De omnibus dubitandum
5 Sep 2012
Raymond Tallis is, at first glance, a bit of a contradiction.
A bit of background first. Tallis is a philosopher and a prominent mover in British Humanist circles. A staunch atheist, he is a regular contributor to New Humanist magazine, in which pages I first learned of him.
In addition to being a fierce critic of religion, Raymond Tallis is also, as it turns out, a fierce critic of science. Or, specifically, of certain aspects of neuroscience. Which is ironic, as he used to be a neuroscientist.
Tallis rejects the reductionist perspective – increasingly embraced by neuroscientists – that the brain and human consciousness are the same thing, that consciousness is inextricably linked to neural activity in the brain. He even devoted an entire book to this argument, titled Aping Mankind, in which he attacks ‘neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’.
What Tallis actually attacks, however, is the simplified portrayal of neuroscientific discoveries in the media, and the sweeping statements journalists like to make in eye-catching headlines. But Tallis fails to make that distinction, instead preferring to use this convenient straw man to criticise all of neuroscience and what he perceives as its reductionism with regards to consciousness and free will (or lack thereof).
Prolific in his criticisms, Tallis however fails to offer any opposing theory as to what consciousness and free will then really are, if not material properties of the brain.
Now I’m not one to denounce a critic for failing to provide an alternative view (that would be rather hypocritical of me) nor for the viciousness of his criticisms (again, pot, kettle & black), but what strikes me most is that Tallis’s criticisms fly in the face of an ever growing mountain of scientific evidence.
Tallis is essentially rejecting empirical scientific evidence without providing any counter-evidence. That, to me, seems a rather untenable position, especially for someone who once declared science to be “the greatest achievement of that community of minds called the human race”. He is intent on maintaining the specialness of human consciousness, without any supporting evidence.
Considering the fact that Tallis is a ridiculously intelligent man and a defender of scientific rationalism in general, this all combines in to a rather contradictory picture of the man.
Or does it?
Apparently Tallis at the age of 15 suffered from great depths of personal despair, which is not particularly uncommon in adolescence. He overcame this depression when he discovered philosophy, which provided him with “a sense of overwhelming joy at the complexity of the world.”
Aha. Suddenly it all makes sense.
Philosophy, Tallis’s intellectual soulmate, is at its core an embrace of the concept that fundamental truths of the universe can be discovered by thought alone. Philosophy has put all its eggs in to the basket of conscious thought, as that is the source from which its knowledge springs.
And that was perfectly fine, right up until science – and neuroscience in particular – started shooting galaxy-sized holes in to the presumed superiority of consciousness and free will.
Neuroscience has not (yet) disproved the existence of free will, nor has it managed to explain what consciousness is.
But the science has made massive strides towards finding answers to those pivotal questions. And the direction of this progress points towards an absence of free will and a rather peripheral role of consciousness in the bigger picture of our mental faculties.
That, I believe, is the true axe Raymond Tallis has to grind. Like so many philosophers he has placed conscious thought on an artificial pedestal, and like many he is seeing that pedestal undermined by the continued progress of biological science.
So in an effort to preserve his adolescent and enduring love affair with philosophy, he rejects any attack on the sanctity of conscious thought. He opposes the materialist notion that we are our brains, regardless of the scientific evidence.
You’d almost feel sorry for the man. So keen to cling to his deeply entrenched cognitive biases, he cannot face the possibility that his beloved philosophy is perhaps nothing but a deeply flawed emanation from our imperfect, materialist brains. And he will go to any length of shrieking irrationality to preserve this personal delusion.
I suppose it just proves once more that even the brightest among us are not the perfect superhumans we’d like them to be.
7 Aug 2012
I used to like TED. In fact I loved it so much I linked to it in this blog’s sidebar (where only truly loveable links dare tread), and recommended the site – and a number of specific TED talks – to people regularly.
But gradually I fell out of love with TED. It seemed to me that the substance I perceived in those early TED talks, the powerful meaning they conveyed and the strength of their messages, were all diminishing.
TED talks have become more about style, about delivering a story in as powerful a way as possible, regardless of the actual worth of that story. They became exercises in propaganda speeches.
In a recent article for The New Republic, professional cynic Evgeny Morozov reviews three e-books from TED’s publishing division, and his commentary on the whole TED movement is eloquently scathing:
“Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.”
In the same article, when reviewing TED’s decision to publish short e-books instead of properly sized tomes, Morozov is equally dismissive:
“When they launched their publishing venture, the TED organizers dismissed any concern that their books’ slim size would be dumbing us down. “Actually, we suspect people reading TED Books will be trading up rather than down. They’ll be reading a short, compelling book instead of browsing a magazine or doing crossword puzzles. Our goal is to make ideas accessible in a way that matches modern attention spans.” But surely “modern attention spans” must be resisted, not celebrated. Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis. The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.”
