Friday, March 20, 2009

Don’t forget the bonobos, Dennett!

Jesus Murphy this is the medicalization of illness in the peach shirt of philosophy.

Jared Schickling

Correspondence between myself and Jared Schickling this week worked over a fifteen minute talk by Daniel C. Dennett on TED, among other things.

The conversation began with me sending him these links and comment:
Something's wrong with his picture, though it seems relevant to Germ.

Also, here’s some salt with that pepper. Or maybe it’s garlic salt…I’m not sure.

Jared: "Memetics is morally neutral." Yeah ok…Sorry don't mean to bombard you. But I'm watching and increasingly tired…reducing the realm of thought to biological mechanisms does more harm than good, it isn't particularly useful at getting at the complexity of the thing. The logic of the analogy is wonderfully conveniently workable. But the shape of an idea once it's involved itself in a brain is unpredictably irrational at the level of detail in a way observable bacteria isn't. Jesus Murphy this is the medicalization of illness in the peach shirt of philosophy.

ME: You're nailing it. What he's saying about "germ" is kind of the very basic premise from which I'm writing the novel. However, beyond the premise, beyond the useful fiction and his allusions to a kind of recursive symmetry across scale [recursive typology?][the fluke parasite in the ant’s brain being analogous to a meme in the human mind], all kinds of other stuff is going on that pops up in the writing…Dennett appears to be a major domo reductionist. He can't seem to get his head around the idea that though mind, matter, and energy are aspects/dimensions/scales of the same thing, they are not the same thing themselves. Dennett/Dawkins have the problem of being rational secular humanists, which means they each operate brilliantly from false premises. Luckily, this doesn't prevent them from falsifying others' premises. Neither seems capable of saying the productions of their rational minds—their philosophies—are useful fictions. They have complete faith in themselves, that is to say their philosophy. They seem quite Romantic about their rational anti-Romanticism. They seem the protagonists of their own anti-stories, the rational heroes who destroy narrative with grammar. Very similar to Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost...ego run amok...passing judgment on God. They fail to perceive that the most important thing is the premise itself. Humans produce premises. Dennett/Dawkins are trying to do away with that...They are not tinkering with the Mechanism of Premise, but assuming premises about imagined mechanisms...prejudiced against premises... That seems wildly inadequate to me, using philosophy to justify one's own perceived superiority, the validity of your false premise over other false premises. Premises are always false, yet humans incessantly produce them. In this sense/aspect/dimension/scale, false premises are therefore true premises. The odor of urine and urine itself are two different things that signify the same thing. The assumption that the smell of urine and urine itself are the same thing is a false premise that is nonetheless useful and true within certain parameters of action. Useful fictions and delusion are necessary to the human experience. Without them, there is no "human" experience… That said, looking at Dennett-Dawkins from the imagined self-perception of the human superorganism [if memes are viruses and alive how else can one contextualize their environment or ecosystem or milieu than to say they exist within the human superorganism as seams or fascia or membranes of Its mind-being?], I'd say they're doing their jobs as "mental" enzymes and/or psychic catalysts within the human membrane [member brain? meme brain?]. They're pimples not on God's ass, or chancres upon Its divine genitalia, but blemishes upon Its imagined forehead, the protrusive pus-erupting kind that make other angels look away, re-membering their own traumatic follies with such cysts and boils…Just my opinion from out here in the cheap seats... And yes, I love popping zits. The bigger more subaceous the cyst the better. Hooray!

Jared: I also think this guy goes astray at certain basic points. e.g. the idea that human genetic interests can be subordinated to "other interests." Yes they can, yes they are; no they can't, no they aren't. He doesn't get hung up on the prospect, which sounds convenient, leading to an idea that must feel good, "humans are the only species that do this." Were he to get hung up, at least caught up, it might lead to deeper suspicions of deeper affinities with non-human species, which might find relational undifferentiation that is human and non. Or not.

ME: Absolutely. Some of my favorite writers are bonobos [see more, and comments below these].

Jared: Here's an excerpt [of a] Dennett quote from a Michael Pollan article titled “An Animal’s Place”. I think Dennett's comment here is very stupid for such a learned man: "As humans contemplating the pain and suffering of animals, we do need to guard against projecting on to them what the same experience would feel like to us. Watching a steer force-marched up the ramp to the kill-floor door, as I have done, I need to remind myself that this is not Sean Penn in "Dead Man Walking," that in a bovine brain the concept of nonexistence is blissfully absent. 'If we fail to find suffering in the animal lives we can see,' Dennett writes in "Kinds of Minds," 'we can rest assured there is no invisible suffering somewhere in their brains. If we find suffering, we will recognize it without difficulty.'"

