Saturday, February 28, 2009

A question of legitimacy

It was a difference of opinion that led to horseracing.
- Mark Twain quoted in South Australian Register, 10/15/1895
Unreal Nature has an interesting piece up about art as communication (mainly textual, i.e. creative writing, but should be the inclusive definition: writing, painting, photography, etc. See Vehicle for Intentional Communication). In her usual modus operendi, she quotes from a Review (frequently, of late, The Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews) and follows with pithy comments and discussion.

From the Review by David Osipovich of Arts and Minds, by Gregory Currie, comes this seminal quote:
There is one essay, one of the previously unpublished ones, that is not only interesting in its own right but also deals explicitly with the book’s general theme of aesthetics’ dependence on other philosophical and empirical disciplines. The essay is entitled “Interpretation and Pragmatics”, and argues for author-intentionalism – the highly contentious view that interpretation of narrative art works involves deciphering in some way the intentions of the work’s author. (emphasis added)
Currie believes that aesthetics must be informed by other philosophical and empirical disciplines, that aesthetic activity is a psychological activity. And the act of aesthetic interpretation is a species of communication generally.
Currie further refines his argument by differentiating two basic claims made by author-intentionalism: “1) We use the text, together with various other things, to come up with the best ideas we can about what the author intended to convey; 2) legitimate interpretations are exactly those that correspond with what the author intended to convey.”

Unreal Nature goes on to quote the reviewer of this work, David Osipovich:
Isn’t it simply enough to say that a legitimate interpretation must be supported by the text? Why is it necessary to add that an author must have been capable of reasonably intending any legitimate interpretation? What does talk of intentions gain us here?
And yet Currie talks about distinguishing “legitimate” interpretations from “illegitimate” ones, which is clearly an axiological concern. Does the empirical study of how people really interpret the things they hear and read explain what interpretation is and must be, or does it help us distinguish good interpretations from bad ones?
(Axiology: the study of quality or value; I had to look it up)

This criticism, i.e. that one cannot demand THE interpretation of a text to be the one the author intended, seems to be agreed to by both Unreal Nature and the Osipovich. Yet there still remains "good" interpretations and "bad" interpretations.
Once, when I was a kid, our 7th grade class was put out on the new football field at recess time (in the South, Football was God's game). The field had a lot of small rocks on it and our task was to pick up these rocks and heave them into the woods on the one side of the field (little mind that one classmate heaved it through the woods and onto a passing car, to much fanfare.) But, before this latter incident, we had an interesting development. One colleague had tried to pick up a rock but discovered that it extended down into the ground. Of course, this prompted an attempt to dig around the rock to remove it. Of course, you know what happened, digging around the rock simply uncovered vast new vistas of rock. This was the primal rock. We felt it was likely that the rock extended to the center of the earth if not to China. Eventually, the bottom was found. A back hoe removed it and we went back to class.

Moral 1: When you start digging, bring lunch.
Moral 2: When commenting on something from Unreal Nature, bring lunch.

I am, of course, not certified to comment on this topic, but I will. (I am certified, but that's another story.) And that brings up the question as to who, exactly, is certified to comment on the interpretations of textual and, we certainly must include, other art. I am vaguely aware that since I studied things formally in college there has been a revolution in textual analysis (Derrida, etc. I could not resist this quote about deconstruction: "Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently solid ground is no rock but thin air.")

From all of this, one might assume the Critics are the only ones with legitimacy in interpreting art. Critics being those who, we assume, have extensively studied works in the particular field of the art work. However, this would leave us with very few valid commentators or, on the other hand, if one considers the genre of the popular novel, anyone who reads it. In particular, I would wholeheartedly agree with Unreal Nature and Osipovich the there is not one interpretation and that the one that the author/artist intended. (Actually, I would go much further, latent sixties radical that I am.)

