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In which Alex and I struggle with Indian culture, the cult of factuality and substandard audio equipment. Forgive the occasional garbling and enjoy our Indian intellectual adventure! Oh, and also I rant about The Hobbit for about 20 minutes…
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Knowingly or instinctively, we have long lived in our culture with an assumed philosophical distinction between causal (instrumental, utilitarian) arguments for and against things, and what we might call “physiognomic” arguments - moral, aesthetic, or simply intuitive positions that cannot be reduced to a simple causal proposal.
“Sure, torture might get results”, we might find ourselves saying (though it doesn’t), “but it’s morally wrong”; “Yes, putting scores of 600 foot wind turbines on the central boglands of Eire may be a good way to produce energy in a non-polluting fashion” (it isn’t), “but think of the aesthetic cost.”; “Studies may show that returning to traditional schooling and discipline improve children’s future prospects,” (guess what? - they don’t), “but somehow it feels wrong.”
This distinction is problematic, not merely because we now live in an overly causalistic, instrumentalist age, where moral, aesthetic and intuitive arguments are thrust aside in favour of the measurable, the mechanical and the monetary (though we surely do) - but because we have, quite rightly, reacted to the experiences of the last few centuries by realising that a certain distrust of unjustifiable moral, aesthetic or intuitive certainties is appropriate and necessary. The civic stranglehold of Christian moralism, the cold grip of Classicism on the arts, the appeal to irascible tradition in child-rearing and education - all these needed to be, and were, challenged (and to a certain degree defeated).
But, if we look carefully, we see that these are not two qualititatively different registers of perception (or at least not only that) - rather, both forms of perception are made up of the same networks of real-world linkages, but are apprised at different scales and for different ends.
The causal links in the natural world, for example, which were previously seen as relatively free-standing and individually analysable, have undergone an immense interfusion in our understanding, complexifying to the point that zoology, evolutionary biology, even geology and atmospheric science, must all be treated as subsets of an all-encompassing ecology, tracking how each variable affects each other one in a network of confounding inter-causal complexity.
And what the human mind chooses, as the causal linkages weave themselves into ever-denser webs of relation, is to switch pragmatically from detailed understanding of each causal link to an effective heuristics of the overall system - a gauging of the emergent patterns and tendencies of the ecological whole.
This whole-system pattern-recognition (what some of us think we can still get away with calling “right-brain” thinking) is no new thing, of course. The history of this kind of intuitive gestalt-perception is far longer than that of modern scientistic causal reasoning - we see it in the tribal hunter’s “good instincts” for weather changes or fishing grounds; in the emergent social consensus of a nascent civilisation; in the various ‘vitalist’ heresies of early science, where seemingly autonomous forms and patterns were adduced, albeit later giving way to reductionist explanations.
It is what happens, in short, when a system’s complexity is too great for a human mind to perceive all its details at once - and so the mind pushes awareness of those details down into the subconscious, where an invisible calculus renders the equations with often astonishing accuracy.
When this kind of pattern-recognition re-emerged into the sciences (roughly, from the 1970s onwards), those wishing for the excessively “left-brain” bias of our culture to be rectified quite rightly saw a connection between the new scientific paradigms of ecological or emergent thinking and the various other forms of cultural holism and romanticist revival extant at the time. Those seeking to resist the new cultural paradigm found these parallels equally plausible, and invoked the connection for pejorative ends with equal passion.
But this connection did not make those new scientific paradigms less true, less scientific, or less of an advancement over the simplistically linear causalities that preceded them. Rather, it indicated that our inherited idea of “the rational” - and perhaps our antipathy to causal explanations - were themselves deeply biased by cultural tradition; that a more holistic, organic approach need not indicate a lack of substantive relationship with reality; and that returning to an older way of perceiving could be part of a progression to greater understanding, and not merely a regression to an indistinct and comforting somnolence.
