Monthly Archives: July 2014

A Few Thoughts on Gaza

It is a marker of the deadening of thought, not increased moral sensitivity, that it is now commonplace to condemn or support one side in a war based on which side suffers the greater number of casualties, military or civilian. If one side wins by having the most civilian victims, then an incentive is created for that side to generate as many civilian victims as possible. As is often the case, what looks like scrupulousness is really a justification for barbarism.

Wars have aims—generally the surrender of the other side, and its agreement with your terms, or, if necessary, the destruction of the other side. Proportionality in war means that you use the amount of force needed to attain those aims, and no more—if a certain amount of force is needed to bend the other side to your will, you shouldn’t use more than that for reasons, say, of revenge. The notion that “proportionality” refers to the proportion of force used by, or available to, the respective sides, is degradation of thought to the level of imbecility.

Those critical of Israel’s response to Hamas’s rockets and tunnels might be asked what kind of response they would find legitimate. If the response they would allow is one that would leave the rockets and tunnels in place, they are arguing that no Israeli self-defense is permissible. If no Israeli self-defense is permissible, then the only conclusion to be drawn is that Israelis should allow themselves to be slaughtered. In other words, the critic of Israel is a genocidal anti-Semite.

War is obviously not the answer! Israel bombs and invades Gaza and then in a few years Gaza rebuilds its means of violence and Israel has to do the same thing all over again. Clearly, the problem is not being solved, and we need another approach. Maybe, but we keep putting murderers and rapists in prison and, nevertheless, people continue to rape and murder. Do we need another approach here as well, to stop the cycle of violence between violent criminals and civilized society? Or could it be that, for the forseeable future, the Palestinians will find no way out of their resentments other than fantasies of Israel’s destruction, just like people will continue to murder and rape and that, nevertheless, in both cases forceful responses can prevent things from getting much worse than they might otherwise be?

After Liberalism 2

The left’s propaganda offensive in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision affirming the religious rights of business owners to not subsidize forms of birth control that violate their convictions involves arguing, as blatantly as they feel they can, that the Supreme Court (or, better: 5 men; or, even better, bleaching Clarence Thomas: 5 white men) has outlawed birth control. It’s easy to treat this as crazy, or breathtaking brazenness, a desperate bid to boost voter turnout amongst the stupidest elements of the Democratic base. The 2012 election, though, after months of assuring myself that no one, of course, could be stupid enough to believe that “War on Women” actually means something, much less that the Republicans were waging one, has taught me to take such assertions very seriously because, clearly, many others do. The assertion that “5 guys” have outlawed birth control is very similar to the insistence that, not only must “marriage equality” be immediately, universally and uniformly imposed, but that no decent person could bear to be exposed to anyone whose attitude towards it is anything other than acclamatory (dissenting opinions seem to have the status of second hand smoke in such discourses). The logic is the same in both cases: I am only allowed to do something only if everyone supports and celebrates my doing it.

And that is not, in fact, illogical at all. Only liberalism finds it outrageous. By “liberalism,” of course, I mean the traditional variety, which starts political reflection with the assumption that there is something pre-politically inviolable in the individual, that this inviolability implies a series of rights that the individual bears with him or her in entering political society, and that the main business of politics is cataloguing those rights, setting up hierarchies amongst them, figuring out how best to protect them, to prevent their exercise from leading to one colliding into another, and so on. Only a liberal in that sense can say “I may disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it,” even if very few liberals have ever gone anywhere near death defending ideas they consider obnoxious (even the ACLU tends to protect only those ideas that the middle class finds obnoxious).

But maybe liberalism is wrong. Or was right, for a limited time, in certain places, among certain sectors of the population. And maybe is no longer. The abstract freedoms advanced by liberalism suited the rising middle classes in their struggle against feudalism (and slavery and absolutism) perfectly, and then gained new life in the struggle against Communist and fascist totalitarianism. Liberalism’s victory in these struggles enabled it to be sold as a set of eternal principles (and to disguise its basic emptiness), but maybe these enemies were very contingent and time bound. I’m not sure that the “great debates” of the liberal order ever amounted to more that liberal ridicule of, and conservative prudential or sentimental defense of, some element of pre-modernity that persisted into modernity. Pre-modern elements having been thoroughly routed, liberalism no longer seems to provide a frame for the main disagreements in today’s social order. This would mean that liberalism has done its work. But the work of liberalism would, then, have been a very localized one, which was to fend off outmoded and especially dysfunctional alternatives to capitalist modernity—absolutism, slavery and the varieties of totalitarianism, which can be shamed merely by being brought into open debate among mobile, self-reliant people. Once all the pre-modern forms have been abolished and the more genocidal forms of totalitarian rule discredited, what, exactly, remains of liberalism? Does anyone close to power today propose a model of governance beyond local technocratic fixes to increasingly dysfunctional systems?

