Randomness, the brain, free will, science, "pseudo-science," justice, and demarcation: a conversation

Paul Grobstein's picture

The following is excerpted, with permission, from email-exchanges associated with an Evolving Systems Project discussion of chance.  Continued public conversation, to which others are invited to contribute, can be found in the on-line forum area below.  Comments can be individually linked to using the numbers in parentheses (eg http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/evolsys/chance/cashmore#1).


Mike Sears, 17 June, 2010 (1)

I just thought that I'd pass along an article that, given our morning conversations, you might find interesting.

"It is widely believed, at least in scientific circles, that living systems,including mankind, obey the natural physical laws. However, it is also commonly accepted that man has the capacity to make “free” conscious decisions that do not simply reflect the chemical makeup of the individual at the time of decision—this chemical makeup reflecting both the genetic and environmental history and a degree of stochasticism. Whereas philosophers have discussed for centuries the apparent lack of a causal component for free will, many biologists still seem to be remarkably at ease with this notion of free will; and furthermore, our judicial system is based on such a belief. It is the author’s contention that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism—something biologists proudly believe they discarded well over 100 years ago."

Abstract from "The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system" by Anthony Cashmore, Proceedings of the National Academy, USA 107: 4499-4504 (2010)

Wil Franklin, 18 June, 2010 (2)

This article was well, very generative for me. Particularly the juxtaposition of the whistle and train metaphor with the observations of individuals with lesions in the brain that lead to "blind-sight" or conscious blindness with the unconscious ability to use visual information. Let me first explore the equivalences between the two and then end with a question regarding the apparent mis-representation of the metaphor.

Starting with the metaphor:

Let's assume the whistle of a train is "like" consciousness in that it is a signifier. Let us also assume the steam building in the engine is the driving force of the trains motion, similar to neuronal activity in the unconscious brain is a driving force of behavior (as per Figure 1, Cashmore). Then the whistle sounds when steam passes through it, corresponding to enough steam pressure in the engine to initiate movement.  Remove the whistle (like the lesion in the brain of some individuals) and you remove the sound (consciousness) but not the underlying steam and concomitant action.

Cute, yes. But missing something that I think is significant.

If all brain function (conscious and unconscious) is simply different patterns of neuronal activity and unconscious patterns of neuronal activity can affect behavior, then who is to say that a pattern of neuronal activity that happens to be conscious cannot affect behavior.  I'm not sure I am saying anything about free will, but I am wondering whether or not consciousness is only a signifier?  It seems to me the brain is wired such that there is no such thing as a "whistle".  The whistle metaphor breaks down because the brain is interconnected with multiple, multi-directional modules affecting one another. The whistle is a module with only a unidirectional connection.

Maybe a connection to Free Will:

Now let me assert that the conscious module of the brain can generate "counter-factuals" (can form neuronal activity patterns that correspond to states other than are currently formed in the unconscious modules of the brain). This ability to generate a conscious conterfactual may only be the ability to bring into consciousness a state that is in the unconscious... in which case all this collapses into just a whistle and engine problem (Figure 1C.) But if the conscious module of the brain can (in reacting to current unconscious states) form a state that is not currently present in the unconscious, then it seems to me a conscious idea/thought (read pattern of neuronal activity) might affect action, not simply seem to affect it in a post hoc fashion.

Or is that exactly what I just explained? My counter-factuals are undermining my assertion before I can even finish.  Any help?

Doug Blank, 18 June, 2010 (3)

I don't think that there is anything that I disagree with in there. However, I think it would be useful if he brought in more recent ideas from philosophy of mind on "Extended Minds":


The notion described in Cashmore's Figure 1c is still simplistic and is the reason people are left continuing to look further for "free will". The brain is not just a conversation between conscious and the unconscious, but a rich interaction between the conscious, unconscious, and the world---including senses, and conversations with other brains. Capturing that with the E in GES (genes, environment, and stochasticism) doesn't do it justice. If I were to draw that figure, E would be a node at least as
large as consciousness and unconsciousness, and have double-headed arrows between both.


