Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Maximizing Life... or Minimizing It

I recently discovered an excellent atheist website, The Thinking Atheist, and listened to several of Seth Andrews's (The Think Atheist) podcasts. The Thinking Atheist is very easy listening (he is a professional broadcaster and has an excellent voice) and free of the hard edge found in many outspoken atheists; he is, for instance, willing to admit that most Christians are genuinely good and loving people even if he thinks they are gravely mistaken about the fundamental nature of things. This is clearly a sincere man who is following the truth as he knows it.

What interests me here is an extended exchange he had in one of his podcasts with a Christian named Erin. Erin wondered how Seth could find meaning in life without a hereafter; Seth gave the answer, common among atheists, that the lack of a hereafter makes this life all the more important, since it is the only one we have. As Seth put it, we must "maximize every moment" we have, since we will have no more once we are dead. He mentioned how much he enjoys learning about science, history, etc.

I have always had a great deal of sympathy for this view, and it may constitute the greatest temptation I face as a Catholic. And it is a temptation. For though I would like to maximize every moment of my life, I have come to be quite certain that the meaning of life cannot be found by maximizing it, but only by minimizing it. In fact, it was through years of attempting to maximize life that I finally came to face the fact that it was a fool's errand, although I believe I suspected such a thing all along.

When I was in high school, my friend Joe used to chide me about my "kicks". I would throw myself passionately into something - ping pong or chess, for example - for a month or two, then give it up and move on to something else. Eventually I might come back to the same things. Meanwhile I also spent a lot of time playing tennis, reading history and Agatha Christie novels, or playing the fiddle, among other pursuits. I knew the reason I never stuck with anything too long. It was opportunity cost. On the one hand, I envied the sort of person who was passionate about one thing, and stuck with it long enough to master it or make something of it. I wished I could feel that way about something. And I would, for a time. But eventually whatever I was doing would become stale, and I would move on to something else. More than this, I could never shake the feeling that I was missing out on something by being dedicated to one or a small number of things. Other people were passionately pursuing something else, so there must be something to those things as well, right? How did I know it was better to pursue this thing passionately rather than that thing? My answer, as it turned out in practice, was just to pursue things in rotation (which should bring to mind associations for Kierkegaard fans.) I knew even at the time what was happening, but didn't know what else to do. If life isn't about doing stuff, and I had always been told it was, then what was it about? I didn't want life to pass me by.

For all intents and purposes, I was a case study in Kierkegaard's aesthetic stage of existence. I was even self-aware enough to have an inkling of what was going on, although nothing like the revelation that Kierkegaard gave me when I later discovered him. And SK accurately diagnosed the alternative I faced (which I vaguely understood at the time), which was either to change my mode of life at its root or continue down a path which was essentially one of despair. My decision to join the Marine Corps was finally based on the recognition that I needed to believe in something, not in a theoretical sense, but in the practical (existential) sense of actually submitting whole to something greater and grander than myself. The alternative to trying to find things to put into your life is to put your life into something. In SK's terms, it was the decision to become ethical and not merely aesthetic.

The essence of the ethical life is that one no longer tries to "maximize" his own life; instead, the individual sacrifices his own "maximization" for the sake of "maximizing" something worthy of the sacrifice - nation, God, Corps, family or, perhaps, his neighbors (as George Bailey does in It's A Wonderful Life). The ethical life has its own deep struggle, just as does the aesthetic life. The struggle at the heart of the aesthetic life is to keep at bay the despair that is at its core; the struggle at the heart of the ethical life is to perform the sacrifices demanded by duty (and this is why someone in the ethical stage of existence may not always seem "ethical" outwardly; the ethical stage of existence doesn't mean one is always good, it only means that life is lived in terms of duty and its fulfillment, even if there is an occasional failure to fulfill the demands of duty.)

But as George Bailey discovered, a life of duty is a kind of death. One sacrifices one's own hopes and dreams, one's own goals and pursuits, for others. It is a minimization of the self and feels like a slow dying. There is anxiety and despair in such a life because, on the one hand, the individual sees all the wonderful things out there that are genuinely worthy of pursuit, and on the other, he senses that the nature of things just is that he must sacrifice those things for the sake of others.