The issues that we have today don’t seem to lend themselves to the debating society model of liberalism. We don’t, for example, seem to have a vocabulary for discussing the rights and wrongs of the kind of statistical surveillance the NSA has been conducting since 9/11: on the one hand, developing algorithms for determining that certain individuals should be probed more closely (e.g., someone who has called Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia hundreds of times over the past few months, to numbers that dozens of other people have called hundreds of times) seems reasonable; on the other hand, it’s very hard to fit this practice into any traditional notion of a court sanctioned search and, on the other hand, accepting it requires a reservoir of trust in the government’s genuine interest in protecting us from attack and nothing more, a trust which few feel and fewer will admit—in large part because the government itself has abandoned even a show of liberal neutrality. But, of course, when there is a terrorist attack, most people will blame the government, the pendulum will swing wildly in the other direction, and objections will be vehemently dismissed, at least until the attacks become a distant memory (which seems to happen increasingly quickly). Or, maybe, we will stay steadfast in our libertarian and victimary convictions and absorb attack after attack, continuing to demonize anyone who suggests even the most general connection between Islam and terror. Either way, we have nothing resembling a traditional liberal “conversation” (and one starts to wonder to what extent we ever really did) over great questions of freedom and authority, war and peace, and so on. In the case of the NSA surveillance, it seems that either the government will do what it needs to do in order to fulfill responsibilities it claims have been delegated to it, regardless of how such actions can be squared with rights talk; or, there will be sufficient pushback, which will simply mean that “we” have rejected the government’s assertion of responsibility and have chosen to distribute it in a new way, or to just be irresponsible. In the end, more precisely, the government will find a way to operate in secrecy because bureaucrats and elected official prefer the fleeting obloquy of exposure to the delegitimation and loss of power actual attacks will bring; or, on the other hand, hackers and leakers and their friends in the media will make secrecy impossible—either way, these decisions are not being made in any recognizable liberal or democratic way. Other issues regarding privacy, innovations in health care and the biological sciences more generally, and intellectual property, for starters, seem equally immune to classically considered “debates”—these differences over the ambivalences of what is usually blandly called universal “interconnectedness” but might better be considered universal contagion or hostage-taking, seem more likely to be decided by unilateral initiatives which create irreversible facts on the ground, followed by ratcheting effects of one kind or another. For individuals and groups the choice will be stark: be inside or outside, and if you want to be inside play by the rules or find yourself outside; and you’d better not be caught outside unless you can manage to create a new inside.

That there is only approved behavior and disapproved of behavior seems much less counter-intuitive than the liberal claim that there is disapproved of behavior that we nevertheless allow, i.e., approve of. Less counter-intuitive and undoubtedly far more universal. The problem is that liberal society has upended the clear boundaries between approved and disapproved. What we are seeing now may be an attempt to restore those boundaries, which might be necessary, in the sense that human life is ultimately untenable without them. The difficulty lies in the lack of any consensus over what is to be approved. The solution is simple, if difficult—secession, partition, into smaller communities which can arrive at such a consensus. The only meaningful conversations we might be able to have in the near future will be over the terms of such a partitioning, and if there is anything to hope for it is that the last act in the liberal order will be to partition out of it into a new anti-federalism with some modicum of grace and a minimum of violence. (The problem of maintaining the viability of overlapping local communities would presumably then generate a new politics.) (I am encouraged by the news that California will be voting this year on a proposition to break the state up into 6 states. I assume it will fail, and Congress has to approve any such move even if Californians vote for it, but I believe once the idea is out there, and secession is de-stigmatized, we will see much more of it.)