Perhaps it is time that the same realisation be extended to the other areas where ‘right-brain’ understanding is still perceived as the backward country cousin of linear causality. In all too many fields, we are still trapped in a binarity between ‘modern, rational, causal’ understanding and the ‘traditional, non-rational, intuitive’ perspective:
Torture is justified by expediency, because reliance on arguments of ‘morality’ is outdated in this relativistic age; wind-farms are put in the most efficient place (for the owners to make money, if not energy) because objections on aesthetic grounds are the stuff of old women trapped in a heritage industry reverie of a long-forgotten past; children must be exposed early to the chill winds of cruelty and coercion, because ‘intuitive’ arguments in favour of compassionate, humane treatment are just another piece of romantic sentimentality.
But this is just another kind of pre-trans fallacy: just because more holistic ideas once had a stronger place in our thinking, and were overtaken by a more linearly causal approach, does not mean that a non-linear understanding might not yet form part of an even more sophisticated and far-reaching analysis - indeed, as I have already suggested, these seemingly non-causal “physiognomic” explanations are actually replete with causality of immense density and complexity.
I would propose that, when most of us say we feel that torture is morally wrong, we are not simply averring that there is some unearthly higher plane on which things can be wrong, no matter how much good they might do here in the real world.
Rather, we intuit that, whilst torture might be shown to do good in some localised, linear way (the oft-invoked “ticking time-bomb” scenario, perhaps), legitimising torture at the state level would have subtle, non-localised ramifications that would spread out through the innumerable strands of the web of causal interlinkages; accustoming our security services to using violence and coercion against people without judicial oversight; encouraging yet more violent states to use the same tactics against politically inconvenient citizens; brutalising our own society through acquiescence in the act, and thus leading eventually to higher instances of rape, assault, murder and all the more subtle abuses and unkindnesses that slowly eat away at the structure of a society’s civility and solidarity.
So too, when we object to a wind-farm on aesthetic grounds, we are not simply saying that physical well-being (the heating of the homes of the vulnerable, for example) should be sacrificed to assure some kind of pleasurable experience to be had from looking at a particular view - a hedonism of the eyeball, justifying the wealthy aesthete to preserve his landscaped playground amidst the wails of shivering waifs. Rather, we believe that our aesthetic love of the unspoilt landscape has some deeper meaning; we intuit that something greater would be lost than mere picturesqueness if the last remnants of wilderness were to be scarred by man-made objects.
And, again, we can pick out some - but, such is their profusion and complexity, never account for all - of the causal linkages that make up this intuition: the proven psychological benefits of natural landscapes; fear that the building of the turbines will act as a beach-head for the invasion of techno-capitalism into previously protected areas; the desire to take a stand against the logic of technological utopianism that is creating so much peril in so many other ways; the value of wilderness as a reminder that anthropocentric thinking is not the only way to perceive.
Whereas the ‘benefit’ of the turbines in the form of electricity is immediate, localised, identifable and measurable, the costs are subtle, unquantifiable, distributed throughout the system. But they remain real costs and, to my mind, to identify these other, more subtle causal links is not to weaken the ‘argument by aesthetics’, nor to boil down the last vestiges of “right-brain thinking” into just more left-brain reductionism; it is to identify the limitation, the narrowness, the inadequacy of linear causal thinking - its inability to ever see the whole picture and thereby to act appropriately for the genuine good of the people and the planet.
Indeed, in the ecological sciences, we can see how, beyond “left-brain” and “right-brain”, beyond linear and non-linear, there is an additional axis indexing the degree to which a mind can incorporate both kinds of thinking - how much awareness of the details of the causal components can be retained whilst simultaneously grokking the gestalt. This kind of amplitudinal awareness, clearly, is what enables an encompassing understanding, allying the power to manipulate component mechanisms with the wisdom to anticipate the whole-system response.
Would this not be, for example, the kind of education we would prefer for children (assuming we are not such arch-unschoolers that we do not feel they need one at all)? A pedagogical set-up able to make use of new understanding and research from neurology or psychology, exercise science or nutrition, but without ever losing sight of the desired whole-system outcomes of capability, wellbeing, wisdom and happiness? Would we not like our children to be placed in the hands of educators who will never sacrifice their intuitive understanding of the fellow human beings in their care in favour of a mechanistic dogma or technique, but who are also eminently capable of challenging and questioning their own internalised habits and beliefs, the moral and aesthetic imprints they have picked up from their own partial, culturally inflected upbringing?
