a blog by josef johann

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

only real on the first draft

Music tells a story, the very synesthetic, wading-through-forests story I'm looking for, on the very first listen. After that it's hard to listen again as if for the first time. The more familiar you are with a song, the more you are listening to your own anticipation of it, with which you are overly familiar. Not a song but a duller memory synchronized to the music, that covers it up.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Knowing a little more about the mystery

Below is a comment I left, in a comment thread to a characteristically wonderful blog post by Eric Macdonald. It's pretty long so I'm reproducing it here.

Eric, I feel that Daniel Dennet won the argument on sui generis characteristics of subjectivity (or lack thereof) back when he wrote Consciousness Explained. For me, the main takeaway was that philosophers mistake failures of imagination for insights into necessity, and pre-emptively draw up limits to explanatory power of science.

It may be hard to imagine that brain scans can tell me anything important about my own subjectivity. But when I learn that my brain hears, in the violin, the same expressiveness it hears in a human voice, I've learned something about myself and my relationship to the music. Of course Bach did not do brain scans on anyone before writing Air on A G String. But did he know a listener might hear the sorrowful voice of a friend, or a mother? I do not doubt this. His genius, as well as that of Michelangelo, consisted in seeing connections now reflected by our best understanding of biology.

Similarly, when I'm banging my head to the endlessly repetitive rhythms of my favorite metal band Isis, it widens my relationship with the music to know my cerebellum (which regulates motor function) is at that moment furiously active in rhythm processing, and that it has massive connections to the amygdala which is tasked with remembering emotional events. And that the cerebellum is the most primal reptilian part of our brain.

It may be hard to imagine how we might separate out legitimate experiences of religious euphoria (if any) from erotic fantasies. But, presumably we'd do science on this the same way we do science on other things: with attention to detail, with control subjects, with creativity. Attending to the specifics of subjective reports, and the details of brain activity, we can compare what the nuns feel to actual sexual fantasy, explicitly tested for in other subjects, or actual experiences of euphoria from atheists. Do you think we would not tease out differences? Or do you think that, having failed to spot differences, this in itself wouldn't be positively interesting as opposed to neutral? We could find that experiences explode into a dozen or a thousand different categories, or that they are the same.

On correlations: it appears to me the history of science with respect to any phenomenon, is a history of encroaching correlations that eventually infiltrate the phenomenon itself. When this happens, they are no longer correlations but simply a description of what the phenomenon is. Why should it be the case that we can map out the physiological basis for chills in response to music, as Zatorre and Blood have, but not the higher-order circuitry that preferentially responds to qualitative aspects of music to induce those chills? Where exactly is it, in the interpretation of art, that science isn't supposed to be able to get to?

We suffer from an impoverished language that rarely ever does justice to our euphorias, or religious experiences. This I think, together with the fact of our being drenched in 2000 years of human culture where the only attempts at language-making with respect to aesthetics and euphorias have come from people wholly ignorant of brains, has constrained our intuition and our ability to form hypotheses that might relate these experiences to the objective world (i.e. to brains). Even since the scientific revolution brain science has only just come of age, or maybe hasn't even.

The history of religious (and philosophical!) retreat in the face of scientific explanation has not finished, and atheists are wrong to concede the point with respect to aesthetics. It's not that we would wipe out art (a misguided fear that I think is not unlike religious fear of losing their humanity if they become atheists) but that we would come to greater understanding of ourselves. Feynman said it like this: "It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Neuroscience denialism

If you polled people on what anti-scientific belief they thought was most widespread, I think most would reply creationism, followed by global warming skepticism and vaccine skepticism. I hesitate to include astrology because I don't know to what extent horoscope readers believe what they're reading.

I think, however, that the most widespread anti-scientific belief is not any of the above. Instead, I think it might be what I can best describe as neuroscience denialism. It consists in denying that there is, or ever can be, a neuroscience that accounts for various subjective human experiences, such as pains, pleasures, musical experiences, loves, lusts. It denies that there can be a common neurological organization shared across people, across humanity that accounts for these things, in virtue of which we can come to objective knowledge about them.

