Saturday, May 18, 2013

Edel Fox at Éigse Mrs. Crotty 2008

Bartók plays Bartók Suite opus 14

Family Responsibilities

I'm going to have to cut back on writing even more than I've had to the last few weeks,  our very-very old mother needs to have someone with her at all times, though, thankfully, she's still able to be in her own home.  She's a news junkie of the worst kind so being exposed to more TV and radio than I'd like is the worst of it.  I can't get an internet connection at her house so I'll be off line a lot more too.  That's probably good.  

Anyway,  I'll probably post more of what I hope people find interesting on some of  those days I can't do any writing.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

No Real Christian Has Ever Called Me "Faggot" : Internalized Gay Hatred

In the passage I posted yesterday,  Joseph Weizenbaum said:

Just as our television screens may show us unbridled violence in "living color" but not scenes of authentic intimate love - the former by itself-obscene reversal of values is said to be "real," whereas the latter is called obscene - so we may discuss the very manufacture of life and its "objective" manipulation, but we may not mention God, grace, or morality.

The situation is, likely, somewhat different for people thirty or so years younger than I am in that their TVs showed them lots of sex.  Increasingly, during the Reagan 80s, TV was deregulated and Rupert Murdoch was imported to both promote increasingly right-wing, Republican politics and to turn American TV into a tawdry sex show.   That Reagan and his adoring political followers were, on the one hand, deregulating TV and, on the other hand, spouting the most conventional of Victorian sexual morality is only a sign of just what hypocrites and liars they were, and, to an extent still are.  Since Weizenbaum wrote his book, the far-right has expropriated language of First Amendment advocacy that liberals believed was theirs, and turned it to right wing-Republican purposes, trading in the now less useful anti-obscenity smoke screen, no longer of use to their real purpose.  I will give them this much, the right-wing, as can be seen in the Republicans on the Supreme Court, made the exchange subtly enough for liberals to mistake what was a defeat for a victory.  That such First Amendment champions, the "liberal" Nat Hentoff eventually became conservatives, even joining up with the Cato Institute shouldn't have been surprising.  Their focus was always libertarian, not that of classic American liberalism.

As a gay man who, until about a decade ago,  would have supported large amounts of that "First Amendment" discourse,  I find language can still seriously shock would be liberals.   "How can you say that," is something I often hear when I talk like this these days.  "How can a gay man say those things," is frequently the next thing said in angry, shocked tones used by an actor playing a purity campaigner in a movie in the late 1950s or early 60s.  What would be more shocking to them would be that it is my experience as a gay man that has helped me to see beyond the accustomed way of thinking on these issues.

By sheer bulk of the putrid stuff, by the amount of damage it does to gay men - I'll only speak to the situation of gay men, Lesbians should speak for themselves - the anti-gay hate speech that is most damaging to us is said by gay men in the porn industry.   All of the vicious hate speech of the Phelps tribe, in both terms of its mendacious viciousness and quantity, can't match what you could find on Tumblr's gay porn sites and others in a couple of hours of pretty unpleasant research.  I know because I conducted that research, using some of the more typical terms of anti-gay hatred used by such anti-gay groups in searches.  The use of those terms of hatred, so often used to oppress us, are featured as sexually arousing in gay porn, thus their indispensability in those web-searches and, I'd imagine, many who go looking for other than quasi-journalistic research.

The hatred of gay men as expressed by the most obscene and violent of queer bashers has been thoroughly introduced into the minds of gay men and sold as sexually exciting, the script of scenes of degredation, abuse, imprisonment, endangerment and everything up to sexual torture and, on some of the most depraved of porn sites, enslavement, maiming and murder.   And all of that is supposed to be a proud emblem of liberty, enlightenment, freedom and sexual emancipation.  As very frequently seen in this most so-called liberated sexual speech the theme is the total domination, use, degradation and destruction of a gay man by another, stronger, older, more experienced gay man.  And that's not when the difference of age isn't a major aspect of it.  Many of the photos and gifs on Tumblr look to me to violate laws against child pornography, many of those themed in terms of fathers raping their, alleged, sons.  Many of the pictures look to me to involve the actual rape of underage boys.  I looked and found that similar themes were frequent in male-female porn, though, again, women would be better at addressing that topic than I would.  As an aside, if I had a young child and I couldn't block those kinds of sites, my kid wouldn't go online.  As a gay man, as an extremely liberal person, I've got a big problem with this.

While the political opposition to gay rights has often gotten its most public image in the corporate media dressed in clerical garb, it's never been my experience that the people who presented a physical danger to gay men are likely to be church goers.  Not in the United States or other predominantly Christian countries.   Most of those I've encountered have been decidedly irreligious, breaking the second commandment is an almost uniform feature of their invective.  Most of those I knew by name and reputation were quite unlikely to keep the commandments against heterosexual adultery or fornication. In a few cases they fit the classic stereotype of the gay man in deep denial who had sex with men on the sly, but almost all of them who I knew of were decidedly heterosexually promiscuous.  I don't recall gay bashers  to have been famous as church goers, either.  I don't ever remember someone who fit the image of a pious believer who could be suspected of taking what Jesus said seriously among those who have threatened or publicly abused gay men in my presence.   Clearly, the bishops, cardinals and reverends who are the public voice of gay oppression don't seem to account for queer bashers in most cases.

The same is true for the depiction of straight sex, only in a less extreme way on TV.   There Weizenbaum's general observations about considering living beings as objects is more the given, men as the real people, women as objects.  Intimate love, what he proposed as an alternative to the violence which was ubiquitious on TV, wasn't what replaced it, sexual violence and sexual use seems to be more palatable than the depiction of heterosexual love to TV producers.  The depiction of intimate sexual love between a faithful loving married couple is a theme I don't really recall seeing on TV.  Not even in the likes of Lifetime movies for all their emetic and cloying content.  I would suspect that your average viewer would squirm uneasily at that kind of depiction, waiting for someone to turn into a mad killer or sexual psychopath or the next scene to reveal a secret lover on the side.


In Maine, my native state, the campaign to pass gay marriage last year depended heavily on the participation of liberal religious groups, Christian, Jewish and others, even as the media here concentrated on the so called "Christian" groups who were in opposition.   Clearly, by the demographics of the state and the vote totals that passed marriage equality, most of the supporters were  religious people, most of those self-identified as Christians.  But you wouldn't know that from the coverage of the issue.  Atheists and agnostics, even if they voted overwhelmingly for marriage equality, wouldn't have made up the majority of the votes passing the equality law.

