Archive for November, 2007

The mind-body problem

November 29, 2007

Porn, on screen or on paper, is a great, though rarely used, example for causal interaction between mind and body. Wait, you will say: between mind and body? Isn’t that presupposing the very distinction monists want to question? Well, no. Distinguishing mind and body here is merely expository, meant to capture the following difference: when presented with a haptic stimulus, no representation of the object (understood broadly to include human beings) is needed to produce a particular reaction. Think tickling, if you prefer to think innocently. This is not true for visual stimuli – there you have to represent the object as something in order to have a certain reaction to it. Again, if you prefer a less controversial case, think about comedy, even fairly simple minded comedy.

Mind, in this context, then just means: capacity to represent objects as objects; mental states (as opposed to other states) are capable of such a representation. This does not in itself preclude the possibility that any such mental state is also, in some way or other, a brain state (or some other physical state). It is merely an attempt to get at a difference that seems to be present in certain phenomena, of which watching porn is an example.

Porn produces a certain bodily reaction (it’s about as bodily as reactions go) through visual stimuli (let’s stick to the easy cases and leave aside erotic novels). In order to produce the reaction, a representation of the object is needed, so here it seems we have an interesting case of mind-body interaction. It is because you represent what’s going on on screen as a particular kind of action, that you respond to it in a certain way. The reaction may be inevitable given the representation, which may tempt us to liken it to cases of haptic stimulation. But the fact that it would be very difficult to try to represent what’s going on as something other than what it evidently is (this really is just what it looks like!), this doesn’t mean that you don’t have to represent it as such.

In watching porn, we volunteer to subject ourselves to a particular kind of manipulation: we know ahead of time, that we will respond to what we see in a particular way. We may even think that we cannot help but respond in that way. It’s a bit odd to think that we seek out such manipulation, no?

Measuring the world

November 27, 2007

Today the latest Human Development Index has been released. It is in many ways our best bet at estimating how well countries do in terms of average quality of life. There are many things this index doesn’t measure – income equality or human rights, for example. Not because anybody denies that these matter when it comes to quality of life, but because they are difficult to measure. It is already pretty complicated to make the data from different countries commensurate, as the authors themselves point out.

What is the point of such a report? It seems unlikely that many of us are going to move to Iceland to improve our quality of life. And it would seem unlikely that thisĀ  would in fact improve our quality of life. So the Index is not actually going to help us to make immediate practical decisions.

This even remains true on the national level. Even if, as a nation, we decide that we want to improve our standing on the Index, simply copying what other countries have done typically won’t do. Initial conditions are too different, economic and educational networks too fragile and complex to perform ad hoc changes.

But the Index does give you a measure of what’s possible. If countries have similar economic conditions to your own, the populations a similar level of education, yet one of them is doing significantly better than the other, this should give you reason to pause and rethink whether you are really making the most of your potential.

A nasty habit

November 25, 2007

The presentation of philosophers and philosophical thought in popular science articles. All too often it goes something like this: for centuries, philosophers have been puzzled by this question. Now scientists have found the answer.

The most annoying thing about this is actually that it usually doesn’t serve any particular purpose internal to the article — it is just some random way of introducing the subject matter — but that it nevertheless has devastating effects on the public perception of philosophy and philosophers. Philosophers, we learn, are mostly puzzled creatures, wondering about the world while trapped in their ivory tower. Fortunately, one of these question has now been taken on by scientists, who of course produced a solution in no time. There you go. So philosophers get bad publicity, and all just because some mediocre journalist couldn’t think of a better introduction to the topic at hand.

What is furthermore annoying is the blatant anachronism. The strict distinction between philosophers on the one hand, and scientists on the other, dates back only to the 19th century. Many of the questions philosophers have been puzzled by for centuries are actually the same questions that scientists have been puzzled by for centuries, in part because science was just a way of doing philosophy: natural philosophy. Not infrequently, the same person (Descartes or Newton, for example) would make contributions in areas we now call ‘science’, as well as in areas we are now inclined to call ‘philosophy’.

Add to this the equally anachronistic idea that ‘the question that has been around for centuries’ is in any straightforward way ‘the same question’ answered by the particular scientific result presented in the article. Questions that have been around for centuries tend to be very general (is there a beginning to the world, or no?/is there a smallest possible bit of matter, or no?/how free are we in our decisions?), whereas answers given by any particular scientific discovery tend to be rather narrow in scope. They furthermore tend to presuppose a great deal of theory. The question whether or not two particular genes are to be found on the same chromosome is not one we would expect to have been around for centuries. Sure, there may be some interesting connection between a question which has been around for a long time, and a particular scientific discovery. That’s great. But let’s not pretend that scientist (or anybody else for that matter) simply addressed ‘the same question’. In fact, in a way it might not make very much sense at all to claim that there is such a thing as ‘the same question’ that has been around for centuries. Instead it might be wise to say: here is a question which can be understood as a transformation of an earlier question (which in turn was a transformation of an earlier question…), and here is an answer we can give to the particular twist we put on this question.

If post-modernism has taught us anything, it is to be wary of anachronism. But let’s leave this for some other time.

surrounded by friends

November 23, 2007

The integration process of the European Union has always met with mixed reactions. Nor is it news that the common market has caused workers to fear a loss of benefits. But the latest worry raised by German border guards, that with Poland joining the Schengen zone, German border guards are facing changes in their career prospects, certainly adds a new twist to an old complaint.

There’s no denying it

November 23, 2007

Now it is official: living in denial is necessary. Especially in your relationships with others. Deny that your partner is cheating on you, you’ll be happier. Well, o.k., this is a bit of an oversimplification. However, the findings discussed in the linked article do suggest an explanation for why philosophers (and intellectuals in general) tend to be not as happy as they should be, at least if the Greeks were right.

If, as the article suggests, denial is real helpful in overlooking people’s flaws, especially if it is people we have a close relationship with, then it would seem that people will be happier in communities where such overlooking is more commonly practiced than in communities, where this is not the case. (There might be an upper limit of course. Maybe once you’re beyond a certain degree of oversight, things actually become less pleasant.) This allows them to be in denial over their own imperfections as well as those of others. It’s socially acceptable to look away.

It seems plausible (at least on the basis of anecdotal evidence) that communities in fact differ in the degree to which living in denial is socially acceptable. Furthermore, it seems very plausible to think that intellectuals in general have a tendency to form communities (both professional and personal) where looking away is socially less acceptable.
According to the above, then, it should be plausible to expect intellectuals to be less happy than the average person. Which again seems to be confirmed by at least anecdotal evidence.

Mahler, Gustav

November 21, 2007

Mahler is an acquired taste. Start with the 5th symphony. If that’s too long for you, just listen to the scherzo. It’s still long, but worth every second.

Mahler might not strike you as modernist at all. After all, wasn’t he just a very late Romantic? And wasn’t everything that followed modernist? Breaking the tradition Mahler was a part of?

There is truth in this, although Mahler pushed the tradition further, influencing what became known as the Second Viennese School. But Mahler’s relation to tradition, the tradition he was a masterful conductor of, was already a broken one. Being the director of the Vienna Court Opera, nobody could have been more inside the tradition than Mahler. But Mahler, as always, was also an outsider, an ironic commentator on this very tradition. Mahler didn’t just work within the tradition, he tweaked it and developed it further.

This is his true contribution: work within a genre, a style, fully aware of the past greatness achieved within it. Dare to. Accept the tradition with its standards and measures against which your work will be judged. There is a sense in which this takes more courage than simply breaking with all of it.