If this is the kind of education we would like - if this is the kind of society we would like! - then perhaps we need to abandon the false dichotomy between inhuman reductionism and sentimental vitalism, and begin to bring the right and the left, the gestalt and the mechanism, the causal and the physiognomic back together into effective synthesis.
Fascinating article (and discussion in the comments) over on Dmitry’s site: http://cluborlov.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/a-royal-pain-in-ass.html
[Update: His syllabary project is now hosted at http://unspell.blogspot.co.uk/]
We hear a lot about how learning more than one language makes you smarter, but I’ve been wondering for a while about the effects of learning to read more than one script.
This cartoon convinced me that Korean would make an awesome universal script, easily fulfilling Dmitry’s “looks cool written on the side of an alien spacecraft” criterion.
Dotsies is also interesting, primarily for the clever use of progressive substitution to teach you the script. Don’t know how dyslexics would respond to this.
Commenters linked to some other intriguing syllabaries:
This whole discussion seems to have flagged up a few interesting spectra in script design:
- Between having simpler (and thus inevitably more similar-looking and confusable) letters which are easy to write in longhand, and more complex letters, harder to write but more easily distinguished.
- Between having a script that preserves information about etymology, culture, tradition, and a script that is easy to learn (see this excellent article on “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard” - but note that written Mandarin’s very complexity also allows the retention of a wealth of pictographical texture and a connection to the primordial mythopoeic world view of early Chinese culture).
- Between enabling fine differentiation between different vowel sounds, which runs the risk of misrepresenting dialectical pronunciation, and conflating disparate sounds into broader, more-inclusive phonemes, which reduces the ability to differentiate between similar but slightly differently pronounced words.
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In which me colleague and I talk masculinity, violence, initiation, schooling and sushi.
(& Alex’s posts on it)
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And things go in cycles.
For a while there, it looked like Obama’s tone was going to be critically inadequate. Who wants reality when they can have a reprisal of The American Dream, shiny and good-old as new? Who wants dour phlegmaticism when they can have genial avuncularity? The drift away from reality-based politics – starting, perhaps, when the 1970s’ atmosphere of tough choices and moral culpability gave way to Reagan’s B-movie turn – has always been particularly strong in America, where The Hologram has imposed itself most forcefully, where the truths of colonial exploitation have always been most effectively hid, and where the bounty of a wide continent and a global empire have, until recently, helped to funnel sufficient energy and resources through The Machine to make it seem like The Dream could continue forever, for just a little longer.
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But this whole “universe as computer simulation” trope has something quite odd about it: unless there is an identical “really real” universe elsewhere, then this one is not a ‘simulation’ in any meaningful sense. It’s just the universe.
In the case of this experiment, they seem to start with all these kooky assumptions like “time is supposed to be smooth and continuous” and “energy is supposed to propagate in all directions equally at all scales”, and claim that any deviation from this would be proof that this is “just” a simulation. But, again, unless there’s another universe out there that does have those properties, they’re really just saying “this is how the universe actually works”.
“Simulation” in these discussions is usually followed by a vague “on some kind of giant cosmic computer”, as in the above article. But there’s a subtle confusion here - we only reach for the idea of the computer because that’s the most advanced means of information storage and processing we’ve been able to create out of matter so far. People aren’t really thinking of rooms full of plastic-cased servers with blinking lights when they say this, they just mean the universe might be made out of information.
Which we kind of already know it is.
Just posting some stuff I said in response to Zac’s comments on Occupy at: uroboros.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/the-next-right-thing/
Some of what Zac said (but do go and read the whole thing):
I could not for the life of me get any of these ‘general assemblies’ to engage in any substantive political dialogue, let alone converge around actual action points with any mass traction. the whole thing devolved into a nightmare of orwellian ‘consensus’, politically correct censorship masquerading as ‘inclusiveness’, explosive outbursts of barely disguised Oedipal rage at the authorities and each other, and a general inability to think coherently about anything besides nebulous affirmations of good feelings and the importance of a utopian commune in the public square.
And my slightly more optimistic take:
To me the Occupy phenomenon was like a mushroom sticking its fruiting body up above the forest floor, to spread more spores about the place for a brief period and then die back; but the rhizomatic network under the soil remained intact, indeed, grew stronger for the broadcasting of its genetic information across a wider space.
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