March 27, 2006

Apropos "absurdity"

In The New Yorker, H. Allen Orr reviews Daniell Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The book, an attempt to look at the phenomenon of religion from a scientific view, resonates with my absurd belief below. (Which is, of course, not surprising since I referenced Dennett myself in my post.) But it's funny how similar it sounds:
According to Dennett, the earliest stages of religion were likely characterized by speculations about supernatural or quasi-natural beings. These questions arose out of an aspect of human nature we take for granted: the recognition that the world contains not only other bodies but also other minds. We recognize, in other words, that the world includes "agents" independent minds that possess their own sets of beliefs and desires. This recognition allows us a wide range of cognitive moves and countermoves presumably unavailable to most other species: "I know he thinks that I have a stone in my hand." The ability to attribute agency is, Dennett says, almost surely an evolutionary adaptation. It is probably encoded genetically in our species (no one taught you that other minds populate the planet), and it plays a key role in everything from fighting ("He doesn't know that I dropped the stone") to seduction ("Would you like to see my cave paintings"). But its appearance during evolution led to an unexpected possibility: attributing agency where no agent exists. Human beings are skilled at positing agents — whispering winds, turnip ghosts, and monsters under the bed — for which the evidence is less than overwhelming, and this tendency might explain why nearly all peoples talk about creatures like elves and goblins. (Emphasis added)
Anyway, it just struck me, coming so closely on the heels of the other post.
Posted by richard at 06:02 PM | Comments (0)

March 22, 2006

"Absurd" belief

It seems the blogosphere is awash in "absurd" beliefs. Not one to miss a bandwagon, I'll confess one (of probably many) of mine. It's actual a "contentious" belief combined with an "absurd" just-so story of sorts:
The Self is nothing more than a story we tell ourselves about our beliefs, desires, and actions. Moreover, this story-telling is tied in to the way we store memories, make plans, and interact with others. This narrative capability co-evolved as a Self-describing and Other-describing capability in proto-human societies.
Rather than leave the belief to wallow in it's own absurdity, I feel compelled to tell the just-so story of how I think this happened. As Daniel Dennett describes, the Intentional Stance is an approach to modeling the world where cause and effect are under-girded by beliefs, desires, and intentions. It, like the physical and design strategies, has utility in describing (and predicting) the behavior of many types of agents (humans, animals, even mechanistic controllers like thermostats) in certain circumstances. My belief (or so I tell myself) is that humans developed a proto-ability to tell these kinds of intentionality stories, most likely about predators and prey (it's thirsty so will go to water, it's hungry so will try to eat me), to help plan and reason about daily situations common to hunter-gatherers.

And then something happened. This ability turned out to be just as useful in describing and predicting the behavior of the other members of the tribe. And it turned out to be pretty good at modeling their own behavior too. And then a virtuous cycle was set up: the more individuals acted as if they had beliefs, desires, and intentions the better the other members of their tribe could predict their behavior and effectively cooperate. (Or, for you cynics, better dissemble and free-load off of the others).

So a race between tribes began as to who could most thoroughly internalize the new model.... and eventually the Self was born. Humans became expert at attributing beliefs and divining intentions. Belief and desire drove decision and action, and decision and action gave witness to belief and desire.

And eventually humans actually did believe and intend, because they acted indistinguishably from agents with beliefs and intentions.

And through these attributions and divinations, these decisions and actions, humans created values and most importantly become the architects of their own identities.

In the end, the advantage conveyed by adopting this stance became so overwhelming, both to the individual and the group, that incredibly complicated – even outrageous – mechanisms evolved to maintain the illusion and consistency of the Self. Our story-telling capability was upgraded to allow us to tell ourselves whoppers that kept the narrative flow going and made our (and others') beliefs and desires appear consistent.

And that's how Man gained his Self and became the Architect of his Identity. Pretty absurd, eh?

Posted by richard at 10:50 AM | Comments (11)

July 17, 2004

C. S. Lewis and Poststructuralism

I may be alone in finding this interesting, but here's an excellent essay on the way C. S. Lewis anticipated weak versions of poststructuralist deconstruction while rejecting strong anti-foundational and relativist versions.