Anne Dalke, June 19, 2010 4)

I'd be interested in your reading of the article, Mike. I don't buy it. One of us suggested years ago that the intrinsic variability of our nervous system, plus the capacity to withhold an output until that variability yields something that satisfies us, is an operative definition (and actualization) of free will (for details, see
http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/EncyHumBehav.html ).

That works for me: clearly, we're not fully under our own control, but combining the intrinsic variability of the unconscious with the monitoring-and-editing function of consciousness can lead to some pretty satisfying outcomes. Then if you add in (per Doug--> Andy Clark & David Chalmers') notion of extended mind (located outside our individual "biological skin bag," in computers and notepads and especially in unpredictable, uncontrollable-but-monitorable interactions with other people), well then--

anything's possible.

Alice Lesnick, June 20, 2010 (5)

My response to Cashmore relates to our discussion a couple of sessions back about if and how language/word choice matters.

But before I share them, I want to appreciate the different comments you all have made, and I suppose raise a meta-question that arises from their richness for me. I am interested in what Cashmore's account of us suggests for the education system, indeed, for the meaning of learning at all. I want to ask him: When I learn from, and enjoy, different people's responses to your paper, situated as they are in different people's experiences, am I acting as a mechanical force of nature, conscious automaton, or bowl of sugar?

Connected to this is my wish to know more about Cashmore's senses of the terms he uses. I don't think such important ideas can be discussed well unless our language for them is subtle and nuanced, and honest as to its reach and limits, and, preferably, to our own experiences and investments. 'Environmental history," for example, is such a broad term -- how does it map to diverse people's experiences and representations of that history? Can that history be "reflected" clearly and once and for all?

When Cashmore discounts "writings on free will" because they "lack molecular details," I want to ask why everything that is written has to reference the same givens, the same founding ideas/knowledge base/field. Why is such reductiveness cast as virtue? Why not consider as well the possibility that it could be limiting?

Paul Grobstein, June 20, 2010 (6)

Among the things that struck me about the article was the inclusion, albeit somewhat grudgingly, of "stochasticism" as among the "three forces that govern behavior", the other two being genes and environment.  Yes, there continues to be an uncertain border between "deterministic but ill-mannered" (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/EncyHumBehav.html) and probabilistic in the sense of non-deterministic, and this needs further exploration.  At the same time, it seems to me noteworthy that more biologists are acknowledging "a third thing" (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/gen_beh/Dreams.html) significant in thinking about behavior, and biological phenomena generally.  Cashmore's catalogue of some of the places where biologists find it important to acknowledge stochasticity is a significant contribution to overturning a popular sense that biologists attribute everything to a combination of genes and environment.  And to our discussions of how to think productively about "fortune - the aleatory, chance ... tychism."  That which is not fully understood should not be dismissed on that ground, and in this case "stochasticism" is being increasingly recognized as something needing to be acknowledged and brought within the sphere of both legitimate inquiry and legitimate explanatory frameworks.

Along similar lines, I was struck by the article as further evidence that a similar process is occurring with regard to "consciousnness."  Forty years ago, consciousness was dismissed by most biologists as, at best, irrelevant to productive biological inquiry and, at worst, as a meaningless distraction from it.  That Cashmore finds it obligatory to consider consciousness in relation to the problem of "free will," and to consider possible causal roles of consciousness in behavior (a fourth "force"?) will, I think be useful as we continue our discussions of the relation between brains and Turing machines.  I will argue that Cashmore has adopted much too narrow a conception of the function of consciousness (and that in turn contributes to difficulties in making sense of free will in neural terms)  Cashmore's paper also provides another good example of the importance of biologists (and other inquirers) not dismissing phenomena on the grounds that they aren't yet understandable within particular research frameworks ("formal systems"?) but instead holding open judgments about their significance in the long run.

Very glad to have Cashmore (and you) put "free will" on the table.  My own intuition, as a biologist, is that explorations of "free will" will follow the same future trajectory as those of stochasticity and consciousness.  I'm not impressed by Cashmore's documentation of a past association between "free will" and dualism/vitalism.  The same historical association existed for both stochasticity and consciousness, and, for that matter, for life itself.  Biologists didn't stop exploring life because of the historical association, and we now understand life better, if differently, than we did before, in a way that doesn't depend on either dualism or vitalism.  I'm also not impressed by Cashmore's extensive quotations from, among others, distinguished biologists (more on this and the previous point below).  That something is not currently understandable by distinguished people representing a particular research tradition is not evidence that it doesn't exist nor that it won't become understandable at some future time as that research tradition itself evolves. 