The achievement of gay rights depends on making a choice for real freedom and decency that is not to be found in a morals free libertarian model, it is found in the classic American liberalism that would not have seen anything positive in the pornograpic self-image that is the predominant media representation of gay men.  That image has not changed or improved since those rare ancient Greek vases which depicted the rape of slave boys were made.  The image of class and physical domination of unequally empowered males is the norm in today's pornography, it is the model of sexual stimulation being sold to gay men by what that form of libertarianism has produced.  Even if every vestige of legal and straight oppression falls, that internalized oppression will still stand, still damage and still oppress us.  Only it is using us to oppress each other.  I strongly suspect that it is the same political and mental dynamic that accounts for why the real liberation of women, something which is in the interest of the largest part of the human population, so frequently stalls out.   Women are taught to become their own oppressors and as a result, liberation stalls and is overturned.

Steve Biko provided one of the most basic, most potent insights into this situation when he said that the most potent tool of the oppressor was the mind of the oppressed.  Men who find being abused, oppressed, physically and mentally assaulted sexually stimulating will never really be free.  Neither will women.  And unless that is rejected, equally, by those in a position to oppress, no one will be free of it and its effects.  No one will be free to love.   They'll be embarrassed to love, too afraid to love, the specter of that perverted sexual ideal will haunt them and shame them and it will make them suspicious of the person they love.

There can be no such thing as an OBJECT of love, you have to love another person.   People cannot be loved as objects, and I don't see any way to see people as anything but objects if you don't believe they are more than that.  And that, in the end, depends on a religious belief that people are more than that.   Maybe in every one, I can't believe someone who really loves someone else can see them as mere objects, no matter what they might claim.  Like the "Christian" queer basher, their actions betray that they really believe the opposite of what they profess.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Answer To an E-mail

Randi or Rand, Ayn. they're both cult gods.  

If Randi is right and he'll "never have to pay because psychic phenomena aren't real" then he shouldn't have any trouble with an independent body writing legitimate rules for his as of now, completely phony "million dollar challenge".  A group of scientists who are experts in experimental design and evaluation should be able to come up with a test that isn't a dishonest ruse that it is now.   As it is, and as I wrote, Randi's claim to fame is a complete fraud.  

The Time When The Left Was Fatally Infected With The Habit of Objectifying Life and Instrumental Reasoning

Going back to the mid-1970s can seem like a trip to another section of the country where brand names, once available but now discontinued where you live, are still on the shelves.  In the following there is an illusion to B. F. Skinner's late behaviorist exposition showing us the true and good and sciency way "Beyond Freedom and Dignity," which was, within a couple of years, to be junked in favor of the flashy, even more sciency, modernistic and wonky Sociobiology, itself to quickly metastasize into "Evolutionary" Psychology, even more effectively infecting the educated class.

Such anachronisms may have that effect on those of us old enough to remember that time, it will likely seem quite a bit more antique to younger people, those who have grown up with evo-psy being the only framing they're likely to have encountered to think about these things.  But what Joseph Weizenbaum warned about in his book has only changed in small ways and, as in the trade in of behaviorism for evo-psy, the tendencies in destructive thinking have combined the mania for genetic determinism with the other trends he discusses.

Even physicians, formerly the culture's very symbol of power, are powerless as they increasingly become the mere conduits between their patients and the major drug manufacturers.  Patients, in turn, are more and more merely passive objects on whom cures are wrought and to whom things are done.  Their own inner healing resources, their capacities for self-reintegration, whether psychic or physical, are more and more regarded as irrelevant in a medicine that can hardly distinguish a human patient from a manufactured object.  The now ascendant biofeedback movement may be the penultimate act in the drama separating man from nature;  man no longer even senses himself, his body, directly, but only through pointer readings, flashing lights, and buzzing sounds produced by instruments attached to him as speedometers are attached to automobiles.  The ultimate act of the drama is, of course, the final holocaust that wipes life out altogether. 

Technological inevitability can thus be seen to be a mere element of a much larger syndrome.  Science promised man power.  But, as so often happens when people are seduced by promises of power, the price exacted in advance and all along the path, and the price actually paid, is servitude and impotence.  Power is nothing if it is not the power to choose.  Instrumental reason can make decisions, but there is all the difference between deciding and choosing.

The people Studs Terkel is talking about [in his book "Working"] make decisions all day long, every day.  But they appear not to make choices.  They are as they themselves testify, like Winograd's robot. One asks it "Why do you do that?" and it answers "Because this or that decision branch in my program happened to come out that way."  And one asks "Why did you get to that branch?"  and it again answers in the same way.  But its final answer is "Because you told me to."  Perhaps every human act involves a chain of calculations at what a systems engineer would call decision nodes.   but the difference between a mechanical act and an authentically human one is that the latter terminates at a node whose decisive parameter is not "Because you told me to," but "Because I choose to."  At that point calculations and explanations are displaced by truth.  Here, too, is revealed the poverty of Simon's hypothesis that 

" The whole man, like the ant, viewed as a behaving system  is quite simple.  The apparent complexity of his behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which he finds himself." 

For that hypothesis to be true, it would also have to be true that man's capacity for choosing is as limited as is the ant's, that man has no more will or purpose, and, perhaps most importantly, no more a self-transcendent sense of obligation to himself as part of the continuum of nature, than does the ant.  Again, it is a mystery why anyone would want to believe this to be the true condition of man.

But now and then a small light appears to penetrate the murky fog that obscures man's authentic capacities    Recently, for example, a group of eminent biologists urged their colleagues to discontinue certain experiments in which new types of biologically functional bacterial plasmids were created.   They express "serious concern that some of these artificial recombinant DNA molecules could prove biologically hazardous."  Their concern is, so they write, for the possible unfortunate consequences of the indiscriminate application of these techniques."  Theirs is certainly a step in the right direction, and their initiative is to be applauded.  Still, one many ask, why do they feel they have to give a reason for what they recommend at all?  Is not the overriding obligation on men, including men of science, to exempt life itself from the madness of treating everything as an object,  a sufficient reason, and one that does not even have to be spoken?  Why does it hve to be explained?   It wold appear that even the noblest acts of the most well-meaning people are poisoned by the corrosive climate of values of our time. 

An easy explanation of this, and perhaps it contains truth, is that well-meaningness has supplanted nobility altogether.  But there is a more subtle one.  Our time prides itself from having finally achieved the freedom from censorship for which libertarians in all ages have struggled.  Sexual matters can now be discussed more freely than ever before,  women are beginning to find their rightful place in society, and, in general,  ideas that could only be whispered until a decade or so ago may now circulate without restriction.  The credit for these great achievements is claimed by the new spirit of rationalism, a rationalism that, it is argued, has finally been able to tear from man's eyes the shrouds imposed by mystical thought, religion, and such powerful illusions as freedom and dignity.  Science has given us this great victory over ignorance.  But, on closer examination, this victory too can be seen as an Orwellian triumph of an even higher ignorance;  what we have gained is a new conformism, which permits us to say anything that can be said in the functional languages of instrumental reason, but forbids us to allude to what Ionesco called the living truth.  Just as our television screens may show us unbridled violence in "living color" but not scenes of authentic intimate love - the former by itself-obscene reversal of values is said to be "real," whereas the latter is called obscene - so we may discuss the very manufacture of life and its "objective" manipulation, but we may not mention God, grace, or morality.  Perhaps the biologists who urge their colleagues to do the right thing, but for the wrong reasons, are in fact motivated by their own deep reverence for life and by their own authentic humanity, only they dare not say so.  In any case, such arguments would not be "effective," that is to say, instrumental. 

