Archive for December, 2015

2015/12/24

Also, I’m a progressive

We covered religion the other year, and I’ve been thinking about (and even writing a little about) politics, so now I will try to define myself politically here. To some extent I’m making this up as I go along, so I reserve the right to say next week “I just realized that what I said in paragraph 12 was completely wrong”, but until I say that you can assume it’s accurate. :)

I’m a progressive (I might write “Progressive” if that wasn’t a heavily-advertised insurance company or whatever). Which, for me, means that I believe most basically:

  1. The current distribution of wealth and power in society is currently significantly, and undesirably, unfair,
  2. That unfairness favors (and disfavors) pretty much the same people it always has; in most of the West, that’s people who are more (or less) similar to a tall healthy straight white protestant man from a rich family, with conventionally handsome features and a deep (but not too deep) voice, and so on,
  3. That there is a significant role for the government in reducing the level of that unfairness.

Point (1) differentiates me from people who think that the current distribution actually is fair, or that whether or not it’s fair doesn’t matter (or even that unfair is good). Certain capitalists perhaps most obviously.

Point (2) differentiates me from people who think that the distribution is unfair, but that it’s unfair in favor of women, minorities, etc. Certain Tea Party types, “Men’s Rights Advocates”, and so on.

And Point (3) differentiates me from people who think that, even if there is an unfair distribution, it’s the government’s fault, and if only we had less government, or no government, or government stayed out of the redistribution business, things would get better. Some libertarians (and Libertarians), minarchists, anarchists, voluntaryists, and so on.

I was once a member of that latter group to some extent, as I’ve at least hinted at before, but have yet to see a convincing argument that we can actually get to a better place without significant government involvement, lovely as it might be if we could, and as problematic as government involvement pretty much invariably is.

And here are some ideas, in no particular order but just as they occur to me, that the three basic things imply for me, not in the sense of logical implication, but in the sense of “also this too”.

privilegePrivilege is a thing. If you haven’t run into the term before, here’s a good introduction (not that I necessarily agree with everything it says, but it’s a good statement of the concept). In each sense in which a characteristic of mine is one that society tends to favor, I’m privileged. I have white privilege, male privilege, upper-middle-class privilege. I don’t have right-handed privilege, or mental-health privilege (although I do have “generally functional mental health” privilege; it’s a subtle thing I might talk about someday too).

For me a big thing about privilege is that if a person has it in a characteristic, then the way that society favors that characteristic (and disfavors the opposite) is likely to be relatively invisible to them. When a white person says “well, I don’t see much racism in society these days”, that’s white privilege, and a response of “check your privilege” is entirely appropriate (at least in content; in tone it may or may not be the best way to get them to think about it better).

People who dislike the concept of privilege tend to dislike it because they see it, or claim that they see it, as a claim that white people have no problems, or that every man has more power in society than any woman, or various other false claims.

(I remember once unfollowing someone somewhere who generally posted wise things, but then one day went on a long rant about how they would instantly block anyone who used the term “privilege”, because we all have our own problems. Which was such a misunderstanding, and had so much anger behind it, that I didn’t really want to be there anymore, or to put the energy into trying to help, since presumably he would have instantly blocked me if I had).

Feminism is good. I’m either a feminist or a feminist ally, depending on whether you think males can be feminists. (I’m perfectly happy with either label, and demanding that women include me in the category without having actually lived as a women would be male privilege talking; see above.)

Being a feminist follows almost immediately from (1) and (2) above; if there’s an undesirably unfair distribution of power that favors men, it would be good to make it fairer, by directing more to women. Because of (3) I’m not, say, an anarcha-feminist, at least not in the practical sense: while it might be greatly helpful to women if we had a society entirely based on voluntary associations, no one has shown me how a society like that would actually be sustainable if actual humans were allowed in.

So I’m a feminist who believes in, say, non-discrimination laws.

Radicalism. I call myself a progressive, rather than a radical. This is for basically Beatles reasons (interpreting the lyrics non-ironically); revolutions are dangerous and nasty and often end up with some new-but-still-awful regime in place, and we’re getting better all the time, little by little, slow but sure, and so on.

I also realize that this may be for instance my upper-middle-class privilege talking, and that had I lived a harder life, I might well have different feelings about radicals and the desirability of revolution, and where I myself should be putting my energy.

