GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 15, 2018

Reflections on the Passion

Filed under: GA — Q @ 9:34 am

In one of Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction novels, some aliens hear the story of Christ, and their take on his story is that the people who crucified Jesus picked the wrong person to crucify, since Jesus’s dad, unbeknownst to them, is the most powerful being in the universe, and so, his cruficiers were going to be in big trouble. The moral of the Passion story, for the aliens, was to be very careful about whom you crucify, because you don’t want to get into trouble with his or her relatives. Girard pointed out that the scapegoat victim is usually someone without any powerful connections, in order to avoid this kind of retaliation.

The aliens proposed a revision of the Passion story, in which Jesus was just an ordinary person who was elected, by divine fiat, to be God’s Son, either before or after the crucifixion. For the aliens, this would yield a more satisfactory moral: don’t crucify anyone, because anyone could be chosen as God’s Son. The aliens’ revision is to some extent a legitimate interpretation, since the Bible clearly suggests that we are all God’s children, even if we are not the “only begotten Son.” I believe Vonnegut’s ideas here play into scholarly reconstructions of the earliest (1st century) Christian theology, by which Jesus was elected or raised to Sonship by God, not descended from heaven via the Incarnation. More to follow.

August 1, 2017

Roots of PC (continued)

Filed under: GA — Q @ 6:47 am

In a book written 28 years ago, David Pryce-Jones critically examined contemporary Arab societies, their pervasive violence and lack of economic-political progress. He also analyzed how the West enables Arab corruption by our tendency to self-criticism, what is sometimes called “white guilt” (The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs by David Pryce-Jones [Ivan R. Dee, 1989]).

In the following passage, Pryce-Jones looks at the international context for the emergence of the PLO in the 1960’s: their rise to a political importance radically disproportionate to their objective significance on the international stage:

At the onset of industrialization in the nineteenth century, a sense took hold in Europe that a wrong turning was at hand. People of influence believed that in factories and cities the masses were being submitted to a life more abusive than the customary ways. Consequent attitudes of willful pessimism can be seen with hindsight for the romanticism that it was.

After the Second World War, once again people of influence questioned values everywhere in the West, creating another climate of pessimism which was contrary to the evidence. The West, it was widely argued, had acquired scientific and manufacturing power on a scale that was dehumanizing, irresistibly eroding other cultures and even threatening its own progress. In this view, those who opposed the West were to be encouraged and welcomed, no matter what their purpose of motivation might be. Defined simplistically as an assertion of Western power, colonialism was hastened to its close in this climate.

Citizens of democracies incline to attend to their critics and to accommodate through intellectual speculation even the most hostile views. Elements of doubt, therefore self-doubt too, must always be in play within democratic societies in the process of opinion-forming. With hindsight again, the West since 1945 can be seen in reality to have entered a new industrial age of exceptional vitality, leading to increasing choice and freedom. Temporarily, the unexpected confrontation of the Cold War had proved unnerving. To applaud experiments in collective socialism or communism alien to democratic traditions and values, to praise the China of Mao Ze-dong and the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh or the expedition of Che Guevara into the Andes, to conceive that the “winds of change” detected by Harold Macmillan in Africa were autonomous and beneficial to Africans, to listen either with fear or joy to Khrushchev’s threat that the Soviet Union would bury the West were facets of latter-day romanticism. Imminent doom had its Byronic fascination. In any case, to believe that the blame for the ills and barbarities of other nations or cultures lay with the West was another instance of Eurocentric self-importance, a gratuitous posture.

The Palestine Liberation Organization was a phenomenon of this aberrant period. (280-1)

Pryce-Jones calls this an “aberrant period,” but the tendencies he describes have proven to be a veritable juggernaut in Western society in its relation with any group that differs by race, ethnicity, and so on. He traces the roots of “white guilt” to Romanticism, which is accurate I believe, and the connection could be explored further.

July 3, 2017

The Roots of Political Correctness

Filed under: GA — Q @ 8:57 am

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.

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 (not to mention the PLO and Hamas), 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.

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.

July 11, 2014

Thought Experiment

Filed under: GA — Q @ 6:45 pm

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.

July 2, 2014

Brain as computer

Filed under: GA — Q @ 9:22 am

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.

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