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In my old age, I’ve become something of a naturalist about the mind. Now, even Hegel did not doubt the importance of the brain to mindedness, but “anti-naturalists” think that important facts about rational thought are elided by focusing on the neural apparatus. I used to think this for political reasons, but now the importance of Pavlovian research for the early Soviet Union has hit home; I do not doubt that it is the brain and the brain entirely that thinks, rather than an external armature of facts and norms.
There is really no doubt that a materialist theory of the mind can cope with all the rationally known truths cognized by the mind — and certainly if religious people have little difficulty with the importance of the brain, a certain modernist malaise about all we will be able to do in 70 to 90 years (less if you’re lucky?) must go. “Neurobabble” consists not of some kind of ‘junk’ science, as the anti-naturalist is prone to think, but an important re-weighting of modern discourses about the mind and personal responsibility; it of course works hand in glove with human values and goals to create a more ‘enlightened’ approach to thinking.
I would like to sketch just a brief picture of what an ‘enlightened materalism’ for the 2010s might look like. Jerry Fodor has been critical of scientific Darwinists who neglect “module-less” or general features of thought in their “massively modular” account of cognitive capacities; but I do not see why the suggestion of general features of mentation need upset the materialist. In fact, we might consider the best evidence for materialism as an insouciant attitude about thoughts more complex than can be handled by evolutionary mechanisms of cognitive control: that the brain can think them as a whole might well correspond to a catch-all philosophical category like “intentionality”.
What would this mean, tying the general face of object-directed thought to the neural apparatus as a whole? A “transcendental materialism”: in other words, a new impetus for the “examined life” which comes from realizing that certain products of reflection and meditation will never motivate us the way more primitive drives like hunger and sexual desire do; within the natural world, human thought is a closed but expanding loop that can never transcend its limitations to provide a “predatorily perfect world” absent the most complicated processes of human thought.
It can only meditate and ruminate more, not act outside the more tightly constraining bonds of sentiment. A unique feature, if you were looking for a “unique animal” —
Seattle is one of the North American continent’s great cities, both in extension and intention: a vast urban area built on a excellent harbor in a temperate climate could not, should not, and will not fail to impress — against all odds, and a history of lies about the “New Deal state”. However, one area of urban planning where Seattle has always fallen down regards the thing that gave it life in the first place: superior rail transit. A fine idea to keep things on the “up and up”, away from environmental impact and “mysteries”, must not obscure the fact that exceptional places demand waste to show the world what they are.
Served by the Great Northern Railway, which is neither “will” nor “representation”, and the Southern Pacific, Seattle’s natural advantages could be exploited to the hilt instantly: however, after National Coach Lines removed the nation’s always-already decrepit streetcars the immense metropolis of the King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties could not deal with the geographical constraints on “rolling-stock” transit within it: though Metro provides superior bus service, from articulated buses with faux-cherry paneling on up, no expressway could make the trip from Sea-Tac to Pioneer Place less wearing on one’s “patience”.
Following on the “immodest proposal” to extend Seattle’s famed legacy of futurism, the 1964 World’s Fair monorail, to cover the earth Seattle has built a variety of light-rail transit lines downtown; the harbor streetcar from King Street Station in the International District, and the downtown streetcar from Westlake Hub. Seattleites are being promised an extension to Sea-Tac, but this is not possible; and what was manifestly always necessary, a subway for one of the great “big cities” of the U.S., was not desirable to some on various accounts; “the underground” creates more problems than it solves, including in the mind.
My solution is this: to my mind there are two “non-standard” subways in the US, those in Buffalo and Newark. Though it is cold, Buffalo hardly needs a subway at all: yet, on account of Hooker Chemical and other realities of living in the Northland it has one. Newark certainly doesn’t: Northern New Jersey had two connections to New York from the 19th century on. Yet the New Dealers built one: a light-rail line underground, truly the perfect underground rail system, fast and enlightening enough.
On account of its complexities, Seattle can do “rail cities” even one better: it already has something better than what exists anywhere, an underground bus tunnel, and it could certainly be extended to serve other areas of the city. “Multi-modality” is no crime, and will lend such an effort a certain stability: but the prospect of fast, efficient, clean, and cheap travel through the slanted streets of regraded territory is one that cannot be passed up, and it is just not known what would eventuate when the greatest Metropolitan ever was built.