Along these lines, it seems to me that Cashmore is curiously neglecting the history of the research tradition of biology.  Yes, living systems contain "chemicals" that obey " the laws of chemistry and physics" (insofar as we currently understand these).  But to assert that "as living systems, we are nothing more than a bag of chemicals"  is to grossly misrepresent more than a century of biological research.  "A bag of chemicals" identical to those of any living organism does not display any of the properties of a living organism.  The latter depend instead on particular organized interactions of those chemicals and, in turn, particular organized interactions of those into larger organized assemblies, of those assemblies into still larger organized assemblies, and so forth at multiple levels of scale.  The biological research tradition has been not one of denying the existence of things that can't be made sense of in terms of organized matter but rather one of progressively recognizing the ever growing array of sophisticated and often unexpected properties that can emerge from organizations of matter in the absence of any designer or other anticipator of those properties (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/complexity/hth.html and http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/reflections/GrobsteinSoundings.doc).

Cashmore writes "Some will argue that free will could be explained by emergent properties that may be associated with neural networks.  However, ... in the absence of any hint of a mechanism that affects the activities of atoms in a manner that is not a direct and unavoidable consequence of the forces of GES [genome, environment, stochasticism], this line of thinking is not informative in reference to the question of free will."   Is Cashmore actually ignorant of the fact that one might have said the same thing a hundred and fifty years ago about inheritance?  that most of the contemporary successes of biology have to do precisely with discovery of unexpected mechanisms by which larger scale organizations influence smaller scales ones, including the activities of atoms?  Does Cashmore honestly think he (or any other set of biologists) is in possession of a catalogue of such possibilities adequate to preclude the existence of yet to be discovered mechanisms adequate to account for free will in some form?

Yes, stochasticity by itself does not yield free will in any meaningful sense.  And yes, there are "causal" difficulties with conceptions of "free will" that conceive it either in a dualist/vitalist mode or as something not influenced by other nervous system activity.  Both points are worth making (and have been in other contexts (cf Robert Kane's A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will) but neither requires rejecting the possibility of a nervous system organization that yields behaviors influenced by genes, by the environment, by stochasticity, AND by additional feature, a form of nervous system organization (itself a product of evolution) that yields some degree of personal choice as a consequence of both GES processes and its own influence on them.  For some of my own recent thoughts in this direction, see http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/5643 and http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/3720 and links from there, as well as the older http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/freewill1.html).

Cashmore, as a biologist, is fully entitled to make his own decisions about whether this is a possibility promising enough to devote his own time to it.  What he is not entitled to do is to make such decisions for other biologists, nor to suggest to others outside the biological community that his is the only position that might be seriously taken by a biologist.  To assert that an interest in pursuing the free will problem "is nothing less than a continuing belief in vitalism" is a serious misrepresentation of the motivation of biologists, like myself, who have an interest in the problem but none whatsoever in vitalism.  Perhaps more importantly,  it discourages work by others in a potentially productive area and suggests to people outside biology that biologists regard them as genuinely "conscious automata."  Cashmore may be content to be one such, but I, as a biologist, would prefer to take a more agnostic and less confrontational position.  In the interests of not only biological research and broader shared human understandings but also of maximizing the potential of humans, individually and collectively, to play a creative role in the universe of which we are a part.

The above notwithstanding, I fully agree with Cashmore that existing and anticipated understandings of the relation between the nervous system and human behavior will require revisions of a number of cultural practices, judicial procedures among them.  And I'm inclined to agree with him that judicial proceedings should focus first on action, irrespective of any presumptions about the origins of such actions.  Deciding what actions to discourage and encourage, in the interests of social organization, and doing so should be the overriding concern.  Where Cashmore and I part company is that I would consider the existence of free will, and the potential for greater free will, in deciding how to deal with undesirable actions and to encourage desirable ones.   Yes, some behavior doesn't involve free will but other behavior, on my account, does.  Encouraging greater development of free will would, I suspect, do more to counter socially undesirable and promote socially desirable behavior than any procedure based on a presumption that we are all "automata."  Am I sure of that?  No, but it seems to me an experiment worth trying.

