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Fisher and Consciousness

May 12, 2010

Here’s an interesting passage from R. A. Fisher, one of the great scientists of the 20th century:

The surface or limit separating the inner from the outer life of each living thing is also, in our experience, the true seat of our consciousness, the boundary of the objective and the subjective, where we experience, through our imperfect sense organs, what comes to us from the outside, and with at least equal obscurity, that which rises into consciousness from within. If consciousness is, as it would seem, the symbol, or even the means, of unification in our being, this is the region to which creative activity could most fitly be traced.

This is from “The Creative Aspects of Natural Law,” his Arthur Stanley Eddington Lecture from 1950 (PDF). He is responding to scientists and philosophers, Smuts and Bergson in particular, who imbue germ cells with minds of their own. They are shaped not just by ordinary cause and effect but by something creative or willful–a life force–that stands outside it. Fisher’s response is wise: why locate that creative element somewhere remote from our experience and not where we already know it to be, in consciousness itself? Why make germ cells and not organisms themselves the actors? Each act of an animal expresses its individual will. But there is no general will, no perfect form which each creature is trying to achieve, just a population of individual wills.

This still means, I suppose, that a full view of life requires looking at something more than ordinary cause-effect relationships. But it’s not as though this creative element is, for Fisher, something that stands alongside mechanistic causation. The world itself is thoroughly mechanistic. Consciousness is entwined with that world, but never a part of it. When Fisher talks about consciousness residing in ‘the surface or limit separating the inner from the outer life of each living thing’ he is, obviously, not saying that it is our skin or nerve endings or indeed any physical part of us that constitutes consciousness. Consciousness is not a thing in the world but something like its outer limit.


May 11, 2010

We should mend the rift between science and religion, but what’s the point? Better biology classes? More humane end-of-life care? A polite separation of powers, head from heart perhaps? Noble goals all, but science and religion are now both finished as ways that people actually introduce meaning into their lives. Why is the stitching together of two dead husks anything to get worked up about?

I can’t get excited about churches that posit the essential sameness of all world religions. It’s like doing arithmetic with all zeroes. In a similar way, I can’t get excited about the dry deism that purports to reconcile science and religion.

There are two kinds of reconciliation. The first is ceasefire, amicable separation, where the two sides simply need to tolerate each other, even where they cohabitate in a single mind. Each accepts a few limitations in return for a reciprocal guarantee. Boundaries are drawn; internal workings are left untouched.

But there is another, more ambitious kind of reconciliation which says that the internal problems of science and religion spring from the same source. This refuses to accept the impoverished materials, the dead husks, as given. They can be reinvigorated into more than just repositories of knowledge and comfort. They can be something else, appendages of life’s larger meaning. But this requires asking after meaning in a general way, neither scientific nor religious, but in the spirit that animates science and religion at their best, or once did.


Here’s one view, a common view, about how we make meaning in our lives. Each person is endowed with a certain store of existential energy which he or she is free to invest in different pursuits: collecting butterflies, genocide, knitting, raising children, etc. Returns vary, of course, and often unpredictably—art and science tend to be better bets than youtube watching and thumb twiddling, though—but there is a kind of common currency, the basic game is always the same. There’s nothing fundamentally incoherent about finding meaning in juggling or crossword puzzles so long as they are pursued wholeheartedly. Let a thousand eccentric flowers bloom. This is liberal society as an existential marketplace.

So yes, in this context science and religion are certainly sources of meaning. People still commit themselves. People still get things out of them. But the question is whether this is essentially different from the meaning people get from chess or square dancing. Is meaning in life ultimately something so bland and baseless—a mix of personal pleasure, good relationships, and a sense of contributing to the greater good—that it can be got, with varying success, from pretty much anything at all? Or is this another case where the marketplace produces distortion and alienation?


May 7, 2010 / CC BY-ND 2.0

Food has power over us—more than sex, in a way. Both are subject to strong appetites, but sex plays a more central role in human relationships. Sexual arousal essentially involves desire for another person. Food does not. This gives it a sort of naked, intrinsic power that sex lacks. In the end, it’s just you and the food in front of you. Many people give up eating meat precisely because it puts them alone–completely, intimately alone–with a dead animal. Explanations of vegetarianism miss something when they appeal solely to the consequences of eating meat, and not to the act itself.