The answer to this dilemma (an existential answer, not a theoretical one) is religion; specifically the Christian God who "minimized" himself for the sake of mankind and promises the strength of grace to do the same to all who ask for it - "for my yoke is easy and my burden is light." In this light Christianity and atheism aren't competitors, because atheism isn't an answer to the existential question for which Christ is the answer:  The question isn't "Is there a God?", but "Who shall save me in the duty I must perform yet that is extinguishing me?"

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Mind/Brain and the Evidence

Dr. Steven Novella, in this post on his blog, distinguishes between the questions of whether the brain causes the mind and exactly how the brain causes the mind. Citing David Chalmers, he states that it is not necessary to answer the latter question to establish the former. There can be evidence of causal linkage that does not require an exhaustive knowledge of the nature of that causal linkage. Novella summarizes the evidence that he thinks conclusively establishes the causal dependence of mind on brain in the form of the following predictions:
If the brain causes mind, then:
1- Brain states will correlate to mental and behavioral states.
2- Brain maturity will correlate with mental and emotional maturity.
3- Changing the brain’s function (with drugs, electrical or magnetic stimulation, or other methods) will change mental function.
4- Damaging the brain will damage the mind – producing specific deficits that correlate to the area of the brain damaged.
5- There will be no documentable mental phenomena in the absence of brain function.
6- When the brain dies, mental function ends.
Novella thinks that all six predictions have been well-established empirically.

We should remember that the traditional philosophical case for the immaterial mind does not deny that much of mental phenomena has a physical origin. In fact, the philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition insist that only one specific mental faculty - the intellect - requires an immaterial foundation. So if we are concerned with evaluating the classical philosophical case for the immaterial mind in terms of contemporary neuroscientific evidence, the only interesting evidence is that which relates to the intellect. Evidence that emotions or the sense of self have a physical origin may be interesting but it is irrelevant to the classical philosophical position, since the classical philosopher (and here I am taking Aquinas as the exemplar) did not deny such a thing. The interesting evidence relates to the question of whether the intellect is purely a material function of the brain.

Why did the classical philosophers make an exception for the intellect? Because the intellect is that which understands universals, and it is hard to see how a universal effect can have a material cause. Consider the emotion of anger. If I am angry, the emotion is restricted to me; even if you are simultaneously angry, your experience of the emotion is your's alone and my experience is mine alone. Each is a singular. There is no conceptual problem with thinking the emotion has a purely physical origin, since we encounter singular effects from material causes every day. I turn on my stove and it heats this pot of water, but not every pot of water in the universe. I throw a baseball and it breaks a window, but not every window in the universe, let alone every possible window in the universe. But instead of being angry, suppose we instead think about the emotion anger. (And I will italicize anger when referring to the idea of anger rather than the experience of being angry.) Now any number of emotions, and perhaps no emotion at all, may accompany our thinking about anger. We may be sad, happy, indifferent or, yes, angry when thinking about anger. Thinking about anger is something radically different than having the emotion anger.

But more importantly, when I think about the idea of anger, the idea doesn't merely apply to my own emotion, but your's and everybody else's as well. I may only be able to experience my own anger, but I can think about everybody's anger, and I can think about them all at the same time. Furthermore, you and I can engage in a conversation about anger and discuss exactly the same thing; I can only experience your emotion of anger as analogous to a similar emotion of my own, but we can both think about one and the same idea of anger.

This is close to what contemporary philosophers of mind call the problem of "intentionality", but it is not quite it. The problem of intentionality refers to how an idea can be about something, e.g. how my conscious thinking about the moon can be about the large rock orbiting the Earth and not just about itself. What I am talking about is the classical problem of universals, which is not so much about how thoughts can be about things, but about how different thoughts can be about the same thing as well as how a single thought can be about an infinite number of things (as my thinking about anger can be about everyone's personal experience of anger.)