Finally, I think the Cashmore article is relevant to our discussion of science and "pseudo-science" (cf http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/evolsys/chance10#comment-119668 and following comments) with the latter understood not as "not science" but rather as "adopting the mannerisms of science in order to give greater weight to opinions held for reasons other than shared observations."  The article seemed to me an exemplar of the latter.  It was published in a prestigious scientific journal and appears to be a peer reviewed paper.   What most people don't know is that this particular journal exercises serious peer review in the case of publications of authors who are not members of the National Academy.  For authors, like Cashmore, who are, review is more or less pro forma.  The article acquires further cachet by reference to the brain and neural activity but in fact contains at best passing description of actual observations.  There are extensive references to distinguished scientific figures but these are primarily offered as "authoritative voices," rather than as sources of additional observations.  Not good science by my criteria.   

What's actually on Cashmore's mind, it seems to me, isn't the encouragement of continuing inquiry but rather an effort to disseminate a particular perspective about human life, that humans, flies, bacteria, and bowls of sugar are more or less the same thing.  Indeed, in one sense they are, all are "bags of chemicals."  But in other senses they are each quite different, and I find myself to be at least as interested in exploring the differences as in exploring the similarities.  Its an interesting question why Cashmore is more inclined to the former perspective, and I to the latter one.  I wonder to what extent Cashmore's perspective relates to his concern that my perspective "serves only to hinder what should be a major onslaught on determining the molecular genetic and chemical basis of behavior."  Is he primarily concerned about his funding or is there something else that makes "free will" unappealing to him?  Happy to entertain further inquiry into my own motivations, in the service of further discussion of the role of values/esthetics in science, and inquiry generally.

Anne Dalke, June 21, 2010 (7)

I want to pick up on the concluding paragraph of Paul's comment, asking "to what extent Cashmore's perspective" might be motivated by a concern about funding, or whether there might be "something else that makes 'free will' unappealing to him"--and, contrariwise, appealing to Paul. In other words, I'm interested in pursuing "further discussion of the role of values in science, and inquiry generally." What investments undergird the arguments each of us make? Where from do they arise? Are they modifiable?

What's feeding this particular stream of questions for me right now comes from a very unexpected place. On Labor Day weekend, my oldest daughter will be marrying into a Hindu family, and in preparation for both a very complex Quaker-Hindu ceremony and the life-long familial-and-cultural negotiations that will follow from it, I've been reading a book written by Swami Chinmayananda, and recommended to me by the father-in-law-to-be: called Self-Unfoldment, it offers an explication of Hindu beliefs. The central focus of the book is the need for rehabilitating our inner selves, as opposed to rearranging the external world. And what struck me instantly is the repeated use of the word "science" to characterize the understandings of the Hindu mystics, which have been acquired, over centuries, by observing human behavior and practicing its modification:

"I order to understand Nature...material scientists for centuries have been observing and studying the objective phenomena of the world. The ancient...sages or seers...pursuded a different system of study: They turned their attention to the subjective Self and studied the world around them from that subjective standpoint. This subjective study constitutes the Science of Reality...."

"Religion is the remedy for a particular unrest felt by the human being...the technique by which we get our minds and intellects trained to grasp and understand the larger themes of the universe and our own place in it. The science of the spirit has a very practical use for us....Religion...teaches us a method for creating in ourselves the equipoise to...meet...the ever-changing world...."

"Religion begins as a scientific reevaluation of life....While the material scientists take the outer world as their field of investigation, the subjective scientists take their own inner world of experiences as the field of their search for truth."

"Science is based on innumerable hypotheses that provide possible explanations of certain natural phenomena. As new data accumulate, the laws and theories of science may need revision. Thus, science is a growing tradition, the present research being performed on the basis of the truthfulness of past conclusions. The scriptures represent the data gathered and conclusions arrived at by generations of sages, the scientists of the spirit...."

