Wednesday, May 22, 2002
The etymology suggested was that it was a euphamism for chug nuts (no, I'm not explaining). In any case, Volokh is right that there's little relevance to the origins of words which have lost all original meaning.
The best, very inconclusive, account I could spot on the web suggests that no etymology can be traced, and the earliest recorded use is 1956.
(ironically if the "slave ship" origin is correct, there's a paper entitled "The Nitty-Gritty of Institutional Change: Origins of a Racial Issues Requirement
in the Curriculum"...)
Tuesday, May 21, 2002
"The feeling you have as you read this sentence, Wegner argues, is an illusion pulled off by a complex machine in your skull."
Well, up to a point, OK.
"It not only reads and understands this sentence, he says, but also makes you feel as if you have experienced the reading of the sentence."
Horribly inelegant, but it is true that it's in virtue of having "a complex machine in your skull" that you are conscious.
"In other words, the brain, not content with being a remarkably complex machine, also convinces itself that it isn't a machine at all."
And here it all goes wrong. Just as it makes no sense to say that the brain is "content" (what indicates its contentedness), it makes no sense to say that the brain "convinces" anything (or is "convinced").
There's a lot of argument that can be put into this, but basically it all comes down to the correct application of predicates (i.e. their application with any meaning).
The classic Wittgenstein quote (Philosophical Investigations, section 281***) reads "only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can we say it sees, is blind, hears, is deaf, is conscious or unconscious" (approx).
What this is meant to indicate is that the words that we use to talk about mental states only have application through the criteria we use to guide their application to living creatures. Other uses, such as about machines, are extensions that may or may not be misleading, but which can only mean literally the same when the criteria for application are the same.
There's a great deal of philosophical debate to wade through after that about "qualia" and the like (the idea that there's something that having "experiences" is "like", and its the ""like" that's the important bit in the ascription of mental predicates****).
However, if you can accept that that it doesn't actually make sense to talk about the brain having convictions (etc), then the whole of Wenger's argument as presented falls apart. Sure, brain chemistry is vitally important - go find out more, please. But it doesn't answer anything about the "hard problem", because the method it uses to "answer" the "question" includes severe misconceptions of the problem. Once the misconceptions are cleared away, there's not much problem left.
"But why would it bother? The brain, Wegner contends, produces consciousness to give itself a feeling of having done something. This feeling helps the brain recognize similar situations when they arise -- the next article in the newspaper, for instance. Being aware of its actions, the brain-machine can better decide whether to read another article."
I'm guessing you should now be able to tell what the argument against this position is. Wenger's probably ill-served by the article's length, but the position sketched is a modern classic, and one I've spent a lot of time looking at over the years.
""When you drive to work, you don't feel there are hundreds of little gears in a machine in your head that make you do this. You think, 'I'm going to get up and go to work,' " Wegner said in an interview."
Yes, I do, not my brain. Notice the distinction.
""We think the intentions cause the actions, and we get the feeling we have willed what we do. It could be the intentions and actions are being caused by the machinery of the brain."
Wegner cites numerous examples to show that intentions and actions are produced by different mechanisms in the brain -- while they are timed to occur simultaneously, they sometimes don't. During hypnosis, for instance, people's bodies act apparently without their will. Yet their movements are still produced by their brains, suggesting that conscious intention doesn't always precede action.*"
And this is, of course, one of the areas where psychologists and neuroscientists have lots of work they can be getting along with - the phenomena of consciousness, action, etc are fascinating. But description in terms of brain states is qualititatively different to description in terms of actions of a person, and are not the same thing.
This article in a sense merely provides a scientific gloss on the arguments of the seventeenth century, the responses were crafted before the Second World War, and they were well publicised by Vietnam. The illusion of a problem persists through unchallenged common assumptions. As the article correctly concludes, "Despite the neuroscientists' new theories, the hard problem isn't getting any easier."
* there's also mention of another hackneyed thesis, this time propounded by a guy called Deacon, that consciousness exists to get you to pay attention to things. Well duh. If you really want to read about this, go look up stuff by Norman Malcolm on Consciousness in a university library, or read through some chapters of P.M.S.Hacker's "Meaning and Mind" (volume III of his commentary on the Philosophical Investigations). Obviously, Deacon's description is basically just a definition of what being conscious of something consists in (and hence what "use" consciousness is), rather than addressing any of the "real" "problems".