Eating is not, but sex is, transactional. Is this part of why we sometimes feel that our sexual desires are not entirely our own? Misogynists hate the whore because they hold her responsible for their desires. If extreme, this nevertheless aligns with a general tendency to locate sexual desires outside oneself. Therapists treat sexual dysfunction as the result of trauma, of some interaction gone wrong. And we all habitually worry about what messages the media is sending about sex.

With food, it’s the reverse. Food is seen as a matter of sovereign individual choice. More precisely, eating is an ever more high stakes game and this brings out the fundamentally individual nature of the act of eating. Your food should be healthy, organic, local, sustainable, antibiotic-free. When this option is not easily within reach, you need to “vote with your fork” to make so. And when it is, you have only yourself to blame if you choose otherwise.

It is sometimes said that eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are less about staying thin than about maintaining control. If that’s true, it’s an odd, ascetic kind of control: the control of no control. The pressure to choose what to eat leads people to surrender to a regimen, which removes the possibility of choice completely. (Is this sort of like the surrender involved in addiction? People also talk about eating disorders as being like addictions.)

The food-conscious of all stripes talk not about what they choose to eat but about what they can and cannot eat. No one really talks in a similar way about the kinds of sex they can and cannot have.

Could there be a school of psychology that attached as much importance to gustatory pleasures and drives as Freud gave to sexual ones? True, Freud had us start off life in an oral stage, when our newborn lives revolved around the pleasure of suckling. But this is a stage of the libido, in which the mouth is a sort of sexual organ. Why not instead take the drive for food and flavor as the paradigm? Why not speak of the libido as quite literally hungry, as a displacement of the appetite?

Perhaps food was once more essentially social. Some people claim that we can fix what is broken with American food culture, with its emphasis on speed and convenience, by making meals back into the social rituals they once were. Partly, this is just the sentimental, community-worshipping view that says that the only real problem in society is our alienation from one another. There are certain aspects of eating that cannot be socialized. We die alone, and we eat alone too.

Why do religions so often impose restrictions on diet? According to pop anthropology, it’s for team-building: they give concrete form to the essentially abstract distinction between the faithful and everyone else. But why not say the same about religion itself, that it is just a way of separating us from them? Or why not think the reverse, that religion is to a large degree simply the abstract form of diet?

photo courtesy of Jonathunder under a Creative Commons license

Shadows of the future

May 5, 2010

What makes it possible for cooperation to emerge is the fact that players might meet again. This possibility means that the choices made today not only determine the outcome of this move, but can also influence the later choices of the players. The future can therefore cast a shadow back upon the present and therefore affect the current strategic situation.  –Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation

‘The shadow of the future’ is Robert Axelrod’s term to describe the rational shift from exploitative to cooperative behavior. When you have to deal with your neighbors every day, exploiting them now means opening yourself to retaliation later and forswearing the benefits of future, long-term cooperation. Not so, of course, when the game is a one-off, when the future is closed and there is no possibility of retaliation or cooperation. Then the rational, if contemptible thing to do is to carpe diem and to hell with everyone and everything else.

This is all equally true when what one has to either cooperate with or exploit is not another person or group but the natural environment in which one lives.


Monuments are shadows of the past. They honor the dead. Moreover, every monument will eventually be experienced as the work of people who are, at the time of experiencing, dead. Monuments connect the living not only with the dead and but with the ways that the dead have remembered the more distant dead. This is one way monuments can be a source comfort: they ensure that your act of remembrance will, in a small way, be remembered when you are dead.

Is it possible to have a monument to the future, something that casts its shadow? Would a monument dedicated to the future commemorate the future or merely its builders’ anticipation of the future? Would it be futuristic? (Nothing dates as quickly as futurism.) How do you commemorate something that hasn’t happened yet? How do you honor things and people which do not yet exist?