Let's consider Novella's first line of evidence in terms of the intellect rather than conscious states that have a non-controversial physical origin (like emotions): "Brain states will correlate to mental and behavioral states." It is easy to see how this is possible with emotions like anger. I am not familiar with the specifics of the evidence, but it is not hard to imagine some particular regions of the brain becoming active in a specific way when one is angry, and a different region when one is happy (or, perhaps, the same region in a different way.) Now consider what might happen when you think about anger rather than become angry. Is there some specific pattern of neural firing that accompanies the state of thinking about anger? Is this pattern identical across subjects? Such identity doesn't matter so much in the case of emotion, since we need not require that your emotion of anger be identical to my own. But if we are to think in the abstract about anger, and have a conversation about it, then we do require that our ideas of anger be exactly the same, not only in terms of being just like each other, but in terms of being exactly the same idea. Suppose that measurements show that, physiologically, your thinking of anger is not exactly the same as my thinking of anger. Does this shows that your idea of anger is not exactly the same as my idea of anger, in which case our conversation (and perhaps all conversations) involve a fundamental misunderstanding because we aren't really talking about the same ideas when we think we are? Or is there some way in which we are still talking about exactly the same idea of anger even though the physiology between us is not precisely identical? The former alternative involves a whole train of unpleasant philosophical consequences, and the real challenge is to establish, even in principle, how the latter alternative might be true. If the physics is all there is, and the physics is not identical, it is difficult to see how we can say the ideas are identical. Or, put in empirical terms, if an idea is a "brain state", then variations in brain states just are variations in ideas; saying two ideas aren't the same is the same as saying two brain states aren't the same and vice versa. But I am convinced that we can talk about identically the same ideas, whatever the similarity of our brain states, which is one reason Novella's summary of evidence does not yet convince me.

Suppose, however, that physiologically your thinking of anger is identical to my own to some degree of precision. In other words, the neuroscientists are successful in identifying a brain state correlated to anger that is identical among all human subjects. Another problem surfaces, and it is easier to see in the case of mathematical ideas. I am thinking of the number "one", which presumably correlates to a brain state. Now I think of the number "two", which presumably correlates to a different brain state. The brain is a finite physical organ; it is capable of assuming a vast but not infinite number of states. How many states can the brain assume in theory? A trillion? A quadrillion? A trillion trillion trillion? Whatever the number is, and let us call it a trillion for the sake of argument, what does it mean if I think of the number a trillion plus one? If thinking of a number corresponds to a brain state, then the potential numbers I might think about are finite, since the brain is finite. But this is clearly false; since I might potentially think about any number - and in particular, the number one more than whatever you say is the number of brain states. It must be true, then, that multiple numbers correspond to identical brain states in my thinking. How does, the materialist, then, account for a diversity of numbers derived from identical brain states? It is hard to see how the materialist case could possibly be sustained, since the distinction of numbers in this case would seem to require something immaterial - which is why the classical philosophers thought the intellect (that which conceives ideas) must be immaterial, even if the rest of mental life could be accounted for physically.

These sorts of questions are the real challenge (as far as I am concerned) for the materialist, and the classical philosophical case for the immaterial mind hasn't even been challenged until they are addressed. There are some conclusions to be drawn here about the interesting directions of scientific investigation. Instead of investigating brain state correlation to things like emotions or the sense of self - which even Aquinas held could have a purely physical basis - the investigation should correlate brain states to intellectual states. What is the brain state correlating to the thinking of the number "three?" Or thinking about the Pythagorean Theorem? Or thinking about the theory that the mind has a purely material basis? If we can stimulate brain states like emotions artificially, can we also stimulate intellectual states artificially? Can we stimulate someone to think of the number "three?" Or to think of the Pythagorean Theorem? I would find the results of such research extremely interesting. (I strongly suspect, of course, that there is no way to stimulate the brain to think of the number "three", precisely because multiple numbers (in fact, an infinity of numbers) must correspond to identical brain states. Merely physical stimulation would be "underdetermined" as far as what number would be thought.)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Most Important Dialog in the Godfather

The most important dialog in the Godfather series (and for this I only include The Godfather parts I and II) occurs in Godfather II. It is a conversation between Michael and his mother in which Michael asks her whether it is possible to lose his family:

Tell me something, Ma. What did Papa think -- deep in his heart? He was being strong -- strong for his family. But by being strong for his family -- could he -- lose it?

