Friday, April 29, 2011

Dangerous ideas (2)

Once I wrote in a blog “On an airport, they can scan your material luggage but not your dangerous thoughts.” At least we hope so, but is it true? Not so long ago a research group led by Prof. Matthew Lieberman of the University of California Los Angeles tried to find out whether it is really not possible to read the minds of other people. I will not go into the details of the research, but the essence is this. The members of a test group of twenty volunteers got – mixed with other messages – information about the safe use of sunscreen. After the test they received a bag with several things including sunscreen towelettes. They were also asked whether they were going to use the sunscreen in the week to come. During the time that the test subjects got the information about the sunscreen, their brains were scanned with a fMRI scanner, which registrates brain activity. A week later the test subjects were asked in a surprise follow up whether they did use the sunscreen. Their answers were compared with the data of the fMRI scans made during the experiment. This showed that the fMRI data predicted better what the test subjects actually would do than their stated intentions.
Today, we are not yet that far that we can place a brain scanner on an airport and scan the brains of all passengers before boarding. However, when I read such research reports, I think that the time that this will happen is not far away and that sooner or later they can read your dangerous thoughts. If such a scanner would pick out only and only those persons who intended to blow up an aeroplane and if it would do nothing else, I think we could live with it. However, besides that it will probably not be possible to make a scanner that is 100% reliable in doing this, history shows that the practice will be different. Scanners will be used not only for scanning your factual bomb throwing intentions but your other possible dangerous ideas as well. But what is dangerous? Who determines what is dangerous? Some people thought that Mahatma Gandhi and M.L. King had dangerous ideas. Today websites propagating nonviolent methods for toppling repressive regimes are blocked by these regimes because they are “dangerous” (at least for them). The practice will be, of course, that the authorities will think that every person can be a criminal. Therefore they want to collect your most private data, so your thoughts (although they will say that this is done for your own safety). Big brother will be watching you, even more.

For a short description of the experiment see

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Internet and our brain

One of the most important inventions at the end of the 20th has been the Internet. It broadens our environment by giving us entry to a world that before its existence was hardly known to us, and when it was it was difficult for us to reach, at least in practice. This extension of our view is not only passive in the sense that the Internet gives us merely entrance to a world made by others but it is also active because it gives us the possibility to send our own contributions to the world by making our own websites, by blogging, e-mailing, twittering, YouTube and so on. Seen in this way, the Internet looks simply a continuation of things we have always done, especially in the field of communication, but with a wider range. But is the Internet merely more of the same or does it also shape us in some way?
The British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has pointed out that it is quite well possible that this happens. 50% of our communication with other people, she says, consists of body language and eye contact. Yet another 30% is done by our voice. And the importance of direct body contact like hugging or shaking hands is still unknown. Just such from-person-to-person contacts do not exist when we communicate on the Internet, by Facebook, by chatting or in another virtual way. Then this bodily communication is absent, which does not only limit our assessment of how other people react on us, but which restricts also our own reactions. We do not see whether our words hurt our conversation partner; we do not learn to look into someone’s eyes on the Internet; we do not need to blush when we say something stupid, so Greenfield. This can hardly be without consequences for the persons we are. As the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger points out: in the end practice changes our brain, the way we look at the world. The difference between the structure of the brain and its contents is not as clear as often thought. Meaning can change the brain structure. Conversely, this structure determines how we experience the world. And this is what Greenfield is afraid of: that we can become less empathic; that we do not recognize the suffering we do to others; and in case we do, that we ignore it and shrug our shoulders. It is not only a supposition, for we see it already in the phenomenon of happy slapping: knock someone down, record it with your mobile camera and upload it to YouTube. For fun. Until now it is maybe “not more” than a kind of excess, but, in view of what Metzinger says, who knows whether once, this insensitivity, this lack of  a still normal empathy, will become structured in our brain.

Monday, April 18, 2011

How long does an action last?

Recently the Hungarian psychologist Emese Nagy reconfirmed older research saying that the length of an action is about three seconds. Nagy studied video images of hugs by athletes, their coaches and their opponents on the Olympic Games in Beijing. On the average a hug lasted three seconds, independent of the nationality and sex of the hugger. Only when an athlete embraced his or her coach, it lasted a bit longer. Already in 1911 it had been discovered that much what people do lasts about three seconds and some 15 years ago it came out that it is also the case for animals.
Although I do not want to doubt the research as such, I think that as it stands it cannot be true. Besides that the body has other rhythms and cycles as well, like the biological clock, the result raises important philosophical questions, for instance the question “what is an action?”
Why do we call a three seconds lasting hug an action? What about if it lasts much longer or shorter? After having won unexpectedly the Paris-Roubaix cycle race Sunday a week ago, Johan Vansummeren embraced his girl friend clearly much longer than three seconds. Does this imply that actually it wasn’t a hug or, if it was, that it wasn’t an action? If it wasn’t an action, what makes a piece of behaviour an action or something else? If it was an action, what sense does it have to say that an action lasts on the average three seconds?
Actions do not stand alone. They are placed in a setting and belong to the stream of our doings. We can isolate a part of this stream and call it an action if it has a clear aim and the actor intentionally does something in order to reach that aim. However, to take an example, when I am “going to dine”, this is more than only the act of putting the food in my mouth but it comprises also taking my coat, walking downtown, choosing a restaurant, ordering the dinner, up to paying and leaving the restaurant… From a wide perspective, all this together is the action “going to dine”. From the same perspective we can call “taking my coat”, “ordering the meal”, etc. sub-actions. And we could distinguish sub-sub-actions as well. It is the same for participating in a race, say a 5K on a track. From a wide perspective it includes everything from registering a week before the race, to going to the track, running, taking a shower afterwards, receiving my prize and going home; and much more. Actually these are sub-actions (and sub-sub-actions) of the long action “participating in a 5K”. And if I have won, hugging my coach belongs to it, too. It is clear that seen this way the whole action lasts longer than three seconds and most sub-actions do as well. Does this imply that both the running as such (which lasts at least 15 minutes for most runners) and the hugging of my coach cannot be called actions any longer but only sub-actions at most? Of course, we can call them actions. But does that make sense? Running a race is only running a race if many preconditions have been fulfilled: there must be a kind of registration, there must be preparations so that one runs at one’s best, and so on. And it is the same for hugging my coach. One can call it “hugging the coach” only in the setting of the race. This is also true for what one sees as the beginning and the end of this “action”. All this depends on our perspective and on our interpretation of what happens. It may be so that all action-pieces take place in three second units, but it does not follow that this split up is meaningful. This depends on how it can be put in a wider setting: whether the hug is a gesture of joy or an attempt of murder.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Send me a postcard

