or un or over-developed genitals. But these don’t upset the basic classification, which can be justified by reference to broader biological assumptions: the anomalies can be safely sequestered because they don’t contribute to the reproduction of the species, the meta-criterion for biology. (But, of course, the discipline of biology evolves—some of the commenters on Williamson’s article make biological claims, with what plausibility I can’t say, for the “reality” of transgenderism. Even if they’re right, though, the cultural and political consequences are not obvious, or unambiguous.)

But the originary hypothesis allows us to at least entertain the possibility that these modernist assumptions are the anomaly, and perhaps not relevant beyond the specific disciplines whose ongoing inquiries they support, since we know that language has, in fact, created the most astounding reality of all—the human reality. We can, in fact, argue about how many genders there are, what they should be called, how they should be represented, what the possible relations between them are, and such arguments will change the way we live, love and reproduce. At the very least, such discussions focus our attention unwaveringly on signs, not on some utopia beyond representation—even if utopian fantasies got the discussions started in the first place. There is no ultimate transcending of biology, or other “material” realities, but all this means is that biology will always resist and deflect our attempts to represent it. In the end, maybe we will find ourselves with a comfortable middle or norm of the familiar two genders, with a bunch of unmolested, more or less interesting or annoying outliers; maybe not. Once tacit assumptions get excavated, they cannot be made tacit again—the historical function of the libertines may be to exaggerate and caricature and in this way, paradoxically, re-normalize the traditionally normal, this time as play and games (It’s worth keeping in mind that feminism, and certainly gay liberation, have had their libertine factions, now largely kept under wraps in the interest of political unanimity and momentum). And in the reciprocally aggravating chafing at constraints into which the victimocrats and libertines will hurl each other (the libertines wanting to express all the possibilities of a polymorphously perverse nature, the victimocrats demanding the uprooting and revision of all spontaneous desires) there may be space for the originary thinker to reflect upon a reality replete with examples of why we need constraints in the first place.

Instead of adjudication, and the increasingly encumbered and arbitrary discourses of “rights,” maybe there will be a space to treat culture as play and games. Back in the 80s, Jean-Francois Lyotard extended Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games” to propose an ethics of political culture, guided by the principle that one doesn’t try to eliminate a fellow player from the game. We certainly can’t count on such comity now, and, to be honest, I would not agree to play by such rules myself—nor do I think they can be made coherent, as cultural “pieces” are not as stable as those in chess. But we can certainly think in terms of “moves” rather than positivist, metaphysical or historicist truths, and of provisional, emergent rules that don’t presuppose some kind of transhistorical Truth Commission that in the end is sure to ratify one’s own truth claims. Play presupposes a field, a constitution of a portion of reality, or reality itself, that is to be governed by the rules of the game. A good player doesn’t want to “win” (any victory being very temporary anyway) so much as to keep remaking the field so as to multiply the number and variety of moves that might be made (first of all by the player himself, but how could opening avenues for oneself not do the same for others as well?). The minimal ethics governing the field is that we all take turns going first, as going first almost inevitably confers an advantage in any game—sometimes you speak in my terms, sometimes I speak in yours. Unless we’re really bent on mutual extermination, we should be able to manage that. We’ll see what the libertines and victimocrats make of each other’s playbook and field position.

In the end, I think both sides will undergo significant shock and stress, because, in the end, I think that the Jewish revelation is right in one crucial respect. The Jewish name of God, revealed to Moses at the burning bush, “I am/shall be that I am/shall be,” cannot be said by the believing Jew because you can’t say it without claiming to be God. This is my one, marginal, addition to Eric Gans’s extensive analyses of this revelatory event—if the name of God explicitly defers the desire to proclaim oneself God, I take this to be because that desire must have emerged in a powerful way in the ancient world of God-emperors. It is an enduring desire, manifested in the belief that following nature or reason will provide moral truths no less than in totalitarian attempts to remake the entire fabric of human relations. Indeed, the ideology of modernity is that we are all gods to ourselves. Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” is another manifestation, and so I am much less ready, I think, than Gans, or than I once was, to celebrate the centering of each individual in his own desires. Only shared revelations, on particular scenes, of our reciprocal being-hostages-for-one-another (to borrow a term important to Emmanuel Levinas, and then Derrida), or what I have been calling “disciplines,” can create legitimate centers. No one can know how many such centers, or of what duration or quality, are necessary, but once there are enough of them, “inequality” won’t matter. And if there aren’t enough—well, the catastrophes that will result will make the symbolic holocausts of the victimocracy seem so much windmill tilting. But getting enough of them can only be a learning process and, as the pedagogical cliché has it, you have to start with where the learner is.