Hamilton skillfully eviscerates what he calls the fetishism of growth that has gripped modern society. Growth is not a means to an end, it is the end. The benefits of growth, capitalism, and material consumption are so self-evident and ingrained that, at least in the mainstream, there is no dissent, questioning, or even acknowledgment of potential downfalls. It has become as ubiquitous as breathing.
What makes this even more troubling is the costs that this fetish has cost society:
The costs of economic growth, which fall largely outside the marketplace and so do not appear in the national accounts, have become inescapably apparent– in the form of disturbing signs of ecological decline, an array of social problems that growth has failed to correct, and the epidemics of unemployment, overwork, and insecurity. Those societies are characterised by a prevading and deep-rooted malaise.
Democracy has been replaced by a corporatist oligarchy that has hijacked the drives of individuals and channeled them into their own constructs in order to increase their power (primarily through wealth). Hamilton notes that the more that “material pursuits and extrinsic motivations” are emphasized, the more this generates a dissonance that can only be quietened through more consumption. This positive feedback loop was expertly illustrated by George W. Bush when he offered the succinct advice to “go shopping” after 9/11.
It isn’t just our inner lives that have been infiltrated by this force, but our relationships are mediated through these channels as well. Relationships are leveraged to become a means to the self; the more a society glorifies “the wealthy, the powerful, the famous and the beautiful” the more we look at relationships as commodities that will bring us closer to “happiness”.
Hamilton identifies a key element that has perpetuated the problem: rationality. Specifically a “peculiar form of rationality”. Hamilton quotes Norman Brown:
Money reflects and promotes a style of thinking which is abstract, impersonal, objective, and quantitative, that is to say, the style of thinking of modern science– and what could be more rational than that?
As Hamilton points out, neoliberalism is based on a single choice: “the choice between different goods for sale”. Despite heavy evidence suggesting otherwise, we’re told it’s our nature to make rational economic choices of what to consume, and that fulfillment of this will lead to happiness. This is essentially an empty quest: devoid of meaning, depth, or end. The problem of rationality that Hamilton is referring to is not that rationality is a problem in of itself (though I plan to explore Rationalism as a problem), but that the information that society is working with is narrow and constrained by extrinsic forces. This is exactly how cults operate.
So why is society so hellbent on destroying itself and ignoring these issues even when they’re right in front of us? Speaking out against growth means confronting our “guilty acquisitiveness” and the “essential meaningless of life they fear may lie just below the surface.” This is an area I’d like to explore further. What are the neurological correlates behind this dissonance?
Hamilton goes on to detail out why growth is a fetish, how our world is obsessed by it, and why it is mad. The most apposite example is climate change and our inability to truly act to confront it. It is the narrow, peculiar form of rationality peaking its head through again.
A fantastic, well-written, and needed book. Though not quite as in depth as The Freedom Paradox, it weighed in more on the political and social aspects of our society than the philosophical which the latter covered.
It is only selflessness, love for others, that stands between us and the hell of rational economic man.
The freedom paradox: towards a post-secular ethicsClive Hamilton; Allen & Unwin 2008WorldCat•LibraryThing•Google Books•BookFinder After reading Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species which was specifically about the psychology behind the lack of progress against climate change, I was excited to discover he had written several other books concerning the social and cultural forces that have shaped the overall state of humanity, morality, and thought. The Freedom Paradox explores the juxtaposition of the apparent “freedom” that we’re given in industrialized, developed countries and the simultaneous lack of freedom that so many of us feel. Hamilton starts by describing three approaches to wellbeing– the good life, the pleasant life, and the meaningful life. He continues on to define what constitutes each of these, and how the “pleasant life” drives human behavior in developed nations. Characteristics of the pleasant life include hedonistic behaviors like status seeking, physical and emotional highs, and pursuit of channels that will increase these (i.e. obtaining higher income). Only in the last few decades have we seen the market mature and consume enough to start infiltrating the most personal areas of one’s life. As Hamilton points out, the market now offers identity and provides a controlled, scripted way of defining one’s “individuality”. The message is that consumption is the only way to identity and we’re programmed with this message in every avenue possible.
Choosing a mate, education and entertainment, for example, have become increasingly commodified and are thus considered in terms of their capacity to deliver pleasure.
