Monday, 28 July 2008

On the Loose

The whole of society is on the loose again. It left its tracks in a newspaper this morning:

If we are to tackle obesity properly, the whole of society must become involved in the solution. [1]

If I ever find out where it lives, I shall have it bound and gagged and transported to the remotest corner of the earth, perhaps even have it buried under twelve feet of concrete — a fittingly absurd end to so dangerous and misconceived a creature.

[1] Tagline of Neville Rigby’s “Weight of the Nation”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 27th July 2008.

Friday, 25 July 2008

For Parochialism

Present folly seeks the unity of nations and not the creation of a single man from the entire species, so be it; but in acquiring general capabilities, will not a whole set of private sentiments perish? Farewell the tenderness of the fireside; farewell delight in family; among all the beings white, yellow or black, claimed as your compatriots, you will be unable to throw yourself on a brother’s breast. Was there nothing in that life of other days, nothing in that narrow space you gazed at from your ivy-framed window? Beyond your horizon you suspected unknown countries of which the bird of passage, the only voyager you saw in autumn, barely told you. It was happiness to think that the hills enclosing you would not vanish before your eyes; that they would surround your loves and friendships; that the sighing of night around your sanctuary would be the only sound to accompany your sleep; that the solitude of your soul would never be troubled, that you would always find your thoughts there, waiting for you, to take up again their familiar conversation. You knew where you were born; you knew where your grave would be; penetrating the forests you could say:

Fair trees that once saw my beginning,
Soon you will witness my end

Man has no need to travel to become greater; he bears immensity within. The accents escaping from your breast are immeasurable and find an echo in thousands of other souls: those who lack the melody within themselves will demand it of the universe in vain. Sit on the trunk of a fallen tree in the depths of the woods; if in profound forgetfulness of yourself, in immobility, in silence, you fail to find the infinite, it is useless to wander the shores of the Ganges seeking it.”

François de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’Outre-tombe, tr. A.S. Kline, Bk.XLII:14:1, published online by A.S. Kline.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Auflösung einer Gesellschaft

“Unfortunately all too often my experience with our elites is that they seem to have simply no more interest in the preservation of Germany. On the contrary, one gets the impression that the dissolving of our nation into a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society, and our state into a supranational structure, cannot happen quickly enough.”

[“Ich erlebe bei unseren Eliten leider nur allzu oft, daß sie schlicht kein Interesse mehr an der Bewahrung Deutschlands zu haben scheinen. Dagegen gewinnt man den Eindruck, daß es ihnen gar nicht schnell genug gehen kann, unser Volk in einer multikulturellen und multiethnischen Gesellschaft und unseren Staat in überstaatlichen Strukturen aufzulösen.”]

Ferdinand Fürst von Bismarck, interview with Moritz Schwarz, “Deutschland driftet nach Links”, Junge Freiheit, 2nd July 2008.

A Plea

All good men should join with the liberals and the socialists and the bourgeois hand-wringers of this land in deploring the use of the word “chav”. It is an ugly word. “Scum” is much better.

Fewtril no.249

Almost everyone is now agreed that education is the best solution to the problem of people having opinions that differ from his own.

Fewtril no.248

It is not so much the man of honour who lacks imagination as the man who cannot imagine why anyone would fight for the sake of it.

Fewtril no.247

It is a happy requital for those who play their part in dispelling the idea of human importance that they have the human propensity to feel important in doing so.

Against a Strange Belief

“Freedom is a secular state of grace which exists in permanent tension with tyranny and which we can claim for ourselves only if we never, ever, seek to deny it to others.” [1]

Apart from wet sentiments, I cannot see to what the above statement refers. It is plainly not the case that we can claim freedom from something or to do something only if we do not deny the same to others; for it is not merely that, insofar as we have the power to deny it to others, we have the freedom to do so: we may claim even more freedom from their power by doing so. Against the strange belief that freedom for others ensures freedom for us, or freedom for us ensures freedom for others, one might consider that the freedom of some men means the restraint of others, and vice versa. The trouble with talk of freedom is that it has become a habit to assume only good connotations for the word and only good effects for the reality, whereupon one speaks in its favour without any clue as to what it might mean in effect, apart from that it will bring approval from one’s fellows. Perhaps no other word but “truth” is more apt to lead to a confusion of what it is with what one wishes it were, nor indeed is more concealing of a man’s true interests.

