All posts for the month May, 2006

I’ve made it pretty clear that I see any model of the world in terms of evolutionary psychology almost irrespective of the metaphysical foundations of and explanatory science used to relate its component parts.

I’ve just finished reading Daniel Wegner’s – Illusion of Conscious Will . “A remarkable demonstration of how psychology can transform philosophy” said Sue Blackmore in the TLS. I think I’ve already noted my frustration that Wegner’s book contains no new insights, but it is undoubtedly a learned piece of research – over 800 formally named references (!) – with enough linguistic humour to make it an excellent read as a text-book. Like other good work on what consciousness really is, it dwells at length on evidence from the abnormal and paranormal aspects, sneaking up on the subject of “normal” consciousness.

In “The usual choice” – Wegner points out how it has become normal to make the debate seem like a binary argument betweeen determinism or free-will ? Robogeeks vs bad-scientists. Each side’s caricature of the other. We’re all losers. Clearly it could not be all of either. Will cannot be 100% free, a decision a random coin-toss. The outcome is influenced by the preceding situation, but not 100% determined. Interestingly Wegner cites both Dennett and Voltaire already pointing out the pointlessness of this debate.

Most interestingly, Wegner highlights the “moral philosophy” roles of responsibility and values in debating what we see as “conscious will”. It is wonderfully circular. Not only would “will” be seen as a sign of responsibility, say in questions of guilt in law, but in fact the very act of assigning will is drawn from the very act of taking or attributing responsibility or cause. The classic “Whodunnit” says Wegner. Who did what and why ? Attribution and post rationalisation are a shorthand “… people can get pretty bollixed-up in their understanding of who did what in a social interaction … even with the computational tools of the average rocket scientist, it could be a sizable task to figure out who did what in just half an hour of facilitated interaction … every possible thought-action combination … Imagine what this would look like … in the course of a few hours of court proceedings or the snappy repartee of a good romantic comedy.”

Disappointingly even at his conclusion Wegner is still using the term “illusion”, when he says “It’s the illusion of conscious will that makes us human.” A human self is no more or less illusory than the thoughts of will it entertains. The self is comprised of and comprises such thoughts in fact. I say, they are “illusory” only in the sense that they are virtual – patterns of information realised in the operating system above the physical hardware – the key thing is that the interrelations in and between those patterns are highly recursive. Cause and effect are highly ephemeral and we’d be lost without a good shorthand, but they are no illusion, even if some of us are under an illusion about their precise nature.

Funny how the overly rational attracts mental (ill-)health metaphors. “Autistic” was my current favourite until I saw this passage from Nick Maxwell.

Science is indeed neurotic. It suffers, that is, from what I call “rationalistic neurosis”, a methodological condition that involves suppressing, or failing to acknowledge, real, problematic aims, and instead acknowledging an apparently unproblematic “false” aim. Rationalistic neurosis inevitably has bad consequences. The more rationally the false aim is pursued, the worse off one is from the standpoint of achieving one’s real aim. Reason seems to become counterproductive.

That last sentence is the “Catch-22″ of our problem. We “seem” to be promoting “irrationality” even though, quite clearly, we are trying very hard not to. Hence its Catch-22 like qualities, something I’ve not mentioned for a while.

It’s a loopy world. So loopy that several of us, David Morey of the MoQ-Discuss forum, on the “Friends of Wisdom” mailing list, from which Nick’s words are quoted, have linked the “aim-directed-rationalisty” wisdom thread to Values and Quality in the Pirsigian sense. Strange then that Nick’s words, in an article called “Science under Attack” (The Philosopher’s Magazine Issue 31, 3rd Quarter 2005, pp. 37-41), were :-

But both sides in this “science wars” debate miss the point. Those who attack scientific rationality, and those who defend it, are actually busily attacking and defending, not scientific rationality at all, but a species of irrationality masquerading as scientific rationality. Instead of fighting over the current orthodox, and irrational conception of science, both sides ought to turn their attention to the question of what precisely needs to be done to cure science of its current damaging irrationality, so that we may develop a kind of science that is both more rational, and of greater human value.

