Saturday, November 17, 2012

In the Dark About the Only Light We Have

In the past month or so I've developed a new pet peeve, one which can make me grit my teeth. I've noticed how often some variation on the phrase "we're hard wired to," gets said among the mid-high brow folks in the media. I've yet to start counting but my sense is that I'm hearing or reading it at least once a day in some form of media communication. That communication can turn a metaphor into a deeply entrenched habit of thought that becomes an effective and possibly damaging basis for actions.

The idea that we are "wired" is to reduce an incompressible  phenomenon, our consciousness, our perception, our thought and our analyses into something that we believe we do understand, the computer. With that comes the comfort of believing we have a handle on something in service to the professional interests of the people who start off that chain of reductionist credulity. It's sustained by the desire of time-pressed and rather superficial academic and media scribblers to give their utterances a false caché of what they take to be cutting edge and exciting science. From there it goes on to be an unconsidered fashion accessory of superficial thought.

The idea that we are machines has become so widely believed and entrenched in what passes as the intelligentsia, that pointing out that the metaphorical and ideological substance of the phrase isn't backed up by anything but an ideological interpretation of extremely fuzzy science will get a pretty strong reaction.

The fact is that no one has anymore an idea of what consciousness is than they do what time is. Anyone who has tried to wade through the philosophical attempt to deal with time will inevitably confront the fact of the incomprehensibility of our consciousness, of the reality that the most basic of our our realities is undefinable and incomprehensible.

There is no reality that isn't intrinsically bound up with consciousness, "reality" is the word we use for what our consciousness perceives and understands. Time, in the only way it can have meaning to us, would seem to be intrinsically tied up with those problems but what we're doing is trying to conceive of the undefinable with something we don't know enough to even come up with the rules for doing that. We don't know how we know or what it means to know, we don't even know what it means to construct the product of our perception to create the limited image of the universe available to people. And we do construct the aspects of our sensory perceptions that we think about. Our thoughts are made by us.

I believe it was Richard Lewontin who speculated that for whatever consciousness which bacteria could have, gravity is essentially nonexistent, Brownian motion being entirely relevant to them in its place. Of course, that's all speculation. Though the idea that our perception of the universe and our place in it rules our most basic thinking about it seems to me to be the most sensible of statements. How a bacterium perceives the universe and its place in it is unavailable to us in any real way, but we can imagine how such an alien consciousness, so limited to its peculiar situation, would concieve of its existence in its habitat.* Perhaps that habit of thinking, the belief that our thinking about something like bacterial consciousness is understandable, is what's at work when we think about our own consciousness.

Computer science gives us some intellectual hold on the functioning of machine processing - which is no huge surprise since it was invented by computer science - which we use to organize and sift enormous amounts of information at great speed. The results of it, presented to our senses, seems like a form of consciousness and we are duped by that despite our knowing that human beings have done whatever was done. It tricks even some very bright people into pretending they don't know that it's a machine set into motion by very fast and very efficient but basically inert mechanics, prevented from doing some things and made to do some things by our mechanical and logical ingenuity. It doesn't reflect anything about whatever process consciousness is, about which we know nothing other than that it's there, without which no other aspect of existence is known, without which we don't exist. And we have no knowledge of what it is and where it comes from. Unlike the computer, our consciousness was not made by us to our specifications. Neither it's schematics nor its operational manual is available to us, we don't even know if it is linear or random or incomprehensibly unlimited in its ability. We don't even know if the analogies of schematics and operations are relevant to whatever consciousness is. We do know that our rational processing of information and even our most basic perception we use to think about such things is limited and that our metaphors really aren't identical to what they are used to describe.

The number of people who have an emotional reaction to pointing out that, whereas the machine is known to be he result of physical processes and phenomena brought out through our intentional design, is suggestive of a habit of our thinking, in itself. The fact is we don't have any real knowledge of any actual analog of consciousness in the physical world. The vehemence of that emotional reaction leads me to conclude that it's got motives apart from the mere defense of a scientific position, which the "hard wired" one really isn't. At its foundations and throughout its use, it's an assertion of dogmatic materialism.