Now, an encomium to Old Lady Alcohol. There was a time in my life when I drank hardly at all: many times, when I simply could not stand the taste, the ill effects, or after-effects. However, today I see the value to a moderate level of consumption; not “a glass of wine a day”, which is not enough to do anything since it won’t get you drunk — the way alcohol prevents heart attacks, which is not a particularly “effective” one — and you’ll feel much better if you don’t drink every day but following such a prescription will not get yinz called an “alcoholic” — but as something else.
As intimated above, the practice of the Italian autonomist “art” of autoriduzione (“self-lowering” of prices, or more properly a science joke about how single atoms can be made to lose electrons pairs naturally lose) with respect to alcohol reveals the true meaning of the expression “pleasures of the grape”: as Jello Biafra once knew not everything goes better with “Pabst Blue Ribbon at popular prices”, but thee sucessful stealing of a beer reveals yinz is a regular guy — and, unfortunately, auto-reducing wine reveals something else.
However, alcohol consumption within the limits designed by the human liver and the difficulties absorbing calories alcohol consumption causes is an equilibrating force better than movies: drinking up robs you, and others, of illusions — including those of inadequacy for various kinds of social commerce. And, if you actually feel really bad, no contradiction exists in a “central nervous system depressant” that elevates mood in senso strictu helping considerably — in psychoses so intense I could not even cry out, I found that the old practice of moderate alcohol consumption in birra form helped more than any phony pill. Don’t overdo it, but someone already thought you were.
Now on to the actual, classical purpose of philosophy. As its Greek name “love of wisdom” indicates, philosophy is a propaedeutic to rhetoric: the purpose of “Socratic” or any other kind of philosophical method is to teach you how to discourse, not opine or ordinate. Philosophers are often very talented writers, but actual philosophy always fails to satisfy the reading eye: there is never enough to it, one wishes it was better, more understandable, more “practical” — and then out of the reading-room, and on to the street. This is, shall we say, intentional: as a result of attempting to gain “absolute knowledge”, the experienced philosopher learns to have a taste for quotidian life (though the parameters of this may vary with political affiliation).
In fact, if we must have a “logical theory of philosophy”, we might begin by categorically rejecting Nietzsche’s dictum “We shall never get rid of God as long as we believe in grammar”. Philosophy is both practised and practicing atheism, and a great work of philosophy is a model of a new grammar for ordinary speech: right down to orthography, the lessons taught by a standing work of philosophy (!) inform the discourse of the succeeding period to a great degree. Unfortunately, one cannot always be an enthusiast for the lessons taught: I myself have rather less respect for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche than Simmel, and rather more respect for Simmel’s “Kantian Marxism” than his respect for them has allowed for some time, but worse cases do exist.
I would say that, from a “grammatological” perspective, the worst philosopher of all time was the German Counter-Enlightenment *Denker* Johann Georg Hamann, the “Magus of the North”. Part of Hamann’s magic was getting you not to notice that his written German was atrocious: the scansion of his pages is painful, indicating modesty forbids he reveal the hidden wellsprings of his wisdom — however, when you begin to consider his disgusting anti-humanist values, you forget all about the fact his philosophical “targets” had something other than logical proofs to treat as love letters (Although Schopenhauer himself perfected the art of the “philosophical takedown”, his extensive sentences contain something of an “implicit parody” of Hamann’s pro lix).
Second worst “philosophical grammar”? That of Pascal, whose Franzh fails to be, as per modern standards, “ironized for your protection” and which can simply break off in midthought because the true reality and aim of the Church is just such a pressing concern for all. Since Pascal was such an important social and scientific figure, We all would like to consider his theological philosophy of theology of philosophy something more than a “self-swallowing snake of reason”: however, really the truth of the matter is that Pascal’s philosophical inadequacy reveals that bad philosophers teach us about the need for new science: if all is so occluded that new concepts of probability (i.e. modern statistics) have to be invented, the lessons learnable from “J-C.” and the crew will perhaps not be the only ones necessary for life: and maybe Hamann “jump-started” the modern science of linguistics, even as a puzzled attempt to find out just what he was saying.
The third worst philosophical writer of modern times is the German mystic Jakob Boehme (the name was once written this way in America, since republican Germans tended to use the umlaut and scharfes s as little as possible). Boehme is absolutely unphilosophical: Christianity, the experience of God in all its stages and phases, is absolutely going to be enough for the Boehmian and any consideration of classical legacies like “nature or creature” is not necessary. A “popular favorite” among the piet here in the U.S. of A: however, perhaps its “failure to thrive” worldwide led to something quite wonderful — the establishment of the modern science of medicine, a realization that saying “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be drunk with the Spirit” and other, lesser homilies do not cure every ill and a promise of something more for some.
