Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Reading further into Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, I got a fuller (though still incomplete) sense of what is meant by his terms disembedding mechanisms, expert systems, and symbolic tokens, all of which disrupt time and space as formerly understood in traditional societies that enjoyed the benefit of centuries of continuity. I’ve been aware of analyses regarding, for instance, the sociology of money and the widespread effects of the introduction and adoption of mechanical clocks and timepieces. While most understand these developments superficially as unallayed progress, Giddens argues that they do in fact reorder our experience in the world away from an organic, immediate orientation toward an intellectualized adherence to distant, abstract, self-reinforcing (reflexive) mechanisms.

But those matters are not really what this blog post is about. Rather, this passage sparked my interest:

… when the claims of reason replaced those of tradition, they appeared to offer a sense of certitude greater than that provided by preexisting dogma. But this idea only appears persuasive so long as we do not see that the reflexivity of modernity actually subverts reason, at any rate where reason is understood as the gaining of certain knowledge … We are abroad in a world which is thoroughly constituted through reflexively applied knowledge, but where at the same time we can never be sure that any given element of that knowledge will not be revised. [p. 39]

Put another way, science and reason are axiomatically open to examination, challenge, and revision and often undergo disruptive change. That’s what is meant by Karl Popper’s phrase “all science rests upon shifting sand” and informs the central thesis of Thomas Kuhn’s well-known book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s not the narrow details that shift so much (hard sciences lead pretty reliably to applied engineering) as the overarching narrative, e.g., the story of the Earth, the cosmos, and ourselves as revealed through scientific inquiry and close examination. Historically, the absolute certainty of the medieval church, while not especially accurate in either details or narrative, yielded considerable authority to post-Enlightenment science and reason, which themselves continue to shift periodically.

Some of those paradigm shifts are so boggling and beyond the ken of the average thinker (including many college-educated folks) that our epistemology is now in crisis. Even the hard facts — like the age and shape of the Earth or its orbital relationship to other solar bodies — are hotly contested by some and blithely misunderstood by others. One doesn’t have to get bogged down in the vagaries of relativity, nuclear power and weapons, or quantum theory to lose the thread of what it means to live in the 21st century. Softer sciences such as psychology, anthropology, economics, and even history now deliver new discoveries and (re-)interpretations of facts so rapidly, like the dizzying pace of technological change, that philosophical systems are unmoored and struggling for legitimacy. For instance, earlier this year, a human fossil was found in Morocco that upended our previous knowledge of human evolution (redating the first appearance of biologically modern humans about 100,000 years earlier). More popularly, dieticians still disagree on what sorts of foods are healthy for most of us (though we can probably all agree that excess sugar is bad). Other recent developments include the misguided insistence among some neurobiologists and theorists that consciousness, free will, and the self do not exist (I’ll have a new post regarding that topic as time allows) and outright attacks on religion not just for being in error but for being the source of evil.

I have a hard time imagining other developments in 21st-century intellectual thought that would shake the foundations of our cosmology any more furiously than what we’re now experiencing. Even the dawning realization that we’ve essentially killed ourselves (with delayed effect) by gradually though consistently laying waste to our own habitat is more of an “oops” than the mind-blowing moment of waking up from The Matrix to discover the unreality of everything once believed. Of course, for fervent believers especially, the true facts (best as we can know them, since knowledge is forever provisional) are largely irrelevant in light of desire (what one wants to believe), and that’s true for people on both sides of the schism between church and science/reason.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So it’s probably wrong to introduce a false dualism, though it has plenty of historical precedent. I’ll suggest instead that there are more facets and worldviews at play in the world that the two that have been warring in the West for the last 600 years.

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I revisit my old blog posts when I see some reader activity in the WordPress backstage and was curious to recall a long quote of Iain McGilchrist summarizing arguments put forth by Anthony Giddens in his book Modernity and Self-identity (1991). Giddens had presaged recent cultural developments, namely, the radicalization of nativists, supremacists, Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), and others distorted by absorbed in identity politics. So I traipsed off to the Chicago Public Library (CPL) and sought out the book to read. Regrettably, CPL didn’t have a copy, so I settled on a slightly earlier book, The Consequences of Modernity (1990), which is based on a series of lectures delivered at Stanford University in 1988.