** Wenger's thinking may be more sophisticated than the article portrays, but I doubt it - neuroscientists are notorious in certain circles for these category errors.
*** OK, it may be section 283 - it's been a while
**** an argument that produces the problem of other minds - how can we know that another has "this" which we're "having" right now? The debate is pretty sterile after a while, as both the materialist approach (a la Wenger (arguably)) and the dualist approach (classical interpretations of Descartes; the impulse to think that there's really a "hard problem" of consciousness) are wrong in mirror image ways. Hence the lack of resolution, as each is a rebuttal of the other. Hacker's "Wittgenstein" (tiny little book, about £2) is about as brief a version of the argument as I've seen.
Via Kaus via Welch
Monday, May 20, 2002
" As a citizen of Saudi Arabia, I dread the possibility that Osama bin Laden might instigate a repeat of a deadly 1979 Saudi government mistake. In that year, a group of religious fanatics occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca. They denounced the legitimacy of the Saudi government, claiming that it wasn't "Islamic" enough. The government managed to reclaim the mosque, and later the group's leader and most of his followers were executed.
But the end of the story had a twist: Though the government killed the extremists, it then essentially adopted their ideology. After the Mecca incident, Saudi authorities began imposing crushingly strict and pointless rules. Women were banned from appearing on television. Music was not allowed to be played in the Saudi media. Stores and malls closed during the five daily prayers. Members of the religious police were granted more power to intervene in people's personal lives. The Saudi government did all of this to please the Islamists, perhaps fearing further extremist threats. Its behavior was interpreted as a nod to Islamists' power, an indication that they were now dictating the rules of the game.
The Saudi government itself must fight against all kinds of monopoly of thought or debate. Right now, it faces a historical opportunity to develop its educational system, augment freedom of the press, and expand women's rights, among other pressing issues. It can begin to give qualified, young, educated Saudis access to more political participation.
This would involve ending regionalism, a process that gives greater privileges to some families from certain Saudi regions. Our independent writers and intellectuals should be part of a public social dialogue that tolerates different ideas and thoughts.
Our universities need to open doors for political and social activities to their students: At the very minimum, students ought to have the right to form students' organizations. This would teach them the concept of "social activism," and to organize civilized and peaceful activities within their universities. Such ideas can help the next generation participate in a productive and peaceful civil society, instead of dying in Afghanistan or elsewhere for causes that most of them do not even fully comprehend.
What we learned from experience of religious and politica fanaticism that followed the deadly 1979 Mecca experience should be put to use now.
Sulaiman Al-Hattlan, a Saudi journalist and political analyst, is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University. This piece appeared in The Washington Post. "
Brave words, though notably originally published abroad. Here's hoping.
Sunday, May 19, 2002
There exist "Married Couple Allowances" for couples where at least one partner was born before the sixth of April 1935. There also exists a tax credit for having children under 18. Both credits cannot be claimed: if the children's tax credit is better, the pensioners must elect to avoid the married couple allowance (how many people does this ruling affect?).
Employers can give unlimited tax free amounts on termination of employment, provided that this is as a result of the employee dying (how generous!).
The first 15p per day of "luncheon vouchers" are tax free.
The taxed value of assets loaned to employees will be greater than the cost of the items if they're loaned for more than 5 years.
And many more fun, and foolish, facts...
"I circulated Guardian staff, and not just the journalists, with the following questionnaire: Do you think the Guardian's Middle East coverage has been fair or unfair to the Israeli side? Has it been fair or unfair to the Palestinians? Has it been anti-semitic? Has it been anti-Islam (or anti- Palestinian). Do you think the coverage has changed in any way in recent weeks?"
Unsurprisingly, they're mostly pretty happy with their own work. The real objections to the balance of the coverage came from a non-journo. The editor's reply was that the balance of coverage should be judged over a period, not article by article. But that stil doesn't provide a response to, for example, this criticism:
"One colleague, not involved in the Middle East coverage said, "I am fed up with being reproached every time I tell any active member of the Jewish community that I work for the Guardian." He did feel there was cause for concern. He felt, for instance, that - to revert to Jenin - the use of the word "massacre", even in inverted commas, was "extremely prejudicial... A day later we were writing that there was no evidence of a massacre at all.""
There's a lot of shuffling about quote marks, etc, but I don't see the reply over Jenin as being very convincing. Go read it yourself. And come back next week for the views of the top brass.