However, as I dare say you - like Jean-Paul Sartre - have noticed, people can be annoying. We need distance from, as much as we need association with, one another. Thoreau tried for both: he would walk from Walden Pond to Concord, hang out with his dear friends the Emersons and the Alcotts, and then retreat to his hovel to be fairly happily alone. Walmart is no Concord. And if Greg will pardon my saying so, he is no Emerson or Alcott, though possibly he is a better golfer than either. Then again, he is also not my dear friend...
Crispin Sartwell is a friend of mine. We are supposedly charter members of the Defeatists as well as my being an occasional commentator here. As you most be aware if you're reading this, Crispy is a philosophy professor for Dickinson College, a former rock and roll critic, a retired environmental terrorist and a fairly interesting guy for a lot of reasons, including his part time job as a blackjack and three card monte dealer in an alley in back of Trump's in Atlantic City. He has kids, college looming and teaches philosophy at a private college. Cut the man some slack, OK! Selling a piece to the NY Times is a big fucking deal -- he can afford new socks, and some actual hamburger now.
This is an interesting piece for a lot of reasons. Although some of the Defeatist-Malcontent collective and carp fishing gang professed confusion at what he was saying, I think he was being cynically lyrical. Crispin appears to be going through a phase, sort of a male menopause thing...I kind of like the idea of Walmart as our Walden, since except for pithy phrases here and there, I despise Walden...The Transcendentalists were smug, self-satisfied bourgeois Babbits who inflicted themselves on us ever since. Emerson, Longfellow, Thoreau are not and never were Tinker, Evers and Chance. Or, Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg. The insufferable rightness of the Yankee ascendency irritates me -- concepts do have dates, citing another philosophical friend of mine, Mary Hunt.
as you may have noticed, i am an enemy of pleasure: not necessarily as an experience, but as a kind of uber-explanation of human behavior and certainly as the center of any sort of ethical theory. really a lot of the stuff i've seen in cognitive science and psychology just starts out with the flat assumption that only pleasure and pain can possibly motivate anyone to do anything. now, pointing up the problems with this would be a simple way of showing that a lot of the brain-image psychoscience of the current period cannot do without philosophy, and also is really ham-fisted and...wrong.
so: ok: after people shoot heroin, they want to keep shooting heroin. from this we conclude that shooting heroin is pleasurable (just like...taking a warm bath, cuddling, looking at gauguin's paintings, s&m, television, chocolate, horror movies, accomplishment etc: dude, are you kidding? you're going to start with the assumption that these are fundamentally identical experiences, or that they just must have something in common? reflect and start again.). anyway, shooting up must light up the 'pleasure center' of the brain, which is located relative to the rest of the brain as the entertainment aisle is located relative to the rest of the wal-mart. or it releases endorphins: the pleasure chemicals! you start with this question: what is the one explanation of why we do or want anything we do or want? since this is a bizarrely wrong question-begging question, everything that falls out after that is useless, or perhaps the word i'm groping for is 'false.' as old ludwig might say: don't assume they must have something in common, but look and see, or in this case, reflect.
now, i am a materialist and i think that mental states are identical to phsyical states (but on my view not only of the brain, but of the organism in the world). however, say there are such things as endorphins and they are released identically when you reach orgasm, finish writing your book, look at the earth from space, and listen to minor threat. that would not convince me that these are the same sorts of experiences or that i am seeking them for the same reasons. i don't think there is any one thing to be explained, so i'm not liable to be impressed by the explanations, and if you're telling me that the similar release of similar chemicals shows otherwise, i say you've got a long long way to go to nail that down at all. and if you're proving they're the same by brainscanning, i say this hasn't changed the way i think about these experiences at all or made them any more similar to one another than they were before. it might be an interesting result, but to see why we'd have to start with a lot richer encounter with and reflection on human experiences in a world.
really the brain research is completely compromised by the categories you start with, which are some kind of parade of cultural prejudices or ham-handed simplifications. this happens over and over in this sort of research on all kinds of questions. but you can't argue with science, you irrational tool! right, but that pleasure thing came from nowhere in the realm of science. it came from bentham or maybe oprah or maybe an absolut vodka ad.
