Monday, January 31, 2011

Human maps

Damasio’s book Self comes to mind that I mentioned in my last blog is interesting in many respects. It gives a good idea of the way the mind works and how it produces consciousness and self. Unlike neuroscientists like Swaab or Lamme, discussed here in my blogs before, he does not simply reduce the mind to the biology of the brain. Maybe we can explain by such a reduction that I write a blog and why I do, but I do not see how, saying it plainly, my hormones can explain why I write this blog with this exact content and these wordings. Even more questionable is that the biological approach might explain the phenomenon of culture, which is, indeed, a product of man, but which is an interhuman and suprahuman phenomenon that exists independent of its individual contributors.
One of the most interesting contributions in Damasio’s book to the discussion how the mind works is his idea of maps. The idea is interesting not only because it is useful for explaining consciousness and self and other creations of the brain but also because it can be related to insights of other branches of knowledge. Maps in the brain are, so Damasio, patterns of neurons formed for representing what happens in the body and in the world around us. Like geographic maps they are used to inform the brain how things look like and for planning actions. These maps are continuously adapted according to new information that reaches the brain. One could say that the brain works like a land registry office that constantly receives information from its surveyors and that delivers information to other authorities that use it in their planning.
Seen this way, the idea of maps made me think of the cognitive schema theory developed in psychology some 40 years ago by Schank, Abelson and others. This theory says that we have a scheme in our head that organizes the way we see the world and that we use for interpreting the world. It is a kind of abstract knowledge structure that helps to explain what we perceive and that guides our actions. But it made me also think of the idea of theory as developed in methodology: a structure of concepts and sentences about how a certain part of the world looks like. Isn’t it so that such a theory is a kind of abstract representation that is adapted continuously on the base of further research and that can serve as a guide for policy just like a map?
I think that this analogy between what we do on the methodological level, the theoretical level of a science of man and on the biological level of the brain is not accidental. It says something about how man is structured. It says also that actually there is not one level of analysis that basically can explain everything we do by reducing all phenomena to its basic phenomena, but that there are different levels of explanation that all treat different aspects of what man does in its own irreducible way without saying that one level has priority.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Nonviolence and power

It is very relevant these days: the relation between nonviolent action and resistance and power processes. See what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt and in other countries in the Middle East. By chance I have just finished an article on this theme. It is different from most of the philosophical blogs that I usually publish here, but for the interested readers of my blog, here is a summary. You can find the full text on

Nonviolence and Power. A study about the importance of power relations for nonviolent action and resistance: Summary
When a repressive regime is challenged by a nonviolent opponent, power relations play a central part. In this article I analyse how they are important for the choice of nonviolent methods.
In the classical Weberian view power is the possibility to impose one’s will. This is called “power over”. Against this Arendt put her idea of power as concerted action for pursuing a common aim: “power to”. It is the idea that underlies nonviolent action and resistance. However, these concepts of power give only a partial understanding of the dynamics between a repressive regime and nonviolent resisters. Moreover, they give hardly any insight when to choose which nonviolent methods and why.  What we need is a concept of power that distinguishes between different political situations in order to understand better which nonviolent methods are most effective. Such a concept has been developed by Lukes.
The approaches just mentioned, so Lukes, describe only the overt dimension of power, namely power as it is exercised openly. Following Bachrach and Baratz, he explains that many people are excluded from the arena where the power play takes place so that they cannot legally defend their interests. Then power is used in order to deny others entrance to the power arena: the covert dimension. Moreover, as Lukes shows, power has also a third dimension. Many people just do not see that they have interests that they might defend in the power arena. They are culturally and linguistically manipulated in the way that they consider their powerless position as normal. So power is also the possibility to manipulate culture, language and other relevant factors that way that people do not realize that they ever might have entrance to the power arena. This is the latent dimension of power.
Returning to the possibility of nonviolent resistance, I explain that the way power is exercised is important for the way a regime has to be opposed. A democratic regime that exercises power overtly has to be approached differently than a regime that excludes people openly from defending their interests and that excludes people fundamentally from power positions, not to speak of a regime that keeps people unconscious of their rights. In the last part of my article I give a first analysis of what kind of nonviolent methods are to be used against different regime types.