[1] Martin Bell, “Freedom v tyranny”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 4th July 2008.


“A wicked fellow is the most pious when he takes to it. He’ll beat you all at piety.”
Samuel Johnson, as quoted by James Boswell, 10th June 1784, Life of Johnson, ed., R.W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.1289.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Against Umbrellas

“And let it be observed, that in reasoning about hats, all thoughts about that effeminate invention, the umbrella, are to be laid aside. This utensil is truly a disgrace to the manhood of the times. . . . Our stalwart ancestors did admirably well without umbrellas; they wore good cloaks or coats, and broad beavers to keep the rain out of their necks, faring not a jot the worse for it. Umbrellas are only fit for men-milliners, Cockney travellers, and women.”
Anonymous, “The Aesthetics of Dress: A Case of Hats”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 57:351, January 1845, p.56, online at the Internet Library of Early Journals. (Also therein a fine complaint about “the chattering and capering monkeyism of the Parisian exquisite”, p.51.)

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Hard Problem of Feeling; or, What is it Like to Be a Batty Philosopher?

Philosophers are troubled from time to time by the question of whether there is progress in their field. Not long ago I was much impressed with Galen Strawson’s lament about the regress that he sees in the philosophy of mind:
The fundamental positions in the mind-body debate have been marked out for a long time, and the quality of the present-day debate is embarrassingly lower than it was in the seventeenth century.
Everything that matters can be put far more simply and more clearly than it is being put in the present debate, with its atrocious muddling of metaphysical issues with epistemological and semantic issues and its for the most part witheringly unhelpful, rococo, scholastic, multiply duplicative and multiply inconsistent terminologies. [1]
I am happy to find, therefore, that a cognitive scientist has taken a small step back which, if followed, might allow a clearer picture of just what is at the heart of the so-called hard problem of consciousness. Professor Stevan Harnad has taken it upon himself to insist that feelings be called feelings, and moreover, that any claim to a physical explanation of consciousness must give a physical-functional account of them.
What makes the hard problem hard is precisely the mysterious difficulty of explaining feelings functionally. [2]
In order that there be conscious thought or perception, there must be something it feels like to think or perceive something; yet it is conceivable that cognition or perception could have a functional-propositional or just a functional relationship with the world without having any associated feeling. Indeed there seems to be no physical-functional reason why there should be any feelings at all, that is to say, why there should be consciousness in the world. As Thomas Nagel put it:
If we acknowledge that a physical theory of mind must account for the subjective character of experience, we must admit that no presently available conception gives us a clue how this could be done. The problem is unique. If mental processes are indeed physical processes, then there is something it is like, intrinsically, to undergo certain physical processes. What it is for such a thing to be the case remains a mystery. [3]
It may strike you as just obvious that feelings have physical-functional bases or that felt experience is a physical-functional process; for, if you have taken physicalism — or materialism as it used to be called [4] — as your metaphysics, and yet have come to regard it as an empirical-scientific concern, then you will surely hold that everything in the world is ultimately physical in terms of the conceptions of conventional physics — mass, energy, motion, and so on — out of which by some physical laws of emergence all functions have arisen. Yet even pain, a feeling which might seem as explicable in physical-functional terms as it is obvious to the subject of it, remains wholly mysterious.
[A] functional explanation of pain might go something like this: Pain is a signal that tissue has been injured. It is useful to an organism’s survival and reproduction for the organism to minimize tissue injury, to learn to avoid what has caused injury in the past, to avoid contact between an injured body part and other objects while the part is still damaged, and so forth. The sensorimotor and neural machinery for accomplishing all this, including the computational mechanism that would do the learning, the remembering, the selective attending and so forth, could all be described, tested, confirmed and fully understood. The only part that would remain unexplained is why pain feels like something: the functional explanation accounts for the functional facts, but the feeling is left out. And so it goes: every time you try to give a functional explanation of feeling, the feeling itself turns out to be functionally superfluous. [5]