How exactly did this start to take hold? As more personal and political freedoms were established (Hamilton highlights the 60s-70s period and calls it a “disaster for Western culture”) and, combined with neoclassical economics which views humans as endless calculating agents, it was inevitable. Rationalism began to be applied to morality which attempted to separate emotion from moral judgment. Hamilton cites this and heavily criticizes John Rawls and the proceduralist ethic he espouses along with Milton Friedman and Gary Becker. The end result is that there is a fleeting promise of the “pleasant life”– or rather, one can and should pursue extrinsic desires to relieve the “burden” of emotion. When pure reason is exercised, the commodification of all aspects of life as well as natural resources becomes inevitable and in fact justifiable. The irony here is that neuroscience has shown high involvement of emotion-related areas in the brain when people are making moral judgments.
The model of the rational agent that forms the basis of neoclassical economics, around which the modern world of free markets is constructed, is one appropriate to a society of people who have been rendered incapable of feeling normal human emotions. Rational economic man is a neurological freak.
Frustratingly, people seem to be aware that modern society is too materialistic. Yet, even when asked during the same survey, say that they cannot afford to buy everything they “really need”. I would argue that market highly depends on keeping people in this superficial awareness. I’m sure there is a strong undercurrent of something being out of place, but as long as the healing for the discontent can be promised by way of material consumption, the status quo will continue. So, how is this even accomplished? Corporate capitalism has co-opted the inner language of this distress. The environments we live in are saturated with strip malls, endless cubicle farms, and a general lifelessness. Paradoxically, this is acknowledged and accepted by capitalism and the solution put forth is a veiled shovel to dig one’s self deeper into the pit. This discontent is actively stoked by corporations in order to sustain desire for change. The very thing that has caused the problem presents itself as the way out. What we’re striving for.. individuality, meaning, purpose is acknowledged and offered in a small phrase: consume more. We are promised these through instant gratification and “momentary pleasures”. Moreover, the system is designed to quell and excommunicate those who do not participate or who question its motives. Hamilton writes:
…much is revealed by the emergence of the class of citizens known as “downshifters”– people who have voluntarily decided to reduce their incomes and consumption… The obstacles put in the way of those who want to partially withdraw from the market are formidable and include being told they will no longer be able to participate in normal social discourse and they will be impoverished in retirement.
Hamilton notes that many, at some point in their lives, realize they have “systematically deceived themselves about what would make them happy”. The pursuit of the pleasant life often ends up being, he says, “joyless”. Few end up deviating from this course.
Kant & Schopenhauer
The argument for the “meaningful life” (moral life) first begins in the exploration of Schopenhauer and Kant. Specifically, Hamilton starts off noting that the world is essentially an appearance.. one that is put together and represented in our consciousness. We could say that, as far as what we perceive through our senses, the world we viscerally experience is an electrochemical representation.
However, Schopenhauer deviates from Kant in that he postulates a sort of “non-sensible intuition” as a real form of knowledge. A form of knowledge not gained from cognitive reasoning or sense-based information. This “noumenon” is the “thing-in-itself”– in other words, the actual world as it is and not as it is represented or constructed through consciousness. The concept of a “universal Self” is part of this world, which is part of each of us. Hamilton postulates that seeing this in ourselves and others (our commonality), and the dropping of the subject-object distinction, is the basis for morality. He calls this “metaphysical empathy”.. in other words, recognizing that each of us are all intimately connected through the noumenon.
Hamilton also highlights the divide between Schopenhauer and Kant when dealing with failures in morality. The former argued that an immoral act is a failure of character rather than logic. Kant’s rational ethics stipulates that rationality is the ultimate good and this is what moral “law” is and should be based upon. I plan on exploring this further through other reading as I believe it has inherent limitations and significant issues.
Hamilton’s exploration of Schopenhauer and influences of Eastern philosophy are certainly interesting. It took some introspection to understand exactly what was meant by “non-sensible intuition”, but I believe I’ve found a few personal examples that qualify. Although I need to go back and read the book again, Christian de Quincey’s Radical Knowing: Understanding Consciousness through Relationship (Radical Consciousness Trilogy) explores epistemologies and may touch on similar concepts.
The Moral Self
The individual finds true freedom through adherence to the “moral life”. Hamilton notes that it means refusing all external sources of authority especially on moral matters. We are all moral agents and “lawgivers”, and therefore our true autonomy is realized through our “moral selves”. Hamilton succinctly states that we have to do what we decide is right.
A post-secular ethics locates moral authority not in the abstractions of reason or enslavement to faith; it places it in our own inner selves.
How is this tied to freedom? As Hamilton pointed out, people are aware of the immorality of corporations, capitalism, and the greed that abounds in our society. Capitalism, in order to survive, needed to perform a sleight of hand to confound scripted, defined paths of consumption with actual, real freedom. The result is two-fold: we are offered quick fixes of relief through instant gratification and long term discontent and despair that is remedied through more consumption. Like any junkie though, eventually there will be a rock bottom.