Why does any of this matter? I don't imagine anyone reads a novel or other creative writing with the idea that he/she will enjoy the work only by discovering what the author was trying to "say," as if there were a gigantic rock of meaning below the text of which we mere mortals can only uncover a pebble. The fact is, when we read something, we have no choice as to how we interpret it. It is possible, after the fact, to go back and interpret it differently (e.g. all those college English courses on Shakespeare's Sonnets), and we might say, ah ha, this might have been what Shakespeare meant. But, in the initial pass, again, we have no choice.

We bring to any work of art a whole panelopy of different beliefs and emotions. It even makes a difference where we read something (on a plane, in your chair) and what you ate for dinner.

Now, to legitimacy in this endeavor. If an interpretation is legitimate, it means another interpretation is illegitimate; something is the "wrong" interpretation. This is a rather pejorative thing to hoist onto the poor reader, particularly one who has really no choice in the matter. But, I suppose it is an age old situation. The teacher always asks the student what the author "meant" when he/she said something. Woe to the student who thinks Oedipus is just randy.

Of course any argument I make for unfettered thought has its pulldown on the other side. I guess I would recommend Nabokov's (1980) Lectures on Literature. These were lectures delivered at Harvard. Made me sit up and think about Jane Austen.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday Crab Blogging

We've been so innundated with the flu that I had to reach back into the crab archives. (where did Noah keep his bees? In the Archives. Yuk.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Free Will Redux-III


Oh my! I have stirred up a cyclone in someones Guinness mug.

Five Lashes With the Whip of Philosophical Jargon

and more recently:

Free Will, and the meaning of loaf

I never was good at rear guard actions as the main body wanders off into the sunset. However, stinging from the unmerciful whip of jargon, one must rebut.

Galen Strawson. Interesting guy. (Anybody who goes to a Dragon School and is not named Harry Potter is probably interesting in his own right. But, clearly, his mum and dad wanted him to be a doctor.) In any case, Swanson states:
"We do what we do, in a given situation, because we are what we are."
I like pithy sayings, particularly if they involve circular logic. This ranks right up with "Know Thyself." Since neither statement is grounded in the real world, except that it is a collection of synapses, it has to be an idea. I love ideas, but they are very pliable. Einstein's theory of relativity was just a very good idea until 1919 when it received observational verification. Everyone seems to know what "responsibility" is, but it is an abstract idea like all the rest. Therefore, Swanson's syllogism (1-5) cannot be tested in reality. One has to have the same mental construct (i.e. "believe" the same things Swanson does) to "agree" or even "disagree" with him. (Since I hate people who use quotes, particularly "air quotes," I'll stop right there.)

I guess what I am saying is that it is hard to argue with the philosophers because we do not share a common language.

(As an aside, Swanson's Argument is included in discussions by the philosopher Harry J. Frankfurt (frequently referred to in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews) but who is best known for an essay (and book) On Bullshit. I remember reading an essay/review of this in the New Yorker. Yea and verily, I walketh in the valley of BS. )

Onward. From Ms. Cat-o-nine tails, we read a review of Tomasz F. Bigaj's work: Non-locality and Possible Worlds: A Counterfactual Perspective on Quantum Entanglement. The review is by an interesting guy named Michael Dickson. Here is an example of my difficulty understanding the philosophical language:
the role and proper application of counterfactual reasoning in proofs of Bell's Theorem and related theorems.
What, you might ask, is counterfactual reasoning?
In some interpretations of quantum mechanics, Counterfactual definiteness (CFD) is the ability to speak meaningfully about the definiteness of the results of measurements, even if they were not performed.
Got that? And Bell's Theorem? Go here.

All of this to address the conundrum proposed by Einstein and his colleagues in 1935.
Out of this arose Bell's Theorum (mentioned above).
Out of this arose, finally, measurements and experiments on quantum entanglement. One of the latest is quite impressive: World's Largest Quantum Bell Test Spans Three Swiss Towns.

Aha, Dr. C., now we are getting somewhere, you say. Finally someone is going to do a physical experiment that is relevant to your concerns.

No, unfortunately, because what proceeds in the review of Biagj is, to me, almost totally incomprehensible. It assumes a deep emersion in this field and, try as I did to understand it, I must admit I am got lost at the second Swiss Town.