In regard to some of the difficulties involved, it is interesting to note, as Bertrand Russell noted [6], that in the early twentieth century, whilst psychologists were coming to regard mind as more and more material, seeking to reduce it the physical, physicists were coming to regard matter as less and less material, and even in some cases coming to regard it as mental. In other words, the physicists were shifting the terms of the physical upon which the psychologists were seeking to set the terms of the mental. [7]
Philosophy and psychology in the twentieth century descended into the strangest denial in the history of human thought. [8] Out of scientism grew an argument of bare attitude, “a form of intellectual pathology”, [9] to which all manner of dressing has been added. That argument, so far as I can determine it in its simplest form, is this:
It would be gratuitous to postulate the existence of that which has no physical-functional role to play in our scientific picture of the world.
Feeling (mentality, subjectivity, or suchlike) has no physical-functional role to play in our scientific picture of the world.
Therefore, it would be gratuitous to postulate its existence.
One must marvel at that conclusion: gratuitous to postulate the existence of that in the world of which one is most certain, of which one cannot be mistaken — not as to its source, but as to its existence. One could be mistaken in every other belief about the world, and yet one retains incorrigible knowledge in one thing: one feels. Indeed, compared to doubting the existence of feeling, doubting the soundness of one’s soundest arguments against the existence of feeling is a breeze. [10]
.....You might think I am exaggerating something here: that no one has ever denied his own consciousness. I must say that I doubt that anyone has ever actually believed in such a denial. There is to me a suspicion that those of a man’s highest theoretical or metaphysical assertions which ascend far above his everyday experience of the world rarely if ever descend to actual belief. [11] Yet the thought has been expressed many times, not in the madhouse, but in the mainstreams of psychology and philosophy: from the Vienna Circle, through to J.B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, and Gilbert Ryle, down to Richard Rorty and Daniel Dennett. As Professor Rorty hopefully expressed it:
[S]ensations may be to the future progress of psycho-physiology as demons are to modern science. Just as we now want to deny that there are demons, future science may want to deny that there are sensations. [12]
Maybe this future science could put recalcitrant believers to an inquisition in which, by use of thumb-screws, the silliness of their beliefs could be proven to them. There you may protest that I am making a mockery of what Professor Rorty meant, and, insofar as it is possible to determine what he ever meant by anything [13], I agree that, in a sense, he was right: the hard problem of feeling is no problem at all if one doesn’t think it is one; for, without thought, there are no problems. He is right too that a change of vocabulary in favour of what we have already decided to be the case — such that we say “C-fibres firing” instead of “feeling” — can work to remove any thought of how or why the firing of C-fibres feels like anything at all. If we were a little more sophisticated, we could even eschew mention of C-fibres altogether and, along with Professor Dennett, speak instead about “the sum total of all the idiosyncratic reactive dispositions inherent in [one’s] nervous system as a result of [one’s] being confronted by a certain pattern of stimulation”, [14] and we could be satisfied, not because we have explained anything, which we have not, but because we have switched the vocabulary to a reaffirmation of what we already believe. All the same, the mystery is not solved; it is just that we have a well-told but vague story that satisfies our metaphysical commitments.
.....In the story told by Professor Dennett, there is no hard problem of consciousness, or indeed consciousness at all, since there are no feelings — or “qualia” or “qualitative states” or “phenomenology” — at all; rather the problem just seems hard, and it just seems as if there were consciousness. [15] But this much is true: the problem does seem hard, and it does seem as if there were consciousness, wherewith one might like to consider that it is the existence of this seeming as an aspect of feeling which poses the hard problem and which is of the very essence of consciousness. It is unfortunate for Professor Dennett that it is an existence that he must affirm in order to deny.