Although psychology has supposedly been supplanted by the discipline of “neuroscience” in lieu of understanding how psychologists already very completely believed the mind to be the brain, a resolutely naturalistic approach to the study of the mind is not quite all there is to psychology. From Aristotle, who originated the thought “Let Your Brain Alone” in his searching analyses of what was present to the mind without trepanning, to Warren McCulloch, there is a “peculiar charm” to the psychologist’s writing; what he — or I suppose she — has to say to you must be presented in a very particular manner, since otherwise some of it would not be worth saying and some of it “untrue”, and in any case some of it is not worth saying on account of presence a soi and some of it frankly irrational on account of our inability to control the “progress of life”.
It is widely agreed that one of the greatest psychologists of all time was William James, and his 1900 Principles of Psychology can still be profitably read by individuals interested in the American mindset concerning the mind: as the brother of Henry James he is not without a certain sense for the verbal flourish, and as the son of a Swedenborgian he was not without a grasp of “the outer limits” of sense. Though James’ aprioristic denial of unconscious mental states does not sit well with us in an era where we must needs account for unconscious processes of great intellectual import, where he is “wrong” as per some richly and artillery “articulated” new theory of neural bases for prejudices, he is at least charming and interesting in a way someone with some sense of various back Bays circa the turn of the century can appreciate.
Really, although Freud represents a certain ne plus ultra of Versoehnung to the “way of the world”, all psychology is about what kinds of thoughts we must think in the absence of proper “mental philosophy” to justifie our ways to man and a “proper grasp” of physical science to ground us in what must be; though the bosom friend of that great “Critic” Peirce, James represents a thoroughly and completely liberalistic moment in psychology which those of us unwilling to put even the “truly deserving” though mental strife must look upon with some favor, on the pain of losing contact with one of the more universal languages, American English and its various precincts.
Although I’m not actually feeling very philosophical, I think I ought to let drop a certain thought I had a while ago about the relationship between the science of biology and the art of letters. Although of course organisms are physical entities susceptible to genuine experimental research, no matter how molecularly accurate our understanding of organ and organelle and cell function becomes there is still something of the elan vital to biology, simply because our understanding of the living does not reflexively close; biological advances and the medical and agricultural engineering advances they drive change the status of life on Earth — though perhaps not quite as radically as biotechnology enthusiasts would have themselves believe. From the other side, the reality of evolution undermines our biological mastery; even if we reasonably thought we had a fundamental fix on the reality of a biological phenomenon like HIV transmissibility, it could easily change for any number of reasons making our formerly excellent theory inapplicable — including even social dynamics induced by the common knowledge of the statistics themselves.
Really, to get an Archimedean point on living things, we would have to have an experiment where cells were “fixed” for eternity, and that would necessitate the removal of all observers composed of cells (Christian biologists, explain to your colleagues that’s not going to be a problem). No perfect knowledge possible; however, there is a humanistic index of good biology. The greatest naturalists, like Darwin and John Muir, are also very good writers, and this is no accident: their writerly skills keep human “drives” in equilibrium with the reality of biological phenomena, so we have the best possible theory of the living possible at any particular time. Furthermore, perhaps the Victorian futurism of the term “consilience” indicates the problems with E.O. Wilson’s “evolutionary psychology”: no such thing, since creatures great and small are allotted one brain per lifetime, with which they cast about for “proper functions”. And finally, literature proper makes a contribution to biological understanding by allowing us to understand when it is time to let go of the Wille zum Leben, which keeps us in a state of “blissful” confusion, and focus on “getting things straight” and letting others know.
“The moon landing was faked because American losers say it is. He’s dancing because they paid him a lot of money to cleverly simulate biophysical capabilities humans do not have on Earth. A brilliant hoax, but then we blew it and carelessly lost the 45 video tapes containing evidence of the most brilliant practical jokester of all time.”
Now for a medical observation. I have felt for some time that the US is not effectively able to cultivate a “culture of health” because it is too beholden to medical professionals, who are beholden to corporate and other interests. The quality of information previously available from medical journalists and interested “laymen” was definitely of variable quality, but in the absence of a proper government health care plan (and of course that means an NHS-style public agency) figuring out what you should do with your health should definitely include thoughts from one’s peers and your own personal observations.
