Monday, December 27, 2010

Our future piggish identity

aIn his We are our brain the Dutch brain researcher Dick Swaab makes us think not only about the free will (see my blog two weeks ago), but also about our personal identity. His discussion of the subject is especially relevant for the question whether this identity is determined by psychological factors, by bodily factors or by both. One of the weak points of the pure psychological approach is that it denies that our personal identity is at least partially dependent on our physical constitution. Its adherents reject not only the importance of our bodily characteristics for our identity but they ignore also the way psychological characteristics are fixed in our body. They do accept that our psychological characteristics are physically fixed in our body in some way, indeed, for what sense would a brain swap have, if it weren’t? But they do not see that many psychological characteristics are not fixed to our body like a painting on a canvass (which makes that we can replace the canvass and keep the painting, albeit with much effort), but that they are inextricably tied to our material structure and are dependent on the individual features of our brain and in the end on the structure of our DNA.
The foregoing is not a pure philosophical problem. It may get a practical meaning as soon as it will become possible to transplant brain tissue from a foetus for repairing defects in another brain, as Swaab explains. For since “many of our characteristics, including our character, are determined in the structure of our brain during our foetal development … which characteristics could you get then from your donor?”, Swaab asks. These characteristics are dependent on what part of the foetus brain is used for the transplantation and where it will be placed in the donor’s brain. When this technique can be realized, especially in the higher brain structure, “it is to be wondered to what extent a new person is being composed, and how much transplanted tissue makes that the receiver should actually use the name of the donor as his second family name”. The issue of personal identity will become even more interesting, Swaab adds, when we are going to use tissues from other creatures for our brain transplantations. Until now these operations were hardly successful, “[b]ut if such xenotransplantations should ever become effective, would these transplants provide man then [for instance] with a bit of the friendliness and intelligence of the pigs?” If that is so, maybe it would not be a bad idea to improve our identity as a person in this way. (See Swaab, Wij zijn ons brein, pp. 170-1, also for the quotations).

Monday, December 20, 2010

The irremovable difference between presence and absence

Sometimes I think that I am a stupid philosopher. One who is too simple-minded to see the value of complicated thoughts and the truth of certain philosophical statements which are clear for many of my confrères. I faced this fact again when I started to read an article about Heidegger, or rather about his philosophical method, in a journal I am subscribed to. I knew that reading it would be quite an effort for me because of Heidegger’s obscure style. And many comments on his texts are not much better. Indeed, I had only just read one page when there was talk of “a thorough and irremovable difference between presence and absence” that formed the background of a long-lasting philosophical debate. I was baffled. I must admit that I had missed the debate, to which, according to the author of the article, outstanding philosophers like Heidegger (you guess it), Levinas and Derrida had contributed. But, of course, it is no wonder that I had missed it, for just such statements make me drop out. For what does this quotation mean when I look at it with a down-to-earth mind, forgetting for a moment that I am a philosopher? Or maybe when I look at it from the viewpoint of an analytical philosopher? Frankly speaking, it is nonsense. For the thoroughness and irremovability of the difference between presence and absence is already in the meaning of the words. It is analytical. It is as if you say: “If I am here I am not there”. Nothing is clearer and more analytical than this. Of course, it is thorough and irremovable, so what are we talking about then?
I continued reading the article but you’ll not be surprised that I put it aside after a few sentences. Actually I was a bit disappointed that I did not have the perseverance to read it to its end, since it is obvious now that I’ll never become a great thinker. For, so Heidegger, all great thinkers think the same because they all know themselves being bound by the question of Being. But it’s Heidegger’s Being and that’s not mine. For me this Being is nothing, and as Heidegger told us, the nothing nothings. Oh, help, let me stop here, before I do become a Heideggerian philosopher.

P.S. I know that this is a caricature but sometimes a caricature tells the truth better than telling the truth. In Heideggerian terms, it unhides the hidden better, than the unhidden itself.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Do my hormones make my choices?