Imagine two walls facing each other at opposite ends of a reflecting pool, each dense with names. Names are continually taken off one wall and transferred to the other. One wall is for the past, the other for the future. This is obviously impossible in practice for several reasons.

Some people erect monuments to the unborn, but this is not the same as honoring future people. Pro-lifers honor the unborn precisely because they think that the unborn are not merely future people. They think they are already people. Still, is this part of the reason that the pro-life movement has such a hold on some people, that it can seem after a fashion like a way of honoring future people? / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A proper ‘monument’ to the future and to future people would, I suppose, have to be something self-renewing, organic, chaotic, and unplanned. For if it were designed, no matter how artfully, it would instantly become a reminder of the moment, soon to be passed, when it was conceived, completed, or dedicated. What is needed is something that, like the future, fundamentally escapes human intention.

photo available under a creative commons license

We have gone from seeing nature as divine to seeing it as an obstacle to be overcome to seeing it as property to be managed. The next step is to see it as an enshrinement of future people.


April 25, 2010

There is a fallacy—I think it’s a fallacy—according to which you make sense of the past by collating sufficiently many historical events end-to-end. If confusion persists, it indicates that the assembled record is incomplete. Dispute is always only over which events occurred in which order.

This is wrong. Events must be not just recounted but read. Not everything happens by conscious action. You can’t simply sum the proximate causes of each link in the chain. What this method misses are the long-range, low-frequency vibrations of the collective mind, powerful and often mistaken for silence and noise.

These are not ethereal. Like each of us’s daily mental weather, they shape and are shaped by an environment of concrete things: bodies, food, tools, images, buildings, weapons.

A President is greatly pressured to keep all the empire’s secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments. He becomes the prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could not not use the Bomb, a modern President cannot not use his huge power base. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a self-entangling giant.

–Garry Wills, Bomb Power


The implicit, if not precisely explicit, narrative in Wills’s book is that the atomic bomb, supremely destructive, was also supremely sensitive—something to be defended at any cost from even the smallest threat. And infectiously so: if the bomb itself must be defended, then so must the people who build it, the troops that guard it, the bombers that carry it, the bases from which those bombers fly, the countries in which those bases lie and the foreign governments that host them. A threat anywhere is a threat everywhere, and any threat is an infinite threat. Security is digital: either 1 or 0; equivalently, either ∞ or 0.

The risks we face are of a new order of magnitude, commensurate with the total struggle in which we are engaged. For a free society there is never total victory, since freedom and democracy are never wholly attained, are always in the process of being attained. But defeat at the hands of the totalitarian is total defeat. These risks crowd in on us, in a shrinking world of polarized power, so as to give us no choice, ultimately, between meeting them effectively or being overcome by them.

–National Security Council Report 68

This is how Wills explains the concentration of power, after WWII, in the executive branch of the US government. The President, as Commander in Chief, controlled the bomb, so he could command any level of power and secrecy to protect it, and therefore any level of power and secrecy to defend that privilege. The Constitution itself could not interfere.

The existence of the bomb obliterated old distinctions, if mostly in our own psychology: war and peace, center and periphery, sensitive and insensitive. When you can’t distinguish vital interests from trivial ones, you’ll treat everything as maximally vital. You’ll invest yourself in the outward signs of vitality without regard to reality. The apparent power-hunger of the US executive may really be a sign of anxious disorientation.


Learned reactions may persist even after the initial stimulus has been removed. Ignorance might breed fear not just by preventing us from dispelling the claims of fearmongers but directly, as its natural outgrowth. Without something solid to grip we fall into paranoid fantasy as if by gravity.

The takeaway message of 9/11 seemed to be: anything at all is a weapon. / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Before, we knew what the weapons were and simply had to defend them. Now, the attack might come in any form, in any context. Most Muslims are not terrorists, but those that are will sport business casual like everyone else.


Here is one way to “invest yourself in the outward signs of vitality without regard to reality”:


The new Bomb—the new navel of our fear—is the terrorists’ ideology. We tell ourselves that terrorists do not succeed by arms alone. If anything is a weapon, it is only so in the hands of a dementedly inspired terrorist.