As a final observation, what takes place in the brain is on a mesoscopic scale and not, as far as I can tell, susceptible to the wiles of quantum intanglement, in spite of some spectacular speculations by the anesthesiologist, Hameroff.

Punishment accepted. Uncle cried. Position vanquished.


Now for the Growlery. I take much of what he says to hear. I particularly am impressed with the idea of applying "Gödel's incompleteness theorem.....that we cannot completely analyse the system from within, using its own rules." Perhaps my tiny spacecraft has sailed too close to the Sun and my arguments have fallen like so much wax and feathers. (I hate mixed metaphors).

In any case, It is time to put the question to rest.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Free Will Redux-II

The subject of Free Will is immense. In fact, it is all encompassing. One stands in awe. So, awestruck, I will try to address some of the points in the comments to the first post.

One issue that both commentators mentioned was the vast number of nerves and synapses in the brain would seem to argue against the proposition that an action was determined by a single molecular event (opening or closing an ion channel.)

In order to address this issue, please consider what is the function of the brain. First and foremost it is a reaction organ. It is a more sophisticated pathway, but exactly similar in function, to other reflexes such as the knee jerk. Incoming information is processed (fires through neural networks) and a response is triggered. Again, the Either/Or of General Loan comes to mind. Either he pulls the trigger or he doesn't. There is no in between state.

It is true that this is most likely not a sequential process. That is, there are probably many neural pathways firing in parallel. However, we would argue that the outcome of the billions of synapses still must funnel through the final common pathway and this, in turn, depends on one ion. (I cannot argue that the threshold for the action potential might not be different at different times. In fact, it is doubtful that exactly the same physical pathway is followed with each action.) What is important, though, is that it can only be one final nerve firing. If the nerve fires, the action takes place. If it doesn't, it doesn't. It makes no difference if there are billion or a trillion nerves involved. It is much like nuclear fission. There has to be the threshold of a single neutron between no reaction and boom.

On the other hand, if one agrees that the primary purpose of the brain is to generate reactions to external stimuli, then it would make evolutionary sense that the same stimulus would generate the same response. (The difference between a squid axon response and a human's response to Beethoven's Apassionata is merely a matter of degree.) Thus, it does not bother me that the threshold of a single nerve might change. As long as the outcome is consistent (not that humans are ever consistent.)

Now I appreciate the creativity of a scenario that invokes broken determinism. However, the real point of the argument for Free Will is that it is something transcendental that determines something physical, i.e. the biochemical reactions of the neural network. Now clearly not all of these neural reactions could be under the control of something transcendental. For instance, you would exclude synapses in the peripheral nervous system including the eye (which, as we showed before, does some primary processing of visual input in the retina.) But how deep of a level do you go in the brain to invoke the interaction? Where are the synapses that are under transcendental control? In the pineal gland (thank you Rene)? (I have the same problem with miracles).

For instance, while it might be true that the recognition of a molecule in the nose might involve quantum mechanical tunnelling, the transduction of that signal almost certainly involves G proteins just as in the eye (see posts on this in the Information series). Or if you are really interested:
The process of how the binding of the ligand (odor molecule or odorant) to the receptor leads to an action potential in the receptor neuron is via a second messenger pathway depending on the organism. In mammals the odorants stimulate adenylate cyclase to synthesize cAMP via a G protein called Golf. cAMP, which is the second messenger here, opens a cyclic nucleotide-gated ion channel (CNG) producing an influx of cations (largely Ca2+ with some Na+) into the cell, slightly depolarising it. The Ca2+ in turn opens a Ca2+-activated chloride channel, leading to efflux of Cl-,
Let them eat chloride ions.

Yes, I suppose that Chemistry is a subscience of Physics. Being trained as a chemist I just don't want to think about it (those uppity physicists). However, pertinent to this discussion, when physicists start talking about Free Will and Quantum Theory, they argue in the abstract. They do not talk about real things, at least in my opinion. I recognize to a degree the restraints put on determinism by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal. And, I have much to read on this as suggested by Unreal Nature. So, I consider this an open discussion. Interestingly enough, Steve Wolfram has something to say about Free Will. We can all get in the ring.