Feminism, daily and inevitably, confronts entrenched ways of thought based in the selective and self-interested view of reality on behalf of men, obviously there but almost entirely unacknowledged. Most of it happens on the same, barely thought, level that "everyone knows we are hard wired" holds in our lives.

That ur-level view defines women as being less than and other than men and that, by nature, men are the default form of humanity, if not all of life which has gender. The denial of that orthodoxy causes an extremely emotional reaction which will grasp at any straw to deny women their person hood, their intellectual integrity, their most sacred rights as a human being. And what is thought and said about and done to women can be done to any other group of people whose intrinsic rights are ignored or denied. It is what allows the obnoxious banter of the "Market Place Report" about matters that dole out death to the many and even the biosphere to be so horrifically peppy.

Taking in a panoramic view of the reductionist ideology in scientific (and in a related way, non-scientific) thought and their resultant declarations, what that ideology frequently says about women is, I believe, intrinsically related to the idea that we are machines made of meat, meat which happens to come in two varieties, based in gender. The assertion is that women are "hard wired" differently than the way men are. Instead of being a light that illuminates an infinitely more complex reality of human beings it reduces us to a lower status than is ours by right. That reduction is an opaque cover for an ideology that reduces everything to the status of inert matter. And it reduces some more than others.

I believe the way out of that is to admit the unknowability of our consciousness, about what we really are. I believe the way out of that is to fearlessly assert that we are more than objects, that we are all more than objects with a higher status than the merely physical world our limited reason defines. We are undefinable and ineffable and our experience and human history shows us more than physics or mathematics or any other science is competent to tell us what the results of our collective, experienced life mean. History proves that the results of reducing any or all people to the same category of objects leads to them being considered in terms of commerce and use and exploitation. We must demand that people be treated better than that and there is no scientific method that can find the basis of that assertion. Our human experience can't make the connection between the subatomic structure of matter and our total experience of human beings living in a community and on the Earth. We have to find the basis of a decent life elsewhere.

The level of our conscious experience is not negligible or ignorable. The convenient and professionally and ideologically opportunistic reduction of it doesn't change that it is the real, effective higher level of existence that we actually live is that by which everything we know of the lower levels of matter is known. All of that is known only by an analogy and extension of our earliest, inarticulate, conscious experience, it literally can't escape that dependence on the humblest and simplest facts of that experience. All things we talk about are only inferential, in all their impressiveness.

* A niche is, in a fundamental way, created by the organism, the organism creates the niche. But I won't go into that today.

Note, also, that as far as we conceive of them being removed from us and our experience, a bacterium shares a lot with us, living on the same planet, having a physical existence in the same way we do. Any attempt to conceive of a conscious life even farther removed from that would completely exhaust our attempts at imagination.

First posted in slightly different form at Echidne of the Snakes, May 21, 2011

Friday, November 16, 2012

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Examined Life Is A Necessity But It Isn’t The Entire Story.

There is a certain slant of light, springtime afternoons, flooding through the large, open window with a fresh, cold wind that brings Arthur Berger’s Duo for Cello and Piano(1) to mind. Arthur Berger was sometimes described as an “intellectual composer”. Whatever that means. He was a composer, writer, analyst, critic, and a part of any intellectual scene wherever he happened to be. Perhaps closer to the point, Virgil Thomson, a fellow composer, critic and one of his friends, talked about his “sidewalks of New York charm”. So, here we already have a dichotomy, or at least two things usually considered as opposites. Maybe the strong sun light and cold spring wind should count as a third point of view. What’s the truth? Having played some of his pieces and studied more of them, I am happy to testify to the intellectual brilliance and the charm, he had both in abundance. Beauty of sound, the ability he shared with Luigi Dallapiccola(2) to find exactly the right note, tone color and expression, and to put it in exactly the right context, might stand in for the primary witness above.

Someone asked me why I don’t write more about music, since that’s clearly something I know more about than evolutionary psychology or cognitive science , about which I've spent enormous numbers of skeptical words. While music is what I got my formal training in, I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t think anything more is known about music than the technical aspects of how to produce it. Music is an order of sounds (3), it is possible to learn how to produce musical orders intentionally to attempt an effect. On that level music is a skill instead of a collection of theories, observations, measurements and speculations. That I could talk about easily, though it makes for rough reading and it really doesn't contain any information useful to non-musicians. It’s only in the sense that it is a skill to be practiced that someone can “know” something about music. In that sense, it is entirely like speculations about the mind, only with a practical component.