ME: First of all, as a point of fact, many bovine species have evolved the ability to hide suffering/illness as a defense mechanism in the wild. You don’t need predators knowing you’re not feeling well. This is fairly common knowledge among Dennett’s crowd, so why would he so willfully ignore it when advancing his ideas, or viral memes, germs we must defend ourselves against?

Jared: The whole thing shows its colors. He talks of infectious ideas—certain ideas are "to die for," but all ideas are infections. That's the scheme. This raises a problem when he begins to talk about using ideas responsibly; what real I is actually capable of using ideas responsibly? It's not itself, it's an idea of itself that is something ("why is there something rather than nothing"). Allowing the "benign variance of our ideas to continue to spread" would be a utopian myth without admitting the act of thinking is a religious act in the first place—If ideas are infections, they must compete like other viral things.

ME: Aside from the messenger, I'm very intrigued by the idea of memes as viruses because looking at them that way forms a seam between mind and matter. They are recursive types situated in different dimensions. To complete the picture, however, an energy aspect might be imagined. It's not just two things, it's three. Once that's grasped, we might imagine a fourth necessary aspect or dimension. To catch up to string theory, we'd have to find a total of eleven. Dennett's dealing with two thinking that's all there is. I'm trying to incorporate three, intuiting that's not all there is. Dennett seems to ignore Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle as he doesn't see himself changing the equation at all. Perhaps the perceiver might somehow fit in as "energy" somehow. Maybe the intention of the perceiver isn't so much mind as energy. I don't know. I do think, however, that it's possible that memes/ideas/intentions compete on the personal level, but cooperate on the level of the superorganism. All ideas are necessary to It. My will is a dimension of The Human Will, my perception is an aspect of The Human Perception, my body is a scale of The Human Body...I am a microcosm of human civilization...but I am different from It in terms of scale/dimension/intention/energy etc. & et al. So will/energy/intention seem to be necessary for any paradigm fictively imagined to be useful on a personal level for the "creative person" trying to adequately imagine The Human Being, which is but one small thing in an effectively infinite multiverse…I know I don't know what I'm talking about, and the more I speak the more certain this uncertainty becomes. Dennett & Dawkins might put that in their pipe and smoke it...if they "Smoke."


Remarks about about "Apes that Write:"

Jared: Bonobo: I remember a while back reading in a class about chimps and language acquisition. It involved defining human language in order to talk about similarities/differences across species. The conclusion I came to, and I can't remember if it was Kanzi or Koko (I believe Koko was a "common" chimp) who convinced me of this, that chimps can acquire language skills that humans develop by age 5. That's as far as it seemed to go in the papers and videos I was looking at. My question then was why is this the case, that this was a more useful question than simply whether or not chimps can acquire a defined human language. What language faculties do these chimps already possess, how is it expressed in the land of chimps, and why won't these chimps go on learning more. I think this comes to bear somehow on her basic point in accounting for differences between human and chimp behavior, that it's cultural and not biological. I think she's on to something, that the learning environment accounts for chimp cultural development, not genetic makeups. But there seems to be biological differences preventing chimps from becoming fully-fledged humans. This would seem obvious; except that Rumbaugh suggests through continued exposure to humans there's no reason to assume chimps couldn't develop similarly human abilities. They're almost genetically indistinguishable and share many of the same desires—both are intrigued by the capacity to make musical sounds, both are driven to communicate, both are curious about what they don't understand (though there might be some devolution here in the course of turning human), etc., but she talks about bonobo sexuality—a free, permissive, communicative tool—against human sexuality, categorized into a discreet area of experience, removed from public view, often variously taboo. I'd account for this by suggesting humans attach emotions and traumas and more to sexual acts in ways bonobos don't. Neuromechanisms must structure this…I wonder how similar human and chimp brains are or aren't.

