Thursday, May 31, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Three

“Knowledge and Wisdom,” pages 173-177

That knowledge has increased though wisdom has not is a common observation. But what is wisdom? In part, it involves taking a balanced view of an issue, where the weights attached to different elements are appropriate. As professional specialization intensifies, the resulting narrowness of expertise makes this component of wisdom harder to come by. The problem is closely connected with unanticipated and undesirable consequences, as when inquiry into the nature of the atom eventually gave lunatics the power to destroy humanity. Wisdom likewise requires that breadth of knowledge be matched by breadth of feeling, so that understanding and empathy extends beyond our own narrow (or national) circle.

Private relations need wisdom as much as public affairs do. People can be at odds with each other through a version of what now [i.e. 2012] we would term the fundamental attribution error. Convincing personal enemies that their rivals are not particularly wicked, though they may seem so, would lead to an uptick in wisdom.

“I think the essence of wisdom is emancipation, as far as possible, from the tyranny of the here and the now [p. 175].” We start as fully solipsistic infants, and maturity (and wisdom) broadens our horizons. We can learn about things that are remote, and wisdom requires that we do so, and that we then give remote effects sufficient weight in our decision making. The evolution towards impartiality is simultaneously the path of wisdom. This type of wisdom can and should be taught. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is a step in the right direction, though we must extend the meaning of neighbor to Communist or some other detested type.

But what if those whom we hate are evil doers? Must we love them and allow them to threaten us? No. But if we want our resistance to be effective and beneficial, it “should be combined with the greatest degree of understanding and the smallest degree of force that is compatible with the survival of the good things that we wish to preserve [p. 176].” Great leaders like Elizabeth I and Abraham Lincoln have possessed these elements of wisdom, and not been in thrall to the common errors of their times.

The dire consequences (visited upon their possessors) of hate and tunnel vision should be imparted in the course of education. While specialized skills need to be taught, and moral education will not feature in this pragmatic education, nonetheless, the broader context in which specialization operates needs to be conveyed. The increasing power of what can be accomplished (or destroyed) via specialization puts a premium on instilling wisdom.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Two

“The Cult of ‘Common Usage,’” pages 166-172

“The most influential school of philosophy in Britain at the present day maintains a certain linguistic doctrine to which I am unable to subscribe [p. 166].” That doctrine is that no special terminology is requisite for philosophical argumentation. Russell objects to the cult of common usage on numerous grounds, including that it inculcates self-righteousness in those who preach it.

Russell concocts a little story in which working class Brits employ words like “mental” and “chronic,” to indicate that philosophers do indeed attach different meanings to these terms: the attachment to common usage is only an attachment to just the right amount of pretentiousness, not too little or too much. Further, the attachment offers philosophers an excuse, though an untenable one, for failing to understand mathematics and science.

The superiority of common sense certainly has not been borne out by history – the once common disbelief in the rotation of the earth is one case in point. Did common sense cease being fallible at some point? Philosophers devote themselves to trivial issues when they worry about precisely what people mean when they utter silly phrases. We needn’t give up loose language for the purposes of everyday life, such as when we talk of the sun rising, but we shouldn’t expect scientists to indulge in the same liberality. Common sense cannot help us parse the legitimate and interesting question “What is meant by the word ‘word’ [p. 170]?” And the difficulties of what it means, precisely, when we see something – an issue explicated in the preceding chapter – indicates the need for philosophers to employ terms in a much more exacting style than common usage allows.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-One

“Mind and Matter,” pages 145-165

Happy 140th Birthday to Him Whom We Read!

[When I embarked on Reading Bertrand Russell (precisely five years ago) I noted that I was not much interested in Russell’s philosophical work; this chapter, alas, falls within that domain. (Nonetheless, I remain comforted by the fact that I enjoyed providing a summentary to Human Society in Ethics and Politics – though maybe that enjoyment is only in retrospect?) So this chapter remains largely beyond my ken, and I can’t even summon up guilty feelings about not overcoming my ignorance. Onwards anyway, dear reader, justly forewarned, I hope, of the more-than-usual inadequacy of what follows. This “Mind and Matter” chapter, like its predecessor, is quite lengthy, but I’ll connect with it in a single post this time.]