If what makes a terrorist dangerous is what is in his head, and if anything at all is a weapon in his hands, then you will deprive him of everything, even his senses.

On positive thinking

April 23, 2010 / CC BY-NC 2.0

“The world of the happy man is a different one from the world of the unhappy man.” –Wittgenstein

Positive thinking–the culture/industry of Oprah and The Secret and the prosperity megachurches and Get Motivated! seminars guaranteed to increase your income and productivity–is surely a cultural disease of one kind or another. Something, we know, has gone terribly wrong for so many of us to entrust ourselves to this hucksterish neo-shamanism. The moralistic response is to set one’s face against it and preach its opposite, which is hard-headed realism. But those seeking a scientific cure should look more closely into whether positive thinking can–or should–be so straightforwardly opposed.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America is a call to arms against positive thinking. Positive thinking, she says, makes us unrealistic and uncritical. It is an abdication of autonomous thought in favor of pseudo-science and cheap sentiment, an opiate for the consumerist masses that leaves no time for asking hard questions and owning up to hard truths. It makes us vulnerable to con men selling their secrets to success and to CEOs and politicians who prefer people not trouble themselves with ‘negative’ thoughts about injustice, war, and financial collapse. George W. Bush: brutal optimist.

Positive thinking has a weirdly compelling, self-reinforcing logic. Want a fulfilled life for yourself, professional success, happy family, comfortable house, etc.? The best way to get there, it says, is to feel good now, no matter your other miseries. As if by a law of the universe, good things follow pleasant feelings, bad things follow unpleasant feelings. The best way to give yourself pleasant feelings is to force yourself to think thoughts that make you feel good. Of course, one of those thoughts is precisely this: ‘by feeling good now, I will achieve my goals later.’ This is magical thinking in the service of hedonism and materialism.

It’s easy to beat up on this sort of thing. Obviously: thoughts exert no quasi-magnetic force on material reality. Obviously: there is such a thing as blind optimism. Obviously: there is more to life than wealth and productivity.

It’s even easier to beat up on the Tony Robbins’s and the Joel Osteens and the Deepak Chopras, the utter kitsch of it all.

But this is just inflamed wheel-spinning. Sort of like the New Atheism of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, it refuses to address its opponent in open ground. It considers only the silliest, shallowest, most crass forms of positive thinking, only its most glaring weaknesses, and only its most ludicrous practitioners. More broadly, when we talk about ideas, we need to able to separate an idea and its implementation. The mere fact that an idea has been used, viciously, to immiserate people does not show for a second that it’s not true. The conviction that good ideas are always put to good use is itself a bit of unfounded optimism.

Take the case of religion, where we can have two debates. We can talk about the practices of the people who carry the banner of religion. We will then talk about the crusades and jihad and papal indulgences and the subjugation of women, along with the good works of religious charities. When we debate ‘God’ we will be debating how far to endorse these practices. Alternatively, we can address the truth of religion directly, as something that the practice of religionists may reflect only dimly or not at all. This is the harder but immeasurably more important of the two.

Analogously, we can talk about the good and bad practices of the positive thinking industry or we can set that aside and try to talk about what truth, if any, there is in the idea of positive thinking. The task is not to validate positive thinking, but to separate as far as possible, what is true in it from what is merely a mental analgesic. Ehrenreich ignores this task.

She says at the outset that by ‘positive thinking’ she is explicitly not talking about deeper things like hope and ‘existential courage.’ She means something shallow, like forced sunniness. But what if forced sunniness is, at least sometimes, a necessary step on the way to hope? What if it’s possible to break through and come back around to a point where sunny affirmations are invested with a higher meaning? What if the deepest existential courage is sometimes held up by the most ungraceful, nonsensical talk about self-actualization?

This is supposed to be how AA works, even for skeptics. Beyond all belief, going through the ritual motions eventually delivers what those 12 steps gesture at so clumsily.