Straight away, the introduction provides a passage that goes to the heart of matters with which I’ve been preoccupied:

Today, in the late twentieth century, it is argued by many, we stand at the opening of a new era … which is taking us beyond modernity itself. A dazzling variety of terms has been suggested to refer to this transition, a few of which refer positively to the emergence of a new type of social system (such as the “information society” or the “consumer society”) but most of which suggest rather than a preceding state of affairs is drawing to a close … Some of the debates about these matters concentrate mainly upon institutional transformations, particularly those which propose that we are moving from a system based upon the manufacture of material goods to one concerned more centrally with information. More commonly, however, those controversies are focused largely upon issues of philosophy and epistemology. This is the characteristic outlook, for example, of the the author who has been primarily responsible for popularising the notion of post-modernity, Jean-François Lyotard. As he represents it, post-modernity refers to a shift away from attempts to ground epistemology and from from faith in humanly engineered progress. The condition of post-modernity is distinguished by an evaporating of the “grand narrative” — the overarching “story line” by means of which we are placed in history as being having a definite past and a predictable future. The post-modern outlook sees a plurality of heterogeneous claims to knowledge, in which science does not have a privileged place. [pp. 1–2, emphasis added]

That’s a lot to unpack all at once, but the fascinating thing is that notions now manifesting darkly in the marketplace of ideas were already in the air in the late 1980s. Significantly, this was several years still before the Internet brought the so-called Information Highway to computer users, before the cell phone and smart phone were developed, and before social media displaced traditional media (TV was only 30–40 years old but had previously transformed our information environment) as the principal way people gather news. I suspect that Giddens has more recent work that accounts for the catalyzing effect of the digital era (including mobile media) on culture, but for the moment, I’m interested in the book in hand.

Regular readers of this blog (I know of one or two) already know my armchair social criticism directed to our developing epistemological crisis (challenges to authority and expertise, psychotic knowledge, fake news, alternative facts, dissolving reality, and science denial) as well as the Transhumanist fantasy of becoming pure thought (once we evolve beyond our bodies). Until that’s accomplished with imagined technology, we increasingly live in our heads, in the abstract, disoriented and adrift on a bewildering sea of competing narratives. Moreover, I’ve stated repeatedly that highly mutable story (or narrative) underlie human cognition and consciousness, making most of us easy marks for charismatic thought leaders storytellers. Giddens was there nearly 30 years ago with these same ideas, though his terms differ.

Giddens dispels the idea of post-modernity and insists that, from a sociological perspective, the current period is better described as high modernism. This reminds me of Oswald Spengler and my abandoned book blogging of The Decline of the West. It’s unimportant to me who got it more correct but note that the term Postmodernism has been adopted widely despite its inaccuracy (at least according to Giddens). As I get further into the book, I’ll have plenty more to say.

Back in undergraduate college, when just starting on my music education degree, I received an assignment where students were asked to formulate a philosophy of education. My thinking then was influenced by a curious textbook I picked up: A Philosophy of Music Education by Bennett Reimer. Of course, it was the wrong time for an undergraduate to perform this exercise, as we had neither maturity nor understanding equal to the task. However, in my naïvté, my answer was all about learning/teaching an aesthetic education — one that focused on appreciating beauty in music and the fine arts. This requires the cultivation of taste, which used to be commonplace among the educated but is now anathema. Money is the preeminent value now. Moreover, anything that smacks of cultural programming and thought control is now repudiated reflexively, though such projects are nonetheless undertaken continuously and surreptitiously through a variety of mechanisms. As a result, the typical American’s sense of what is beautiful and admirable is stunted. Further, knowledge of the historical context in which the fine arts exist is largely absent. (Children are ahistorical in this same way.) Accordingly, many Americans are coarse philistines whose tastes rarely extend beyond those acquired naturally during adolescence (including both biophilia and biophobia), thus the immense popularity of comic book movies, rock and roll music, and all manner of electronica.