The understanding that the world is divided into two spheres, mind and matter, derives from Plato and religion. Nonetheless, that understanding is challenged by modern science. Curiously, many physicists are beginning to see ideal forms everywhere, whereas psychologists see matter underlying mind. “The truth is, of course, that mind and matter are, alike, illusions [p. 145].” People who specialize in one area recognize that their own object of study is an illusion, but suspect that there is substance in the other realm.

The Cartesians believed that the brain and mind were separate, running in parallel (and hence together), but not directly connected. Now it seems that the brain and the mind are connected. Nonetheless, in practical matters, there remain two schools of thought, one stressing physical causes of mental processes, and the other psychological causes largely divorced from any physical substrate. “If you have a nightmare, the one school will say that it is because you ate too much lobster salad, and the other that it is because you are unconsciously in love with your mother [p. 146].” Why not take a pragmatic approach, and adopt whatever view that happens to work best, which can differ across domains?

Russell engages with Descartes’s famous Cogito Ergo Sum and the line that succeeds it (“I am a thing that thinks”), finding them full of error. Speech asserting existence is misguided. What is sensible is to say that the word denoting the thing, such as “I,” really denotes something, unlike, for instance, the word “Hamlet”. The notion that “I am a thing” implicitly assumes that there is a substantive I, as a lasting entity in a changing environment. But Descartes, to himself, is not such an entity. “Descartes to himself should have appeared as a series of events, each of which might be called a thought, provided that word is liberally interpreted [p. 148].” Descartes’s mind is this series of thoughts, which does not make his mind a separate entity, and Descartes is the name of this series.

Descartes’s mind is his alone, not accessible by others. What of this series of thoughts that constitute Descartes? Before we get to thoughts, we should deal with sensations and perceptions. People can be exposed to the seemingly identical stimulus, but experience it differently, due to their own past experiences. People who grew up, like Russell, without radios or gramophones, visualize a pianist’s hands at work when they hear piano music – but not so for those of a more recent generation. The element of the experience that does not depend on past experiences is the “sensation,” while the “perception” comprises the sensation plus the unavoidable, historically-contingent associations. The perception is the whole experience, which we can identify without the aid of theoretical ponderings.

My seeing of a chair is a mental object, created when light reflects off of the chair into my eye, leaving a mental impression. I can infer, when seeing a chair, that a chair is there even when I am not seeing it – but this is an inference, not a direct perception. “[T]he physical world of my everyday experience is a part of my mental life [p. 152].” In this respect, it is no more real than my dreams, though my mental world is unquestionable. The actual physical world is solid, but questionable – my inferences of its existence are potentially fallacious.

Blocks, stones, and other senseless things don’t have experiences in the same way as sentient beings do. “What characterizes experience is the influence of past occurrences on present reactions [p. 153].” A man working in a ticket office will react to various stimuli from customers variously, based on his experience; a ticket machine lacks that ability to alter behavior based on recollections of past encounters. Memory is the key component of mind. Our intellect involves recalling associations – the same principle that underlies the practice of teaching bears to dance. Thinking stems from a sort of reinforcement of pathways in the brain, like water over time creating a channel in a riverbed. Mind melds into matter, and the quantum view of matter is that it melds into something not so substantial, transitions between states. A chair today might be the same chair tomorrow in classical physics, but not in quantum physics. You can never sit in the same chair twice, and (page 161) a person today is a different person tomorrow. Both mind and matter are series of events.