Finally, let us propose a gedanken experiment. Take all the nerves in the brain involved in a given outcome (alright, General Loan pulling the trigger). Array those nerves along a time axis. There may be billions at first, but as the "decision" point is approached, the number will decrease until there is only one neuron left. We can say this because we employ the Laplace demon to slice time in such a way that every single (re)action in the universe occurs at a different time. Along the time axis going forward after the single neuron there is either no impulse (i.e. didn't make the gate), or an increasing number of neurons firing to produce the result.

I appreciate anyone sticking with me this far. I agree with The Growlery, it is an exhausting exercise. I know I have not truly addressed the objections. But then:

You say daemon, I say demon,
You say tomato, I say tomatoe

D. Quail

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Different Standards

Perhaps I'm missing something here:
"A senior British diplomat has been arrested after he allegedly launched an abusive tirade against Israel and Judaism at a London gym, police said Tuesday," the Associated Press reports.

The AP adds, "Rowan Laxton, the 47-year-old head of the Foreign Office's South Asia desk, was held on suspicion of inciting religious hatred - an offense that carries a maximum jail term of seven years. He allegedly used foul language as he criticized Israel's conduct during the conflict in Gaza at a fitness center at the London Business School last month.

According to the Times of London, "The diplomat, 47-year-old Rowan Laxton, allegedly shouted 'f***ing Israelis, f***ing Jews' while watching television reports of the Israeli attack on Gaza last month." (emphasis added)
It seems that one man's emotional outburst against a foreign country warrants arrest whereas the slaughter of 400 children in Gaza is a ho hum.

However, the more serious problem that this exemplifies is the almost complete melding of Jews and Israel. Over and over again this has been successfully used to suppress any real discussion of the ongoing savagery of the IDF. (e.g. dropping a million cluster bomblets in Southern Lebanon on the last day the the 2006 war.)

I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard someone in America condemn Muslims and/or Arabs. A whole population grew up thinking that the words Palestinian and Terrorist were the same thing.

And then there is this:
"The report showed a 26% rise in racist incidents against Arabs in 2007, with twice as many Jews claiming feelings of hatred against Arabs. 74% of Jewish Israeli youth believe Arabs to be “dirty”. And 78% of the adult Jewish population in Israel does not think that Arab political parties should be included in the government." (emphasis added)

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Free Will Redux

Q: What are the consequences of accepting the proposition “There is no Free Will” as true?

DrC: Immense.

Q: Of course you must explain yourself.

DrC: I’ll try. But first let me refer you back to a series of posts, initiated as a reply to Felix Grant’s comments on information handling in robots, that attempted to show that decisions made by a human could be narrowed down to the firing of a single neuron. These comments were much discussed in 2007 and a list of the posts can be found at:

This firing of that neuron could be further narrowed down to one, single chemical interaction (the closing or opening of an ion channel). That interaction could be finally narrowed down to the statistical chance that a bimolecular reaction would exceed the energy barrier (Gibbs Free Energy) of the reaction and go to completion. This initiated a chain of reactions which resulted in an action (muscles contracting). We used the example of General Loan.

Since all of these processes are based on classical molecular chemistry and do not involve or invoke the uncertainties of quantum mechanics (e.g. tunneling), it is difficult to conceive how this framework could be influenced in any way by some non chemical, perhaps “spiritual or psychic” force. Such a force would invoke interactions with classical, chemical reactions that have not been seen in any other system.

An important observation by neuroscientists that inflects on this scheme is that it can be shown that humans, when they make a decision, have already initiated that decision before they are conscious of it. (These observations come from observations of subjects picking between alternatives while being scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging or PET scanning.)

Q: So, Dr. C., you would propose that if you were a LaPlace Demon you could predict the decision of any human being? That is, if you had instantaneous knowledge of the status of every ion channel of every neuron in the cerebral cortex, and you knew the neural pathways of every reaction circuit in the same, you could predict what any human would do in any situation?

DrC: Yes.