Cashmore's work, Paul says, is "pseudoscience"; would you all grant to the work of these Hindu mystics the sobriquet "science"? Like Alice, I prefer language that is "subtle and nuanced, honest as to its reach and limits, and, preferably, to our own experiences and investments." By those lights, might self-conscious Hindu practice be called "scientific"? And might unconscious, unreflective "science"--science that doesn't (for example) acknowledge its presumptions and investments--be called "pseudo"? Might science that aims for the ideal of "objectivity," "non-personality" (or a standpoint that is "beyond personality") be neglecting the origin and motivation of inquiry in personal, located perspectives?


On-line forum below


Anne Dalke's picture

On demarcation and cluelessness

Has anyone else been as captivated as I have been, this week, by Errol Morris's 5-part series in the Times' Opinionater column, The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is ? (I'd recommend especially part I, on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, about how our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence; and part IV, an interview w/ V.S. Ramachandran, on how such ignorance makes living palatable, perhaps even possible, by protecting us from all we don't know).

I'm going to take the time to write out some of the key ideas in this series here, both to fix 'em for myself, and because I think they provide such an interesting, illuminating larger context for (and perhaps way to move on from?) the two-pronged discussion below about always-challengeable first principles, and the concomitant need for "suspension" (or: being quiet long enough to hear out others' stories). The additional claim here is that there are always things we don't know we don't know, an ever-moving "demarcation" of "unknown unknowns," and that @ least part of our brain is actually structured to preserve that territory, to defend against opening it up.

My own thought is that our social systems are often likewise structured, and that in this group we've been trying to find our way into a different sort of structure, one in which talking to one another can identify and reduce what we don't know we don't know, by laying our stories alongside one another. We don't know/can't ever know that we have anosognosia. Feedback from others can help with such knowing, but we all have deep reasons not to want such "help."

The idea Morris traces in this series is what David Dunning calls the "anosognosia of everyday life." I'd call it a metaphoric and metaphysical extension of that condition in which a person seems unaware of a neurological disability; he terms it a psychological version of a physiological problem, in which we don't know that we lack knowledge.  Basically the idea is that we're not very good at knowing what we don't know, and that this self-deception profoundly channels our lives. It's a problem of hubris (we see the world the way we want to see it), but also one of epistemology (what we see is strongly shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires). This wider, broader usage of anosognosia, to describe other types of denial than that triggered by a particular neurological deficit (such as an unacknowledged paralysis), makes it clear that what we call "belief" is not monolithic; it has many layers. I'm really REALLY captivated by this notion of "layered belief - the idea that some part of the brain can believe something and some other part of the brain can believe the opposite (or deny that belief)." In Ramachandran's account, different parts of the brain argue with one another:

"The left brain seeks to maintain continuity of belief, using denial, rationalization, confabulation and other tricks to keep one’s mental model of the world intact; the right brain, the 'anomaly detector' or 'devil’s advocate,' picks up on inconsistencies and challenges the left brain’s model in turn. When the right brain’s ability to detect anomalies and challenge the left is somehow damaged or lost (e.g., from a stroke), anosognosia results."

(Paul frequently tells a similar story, in which these roles are assumed, respectively, by the unconscious and the storyteller.) The larger claim of this series is that, even without a stroke, we are all always in the process of denying physical reality in order to preserve our fantasies of what the world (and our selves) are like.  Psychologists have long thought of this sort of denial as "a somewhat knuckle-headed technique in self-deception," a conscious refusal to recognize the truth of something we don't want to confront. But Morris's column explores the idea that such "cluelessness" is something much more profound: "another way of expressing our relationship to the unknown unknowns.  We don’t know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer them." Our ability to convince ourselves of "congenial conclusions while denying the truth of inconvenient ones" we can call "self-deception, but it also goes by the names rationalization, wishful thinking, defensive processing, self-delusion, and motivated reasoning."


So where does all this lead us? Well, it leads me, first, to some speculations about the relationship between these constraints in our knowledge-gathering and our earlier discussions of free will. To be bound not to know...how free does that make us? It leads me, second, to the recognition that there is--and will always be--much that we don't know we don't know; to recognizing our resulting need for one another, in identifying those spaces of unknowingness; but also to recognizing that, since not knowing may be palliative, such conversations can also be very threatening to our sense of what the world is, and where we are in it. So there needs to be a certain gentleness in the process of uncovering....