We don’t know very much about the events that constitute matter, only some of the physical structures we can see or otherwise perceive. But I [Russell] hypothesize “that the events that make a living brain are actually identical with those that make the corresponding mind [p. 158].” Physical objects (like brains!) only are revealed to me as mental impressions. Brains and minds comprise essentially the same events, though grouped differently. It is like individuals sorted alphabetically or sorted by address: they are the same individuals in either case. Psychology and physics look at identical events, mental impressions, differently. This hypothesis requires that memories and other elements of mental life must have some physical basis in the brain. Whether we think of the mind as relying on the brain, or vice versa, depends upon our purposes and knowledge.

The notion that the world consists of events goes back to Heraclitus; the idea that physical objects, or the part of them we perceive, are mental images derives from Berkeley via Hume. Different viewers perceive objects differently, and no person has a view that captures what they think they are seeing, the unadorned essence of the object.

It is logically possible that there is no physical world separate from my mental sensations, but then it is similarly possible that my own remembered past is illusory. Nevertheless, everyone infers that matter exists and that events outside of one’s experience exist, even though, strictly speaking, those inferences go beyond what is provable. A psychologist looking at a patient’s brain surely doesn’t see the person’s mind, the person’s thoughts, but doesn’t really see the brain, either; rather, the psychologist is having his own mental events connected (via optic nerves and photons) with the patient’s brain. Russell upset philosophers by pointing out that their thoughts were all in their heads. “With one voice they assured me that they had no thoughts in their heads whatever, but politeness forbids me to accept this assurance [p. 163].”

An event can be simultaneously mental and material, involve a causal chain associated with physics while also involving a causal chain associated with psychology. There is no dilemma, no unavoidable conflict between mind and matter. “The relations of mind and matter have puzzled people for a long time, but if I am right they need puzzle people no longer [p. 165].”

Monday, May 14, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty, Part Two

[For the summentary of Part One of this chapter, "John Stuart Mill," click here.]

“With Mill’s values, I for my part find myself in complete agreement [p. 133].” Individual liberty should be central to morality, though the term “liberty” has been expropriated by reactionary forces. The main culprit is Marx, “who substituted Prussian discipline for freedom as both the means and the end of revolutionary action [p. 134].” Marxian notions met with success in part thanks to the growth in large organizations, which allow greater control over people’s lives. Look at how the individualistic Western pioneers of America found themselves at the mercy of railroads. The power of distant governments and markets does not preclude intellectual liberty, but it does massively constrain economic liberty. The peasants in Communist countries feel the yoke of state power to a degree never imagined by their forebears in serfdom. “The totalitarian State is the last term of organization, the goal toward which, if we are not careful, we shall find all developed countries tending [p. 136].” A truly democratic State might be more favorable to liberty than is the power of capitalists, but really existing Communism is much, much worse. And even in democratic countries, the police are repressive and dissenters are marginalized.

Were Mill to undertake the writing of On Liberty today, his opinions on the benefits of liberty would not need to be altered. But Mill might look at the main threats to liberty as arising from two sources, society’s attempt to impose its moral code and the existence of unjust power. Mill himself gives several examples of the attempt to impose morality. Recent cases that Mill would condemn are the suppression of so-called obscenity and the criminalization of homosexuality. [In the case of obscenity, Russell writes: “I cannot think that the feeling of shock which an elderly man experiences on being brought in contact with something to which he is not accustomed is a sufficient basis for an accusation of crime [p. 139].”] If we still believed that homosexual relations would bring about Divine retribution on whole cities, we would have grounds to suppress it, but we cannot criminalize consensual adult homosexual acts just because we find them sinful. [This discussion echoes a point Russell made about beliefs concerning witches in Human Society in Ethics and Politics.]

The post-Enlightenment world has been concerned with the unjust power of monarchs, religious authorities, and empires. The new danger comes from bureaucrats: look at what happened to independent labor unions in Russia when capitalists were replaced with the State. The monopoly of power in the State is worse than having rival blocks of power -- unions and capitalists -- even though the competitive arrangement involves some restrictions on liberty, too.