Full text on

Monday, January 24, 2011

Culture and the person we are

In these blogs I have defended the view that our personal identity is not only in our psychological characteristics but also in what we physically are. It is both in our mind and in our body. This is in line with the idea that mind and body are not two separate entities but that they are integrated. But are psychological and physical components all that makes up our identity? As a sociologist by education I should have had the idea that there is more before. However, I needed the newest book by Antonio Damasio, Self comes to mind, to see that there really is. In this book Damasio presents an original idea of how self, mind and consciousness result from the physical processes in our brain. They are not epiphenomena, so Damasio, but play an important part in guiding what we do. Some products of what we do are shared with other people (a phenomenon that does not happen in that degree in the animal world) and survive our death. This has become the origin of what we call culture. Unlike our self, mind and consciousness, culture does not die when one of its bearers dies. On the contrary, it continues to exist despite the death of its individual bearers and remains to exist as long as there are bearers who share it and take it up when they come new into this world. As Damasio says in a recent interview in the Dutch Filosofie Magazine: “… through the cooperation of many brains [there is] a network that goes beyond our individual biological origin. We are born in a culture that has already been made by others before our birth. And while we grow up, we learn to integrate that culture into our own body ... All our moral values and our knowledge of literature, music, film, law or economics come from outside our brain, from the social space in which we are born. And at the same time, this knowledge has first to go into our brain, before we can do something with it, so that it can exist for us. That knowledge has adapted our brain and has formed it culturally.” This integration of culture in our body can probably go as far that cultural developments lead to changes in the human genome.
In this way culture constitutes us insofar as we absorb it and we form it insofar as we take part in it; just like our psychological characteristics, but also our physical characteristics, develop, at least for a part, in exchange with the world around us. Is it then too bold to think that not only our psychological (so individual) characteristics and our bodily characteristics but also our cultural (so social) characteristics make up what we are as a person? Think of the phenomenon of a culture shock, for instance. Just this is outstanding example how integrated culture and person are.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Ethics as a neuroscience

Last week I argued that the field of philosophy has shrunk a lot through the ages. Themes once studied by philosophers are now the subject of another branch of knowledge. How far will this shrinking go? Will philosophy as a special discipline disappear or will something be left of it? I guess that there’ll always remain purely philosophical questions. But let’s take ethics, for instance. Nothing seems further from a scientific intrusion than the study of what is morally right and wrong in our actions; the study of what we can and cannot do in our relationships with other people and society as a whole. Just here we see a variety of approaches, clustered in and also within cultures. However, when reading about the brain, one gets the impression that much of what we consider good and bad is based on the working of neurones and hormones. Neuroscientists can point out the places in the brain where you find moral conscience and even some of our moral feelings, and they can explain how the brain brings about moral behaviour. If one studies the brain long enough, in the end it will be possible to show the sites of our ethical principles, one might think then.
I am the last one to deny the truth of scientific results (unless I have scientific reasons for doing so). It is clear to me that much of what we morally do has a foundation in the physical structure of the brain and that defects of this structure can lead to amoral behaviour (psychopaths are a case in point). So, if brain research makes progress, this may have serious consequences for the status of ethics. Will it make ethics to no more than a comment on the workings of our brain or a practical explanation of it at most? Will it not happen that ethics can do no more than applying what we have to do in view of what is programmed in our brain to the situation in which we are, resulting in rules of moral behaviour? If so, ethics would change from a branch of philosophy into a natural science of moral prescriptions.
Maybe this thought is too pessimistic, if this word still has meaning in a merely physically conceived world (for in such a world pessimism is no longer a point of view that can be substantiated but merely a physically based feeling that something goes in the wrong direction). However, I think that there are good reasons that the relation between ideas and matter, and actually between mind and brain, is not that simple. What is wrong here is the idea is that science and thinking about what science means for us are actually the same. It is something what Ryle called a category mistake or what I, interpreting Habermas, called a distinction between level 1 and level 0 (see my blog dated Dec. 13, 2010). The same idea was expressed by Wittgenstein when he wrote at the end of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (6.54): “He [the reader] must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.” Or in other words: One has to distance oneself from science, for only then one can see it in the right way. That is, one has to philosophize. This does not imply, of course, that philosophy has nothing to do with what our brain physically does.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Ivory Tower of philosophy