what if there are many things people want, including many things that are not psychological states? what if there are many desirable and desired psychological states? 'pleasure,' once it encompasses all these experiences, is just a blank or variable meaning 'whatever people seek' or 'whatever psychological state people expect to get out of what they seek.' but now you've reified it into a thing, and as a thing to be explained, when really it should be a question that needs to be addressed before you go looking for it in people's heads. you have not gotten away without a prior theory or set of concepts, and also you've opted for an extremely primitive unidimensional taxonomy.
as the term is actually used, i think 'pleasure' might be ok for one dimension of the experience of taking a warm bath or eating milk, as opposed to dark, chocolate. i think for things like shooting heroin or having intense sex or looking at the earth from space, or running marathons, or working for decades to master the violin, you're just going to need entirely different accounts of motivation. but what these may be is not something you're going to find out with an mri. some beautiful things are pleasurable, but some are disturbing, awe-inspiring, challenging or induce despair and weeping instead of the vague grin and unfocused eyes of the pleasure-ridden.
centering pleasure like this is an artifact of the period when everything had to retreat into the subject, when nobody was in contact with anything but their own sensations (in my opinion, the brainy approach to psychology still labors under this devastating theoretical handicap). so if i wanted to know why you did what you did, i had to appeal exclusively to your internal states. you had a sensation/impression/idea and then a pleasure with regard to it. but no: desires, enjoyments etc are relations of human beings to stuff outside their heads. you can see the problem by the claim that both horror movies and pedicures must engage the same internal state insofar as people seek them out. start the other way round: with qualities of the object. then work up the relation. if you're going to do an mri scan, better scan the whole theater: the other people, the popcorn stand, the projector etc. no but we are concerned with what is actually accessible in the experience of the subject! dude, the popcorn stand out there in the lobby is actually accessible in the experience of the subject. really, deny that and then think about what you've just said and whether you actually believe it. otherwise you can't have any popcorn.
and here i'll just say it and try to pay off at a later date: a utilitarian moral theory that rests on hedonism is impossibly bad, just completely misguided. but to start with just think about what happens to a bentham/mill/sidgwick utilitarianism if - as is (er, obviously) the case - pleasure is not the only thing we seek and pain is not the only thing we avoid. well then 'happiness' construed as a life of much pleasure and little pain just is not the empirically-obvious real telos.
this is very right. one basic problem with the brain-science approach to everything is that it reinstitutes a kindofcartesian wall or screen between the mind and the world. if you tried to account for making or appreciating art without regard to whole environments, including the work itself in an unfolding history of art, display contexts, and social practices of appreciation, you'd be barking up an extremely wrong tree, or indeed up no tree at all.
just after jobs died, i heard some kind of neuro-dude on cnn saying that, under scan, the same region of the brain that lights up or whatever during a religious experience or intense prayer lights up when people fondle apple products. it's like a religion! maybe it is, but the argument is irrelevant as well as entirely obscure. alright, let's say that you think the human brain has a religion center, like a little neurological chapel. now the notion that it lights up when you're lusting for an ipad might be interpreted to support the claim that apple is like a religion. or it might make you doubt that you've got the religious center at all. maybe it's the consumer-capitalism center, and we should conclude that religion is a form of consumer capitalism. considering all the obscurities and difficulties of finding religious experience behind your left ear, and the tangential relation of that to what we might actually mean by 'religion' in ordinary language, one might take the more direct approach: in what respects is apple like the catholic church, or the teachings of the dalai lama? why not actually try to know something about religion and fit apple into that to whatever extent you can? religion is a social phenomenon, etc: you've got to get into the actual huge ambiguous mess of the thing to make assessments like this. it's an interesting analogy, etc., but the neurological events are doing no work. you think it's like a religion for reasons having nothing to do with neurology, which is why you pursued this line of research. alright, develop the analogy in some rich way. press on its revelatory aspects and its limitations. develop a critique or a recommendation of apple on this basis. i don't think you've done anything with the neurons except tried to pound people into agreeing with your analogy with a bunch of pseudo-scientific hooha.