While Mill insisted on the necessity of educating children (even over parental objections), he didn’t say much about how the educating should proceed. Presumably Mill would want to make sure that children were given the means to learn about and develop their own opinions on important matters, so that they would be poised to use well their adult freedom to act. But today’s approach to education valorizes making the right choice by society’s lights, as opposed to celebrating the freedom to choose (which might result in wrong choices). This commitment to straitjacketing choice is shared by Communist and Catholic schools, as well as by state schools in many places. [Russell is re-iterating points he has made in Unpopular Essays and Education and the Good Life.] “Its purpose is to produce mental slaves, who have heard only one side on all the burning questions of the day and have been inspired with feelings of horror toward the other side [p. 142].” But different nations instill different dogmas in their drones, who will turn into reliable soldiers and persecutors when summoned. If no one had ever thought of state education, the world might have been better off.

Russell again makes the economist’s distinction between rival and non-rival goods, using a poem as an example of a non-rival good. Rival goods, chiefly of the material ilk, need to be justly distributed if democracy is to be preserved against a man on horseback. But perfect liberty will not secure a just distribution, and instead will lead to the man on horseback. Non-rival goods, however, chiefly those in the intellectual sphere, can be consumed by anyone and everyone, simultaneously. “There is not, therefore, any prima-facie case for restrictions of liberty in this sphere [p. 143].” Government lacks the standing to control ideas or art or music. Books cannot be censored; let a hundred publishers bloom. Requiring imprimatur before publishing brings on intellectual degradation of the sort that Stalin’s control of music brought to Russian rhythm.

Russell will not grant Mill the mantle of a great philosopher; his ideas were derivative of Hume, Bentham, and James Mill. The severity of Bentham and James Mill was advantageously softened in John Stuart Mill through Romantics such as Coleridge and Carlyle, and through Harriet Taylor. Mill nonetheless (and again, advantageously) avoided the excesses of the Romantics. His moral standing was majestic. Mill was fair though pointed when engaged in controversy.

The world is a better place for Mill’s contributions, especially his advocacy for women’s rights and liberty. “The present world would both astonish and horrify him; but it would be better than it is, if his ethical principles were more respected [p. 144].”

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty, Part One

John Stuart Mill, pages 122-144

The chapter devoted to Bertie’s godfather appears to be the longest in Portraits From Memory. At any rate, it is sufficiently long that the summentary will be divided into two parts, this being the first...

Russell believes that Mill’s intellect was overrated by his contemporaries, while Mill’s morality really was first-rate. His intellect was hampered by being erected on the unsturdy foundations of his father’s views, and its solidity was not enhanced by the renovations attributable to Mill’s wife Harriet and Thomas Carlyle. The simplistic story is that Harriet provided the morals and James Mill provided the intellect. “The amalgam which resulted was practically beneficent, but theoretically somewhat incoherent [p. 123].”

Russell follows by identifying many shortcomings in Mill’s System of Logic. Russell indicates (p. 124) that he read the Logic at the age of eighteen, and even at that time, he had trouble accepting the notion that the authority of induction implied that arithmetic sums were no more true than statements such as “all swans are white.” But Mill needed what was effectively unavailable to him, Boole and modern logic. Mill did not let mathematics permeate his thinking, and hence did not gravitate to a probabilistic view of causation. Mill’s inductive view of causation generally is wrong: “all the sheep that Kant ever saw were within ten miles of K√∂nigsberg, but he felt no inclination to induce that all sheep were within ten miles of K√∂nigsberg [p. 126].”