I find it hard not to agree with the man. When I saw my first few TED talks, I genuinely believed that this sort of thing could help change the world. Now, I fear, it’ll primarily help to dumb us down.
It’s not just TED where this trend of techno-global-fetishism is taking hold. I’m subscribed to the UK edition of Wired magazine, and recently I’ve become a little disenchanted with their ceaseless sycophantic reporting on internet start-ups and the incestuous Silicon Valley venture capitalist circles in which they move.
It’s not about actual worth any longer – it’s about hip stories on cool tech (ideally with some connection to Apple’s shiny devices) with substance an optional ingredient. Again, Morozov describes it perfectly:
“The recipe is simple. Find some peculiar global trend—the more arcane, the better. Draw a straight line connecting it to the world of apps, electric cars, and Bay Area venture capital. Mention robots, Japan, and cyberwar. Use shiny slides that contain incomprehensible but impressive maps and visualizations. Stir well. Serve on multiple platforms.”
This is not an encouraging trend. Especially when you look at related trends in the technology world, such as the over-valuation of Facebook and their $1bn Instagram deal, the signs are there: it’s a whole new bubble, filled with metric tonnes of effervescent hot air.
3 Aug 2012
Today two people were sentenced to life in prison for murdering a young woman. And I believe this is a very worrying conviction.
Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed are believed to have killed their daughter Shafilea in 2003 as an ‘honour killing’. The problem is that, from what the media has reported, this conviction is based entirely on a single eyewitness testimony.
One of the couple’s other children told authorities, seven years after Shafilea’s death, that she witnessed her parents kill her sibling. Whether or not that is true, we will never know.
Memories are fickle and unreliable things. They are created in an instant, and they are nearly always inaccurate. People believe that what they remember is what actually happened, while in fact what we remember is often a different version of the events as they transpired.
Memories are malleable, ephemeral, and eternally revised. Every time you remember something, you are actually re-creating the memory – and often change it in the process.
Memories not only change over time, they’re also inaccurate the moment they’re created. We don’t remember actual events – we remember our own biased, coloured versions of events. And our perceptions, much like our memories, are incredibly unreliable.
Memories don’t even need to be based on actual events. They can be created without the person ever experiencing anything even remotely close to it. A story you heard, a dream you had, a TV show you watched – all of these things can lead to memories that you will swear are true, while in fact they’re nothing but pure fabrications of your mind.
So I’m pretty sure that whatever Shafilea’s sister told in court what happened, and what actually happened on the night Shafilea disappeared, are two entirely and vastly different things.
No doubt there was a jury that was entirely unaware of the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, and I suspect there was not a small degree of bias present in many jurors – a result of the ceaseless barrage from the tabloid media distrusting anything that even remotely reeks of immigrants and Islam.
I don’t know if Shafilea’s parents killed her or not. That’s not the issue I’m addressing. The issue is that the jury should have recognised they don’t know either.
We have a justice system that allows evidence of incredibly flimsy substance to serve as the pivotal aspect of a prosecution’s case, and ignorant juries to uncritically accept it, with life-altering repercussions for all involved.
And that, I believe, can only be a bad thing.
14 Jun 2012
Last night I came across a great article explaining how smart people are just as susceptible to bias and false beliefs as anyone – and, in fact, how smart people are more adept at justifying these false beliefs:
“Smart people will usually be able to brush off criticism since they are convinced they are right and, due to their thinking abilities, can probably out-argue most criticism even if the criticism is right.”
- The Dangers of Being Smart
This fits perfectly with my own thoughts on members of Mensa, where I found many people with astounding IQs clinging to horrendously stupid beliefs:
I was appalled at how many Mensans are in to what we collectively term ‘New Age’ spirituality. From astrologers to energy healers, from psychics to homeopaths, Mensa boasts a frightening abundance of people who have thrown every last remnant of rationality and common sense overboard and have committed themselves entirely to plainly ridiculous ideas.
Not only that, I got the distinct impression that these people felt that their membership of Mensa – their high IQ – was a vindication of their beliefs. “I’m smart,” they seem to argue, “so what I believe is right.”
Now I am of course keenly aware that I’m not immune to this conceit either, and that there’s a strong possibility my own beliefs are equally flawed and that I use my own intellect to justify them, even when faced with valid criticism.
Unfortunately, being aware of bias and prejudice does not make you immune to it. That’s something we’d all do well to keep in mind, I reckon.
11 Jun 2012
I saw Prometheus yesterday. It’s definitely a film that needs to be properly digested.
Below my thoughts on what I liked, what I didn’t like, and some theories about events in the film and possible answers to some of the questions arising from the film’s plot.
