Author Archives: Q

The Roots of Political Correctness

In Terry Teachout’s recent article, he shows that past members of two great orchestras, in Vienna and Berlin, acquiesced and in some cases participated in anti-Semitism during the Nazi reign in Germany and Europe.

https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/orchestras-and-nazis/

We know that most Germans of the time were at least acquiescent in the attempted genocide of the Jews, but we may not have known that also were the accomplished musicians of these orchestras. Hitler is famous as a failed painter, and this article is a valuable reminder that success as an artist does not preclude racism. We can assume that these musicians were cultured and intelligent people, well-respected, who presumably had what they thought were good reasons for acting, or failing to act, as they did. And this should serve as a warning to all of us, that we remain susceptible to the rhetoric of prejudice and scapegoating.

The message here is important but capable of distortion. It has degenerated into the assumption that anytime we find one group that is less powerful or successful than another group in any given society, the less powerful group must be persecuted victims. Eric Gans views our current victimary culture or Political Correctness as a reaction to the Holocaust. And the message of the persecuted minority is not unique to the Holocaust. We find it in the Bible, with the persecution of the Israelites by the Egyptians, and the persecution of Jesus and his followers. In American history prominent examples include Jim Crow laws and the McCarthy Congress investigations of suspected communists.

Narratives of persecution today are ubiquitous. Ethnic and racial minorities, females, LGBT, the 99% and so on are supposedly persecuted mercilessly today, even when they are prosperous and middle class. These groups are assumed to be the modern equivalent of the European Jews during the Holocaust. As a result, anyone who opposes illegal immigration is by definition a racist, and anyone who opposes gay marriage is a Nazi. Since protesting the Nazis during their reign by any means including violence was justified, today’s SJWs (Social Justice Warriors) feel justified in using any means for protesting today’s supposed Nazis. Ironically, Jews do not enjoy any protection by SJWs, simply because they are more powerful than the Palestinians, despite the fact that they have helped the Palestinians more than any Arab country, and despite the fact that they are a tiny country surrounded by larger and more numerous hostile neighbors.

Here is a defense of violence and the violation of basic human rights from a liberal journalist:

While we may want to rely on a rights defense in court, where First Amendment activity is threatened, our defense of dissent outside the courts should not be limited by what the state deems defensible by metrics of human or civil rights. A rights discourse, for example, would not defend the deliverer of that glorious punch to neo-Nazi Richard Spencer—it would, in fact, defend Spencer.
https://thenewinquiry.com/know-your-rights/

Spencer is literally a Nazi, so he is, rhetorically, a safe target, but SJWs also target innocuous figures like Charles Murray with violence, or anyone who doesn’t fit the SJW’s political agenda. Note the euphemism for violence as a “defense of dissent.”

The message taken from the Holocaust is “don’t be on the wrong side of history.” The orchestra members who submitted to the Nazis, and the American politicians who resisted Civil Rights legislation; today they look like idiots or worse. But how to know which group will turn out to be the Nazis and which group will turn out to have been unfairly persecuted? Rather than use any moral or rational criteria, the assumption today is that the weaker group is always morally justified, and the stronger group must be attacked and brought down. But is the less-powerful group always oppressed? In America, ethnic and racial minorities, females, LGBT, are all accorded extraordinary advantages in many respects. In academia, the courts, the job market, and the media they are the privileged class; any public expression of skepticism about their supposed victimization is punished mercilessly. If SJWs were truly concerned about empowering minorities, I would not have any problem with their words and actions. But there is a steadfast refusal to look at the real causes why some groups of people are less successful than others. Instead, there is a blanket assumption that the less-powerful must have been unfairly discriminated against. Any discussion of personal responsibility is dismissed as racist, sexist, classist, etc. This willed blindness makes the problem worse.

At the bottom of liberals’ political correctness is a vanity for their supposedly iconoclastic moral virtue, a selfish desire to be perceived as bravely defying “the man,” and a cowardly fear of being accused of racism or whatever. Questioning what actually constitutes racism in any particular case is taken as evidence of racism. The PC crowd enjoys a rhetorical advantage because we must admit that no instance of actual discrimination should be tolerated, but they refuse to admit any discussion of what constitutes actual discrimination in any given case. The SJWs have claimed the moral high ground, so that opponents of PC appear to be on the “wrong side of history,” but which is really just the accepted media-narrative of the moment.

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.

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.