Surprisingly, Mill’s thought does not seem to be much influenced by Darwin, despite Mill’s close attention to Spencer. Mill’s neglect occurs not only in later editions of the Logic, but also in his religion essays. [Is Russell being unfair? At the end of Part One of the essay "Theism," Mill acknowledges evolution as a recent alternative to intelligent design. His conclusion is basically that it is too soon to tell whether the theory of evolution will become sufficiently well-established to offer a convincing refutation of intelligent design: “Of this theory [evolution] when pushed to this extreme point, all that can now be said is that it is not so absurd as it looks, and that the analogies which have been discovered in experience, favourable to its possibility, far exceed what any one could have supposed beforehand. Whether it will ever be possible to say more than this, is at present uncertain. The theory if admitted would be in no way whatever inconsistent with Creation. But it must be acknowledged that it would greatly attenuate the evidence for it.” Mill’s Essays on Religion are quite skeptical, and it is reasonable that he offer the best case for theism – and hence not be too quick in embracing evolution – in developing his argument. Indeed, I think Russell is factually wrong when he says that Mill did not discuss Darwin’s explanation for species adaptation in the religion essays; Mill’s discussion takes place in the paragraph preceding the passage quoted above.] Mill’s sort of natural, subconscious mind followed his father James Mill, and viewed man as a rational creature, different from all the other animals.

Mill’s Principles of Political Economy was first published in 1848, but subsequent editions took a much softer line towards socialism, thanks to the influence of Mrs. Taylor, Mill’s future wife. [Russell indicates that he is drawing upon a Mill biography by Packe which was published in 1954. I have read the Packe book, and, somehow, learning that Bertie read it, too, has given me pleasure.] The softer line was in keeping with Mill’s predispositions, however – Mrs. Taylor let those predispositions overcome the received political economy canon. Mill’s hopeful vision of (non-Marxist) socialism involves production being organized by worker cooperatives: no state ownership of the means of production for Mill. Mill’s distrust of the state ran too deep. Mill was sadly wrong in his belief that governmental interference with human action would diminish. People (at least pre-Orwell) tend to predict that the world will unfold as they hope. The only accurate prognosticator from the nineteenth century, therefore, was Nietzsche, because he actually wished for the awfulness that the twentieth century produced.

J. S. Mill did not fully account for the increasing power of large organizations. He did not want the government to run the schools, though he thought that poor kids should receive a publicly subsidized education. “He never realized that, so far as elementary education is concerned, the only important alternative to the State is the Church, which he would hardly have preferred [p. 129].” Mill was less appreciative of Communism (abolition of private property) than he was of Socialism (means of production publicly owned), but he thought Communism would be preferable to the deformed capitalism of his time. A reasonable system of private property – one that did not allocate rewards as a decreasing function of work – presumably would be preferred to communism, however. As far as we know, Mill never heard of Marx, but Marx turned out to wield more influence than any of Mill’s other contemporaries.

Like Mill’s System of Logic, his Principles of Political Economy has been superseded. Mill proved, in both instances, a little too accepting of received doctrines that did not engender overt harm. But Mill’s On Liberty and On the Subjection of Women remain important. [I have never seen The Subjection of Women with the “On” in the title that Russell lends it.] The world has moved away from the message of On Liberty, but the ideas in The Subjection of Women have found more fertile ground. Nonetheless, “[i]t is a disgrace to both men and women that the world should have had to wait so long for champions of women’s equality [p. 131].” Those few voices that supported female emancipation were laughed off the stage, until just shortly before they prevailed. Russell himself met with more energetic opposition to his public support for women’s suffrage before World War I than he received for his public pacifism during World War I. The quick, near-global embrace of women’s rights owes something to industrialization, which undermined the advantage to muscularity in the productive realm. (Indeed, the focus on industry has gone too far, neglecting the biology of humans.) The success of female emancipation also owes something to the decline of hereditary rule: “Napoleon wanted his son to succeed him. Lenin, Stalin and Hitler had no such desire [p. 132].” [What would Bertie say about the Kim dynasty in North Korea?]

On Liberty’s continuing relevance reflects, alas, the decline in individual liberty in the past century. Mill complained about the lack of freedom in Russia, but Russia has become markedly less free in the interim. Shortly after the 1859 publication of On Liberty, freedom was on the march, with the extirpation of slavery in the US, the end of the Napoleon III era in France, and the extension of (male) suffrage in Germany. Mill’s optimism, subsequently justified by such enhancements to liberty, proved less appropriate in the longer term.