Capitalist modernity! I used the term with ease a couple of paragraphs back, as a convenient other to feudalism, absolutism, slavery, communism and fascism. Capitalism has really only been tried in a few places, for brief periods, and most people seemed to have found it terrifying—what we have had mostly is corporatism. As soon as one starts to say that capitalism is the true way, we just haven’t gotten it right, one starts to hear echoes of identical arguments made in the name of socialism and communism. The free market is real, grounded in the reciprocity constitutive of the originary scene, and we can study its operations and promote its spread, but it would probably be realistic to resign ourselves to the fact that there is only sufficient popular support for the free market in carefully regulated and administered doses (and, regardless of popular imagination, it more often comes arbitrarily and crookedly regulated and administered doses), even though, fortunately, important innovations sometime sneak through before the bureaucrats have a chance to figure out what happened. Maybe what we have come to call modernity is the less grandiose fact that, for some time, there has always been some faction (and sometimes several at cross-purposes) that finds it in its interest to support the free market to some degree. The end of liberalism might also be the end of at least “Enlightenment” modernity, whose slogans were always just a battering ram to use against feudalism, and which has gradually lost its legitimacy as the self-proclaimed moderns continued to find more and more “pre-moderns” to denounce, hector and, when possible, outlaw. The only thing, though, that would prevent the upcoming partitioning from becoming a new dark age would be sufficient (define “sufficient”! I confess, I can’t, not sufficiently) recognition within and between communities of the need for free markets. But while some modernities have touted markets as vehicles of freedom and prosperity, the disciplinary order would equally stress the market as disciplinary agent, inculcating practically the realization that nothing will come from nothing. Indeed, an index of the health of any social order is the number of people who oppose restrictions on free exchange even if doing so benefits neither them nor anyone in particular as far as anyone can tell. If you want a genuine “veil of ignorance,” there you have it, and a very practical one available at any time: no one can tell who will benefit beyond the very short term by removing obstacles to free trade. Those who willingly reside behind that veil are the ballast of social order.

The way to act within the new, “disciplinary,” order, then, is as the representative of a discipline, which one advances unwaveringly and unquestioningly, at least to those outside the discipline; guarding the boundaries of the discipline, though, makes one a better participant in the market by leading one to respect all the other disciplines, which is to say to withdraw behind the veil of ignorance of the broader conditions of possibility of one’s disciplinary activity—a veil of ignorance which is also the condition of possibility of the local knowledge of surrounding disciplines constitutive of one’s own. Of course, anyone participates in several disciplines, which overlap and perhaps antagonize each other in varying degrees. This will be the source of ethical dilemmas in the disciplinary order. But it will be silly to complain of violations of rights which are not simultaneously rights of the discipline, just as it would be ridiculous for a doctor to complain that his free speech rights are violated by the fact that no hospital will allow him to carry out an unvetted form of surgery that strikes his colleagues as bizarre—the doctor proposing something new only has the right to complain that members of the profession fail to follow or reasonably revise their own protocols for approving new procedures. Disciplines are radically different from tribes, insofar as they are less exclusivist, make variable claims on the individual’s loyalty and make claims to knowledge and institute procedures for arbitrating and encouraging such claims, but they are more like tribes than they are like the polity of the liberal modernist imaginary insofar as they recognize no rights that are not constitutive of the discipline itself. And that, in fact, is the only coherent way of thinking about rights.

Thought Experiment

First, imagine a computer which includes complete monitoring of every internal electro-magnetic event, the transistors and memory and so on. We can see the physical arrangement and what happens in the circuits, and, initially, we can compare it to what is shown on the screen. Our task is to predict what is being shown on the computer screen simply on the basis of the computer’s internal activity. The idea here is that we can see all the switches going on and off, the ones and zeros, and we have to find the code to translate that activity into what is visible to the user. I would guess that this would be a fairly easy task for someone with the right skills. One would start by figuring out the basic ASCII computer code and then working up to the higher level codes.

Now imagine that we could somehow monitor every electro-chemical action of the human brain at any one moment and over time. The latest issue of MIT Technology Review (July/August 2014) describes some remarkable advances along this line. A new technique calls “optogenetics” provides a much more detailed view of cell activity than the fMRI. We’re still far from a complete picture, of course, and I doubt that it’s even possible to provide a complete picture of all significant brain activity in time. This is a thought experiment. Note that initially we also have access to everything the person reports is going in their consciousness. So, for example, when he or she remembers a particular event, we could compare the reported memory with the specific brain activity. Our problem then would be to try to figure out what was going on in the person’s consciousness from observing the neuro-chemical action of the brain alone.

First of all, we should note that comparing brain activity to what the person is doing, their health, and so on, would be enormously helpful for doctors trying to find cures, especially for mental health or brain-centered health problems like autism. Existing brain research, neuromania aside, has already generated valuable medical results.