The size of government. As I noted somewhere at some time, but can’t be bothered to find, questions of the size of government, which are so important to small-government folks like most libertarians, are relatively uninteresting to me. Within relatively wide margins, the question isn’t “does this proposal involve increasing or decreasing the size of the government?”; it’s “does this proposal make the distribution of power in society more, or less, fair?” and/or “does this tend to empower the powerless, or the already-powerful?”.

The American Political Parties. Eew. I am not a registered member of either one. As everyone in the UK and Europe knows, the US has no major left-wing party; we just have a center-right party, the Democrats, and a hard-right (and this year total loony) party, the Republicans. The hard right is pretty much the opposite of progressive; they believe that the current distribution of power and wealth is good, that if anything it’s women and minorities and the poor and so on who get unfair advantages, that it’s really the interests of the powerful that matter, and that government should stay out of the economy as much as possible.

The center-right is a bit more reasonable, and think that while the interests of business always come first, it is in fact often in the true interests of business that individual people have some rights, are not completely impoverished, are generally happy, and so on.

So I do tend to vote for Democratic candidates; but I’m not a member of their party. The last party I actually belonged to was the Libertarians; see above.

(I think Bernie Sanders is in fact a progressive, and that’s a good thing. That the Democratic Party would let him campaign for their nomination for President is good, too; I don’t think they’ll let him win it, though.)

Occupy. Heck, yeah! I think the Occupy movement was, and is, a good thing. I resist the suggestion that they failed; as far as I can see they did a great service in turning the narrative away from the Tea Party’s “The government should spend less money!” which implicitly urged just giving the government to the most powerful, and toward the issue of Income Inequality, which is a much more progressive thing to talk about (and which Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and finally even Hillary Clinton are continuing to talk about, and which is resonating with lots of people in a cheering way).

And that’s it for now, I think. It’s good to get this written down, as it was with the religion stuff.

Happy Socially Just Solstice to all!  :)

 

 

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2015/12/14

Consciousness and the Verbal Bias

I have been privileged lately to be part of a little informal group that meets (twice now, I think) in a Chinese restaurant on the West Side and (more often but more diffusely) in email, and talks about the mysteries (or otherwise) of consciousness (whatever that is).

There is me, and Steve who used to have a weblog a million years ago, and some smart folks from Columbia University. We are all amateurs (although Steve threatens to lure in a professional philosopher in some capacity), but that may be a Good Thing.

(Extremely long-time readers of this weblog in its various incarnations, if there are any, may recall the ancient Problems of Consciousness pages that Steve and I did. Highly related!)

books

Here is a pile of books.

As we’ve talked about these things, I have for some reason found myself increasingly attracted to the “we are just passengers” approach to consciousness. Not so much as something to believe, but as something to think about.

The idea behind this approach (which may or may not be the same thing as “epiphenominalism”) is that while subjective experience reflects what happens in the objective (or “physical” or “natural” or whathaveyou) world, it does not influence it in any way.

Subjective experience (and therefore “us”, if we identify with our subjective experiences) is just a passenger, an observer, and to the extent that we feel like we are making decisions and carrying them out, we are just mistaken. Either we are so constituted that we always (or almost always) decide to do that thing that our bodies were going to do anyway, or (perhaps more likely) we actually “decide” what to do a few milliseconds after our bodies do it; we make up stories quickly and retroactively to explain why we “decided” to do that.

What if this were true? We’d no longer have to worry about how the subjective realm has effects on the objective (it doesn’t). We may still have to worry about how subjective experience finds out what is happening in the objective world, but that’s always been the easier part; we can probably even say that well it just does, which is roughly what we say to someone who worries about why masses experience gravitational attraction.

We don’t really have to worry about Other Minds any more, either!  Or rather, we will be nicely justified in giving up on that entirely!  No way I’m going to be able to determine anything like objectively whether you, or any other physical system, has subjective experience, since subjective experience causes no discernible (or indiscernible) effects in the objective world; so I don’t need to feel guilty about not actually knowing, but just being content with whatever working hypothesis seems to result in the best parties and so on.