There seems to be phenomenology. . . . But it does not follow from this undeniable, universally attested fact that there really is phenomenology. [16]
Thus: There is seeming such that it can seem to me that there is seeming, but it does not follow that there really is seeming. Make of it what you can.
.....One could object that what Professor Dennett and all other eliminativists really mean to say is that feeling is something the nature of which is reducible to non-feeling in the same way that life is reducible to non-life. [17] If that were really all they meant to say, then they would be mere reductivists about feeling and not eliminativists, and they would spend their days in search of the secret of emergence by which chalk might be transmuted into cheese. There is one good reason, however, why they are not mere reductive physicalists, and it is the same intuitive reason why dualists, neutral monists, idealists, panpsychists, and sundry others are not reductive physicalists either: to say that feeling is something the nature of which is reducible to non-feeling is to say that it does not exist; for feeling is something the nature of which it feels to be, or it is nothing at all. In the case of the eliminativists, however, the intuition tends to pass unspoken, but if spoken — to be denied.
Suppose that intelligence is a purely physical-functional process. Suppose furthermore that the physical world is as our physicists conventionally describe it: there is no feeling — or “experiential quality”, if you prefer — at a fundamental level, nor then at such a level are there any felt qualities of sight, sound, smell, touch, etc. (There are no blue protons, for instance, nor slightly miffed electrons.) [18] Imagine that out of this unfeeling, non-experiential quantity of physical stuff, evolution has brought forth on a gaseous planet far from our own a super-intelligent life-form without consciousness. No experiential qualities — or “feelings”, if you prefer — have somehow emerged for it out of the aforementioned physical world. It is a being of pure function. It is alive, but there is nothing it is like for it to be alive. It feels nothing, nor does anything seem to it. (You may be surprised at the constitution of this alien, and yet, given what we have supposed, shouldn’t you be more surprised at your own?) Naturally this super-intelligent but unfeeling life-form is functionally aware of its environment. It has evolved such that it detects — is functionally aware of — objective resistance, electromagnetic radiation, pressure waves, free-floating molecules, and so on. It is just that there is nothing it is like for it to detect anything: there are to it no qualities of touch, sight, sound, smell, and so on, all of which must be felt, just as there is nothing it is like for a computer-system to detect something in its environment and to perform certain functions on the data it receives. (A smoke-detector, for instance, does not smell anything, though it is functionally aware of smoke-particles.) Imagine furthermore that our alien, in addition to its customary super-intelligence, has a sensory apparatus that allows it to detect over time the position of every particle of physical stuff in its close environment such that it knows all the physical facts thereof and from which it can also deduce by all physical laws the functions of any physical system present therein. [19] Now, if your imagination is not already stretched to incredulity, imagine furthermore that our alien meets Professor Daniel Dennett.
.....Having encountered our philosopher, the alien sets about determining all the physical facts about him. There can be no inter-subjective communication of any information between the two: the encounter is not a meeting of minds; for at least one of them doesn’t have one. So here then we come to the crux of the problem: from knowledge of all and only the physical facts, does the alien know not just of the existence of feeling, but also what it feels like to feel like the philosopher?
.....It seems at this point that we reach rock-bottom intuitions, and so it is at this point that each side accuses the other of begging the question against it. Intuitively it seems to me that a being without feeling cannot know what it feels like to feel like a being with feeling, even given that the former knows all the physical facts about the latter. But here the physicalist will rightly say that I am begging the question against him, and there is little reason to suppose he will be satisfied with my intuition even if he himself shares it. So it just won’t do merely to say that this is how it seems to me, though it might in the end be all that I have left to say. Still, I think I can say something more.