Also: looks like there's a book forthcoming by the philosopher Charles Silver on “The Futility of Consciousness” that might be of interest-and-use to us....

alesnick's picture

towards gentler demarcations?

I have been too busy in Pottery to see any newspapers except those the kids put their finished pieces on, so I appreciate  this post and "fixing of ideas" . . .  I write from it, and from KNOWN ignorance of my ignorance of the series!

That said, what strikes me here is how intense, loaded, the language of not knowing what we don't know sounds like: denial, refusal, fantasy, tricks, self-delusion and -deception, rationalization, and more.  What do you make of this?  It makes me think about a possible need for gentleness in the discourse of science, not only the dialogue.  It makes me think of "sinners in the hand of an angry god" or something like that.  How might changing the discourse of the filtering change how we think about it?


Anne Dalke's picture

a mean-spirited God

You are--as always--wonderfully sensitive to the implications of language use, Alice. The image I used to close my post is a painting by Giovanni di Paolo, “The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise,” and Morris uses it to close out his series, with this accompanying parable:

"When God created man (and woman), he gave them the ability to perceive the world, but withheld from them the ability to understand it.  We could come up with one cockamamie theory after another, but real understanding would always elude us.  It was mean-spirited on God’s part.  And to make matters even worse, God gave us the desire but not the wherewithal to make sense of experience.  One might easily foresee that this would lead to unending, unmitigated frustration and suffering.  But here’s where self-deception, anosognosia and the Dunning-Kruger Effect step in.  We wouldn’t be able to make sense of anything, but we would never be aware of that fact."

There's certainly a nastiness in this version--really a curious spot to conclude, given all the possibilities that "not-knowing" has opened us for us.... so I'll be thinking along w/ you for gentler alternatives to "cluelessness" and "ignorance"....

alesnick's picture

a universe under lock and key?

Somewhere on Serendip (I have searched for it and need help . . Ann and/or Paul, can you weigh in here?) there is a wonderful parable about the bad news and the good news.  The bad news is that despite the best efforts of scientists and philosophers, the key to the universe has not yet been found.  The good news is that it's not locked.

Thinking of the universe as unlocked means there is room to move, ways out and in, anywhere is somewhere, whatever you live is life, everyplace is the real world.  If there's a key to the universe, that means it's on the other side of where we are.  Do you think Morris believes thus?  As Paul talks about it, he sounds like a "two-worlder" -- the world of delusion and the world of reality, paradise and earth, a locked universe and an unlocked universe.  Keeping imagination to one world -- holding to this limit -- paradoxically gets rid of the locks. I like that!

Ann Dixon's picture

Is this what you were

Is this what you were thinking of?

which links to: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/reflections/universekey/


alesnick's picture

Yes! Thank you.

Now, it appears that I can't edit my earlier reply to update it with this link, and correct its paraphrasing.  Would you teach me, or if it's easier and you'd prefer, go ahead and do it?

Many thanks.

Paul Grobstein's picture

learning from where we've been about where we want to go

Some interesting ideas of where we want to be emerged over cheesesteaks with Mike this week:

  • beyond conflict to complement
  • between positivism and relativism
  • taking as an explicit starting point the context-dependent character of knowledge rather than perpetually rediscovering it (typically more in other people than in ourselves)
  • resisting the temptation to knock pedestals out from under people

Along these lines, I feel a need to call my self out, and apologize to Cashmore (and perhaps others) for coming painfully close to a sin of commision in the last part of my comment above on Cashmore's article.   I have a vivid memory from years ago of getting very frustrated by a seminar audience that kept challenging the validity of the starting points of a story intended to show the audience an interesting problem that hadn't occured to them but which, because of the repeated challenges, I was never able to get to.  I don't think I quite did the same thing myself with Cashmore, but I came close enough to make me a bit ashamed for having noted the possibility that Cashmore might be "primarily concerned about his funding."
My point is that we all know, or should know, that all arguments/constructions/stories are based on some set of initial principles and that there are no first principles that are not in some way challengeable.  So demonstrating the existence of a challengeable first principle should never be used to interrupt the development of an argument/construction/story.  What's important is not the certainty of the principles on which a story is built but rather the usefulness of the story itself.  If we actually want to learn from one another, to recognize "differences not as a barrier but as a generator," we  need all of us (very much me included) to actively resist the temptation to knock pedestals out from under people, and to replace it with "suspension", a commitment and ability to hear their stories completely before deciding what relevance they might or might not have to our own. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