You're thinking about your wife -- about the baby you lost. But you and your wife can always have another baby.

No, I meant -- lose his family.

but you can never lose your family.

Times are changing.

The Godfather is the story of a man fighting to save his family and losing it in the process. The tragedy of Michael Corleone is that he loses his family because he fights for it; or, rather, because of the way he fights for it. For Michael chooses to fight for his family by inverting the moral order of the universe. He treats his family as the highest good for which everything else must be sacrificed. He puts it before his country and even before God. In the end, he suffers the fate that befalls those who put the lower before the higher: Not only does he lose the higher, but he loses the lower as well. He loses his family. The tragic irony is that Michael himself is the means of the destruction of his family. The Godfather I ends with Michael ordering the execution of his brother in law; The Godfather II ends with Michael ordering the execution of his own brother.

The first Godfather film opens with the famous wedding scene at which we see Michael dressed in his Marine Corps uniform. Michael’s uniform symbolizes his submission to the moral order of the universe. He joined the Marine Corps out of duty to his country and in defiance of his father’s wishes. He puts God and country before family. His brother Sonny cannot understand Michael’s decision; Michael fights for “strangers.” Sonny is the pure and unreflective Mafia soldier. He cannot imagine any other system of values than the Mafia system. Michael can imagine both the Mafia scale of values and the natural (that is, true) scale of values and choose between them.

The crucial, and ultimately tragic, decision for Michael comes when he visits his father in the hospital, Vito barely having survived an assassination attempt. During the visit Michael notices that the hospital is nearly empty of attendants and, most disturbingly, of the guards assigned to protect his father. Demonstrating the resourcefulness, courage and coolness under pressure that are among his many virtues, Michael saves his father from certain death by bluffing a squad of “buttonmen” (assassins) who arrive at the hospital. Michael whispers to his father that “I am with you now, Pop”, and Vito smiles in response. But if Vito knew what Michael really meant, he would not have smiled. Vito planned for Michael to succeed legitimately by becoming a Senator or a Governor; he hoped to preserve him from the criminal side of the family so he could lead the family out of the shadows and into the light. But what Michael meant by “I am with you now” is that he has accepted the scale of values by which the Godfather lives. He is no longer the Marine killing under orders from legitimate authority; he has taken the prerogative of dealing life and death into his own hands. Like his father, Michael is now prepared to commit murder in defense of his family, a commitment he will shortly fulfill by killing a Mafia enemy and a police captain in a restaurant. When Vito is later brought home and learns of the murder, he weeps and orders his son from his room. Vito’s worst nightmare has been materialized. Michael has done more than be with him; he is becoming him.

Michael’s tragic flaw is, of course, pride, the most dangerous vice and the one to which a man of his many talents is particularly vulnerable. Michael takes the privilege of dealing life and death into his own hands because he believes he possesses the wisdom to wield it, and the virtue to prevent it getting the better of him. And, for a time, he is successful. His assassinations of Sollozzo and the police captain are tactical masterpieces and strategically shrewd. But just as Tolkien’s One Ring provides great power but inevitably corrupts those who wield it, so the man who takes up murder as a weapon is inevitably corrupted. Michael becomes hard, cold, isolated and increasingly merciless. At the start of the film, he is honest with Kay about the true nature of his family. He tells her a story, a story he reassures her is true, of Luca Brasi threatening to blow a man’s brains out on orders from Don Corleone. “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me.” But when he embraces the Don’s way of life, it does become him, and along with murder, Michael must adopt a life of fundamental dishonesty with respect to Kay. This dishonesty, among other things, makes their relationship, as Kay later says, “unholy and evil.”