The point I always try to get across, more generally, is that wisdom-inquiry is both more rational (more intellectually rigorous) and, potentially, of greater human value, than knowledge-inquiry.

TPM was the magazine that interviewed Pirsig recently about his “Metaphysics of Quality” and concluded there was nothing to it. What goes around comes around, and the great loopy contradictory convergence goes on.

John Stuart Mill of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particulary ill.

Will. The Pythons’ song memeing itself in my brain the last day or so, was prompted by listening to the BBC’s “In Our Time” this last Thursday. Anthony Grayling, Janet Radcliffe Williams, and Alan Ryan discussing the life and work of Mill with Melvyn Bragg. I’ll say more about Mill another time – I need to read more about him first – but he struck me as ahead of his time and on the money in his views on the evolution of quality of life through levels of biology, culture and intellect.

What it did do apart from nurture the infectious meme, was put me in mind of will, and create a connection with the Daniel Wegner book I’m currently reading; “The Illusion of Conscious Will” and motivate me to pick it up again and continue where I’d left off.

Wegner’s book was leaving me cold in the first few chapters, so I put it down and read Arundhati Roy’s “God of Small Things”. (Very reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” for obvious reasons of location and culture, and a great read, with great inventive language – playful psychological (autobiographical ?) account of how people treat people, and the usual “what really matters after all” themes – the story itself marred only by the fact that the “secret” scandal behind the looming trajedy is too easily worked out early on. Anyway I digress.)

Wegner’s is a good textbook summary of psychlogical perspectives on conscious will. As such I wasn’t finding much new other than a light amusing presentation of issues covered already by Sacks, Edelman, Austin et al. (In fact the reference list is full of material I’ve read already.) To be fair, it is well written, and easy to read apart from my own impatience with the subject matter. Dennett and Blackmore, heros of mine, both give it their seal of approval.

Apart from my impatient reaction to the usual mis-interpretation of Libet’s results, I am really railing against the word “illusion” in the context of consciousness and will …

To be finished (Off to Chatanooga, back later. In which we find that Choo-Choo really does indicte a major historic connection with railroads, and that Alonzo Boden, the reason we made the trip, did a really good stand-up routine at the “Comedy Catch”. Good thoughful comment and funny enough to have Southern Tennesee folks laughing continuously at his republican politics and racial stereotyping gags. Great tirade on Cheney. Good mix of material and assured delivery. Very funny, and a very exciting drive back to Huntsville in torrential rain and thunderstorms, too.)OK, continuing …

Railing against illusion ?

Bearing in mind that “causation” is itself a pretty weird concept – nothing like as “concrete” as most of our common sense induction would have us believe (Ref – Mill above, Paul Turner’s buddhist perspective, and David Deutsch’s “explanatory science”). Wegner rightly makes ongoing reference to our psychological need “crying out for causal agent explanations” – who did that ?

But causation itself is remarkably illusory, so much so that just about any “explanation” of anything could be deemed illusion, if that’s your game. It’s a doubly cheap-shot, if your interest is causation and your subject is the mental realm – a meta-illusion. Explaining what “really exists” in mind ? And we find ourselves back at Ontology-101, when we should probably be at Epistemology-101. Let’s not go there.

I’ve disagreed already with both Dennett and Blackmore about conclusions like consiciousness or conscious will being illusions, and I 99% agree with most of their arguments. My problem is the sense that suggesting “illusion” means it’s somehow “not real”. Ephemeral yes, but it’s real enough.

A large part of the published debate is about the extent to which (human) causation is “free-will” and how much is automatism, “mechanistic” physio-biological activities. Unsurprisingly, all empirical evidence shows that a great deal of what we characterise as mental free-will is indeed mechanistic, operating at levels below (or in advance of) what we’d think of as conscious mental will. (Libet etc, and all the neuro-psychological studies of mental abnormalities, Sacks, Autsin, etc). Hardly surprising since we are clearly “thinking with (physio-biological) meat

In reality our consciousness is highly evolved on many levels, with many loopy, recursive, strange, (Hofstadterian) interactions between the levels. Only new blue-sky or supervisory intervention “thoughts” and “wills” need reach the level we call active consciousness. “Free won’t” as it has been dubbed. The “better” our consciousness, surely the less we should expect to impinge on it. Good management is delegation. Same with minds. Really well organised systems look like “machines” – look at a top class tennis player on top form.