Beyond "everthing" and how to get there

Interesting conversation this am with Matts Lemberger, a postbac here, about, among other things, ethics and Thomas Crane and Spinoza.  From which came, in turn, some further thoughts re "What's important is not the certainty of the principles on which a story is built but rather the usefulness of the story itself."  We all have a tendency to want to know how an understanding/story was reached.  So far, so good, there are things to be learned from that.  But we also all have a tendency to go one step further, to evaluate a story in terms of whether how it was gotten to is defensible/justifiable, ie to believe in "method," to reject stories that involve what we believe to be flawed or inadequate methods.  Perhaps that is what Feyerabend was trying to call attention to in Beyond Method (and Sontag in Beyond Interpretation),  the need to acknowledge that methods (formal systems) are themselves limited and so one needs to be able to evaluate stories in and of themselves without prejudging them based on an evaluation of methods.  There is not only no "everything" but also no single way of getting to interesting new places.    One is making it up as one goes along, both what is/can be and also how one gets to the next place. 

alesnick's picture

more about having the same givens

I wonder whether it could also be that a desire, unconscious or not, NOT to "work together more efficiently/be less disruptive of each other," but rather to control one another (or "understand" -- in the sense of "I get it and now it's done) leads people to establish particular givens as unitary and exclusive reference points for reality and legitimacy.  This too connects with problems of "justice."

When I think of these essential givens that people choose, I think of weights: what makes different individuals, groups, and traditions assign different reference points different weights?  Why do some sink down deeper?  What makes these more valuable?  Here again, the blur among values, aesthetics, and inquiry seems visible.

Sandra Harding (1988), in the essay "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective," argues that "we become accountable for what we learn how to see."  To me, what is exciting and hopeful about a "science of the subjective" is that it could allow for this kind of change, responsiveness, and responsibility -- keyed to learning, growth, things coming to mean anew.

Paul Grobstein's picture

the brain, free will, forms of science, and related issues

Lots of interesting ideas floating around here. Like Doug, I think Cashmore's figure is indeed "simplistic" with regard to the brain and its interactions with the outside world, and will "leave people continuing to look further for "free will"."   Like Wil, I think part of the oversimplification is a failure to appreciate a sophisticated causal influence of consciousness (understood as activity in a particular module of the brain), and that an appreciation of the ability of that module to conceive "counterfactuals" (things that are consistent with but not uniquely required by information coming from the unconscious) will help to make better sense of "free will."  I suspect "anything's possible" (Anne) overstates the situation a bit but more is possible than might otherwise be. 

The meta-level issues raised by Alice and Anne seem to me not only interesting in their own right and, yes, highly relevant in educational contexts, but also importantly illustrative of the brain issues being talked about.  Why indeed must everything "reference the same givens, the same founding ideas/knowledge base/field?"  An interesting possibility is that the inclination to have it be so relates to social and cultural considerations, to an predisposition (unconscious or conscious) to believing that people will work together more efficiently/be less disruptive of each other if they have the same "givens."  Perhaps this underpins not only Cashmore's distaste for free will but also the Hindu insistence on a transcendent world.  And perhaps my preference for a not only free will but some significant randomness generates a "counter-factual," the suggestion that people might actually interact more successfully if they did so based on the value of differences for immediate common tasks rather than on fixed and transcendent givens (cf http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/6267).  Classrooms might provide an interesting testing ground for such a counter-factual. 

Can there be a "science" of the "subjective"?  Indeed, I think there not only can be but is in many Eastern cultures (not only Hindu but also Buddhist and Taoist among others), and that western science has already begun accepting that as a necessity in studies of the brain.  And that will, of course, change whatever "demarcation" criteria have been developed in the past for defining "science."  What I would hope will not change is an appreciation of understanding as deriving not from any external authority but rather from the continually repeated generation of candidate understandings from empirical observations (of both the world "out there" and the one "in here") and their replacement as required by new empirical observations, a process that values rather than discourages counter-factuals.

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