The closest Ehrenreich gets to the inner life of a positive thinker is this dispiriting encounter:

In 2007, I got to know Sue Goodhart, a realtor who was showing me houses, and I happened to mention that I was doing some research on motivational speakers. She smiled ruefully and gestured toward the backseat of her car, which I saw was piled high with motivational CDs. When I teased her for being ‘a motivation junkie,’ she told me that she’d come from a working class background and had never been encouraged to set high goals for herself. Then, at some point in the 1990s, her agency brought in a motivational firm called the Pacific Institute, which provided a five-day session on ‘goal-setting, positive thinking, visualization, and getting out of your comfort zone,’ and she began to think of herself as a self-determining individual and potential success. But that first exposure was hardly enough. She continues to listen to motivational CDs in her car from house to house, both because ‘sales is a lonely business’ and because the CDs help her get ‘to the next level.’

For Ehrenreich, this is simply an illustration of the economics of positive thinking, in which businesses dangle visions of wealth to motivate other businesses’ beleaguered employees. All true, but it keeps Ehrenreich from asking whether there are other dimensions as well. The quoted phrases in the last sentence are offered as if as proof that the only forces at work are economic. The use of ‘ruefully’ to describe Sue smiling is also odd. ‘Rueful’ can either mean pitiable or regretful. Does Sue realize, on some level, how she’s been tricked by the whole system? Or is her smile sincere and a sign of how deeply she has been tricked? Either way, it leaves out a third possibility, which is consistent with the exploitative nature of positive thinking: that it is not just a necessary expedient but an important source of meaning in Sue’s life.

going to the wall: birthdays on facebook

April 22, 2010 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Some people treat new technologies like they would alien invaders. When some new thing appears, they need to find out whether it is to be welcomed or, alternatively, resisted. They want to know whether it is hostile or whether it comes in peace. I tend to think of new technologies more like clothes. However they look on the rack, some things are just really unflattering to your fat once you put them on.

Take this—there is practice on facebook of wishing one’s friends happy birthday by writing a short, public message on their ‘wall’, where it can be seen by all their other friends in a chronological list along with all the other birthday greetings. And facebook, by the way, gives you automated advance warning of upcoming birthdays, which means you tend to ‘remember’ lots of them and lots of people tend to  ‘remember’ yours. By far the most common message is something simple like a plain old ‘Happy Birthday!’. Others are more personalized, but never anything more than a few playful, exclamatory sentences, joshing puffery like you might write in an old-fashioned paper greeting card, and even that is pretty rare. Instead, what you get is a lot people pressed into a tight corner. On the one hand, they need to write something that captures their totally individual wit and panache. On the other hand, they can’t go into too much detail: realistically, we’re talking less than ten words. And this is all the harder because all the birthday wishee’s other friends, many of whom are also your friends, will be able to see the message for digitally archived perpetuity and because, as the wall rapidly fills with birthday wishes, many of the succinct yet pleasantly unorthodox and utterly original ways you thought up to say something as banal and well-meaning as ‘happy birthday, Kelly!’ have already been used up.

To be helpful, here is a list of things you can try if you get stuck. Just remember to check the wall to see if these have already been used. If that happens, you can always try combining one or more of these techniques. Be creative!

  1. Use lots of exclamation points. Ex.: ‘Happy Birthday!!!!!!!!!!!!!’
  2. Append nicknames, titles, diminutives, epithets, etc. Ex.: ‘Happy birthday, big shooter’
  3. Capitalize, creatively if necessary. Ex.: ‘hapPY BirtHDaY’
  4. Misspell, creatively if possible. Ex.: ‘Haapi britdayyyyyyyyyyy’
  5. Permute the words, even to the point of ungrammaticalness. Ex.: ‘to you a happy birthday’
  6. Say it in another language. Ex.: ‘per molts anys’
  7. Abbreviate. Ex.: ‘H. b-day’, ‘H. birth-d’, ‘H. bd’, etc.
  8. Use emoticons. Start with ‘:)’ and work up.
  9. Write in dialect. Ex. ‘ ‘ello guvna, ‘appy birfday, innit?’ or ‘O hai! U can haz birfday?’
  10. Repetition. Self-explanatory.

I kid. Every birthday wall-message I’ve ever received was a kindness, and surprisingly touching. Still, I’ve instructed facebook not to give notice of my birthday to even my closest friends.