It's motivated, I think, by people's fear that they lose power over their individuality if they concede such things to science. In my experience atheists are no less likely to make such claims than theists.

Monday, October 3, 2011

I want people to be able to describe music the same way they might describe walking through the woods. Mist in their face, the light glinting off rocks, that rock!, the moving shadows.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Keynesian Tax Cuts

Here's a neat chart from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities:

Even if a Republican doesn't want to argue that tax cuts pay for themselves, they still have the option of arguing that tax cuts nevertheless stimulate economic activity. That's true, and it is, I think, something Republican politicians believe and explicitly argued in the debate over extending the Bush-era middle class tax cuts.

But if you are willing to incur deficits to stimulate the economy via tax cuts, that means you are willing to incur deficits to stimulate the economy. And you might as well incur deficits to stimulate the economy in the most effective way possible, right?

If not, we are talking tax cuts for the sake of tax cuts.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Really, what is left?

I hope Brian doesn't mind my quoting his outstanding comment here, originally left over at Russell Blackford's blog.

Once we realize a few things, I wonder how much else discussed here will be important. Those things include:

a) that we can describe our desires as properties of physical brain states and others' desires as properties of physical brain states,

b) that any of a set of activities would fulfill those desires,

c) that any of another set of activities would change those desires to those corresponding to other brain states, i.e. there are fact about how people will respond to stimuli. There are facts about which arguments people will and will not find persuasive at different times and under different pressures.

d) people actually mean things when they talk and this generates meaningless fake problems when their meaning does not correspond to their words (broccoli questions go here),

e) people think they think things that they do not think,

f) the moral systems people believe in and think they believe in form an incredibly complex conglomerate into which all beings' actions fit morally,

g) people may believe in square circles or a certain definition of "free will", "maximizing utility", or "morality" but that does not mean they can exist without internal contradiciton,

If someone asks me "Why should I be moral?" I can (in theory) tell them many true things. I can tell them if they are using the word "moral" to represent a coherent concept. I can tell them what they care about and why, as well as what it would take for them to care about different things. I can tell them which of those arguments that would convince them are invalid and/or untrue and which arguments they reject that are valid and true. I can tell them the relationship between their biology, what they care about, what they think they care about, and what it would take to change their desires.

In the midst of all this I don't feel poor for not being able to tell someone "why" they should do something. If I know how to make Biff my slavish handyman, and that certain people can't be convinced to be harmless due to their religious upbringing, and how to change the minds of others, and what mix of desires in the population results in honor killings and that all but the tribal and addled abhor that practice for good reasons, etc. please tell me what, if anything, I am missing out on by not being able to convert an "is" to an "ought".

I don't know what is left for "ought" to be about that is actually meaningful. And perhaps an error theorist like Russell Blackford would say "that's just the point!" And maybe so. But he also says this unanswerable, unfillable "ought" is the very thing laypeople address themselves to in their everyday moral discourse. I'm not convinced this is true.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Nice second wave of political victories for Obama.

First wave: S-CHIP, Health Care, Student Loans, Stimulus bill with thousands of things in it such as high-speed rail and his tax cuts, Financial Regulation, Iraq withdrawal, saving GM. Ezra Klein and others would add TARP but I'm not sure TARP necessarily "worked."

Second wave: DADT Repeal, DREAM Act (hopefully, please!!), START treaty (hopefully), tax cut compromise (a mixed bag yes, but said to have a stimulative effect)

And imagine if there wasn't a mother fucking filibuster. We could have had an energy & climate bill and a comprehensive immigration bill rather than the less ambitious one we have. I think energy & climate was nearly as important as health care.

And the DREAM act would not have "failed" 55-41 today. The mother fucking filibuster.

And that if we passed an energy & climate bill instead that would have been a tremendous achievement on the level of health care.

If he wasn't absolute shit on civil liberties...

The most infuriating thing is there is so much good Obama could do on civil liberties without having to be held up by the Senate.