When operating with a limited imagination and undeveloped ability to perceive and discern (and disapprove), one is a sitting duck for what ought to be totally unconvincing displays of empty technical prowess. Mere mechanism (spectacle) then possesses the power to transfix and amaze credulous audiences. Thus, the ear-splitting volume of amplified instruments substitutes for true emotional energy produced in exceptional live performance, ubiquitous CGI imagery (vistas and character movements, e.g., fight skills, that simply don’t exist in reality) in cinema produces wonderment, and especially, blinking lights and animated GIFs deliver the equivalent of a sugar hit (cookies, ice cream, soda) when they’re really placebos or toxins. Like hypnosis, the placebo effect is real and pronounced for those unusually susceptible to induction. Sitting ducks.

Having given the fine arts (including their historical contexts) a great deal of my academic attention and acquired an aesthetic education, my response to the video below fell well short of the blasé relativism most exhibit; I actively dislike it. (more…)

A long while back, I blogged about things I just don’t get, including on that list the awful specter of identity politics. As I was finishing my undergraduate education some decades ago, the favored term was “political correctness.” That impulse now looks positively tame in comparison to what occurs regularly in the public sphere. It’s no longer merely about adopting what consensus would have one believe is a correct political outlook. Now it’s a broad referendum centered on the issue of identity, construed though the lens of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identification, lifestyle, religion, nationality, political orientation, etc.

One frequent charge levied against offenders is cultural appropriation, which is the adoption of an attribute or attributes of a culture by someone belonging to a different culture. Here, the term “culture” is a stand-in for any feature of one’s identity. Thus, wearing a Halloween costume from another culture, say, a bandido, is not merely in poor taste but is understood to be offensive if one is not authentically Mexican. Those who are infected with the meme are often called social justice warriors (SJW), and policing (of others, natch) is especially vehement on campus. For example, I’ve read of menu items at the school cafeteria being criticized for not being authentic enough. Really? The won ton soup offends Chinese students?

In an opinion-editorial in the NY Times entitled “Will the Left Survive the Millennials?” Lionel Shriver described being sanctioned for suggesting that fiction writers not be too concerned about creating characters from backgrounds different from one’s own. He contextualizes the motivation of SJWs this way: (more…)

Anthropologists, pundits, armchair cultural critics (like me), and others sometimes offer an aspect or characteristic, usually singular, that separates the human species from other animals. (Note: humans are animals, not the crowning creation of god in his own image, the dogma of major religions.) Typical singular aspects include tool use (very early on, fire), language, agriculture, self-awareness (consciousness), and intelligence, that last including especially the ability to conceptualize time and thus remember and plan ahead. The most interesting candidate suggested to me is our ability to kill from a distance. Without going into a list of things we don’t think we share with other species but surprisingly do, it interests me that none other possesses the ability to kill at a distance (someone will undoubtedly prove me wrong on this).

Two phrases spring to mind: nature is red in tooth and claw (Tennyson) and human life is nasty, brutish, and short (Hobbes). Both encapsulate what it means to have to kill to eat, which is hardly unique to animals. All sorts of plants, insects, and microorganisms embed themselves in hosts, sometimes killing the host and themselves. Symbiotic relationships also exist. The instance that interests me, though, is the act of killing in the animal kingdom that requires putting one’s own body at risk in life-or-death attack. Examples falling short of killing abound, such as intimidation to establish hierarchy, but to eat, an animal must kill its prey.

Having watched my share of historical fiction (pre-1800, say, but especially sword-and-sandal and medieval epics) on the TeeVee and at the cinema, the dramatic appeal of warring armies slamming into each other never seems to get old. Fighting is hand-to-hand or sword-to-sword, which are tantamount to the same. Archer’s arrows, projectiles launched from catapults and trebuchets, thrown knives, spears, and axes, and pouring boiling oil over parapets are killing from a relatively short distance, but the action eventually ends up being very close. The warrior code in fighting cultures honors the willingness to put oneself in harm’s way, to risk one’s own body. Leaders often exhibit mutual respect and may even share some intimacy. War may not be directly about eating, since humans are not cannibals under most circumstances; rather, it’s usually about control of resources, so secondarily about eating by amassing power. Those historical dramas often depict victors celebrating by enjoying lavish feasts.