let's say you found that there was a peculiar pattern of neuron-firings that buddhist monks have while chanting: they all display it identically, more or less. and then you discovered that this very pattern happens when people operate the touchscreen on an ipad. now would it follow that apple was buddhism or that buddhism was apple? dude, that's about buddhism and apple, not about the neurons in your head. it's about how things are in the world outside your head. would you conclude that buddhism was a commercial enterprise after all, or that apple was not? um, you'd better go out and look at what they buy and sell. really none of the neurology has any bearing on the actual similarities and differences between apple and buddhism. and, after all, these things are to some extent open to inspection: go look and see whether they are similar, or to what extent they are similar, or in what respects they are similar, out there, in the world, where they are actiually located.
one thing to say is that what you go looking for in neurology is whatever you think is natural and universal, or you think ought to be. that is, it's basically an attempt to naturalize and essentialize certain concepts. so if you thought the left/right political distinction was a permanent natural biological condition of humanity, (you'd be wrong but) you'd look for neurological differences between leftists and rightists (and find that rightists were using their reptilian brains, or whatever might prop up your politics) (people have done this). i hate to recommend wittgenstein, but where's the 'game center'? (well, down at the mall, maybe). it's a strategy for defending as ahistorical truths the concepts you like, or that you can't get any perspective on and optionalize. if you really tried to think about all the things 'religion' means, or the scope of activities, the ranges of beliefs and practices, that are subsumed under a concept like that, and also its historical volatility, and also all the emotional valences of religious experience, all its intersections with or oppositions to wealth, political power, sexuality, the arts, you wouldn't expect there to be a religion center in the brain, or even know what that means, exactly.well that it all supposedly lights up the behind-the-ear portion doesn't help you figure out what it means, does it?
plus it's not going to turn out to be true. the model is way, way too localizing. there is religious rage, religious desire, religious ecstasy, religious reasoning, religious sex. there is religious language, religious imagery, religious music. there are religious bodily postures, religious visions, religious dreams, religious explorations. there is the religious experience of thomas aquinas, of mohammed atta, of martin luther king, of achilles, of miss cleo. religion if it could possibly be correlated with brain states at all, in any clear way is going to have to be correlated with states of the whole brain (and, the rest of the body, and the world). let's say there really are things like a visual cortex, language processors, emotional modules, reptilian regions, higher reasoning units, etc (i say this can't be right either). then all of these are part of the religious bit.
these folks will freeze the dsm-4 into the very structure of your brain, until they revise the whole thing three years from now, in which case they'll freeze the revision into your brain. whatever faddish educational theory is in the ascendant this week will become a timeless truth about what it means to be human.
i'm surprised people aren't finding the mime center, or showing the difference between hip hop and country fans by the patterns of neuron firings, or finding the brain pattern that makes people into assholes. no doubt, it's due to an overactive asshole region, not of your butt but of your pre-frontal cortex.
i thought i might have a crack at some examples of what i might call strategic beliefs, which i think raise important questions in both epistemology and actual science and social policy. so here are my examples:
(1) alcoholism (or in general addiction) is a disease.
(2) people are born straight or gay.
(3) depression (or for example bipolar disorder) is a chemical imbalance in the brain.
now i am not a researcher and i haven't really had a serious crack at the evidence. but my view is that these assertions are either false, misleading, or so vague as to be unevaluable for truth value (for example: the notion of "disease" is an extremely vague, ambiguous, and problematic folk concept). but i also think that in certain situations each of these might be extremely important to believe: those circumstances are, roughly, treating addiction or depression, and making peace with one's sexual orientation and allowing people to have whatever sexual orientation they have.