OK, so picking up on Wegner, on p143 he says

“… the attribution of outside agency suggests that when we see an action we immediately require that someone did it … The agent can be found in the self when there is an illusion of conscious will, and elsewhere when the illusions breaks down. And the presence of any potential agent other than self can relieve us of the illusion that we consciously willed our action.”

Well, OK, but the illusion of “will” is no less real or more illusory than “self”, “agent”, “we” or “us” in the statements above. Let’s join up the dots here and use the Blackmore (or Dennett) idea that “we”, our conscious selves, are nothing more than the sum total of all these interacting thoughts (and memes). Our thoughts are illusory, only in the sense that we are already illusory (and vice-versa of course, it’s a loopy world).

Strong evidence that we and our wills are just a connected mass of thoughts is to be found in Wegner’s own examples of doing precisely what you are thinking hard about not doing. Stepping off a cliff, veering into oncoming traffic, mentioning the war, etc … thinking about not doing something is connected to doing that something in just the same way as a consciously willed thought of doing it. And thinking about something completely unconnected with something creates that very connection too. This is Hofstadter, this is recursive strange loops. Success relies on game theory, learned tricks of the trade of thinking. That’s the human trade. Cat’s sneak up on their prey, we sneak up behind our memes. Let the evolution begin. Welcome to the real world.

The fact that our explanations of mind and will, make them look ever more illusory, the more we try to explain them, doesn’t mean we have the wrong explantions. These mysteries are exactly explained. We need to learn that and move on before we paralyse ourselves with analysis.

Futher to yesterday’s THES story on wisdom in education, here is another UK MSN News Story (via Cherryl Martin) – The Kids Are Alright – contrasting youth with experience and making the connection with media clamour for the surface beauty of youth – wittily linked to the Theo Walcott news story.

A brilliantly witty piece.

Notwithstanding the fact that skilled but uninhibited naivite might actually be an asset in a competitive sports context, (where the downside of being wrong is more important than life or death, only metaphorically unless you’re Bill Shankly), the parallel with the youthful beauty contest for the qualities valued by the media, is precisely part of the meme that undervalues the true qualities of wisdom far beyond the walls of academe.

Beauty is part of it, but we’ve stripped it down the the simplistic surface appearances, rather than the truly simple complexities of elegance.

Would that Thierry Henry were an Englishman.

Scholars, get wise, not just smart

Anthea Lipsett writing yesterday
in the Times Higher Education Supplement

Universities should help people acquire wisdom rather than knowledge — this is the rallying cry of a growing band of acade­mics who want to revolutionise the nature of academic inquiry.

Friends of Wisdom, a group of scholars from across the world, argues that the preoccupation with accumulating knowledge is flawed and that the higher aim must be to apply such knowledge to benefit society.

Members of the association be­lieve that academic work should help humanity acquire more wis­dom, which they defined as “the capacity to realise what is of value in life, for oneself and others”.

Friends of Wisdom was started by Nicholas Maxwell, emeritus reader in philosophy of science at University College London. He said: “We hope to transform uni­versities so that their basic aim becomes to help people realise what’s of value in life — wisdom. That would include technical knowhow and understanding,, but also other things as well.

“If the basic aim really is to help promote human welfare, then the problems that need to be solved are fundamentally problems of living, not problems of know­ledge,” Mr. Maxwell said.

The pursuit of knowledge was important, but it was secondary to acquiring wisdom, he added. The Friends of Wisdom want universi­ties to help people challenge politi­cians by raising public debate and giving individuals the power that comes from having the highest quality education.

“They must also promote a truly critical debate about what is genuinely of value in life and how it is to be achieved,” Mr Maxwell said. He hopes the group will ignite debate, and there are plans to host a conference of like-minded academics.

For more information, visit

I made my coment earlier that this subject is bigger than the education system, but it’s good to see this move being picked-up in mainstream press.