Modern examples of warfare and killing from a distance make raining down death from above a bureaucratic action undertaken with little or no personal risk. Artillery, carpet bombing from 20,000 feet, drone strikes (controlled from the comfort of some computer lab in the Utah desert), and nuclear bombs are the obvious examples. No honorable warrior code attaches to such killing. Indeed, the chain of command separates the execution of kill orders from moral responsibility — probably a necessary disconnect when large numbers of casualties (collateral damage, if one prefers the euphemism) can be expected. Only war criminals, either high on killing or banally impervious to empathy and compassion, would dispatch hundreds of thousands at a time.

If killing from a distance is in most cases about proximity or lack thereof, one further example is worth mentioning: killing across time. While most don’t really conceptualize the space-time continuum as interconnected, the prospect of choices made today manifesting in megadeath in the foreseeable future is precisely the sort of bureaucratized killing from a distance that should be recognized and forestalled. Yet despite our supposed intellectual superiority over other species, we cannot avoid waging war, real and rhetorical, to control resources and narratives that enable us to eat. Eating the future would be akin to consuming seed corn, but that metaphor is not apt. Better perhaps to say that we’re killing the host. We’re embedded in the world, as indeed is everything we know to be alive, and rely upon the profundity of the biosphere for survival. Although the frequent charge is that humanity is a parasite or has become as cancer on the world, that tired assessment, while more accurate than not, is a little on the nose. A more charitable view is that, as a species, humanity, as the apex predator, has expanded its habitat to include the entire biosphere, killing to eat, and is slowly consuming and transforming it into a place uninhabitable by us, just as a yeast culture consumes its medium and grows to fill the space before dying all at once. So the irony or Pyrrhic victory is that we while we may fatten ourselves (well, some of us) in the short term, we have also created conditions leading to our own doom. Compared to other species whose time on Earth lasted tens of millions of years, human life on Earth turns out to be exactly what Hobbes said: nasty, brutish, and short.

I discovered “The Joe Rogan Experience” on YouTube recently and have been sampling from among the nearly 900 pod- or webcasts posted there. I’m hooked. Rogan is an impressive fellow. He clearly enjoys the life of the mind but, unlike many who are absorbed solely in ideas, has not ignored the life of the body. Over time, he’s also developed expertise in multiple endeavors and can participate knowledgeably in discussion on many topics. Webcasts are basically long, free-form, one-on-one conversations. This lack of structure gives the webcast ample time to explore topics in depth or simply meander. Guests are accomplished or distinguished in some way and usually have fame and wealth to match, which often affects content (i.e., Fitzgerald’s observation: “The rich are different than you and me”). One notable bar to entry is having a strong media presence.

Among the recurring themes, Rogan trots out his techno optimism, which is only a step short of techno utopianism. His optimism is based on two interrelated developments in recent history: widespread diffusion of information over networks and rapid advances in medical devices that can be expected to accelerate, to enhance human capabilities, and soon to transform us into supermen, bypassing evolutionary biology. He extols these views somewhat regularly to his guests, but alas, none of the guests I’ve watched seem to be able to fathom the ideas satisfactorily enough to take up the discussion. (The same is true of Rogan’s assertion that money is just information, which is reductive and inaccurate.) They comment or joke briefly and move onto something more comfortable or accessible. Although I don’t share Rogan’s optimism, I would totally engage in discussion of his flirtation with Transhumanism (a term he doesn’t use). That’s why I’m blogging here about Rogan, in addition to my lacking enough conventional distinction and fame to score an invite to be a guest on his webcast. Plus, he openly disdains bloggers, many of whom moderate comments (I don’t) or otherwise channel discussion to control content. Oh, well.

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Continuing from my previous post, Brian Phillips has an article, writing for MTV News, entitled “Shirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten: Facebook’s fake-news problem and the rise of the postmodern right.” (Funny title, that.) I navigated to the article via Alan Jacob’s post at Text Patterns (on my blogroll). Let me consider each in turn.