In We are our brain the Dutch brain researcher Dick Swaab, defends the thesis that in the end everything we do is determined by the biology of our brain. Our brain steers our development, mainly with the help of hormones. Sexuality, juvenile behaviour, depressions, aggression, psychological diseases … This is just a random choice of our hormone guided behaviour. Therefore it is no surprise that Swaab concludes that there is no “complete ‘Free Will’ ”.
If one sees the free will as the possibility to take decisions independent of internal or external limitations, so Swaab, our present neurobiological knowledge makes clear that there can be no complete freedom. Conceived this way, I think there’ll be hardly any person who thinks that there is. The limits of our body, but also of our social and cultural environment, are widely accepted as the limits of our freedom. However, Swaab does not make clear what our freedom then is, but I guess that he doesn’t see much space for the free will.
Yet, despite himself, he gives a hint where our freedom has to be sought. One of our characteristics determined by hormones during our prenatal development is the meaning of eye contact. In Western cultures, so Swaab, women use eye contact in order to understand other women better, and they enjoy it. For Western men, however, eye contact means testing their place in the hierarchy, which can be very menacing. In business negotiations, eye contact between women leads to more creative solutions, while eye contact between men has a negative effect on the results. “You can take advantage of this practical tip”, so Swaab concludes.
I think that just this remark says a lot about the limits of the determinism of our brain. In order to explain this I want to refer to a distinction by Jürgen Habermas between two levels of meaning, level 1 and level 0. The former is the level all sciences are faced with when they theoretically interpret their objects of research. The latter level is typical of those sciences that have to deal with objects that have been given meaning by the investigated people themselves. This made me distinguish two kinds of meaning: meaning 1 and meaning 0 (see here). The former is the kind of meaning used on the first level. It is the meaning a scientist gives to an object, either physical or social in character; it is the scientist’s theoretical interpretation of reality. Meaning 0 is the concept of meaning for the underlying level 0. It is the meaning people who make up social reality give to this social reality or to parts of it themselves; it is their interpretation of their own lived reality.
When we return to Swaab’s description of the meaning of eye contact and his conclusion, we can apply the distinction of two levels of meaning here, too. When a researcher studies the effects of hormones on the meaning of eye contact, she is on level 1. When Swaab says, however, “You can take advantage of this practical tip”, he is no longer on the level of the biological mechanism.  In fact, he says then what this mechanism can mean for us, the appliers of the eye contact, and also that the mechanism needs no longer be an automatism but that we can use it for the benefit of ourselves. By interpreting the biological mechanism this way we have arrived at level 0. It is the level where we can reflect on our biological constitution and where we can take advantage of it, if we are conscious of it. Just this conclusion by Swaab shows that our determinism has its limits. Therefore I think that there is room for a free will on level 0. Swaab gives also another hint that points in this direction, when he describes the meaning eye contacts have for Western women and men. For doesn’t this refer to the idea that our biological functioning can have another interpretation in another culture and so lead to other choices in other cultures?

Monday, December 06, 2010

“I cannot hand over the eyes”

Look at this: “It’s pitch dark. I can not hand over the eyes. Do you view please?” What would it mean? I think that you cannot make any sense of it. I have translated it from Dutch with a translation tool from the Internet. If I would translate it myself it would be something like “It is pitch-dark here. I can’t see anything at all (verbally: I cannot see a hand before my eyes; it’s a Dutch expression). Do you put the light on?” It’s a simple situation. The sentences are simple. Nothing special. The Dutch expression that I used for “I cannot see anything at all” is common. Nevertheless the translation tool made a mess of it. Moreover, it didn’t translate the word “here” in the first sentence of the example.
Or take this: “Do you have fits”? In this case I had translated the English sentence “Do you have matches?” (implying that I wanted to light a cigarette) into Dutch with the same language tool. Then I retranslated it myself into English, as verbally as possible, in order to show also what a mess you can get when you translate in the other direction.
I have the impression that Internet translation tools are increasingly used. It seems so easy: You want to translate something into another language, for instance because you want to send a message to another person and you do not share a common language with her. So, take a translation tool and translate it. What many people do not realize (and let’s hope that the constructors of the translation tools do realize it) is that translating is more than simply replacing words by other words plus the application of the right rules of grammar. For using a language takes place in a context, and words get their meanings only in a context. This is already important when a word or a sentence has apparently only a single meaning. “He took the knife and made a cut in the body” implies something very different whether it is done by a murderer or by a surgeon. Context becomes even more important when words have several unrelated meanings, like “match”, which can have such different meanings as an organized game, a small wooden stick for producing fire, making the same or equal, and many more. We have seen this in the scene where I wanted to light a cigarette and asked someone for matches. The translation tool misses the context and thinks of the verb “to match” instead of the small wooden sticks I need (it could also have mistakenly thought that I asked for games). This, combined with the problem that translation tools tend to take words verbally (see the first example where it did not take “I cannot see a hand before my eyes” as a Dutch expression), makes that translation tools are still an unreliable means for transferring meanings from one language to another. And one can wonder whether they’ll ever become reliable in future. For a language is not simply an instrument of communication, a language expresses also a way of life. And when you doubt about what I have written here, just pick a translation tool from the Internet and render this blog in another language.