The problem, as Chris Hedges has pointed out, is what will take hold when this bottom is hit? Right-wing tea-party militants? Christian fascists? The only hope is that people en masse embrace the meaningful and moral life.
The moral life is always devoted to something other than one’s own desires. Overall I found Hamilton’s message to be more than needed. It was refreshing to read in words what had been ruminating in my head for some time. To close out, my favorite quote from the book:
To realize the nature of mind is to realize the nature of all things.
This looked like a fascinating read when I found at a local college library. The premise is that consciousness is like any other physical object in that it can be viewed and experienced by others. Otherwise, it would belong in its own distinct category of physical things.
The book starts out optimistic. Hirstein reviews the current working model and theory of the brain, and highlights the latest triumphs of neuroscience. The issue of binding is brought up and the latest findings reviewed. Binding is the process in which the brain combines sensory input whether somatosensory, visual, auditory, or olfactory into a unified, single experience. This apparently has been a problem in neuroscience until just recently as there are strong theories about how this can be done. I did learn that there is a debate among philosophers and scientists on whether color actually exists in the world or not (as we experience it). If you’re a color “internist” then you subscribe to the theory that color is experienced internally, and that’s it. In other words, “blue” in the external, objective world is simply an electromagnetic wavelength and our experience of “blueness” is entirely subjective and internal. There is also an “externist” view, and any range in between. Hirstein also focuses on the cortex and the role it plays in “executive processes”. Consciousness, to Hirstein, is synchronized patterns of brain activity that is tied together through the posterior parietal cortex and the prefrontal lobes. I may have gotten this wrong (from memory), but like every other materialist account of consciousness there is a theory about which brain regions are at play. This brings me to something I’ve come to realize: it seems like every book on consciousness seems to characterize brain function in a different way, and names different regions of the brain where consciousness “takes place” or originates. To me this is indicative of the failure of reductive materialism to really make head way into how consciousness is generated and exactly what it IS. Hirstein even points out:
Even if a brain area meets all the criteria below for being an area that embodies conscious states, we still cannot be absolutely certain that it is what is embodying the conscious states that appear to emanate from it. It might stil be emanating from something non-material. Science can never rule out dualism completely. Materialism, on the other hand, can be shown to be false…
Hirstein does consider the concepts of self and representation valid unlike many other materialists. I couldn’t help but get the nagging feeling that, deep down, he knows a reductive approach will eventually hit a dead end. But why stop here?
If at some point well in the future, when neuroscientists are satisfied that they fully understand the brain, consciousness is still intractable, then perhaps we should start to worry.
His theory of mindmelding is fascinating, but I wasn’t convinced it would do anything to help shed light on consciousness. It is undeniable the brain is absolutely involved in conscious experience and thought, but experiencing someone else’s awareness is not necessarily saying anything about consciousness. That’s another one of my gripes– these neuroscience accounts don’t explain HOW these brain regions (of which many have been nominated) produce a subjective state. We’re told that there is synchronized action, or that they produce a “description of awareness“, but this is ultimately deflating and unsatisfactory.
As more evidence of his doubt, Hirstein quotes Nagel:
Physicalism cannot be defended, according to Nagel, because it is “impossible” to give a physical account of the phenomenological features of experience.
In other words, how can you describe awareness to a computer so that it could understand “what it’s like”? How would you describe the color “blue” to someone who is blind?
This was definitely an interesting read and I learned some more about the brain’s structure and function, as well as the ongoing conflicts in the debate about consciousness.
Recently I went searching for a book that would shed some light on envy and greed, and specifically why and how those desires arise. My intent was to learn more about how these desires come to take such an incredible hold over individuals and dominate societies. There is a growing narcissism epidemic and in fact it is on track with the obesity epidemic (Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell (2010). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Atria Books.). This is having catastrophic consequences in our society as we deal with critical issues like global warming and income inequality. I wanted to understand the psychological elements behind the negative drives of our modern culture.
Why I Hate You and You Hate Me is written by a psychoanalyst, Joseph H. Berke. I didn’t know much about psychoanalysis, but after a little research (and reading of the book) it was apparent that it’s deeply entrenched in phenomenology and doesn’t rely on a quantitative, experimental approach. The book certainly read this way– the author supports many of his arguments with anecdotal experiences and literary based comparisons. This does not necessarily invalidate the conclusions or even diminish them, but I think it would be of great value to pair it with a neuroscientific perspective.
