Sunday, December 17, 2017

Lessons From The Birds And Cats

It being too cold here to do any outside work and too icy underfoot to risk another fall - still haven't totally recovered from the one I took two years back - I've been walking in place while listening to lectures and other things and some music, it's not high fi but Youtube has pretty much replaced public radio for me.

Anyway, one of the things I came across were a bunch of videos about the war of my youth between B. F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky in which Chomsky very effectively attacked Skinner's behaviorist claim about language acquisition, asserting that human beings aren't born a Lockean tabula rasa but must have a  genetically constructed, innate capacity for language.  Chomsky's arguments won out and they are very good - though in one of the videos there was a clip in which Skinner got off what I think was the most effective counter-argument, that Chomsky hadn't produced any evidence to back up his proposed mechanisms having a genetic basis.  In some ways he turned the gist of Chomsky's arguments against him.  It was the late 1950s up till today which is the period  in which the neo-Darwinian synthesis has reigned as absolute biological dogma basing one promissory note on the assumption that everything MUST be reducible to a molecular mechanism because that's all there could be.  At one point Chomsky reverted to the generalized form of that assertion asking why the mental functioning of human beings (he was talking about language, which is only recognized in the meaning he asserts in human beings) should be considered in terms that physiological aspects of human biology weren't.  It's an argument that you can find in different forms over and over again - starting the fire this morning, I found it in a year and a half old New York Times article fashionably slamming Alcoholics Anonymous*.

Much as I admire Chomsky's political writing and speaking**, even while I occasionally differ with him on that, I don't think that's much of a reason to believe that language can be considered on the assumption that something as complex as that could be encoded in DNA and solely a physical phenomenon based on brain chemistry and physiology.   I doubt that even the structures of the body, including the brain, can be based solely on the much smaller human genome than many believed to be the basis of their claims half a century ago.  The assumptions of neo-Darwinism before much was actually known about what they were claiming seem to me to be untenable now.   I don't think the promissory notes that both Skinner and Chomsky were writing on that in the late 1950s are going to be found to have been backed up by actual substance.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I made some pasteboard "eyes" to put on my window after a hapless black junco flew into it and the poor creature broke its neck.   When I'd done that before or when I'd made a scarecrow I had tested them by showing them to my dog and seeing how he reacted, now I've got to try to draw my cats' attention with them.  It made me wonder how the meaning that birds, or cats or dogs took from something that looked only slightly like eyes took from it.   I assume, as anyone who does that believes, that it means "eyes" to them, "eyes that are looking" "eyes that might be looking at me" "eyes of something that wants to do something to me"  maybe even, "eyes of SOMEONE who wants to do something to me"  or at any rate, "something interesting enough for me to bother to look at it".   Is that something that DNA would be expected to carry in Chomsky's construction of meaning and information?   It is more universal than the human species as are the other myriad complexes of visual meaning that we share with animals - or so we assume based on how their behavior appears to us.  I'd say that such complexes of meaning might, actually, be more complex than human language, see how many variant meanings I had to come up with to cover what my cats and, hopefully, other birds think and do when they seen the pasteboard circles in my window.

Given that, I doubt that DNA accounts for it though I certainly don't believe that behaviorism is more than an even more absurd assertion of materialist dogma, a promissory note that was already shown to be bad by the 1960s. 

In some of his most recent Q and A's on Youtubes I get the feeling that maybe Chomsky realizes that his own assertions based on neo-Darwinism are not going to stand for long.  I heard one in which he made an offhand remark that leads me to think he anticipates a time when his own work will have been left behind.  If, as I suspect, the mind is not in the brain, that even animals without brains demonstrate remarkable mental activity based on awareness of their remote environment, directionality they probably don't have equipment to perceive and who knows what else get from somewhere, none of those promissory notes of materialism in regard to consciousness, the mind and behavior are going to be found to be good.  Though even the most absurd of dogmas about those, powered by nothing but materialist orthodoxy and coercion will stand for a long time to come.

At the time nearly all treatment was based on 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, which help only a minority of addicted people [um, "science" based addiction programs only help a minority of addicted people too, but..].  Even today most treatment available in rehab facilities involves instruction in the prayer, surrender to a higher power [as I told a brother who died from alcoholism, when he used that excuse to not try AA, alcoholics have already surrendered to the ethyl alcohol molecule, about as low a power as they could find], confession and restitution prescribed by the steps. 

We treat no other medical condition with such moralizing - people with other learning disorders aren't pushed to apologize for their past behavior, nor are those afflicted by schizophrenia or depression...

Longtime readers of my blog will know I've got experience of being a family member of alcoholics and, now, of at least two heroin addicts.

To start with, I don't know how Maia Szalavitz got to the age she is without a doctor doing exactly that over diet and exercise in regard to a weight problem, a heart problem, dental problems, accidents caused by foolish behavior, etc.   Her whining against encouraging people with a serious problem that effects their relationships with their families, friends, community, to apologize for things they did that harmed other people, that let them down as they were drunk, is immature and ridiculous.  Being drunk is no excuse for denying personal responsibility for hurting someone.

And the idea that alcoholism is a "learning disorder" isn't a scientific finding, it's an ideological claim, I would say it's a reversion back to the behaviorism that was all the rage among psychologists in the period when atheist ideologues among them began to construct the attack on Alcoholics Anonymous.   There is, of course nothing sacred about AA, it's not magic and it requires people to choose to do what it advocates.  If there were something that worked better for the people it worked for, it would be immoral to not admit that.  But what Szalavitz is doing is no less ideological than AA is religious.

** Another effective point that Skinner made was that Chomsky in asserting a genetic-natural selection orthodoxy was, ironically, putting himself on the side of the biological determinists.  I don't think even someone of Chomsky's brilliance can find more than an ineffective argument against the fact that biological determinism and, especially when it involves a belief in natural selection and genetic determination will destroy democracy and that materialism already destroys the inescapably requisite moral foundation of it.   That orthodoxy even destroys the notion that equality is more than a delusion (natural selection being based, absolutely and unalterably on assertions of inequality) and that even if equality were real that there was any moral obligation that someone able to benefit from inequality and able to enact their will should not do it.   Of course, Skinner's behaviorism was no less a program for control of people as objects to be manipulated, merely another of the inevitable anti-democratic systems that materialism is bound to create for the reasons I just stated.

Update:  It was too early in the morning for me to phone to make sure when I wrote this but my one seriously addicted family member who has managed to stay clean for the past three years told me she did it through a 12-step group for drug addicts.  She still goes to meetings every week, something that my alcoholic relatives and my heroin addicted nephew didn't or haven't tried.  AA has saved lives, to deny that is to put atheist ideology before saving people.

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