I think that the world is greatly indebted to philosophy. I do not say that because I am a philosopher, for originally I am a sociologist and I turned to philosophy, just because it gave me important insights. But I think that the world would be different without philosophy, for the worse and for the better. This is not such an arrogant remark as one might think, if one realizes that philosophy developed together with the world and that what was called philosophy many centuries ago is not exactly the same as what is called philosophy today. Man’s political views of the world, ethics, mathematics, theology, astrology, science, and much more: all this was headed together under the name of philosophy. However, through the ages, one after another split off and became independent ways to approach the world or a part of it, until what remained is what we call philosophy today: a wordly way of thinking about themes that are not empirical.
When the philosophical field shrunk its character changed, too. Philosophy developed into a service organization for the sciences, for instance, and into a way to interpret scientific results. One of the tasks of philosophy today is thinking about what science is and about its methodological rules. By doing so, philosophy founds what science is and how it is done. But once science has done its work and presents its results, it is not so that these results have an unequivocal meaning. Far from that. As such scientific facts do not exist, for they are dependent on the type of instruments used to discover them and on presuppositions that are basic for these instruments. Facts are also dependent on the theories in which they are framed and these theories are continuously changing and being improved. In other words, scientific results are interpretations. To make clear what this implies is a philosophical task. Actually, this explanatory task is a continuation of the methodological task of philosophy before practical scientific work starts.
Moreover, scientific results are embedded in a social world, they have a meaning for this world and they have consequences for this world. Just think of the effects of medical discoveries on the way we live and the way we think about death and life. Scientific results can influence and change what we find important and what we value.
In view of this narrow relation between philosophy and science I am a bit surprised how often it happens that philosophers ignore scientific results. For instance, in the discussions on personal identity, one of my fields of interest as the readers of these blogs will know, it is often as if we still are in the days that Locke introduced the subject, more than 300 years ago. As if, since then, research of our body and mind hasn’t made clear that they are inextricably interwoven, which makes that our psychological identity cannot be separated from what we are physically are. Or taking another example that is not a hobbyhorse of mine, I was really amazed to see a recent publication that still took naïve realism seriously (happily it was an argument against it). This conception of the way we perceive the world says that we perceive things directly and in an unmediated way, as they “really” are, although it is clear from neurological and psychological research that it is a naïve view indeed that only is worth to be discussed in philosophical history books. When reading such stuff, it is as if philosophy has missed the developments elsewhere in the world and thinks that it can live in an Ivory Tower.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The experience of whiteness

Recently we had very much snow in the Netherlands, which does not happen often. Years can pass by with hardly any snow at all. But now it had fallen in big quantities. Moreover, also a bit unusual, a few days later it was still there on the roads and the trees as if it had just snowed.
One thing I like to do then is making an endurance run in the wood behind my house. There is hardly anything that I like to do more, but in most winters I can do it only once or twice. So I took my running shoes, put on my jogging suit and closed the door. Two minutes later I was in the wood. I was overwhelmed: So much whiteness around me, so much beauty. I was like wrapped in a white blanket. It was more beautiful than in any winter before.
When talking about the free will, we always think of things we can do. Swaab, Mele and others who discuss the problem see the essence of free will in the possibility to decide or choose related to action: whether we can act freely or not. For instance, the debate about the experiment by Libet that showed that an action precedes our conscious decision to perform it with a fraction of a second is about that: about our freedom to act; about whether we take the factual decision or whether our zombie does.
Although I do not want to deny that acting is fundamental for us, isn’t there more that makes up our freedom (or its absence)? For example, how about our experiences? Experiences are given to us. Our senses are selective, indeed, and they, too, influence what we see, feel, and so on. Nevertheless, we cannot help that the world is around us and that we have to experience it. But what determines how these experiences are for us? To a certain extent we can be trained to perceive better and to perceive more details and even what we consider beautiful. We can learn to enjoy symphonic music or opera, for instance. On the other hand, training can also make us lose the feeling for integral beauty, as I once heard about professional musicians. However, everybody enjoys music in some way. So, here, too, the question may apply: Are we free to enjoy the beautifulness of music? Are we free to enjoy beautifulness as such? Does the problem of freedom of decision apply also to how something is like for us, to what we like and in what way we like? Was the overwhelming beauty of the snow covered wood something I had freely decided to enjoy or was it something that just happened to me (“decided” not in the sense that I freely went to the wood but that I freely experienced its beauty)?
Maybe I would rather skip these words and simply write “Wow!”