Monday, October 31, 2011

Montaigne’s mirror

The Essays by Montaigne, but also his report of his journey through Europe, keep holding your interest, how often you read them. And not only is it interesting to read what Montaigne wrote himself, it is also interesting to read what others have written about him and his books. Therefore, not only you can find Montaigne’s Essays always on the table in my study, ready to be opened (instead of somewhere hidden between the books in my book cases), but now and then I read also one of those comments on Montaigne that I happen to come accross, and I do not find it annoying when someone tells me about Montaigne what I had read already in one of the other comments. So, no wonder that I have a little library of Montaigne commentaries. The latest one I added was Saul Frampton’s When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing with Me?, and this quotation – for the title is a quotation from the Essays – says already a lot about the man Montaigne was: A man who was looking at the daily things of the world around him and who asked surprising questions about it. Moreover he was a man with an eye for cultural differences, which becomes especially clear from his travel journey (which was written for personal use, however, not for publication). My remarks about Montaigne are not original, I know it, but it is always nice to discover things anew, even when “everybody” knows them, and to be pointed to facts that many other people know already but just you don’t. It is way of developing your mind. In order to show richness of Montaigne’s thoughts, I give here a few quotations from the Essays. I have no pretention that they are the most important ones or are a kind of summary of the work. The Essays simply cannot be summarized. I took just a few passages that I had underlined in the book, and I did not underline many other passages which are by far more worth to be stressed. Just read them, enjoy them and think about them.
- Of course, you know this one already, but in case you don’t: When seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are but seated upon our breech.
- Many faults escape our eye, but the infirmity of judgment consists in not being able to discern them, when by another laid open to us.
- Things most unknowne are fittest to be deified.
- He that should fardle-up a bundle or huddle of the fooleries of mans wisdome, might recount wonders.
- Why, in giving your estimate of a man, do you prize him wrapped and muffled up in clothes?  He then discovers nothing to you but such parts as are not in the least his own, and conceals those by which alone one may rightly judge of his value.
- Miracles appear to be so, according to our ignorance of nature, and not according to the essence of nature.
- In truth, custom is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress.
- In truth, it is not want, but rather abundance, that creates avarice.
- Of all the follies of the world, that which is most universally received is the solicitude of reputation and glory.
- The conduct of our lives is the true mirror of our doctrine.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Mind reading and our future

Well, of course, it’s my fault, for I am a simple philosopher sitting in his room in his private ivory tower. But now and then I come down, as my dear readers may have noticed, in order to look for stuff for my blogs, either live by travelling, or virtually by surfing on the Internet or reading printed stuff. And so I discovered a few days ago that the technological developments have already progressed more than what I had thought. In my blog last week I saw mind reading as something far away in the future, but what did I discover? It’s already among us. No, I do not mean the mirror neurons in our head that read for instance, as my readers may remember, the feelings, emotions, intentions and so on of other persons. I mean an artificial device that really can read what is going on in our brains. The gadget I found on the Internet is a kind of head set. You have to connect it with a television, which interprets then your brain waves. Or use your brain waves for controlling computer games or other software programs. The Australian engineer Adam Wilson made such an application known to the world by using it for sending a Twitter message. But people suffering from brain disabilities and paralysis will be able to use it for controlling their wheelchairs. I did not find it yet in the stories and messages on the Internet (but it may be my fault) but what to think of using such a head set as a kind of mobile telephone? Just set a mind reading set on your head and let your partner do the same, and you can communicate just by thinking! You do not need to say a word any longer. Just think. One problem to be solved, of course, is that probably there will be also other thoughts in your head, so the mind reading set must learn to select the right ones. But it will make communication much easier. So you’ll be able to tell to your partner what you cannot put into words.
Communication will be more direct then. But be careful, for maybe your partner hears also what you want to keep secret. One step further will be to read your thoughts, even when you do not have a mind reading set on your head. You enter a building and a mind scanner in the doorpost reads whether you want to make an attempt or whether you are there for decent reason. Even better, place such scanners on every street corner, like it is done now with surveillance cameras. The uses will be infinite (as will be its misuses). From a philosophical point of view all these developments are very interesting and they will certainly make that concepts like freedom and personal identity will be given a new meaning.
See CBS News and the NewScientist and follow the links there.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Are our thoughts free?