After chuckling that Phillips is directing his analysis to the wrong audience, an admittedly elitist response on my part, I must further admit that the article is awfully well-written and nails the blithe attitude accompanying epistemological destruction carried out, perhaps unwittingly but too well-established now to ignore, by developers of social media as distinguished from traditional news media. Which would be considered more mainstream today is up for debate. Maybe Phillips has the right audience after all. He certainly gets the importance of controlling the narrative:

Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom. It’s telling, in that regard, that Trump supporters, the voters most furiously suspicious of journalism, also proved to be the most receptive audience for fictions that looked journalism-like. Authoritarianism doesn’t really want to convince its supporters that their fantasies are true, because truth claims are subject to verification, and thus to the possible discrediting of authority. Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies.

But Phillips is too clever by half, burying the issue in scholarly style that speaks successfully only to a narrow class of academics and intellectuals, much like the language and memes employed by the alt-right are said to be dog whistles perceptible only to rabid, mouth-breathing bigots. Both charges are probably unfair reductions, though with kernels of truth. Here’s some of Phillips overripe language:

Often the battleground for this idea [virtue and respect] was the integrity of language itself. The conservative idea, at that time [20 years ago], was that liberalism had gone insane for political correctness and continental theory, and that the way to resist the encroachment of Derrida was through fortifying summaries of Emerson … What had really happened was that the left had become sensitized to the ways in which conventional moral language tended to shore up existing privilege and power, and had embarked on a critique of this tendency that the right interpreted, with some justification, as an attack on the very concept of meaning.

More plainly, Phillips’ suggestion is that the radical right learned the lessons of Postmodernism (PoMo) even better than did the avant-garde left, the latter having outwitted themselves by giving the right subtle tools used later to outmaneuver everyone. Like other mildly irritating analyses I have read, it’s a statement of inversion: an idea bringing into existence its antithesis that unironically proves and undermines the original, though with a dose of Schadenfreude. This was (partially) the subject of a 4-part blog I wrote called “Dissolving Reality” back in Aug. and Sept. 2015. (Maybe half a dozen read the series; almost no one commented.)

So what does Alan Jacobs add to the discussion? He exhibits his own scholarly flourishes. Indeed, I admire the writing but find myself distracted by the writerly nature, which ejects readers from the flow of ideas to contemplate the writing itself. For instance, this:

It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement.

Terrific capture of the classroom culture in which teachers are steeped. Drawing identity politics more manifestly into the mix is a fairly obvious extrapolation over Phillips and may reflect the results of the presidential election, where pundits, wheeling around to reinterpret results that should not have so surprised them, now suggest Republican victories are a repudiation of leftist moral instruction. The depth of Phillips’ and Jacobs’ remarks is not so typical of most pundits, however, and their follow-up analysis at some point becomes just more PoMo flagellation. Here, Jacobs is even more clearly having some fun:

No longer did we have to fear being brought before the bar of Rational Evidence, that hanging judge of the Enlightenment who had sent so many believers to the gallows! You have your constructs and we have our constructs, and who’s to say which are better, right? O brave new world that hath such a sociology of knowledge in it!

This goes back to the heart of the issue, our epistemological crisis, but I dispute that race and gender are the determinative categories of social analysis, no matter how fashionable they may be in the academy. A simpler and more obvious big picture controls: it’s about life and death. My previous post was about geopolitics, where death is rained down upon foreign peoples and justifying rhetoric is spread domestically. Motivations may be complex and varied, but the destruction of people and truth affects everyone, albeit unevenly, without regard to race, gender, religion, nationality, etc. All are caught in the dragnet.

Moreover, with the advent of Western civilization, intellectuals have always been sensitive to the sociology of knowledge. It’s a foundation of philosophy. That it’s grown sclerotic long precedes PoMo theory. In fact, gradual breaking apart and dismantling of meaning is visible across all expressive genres, not just literature. In painting, it was Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. In architecture, it was Art Deco, the International Style, Modernism, Brutalism, and Deconstructivism. In music, it was the Post-Romantic, the Second Viennese School, Modernism, Serialism, and Minimalism. In scientific paradigms, it was electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, the Nuclear Era, and semiconductors. The most essential characteristics in each case are increasingly dogmatic abstraction and drilling down to minutia that betray meaningful essences. Factoring in economic and political perversions, we arrive at our current epistemological phase where truth and consequences matter little (though death and destruction still do) so long as deceits, projections, and distractions hold minds in thrall. In effect, gravity is turned off and historical narratives levitate until reality finally, inevitably comes crashing down in a monstrous Jenga pile, as it does periodically.

