Obama v. McCain Debate II: The Mic-Slinger…

John McCain and Hand-Held Mic Use

John McCain and Hand-Held Mic Use

The Presidential Debate which took place on October 7, 2008 in Nashville, Tennessee starring “The Long-Winded Professor” Barack Obama, “Eaten by Wolves” Tom Brokaw, and “The Crotchety Mic-Slinger” John McCain was a 90-odd minute display of political posturing, plain old “Grandpa-got-out-of-the-home-quick-find-him-before-he-does-anything-dangerous” All-American bullshit and grotesquely un-artful argument.  The analysis of this debate will be vociferous, variegated, vicious, and in clear violation of all philosophical principle and can be found on multiple television channels, radio networks, and countless blogs.  This leaves me free to place my analysis on one of those minuscule, tangential, purportedly pointless issues which so mark our post-modern political discourse:

John McCain’s activity with the hand-held microphone when he completed what he considered to be a high quality “maverick-y” moment.

Notice, the next time you watch this debate, or clips thereof, the gun-slinging, wild-west marshal, white-hatted cocky cowboy-style “holstering” of that mic by the Arizona senator.  His body language, facial expression and appendage/phalanges activity directly following his senile snippets was the single most frightening thing about the possibility of this hyper-militant grumbling geriatric being handed what we are told is the most powerful job in the world.

For the most part, I don’t care about the practiced puppet pontifications of presidential candidates in the course of a campaign.  There is little which can be discerned during such a time that ought effect the perilous conditions of the three-sizes-too-small “hearts and minds” of the American public, however it is this sort of under-appreciated, subconscious thing which is telling; more-so than the actual pre-determined political statements from the candidates mouths, which gives a clearer picture of the truth of that much-lauded “content of their character”.

Please take a look at some of McCain’s gibberish sessions, and keep an eye on his holstering of that political pistol at the end, and tell me it doesn’t hint at just how arrogant, self-aggrandizing, and dangerously violent the interior of this man’s mind really is.  Thank Randolph Scott he will not be given any more power than he already has.


What is the Deal with Communication?

Is it best to look at communication as a projective activity: the sending of information?  Or would we be better off to view it as a receptive sort of thing: the information received?  I think that this is sort of a both/neither case.

The notion of “communication” seems to entail at least three things: a sender, a sent, and a receiver.  For all practical purposes (maybe for all purposes), what is sent is going to be information, of some sort, and for those of us interested in philosophy, we are probably most interested in “meaningful” information; some sort of semantically interpretable, relationally expressive, actionable information.

Information has been dealt with variously as “a reduction of uncertainty in the receiving agent”, “a message selected at one point which matches the message selected at another spatially distinct point”, and other sorts of technical uses.  One treatment that I recently ran into which deals more specifically with the transmission of meaning in natural language is from D.M. Mackay:

The meaning of an utterance is its selective function on the range of possible states of the receptive system

This is similar, in some ways, to what I think a useful way of looking at communication as it relates to philosophy is, but also seems to be imperfect, at least for my purposes.  This brings in a notion of meaning, such that it is defined entirely by the systems involved, which I find slightly more relative than the one I want to employ, but it does have a point.  Like Claude Shannon’s descriptions, this one is an exclusive project, which imagines that there are a finite number of “possible states” of a receptive system, and an utterance somehow (by means of this “selective function”) “collapses” the range of possibilities into one actual state, and this state then is the meaning of the utterance.  There are a few assumptions there which are philosophically dangerous territory, and I don’t think we need to use them to get the benefits we want out of this conception.

Another important aspect of meaningful communication is a presumed similarity between the sender and the receiver.  Obviously they must be capable of understanding whatever language the information is being transmitted in to a close approximation, but they also ought to have other “relevant knowledge” in common in order for communication to effectively occur.   For example if one English speaker says to another, “I have conclusively disproved the computational theory of mind by means of an ingenious thought experiment!”  The receiver may, on one level, “understand” the meaning of the words employed, but not understand the intended message that the speaker was trying to communicate if they do not know what “the computational theory of mind” or “thought experiments” are; the communication would have worked better if the two participants were more closely allied in their “knowledge base”.