One puzzle that seems to remain in the We Are Just Passengers (perhaps better called the I Am Just A Passenger) theory, is why it should be the case that some of the things that my body says seem to reflect so accurately what I subjectively experience. If I have no effect on the objective world, why should this part of the objective world (the things my body says, writes in weblogs, etc) in fact correspond so well to how it feels to be me?

I started out thinking that it would be really interesting to see a theory about that: that would explain why objective biological bodies would tend to commit speech-acts that describe subjective experience, without that explanation including actual subjective experience anywhere in the causal chain.

Then like yesterday or something I had what may or may not be an insight: if a version of the Passenger theory can hold that I make my “decisions” by quickly rationalizing to myself the things that I (“subconsciously”) observe my body doing, why can’t it also hold that some significant part of what I “experience” is similarly made up just after the fact, as I retroactively experience (or remember experiencing) things corresponding to what I perceive my body saying (where “saying” here includes whatever unvoiced but subvocalized inner narration-acts occur).

That is, how certain are we (am I) that we (where each “we” identifies with our individual subjective experience) actually cause the speech-acts that our bodies carry out? I don’t see any reason we should be particularly infallible about that, at least any more than we should be infallible about causing our bodies to do other things, like buying chicken instead of turkey, or going to the opera.

We have a bias toward verbal behaviors, I will suggest, and tend to assume (without, I will suggest, any really very good reason) that verbal behaviors reflect the contents of subjective experience more or better than other kinds of behaviors do.

Of the various studies that have been done suggesting that our bodies start to do things before “we” have actually “decided” to do them, I recall (without actually going back and looking, because yolo) that the experimenters more or less assumed that verbal behaviors reflected the activity of subjective consciousness, whereas other body behaviors (and neural firings and so on) reflected mere physical stuff.  But why assume that?

In the extremely surreal and fascinating phenomenon of blindsight, a person will (for instance) claim verbally not to be able to see anything to the right, but will pretty reliably catch (or avoid) a ball tossed from the right side.

This is pretty much universally described as a case where our bodies can react to something (the ball from the right) that we don’t have conscious awareness of.

But why is this the right description? One thing the body does (the catching or avoiding) indicates awareness of the ball, and another thing the body does (the saying “no, I can’t see anything on that side”) indicates a lack of awareness.

Why do we assume that the verbal act reflects the contents of subjective awareness, and the other behavior doesn’t?

If someone couldn’t speak, but could catch a ball, we would generally not hesitate to say that they had subjective awareness of the ball.

But if the person does speak, and says things about their subjective awareness, we take that saying as overriding the non-verbal behaviors.

Could we be wrong?

The two main other kinds of things that might be happening are: that the person has subjective awareness of the ball, but for some reason the speech parts of his body insist on denying the fact; or that there are two subjective consciousnesses here, and one (associated with the speech behaviors) is not aware of the ball, but the other (associated with the catching or avoiding) is.

The first of these seems weird because we aren’t used to thinking about verbal behaviors (at least from people) happening without consciousness. The second seems weird because we aren’t used to thinking (outside of split-brain cases) of two consciousnesses associated with the same person.

(Would it be terribly frustrating to be the non-verbal consciousness in the second case? Aware of the ball, catching the ball, experiencing those things, but unable to speak when asked about it, and unable to stop the bizarrely traitorous speech organs from denying it. Or maybe that consciousness is more deeply non-verbal, and doesn’t understand and/or doesn’t have any particular desire to respond to, the questions being asked.)

Hm, where did all of that get us? I think I’ve written down pretty much what I wanted to capture: the idea that even our own speech acts might be, not things uniquely caused by our subjective consciousnesses, but simply more things that happen in the world that might or might not have any particular causal connection to subjectivity.  And that, perhaps consequent to that, that when we are developing theories about what other consciousnesses there might be out there in the world, we should watch ourselves for unwarranted bias toward speech acts over other behaviors.

Perhaps we can develop some good theory about why speech acts are in fact special in these ways, but I don’t have one at the moment, and I don’t know if anyone else has seen a need for one and written down any words in that direction.  (If you do, please let me know!)

And in the meantime, perhaps not assuming that speech-acts are special can help us reach some interesting places we would not otherwise have reached, or avoid some puzzles that would otherwise have puzzled us.