each of these claims relieves the depressed, addicted, or gay person from personal responsibility for their situation: they all declare that the situation is not the result of the free decisions of the subject. now i think this actually has basically good consequences. i think this is the fundamental reason, for example, for the success of twelve-step programs, which i have experienced at first hand. it is a dogma in aa that alcoholism is a disease (or, as the big book says at one point, an allergy). if you think that your alcoholism is your fault, you will be filled with self-loathing, particularly at the point where it has destroyed your career or family. well this self-loathing will get you drinking. the typical drinking alcoholic is in a cycle where he desperately tries to exercise will power over his condition, which might work for a while, then lead to a collapse in which he succumbs. the typical addict runs through this cycle again and again. so you "turn your will over," you stop thinking that you can make yourself stop and are a horrible person because you fail. then you can stop.
so i would say that the recovering addict may need to believe that alcoholism is a disease (whatever that means, exactly). i might encourage someone to believe this - and i have - because it is more or less essential to recovery. and recovering addicts often are entirely outraged even by asking questions about this. but that does not make it true, which shows among many other things that the pragmatic theory of truth is false.
the "evidence" that depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain is kind of pathetic. i'll believe that when doctors are diagnosing depression by pet scan or urine test. depression is diagnosed on the basis of..sleep patters or energy levels, "suicidal ideation," etc. and of course even if there were chemical changes in the brain associated with depression, that would not establish direction of causation: the emotional condition could be causing the brain changes as well as the other way round. the fact that seratonin re-uptake inhibitors are (sort of) effective in treating depression no more shows that depression is a chemical imbalance than the fact that you can treat pain with morphine shows that pain just is a morphine shortage.
try saying something like this to someone who believes or needs to believe that bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance, and you will just get rejected with extreme dogmatic insistence. no it just is a fact. but that you believe it the way a christian loves jesus doesn't show it's true.
honestly i think that sexual orientation probably has extremely complex or chaotic origins, including i would think the nature of one's early sexual experiences, what sort of person one comes to associate with orgasm. but saying that is dangerous: it indicates that we could manipulate people into heterosexuality etc; it hints at a kind of genocide or something. it hints that if we want our kids to be het we should keep them away from gay people at all costs. basic acknowledgment of the full humanity and basic rights of gay people may be well-served by 'born that way.' but that doesn't make it true.
there might be a hundred-year scientific consensus that depression is a chemical imbalance. but then, one might notice that much of the research is actually paid for by people who manufacture chemicals. and after it's over it might be entirely obvious that the claim was vague, ill-formed, and...wrong. that doesn't mean science doesn't converge on it for decades. to say that scientists are subject to social consensus, economic context, peer pressure, the models under which they were educated, etc is an understatement. well, there will be a new social consensus in 2045, and science will explore and explain the useful or consensus notion as the objective truth. it's happened many times, and will happen many more.
you know, i've had the world's craziest week. so today i'm just chillin, blogging, listening to lady gaga ((!) i seem to be in a pop mood), watchin snow blow around. that to me is a good day.
so let me have a crack at this collective consciousness thing. the basic idea would be found in hobbes: the famous frontispiece of leviathan: the sovereign's giant body incorporating all of us, which coincided with the dawn of modern political philosophy. it is just astonishing the permutations the idea has taken: once you look for it it's everywhere all the time: left right and center.
any group or collection of people could be a collective consciousness. it could be a nation, a class, the users of the same language, a gender, a race, all oppressed people, all oppressors, or even absolutely everybody. it could be rousseau's general will, the hegelian state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, social constructionism, pragmatism, feminism, communism, communitarianism, the people, the culture. it could be obama or palin, heidegger, wittgenstein, alasdair macintyre, george herbert mead, richard rorty. it could be progressives, reactionaries, schizophrenics or psychotherapists, bureaucrats or seccesionists, slaves or masters.
ok it's a mistake, but it's not a mere mistake. how people think has a lot to do with their language, for example, and a language is a series of social conventions. you know, french people are different than chinese people. men are different than women. the consensus that is most deeply entrenched is the hardest to see. people have collective decision-making procedures that could allow a number of people all to embrace the same idea or move simultaneously or in coordination in the same direction.