In the second half of the 19th century it has become a custom that travellers send picture postcards to family and friends at home. The cards give a view of a landscape, village or town; they show an image of a building or a monument that is worth seeing; they show a local tradition, and so on. By sending the card the sender wants to tell the addressee what a beautiful place s/he is visiting and what a happy time s/he has there. The card seldom shows persons, unless it is relevant, and it gives always an exaggerated image of what is on it: colours are made brighter, the sky is usually blue and cloudless, ugly details have sometimes been removed. A picture postcard is also a kind of cultural manipulation insofar only what is considered beautiful is shown: mountains, “romantic” landscapes with cows, old buildings, traditions… You do not find on postcards what is deemed ugly, like industry or people working “in the sweat of their faces”. They present an ideal world, a kind of paradise. In this sense the cards contain an ideology and they are a kind of propaganda.
The possible propagandistic value of picture postcards has been well estimated during the First World War. Just like other people far away from home and in difficult circumstances, the soldiers fighting at the front wanted to stay in contact with their families and friends, and because modern means of communication like telephone were hardly in use by the common people then, or did not yet exist, people wrote letters, many letters. And they sent postcards. However, the soldiers were not free to tell about the misery at the front and all the mail was censured. It is true, the circumstances there were often so bad that many soldiers simply did not want to write about it, but some did. And some wanted to show pictures as well. In order to lead the mail in the “right” direction, the military authorities provided for postcards with preprinted texts and with acceptable images, which had often a kind of propagandistic content. For instance, everybody knew that soldiers got often seriously wounded; therefore the official postcards did show images of wounded soldiers but it were images where they clearly received the highest possible standard of care; where the wounded were smiling; where they thanked the nurses and where they were treated as heroes. This was often far from reality. Other cards showed that, even at the front, a decent burial was possible. Or there is a postcard with soldiers lying in shell holes in the ground, containing the message: British soldiers can adapt to any circumstances to make themselves comfortable and to sleep. Or cards expressed comradeship and traditional virtues. In short, these postcards were used as propaganda intended to boost support for the war at the home front. However, from that point of view, who could ever have got the idea to have printed this picture on a postcard (see above), and, even more, who would have been prepared to send it?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Responsibility for what happens

Sooner or later the problems with the Fukushima power plant will come to an end and let’s hope that it will not be with an explosion of one of the reactors. Then it will be asked whether someone can be held responsible for what happened. In the past I have written already a bit on this theme. People can be held responsible for what they do and sometimes also for what other people do. But can they be held responsible for things that happen to them, like an earthquake? In a certain way they can, I think. Of course, nobody can be blamed for an earthquake as such and, in the light of our present knowledge, also nobody can be blamed for the absence of previous warnings. However, often one or more persons can be called to account for the consequences of what happened, for most natural events do not occur completely unexpectedly. Maybe it is unknown when they will happen and with what force but usually it is known that they’ll happen. Therefore in many cases preventive measures can be taken or measures that will soften the consequences. And it is here that one’s responsibility comes in.
On October 4th last I wrote in my blog: “Responsibility refers to a person and an action done by that person, to something a person did with an intention or intentionally. Only then I call … a person responsible for what s/he did or for the consequences of what s/he did. But … it is not enough that s/he was acting with an intention or intentionally. The action or its consequences must also imply a moral obligation”. In view of this it seems useful to ask whether someone is responsible for the Fukushima catastrophe in some way. To begin with the end, it was the moral obligation of the people involved that the power plant functioned safely. The earthquake was not man-made, of course, but it could have been foreseen that sooner or later a very strong seism would take place, together with a tsunami. Nevertheless a nuclear power plant had been built there with all the risks of a nuclear catastrophe, and, as it came out, the nuclear power plant did not withstand the natural disaster. Why not? And why were the safety rules often so poorly observed and why were violations kept secret? Were the safety regulations as such sufficient? And so on. In this way people can be held responsible for a natural disaster even if nobody can help that it took place. However, in my last blog I argued that a nuclear catastrophe would happen anyway, if it were not in Fukushima, as a consequence of an earthquake, then elsewhere in the world on a site safe for natural disasters. And that’s why those building nuclear power plants are responsible or at least co-responsible for a nuclear catastrophe anyhow, whatever it is that made that it happened.