I have taken an interest in the science of HIV disease for a long time, being initially very frightened of it (as most people probably still are), and then at quite a bit of risk for it, and I have an observation to make about the ELISA test (the first-line diagnostic tool for confirming HIV infection). There are newer “rapid” tests today that require less labwork, but I gather they have some of the same problems as ELISA and suspect they have other problems, so I will restrict my comments to ELISA (which is still what most people get).
Compared to tests for diagnosing other STDs, the ELISA test is very good: the standard syphilis test only catches 70% of infections, whereas ELISA eventually detects nearly 100% of HIV antibodies in the bloodstream — and the “window period” after which those antibodies show up when tested has been shrinking for years, thanks to improvements in the test. The test has a slight problem with “false positives”, but the rate is much lower than that of the oral HIV test, and other diagnostic tools like Western Blot and PCR can be used to establish whether HIV is truly present.
All this is widely known — or should be — but here is my observation. The ELISA test is imperfect, and our knowledge of HIV disease is imperfect. But since it is the best diagnostic available for HIV at this time, “worried well” people who do not accept the results of an ELISA test at the time which is “determinative” relative to their risk factors (it’s rather obvious who should determine that, and a determination may be made based on information you provide that you were at no credible risk for transmission and need no test) are medically irrational. Of course it could be wrong, and of course our knowledge of what is happening with HIV could be incomplete. Those are realities of medicine and biology.
However, people who continue to obsess about the possibility of disease after a determinative negative test are failing to understand what medicine can do for them, and their personal responsibilities to others. Whoever you are, you are not so important that science needs to change for you, and it’s pretty dubious that it really can; whoever you are, you are not so important that finite medical resources should be lavishly allocated to fix a problem that the best medical science suggests is not actual, or is possibly actual but beyond us.
Once the healers are done with you, you need to heal yourself and think about who you are and what you owe others in life; get it together and fulfill your obligations to family, friends, country, and humankind. On the other hand, though, people who duck ELISA tests or accept nondeterminative negative tests — or, I guess, good diagnostic results after HIV infection has been confirmed — as “good enough” are medically unrational: they care too much about what other people think — including maintaining other people in the illusion that it would be okay to have risky sex with them. Those people have an obligation to themselves to not have their behavior refract on the aforementioned groups.
That’s how I see it, anyway.
Short thought: we all know, even in the absence of real knowledge about the mathematical core of quantum mechanics, that there are different interpretations of its meaning — some of them pretty kooky. My idea: perhaps the upshot of QM is not that early 20th-century scientists proved that reality isn’t real and we should all go study Taoism (which is of a certain independent interest) as our guide to the cosmos, but that they had a sense of unease about things they knew without knowing why they knew them: the body of theory and experiment deriving from new instrumentation did not apperceptively close, the predictive power of certain frameworks (e.g., those deriving from the introduction of matrix methods, which arrived as something of a deus ex machina) could not be satisfactorily explained in terms of a unified theory meeting canons of simplicity. A similar sense of spookiness is to be had sometimes in social life, but that’s a thought for another time.
A famous (reputed) phrase from the conviction and execution of the great chemist Lavoisier during the French Revolution is “The Revolution has no need of scientists”. If you are a “tolerant wet liberal”, this might well seem to foreshadow Lysenko and other follies of 20th Century state socialism’s great leaps forward; pair it with the observation that Newton’s Trinity College has produced more Nobelists than the entirety of l’hexagon and you’ve got something going. The quote is probably apocryphal, but in this age where “science must not be beholden to ideology” what “illiberal” interpretation could there be?
Perhaps this: the Revolution has no need of scientists, but the converse is not true. Real science needs currents of real political liberalization, not faux tolerance or less, to generate and propagate results: the idea that irrational modes of government beholden to decrepit “tradition” as the going justification are going to get at natural kinds is extremely suspect. For fifteen years or so, a pocket of the scientific community has had a little crush on Nazi science; “their methods were bad”, reason these people, “but the results are unimpeachable”. The real truth, however, is that fascist science is ersatz science the admiration of which “covers” for unjust social arrangements no rational comprehension of the “external world” could vouch for.
The “popular science” of the Soviets, where the position of scientist was viewed as one of the most desirable professions and a great deal of scientific knowledge was disseminated to the masses, was a much more significant achievement than the V-Waffen and homeopathy (Lysenkoism is an argument for the degeneracy of the workers’ state under Stalin, not against the general rationalism of the Soviet mindset). Could we do better? Perhaps, but who really knows what will be involved?