In the meantime, I suppose Phillips and Jacobs can issue more gaseous noise into the fog bank the information environment has become. They can’t get much traction (nor can I) considering how most of the affluent West thinks at the level of a TV sitcom. In addition, steps being considered to rein in the worst excesses of fake news would have corporations and traditional news media appointed as watchers and censors. Beyond any free speech objections, which are significant, expecting culprits to police themselves only awards them greater power to dominate, much like bailouts rewarded the banks. More fog, more lies, more levitation.

Back in the day, I studied jazz improvisation. Like many endeavors, it takes dedication and continuous effort to develop the ear and learn to function effectively within the constraints of the genre. Most are familiar with the most simple form: the 12-bar blues. Whether more attuned to rhythm, harmony, lyrics, or structure doesn’t much matter; all elements work together to define the blues. As a novice improviser, structure is easy to grasp and lyrics don’t factor in (I’m an instrumentalist), but harmony and rhythm, simple though they may be to understand, are formidable when one is making up a solo on the spot. That’s improvisation. In class one day, after two passes through the chord changes, the instructor asked me how I thought I had done, and I blurted out that I was just trying to fill up the time. Other students heaved a huge sigh of recognition and relief: I had put my thumb on our shared anxiety. None of us were skilled enough yet to be fluent or to actually have something to say — the latter especially the mark of a skilled improvisor — but were merely trying to plug the whole when our turn came.

These days, weekends feel sorta the same way. On Friday night, the next two days often feel like a yawning chasm where I plan what I know from experience will be an improvisation, filling up the available time with shifting priorities, some combination of chores, duties, obligations, and entertainments (and unavoidable bodily functions such as eating, sleeping, etc.). Often enough I go back to work with stories to tell about enviable weekend exploits, but just I often have a nagging feeling that I’m still a novice with nothing much to say or contribute, just filling up the time with noise. And as I contemplate what years and decades may be left to me (if the world doesn’t crack up first), the question arises: what big projects would I like to accomplish before I’m done? That, too, seems an act of improvisation.

I suspect recent retirees face these dilemmas with great urgency until they relax and decide “who cares?” What is left to do, really, before one finally checks out? If careers are completed, children are raised, and most of life’s goals are accomplished, what remains besides an indulgent second childhood of light hedonism? Or more pointedly, what about one’s final years keeps it from feeling like quiet desperation or simply waiting for the Grim Reaper? What last improvisations and flourishes are worth undertaking? I have no answers to these questions. They don’t press upon me just yet with any significance, and I suffered no midlife crisis (so far) that would spur me to address the questions head on. But I can feel them gathering in the back of my mind like a shadow — especially with the specters of American-style fascism, financial and industrial collapse, and NTE looming.

Caveat: Apologies for this overlong post, which random visitors (nearly the only kind I have besides the spambots) may find rather challenging.

The puzzle of consciousness, mind, identity, self, psyche, soul, etc. is an extraordinarily fascinating subject. We use various terms, but they all revolve around a unitary property and yet come from different approaches, methodologies, and philosophies. The term mind is probably the most generic; I tend to use consciousness interchangeably and more often. Scientific American has a entire section of its website devoted to the mind, with subsections on Behavior & Society, Cognition, Mental Health, Neurological Health, and Neuroscience. (Top-level navigation offers links to these sections: The Sciences, Mind, Health, Tech, Sustainability, Education, Video, Podcasts, Blogs, and Store.) I doubt I will explore very deeply because science favors the materialist approach, which I believe misses the forest through the trees. However, the presence of this area of inquiry right at the top of the page indicates how much attention and research the mind/consciousness is currently receiving.