Q: Does that mean that, when confronted with any decision, that a human will choose that path which is determined by the electrochemical state that exists in the brain?

DrC: Yes.

Q: So, back to the original question, how does this proposition impact our conception of human behavior?

DrC: This proposition impacts every area of human behavior in the legal, political, social and personal spheres. It is hard to imagine an area that it does not impact. While I cannot speak to civilizations other than the Western (e.g. Japanese, Chinese, Indian, etc.) and then only minutely, the concept of Free Will is integral to our current society in America.

Q: That is a rather dramatic assertion, Dr. C. Could you give us some examples.

DrC: I’ll try. Think for a moment about our legal system. This system is based entirely on the proposition that a human has “responsibility” for his or her actions. That when confronted with a decision, e.g. whether to steal a loaf of bread from a bakery, that we pick to do so even though we know that it is “wrong.” What is “wrong” is codified in Laws, which often have to do with property rights. Society, using the instruments of the police and courts, will apprehend us and punish us for committing a crime. A rather dramatic scenario of this situation is Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

While the Courts will frequently try to determine “motive,” it is still felt that the human has a free choice when confronted with the decision. In the case of Jean Valjean, he stole the bread because his sister and her children were starving. We would argue that Jean Valjean did not have a choice in the matter. The decision was automatic and would have been made in this case no matter what. The information from Valjean’s senses (eyes, ears, etc.) interacted with the underlying configuration of the neurons in the cerebral cortex to produce the response. A Laplace Demon could have predicted it as Valjean stood outside the shop window looking at the loaf of bread within.

Q: That is an interesting contention, Dr. C. But surely you are pulling at our heart strings as did Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. You can’t possibly mean that there is no personal responsibility, can you?

DrC: Yes, I do believe that, in the way that we view it, there is no personal responsibility, even though I try and act as if there is so in my daily life. That is, if I perform an action that is detrimental to society, I should be held accountable. But this is not because I am personally to “blame” for the action. It is simply necessary for actions that are detrimental to be corrected, otherwise society could not function. I would ask you to look overall at our legal system, particularly in the United States. We have more people incarcerated per capita than any other place in the World. We also are the most litigious society and, until recently, the most wealthy. In order to keep such a structure functioning, there has to be an extraordinary amount of legal action. Do Americans have the same Free Will as everyone else? If so, why so many crimes? If Free Will were intact, every single instance should be a de novo assertion of this in the decision making. The only argument that will not assign personal responsibility (i.e. not guilty vs guilty) is insanity. And insanity assumes that the subject does not have free will, a circular argument. Yes, judges may use mitigating circumstances (upbringing, first crime, etc.) to determine the degree of punishment, but no one would currently argue in court that a sane person did not have free will.

Q: In what other instances do you see the impact of your proposition?

DrC: Well, the most contentious, of course, will be religion. And, in spite of the American Constitution definitively separating Church and State, this separation has been extensively eroded in recent years. At the very core of many Western religious sects is the assertion that man freely chooses to believe in a non-material godhead and, in many cases, a human emissary (Christ) who may or may not have been divine. Since these beliefs are illogical, one has to choose to believe them based on faith. But, again, the choice to believe, i.e. the exercise of Free Will, is felt to be available to every sane human. Furthermore, as in the legal system, if one does not choose to believe, one might well wind up experiencing eternal punishment. (the sort of proposition faced by Calvin and Hobbes.)

Once again, as in the legal system, a human is assumed to arrive at the decision to believe in a pristine state. That is, no account is taken for the commitment to be made under mitigating circumstances (e.g. children raised in an agnostic environment). A person is felt to be entirely responsible for their decision to accept or reject salvation at every instant this proposition is made. If one “accepts Jesus as your personal Savior” then one doesn’t have to go to the bad place after death. Interestingly enough, there is no talk of someone later “rejecting Jesus as your personal Savior” since the overwhelming majority of people in the World could care less. (Note to self: is the plethora of religions in the World, all contending their validity, an argument against Free Will?)