Me: Very interesting. I couldn't help feel, however, that the bonobo who hadn't been outside for days and was looking longingly out into the forest, was being dumbed down, tortured in effect, for the purpose of these studies. Interesting they didn’t tell us why she hadn’t been outside for days. The struggle of the researcher to put what they're observing into their own terms...The inventors and teachers of grammar...liberal colonist’s not shrugging off their “white man’s burden”…presuming the innate inferiority of the enslaved…certitude run amok...spinning Heisenberg in his grave…I actually saw and see the whole thing as tragic and pathetic. I am not so curious about these things that it snuffs out my empathy for a captured ape longing for freedom. Does the good we derive from this communication justify the evil that's been done, that is being done to these poor beings? …Which leads to food consumption, which puts me on a moral level with Hitler and Stalin. I occasionally drool for a Big Mac and fantasize torturing "evil" folk in the name of the "truth." That's part of the American/Western delusion. Is it cultural or genetic, or both, this phantastic ideology of violence/oppression/dominion/zionism? Perhaps that's a recursive delusion necessary to all civilizations [human organs within the human superorganism?]…It occurs to me the role of the postmodern hero [or anti-hero] might be to rebel against the superorganism, which necessarily oppresses individuals [mere cells], exercising its dominion over them, in its desire to reach the promised land of self-satisfaction, that Zion of self-actualization. Less "society" [which is always virtual and public] seams more sociability [which is always actual and private]. I've met very few individual beings I've despised and very few groups of beings I didn't despise. I'm digressing, but the point I'm trying to make is that the "modern" "human being" is living in a box. Most of the "modern human being's" experiences are mediated by technology, which is a mediation itself from a media personality that [not who] reads what his producers have imagined themselves to have interpreted. The "modern human" "hero's journey" may lie in stepping down from her perch and out of her box to participate, cooperate and empathize with all the beings composing her present milieu. This may also mean the heroic human cell might choose to go malignant or viral in terms of not only defending itself against its national or tribal superorgan and that superorgan’s superorganism's internalizing/consuming necessities, to which a thus contextualized individual being might respond by seeking out its own justification via some ideology espousing radical individualism? Of course, "chosen people" never operate in a vacuum, so the game goes on...I naturally empathize with the egg, not the wall it’s whipped at. Most people just see a mess...I feel a bonobo longing for home…These scientists and their studies, as well-intentioned and empathetic and even necessary in light of habitat destruction as they may be, might never reveal anything innate about those they’re manipulating any more than physicists have ever pinned down an ultimate particle of matter. Whether the subjects they observe seem animate or inanimate beings will not matter in the objective sense. These scientists have perhaps not yet come to grips with the essence of their own objectivity, their being as objects. Nothing of true value can emerge from their false premises [the object's essence—neither the observer's nor the observed's] beyond the random and unintended effects of their actions...So that's why my favorite writer's a bonobo...a great ape longing for freedom, bound by inferiors who think otherwise, in a room not a forest breathing, hoping change will bring him home. If I were Jesus, I'd say forgive them Lord for they know not what they do. But I'm not Jesus and I don't care if they're forgiven or not. I just want them to stop studying these fine beings in this stupid way. Love them more. Go all the way. Shatter the tabboos and enter new planes of reality. Find a new heroic face to wear. Become more human by becoming more of an Earthling. Fuck everything, literally. And get married to whatever you want…And, I know, this contradicts my earlier idea about rebelling against the superorganism and harkens back more to my Lutheran upbringing: Love thy enemy. If Nature/nature’s your enemy, learn to love It/it…cause you can never leave It. This might be one of those times when insisting on non-insistence is insisting too much. But I won’t insist upon it. Aside from all that, Rumbaugh’s presentation was a rather fascinating and charming little presentation wasn't it? Yes, the music and narrative of some of the clips was annoying, and it’s tone exemplifies my criticism, I did enjoy it very much. It stirred my compassion.


This is in regards to Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on Genius at TED:

Jared: Just watched the Gilbert talk on genius. I more or less don't take issue with what she's suggesting though I think how she talks about it is troublesome and might work against itself. It's a mistake to draw clear boundaries between pantheons and human experience. The god or spirit or Muse that is outside material and over and above is a trick. The classical notion of genius, which persists idiosyncratically and persecuted up to the present (Melville talked in these terms, as does Dan Beachy-Quick) is that it's a shared thing. It's beyond the human capacity to confine it, to own it completely, which Gilbert suggests, but contrary to her schema it's a shared human event, necessarily entailing failure at completely embodying it. Genius exhausts "the" genius's abilities. Melville read Shakespeare's work and called it "genius," while noting in a letter to Hawthorne that the most incredible thing is what the work never said, perhaps what the artist couldn't say, all that this genius took to the grave. Genius, then, as it finds shape through individuals and their work, should be understood in terms of the work it leaves to be done as much as it should be understood as the work that is actually done. Genius, when we find it, makes us accutely aware of what hasn't been accomplished. Genius reveals failure! Shortcomings! You might say it's inspirational, that it inspires, remaining ever a shared, visionary potential. The source of this for Gilbert are demons in the wall spreading "fairy juice" over the work, who either graces the worker with its presence or not. It might be much simpler (though not really), the force shaped in the constellation of texts and voices and faces and rivers that we encounter and will shape our capacity for thinking about them, this material of genius everywhere abundant.