My proposal for what communication (of meaningful information in philosophical applications) is is something like “Bringing the receiver into a functionally equivalent internal information state to that of the sender”.  It seems more useful and accurate to reflect the sort of understanding we aim for in philosophical communication to speak on the level of function rather than anything more fine grained.  How could one know the actualized state out of Mackay’s “possible states” that the receiver is placed in (and hence the meaning of anything) if one does not look at the subsequent functioning of that receiver?

Even if we accept a materialist conception of the receiving system, it seems to me to be a clear folly to attempt to insist upon an identical pattern or structure in all agents in order for understanding to be communicated.  Instead, the best we can do (maybe the best which can be done) is to examine this on the level of functional equivalence as evidenced by behaviors and a reflexive discourse.  What do you think?

The Chinese Room Fallacy: Surly Searle…

Just finished watching a video lecture from the King of Question Begging, John Searle.  Feel free not to subject yourself to it.  The strongest lesson I take away from listening to Searle (even more so than reading him) is one about what I do not want to be, as a philosopher or as a person.  The absurd level of pomposity embodied in this man can be viscerally nauseating if you aren’t careful.

But here are some lessons to take away from exposure to a philosophical egotist such as this: Always strive to understand your critics, substitute humility for hubris whenever possible, and make damn sure you don’t overrate arguments or ideas because they appear to spring from your own cognitive loins.

The Chinese Room Fallacy: Holding a dogmatic, over-confident, unwarranted level of certainty in a piece of philosophical work combined with an unwillingness to acknowledge flaws, accept criticism, or even abandon a position which has been refuted for no other reason than pride.  Ego has no place in philosophy.  We would be vastly better off if we approached philosophy with an attitude of cooperation rather than competition.  The activity of the “enlightened” (for lack of a better term) philosopher is to advocate for all available positions in a spirit of cooperation to develop the “best currently possible” arguments all around, and only then infer to the best explanation.  Many are more interested in taking a solid position early, becoming entrenched there, and taking swipes outward at competitors.  This is a wasteful and unfulfilling process.

John Searle appears fully convinced and dogmatically certain that his “Chinese Room Argument” has completely refuted materialism and the computational theory of mind to such an extent that he claims they are “dead”!  This is empirically false as well as atrociously arrogant.  The Chinese Room Argument is a question begging utter misunderstanding of the alternative positions, and an obvious non-starter.  Nevertheless it has been attacked (quite well) from more angles than a three-legged zebra in a Louisiana swamp.  Searle, still, lectures from a delusional vantage point of affected superiority.  His attitude is reminiscent of the owner of a three-location restaurant franchise in Wyoming, who struts about as though he were Ray Croc.

He, and the brand new fallacy which bears his mark, are to be a constant reminder to us all not to “believe our own publicity”.  Though it may be a natural tendency to feel our own ideas to be more profound and our arguments to be more compelling than they really are, awareness of this tendency (grotesquely embodied by the embarrassing John Searle) can help those of us genuinely interested in philosophy not to fall prey to this asinine behavior.

Pain and Level-Jumping…

What is a pain?  If you read a philosophy of mind text from the 60’s or the 00’s, you are likely to run into a frighteningly similar treatment of the topic in both.  Though I would be more inclined to ascribe this unfortunate state of affairs to the stubborn and dogmatic apologists, that unfortunate class which seems to infect most disciplines and who form some sort of homo-lipid barrier to progress; let’s take a look at what might be happening here.

To explain is not always to explain away.   If physiologists claim something on the order of “Pain is just the nervous system process characterized by nocioceptive activity and appropriate efferent reflexive bodily response characterized by avoidance or withdrawal.” what are we to make of this?  It seems clear to the Folk Philosopher that this is more accurate “Pain is an unpleasant sensation.  It’s my subjective experience of something that hurts.” or something like that.  Can “pain” be, at once, a physiological reaction and a subjective feeling of “something that hurts”?  Well, it all depends on what you mean by subjective experience.  If you define the experience of pain as “c-fiber firings”, then it is analytically convincing that pain is indeed c-fiber firings.  But we don’t want something that is true by definition.  Those of us who find it unconvincing for a Folk to say “Pain is what hurts”, should not be satisfied by “Pain is c-fiber firings” either.  Admittedly these are not equivalent positions, and the latter does have advantages in scientific precision, objective verifiability, that sort of thing.  However, the former also has advantages, in behavioral prediction, ethical force, intersubjective linguistic information transfer, etc.