Much of the book attempts to illustrate how envy, greed, jealously, and narcissism (from here on out referred to as EGJN) are tied to basic impulses that were denied or otherwise restricted during the early infant and childhood years of life. From what I gather this is a Freudian approach which makes sense given that he is one of the progenitors of psychoanalysis.
I decided to skim over these sections and focus on information and discussion I found pertinent. I enjoyed reading some of the theorizing about the genesis of these emotions in infants and children, but my main interest is how they plays out in the modern world. One such section:
The greed-oriented politician stresses rapid and unrestricted economic growth and development, no matter who or what gets hurt or ruined in the process. He favours high-profit policies, often associated with free enterprise and capitalism. Not all capitalists are greedy, but “capitalism” has become synonymous with greed. A term like “capitalist pig” conveys the contempt and derision of the envious, just like “loony leftist” is a damnation which express the fear of people who want to hang on to their possessions.
Berke goes on to say that envy and greed are rarely separate and a colleague of his even coined the term “grenvy”. So what we see in politics today and have for some time is unimpeded greed mixed with envy. But what exactly makes up EGJN?
Envy, greed, and jealousy have three components: perception– an awareness of something provoking an intolerable feeling; feeling– intense displeasure and vexation; and action– forceful attacking, annihilating behaviour.
What we’ve seen in Western culture recently is an exponentially increasing drive for materialistic consumerism. Value placed on material things and even social status seems to create a ripe environment for EGJN to take hold. The damning, shaming vitriol used by groups like the Tea Partiers, right-wing “pro lifers”, and leftist environmentalists is a perfect example of action being taken to transfer the “intolerable feelings” to others. There is an intensity to political arguments that is not often seen in other types of disagreements.
Berke differentiates narcissism from envy. Those that are envious seek to destroy what they cannot stand to witness. Narcissists seek to diminish others and inflate themselves. A narcissist doesn’t necessarily have a drive to destroy those that have things, but those that are envious will many times destroy the person AND the object of desire to completely extinguish the feelings within them. Envy can also operate as a positive feedback mechanism– if one denies envy it can create rage, which leads to rage at others, which leads to rage at the self, and so on.
Narcissism can also have a dark side. Berke notes:
This phenomenon has been well noted with many left or right wing political activists who can move from kissing babies to preaching mass murder without blinking an eyelid.
Destructive narcissism, Berke says, is when narcissism and envy converge.
There is also a “grandiose self structure” when referring to such an individual whose main concern in life is to be totally self-sufficient, an island unto himself, the source of his own being. but this self is also very fragile. So any suggesstion that another person can offer something useful or needed can send the potential recipient into a torrential rage or depression.
In the closing chapter, Berke recounts this Native American story which I found to be timely given the current state the world finds itself in:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed the most.”
The book closes out by observing that while these emotions are unpleasant, negative, and can lead to destructive and horrible actions they are ultimately needed. I believe one needs to acknowledge and accept (both emotionally and intellectually) that we’re all, at times, envious, greedy, jealous, and narcissistic individuals. Doing so will bring about mindfulness of when these characteristics rear their head, and ultimately will lead to greater understanding and forgiveness of others (and the self).
This book was clearly written and intended for the student of philosophy college courses as it is a little daunting for someone not immersed in that world to read. I think I read the word “epistemic” 20 times before understanding what it meant. I persevered though and was able to glean some useful information and viewpoints that I had not previously considered.
Howell starts out by defining the “hard” problem of consciousness. There are three camps of explanations:
Hardliners — These are your reductive materialists that insist consciousness is entirely physical and phenomenal experience is of no consequence.
Epistemicists — Epistemicists believe experience does play a role in knowledge, but consciousness is still entirely physical.
Non-physicalists — This includes the viewpoints of dualism, panpsychism, etc. Consciousness, or at least part of it, is inherently metaphysical.
He goes on to define subjective physicalism:
“…is the view that ontologically the world is entirely physical. Everything that there is supervenes upon the basic physical particles and properties. Nevertheless, not every feature of the world can be completely grasped by objective theorizing.”
This is where the limit of objectivity comes into light. Howell suggests the existence of phenomenal knowledge (the experience of the color red for instance) shows there cannot be a “complete objective picture of the world”. He’s careful to point out that this does not indicate that there is something non-physical going on, but that experiencing something (subjectively) is sometimes necessary for knowledge to be imparted.
To frame his argument, Howell describes the Knowledge Argument and some of the proposed solutions to it. In a nutshell, “Mary” has lived in a black and white room all her life. She has learned all the facts about the color red but has never actually seen it. She’s also logically infallible. If Mary leaves the room and sees red for the first time, will she learn something new?