Big Brother is watching us. I have discussed this theme already several times. Facebook wants to have our data for commercial reasons. State authorities want to have our data and follow what we do because we might be possible criminals. We find cameras everywhere for controlling our behaviour. But at least our thoughts are free, as a famous German song composed about 200 years ago says. The idea is much older, though. It had already been expressed by Cicero in Antiquity and then later, for instance, by the German mediaeval poet Walther von der Vogelweide. We still think so today, but how long yet?
The idea that our thoughts are free wants to express that we can think what we like because our thoughts are hidden for others. Even prison cannot limit them. And although our thoughts tend to be directed to what is socially and culturally acceptable and by what we have learned, everybody who wants to develop his or her own thoughts is free to do that.
It is to be hoped that thoughts will remain free in the sense that we can think what we want to think, but there are signs that the time is near that they’ll not be hidden any longer. Once I wrote a blog about a research that showed that a brain scanner can reveal our intentions better than we can. Now they can scan our brain also in order to see what we have done. At least the first steps have been taken. Researchers presented film fragments to three test subjects and while these persons were watching them their brains were scanned. Then the researchers begun to search video clips on YouTube, and with the help of the scanner data, a special computer program and some other computer work they succeeded to reconstruct the film fragments the tests subjects had seen (see  Of course, these reconstructions were possible because the researchers knew already what film fragments they were looking for, but the next step will certainly be that they can also reconstruct what we have seen without such reference material. The whole procedure is still very complicated and time-consuming, but I guess that the time will come that it will be a matter of seconds and with a much higher quality of the results. One step more and it will be possible to “read” not only what we are doing at the moment that our brain is scanned but also to find back what we did in the past, so to read our memories. Then, the uses will be legion. It will be easier to solve crimes but also to repress unwanted behaviour (just have every citizen scanned his or her brain once a month).
All this sounds like science fiction, but wasn’t the myth of Icarus flying through the air also a kind of science fiction in Antiquity? And now we can fly, albeit it in a different way than Icarus did. Fiction often becomes fact, and it is to be expected that this will also occur for brain reading. Thoughts are not representations of what we do or have done, but they’ll certainly be influenced by the idea that the present representations in our brain and our memories can easily be read. And once these can be read, it is not unlikely that our thoughts can be read as well. Then they’ll no longer be free.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Our stored free will

I think that one reason why it is often thought that we do not have a free will is that it has come out that most of the processes in our brain are unconscious. And then the conclusion is easily drawn that what happens unconsciously happens without our will. As I have explained in other blogs, this conclusion does not follow. One simply needs more evidence for it. (see for instance my blog dated September 13, 2010) This does not mean, of course, that all things we do occur with our will. What I do maintain, however, is that fundamentally we have a free will and that within the limits of our body and the situation we have choices. We can plan actions long before they take place, and even at the last moment we can often choose what to do, too. But in fact, most of these free chosen actions are worked out unconsciously. How else could it be in view of the limited capacity for conscious processes in our mind?
Then it is an interesting question how the unconscious part within us works. In their article “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being” the psychologists John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand shed some light on it. In this blog I can only touch their analysis, but in short they see three processes at work that determine our unconscious reactions or forms of automatic self-regulation, as they call them. The first one is an “automatic effect of perception on action”: We see other people doing things and when it fits the ideas that were stored before in our head – if nor our prejudices –, we are going to act in the same way. Although Bargh and Chartrand do not mention it, it makes me think of what the recently discovered mirrors neurons make us do (see my blogs of June 27, 2011 and later). In other words: we act automatically in a certain way because we see others doing it that way.
The second automatism is “automatic goal pursuit”: For one reason or another we have developed certain goals in our mind and they are automatically activated when we happen to meet the right circumstances where we can pursuit them. However, in order to acquire these automatisms we often need first a conscious learning process that gives us the right behaviour. Once we have internalized the learned behaviour it becomes automatic, like driving a car, for instance. We can call these automatisms skill, experience, practice or routine. They can also be acquired by unconscious processes that are different from explicit learning. Once in a situation where we need to apply our skill we behave automatically in the right way.
Bargh and Chartrand describe the third automatism as “continual automatic evaluation of one’s experience”. Evaluating whether an object or event is good or bad is often seen as a conscious process, but in many cases it does not happen so freely, as the authors point out. Our evaluations are often (if not usually) activated directly without needing to think about it and even without being aware that we classified a person or event as good or bad. They just happen. When they happen they can influence our mood and even our emotions or they can influence our behaviour like avoiding places that arouse unpleasant feelings.
Actually, all these processes are not so different from what we freely and consciously do, for we can see them as stored free will, or at least a big part of our reactions can be seen that way, namely to the extent that they are the result of learning and of handling the experiences of life.