SPOILER ALERT. If you have not yet seen Prometheus, don’t read any further. Read the rest of this entry »
1 Jun 2012
I have a confession to make: I haven’t read the Iliad. I have a lovely modern translation sitting on my bookshelf in a boxed set with The Odyssey, but I’ve only managed a few chapters of the Iliad before other – and, let’s be honest here, less difficult – books beckoned and I abandoned that most illustrious classic.
My fascination with the story of Achilles and the fall of Troy is undiminished, though. I’ve read alternative takes on this enduring epic saga, including a great science-fictionisation by Dan Simmons (for all his flaws as a person, Simmons sure knows how to write epic prose).
And now I can add another re-imagining of The Iliad to my list of completed reads: The Song of Achilles.
At first (and entirely erroneous) glance it might seem to be little more than a homo-eroticised fanfic version of the Iliad told through the perspective of Patroclus. But a book that wins prizes is not to be dismissed so casually. Especially when the Kindle version costs less than a fancy sandwich from Marks & Spencer.
So I bought it, downloaded it to the Kindle app on my iPad, and started reading last night. At about half past midnight I stopped reading. Not because I needed to sleep – though I certainly did – but because I’d finished it. I finished it in one night not purely because it’s not a huge book, but also because it’s addictively, mindbogglingly good. The very definition of a page-turner (or, more accurately on the iPad, a page-swiper).
The Song of Achilles manages to pay tribute to the original classic, give its own original spin to the ancient tale, and be immensely fun to read as well. The characters are well-drawn and multi-layered, the story flows with a rapid pace but commands the right level of detail, and the prose can be almost poetic at times.
In short, it’s a fantastic book. It’s not just a great re-imagining of the Iliad, it’s also a superb stand-alone work. Even if you’re not familiar with the Iliad, or if don’t like Homer’s grand tale, and/or if you couldn’t stand Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 Hollywoodisation of it, I would nonetheless recommend you give The Song of Achilles a try.
Unless, of course, you’re a homophobe. In which case you should fuck off and stop reading my blog.
The few bits of criticism levied against The Song of Achilles that I managed to find seem to focus on the decision of the author to portray the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles as homosexual. This is an odd complaint to make, in light of our knowledge that homosexual relationships were fairly commonplace and not particularly controversial in ancient Greek times. And I have to say, despite academic arguments on either side, the whole story makes more sense to me if Achilles and Patroclus are lovers.
Anyway, all this just boils down to one thing: I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone. Go and buy it. I mean it. And when you’ve read it, let me know what you think.
22 May 2012
Recently some alarming facts about justice and imprisonment in the USA have been highlighted. These facts are not new discoveries as such, but worryingly few people know about them.
First there’s this study about wrongful convictions in the USA, which paints a pretty grim picture of the American justice system:
“The US criminal justice system is a broken machine that wrongfully convicts innocent people, sentencing thousands of people to prison or to death for the crimes of others, as a new study reveals. The University of Michigan law school and Northwestern University have compiled a new National Registry of Exonerations – a database of over 2,000 prisoners exonerated between 1989 and the present day, when DNA evidence has been widely used to clear the names of innocent people convicted of rape and murder.”
The fact that thousands of Americans are jailed for crimes they did not commit is not particularly surprising, if viewed in the larger context of the country’s highly profitable private prison system:
“In the past few decades, changes in sentencing laws and get-tough-on-crime policies have led to an explosion in America’s prison population. Funding this incarceration binge has been an enormous drain on taxpayer dollars, with some states now spending more to lock up their citizens than to provide their children with education. It’s difficult to spin anything positive out of that scenario, but as it turns out, even this blackest of clouds has a silver lining – silver as in dollars, that is, for the private prison industry.
In 2010, two of the largest private prison companies in America, GEO Group, Inc and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) generated over $4bn dollars in profit between them.”
Both these articles are just scratching the surface of this deeply worrying trend in many western democracies to impose ever-stricter sentences on minor crimes, and to utilise the resulting prison population for capitalist gain.
In effect this is a new form of slavery, aimed at imprisoning as many of the lowest echelons of our society in order to use them as involuntary cheap labour. It’s a new way to maximise corporate profits through exploitation of the lower classes, as these will be the most likely to serve extensive prison terms for often minor crimes.
As we all know, rich men can pillage and loot for billions and get away with a slap on the wrist, while the poor serve decades in prison for petty theft. Our justice systems are not blind, we are not treated equally under the law. The more money you have – i.e. the higher your social class – the lower the punishment for your transgressions, if there is any punishment at all.
We see the same unsavoury trends beginning to take shape here in the UK. This form of government-approved corporate slavery is among the worst excesses of capitalist greed, and it should be resisted at every step.