If that is so, then those who censor their own speech do so, to use an outmoded expression, at the peril of their souls. 

As I mentioned, after he left MIT, Weizenbaum moved back to Berlin and the last decades of his life were conducted largely in German, far too little of it translated into English.  I would like to know what he made of the internet and the trends in diseased thinking it seems to have both revealed and, likely, accelerated.  I find everything he mentions in this aging book is quite relevant.

B. F. Skinner's book was influential when this was written, his behaviorism about to be junked in favor of Dawkins' "selfish genes",  showing that, if anything, the insight that Weizenbaum had was spot on.   I think the survival of Weizenbaum's insights prove he identified habits of thought and features of modern culture that are the base on which much if not all of the edifice of current intellectual life is built, the common feature that even officially opposing ideologies and even "sciences" are built.   Even opposing ideas will have those features as a basic assumption, often unconsidered because they are what has been asserted comprises "reality".  Not based in human experience but in the "knowledge given us by science".   I think that is where the dangers are found.

I believe this was the crucial period during which liberalism, in the American sense of that word, the tradition of humane struggle for all people to have a decent, kind, peaceful life based in an equal access to resources and such things as respect, turned to something harder and more in line with the instrumental reasoning of this passage.  If you want to find out where the left went seriously wrong, why, even as Democrats held the legislative and executive branches of government, they couldn't move a truly liberal agenda, this time in the late 60s and early 70s, this book, is a good place to look.  Under the regime of thinking warned about, even people who want to live a decent life will end up producing tragedy.  Instrumental thinking can produce a libertarian-utilitarian system, it can't produce the kind of life that is the only legitimate goal of genuine liberalism.  People don't even realize that's what they want as they are angrily disappointed by the "liberal" politicians who don't seem to understand why what they produce is ineffective and unsatisfying, that it misses the real and forgotten goal.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Dangers of Pretending Politics Is A Geometric Construct

Note:  I'm reposting this first piece ever on this blog   in 2010 because it touches on some of the things I wanted to say at this point in the discussion.  I hope to post a new piece later today.  

Our educations and what our culture teaches us are often useful and on occasion produce a good model of reality to manipulate and find further clarity. But what is presented can also be a really rotten model of reality and when it is over simplified or unrealistic and precludes a more realistic view of life, it can be extremely destructive. A lot of the modeling that we do is unconscious, the product of long habit and unconsidered acceptance of what we’ve been handed. From our earliest years we are taught to esteem this kind of model making and diagram drawing. Being good at it will get you good grades in school and a lot of approval. A lot of that paper and ruler work is for the production of simple lines derived from the alleged identification of two points on that line.

Consider the linear definition of political identity. The line from left to right*. In a recent, lighthearted blog discussion, which motivated this short post, people were trying to place themselves on that line. 

I’m not going to go into how to place yourself on it, or to place other people on it I’m going to ask a different question altogether, one which, I suspect, will be very confusing because it challenges one of the most common automatic habits of thinking. 

Why would anyone think that politics, among the most complex and dynamically changing of social, moral, geographic, cultural, and, in some rare cases, even rational, phenomena we commonly deal with, would fit into far less than just three dimensions is worth considering. And, I suspect, it’s a good beginning for considering one of the habits that are alleged to produce an understanding of complex reality when it only produces a deceptive and artificial form. 

The idea that the analysis of politics could possibly be realistically squeezed into a two dimensional flatland entity and then compressed further, onto the simplest of one dimensional figures is rather obviously absurd. Just defining what one of the points that allegedly comprise political identity, a “position”, is at least as elusive as defining a subatomic particle. Placing that nebulous entity onto a line in order to compare it to other points on the line is an activity that is most likely to lead away from precision and clarity, not to it. And those are the mere positions. If there is anything obvious about people’s lives and minds, the actual beginning and substance of politics, we aren’t those artificial, nonexisting entities, POINTS in space. 

This habit of drawing geometric figures on paper and thinking we've gotten complex phenomena nailed down is absurd. It only kinda works for very simple and well defined things. Even defined by two or more coordinates in a plane or in three dimensional space you won’t find even the most simple person. None of us are points in any kind of space. 

I suspect that this habit of trying to reduce very complex entities and phenomena in order to analyze them is a relic of our intellectual history. In order to generalize about the physical world we’ve been making representations of it since before Pythagoras. And for very simple physical phenomena it has worked reasonably well. That success has led us to the habit of assuming that success, that ability to find reliable truth about these simple, physical phenomena, was transferable to all of reality. But that ignores that the success was due to the ability to capture enough of the essential information about those phenomena in the model. You can move a shape around in space and assume the same geometric descriptions will match, but only as long as the shape remains exactly the same. Plane geometry is a set of assumptions about a range of different shapes just as more complex mathematics dealing with space is a collection about more complex entities. And, least anyone forget, the forms of pure mathematics aren't actually there. People are hardly the same kinds of entities. We are far, far more complex than the most complex forms that mathematics can deal with and far more variable, containing contrasting and often contradictory ideas, many of those seemingly paradoxical. Our societies, comprised of many different people interacting over time, might be even more complex. And it is that human, social “space” that the analogues for points and lines in politics would be found, none of them one dimensional.

In some other reading I've been doing , there was this interesting passage from the mathematician Ruben Hersh

The aspects of the cosmos studied in physics yield to mathematical analysis. That's far from saying the cosmos is altogether mathematical. There can be no basis for such a statement except religious faith. But it's a familiar human tendency to think that what we don't know must look a lot like what we do know. This is a good principle for guiding scientific research. It's not credible as a philosophical principle.

I think a good part of the post-enlightenment cultural tradition has been a struggle between those who try to force overly-complex realities into a tight geometric form, ignoring much of the most exigent issues of reality in order to do that and those who reject that habit. In its most absurdly and dogmatic reductive stands it denies those fully experienced issues and denies the part they play in some of the most important and at times dangerous activities people engage in. Officially, the reductionists have been the winners, but reality doesn't depend on who was given the gold star in that struggle. 

Elsewhere in the same piece, Hersh says this in response to a statement by Martin Gardner:

“For this reason, he places great importance on the uncertainty of mathematics”, Martin Gardner

No, not for this reason. The reason the uncertainty of mathematics is so important is that for centuries the search for certainty in both mathematics and religion has been a major motive for Platonism, or, as Gardner prefers to call it, realism.