ME: Well said. I think you took her a bit literally, though. I viewed her as espousing useful fictions, recognizing them as such, and lightening up. Genius is not a burden. For people in touch with genius as you so ably describe it, I would imagine that's an inspirational thing to hear, because I’ve read and heard elsewhere that dealing with genius can be exhausting. The river must be heard. The river is the genius. It erodes, fascinates, reveals, drowns, floods, nurtures,'s wild and natural. We can dam[n] it for a little while, but eventually such damnations are always futile. Genius is the mind evolving, which is to say expanding consciousness in time. Where I thought she dragged was saying how the writer shows up to work every day and the genius is fickle. I didn't buy that. I’ve heard some "pros" say that they’ve learned how to contact and communicate with the genius on a fairly regular basis. Tiger Woods' drives while warming up on the driving range are all better than my best drive ever. That's because he's become a pro at communing his matter-energy with the golf genius, which is an aspect or dimension of the genius-at-large that all genius taps into, that river of Mind in the mind-matter-energy exemplasy. What do I know beyond my own processes? The universe is vast, but when I think of it, I fail to know It. Also, Elizabeth, should you read this, I think you're gorgeous...


  1. Ooooh, I'd have loved to have been part of this discussion, I do a lot of reading thinking in cognitive science, neurophilosophy, etc. A quick comment to Jared:

    "reducing the realm of thought to biological mechanisms does more harm than good, it isn't particularly useful at getting at the complexity of the thing. The logic of the analogy is wonderfully conveniently workable. But the shape of an idea once it's involved itself in a brain is unpredictably irrational at the level of detail in a way observable bacteria isn't."

    While Dennett is indeed a reductionist, many in the field are the opposite, and depend on the fuzzy concept of emergence to link brain and mind. Also, doesn't your "But the shape ... unpredictable ..." bit confuse a neuroscience take with a phenomenological one? I don't mean that as a negative, just to say that many active workers in the field, e.g. Evan Thompson, Dan Zahavi, are actively working to attempt to bridge those two points of view ...

    Anyhow, fantastic to watch two really interesting minds (brains!?!?!) at work ...

  2. Hi John,

    Disclaimer: I'm no expert. Obviously! I would say that, yes, I suppose my comments do "confuse" the neurological with the phenomenological, in order to suggest that deterministic frameworks are always fraught, seeking the straightest line from point A to B, and that there's a serious risk in not complicating one with the other. The medicalization of psychological illness, for example, the reduction of such illness to biological bases, to disease, treating its physical symptoms, numb, which leaves the psychic distress intact though it gets one out the door. Which in this case could amount to misssing the root dis-ease, functionality over actual being. For example. In the case of medicine--material use to which various bio-theory is put--it very rarely isn't matter over mind, rarely isn't Enlightenment pretense. The institutionalization of the singular approach is dangerous.

  3. I agree Jared. Another way of saying Enlightenment is pretentious might be "certainty is foolish."

    Why does this leap of faith to believe in what one's saying is true seem necessary for most people to "be?" Certainty seems a kind of bedrock for being that allows one to function in a way one finds meaningful.

    I might say behaviors displaying certainty prove dangerous. Hitler said, and I paraphrase, that he went through life with the "certainty of a sleepwalker." It's this sleepwalking that seems dangerous, moreso perhaps than the socially or culturally accepted approach.

    I'm quibbling, but I have to test this "post a comment" because word has it it's been disabled or malfunctioning.

    If you're reading this, it works. I'm now certain of it.

    Feel free to comment.

  4. I don’t buy the “cartesian” utter separation of brain and mind (neither did Descartes, really; he connected them at the pineal gland). I don’t buy the reductionism that equates body and mind. I do buy that mind and brain are related: I mean, shoot someone in the head six times and see what happens to their mind. It goes bye-bye. I would argue, tho, that some psychological illnesses do have a biological substrate – and since I believe that I don’t see any problem with medicalizing those. I think the problem is when we try to medicalize externally-caused psychological illnesses. That kind of psychic distress should not be medicalized. Of course, you can dope anybody if you give em enough whatever. I agree that “The institutionalization of the singular approach is dangerous” - ANY singular approach. That's sleepwalking.