I could tell you that roughly measures 25 through 31 of the first movement of Berger’s Duo move me to an all encompassing state of ecstasy every single time I hear it or play through the piano part. Just remembering how that passage sounds can take me out of myself. I could try to think of further metaphors or write a formal technical description, to give a partial explanation of what happens at that time in the music and then guess why it produces that effect. All of that might be entirely true, in part, and entirely useless in total. Any elucidation that someone reading that description might think they've received would be deceptive. It would tell you nothing useful, it might endanger your own experience of the music. I would have to motivate you to experience the music, to listen to it, complete and in its entirety, to have any hope that you could know what I was talking about. No one who had not heard the music would know the first thing about it.

The culture of scholarship, text and reflection, is all well and good but it carries danger when it is placed in supremacy over actual life. Life, the whole stream of experience and action as lived, not arbitrarily cut into segments to be digested and published. Scholars dwell on their publishable and teachable work, the materials of their careers, jealously guarding its repute, hardly ever admitting to their intentional selection out of the entire body of possible information. Actual, direct experience is not susceptible to scholarship. It is by its most basic nature, personal, the experience of a single person, invisible and variable, in its deepest essence indescribable. That is something that the aforementioned behavioral scientists(4) should keep in mind, something that a composer could tell them, something such a musician should never forget.

The very selective, partial view of life, which makes up the work of a scholar, can be very useful, it can produce things and objects that enhance health and increase life-span, it can enrich experience. But when those things are ideas about real life, their entire effects, good and bad are often not able to be apprehended. Sometimes the added component of history proves that ideas thought good or innocuous in the abstract are deadly. Far from just being the plaything of a dreamer or a brick in a scholar’s career, an idea can’t be viewed as an end in itself, it has to be seen in as full a context as possible. Unconsidered in the full context, ideas can carry the danger of overtaking the whole of life.(5)

1. Also Hear: An Arthur Berger Retrospective New World Records NW 360-2
Joel Kroskick, cello Gilbert Kalish, piano and others.

Almost all of Berger’s works are or have recently been available on CDs. I have heard and would recommend all of them. If you can find it I would also recommend the old CRI recording of Berger’s music in the American Masters collection. The recording of his Chamber Music for 13 Players, conducted by Gunther Schuller, is particularly wonderful. I've seen three dates in different places of when his birthday was but they were all in this coming week. This week would have been his 95th birthday. I loved Arthur Berger and his music very much.

2. Talking about your neglected composers. John Harbison made this observation about Dallapiccola’s ability as a composer.  As some examples, better heard live or on CD,  Il Prigioniero,  Three Questions with Two Answers,  Quaderno musicale di Annalibera

3. Susan K. Langer: An Introduction To Symbolic Logic. Langer’s several simple observations about music in this book stand as the most insightful general statements I've ever read by someone outside of the profession.

4. It is exactly this selective feature of these reductionist schools practice that makes me very suspicious of them and alarmed about the resulting conclusions they seem to demand. Those who insist that only one mechanism of evolution, the crudest part of natural selection, is the supreme guide for understanding practically everything , strikes me as too likely to produce a superficially appealing mannerism (6.) instead of a view of reality. It closes off too many possibilities of real life from consideration, even, at times, substituting fables with no known real life evidence as possible explanations.

5. If music was an area of life that could produce life and death consequences, a danger to freedom, it would be dangerous. Hearing, quite involuntarily, Les Preludes by Liszt the other day, the story of its association with the invasion of Poland and the suspected motivating force of Wagner’s work might be noted here. I do so without prejudice, as a suggested supplement to the observation.

6. I’m fully aware of the irony, I read Perspectives in Music Theory too.

First published at Echidne of the Snakes on the week of Berger's birthday, reposted here because of a discussion I'm having about "the hard problem" of consciousness and whether or not it is hard.   I take the same view I have above, that academic methods and science can't capture direct human experience.