Posted by richard at 02:29 PM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2004

Deconstruction Algorithm

After encountering postmodernism at the Second International Conference on Cyberspace , computer programmer Chip Morningstar researches it a bit and comes up with an algorithm for How to Deconstruct Almost Anything:

Step 1 -- Select a work to be deconstructed. This a called a "text" and is generally a piece of text, though it need not be. It is very much within the lit crit mainstream to take something which is not text and call it a text. In fact, this can be a very useful thing to do, since it leaves the critic with broad discretion to define what it means to "read" it and thus a great deal of flexibility in interpretation. It also allows the literary critic to extend his reach beyond mere literature. However, the choice of text is actually one of the less important decisions you will need to make, since points are awarded on the basis of style and wit rather than substance, although more challenging works are valued for their greater potential for exercising cleverness. Thus you want to pick your text with an eye to the opportunities it will give you to be clever and convoluted, rather than whether the text has anything important to say or there is anything important to say about it. Generally speaking, obscure works are better than well known ones, though an acceptable alternative is to choose a text from the popular mass media, such as a Madonna video or the latest Danielle Steele novel. The text can be of any length, from the complete works of Louis L'Amour to a single sentence. For example, let's deconstruct the phrase, "John F. Kennedy was not a homosexual."

Step 2 -- Decide what the text says. This can be whatever you want, although of course in the case of a text which actually consists of text it is easier if you pick something that it really does say. This is called "reading". I will read our example phrase as saying that John F. Kennedy was not a homosexual.

Step 3 -- Identify within the reading a distinction of some sort. This can be either something which is described or referred to by the text directly or it can be inferred from the presumed cultural context of a hypothetical reader. It is a convention of the genre to choose a duality, such as man/woman, good/evil, earth/sky, chocolate/vanilla, etc. In the case of our example, the obvious duality to pick is homosexual/heterosexual, though a really clever person might be able to find something else.

Step 4 -- Convert your chosen distinction into a "hierarchical opposition" by asserting that the text claims or presumes a particular primacy, superiority, privilege or importance to one side or the other of the distinction. Since it's pretty much arbitrary, you don't have to give a justification for this assertion unless you feel like it. Programmers and computer scientists may find the concept of a hierarchy consisting of only two elements to be a bit odd, but this appears to be an established tradition in literary criticism. Continuing our example, we can claim homophobia on the part of the society in which this sentence was uttered and therefor assert that it presumes superiority of heterosexuality over homosexuality.

Step 5 -- Derive another reading of the text, one in which it is interpreted as referring to itself. In particular, find a way to read it as a statement which contradicts or undermines either the original reading or the ordering of the hierarchical opposition (which amounts to the same thing). This is really the tricky part and is the key to the whole exercise. Pulling this off successfully may require a variety of techniques, though you get more style points for some techniques than for others. Fortunately, you have a wide range of intellectual tools at your disposal, which the rules allow you to use in literary criticism even though they would be frowned upon in engineering or the sciences. These include appeals to authority (you can even cite obscure authorities that nobody has heard of), reasoning from etymology, reasoning from puns, and a variety of word other games. You are allowed to use the word "problematic" as a noun. You are also allowed to pretend that the works of Freud present a correct model of human psychology and the works of Marx present a correct model of sociology and economics (it's not clear to me whether practitioners in the field actually believe Freud and Marx or if it's just a convention of the genre).

You get maximum style points for being French. Since most of us aren't French, we don't qualify for this one, but we can still score almost as much by writing in French or citing French sources. However, it is difficult for even the most intense and unprincipled American academician writing in French to match the zen obliqueness of a native French literary critic. Least credit is given for a clear, rational argument which makes its case directly, though of course that is what I will do with our example since, being gainfully employed, I don't have to worry about graduation or tenure. And besides, I'm actually trying to communicate here. Here is a possible argument to go with our example:

It is not generally claimed that John F. Kennedy was a homosexual. Since it is not an issue, why would anyone choose to explicitly declare that he was not a homosexual unless they wanted to make it an issue? Clearly, the reader is left with a question, a lingering doubt which had not previously been there. If the text had instead simply asked, "Was John F. Kennedy a homosexual?", the reader would simply answer, "No." and forget the matter. If it had simply declared, "John F. Kennedy was a homosexual.", it would have left the reader begging for further justification or argument to support the proposition. Phrasing it as a negative declaration, however, introduces the question in the reader's mind, exploiting society's homophobia to attack the reputation of the fallen President. What's more, the form makes it appear as if there is ongoing debate, further legitimizing the reader's entertainment of the question. Thus the text can be read as questioning the very assertion that it is making.

Of course, no real deconstruction would be like this. I only used a single paragraph and avoided literary jargon. All of the words will be found in a typical abridged dictionary and were used with their conventional meanings. I also wrote entirely in English and did not cite anyone. Thus in an English literature course I would probably get a D for this, but I already have my degree so I don't care.

Another minor point, by the way, is that we don't say that we deconstruct the text but that the text deconstructs itself. This way it looks less like we are making things up.