and it reflects a truly deep or the deepest human desire: for merger, with god, with the world, with one another. it's a sexual wish. it's a spiritual wish. it's what you receive when you drift off to sleep or pass out after sixteen shots of tequila: lose yourself, as eminem said. it's what happens in a mosh pit or at an inauguration or in suicide or in sexual ecstasy. it's what happens in front of a great work of art (like "poker face" by lady gaga, haha). it's solidarity. it's you and your mom, you and your child. it's a wedding. your pets. it's god's love and alien abductions etc.
and yet all this yearning would make absolutely no sense if we were already incorporated into a single consciousness. it's what we can't have, or else we wouldn't always be trying to make it happen. right? and the opposite yearning is possible too, of course: to stop agreeing, to stop pretending to be the same, to run away or be alone.
and if language is conventional or social it is also bent by each person, sometimes profoundly. and as i keep insisting, there's more to life or the world than language, such as bodies in space, bodies with space between them. there are mega and micro linguistic communities, in which each node is unique in its particular configuration and relations.
no one literally shares your pain or your annihilation. at least most items of consensus are up for grabs or can be brought to consciousness and attacked. you don't exactly know what i'm thinking or feeling right now, or you don't know it the same way i do, or you could be wrong.
whatever provisional or temporary mergers we achieve with one another we also achieve with trees, animals, dirt, rocks, machines. we don't only experience these through the lens of the social, we experience the social through the lens of them. i'm closer to one with the water that's somewhere close to me than i am with my fellow...whatever it may be. it's around me and through me and it is me.
the collective is...collective: it is each as well as all of us. if individuals are unreal or epiphenomenal, or if "the polis is prior to the individual," then there is no polis, any more than you can have tables but no molecules. we are far less plausibly thought of as one organism than is a nest of wasps or ants: we're more like the big cats. or not, i don't know, somewhere in between. or just what we are.
where you want to get worried is in how the idea of collective consciousness and the yearning for it are used, and how the illusion of collective consciousness is enforced: how your departure from our consensus is not only a betrayal of us but supposedly of yourself, how people are punished for not nodding along. the dictatorship of the proletariat or the nation or the race is going to have to be forged, enforced. people are going to have to be forcefully included, and forcibly extruded. you're going to be tempted to identify the isolated will of you as the collective will of us all, and then reach for a cattle prod or start handing out cash.
a constant approach of popular science these days is to trace all sorts of behaviors, attitudes, decisions, to neurology. now the first thing i would say is that every event or expression of an attitude is connected to a neural event: that is trivial if you're any kind of materialist. but this stuff is by and large amazing crap. try this from the neurologist nicholas kristof, for instance. now the attitudinal distinctions - conservatives don't like dirty faucets, say - are sort of interesting if true. but lighting up cortexes is not interesting, and it also deploys about fifty fallacies. of course it bears not at all on the truth or the effects of beliefs or policies. it vaguely suggests that people are born liberals or conservatives, which just takes a taxonomy of political positions that has existed for two centuries at the outside and tries to make it into some biological condition of mammalian life.
everything is neuroscience these days: the neuroscience of marketing or investing or homo/hetero or...whatever. the problem is that these approaches work backwards from social categories to neurology and enshrine momentary social formations, which are essentially created by power, as inescapable bio-destinies. the entire scientificness of the thing is usually presented in a few phrases - 'medial prefrontal cortex,' say - which function essentially as authorities: they're supposed to show you that you're too ignorant to assess what's being said, to put the actual ethical/political/economic conclusions beyond the realm of disagreement, to flummox you into nodding vaguely along. if you don't, you must be a dolt. they function like phrases from the koran or something. they actually do no work except to assert a kind of prestige.
all the work is done in the initial taxonomy. if people were actually divided into two fundamental kinds - liberal and conservative, say, or boring and interesting - since lucy, then of course there would have to be some underlying biological distinction, which we might work backwards towards. but really we just enshrine whatever little political distinctions we find useful - for example to stigmatize sarah palin or something - and then say: medial prefrontal cortex.