What if, insead, we concentrated on maintaining distinctions between our levels of description and claim that “Pain cannot be explained physiologically, because pain is a subjective experience and subjects do not exist on the physiological level of neuron firings.”?  Would this get us anywhere, at least in the direction of satisfaction?  We could perhaps discover that there is a near-perfect correlation between nocioceptive activity and personal reports of, or behavioristic responses indicating, that a subject is in pain.  Even if this were a 1 to 1 correspondence; would this mean that “Pain IS nocioception”?

To what extent does this analogy express similarity, “Beauty is Marlyn Monroe.”  Could it be that we have shifted both terms “up” a level?  Whereas before we had a sub-personal physiological happening (nocioceptor firings) and a unified subject, whereas in this analogy we have moved up to a supra-personal concept (beauty) and a unified subject (Monroe).  I am inclined to say that “beauty” doesn’t exist on the level of persons in the same way that “pain” doesn’t exist on the level of neurons.  “Beauty” might be more usefully interpreted as the process of interpretation of the information conveyed by the physical form of Monroe, by a subject which then elicits an internal experience which could later be verbally expressed as “Marilyn Monroe is Beautiful”.  Pain is in the mind of the beholder?

What happens if we flip the terms in our original question, is it more accurate to say “C-fiber firings are pain”?  Pain seems better defined as “The subjective interpretation of the information conveyed by the firing of c-fibers which then leads the subject to express (verbally or otherwise) an action which claims ‘I am in pain'”, rather than the simplistic, and somehow empty, “Pain is nocioception”.

Hopefully I have not sacrificed accuracy for satisfaction.

Argument Against Identity Theory?

To this day I am unsure whether or not I should consider myself sympathetic to Identity Theory.  As I understand it, Identity Theory is simply the claim that the terms which currently are used to denote “mental phenomena” such as “thought” are identical with physical states or processes.  That sounds pretty good to me, but I think there are important issues to be dealt with that I don’t yet fully understand.  I want to be a consistent physicalist, and identity theory seems to be a quick and easy way to do it, but in accepting it, is it the case that we give up too much.  As well as currently holding the opinion that a thoroughgoing materialism is probably the most reasonable position to take, I also value having opinions that are optimally useful, and most likely true.  If that eventually means accepting something more complicated than the brash simplification of “All mental events are identical with physical events”, I have no problem accepting that.

So I am open to arguments against the efficacy of identity theory.  Let us examine one from Hilary Putnam’s “Psychological Predicates”.  As I understand it, the thrust of Putnam’s objection here is that identity theory is absurd because:

I. If any mental event “thinking about Spain” is identical with a physical state then any agent who is “thinking about Spain” must be in an identical physical state.

II. Two agents will both claim to be “thinking about Spain”, and appear to all scientific tests as though they are correct, while at the same time have their brains scientifically examined and be found to be in two very distinct physical states.

III.  Therefore, mental events are not identical with physical states.

Let alone that this also would mean that anything with an entirely different brain chemistry (aliens, computers, animals etc) could never “think about Spain”, because their differential makeup makes it impossible for them to be in an identical physical state.

Now, this seems fine as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes very far.  I think my problem is with the first premise.  As far as I understand identity theory, it would not make this claim.  If this is truly the stance of standard identity theory, then I would agree with Putnam that it is incorrect.  But I don’t think they would have to claim this.  What about the claim that “all mental states are identical with physical states” entails the claim “all physical states must be identical to each other in order to qualify as being identical mental states”?

Would a parallel argument to Putnam’s (as presented by me) be:

I. All Porche 911’s are identical with their physical instantiations.

II. Each individual Porche 911 is made up of distinct physical “stuff” because no carburetor (or carbon atom) can be in two places at once.