But the larger question is whether we would be able to reach the point where we would be able to look at the brain activity by itself and say exactly what the person is thinking or feeling or doing. Would we be able to actually predict what the person is going to do next?

David Talbot reports on some experiments by Gabriel Kreiman which suggest that brain activity in key areas of the brain actually precede conscious decisions by “anywhere from hundreds of milliseconds to several seconds” (“Searching for the ‘Free Will’ Neuron” in MIT Technology Review July/August 2014: p.65). These results allow scientists to claim that brain events actually cause so-called “free will” choices. We should note, however, that the test results rely on the time difference between when the subject presses a button and when particular neurons “related to decision-making” fire. There is the problem that an electrical impulse from brain to finger takes time, time which might account for the supposed lag between brain activity and conscious decision. There is also the problem of identifying which particular neurons actually “cause” a decision.

Going back to our thought experiment, I assume that we would be able to learn a lot from knowing the correlation between brain activity in specific areas and conscious thoughts and feelings and perception. First of all, we could nail down specifically which parts of the brain are responsible for exactly which functions. We would be able to correlate certain patterns of brain activity with specific emotions and memories and perhaps even ideas. Eventually we would be able to predict, purely on the basis of recorded brain activity, what the person is feeling or thinking—but only, I would guess, in a general way, not precisely.

My understanding is that the brain doesn’t operate according to a fixed code like a computer. The brain is, in effect, constantly reprogramming itself. Of course, all inputs from the environment have the effect of reprogramming the brain—a la Pavlov’s dogs, and in much more sophisticated ways. But I would suggest that the brain, in effect, “consciously” and unconsciously programs itself in various ways. There’s what I call an “X-Factor” which would make it impossible to correlate brain activity precisely to the contents of consciousness.

Existing research suggests that everything that happens in consciousness (and unconsciousness for that matter) has correlated brain activity—which is not to say that this correlation operates in any predictable way. The existence of the unconscious, btw, complicates the attempt to sort out cause and effect in decision making and brain activity. It’s not clear that the unconscious operates by any kind of deterministic process. Our dreams, for example, are creative and unpredictable. In sum, I don’t think we can ever break the code that correlates brain activity to consciousness.

In evolutionary terms, consciousness is a way for an organism to negotiate its environment. I think we have to content ourselves with a functional explanation or have recourse to a spiritual one. The function of the brain in terms of the organism as a whole might help explain why we can’t break the brain-code: we have to deal with the unpredictable, and perhaps an unpredictable organ is best capable of doing so.

Finally, it’s not clear that human consciousness is qualitatively different from animal consciousness. We have a peculiar social awareness that makes for conscience and self-consciousness, but this is arguably only an expansion of consciousness to new contents.

Brain as computer

The basic premise of much current brain research seems to be that the brain is a biological computer and evolution is the programmer. Theoretically, then, we should be able to find the codes and understand the working of the brain. According to a 2010 article on CNET:

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have spent the past few years engineering a new imaging model, which they call array tomography, in conjunction with novel computational software, to stitch together image slices into a three-dimensional image that can be rotated, penetrated and navigated. Their work appears in the journal Neuron this week. To test their model, the team took tissue samples from a mouse whose brain had been bioengineered to make larger neurons in the cerebral cortex express a fluorescent protein (found in jellyfish), making them glow yellow-green. Because of this glow, the researchers were able to see synapses against the background of neurons. They found that the brain’s complexity is beyond anything they’d imagined, almost to the point of being beyond belief, says Stephen Smith, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology and senior author of the paper describing the study: One synapse, by itself, is more like a microprocessor–with both memory-storage and information-processing elements–than a mere on/off switch. In fact, one synapse may contain on the order of 1,000 molecular-scale switches. A single human brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth. (Elizabeth Armstrong Moore CNET).

A high end computer chip such as the Intel Quad i7 has 731 million transistors, which act as switches. The human brain, on the other hand, has an estimated 86 billion neurons and 1000 trillion synapses “In a related finding there was a new article that suggests the difference between human and other primates is the space between neurons in the prefrontal cortex, with humans having more space, which is speculated to allow more connections.” (Ward Plunet Link)

The fact that the brain is many times more complicated than a computer does not, by itself, refute the analogy. It does seem significant, however, that no computer yet devised has any degree of consciousness.

Scientists have been very succssful of late in manipulating living cells, especially in tinkering with the DNA, to create new plants and so on. But they are not yet been able to create life in the laboratory, starting with non-living compounds.