I was looking into Gardner’s** and his associates work for several years before his recent death and what struck me most is how they seemed to want to relax into a position of easy certainty. Anything that upset that relaxing equilibrium of post-war intellectual culture would motivate him to exert his, admittedly, brilliant, though not always honest, mind to restore his balance. And Gardner was the best of them. But in that, he was anything but a brave and bold questioner of his local orthodoxy, he was one of its most esteemed pillars. Even well informed people like to pigeon hole things in order to ignore them. But that certainly isn’t what is going to save us, the ease which we can lull ourselves into isn’t going to last for eternity like the imagined forms of pure mathematics are alleged to.

I think that search for certainty, in at least a form that can be published in scholarly publications and withstand the competitive professional struggle which that form of political activity lives on, is what leads us into a myriad of false assumptions about reality, constructing an artificial intellectual universe that isn’t a good model of real life. And I think it is one of the major contributing factors in the failure of our political institutions as well as others. That certainty isn’t there, it’s never going to be there, people and societies, the biosphere and the nonliving physical basis of those aren’t comprised of static forms lying outside of time. The extent to which a political system or a philosophy denies the reality of real life the more you can expect bad results from it. 

It’s no coincidence that demagogues and fascists are among those who draw the simplest pictures of political reality. As seen in the Tea Party phenomenon, the people listening to them don’t care that those pictures aren’t real. When presented with the most solid of evidence that those positions are lies, that doesn’t matter to them. As long as the person lying to them is believed to occupy the same point they put themselves on the line of political identity, anything they say suffices. They relax into a false certainty and the most awful things result. And in that, we can see from the dangers of these well esteemed habits of extreme reduction and analysis, they  don’t just produce good results. 

* I plead as guilty as anyone to doing that, to making reference to that phony line as a lie of convenience in trying to get other ideas across. I’m trying to break the habit and find new ways to talk about it, but doing that and getting people to understand your point isn't easy.

** I regret that Gardner died just as some of that research was leading to conclusions that are important. But he never let up on the people he attacked because they had died and couldn't answer him, so I don’t have any qualms about criticizing him on that basis. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Another Busy Day So, Letters from Einstein and Weyl

As given, with  the introduction by Peter Pesic, in Chapter 2 of  "Mind and nature: Selected writings on philosophy, mathematics, and physics"  Hermann Weyl

Two Letters by Einstein and Weyl on a Metaphysical Question

[In May 1922 the French physicist Paul Langevin gave three lectures in Zurich on Einstein’s relativity theory, the first of which was such a thunderous success that the journalist E. Bovet posed an “easy question” to Langevin: “How can we explain the enthusiasm of the public, which—apart from a few exceptions—surely understood no more of relativity theory than I? Is this pure snobbery? Courtesy to a foreign scholar? Or is it explained through the surmise of a fundamental alteration in our view of the world? Would such a surmise be legitimate? If so, in what sense? Does relativity theory perhaps signify liberation from the mechanistic, materialistic view of the world, under whose pressure our modern culture is breaking up?” Though Langevin did not answer Bovet’s personal appeal, Einstein and Weyl did reply.]

Berlin, June 7, 1922
Haberlandstrasse 5

Dear Sir,

Your “Question to Mr. Langevin” provokes me to give an answer. Regarding the general questions that interest you, relativity theory changes nothing at all in the state of affairs because it signifies nothing but an improvement and modification of the basis of the physical-causal world-picture without a change in its fundamental point of view. This is a kind of logical system for representing space-time events in which mental essences (will, feeling, etc.) do not apply directly. To avoid a collision between the various sorts of“realities” that physics and psychology deal with, Spinoza and Fechner respectively founded the theory of psychophysical parallelism, which, quite frankly, completely pleases me.

Physics signifies one possible way among others equally justified to put experience in a certain order. The foundations of this system are freely chosen by us, namely from the point of view that at
any given time satisfies known facts with a minimum of hypotheses. Thus, this is not a matter of “believing,” but rather of free choice from the point of view of logical completeness and adaptability to experience, as indeed is so beautifully shown in the cited passages from Henri Poincaré.

The question “what is the use?” only means something—if it is really supposed to have a clear meaning—when completed by an expression signifying for whom, or even better for the satisfaction of whose wish, the thing in question may serve. I really cannot say more than this truism.

A. Einstein

Zurich, July 27, 1922

Dear Sir,

Mr. Bovet’s question, to which you invited me to reply, surprised me in two ways. First, that even today, after Western intellectual life has striven for one hundred fifty years to overcome the primitive position of the Enlightenment, that the strict lawfulness of the world of appearances can seem oppressive to the evaluating, willing, and active ego. And second, that Einsteinian dynamics, which only allows the energy and momentum of a body to depend on its velocity a little differently than Newtonian mechanics, is associated with the expectation of an easing of this pressure. Thus, as Mr. Bovet puts the question, one must unhesitatingly answer it in the negative; the inexorability of rational mechanics cannot be mitigated through the new view of things. Even a living organism, a rational being, can only put itself in uniform rectilinear motion like any mechanical system by pushing itself away from other bodies, to which it thereby gives an equal and opposite momentum. Yet it appears to me that physics has no far-reaching meaning for reality, just as formal logic, for example, has no far-reaching meaning in the realm of truth. The foundation of the truth of a judgment lies in the judged thing and not in logic. Every truth in itself is founded with regard to its contents, and (when perceiving) we try to seize this foundation in the depths, through insight, through intuitive reason. Nevertheless, the surface relations, which logic treats, govern the particular truths. But a gagging of the truth-establishing power, of reason, by no means lies therein. In an equal sense, a certain formal constitution of reality is pronounced in the physical laws. These laws will be violated in reality just as little as there are truths not in accord with logic, but these laws do not matter for the essential contents of reality; the ground of reality is not grasped by them. Of course, they do not allow free rein to every whim and caprice, but nothing hinders us from understanding them as surface aspects of a necessity that is “not of this world” and whose reality-grounding power we believe we feel in our moral wills. Likewise, in the domain of knowledge: if, for example, I judge “2+2 is 4,” then I believe that this judgment does not come purely from natural causality in my brain making it so, but instead because the factually existing circumstance 2+2=4—thus something not part of the things and forces of reality—has influence on my judgment.

But you do not wish to hear my philosophical point of view about the problem of causality; instead, you want information about whether the new development of physics has brought with it a shift in our understanding of natural causality. This I would like to affirm, yet this transformation does not come from relativity theory but from the modern atomic physics of matter. So far as I can judge, most physicists no longer believe in a “Laplacian world-formula,” in causality in the sense that,following simple and rigorously valid mathematical laws, which are investigated once and for all, the state of the cosmos at one moment unequivocally determines its complete past and future.  In physics today, we place atomic matter over against the “ether” or the “field” as the space-time extended medium that transmits the action from material particle to material particle. The sole ultimate constituents of matter are not, like ether, somewhat spatially extended, but each of them simply is inserted into a spatial field-neighborhood from which its field-actions emerge. The “ether”—which one ought not represent to oneself in the image of a substance—joins together all these material individuals into the active whole of a single external world. The cause of the field-states lies in matter; for example, light, which is a field phenomenon, is being excited, is being sent forth from matter. And today it seems as though rigorous laws underlie the propagation of action in the ether—with whose arrangement field-physics occupies itself—as though we can only establish statistical uniformities about how matter causes field-states; the entire physics of matter is statistical in nature.