Posted by richard at 05:35 PM | Comments (1)

December 07, 2003

Frum, Orwell, and Welfare

John Holbo from John & Belle Have A Blog (and I really recommend that blog — add it to your blog reader if you haven't) has a thought-provoking and well-written post about David Frum, conservatism, Orwell, socialism and the welfare state.

Snippets won't do it justice, so try to read the whole thing if you have a free moment.

Posted by richard at 01:23 PM | Comments (0)

September 18, 2003

Dennett's Stance

So I'm halfway through The Intentional Stance by Daniel Dennett and I wanted to get some thoughts down before I lose them. I'll try to update this when I finish the book.

I read Freedom Evolves earlier in the summer. I enjoyed it but felt that while jumping from interesting point to interesting point, it didn't tie everything together in a way I would have liked (I'll try to post more on it later). Since it references many of his earlier works, I decided to read a few in order to see if I was just missing some fundamental thing that would bring his argument together. So I picked up this book. In it, Dennett tries to give his view of belief, desire, intentions and how we understand them.

The book, as you'd guess, is about the intentional stance. Dennett defines this as a strategy that one adopts to try to predict the behavior of a system. It is one of several different stances that we humans are wont to adopt. In the physical stance we predict behavior based on the laws of physics: gravity, inertia, friction, etc. This obviously works well, but is extremely cumbersome, if not impossible, with complicated systems. In the design stance, we abstract things and assume that components of the system will act "as they were designed to". In this stance, we can predict the behavior of a car when we turn the steering wheel (without doing complicated equations of motions) because we know that that's what a steering wheel is for. Likewise, we can predict that setting an alarm clock will make a noise at the correct time without knowing the diagram of the circuit board and whether it has a quartz mechanism or uses atomic resonance.

In the intentional stance we assume that the system (e.g. person, animal, artifact) that we're trying to predict has beliefs and will act rationally to achieve its desires. What does it believe? It believes true beliefs, i.e. beliefs it ought to believe. What does it desire? It desires what it ought to desire. This may sound a bit circular but it's the way we do a lot of reasoning about interactions we have everyday. With other people, with our pets, with our anthropomorphized computers.

In my mind (though I'm stretching a bit here) it's an extension of the principle of charity. The principle of charity purports to explain how we can bootstrap communication with other people without a universal, shared set of meanings. We basically have to assume that we mean the same things by certain signifiers (e.g. words), before we can understand enough to know that we mean different things by some of them. Likewise with intentions, we have to assume that someone else believes the true and desires the good (for her) or we have no common ground to start from. Any false beliefs or irrational desires that we attribute need to have "special explanations" — a reason or a cause for them to exist.

With this definition, Dennett calls any system whose behavior can be predicted from the intentional stance an "intentional system", and humans, he claims, are the best examples around.

So now is where he gets controversial. He claims that all it means (all it can mean) to say that something or someone (let's call them X) believes something is that X's behavior is predictable using the intentional stance and attributing that belief to X. This is obviously an instrumentalist position to take. He's claiming that there is no more meaning in the concept of belief than the fact that it's useful in predicting behavior.

He stakes all of this out in "True Believers", one of the first essays in the book. He then spends an extremely long time trying show that this assertion doesn't back him into two corners that he finds unattractive: subjectivism and anti-realism.

The first problem is showing that saying that X has belief P is an objective statement. By defining the belief by its usefulness in prediction, haven't we put belief in the eye of the beholder? Dennett wants to squirm away from that relativism and say that objectively X either believes that P or she doesn't. For me, this is the least compelling part of his argument (though he, as usual, makes some interesting points that I find hard to do justice to in this space). In the end, he clings to his objectivism tightly.

The other thing he clings to is his materialism. Everything that goes on in the human mind happens because of something in the human brain, which happens because of material circumstances and physical processes. So, since he's spent several chapters arguing that beliefs are only instrumental, he wants to assure that he's still a realist. He believes (or at least you can predict his behavior if you attribute this belief to him) that there are "real" things going on in our heads when we believe things.... it's just not proper to call them beliefs. This is where he threads the needle and distances himself from the capital-R Realists who think that we actually have structures, patterns, whatever in our brains that are our beliefs. Dennett holds that there is no reason to assume that what goes on in our head is homologous or has a one-to-one mapping with beliefs. But, not willing to join the anti-realist camp, he also claims that something happens in our brains that explains the fact tht we have beliefs (are predictable when attributed beliefs).

Anyway, that's where I am now, both in the book and my understanding of what he's saying. I'll update this post when I make more progress. Re-reading this, I'm not sure I'm doing his arguments justice. For someone who hasn't read the book, it may not be that useful. For those who have, comments, clarifications, and corrections would be appreciated.

Posted by richard at 11:55 PM | Comments (0)