In the end, Western religion is deeply tied in with personal morality. This is almost certainly a result of the Jewish God Yahweh or Mony Python’s Jehovah Who definitely liked things to go His way.

Other religions, e.g. the Greeks, seemed to take a more population based stance vis a vis the gods. Since there was more than one god, and it was the population that was under consideration, the idea of a personal morality wasn’t very important except for occasional guys like Prometheus.

I guess one could make an argument that Socrates was leaning towards personal morality as he appears in some of Plato’s more moral dialogues. Perhaps I should reread Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics
including the pursuit of Eudaimonia, i.e. the good and virtuous life. Eudaimonia is constituted, according to Aristotle, not by honor, or wealth, or power, but by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life. This, throws another clinker into the argument as we wonder whether rationality demands Free Will.

Q: All this is really hard for me. I don’t know what the words “responsible, guilty, conscience, virtue, grace, right, wrong, blame or sin” mean anymore. Do I need a new dictionary?

DrC: You betcha.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


Every man/woman (Senator) an economist:
THE $780 BILLION stimulus package deal reached by a bipartisan group of senators and the White House Friday was the culmination of a frenzied week that reflected two strains of politics. One embraced President Obama's attempt to rise above the partisan squabbles that too often have paralyzed Washington. Another made it clear that the old ways will die hard.
For any rational observer this is just totally bizarre. It is exactly the policies espoused by the Republican majority for eight years that got us into this mess to begin with. Why is it that more of the same will get us out?

But the real question is that now that Democrats hold a clear majority in the House and the Senate, plus the Presidency, how can the Republicans continue to wield such power? This inability of the Democrats to govern (i.e. implement the will of the majority of Americans, the basis of our government) just makes one want to scream. Apparently Republicans are looking forward to 2010 and 2012 instead of looking at the mess right before their eyes that they, in large part, created.

Politics. The Original Sin of a Democracy.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Calvin, Hobbes and Pascal

I get all my philosophy from Calvin and Hobbes these days.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Year 1952

1952 was an interesting year. Seven years after the end of WWII, America was still at war in Korea (until July, 1953). But, the outlines of post War society were starting to firm up. In particular, some writers were beginning to sense that the trajectory on which America was headed was not necessarily utopia. Two books that I just read, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, are extraordinarily prescient in this regard. One should couple these two with a recent article in the New York Review of Books on "Google and the Future of Books."

To refresh your memory, in Fahrenheit 451, the protagonist Guy Montag, is a fireman who burns books, since they have been determined to be dangerous to the functioning of this future society. It is highly likely that Bradbury was influenced by the spate of book burning that occurred in Nazi Germany at the end of the 30's. Of note is that both immersive television (whole wall or the ultimate wide screen) and tremendously silly advertising hold sway in this dystopian society. The ideas that occur in classic books are felt to be dangerous when held up against the society of the future. What is disconcerting is how much that future society resembles ours!

It is the same with The Space Merchants where it is business, or more to the point the advertising business, that has taken over the dystopian (by our standards) world. There are a number of allusions to large companies that are very powerful (such as Bendix) that now no longer exist. There is even security firms (Brinks and Pinkerton) that resemble our Blackwater.

How can it be that so many writers from that era (Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948) are attracted to the dystopian future? How is it that we did not listen to them in the least and plowed right on screwing up the planet and its people? I guess it is the ability of the human being to believe in anything, even the most outright fantasies.

The other issue that is touched on in these books and the NYRB article is, interestingly, the fate of books. I like to read. But I think that the habit of reading is rapidly disappearing in the population as a whole. Some children do aspire to read; but most are much more interested in Wii.

For thirty years (until 2006)I subscribed to Pediatric Clinics of North America. This was an essential resource in my practice. I confess that I have not looked in the 120 books of this series that I have since that time. If I have a question, I google it.

Thirty years ago if one had something to say, one would try to get it published. Now, we write it on a blog. What we write on the blog goes off into cyberspace. The fact is, as I have discovered in the past few years, there is incredibly interesting discussions (e.g. here and here) floating around in this world. No one, even the old Neuromancer himself, saw this coming.