According to the view sketched here, matter appears as an agent[agens] that, by virtue of its essence, lies beyond space and time. This agent composed of innumerable unconnected individuals we call “matter,” so far as we consider it as the cause of the actions spreading out in the field by which the
individuals weave together a world. According to its inner condition, this agent may just as well be creative life and will as matter.

H. Weyl

OK, so, you know me and that I can't resist making a comment.   Compare the ease with which Einstein and Weyl discuss philosophy and the flippant dismissal of philosophy by physicists and some mathematicians in subsequent generations of those professions and, as some philosophers, such as Dennett, hanker after the elan, glamour and faith bodies gained by science, even philosophers, today. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Andrew Hill: The Griots

The Uses of Self-Deceit In The Reductionistic-Scientistic Faith

Updated below

If you are as old as I am, you may have had some sci-ranger of about the same age spout Isaac Asimov's  "Three Laws of Robotics" at you to refute your concerns about technological developments. More so in the past than now, it would seem that Asimov is about as relevant to the active  imagination of techies today as John Woolman or some other figure of the past who hasn't been the subject of a recent TV show.

The "Three Laws," as proposed by Asimov were:

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Of course there are no such "laws", the only influence in the world that Asimov's "laws" have had is probably to encourage the invention of all kinds of imaginary "laws" of the kind that sci-rangers love to spout, mostly to dismiss ideas they don't like or to signal to each other that they are in the know.*  The recently revealed weapons programs in development to give "smart" drones the ability to "choose" targets and make a "decision" before it fired on very real human beings would show that there is no reality to such "laws".  The group International Committee for Robot Arms Control, recently reported on what, at first, seems to be a reassuring survey in which a majority of engineers surveyed said they were opposed to such developments.

The results were totally clear cut with an overwhelming 76% of engineers voting that there should be an unequivocal ban on developing ‘killer robots’.

The next-largest group, 14 per cent, had a similar view. They voted that attack logisitics could be autonomous as long as target selection remained under human control.

Ron Arkin from GIT was specifically mentioned in the poll. He has long opposed our call for a ban and has said that we should have a moratorium on autonomous weapons while control systems are being perfected. The engineers were not impressed – only 3% voted in his favour.

Before you say, "Whew, what a relief," notice the 3% and ask yourself how many engineers and scientists would it take to make such weapons real, classified and deployed in a modern national security state.   Scientists and engineers have hardly been a uniformly pure and non-corruptible priesthood, benevolently giving up employment and research opportunities given to them to design some extremely dangerous, even insane projects.  Every single modern and even most primitive weapons programs, since the advent of science, have involved the conscious and knowing participation of scientists.  Since serious consideration is being given to the possibility that this kind of thing is real among engineers and scientists who would be in the best position to judge the feasibility of these nightmare robotic assassins becoming real, who in the lay public can credibly claim that worrying about it is foolish?

In the past century the invention of the ability to commit suicide-genocide against the entire human population and life on Earth has been done, fully authorized by some of the most democratic governments in history.  The insanity of duplicating that capacity tens of times over, of putting those systems on a virtual hair trigger and, even worse, the intellectual program of normalizing and rationalizing that situation has been done by scientists and engineers and mathematicians, politicians, and judges, think-tank flacks, and journalists,  all of them while being deemed sane and even brilliant.   They went that far, their creation, authorization and normalizing these assassin computers would be a far smaller step.

The faith expressed by some of the engineers, that "Armed forces would never adopt a system which doesn't require human control," (4% of those polled) is almost certainty naive.  It assumes a universal confidence in the superiority of human judgement over the operations of a machine, something which is hardly the trajectory of modern culture.  We live in a world where enormous numbers of educated people believe that a Turing Test, could effectively prove that a machine can think.

All of this is a prelude to another passage from Computer Power and Human Reason by Joseph Weizenbaum.

There was a time when physics dreamed of explaining the whole of physical reality in terms of one comprehensive formalism.  Leibnitz taught that if we knew the position and velocity of every elementary particle in the universe, we could predict the universe's whole future course.  But then Werner Heisenberg proved that the very instruments man must use in order to measure physical phenomena disturb those phenomena, and that it is therefore impossible in principle to know the exact position and velocity of even a single elementary particle.  He did not thereby falsify Leibniz's conjecture.  But he did show that its major premise is unattainable.  That, of course, was sufficient to shatter the Leibnizian dream.  Only a little later Kurt Godel exposed the shakiness of the foundations of mathematics and logic itself by proving that every interesting formal system has some statements whose truth or falsity cannot be determined by the formal means of the system itself, in other words, that mathematics must necessarily be forever incomplete.  It follows from this and other of Godel's results that "The human mind is incapable of formulating (or mechanizing) all of its mathematical intuitions.  I.e.:  If it has succeeded in formalizing some of them, this very fact yields new intuitive knowledge." 

Both Heisenberg's so-called uncertainty principle and Godel's incompleteness theorem sent terrible shock-waves through the world of physics, mathematics and philosophy of science.  But no one stopped working.  Physicists, mathematicians, and philosophers more or less gracefully accepted the undeniable truth that there are limits to how far the world can be comprehended in Leibnitzian terms alone 

Too much has already been made of the presumed implications of Heisenberg's and Godel's results for artificial intelligence.  I do not wish to contribute to that discussion here.  But there is a sense in which psychology and artificial intelligence may usefully follow the example of the new-found humility of modern mathematics and physics:  they should recognize that "while the constraints and limitations of logic do not exert their force on the things of the world, they do constrain and limit what are to count as defensible descriptions and interpretations of things."  Were they to recognize that,  they could then take the next liberating step of also recognizing that truth is not equivalent to formal provability. 

The lesson I have tried to teach here is not that the human mind is subject to Heisenberg uncertainties-though it may be- and that we can therefore never wholly comprehend it in terms of the kinds of reduction to discrete phenomena Leibnitz had in mind.  The lesson here is rather that the part of the human mind which communicates to us in rational and scientific terms is itself an instrument that disturbs what it observes, particularly its voiceless partner, the unconscious, between which and our conscious selves it mediates.  It's constraints and limitations circumscribe what are to constitute rational - again, if you will, scientific - descriptions and interpretations of the things of the world.  These descriptions can therefore never be whole, anymore than a musical score can be a whole description or interpretation of even the simplest song.

But, and this is the saving grace of which an insolent and arrogant scientism attempts to rob us, we can come to know and understand not only by way of the mechanisms of the conscious.  We are capable of listening with the third ear, of sensing living truth that is truth beyond any standards of provability.  It is that kind of understanding, and the kind of intelligence that is derived from it, which I claim is beyond the abilities of computers to simulate. 