Although Kay comes to recognize the evil nature of her marriage to Michael, her tragedy is that she has already become fatally corrupted through her association with him. Her answer to Michael is an attempt to put an end to the unholy tradition of the Corleone family (this “Sicilian thing” in Kay’s words) by aborting Michael’s son; in other words, she fights Michael by adopting the same culture of death he has accepted. She is right that Michael can never forgive her for this, but doesn’t quite understand why. It isn’t because Michael has a problem with abortion and murder per se (obviously.) This would matter if Michael recognized some higher authority beyond himself and Kay. But for Michael there is no higher authority; he is the final authority on life and death, as ratified by the brutal fact that he is alive and his enemies are dead. Membership in the “family” is contingent on the recognition of his authority; the only sin Michael is not prepared to forgive is betrayal of the family, defined as dealing in death without authorization from Michael. In the Godfather II, there is a moment when Kay sees Michael while dropping off the children; it is obvious from her expression that she hopes for a reconciliation. Her desire for a reconciliation is evidence of her own corruption, for she wishes to be reconciled with a man she knows has an ongoing commitment to murder. Michael silently closes the door in her face; for having become a dealer in death herself, she can henceforth only be his rival and never his wife.

Kay manages to escape her association with Michael with her life, but Michael’s brother Fredo is not so lucky. Fredo is in many ways a more sympathetic character than Kay. Kay is intelligent and perceptive, but degrades herself both by attempting to fight Michael through abortion, and later attempting to take it back through a reconciliation. Michael can have nothing but contempt for her. Fredo, Michael perceptively tells Tom Hagen, is stupid and weak but he has a good heart. Alone among the family he congratulated Michael on his enlistment in the Marine Corps. Knowing nothing else, Fredo attempts to lead the life of a Mafioso but is humiliated at every turn. He fails miserably to protect his father in an assassination attempt and cannot manage his own wife on the dance floor after she publicly insults him. His pride hurt, Fredo tries to conduct some Mafia business of his own independently from Michael’s supervision, with predictable results. Fredo is exploited by some of the family’s enemies with nearly fatal consequences for Michael. But at no point is there any evidence that Fredo actively participates in a murder or a murder conspiracy. When we see him with the family it is either in standard family activities like supper or business meetings concerning things like his future in Las Vegas. He is absent when murder conspiracies are discussed. Now the reason for this is, at least in part, that Fredo has nothing to contribute to such meetings and may even pose a security threat through the possibility that he may inadvertently reveal sensitive information to the wrong people (something he actually does when he attempts to strike out on his own.) It nonetheless remains that alone among the principle characters, including Kay, he is innocent of the attempt to actively and personally use violence as a solution to his problems. His difficulties on the dance floor with his wife are evidence that he may be constitutionally incapable of violence. But beyond that, he simply doesn't think in those terms. This is what Michael means when he says Fredo has a good heart. He is susceptible to exploitation not only because of his stupidity, but because of his tendency to assume innocence in the motives of others, a reflection of his own innocent motives.

Fredo's pride leads him to foolishly strike out on his own, and for a time he rejects Michael's offers of a reconciliation. It is only after Fredo hits bottom, and admits that information he gave to Hyman Roth led to an assassination attempt on Michael, that he comes back to Michael in the form of the Prodigal Son. Unfortunately, Michael is no longer the forgiving father.

By this point, near the end of the Godfather II, Michael has degenerated to the point that forgiveness is beyond him. There is little more than paranoia in his heart. Fredo, whose sins were sins of weakness (the type least dangerous to the soul), accepts his nature and is content to live out his life as a kindly uncle. If there is anything left worth preserving in the family, it is Fredo, who maintains a measure of innocence. He poses no more danger to Michael and is not really deserving of the execution Michael orders, for although he consciously disobeyed Michael as the head of the family, he never attempted to betray him as did Kay and Tessio. But Michael's soul is now fully embraced by the murderous spirit he adopted with siding with his father, and he kills the last good thing in his family by "being strong for it." We last see Fredo praying the Hail Mary as a Corleone soldier puts a bullet in the back of his head.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Man at the Center of the Universe

I’m looking forward to reading Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, The Tyranny of Cliches. From reviews, one of the myths he takes down is the notion that the Galilean revolution destroyed the classical view of man as the most important thing in the universe. More specifically, in the classical view of the world, the universe consists of a series of concentric spheres with Earth at the center and the sun, moon and stars situated like studs on various shells rotating about the Earth. This cosmology reflected (so the myth goes) the innocent but arrogant classical belief that man is the most important thing in the world. In the process of destroying the geocentric view of the universe that flowed from arrogant anthropocentrism, Galileo taught man a lesson in humility.