.....If there is something it feels like to be Daniel Dennett, then there is something known by him that he knows only by acquaintance: how anything feels to him. He has direct knowledge that his feelings exist, and of how they feel, even if he knows nothing of — or is utterly deluded about — their causes. This direct mode of knowledge-acquisition of feelings is itself part of what it feels like to be him. Therefore for the alien to know what it feels like to feel like the philosopher, the alien must know by acquaintance what the philosopher knows by acquaintance, that is, it must know the feelings directly, such that it feels them in the same way, since that is itself part of what it feels like to be the philosopher.
.....Since the alien knows all and only the physical facts about the philosopher, and if there are no facts about him in addition to the physical ones, then there are no facts in virtue of which the alien could not know what it feels like to feel like him. Yet if our alien does not feel anything beforehand, then it does not know beforehand what it feels like to feel anything; therefore, in order to know what it feels like to feel, it must come to feel.
.....Therefore, if physicalism is true, we must expect not only that direct knowledge of feeling by acquaintance can in principle be gained through indirect knowledge of feeling merely by description, but also that such knowledge can in principle be gained by an unfeeling but intelligent being in possession of all and only the relevant physical facts without prior recourse to analogy with precisely what it lacks, such that it gains precisely what it lacks merely by learning new physical facts about the world. Therefore, if physicalism is true, such a being, which has beforehand not even an inkling of a suspicion of a mystical leap to so strange and gratuitous a conception as feeling, must come not only to feel but also to feel what Daniel Dennett feels, such that it comes to feel what it feels like to see red, what it feels like to think of the taste of pea-soup, and what it feels like to write a book that boldly claims to explain consciousness, but which does not. If all that were not strange enough, it follows that, in order to know exactly what it feels like to feel like Daniel Dennett, the alien would have to be Daniel Dennett, which would be absurd, though it would at least give grounds to my feeling that there has always been something very strange about him. [20]
.....In all this there are assumptions, some implicit, to which objections can be raised. I leave it to you to determine them. (Of course, since this is a reductio ad absurdum, there are assumptions to which you are meant to object.) There is, however, one assumption that I think might conceivably not hold: there is something it is like to be Daniel Dennett. That there is nothing it is like to be Daniel Dennett would at least have the merit of explaining the nature of some of his arguments. Naturally the objection to this assumption applies only to the use of him or any other third person as an example. It does not apply to me: I know that I have feelings. And, dear reader, if I am to know by commonsense, I am sure it does not apply to you either.
The urge for explanation, like all others, demands satisfaction, and yet, unless one is capable of explaining all the phenomena of the world, the urge must become frustrated, whereat, if not tamed by humility, it becomes the motive for self-deception or even dishonesty.
[I]t seems to me, rightly, that the longer the world stands, the more fabrications will be made. [21]
Even the hardest head becomes susceptible to the just-so stories it tells itself. The standard of satisfaction, erstwhile set at the level of nothing but genuine explanation, is lowered so that a matter might be re-interpreted as if it were another matter entirely, one more easily solvable yet retaining the same name. [22]
.....Physical science has its proper limits in the study of “physical stuff”, i.e., that which is defined as such by its having functional or relational properties that are amenable to observation, measurement, and third-person terminology; it does not address itself to what lies beyond such. [23] As Erwin Schrödinger noted, the initial gambit of science was to remove the subject of cognizance from the picture of the world entirely — “the high price paid for a fairly satisfactory picture”. [24] Yet a practical scope for the purpose of depicting the physical world has become to many a metaphysical view of the whole. If, however, we are to outguess the nature of future understanding, then we might speak of an understanding that does not conceive of science as handmaiden to the metaphysical assumption of physicalism.
.....If it strikes you that I have taken a mystical turn, do not concern yourself: I shall not try to flog you any crystals or mess with your aura. Yet if it is mysticism to believe in both the existence of feeling and of its irreducibility to physical stuff as outlined above, then all I can say is that mysticism seems to me more sensible than physicalism — “the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself.” [25]