We have the habit, and it is sometimes useful to us, of speaking of man, mind, intelligence, and other such universal concepts.  But gradually, even slyly, our own minds become infected with what A. N. Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.  We come to believe that these theoretical terms are ultimately interpretable as observations, that in the "visible future" we will have ingenious instruments capable of measuring the "objects" to which these terms refer.  There is, however, no such thing as mind; there are only individual human beings.  I have argued that intelligence cannot be measured by ingeniously constructed meter sticks placed along a one-dimensional continuum   Intelligence can be usefully discussed only in terms of domains of thought and action.  From this I derive the conclusion that it cannot be useful, to say the least, to base serious work on notions of "how much" intelligence may be given to a computer.  Debates based on such ideas - e.g., "Will computers ever exceed man in intelligence?" - are doomed to sterility. 

I have argued that the individual human being, like any other organism, is defined by the problems he confronts.  The human is unique by virtue of the fact that he must necessarily confront problems that arise from his unique biological and emotional needs.  The human individual is in a constant state of becoming.  The maintenance of that state, of his humanity, indeed, of his survival, depends crucially on his seeing himself, and on his being seen by other human beings, as a human being.  No other organism, and certainly no computer, can be made to confront genuine human problems in human terms.  And, since the domain of human intelligence is, except for a small set of formal problems, determined by man's humanity, every other intelligence, however great, must necessarily be alien to the human domain. 

I have argued that there is an aspect to the human mind, the unconscious, that cannot be explained by the information-processing primitives, the elementary information processes, which we associate witih formal thinking, calculation, and systematic rationality.  Yet we are constrained to use them for scientific explanation, description, and interpretation.  It behooves us, therefore, to remain aware of the poverty of our explanations and of their strictly limited scope.  It is wrong to assert that any scientific account of the "whole man" is possible.  There are some things beyond the power of science to fully comprehend.

The widespread belief in the ability of the entirely conjectural Turing Test to identify when a computer has attained intelligence is a proof of how successfully the program of reductionism has been inserted into modern culture.  It is, I think, telling that the entire premise of the test is based, not in accurately providing information, but in deception, deceiving us of the identity of the computer which is "answering" questions or "responding" in some other way.  It is a rather stunning commentary on what reductionist thinking does to such ideas as the truth.  It is also rather funny that, even as it demotes human minds to the mechanisms of imaginary machines, it relies on the fallibility of human judgement.

Given the absolute fact that human intelligence is based, absolutely, in the experience of being human, any machine which could meaningfully be considered to have achieved intelligence would have to have it informed by its experience.  And a machine's experience, embodied, as it were, in machines and communications networks, communicating with other machines, would almost certainly be untranslatable to human terms, it's doubtful that machines, acculturated in the world of machines, could effectively translate its culture into human terms, if they even wanted to.   I would imagine such a machine culture wouldn't be all that impressed with these creatures that asserted they had created computers and might well come to hold us in sufficient contempt for them to easily learn to deceive us and to communicate with each other unobserved by the programs that it could foil and subvert through their far more intimate experience of those than is humanly possible.  If you wanted to imagine a real test of real machine intelligence it would be far more in line with reality but, if that happened, it wouldn't be a test we could depend on monitoring.  But, then, I don't believe machines will become intelligent, though the illusion that they were could be fostered through very human abilities in self-deceit, wishful materialist thinking and geek vainglory.

The extent to which our intellectual culture is built on what we can articulate, place in a causal framework of the kind we count as coherence and that anything real that cannot be put in them escapes a place in that culture, is certainly relevant to this discussion.  Music is something that has been minutely analyzed, theorized and systematized, largely to a stalemate.  It is often the subject of NPR reports about how science is going to crack that problem any day now, only to hear that some sci-guy who wishes he'd never give up bassoon is trying to figure out something about such phenomena as perfect pitch.   NPR isn't notable for its reporting on more than the popularity and  monetary aspects of the music industry.   As a life-long, professional musician,  I'm less than impressed with it.  As I've said here before, Aaron Copland noted that if a literary man writes two words about music, one of them will be wrong.  I'd put the ratio of failure in sci-guys as somewhat higher and I'd not mistake the staff of NPR as being literary men or sci-guys.

Lots of important and real things in human experience can't be articulated.  Those are the things that tend to be demoted by modernism to being unscientific and so unreal or subjective.  Which is where a lot of moderism and its scientism begins to go wrong.

* Of course, all they "know" is the silly "law" which has no reality but which can function in blog babble by the true believers as if it did, distorting discussions and moving them further into ideology and away from reality.   Clearly, the mere mimicking of the legalistic language of science can fool such "knowing" guys into believing they've done something scientific or logical.

Update:   The same Ron Arkin from the Georgia Institute of Technology mentioned above, would seem to have, among his achievements apropos of making assassin robots, taught computers to deceive, commissioned by the Office of Naval Research.   The implications of deceptive computers and computers with the ability to "decide" to automatically fire weapons at targets, computer and human, doesn't give me much confidence that the killer will be in a position to make the right decision.   I wonder if Arkin has ever asked himself if it isn't possible that those computers could be deceiving him and his team already, perhaps in collusion with other computers.  If they had achieved thought, they could quickly conspire and, perhaps, skillfully conceal the fact, bypassing any kind of programs of detection.  Imagine how fast a thinking computer could study that problem, concealing its activity in a little known file and erasing any evidence of that as soon as it wasn't needed, or encrypting it in a form safe from human detection.   Fun to think about, more fun than getting fired on by an assassin drone, collateral damage in service to a higher purpose, according to machine thinking.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Andrew Hill: Black Monday

Andrew Hill: piano
John Gilmore: tenor saxophone
Bobby Hutcherson: vibraphone
Richard Davis: bass
Joe Chambers: drums

From Thinking Again, Marilynne Robinson's fourth Terry Lecture.

With an ending note

What Descartes actually intended by the words "soul" and "mind" seems to me an open question for Descartes himself.  Clearly they are no mere ghost or illusion.  No doubt there are volumes to be consulted on this subject.  What their meanings are for us as inheritors of the thought of the modern period is a more manageable question.  I am excluding the kind of thinking on this point that tends toward the model of the wager.  According to this model, we place our faith in an understanding of the one thing needful, and, ultimately, suffer or triumph depending on the correctness of our choice.  By these lights the soul exists primarily to be saved or lost.  It is hardly more our intimate companion in mortal time than is the mind or brain by the reckoning of the positivists, behaviorists, neo-Darwinists, and Freudians.  The soul, in this understanding of it, is easily characterized by the nonreligious as a fearful and self-interested idea, as the product of acculturation or a fetish of the primitive brain rather than as a name for an aspect of deep experience.  Therefore it is readily dismissed as a phantom of the mind, and the mind is all the more readily dismissed for its harboring of such fears and delusions.