A guest blog at Scientific American by Adam Bear entitled “What Neuroscience Says about Free Will” makes the fashionable argument (these days) that free will doesn’t exist. The blog/article is disclaimed: “The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.” I find that a little weaselly. Because the subject is still wide open to interpretation and debate, Scientific American should simply offer conflicting points of view without worry. Bear’s arguments rest on the mind’s ability to revise and redate experience occurring within the frame of a few milliseconds to allow for processing time, also known as the postdictive illusion (the opposite of predictive). I wrote about this topic more than four years ago here. Yet another discussion is found here. I admit to being irritated that the questions and conclusions stem from a series of assumptions, primarily that whatever free will is must occur solely in consciousness (whatever that is) as opposed to originating in the subconscious and subsequently transferring into consciousness. Admittedly, we use these two categories — consciousness and the subconscious — to account for the rather limited amount of processing that makes it all the way into awareness vs. the significant amount that remains hidden or submerged. A secondary assumption, the broader project of neuroscience in fact, is that, like free will, consciousness is housed somewhere in the brain or its categorical functions. Thus, fruitful inquiry results from seeking its root, seed, or seat as though the narrative constructed by the mind, the stream of consciousness, were on display to an inner observer or imp in what Daniel Dennett years ago called the Cartesian Theater. That time-worn conceit is the so-called ghost in the machine. (more…)

The last time I blogged about this topic, I took an historical approach, locating the problem (roughly) in time and place. In response to recent blog entries by Dave Pollard at How to Save the World, I’ve delved into the topic again. My comments at his site are the length of most of my own blog entries (3–4 paras.), whereas Dave tends to write in chapter form. I’ve condensed to my self-imposed limit.

Like culture and history, consciousness is a moving train that yields its secrets long after it has passed. Thus, assessing our current position is largely conjectural. Still, I’ll be reckless enough to offer my intuitions for consideration. Dave has been pursuing radical nonduality, a mode of thought characterized by losing one’s sense of self and becoming selfless, which diverges markedly from ego consciousness. That mental posture, described elsewhere by nameless others as participating consciousness, is believed to be what preceded the modern mind. I commented that losing oneself in intense, consuming flow behaviors is commonplace but temporary, a familiar, even transcendent place we can only visit. Its appeals are extremely seductive, however, and many people want to be there full-time, as we once were. The problem is that ego consciousness is remarkably resilient and self-reinforcing. Despite losing oneself from time to time, we can’t be liberated from the self permanently, and pathways to even temporarily getting out of one’s own head are elusive and sometimes self-destructive.

My intuition is that we are fumbling toward just such a quieting of the mind, a new dark age if you will, or what I called self-lite in my discussion with Dave. As we stagger forth, groping blindly in the dark, the transitional phase is characterized by numerous disturbances to the psyche — a crisis of consciousness wholly different from the historical one described previously. The example uppermost in my thinking is people lost down the rabbit hole of their handheld devices and desensitized to the world beyond the screen. Another is the ruined, wasted minds of (arguably) two or more generations of students done great disservice by their parents and educational institutions at all levels, a critical mass of intellectually stunted and distracted young adults by now. Yet another is those radicalized by their close identification with one or more special interest groups, also known as identity politics. A further example is the growing prevalence of confusion surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity. In each example, the individual’s ego is confused, partially suppressed, and/or under attack. Science fiction and horror genres have plenty of instructive examples of people who are no longer fully themselves, their bodies zombified or made into hosts for another entity that takes up residence, commandeering or shunting aside the authentic, original self.

Despite having identified modern ego consciousness as a crisis and feeling no small amount of empathy for those seeking radical nonduality, I find myself in the odd position of defending the modern mind precisely because transitional forms, if I have understood them properly, are so abhorrent. Put another way, while I can see the potential value and allure of extinguishing the self even semi-permanently, I will not be an early adopter. Indeed, if the modern mind took millennia to develop as one of the primary evolutionary characteristics of homo sapiens sapiens, it seems foolish to presume that it can be uploaded into a computer, purposely discarded by an act of will, or devolved in even a few generations. Meanwhile, though the doomer in me recognizes that ego consciousness is partly responsible for bringing us to the brink of (self-)annihilation (financial, geopolitical, ecological), individuality and intelligence are still highly prized where they can be found.