The problem with the myth, as many before Goldberg have pointed out, is that the center of the universe in classical cosmology is not a place of honor. Earth is at the center of the universe in the sense that a drain pipe is at the center of a toilet. It’s where everything repulsive ends up that that isn’t welcome at more august stations in the universe. Even the matter here on Earth is, for Aristotle, of a lesser kind than the matter of the moon and stars. In fact, one of the key discoveries of Galileo that destroyed the old Aristotelian cosmology was the existence of craters on the moon. Celestial matter wasn’t supposed to be “corruptible” the way it is on Earth; but if the moon can get knocked around and beat up just like a something here on Earth, then there is nothing special about it with respect to Earthly objects. In a sense, it could be said that Galileo didn’t knock down man and Earth, but he knocked down everything else.

So Galileo did not destroy the classical view of man as the most important thing in the universe, because the classical view did not think of man as the most important thing; there were plenty of things more important, including God and angels. But there is a counter-myth that arises from this understanding; the counter-myth that since the Galileo-proved-man-isn’t-the-most-important-thing myth is false, that Galileo and the Copernican revolution in general did not have a revolutionary cultural/philosophical impact.

In fact, it did have a revolutionary cultural/philosophical effect, one that is even more profound than if the effect had been merely to demote man in the natural hierarchy. For even a demoted man is part of a hierarchy, and hierarchy and order are the essence of the classical view of the world. The Aristotelian view of the world is one of profound unity and order; the hierarchy of the Earth at the center/bottom, with the celestial objects on various spheres, is not only a physical hierarchy but a moral one. The stars are better things than the things on Earth, and the meaning of the universe is wrapped up in its physical structure. Dante profoundly mediated on this in his Divine Comedy. Hell is at the center of Earth, Purgatory is a mountain reaching from the Earth up to the Heavens, and Heaven itself is located among the celestial objects. To travel from Hell to Heaven is to travel a road that is physical and moral, every piece of which bears meaningful relationship to the whole.

The Copernican revolution did something far more serious than merely demoting man in the hierarchy. It destroyed the hierarchy altogether. When the geocentric understanding of the world was undermined, the philosophical, cultural and even social order entwined with it was challenged as well. This is why the Church took such a serious view of Galileo’s publications. They had truly revolutionary implications in a way we have difficulty understanding today. Our view of the world, post-Enlightenment, tends to be fractured and piecemeal. We have political theories, physical theories, social theories, etc. Two men can share identical views of physics but hold opposite political ideas, as we can have both Marxist and Liberal-Democratic physicists. A revolution in physics holds no political implications, and vice-versa. But for classical man, physical revolutions certainly could have political implications, as well as religious and philosophical implications. Galileo did far more than move man down the prison cell-block. He destroyed an entire world.

Or, if we adopt the self-interpretation of the Enlightenment, he destroyed the prison. The elegantly integrated and complete classical view of the world may have been beautiful, but it was also a prison. It imprisoned man philosophically, religiously, scientifically and socially. It is hard not to be swept along with the passion of Enlightenment pioneers like d’Holbach, Bacon and Kant. Man, finally, was coming into his maturity, finally throwing off comforting illusions and taking charge of himself and his destiny in the cold light of things as they are. He has, after millenia, knocked the lock off his cell door and pushed open the creaking door. But what he finds is not what he expected. He encounters no prison guard to usher him back to his cell, or a warden to announce his release and direct him to his home. He finds no one and nothing to indicate what he should do with his newfound freedom. He sees that his prison was merely a cave in which he happened to fall at some forgotten moment in the distant past, and finds no indication of where his home might be or how to build one.

So we should reject the myth that Galileo knocked man off from his privileged place in the universe. But we should not fall into the mistake of thinking that he didn’t do something even more disturbing.