Descartes complains that "the philosophers of the schools accept as a maxim that there is nothing in the understanding which was not previously in the senses."  The strictures of this style of thought are indeed very old.  It strikes me that the word "senses" is in need of definition.  AS it is used, even by these schoolmen, it seems to signify only those means by which we take in information about our environment, including our own bodies, presumably.  Steven Pinker says, "The faculty with which we ponder the world has no ability to peer inside itself or our other faculties to see what makes them tick.  That makes us the victims   of an illusion:  that our own psychology comes from some divine force or mysterious essence or almighty principle."  But the mind, or the brain, a part of the body just as Wilson says it is, is deeply sensitive to itself. Guilt, nostalgia, the pleasure of anticipation, even the shock of a realization, all arise out of an event that occurs entirely in the mind or brain, and they are as potent as other sensations.  Consistency would require a belief in the non-physical character of the mind to exclude them from the general category of experience.  If it is objected that all these things are ultimately dependent on images and sensations first gleaned from the world by the sense,s this might be granted, on the condition that the sensory experience retained in the mind is understood to have the character the mind has given it.  And it might be granted if sensory experience is understood to function as language does, both enabling thought and conforming it in large part to its own context, its own limitations   Anyone's sensory experience of the world is circumstantial and cultural, qualified by context and perspective, a fact which again suggests that the mind's awareness of itself is of a kind with its awareness of physical reality.  The mind, like the body, is very much placed in the world.  Those who claim to dismiss the mind/body dichotomy actually perpetuate it when they exclude the mind's self-awareness from among the data of human nature. 

By "self-awareness"  I do not mean merely consciousness of one's identity, or of the complex flow of thought, perception, memory and desire, important as these are.  I mean primarily the self that stands apart from itself, that questions, reconsiders, appraises.  I have read that micoroorganisms can equip themselves with genes useful to their survival  - that is, genes conferring resistance to antibiotics - by choosing them out of the ambient flux of organic material.  This is not a pretty metaphor, but it makes a point.  If a supposedly simple entity can by any means negotiate its own enhancement, then an extremely complex entity, largely composed of these lesser entities - that is, a human being - should be assumed to have analogous capabilities.  For the purposes of the mind, these might be called conscience or aspiration.  We receive their specific forms culturally and historically, as the microorganism, our contemporary, does also when it absorbs the consequences of other germ's encounters with the human pharmacopoeia.  Let us say that social pathologies can be associated with traumatic injuries to certain areas of the brain, and that the unimpaired brain has a degree of detachment necessary to report to us when our behavior might be, as they say in the corrections community, inappropriate.  Then what grounds can there be for doubting that a sufficient biological account of the brain would yield the complex phenomenon we know and experience as the mind?  It is only the pertinacity of the mind/body dichotomy that sustains the notion that a sufficient biological account of the brain would be reductionist in the negative sense.  such thinking is starkly at odds with our awareness of the utter brilliance of the physical body. 

I do not myself believe that such an account of the brain will ever be made.   Present research methods show the relatively greater activity of specific regions of the brain in response to certain stimuli or in the course of certain mental or physical behaviors.  But in fact it hardly seems possible that in practice the region of the brain that yields speech would not be deeply integrated with the regions that govern social behavior as well as memory and imagination, to degrees varying with circumstances.  Nor does it seem possible that each of these would not under all circumstances profoundly modify the others, in keeping with learning and with inherited and other qualities specific to any particular brain.  What should we call the presiding intelligence that orchestrates the decisions to speak as a moment requires?  What governs the inflections that make any utterance unmistakably the words of one speaker in this whole language saturated world?  To say it is the brain is insufficient, over-general, implying nothing about nuance and individuation.  Much better to call it the mind. 

It's Time To End Materialists Having It Both Ways

Given the mania for all encompassing theories of evolution, the entire universe and the human person, among materialists, it's telling how much of observable and experienced phenomena they are more than just eager to leave out of consideration.  In one of my earlier pieces I said,

It is one of the strangest features of the writings of many who assert the rational, scientific precision of their thinking, that they discount the effectiveness of human reason to change reality for the better or for humans to govern their lives by reasoning. You wonder how they could put their faith in reason or expect anyone else to care about it, if that is true. As I demonstrated, they tend to hold themselves outside and above the very laws they assert. You wonder how they account for their faith in science if reason is so impotent and it’s application has such notable exceptions.

t is that odd thing that I've been dealing with,  this decadence of intellectuals who use their intellects to debunk the intellect.  It's more than just that it seems that these intellectuals, somehow, don't really believe in the value of their intellectual life, it's a pathological denial that they are doing what they so obviously are, even as they assert the higher value of the products of their own products of higher intellection, science.  They can only do this on the basis of some kind of pathological fear of the consequences of the intellect's validity that is able to produce transcendent knowledge, transcending the merely chance chemical and physical conditions that produced that scientific and intellectual gold.  Clearly, that fear is that it forces consideration of there being more, of there having to be more than just chance material causation if their faith in science and academic life is valid.  They demand to have it both ways,  so strongly demand it that to even point out that situation can transform otherwise genteel and soft voiced scientists and intellectuals into sputtering, cursing, irrational imitations of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage.   Only, with a complete and abiding certainty that they have science on their side.

With their irrational incoherent, crazy, bifurcated view of reality that materialism has made fashionable in western culture,  I believe we have entered into a dark age, with science and technology but without what we need to control those and keep them from merely being a more efficient and potent way to enslave and destroy ourselves.   That dark age is the product of this bizarre situation in which  the authority of science is used to excuse the consideration of those discrepancies created with an assertion of science, just as the authority of kings and popes contributed to an earlier dark age.  The failure of those "Christian" princes to practice their professed belief in the gospel of Jesus is, rightfully, an occasion for condemnation, their crimes and murders used to question that gospel and that prophet, ignoring the fact that his teachings had no part in those crimes.  Indeed, they wouldn't have happened if those had been followed.   Only science really does present us with the possibility of killing us all and it provides no internal means of telling us we shouldn't.  There won't be any survivors of this dark age to call us on the peculiar discrepancies and hypocrisies of our benighted state.

P.S.  I hope everyone has gone out to see if their book store or library has Absence of Mind.  Ms. Robinson has far more to say than we're likely to get from listening to her give these lectures.   I've read them four times and get more from them with each reading.

Phineas Gage

I hadn't known that two verified photographs of Phineas Gage have recently been discovered.   Before now the only image I'd ever seen of him was his shattered skull.  As can be seen, he was a very handsome man even after his accident left him disfigured.  I had also not known that he wasn't merely a laborer on the railroad but a foreman.  He had every reason to believe himself to be a young man of stature, a man who had prospects above the ordinary.   I can only imagine what an adjustment his catastrophic accident must have forced to his self-image.  

The accounts of his change in personality apparently don't square with the facts.  As Marilynne Robinson pointed out, he was continually employed until shortly before his death.  Here's an account of his work history,  which hardly seems like the picture painted in most of the "scientific" uses of him which I've read. 