[1] Galen Strawson, “Panpsychism?”, in Consciousness and its Place in Nature, ed., A. Freedman (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2006), p.200.
[2] Stevan Harnad, “No Easy Way Out”, The Sciences, 41:2, 2001. (As for connotations, the word “feeling” suffers because it connotes to many people soft-headedness, laymanship, and some idea of its being somehow more unscientific than other words.)
[3] Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”, The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4, October 1974.
[4] Here I take “materialism and “physicalism” as synonyms; but the change from materialism to physicalism does represent some significant shift in conceptions.
[5] Stevan Harnad, op.cit; original emphasis.
[6] Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind (Oxford: Routledge, 1992), Preface.
[7] Here I concentrate on feeling, but I can think of no satisfactory account of meaning, intentionality, and purpose either.
[8] Cf. “At [the denial of the existence of experience] we should stop and wonder. I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has ever happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy.” Galen Strawson, “Realistic Monism: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?, in Consciousness and its Place in Nature, ed., A. Freedman (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2006), p.5.
[9] John R. Searle, The Mystery of Consciousness (London: Granta Books, 1998), p.112, in reference to Daniel Dennett.
[10] It would be gratuitous for an entity without feeling to postulate its existence, for, without feeling, there is no ground for a belief in it; but for an entity with feeling, the denial of its existence is absurd.
[11] Everyone, for instance, when he stubs his toe, is a dualist with no questions asked, for he cannot help but separate the world into two distinct entities.
[12] Richard Rorty, “Mind-Body Identity, Privacy and Categories”, Review of Metaphysics, XIX, 1, September 1965, reprinted in Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem (2nd Edition), ed., D.M. Rosenthal, (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., 2000), p.179. (Cf. Behaviourism, which ignores mental states “in the same sense that chemistry ignores alchemy, astronomy horoscopy, and psychology telepathy and psychic manifestations.” J.B. Watson, “Is Thinking merely the Action of Language Mechanisms?” British Journal of Psychology, 11, 1920, quoted by William Lyons, Matters of the Mind (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), p.42.)
[13] I am not the only one who finds it difficult to fathom what Richard Rorty meant to say by anything he said — and perhaps I am not alone in suspecting that this is precisely what he meant to achieve by everything he said.
[14] Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p.387, original emphasis. (More of the same: “When you say ‘This is my quale [feeling]’, what you are singling out, or referring to, whether you realize it or not, is your idiosyncratic complex of dispositions. You seem [it feels like to you] to be referring to a private, ineffable something-or-other in your mind's eye, . . . but this is just how it seems [feels like] to you, not how it is.” ibid., p.389; original emphasis.)
[15] Professor Dennett doesn’t quite put it that way: he continues to use the word “consciousness” as if he hadn’t denied it. For a sense of the frustration at Professor Dennett’s evasions, equivocations, and blusterings, see Professor Harnad’s amusing commentary on Dennett’s forthcoming paper, “The Fantasy of First-Person Science”. (Stevan Harnad, “The Mind/Body Problem is the Feeling/Function Problem”, at the University of Southampton website.)
[16] Dennett, op. cit., p.366. (In defining “phenomenology”, Dennett says (ibid., p.45) “we can follow recent practice and adopt the term . . . as the generic term for the various items in conscious experience that have to be explained.” I.e., feelings.)
[17] Professor Dennett does indeed use just such an analogy, but only in the hope that, in lieu of explanation, he might persuade us that feeling poses no explanatory problem. The analogy with life is a poor one, however. Life in terms of a physical-functional process is quite easily reducible to non-life in the same terms. The same cannot be said for feeling.
[18] I recall that Colin McGinn mentions something of the kind in his mockery of panpsychism.
[19] Technical details are sketchy at this point, though we may presume our alien has never heard of Heisenberg.
[20] My own view is that the alien would learn nothing of Professor Dennett’s feelings. File Report to Central Administration: Carbon-based life-form. Functionally primitive. Edible.
[21] [“. . . wie mich dünkt, mit Recht, daß je länger die Welt stünde desto mehr Erfindungen würden gemacht werden.”] G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), J 1250 from Sudelbuch J, (1789-1793), p.441.
[22] E.g., “One way is to change the subject, swap an easy problem for the hard one (but keep calling it the hard one anyway), and then solve that easy problem instead. The second way is simply to provide an easy solution, but interpret it as if it had solved the hard problem.” Stevan Harnad, “No Easy Way Out”, ibid.
[23] “Whether we are studying a material object, a magnetic field, a geometric figure, or a duration of time, our scientific imagination is summed up in measures; neither the apparatus of measurement nor the mode of using it suggests that there is anything essentially different in these problems. The measures themselves afford no ground for a classification by categories. We feel it necessary to concede some background to the measures—an external world; but the attributes of this world, except in so far as they are reflected in the measures, are outside scientific scrutiny.” Sir Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), p.xiii.
[24] Erwin Schrödinger, Mind and Matter, in What is Life? With Mind and Matter, and Autobiographical Sketches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), p.119.
[25] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol.II, tr. E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1966), p.13. (“Materialismus ist die Philosophie des bei seiner Rechnung sich selbst vergessenden Subjekts.”; Die Welt als Wille und Vortstellung, Bd.II., in Sämmtliche Werke, ed., E. Grisebach (Leipzig: Reclam, 1891.), p.21.)