III. There can be at any one time, at most, one Porche 911.

This seems a semantical absurdity even if, on some level, it is “true”, it is most definitely not a practical way to use language, and it is not what is intended by speakers who utter “I own a Porche 911”.  They would instead be requested to say “I own the (or “my”) Porche 911″, which is a strange, redundant, and ridiculous mode of speech.  The way we use terms like “Porche 911” or “thought about Spain” do not seem to require that there cannot be “thoughts about Spain” which are physically instantiated by neurons or silicon, analogously to the way that there can be “Porche 911″s which are made of distinct car parts (or atoms).

The above argument hinges upon the claim that in order to claim that mental states are nothing but physical states that each mental event (to really be the “same” mental event) must have an identical physical state.  I don’t think this is necessary, and I don’t think it is required in order to maintain a consistent identity theory of mental events.  Why cannot we use a concept of “functional equivalence” to get us past this point?  For me to be “thinking about Spain”, my physical brain must be in a state which is functionally equivalent to your brain’s “thinking about Spain”.  This does not seem to entail that our brains must be going through identical physical events, because the physical event for my brain is identical to “me-thinking-about-Spain” is not necessarily the same physical events necessary for “you-thinking-about-Spain”, though nowhere in this account is there anything to say that each individual mental event is anything other than physical events in each of our brains.  Is not identity theory thus maintained?

Where am I wrong here?

Philosophy as Rational Noetic Activity: An Analogy…

I believe in the philosophical usefulness of analogies.  They elucidate, they persuade, they allow us to discover otherwise overlooked similarities.  Recently I came up with an analogy between Philosophy (as the “Science of Belief”) and the internal cellular process of Protein Synthesis.

I am, sometimes, of the opinion that a useful way to answer the question “What is Philosophy?” is “The Science of Belief”, by which I mean, a relatively rigorous rational conscious cognitive process of belief formation by means of inference to the best explanation.  Doing the best we can to create and maintain a set of beliefs which happens to be (in some sense) accurate to the actual state of affairs.  As both an argument for, and an elucidation of this position: I introduce you to Philosophy as: Rational Noetic Activity (RNA)…An analogy…

(Please accept the simplifications, this is only meant to be accurate to the extent which is useful for this analogy rather than for biological precision)  Human bodies are made (partially but essentially) of proteins.  Proteins are curled up “chains” of amino acids.  Amino acids are organic molecules.  There happen to be 20 amino acids from which the proteins in the human body are assembled.  The assembly instructions for proteins are embodied in DNA.  DNA is two long and interconnected polymers of the four nucleotides adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine held together by sugars and phosphates.  The order of these four nucleotides provides the instructions for protein assembly.  RNA is (usually) a single strand of nucleotides.  The process of RNA transcription is the process by which enzymes synthesize RNA based on the structure of the DNA molecule.  Then amino acids are brought together and assembled into chains by matching them up with the order of nucleotides on the RNA molecule.  After assembly, the amino acids curl up (how and why they form the shapes they do is one of the great current mysteries of biology) and form proteins, which then go on to take part in pretty much every cellular process (including the process just described!). 

Now, let us examine in what way Philosophy can be applied to this model analogously…Let us equate DNA with the external world, the “actual state of affairs”.  It is a relatively stable storehouse of information relatively (but not totally) independent of observational influence, and embodies the “stuff” from which philosophical agents assemble their beliefs; the recipe for conscious opinion concoction.  The Proteins will be viewed as analogous to the belief states and/or propositional opinions which will in turn make up the totality of their cognitive “soma”; the “body” of beliefs of the individual agent.  This leaves the process of RNA transcription and Protein Synthesis to be analogous to: Philosophy.  This is why, as you may have suspected, I have so cleverly christened philosophy Rational Noetic Activity.

The process of doing philosophy can be viewed as analogous to interpreting the external world (enzymatic synthesis of RNA molecules based on the information contained in/on DNA), and then assembling belief states/propositional opinions in language (assembling amino acids into protein chains).  This leads us to extend our analogy one step further.  Perhaps we would do well to consider amino acids as analogous to words, and protein chains to sentences of natural language.  By doing this we would on the one hand fall into some technical philosophical problems of belief vs opinion, propositional attitudes, etc. but we would gain another level of accuracy and usefulness from our analogy.  If we accept that in some general sense there is a useful concept called “belief” which can in some useful sense be viewed to consist of (or be translatable into) linguistic entities (sentences, propositions), this analogy should hold.