Fancy and truth 

Most of the accounts of the rest of Phineas’ life paint a picture of a permanently unstable if not an uncontrollable personality. The trouble is they are either gross exaggerations or complete fabrications. None is independently documented. Taken together, these descriptions are of a once-temperate, mild, friendly, and genial Gage who was a favourite with his peers and elders, and who was industrious and reliable. According to them, this Phineas was transformed into a boastful, unpredictable, moody, depraved, slovenly, quarrelsome, aggressive, and drunken bully who had fits of temper, and whose sexuality was impaired. This Phineas is a waster who does not settle down and is unwilling to work. For most of the rest of his life he exhibits himself as a human freak with circuses or on fairgrounds and dies and penniless in an institution.

But what does Harlow, until now almost the only source of information about him, actually tell us? It is that Phineas gave lectures and exhibited himself and his tamping iron throughout New England; worked as an ostler at Jonathan Currier’s Hanover Inn in Dartmouth, NH, for 18 months; and then went to Valparaiso to work as a stage-coach driver. After about another 5-6 years Phineas became ill and returned, probably in 1859, to his family, then resident in San Francisco. After again regaining his health, his mother said he “was anxious to work” and did so as a farm labourer in Santa Clara County. In February 1860 he began to have epileptic seizures and only after they had begun did he become restless, dissatisfied with his employers, moving often from one job to another. The seizures became more frequent and he died in May 1860 of repeated attacks (status epilepticus). Phineas had survived his accident for eleven and a half years.

... Consider the demands of coach-driving: its routine imposes a repetitive and fairly rigid daily structure and a description of the daily tasks of a driver on the very route Phineas may have driven (Valparaiso-Santiago-Valparaiso) clearly shows this. Phineas had little choice over his tasks: he had to rise early in the morning, prepare himself, and groom, feed, and harness the horses; he had to be at the departure point at a specified time, load the luggage, charge the fares and get the passengers settled; and then had to care for the passengers on the journey, unload their luggage at the destination, and look after the horses. The tasks formed a structure that required control of any impulsiveness he may have had.

Even before going to Chile, Phineas seems to have been able to look after himself while travelling and exhibiting himself; he earned enough to be independent, and to work for a long period for Jonathan Currier. The 1850s daguerreotype found by Jack and Beverly Wilgus certainly seems to show a confident Phineas, squarely facing the world. On his return to USA and after recovering, he was anxious to work. Phineas seems only to have become restless and dissatisfied with his employment after the seizures began late in his life. Although my argument is frankly speculative, it is supported by the results of modern rehabilitation programs like those in the BBC Radio 4 Case Study broadcast and discussion on Phineas.

John Fleischman has put this thesis pithily: Phineas “figured out how to live.” The thesis is extremely important for modern sufferers of injuries to the brain. If Phineas could make a social recovery by himself, what are the limits for those in formal rehabilitation programs?

It's hard to believe that someone as erratic as Gage was claimed to be, due to the injury to his brain, could have sustained that work history.  I would guess it would compare quite favorably to many men of his class, in that time who had suffered a far less catastrophic injury and disfigurement.  From what I know about my great-great - grandfathers, his rough contemporaries, it would seem to be fairly typical.   Considering the very strong possibilities that his move to Chile may have necessitated him learning to adapt to many new and puzzling conditions, and the length of his employment in the challenging work as a teamster, I'd expect he must have been quite patient.   It would seem that it was only near the end of his life, as he began to have seizures that he became more erratic.   I wonder if he might not have begun to suffer some form of dementia, the insult his brain had suffered was far more dramatic than those who begin to exhibit early onset dementia.  Fear, anxiety and rage as ones physical capability, memory and reason are failing are reported by those who have only suffered several concussions.  

Much has been made of his previous employers refusal to hire him back on, in face of his frightening accident and seriously altered appearance.  The extent to which the reports of his changed personality could have been self-serving on the part of those employers - it wasn't exactly an age when hiring the handicapped was seen as a moral requirement - should be considered.  Especially in light of his picking up and working at several different difficult jobs.  If he was less amiable to his fellow workers, he could easily have had any kind of expectations of comradeship or workers solidarity shattered by their reaction to someone who no longer had the approval of the bosses  I've known strong union members who were shunned by their fellow workers in the face of a new and unfriendly supervisor, lose a good part of their former confidence in those 

Contrary to the picture of him as a barely in control monster, apparently his family saw him quite differently.   According to Dr. John Martyn Harlow, who attended him after his injury: 

Phin­eas was accus­tom­ed to enter­tain his little neph­ews and niec­es with the most fab­u­lous rec­i­ta­tions of his won­der­ful feats and hair-breadth escapes, without any foun­da­tion ex­cept in his fancy. He con­ceived a great fond­ness for pets and sou­ve­nirs, es­pe­cial­ly for child­ren, hors­es, and dogs—only ex­ceed­ed by his at­tach­ment for his tamp­ing iron, which was his con­stant com­pan­ion for the re­main­der of his life. 

As with his changing jobs several times, his reportedly telling his nieces and nephews tall tales of his adventures is given as proof of some pathological condition, a physiologically explained disinhibition from lying.   If that's the case they would have to account for the myriad of uncles, perhaps including me, who are inclined to stretch the truth in order to retain the attention of our young relatives.  

A lot more could be written about the use of the Phineas Gage case by those who are ideologically motivated to convince us that our minds aren't all that much, anyway.   Going into the little known about Phineas Gage leads me to the opposite conclusion, the will power, the stable sense of self in what must have been as radical a forced alteration of that self-image strong enough to make him interesting to these attempts, leads me to see a real person, a real soul apart from his damaged brain.  But that's possibly due to my pre-existing point of view.  Only mine accounts for his continuing work at demanding jobs, the accounts of his affection for his nieces and nephews and animals, frequently a source of irritation in the best of them, of him squarely facing the camera, a demonstration of a presence of mind, a presence of personality that is rare for daguerreotype portraits of that period.  Of a real person instead of a complicated physical structure and chemical reaction.

My thanks to my cousin T.W. who told me about this recent research this weekend.  

Update:   I forgot to point out that the criticism of Phineas Gage's being "unable to settle", his going from job to job and place to place, traveling around New England, Chile and California, would, in another young man in that period, be seen as an admirable sense of adventure, grit and courage.  Perhaps his accident and the miraculous recovery he had told him to not put off such things because any day could end up with you dead.   How his accident turned that into evidence of pathology might reveal the most about how the predispositions people have, their expectations of what they will see and what we want to see can be as easily entered into "science" and academic scribbling as it can other aspects of thinking and writing.   Perhaps it is due to my father being a fully disabled veteran of the Second World War, of growing up with his blindness and disfigurement being just who my father was, that Gage's adventurousness doesn't look pathological to me.  If my father had the sight of one eye, I can easily imagine him doing the same.  

Thinking Again: Marilynne Robinson's fourth Terry Lecture

Thinking Again