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Pigeons and Ambient Persuasion

Given an acceptance of determinism, a concern for the promotion of the good society, and a belief in the usefulness of technology, we might make an ethical argument such as follows: since everyone is determined totally by his environmental and biological conditions, such that there is no degree of autonomy for his choices outside those conditions, and since we wish for the best of all possible societies, we should engineer those conditions so that the “choices” that everyone makes are for the best. Such, in short, was the argument of B.F. Skinner.
In what we may call the pre-scientific view (and the word is not necessarily pejorative) a person’s behaviour is at least to some extent his own achievement. He is free to deliberate, decide, and act, possibly in original ways, and he is given credit for his successes and blamed for his failures. In the scientific view (and the word is not necessarily honorific) a person’s behaviour is determined by a genetic endowment traceable to the evolutionary history of the species and by the environmental circumstances to which as an individual he has been exposed. Neither view can be proved, but it is in the nature of scientific inquiry that the evidence should shift in favour of the second. As we learn more about the effects of the environment, we have less reason to attribute any part of human behaviour to an autonomous controlling agent. And the second view shows a marked advantage when we begin to do something about behaviour. Autonomous man is not easily changed; in fact, to the extent that he is autonomous, he is by definition not changeable at all. But the environment can be changed, and we are learning how to change it. The measures we use are those of physical and biological technology, but we use them in special ways to affect behaviour. [1]
Instead of leaving human behaviour at the mercy of non-directed conditions, Professor Skinner proposed that a scientific “technology of behaviour” be put in place to cultivate the beneficent conditions that would shape human behaviour.
[I]t should be possible to design a world in which behaviour likely to be punished seldom or never occurs. We try to design such a world for those who cannot solve the problem of punishment for themselves, such as babies, retardates, or psychotics, and if it could be done for everyone, much time and energy would be saved. [2]
As if to warm the bones of a dead behaviourist, there has been talk in some quarters lately about so-called ambient persuasion using ubiquitous nanocomputing. The idea is that, with the cheap manufacture of microscopic computers, there will come a time when computers are embedded in the environment all around us — in anything you care to mention: shoes, writing-paper, disposable packaging, lampposts, chairs, and so on — with a wireless network between them, and perhaps even between them and us, such that the environment can be engineered to direct human behaviour towards certain ends.
Ubiquitous interfaces, which comprise a particular class of interactive systems, have the capability to unobtrusively surround the user at any given moment and place. This enables a persuasive intervention just at the right time. [3]
The authors of the above words envisage that such technology could be used to foster behaviours conducive to health and well-being, say, in persuading someone to exercise more or smoke less. One of the key components of persuasion that the authors identify is persistence:
Persistence means that the system confronts the user with the persuasive message at several occasions whenever an opportune moment arises. [4]
If I allow myself a little imagination, I can see a world in which my desk-chair notices a trend in weight-gain, and thereupon, every time I sit upon it, it reminds me of the dangers of heart-disease and diabetes, and of the link thereto of pie- and cake-consumption. Thus, in imagining the future, I am confronted with the possibility of being nagged by my furniture.
One can easily imagine the misuse of such technology by companies, political parties, and governments, especially if it were ubiquitous, even if one does not consider its very use a misuse in the first place. In promoting his ideal, Professor Skinner was aware of this kind of objection:
The misuse of a technology of behaviour is a serious matter, but we can guard against it best by looking not at putative controllers but at the contingencies under which they control. It is not the benevolence of a controller but the contingencies under which he controls which must be examined. [5]
He was hopeful that a new “contingency” was emerging that would constitute the beneficent conditions by which the benevolence of the controllers would be determined:
It is possible . . . that we are witnessing the evolution of a true ‘forth estate’, composed of scientists, scholars, teachers, and the media. If it can remain free of governments, religions, and economic enterprises, it may provide current surrogates for the remoter consequences of our behaviour. It could be the quis that will control the controllers.
Ah, well, that’s it then — no need to worry. So long as these benevolent gods remain free from government, religion, and business, that is to say, from the very things that they are to control and even constitute, beneficence shall perhaps follow.
.....One might well wonder if so much time spent with pigeons was healthy for Professor Skinner’s mental faculties, or for his view of mankind. Still, let it be said that any misunderstanding thus gained and imparted might yet prove elemental in conditioning the useful ability to treat men like pigeons.
[1] B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (London: Penguin Books, 1988), p.20.
[2] Ibid., pp.68-9.
[3] Wolfgang Hofkirchner, Manfred Tscheligi, Robert Bichler, Wolfgang Reitberger, “Ambient Persuasion for the Good Society”, International Review of Information Ethics, Vol.8, December 2007, p.43.
[4] Ibid., pp. 43-4.
[5] B.F. Skinner, op. cit., p.179.
[6] Ibid., p.219.