Then, to extend the analogy even further!  The totality of proteins which make up an individual body then goes out into an actual environment in which it is subject to the mechanisms of natural selection and evolution over time.  A body which is made of “optimal” (for survival) proteins will have selective benefits over those which do not.  This is why it is important to have a high-fidelity system of protein synthesis from the DNA information.  To turn this back on the philosophy analogy: an agent would be more likely to thrive if its belief states were accurate to the external world.  So, the more progress we can make towards perfecting the process of philosophy as Rational Noetic Activity, the more likely our beliefs/opinions, which are being expressed as linguistic strings (amino acid chains) are to be in accordance with the information contained in the external world (the DNA), and the more likely we, as agents with a “body of beliefs” are to survive and succeed.

Surely there are more useful tidbits to be mined from this analogy, but I will (for now) leave those up to you.  But even this sketch, I feel, serves as a good example of how analogies serve to convey understanding and argument for a position simultaneously and (hopefully) effectively!

Dis-criminating Discrimination…

Discrimination Poll

Discrimination Poll

Gallup recently released this infamous poll, which I think is worded well as poll questions go (George Carlin would approve “happens to be…”), to get at the heart of the discrimination issue.  It is assumed by the question that the person in question is of the same party as the respondent, and is considered otherwise “well-qualified”.  This removes many of the tangential issues, leaving us pretty close to a pure straightforward case of discrimination.  The question is, would you not vote for someone whom you otherwise would vote for based solely on the information that they were a member of a certain category: “Black”, “Female”, “Atheist” etc.

I will now make the case that some forms of discrimination are justified.  And i mean this, not merely as the ability to distinguish between different things, or as flattery (you have discriminating taste) but in the full on important sense of:

treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs

I do not think this manner of discrimination is always and completely fallacious, unjustifiable, and always wrong.  But I get the impression that many people do think it is always wrong, and the rest simply do it wrong.

So, you may be wondering, “How can a self-professed thoughtful, philosophical, and decent person possibly support discrimination?!”  Well, the justification hinges on Relevance.  My claim is: It is justified to discriminate against (or for!) a person based on membership in a group or category, if and only if there is, as a necessary condition of membership in said group or category, possession by that person of a trait whose presence (or absence) is directly relevant to the task for which they are applying.  In other words: It’s ok to discriminate against someone if your justification for why you are doing so involves a trait which they must possess by virtue of their membership in a class and that trait is relevant to their ability to do the job.

To be clear, this claim automatically eliminates the possibility of justification for the majority of discrimination which does take place.  For example: there are very few attributes which one must possess by virtue of their “race” or gender or sexual orientation, period.  Secondly, that those attributes which are necessary conditions of those classes would be relevant reasons for their unsuitability to tasks, is very unlikely.  It will be a rare case indeed when my model will allow for justified racial or gender discrimination.

What is an example of a sort of discrimination that would be justified by my program?  Religious presidential candidates.  The argument would go like this:

I.  Presidents are responsible for making important decisions which have far-reaching and drastic effects on the citizens of their countries (and the world as a whole).

II.  Decisions that Presidents will make are effected by their beliefs, convictions, personal identities, and choice of advisers.

III.  It is a necessary condition of membership in the category “religious” that one choose to base (at least some) important decisions in conviction, faith, revelation, or scripture.

IV.  Decisions which directly and profoundly effect others should be based upon sound argument, evidence, deliberation, and reason.

V.  The professed religiosity of a presidential candidate explicitly places them in a category which has, as a necessary condition, a disposition which is directly relevant to an important and salient aspect of the occupation for which they are applying.

Therefore: A voter is justified in discriminating against a presidential candidate on the grounds that they are religious.

Please feel free to comment on this purported justification for discrimination.  I can only assume many people will find it, at least initially, offensive and dangerous.  But I don’t think that all discrimination is inherently morally evil, in fact I think it is philosophically tenable to stand that discrimination is actually a pragmatically useful tool if used correctly!  The problems come in when people partake unfairly based on bigotry and prejudice rather than a reasonable, justifiable, relevant process of thoughtful, “discriminating” discrimination.