If she does learn something, most will say this is phenomenal knowledge so this must be something non-physical. After all, if she learned every objective fact about the color red, how could she have learned anything when seeing it for the first time?
Subjective physicalism states that:
“.. the view that the world is fully physical but that there are some states that must be occupied in order to be fully grasped”
In other words, the conscious experiences are entirely physical, but physics has no property to describe them. This seems to suggest that physics is incomplete, and in a way according to subjective physicalism it is.
The book sort of trails off here. Subjective physicalism isn’t an answer so much as an approach that needs some blanks filled in. In essence, if we combine the objective knowledge of physics with the subjective experience of qualia– we have a complete picture of the world. But there is still quite a large gap in understanding there, and I’m not entirely convinced subjective physicalism, even after reading this book, is the right path to take for an answer.
I didn’t know much about the author or even what the book was going to be about other than a theory on consciousness. What I’ve discovered is a refreshing, fascinating take on what consciousness really is and how it could possibly be generated by a material, objective brain.
My viewpoint of consciousness has of course evolved over time as I’ve read more and developed my ideas as I went along. At first I was convinced there was no way a subjective awareness could arise from objective matter no matter how complex the interactions within the brain were. There must be “something” else. I always held the strict reductive materialist view as being too myopic. These scientists’ mode of investigation always seemed to be suggesting that if all possible neuronal interactions were measured and associated with specific subjective states– we’d finally be able to say: “There! All that is consciousness!”
But that’s not an explanation of a subjective experience. That’s simply saying that this interaction or that interaction happens to be occurring during a person’s reported experience and speaks nothing of the root problem: subjective awareness in objective matter.
So, that being said, I’ve liked alternative explanations. One of my favorites thus far has been panpsychism and specifically David Chalmers theory of how consciousness is a fundamental part of reality. This to me seemed to logically be the only plausible conclusion that didn’t resort to “magic” of some sort. Now, that leads to the problem of identifying exactly WHAT it is. I liken this though superficially to theoretical physics– we can theorize something is there (like a particle) and then go look for it.
So in Consciousness and the Social Brain Graziano takes a different approach. He first lays out what he considers consciousness and awareness: consciousness encompasses information AND awareness. In other words, it’s not just a person’s personality or the knowledge they have OR even the ability to be aware of that. He illustrates it using this graphic:
From there, he introduces his theory: awareness is a description. It’s information. The brain essentially does what? It processes information.. when you think of an apple you access a data bank of information (some from memory, some from senses, etc). Let’s say: “green”, “round”, “stationary”. You can also say you are viscerally aware of the apple. It doesn’t even have to be an apple in front of you (which is just visual information)– it can be an apple “in your head”.. something you’re thinking of introspectively. This process of attention, whether of something visually represented or introspectively, is a rich description of what being aware of the apple is. So the informational segments of an apple would be: “green”, “round”, “stationary”, “awareness”. This is the attention schema.
In other words, awareness is a description of not only things like “it’s round” but also the qualia: the greenness, the taste, etc. From what I understood, Graziano is essentially saying qualia can be information. I cannot describe green, but I can experience it and be aware of it– this can be a description (information).
Graziano proposes that attention, unlike awareness, is not data. It is a data-handling method. Signals compete and are amplified in the brain and this process can be called attention. When you look at an apple, the signals associated with that apple (including the ones describing awareness of the apple) are amplified and that process is attention.
This is where it gets really interesting: awareness and attention of the awareness is a positive feedback loop. You can be aware of being aware of the apple. Through the process of attention, this can strongly amplify the experience of awareness itself.
The attention schema, made up of bound and associated information, is constantly reconfigured and this is what makes up consciousness. Most theories of consciousness have been concerned about how consciousness is generated from matter. Graziano flipped that around and asked “How does consciousness exert an effect on the brain?” Or in other words the traditional question has been “How does objective matter generate subjective awareness?” and Graziano is asking “How does a subjective awareness influence objective matter?” The very fact that you can verbally report that you are aware seems to prove this latter question.
Graziano goes on to explain his theory in greater detail, and also highlights some of the “errors” that can occur from this type of processing. Multiple personality disorder, OBEs, group consciousness can all be explained, and even be predicted, by the attention schema theory.
Part 2: Comparisons to Previous Theories and Results
In this section Graziano compares the attention schema theory to both social theories of consciousness and integrated information theories. He highlights the legitimate shortcomings of these theories and where the attention schema fills in. In short, consciousness exists even in people that have no or very limited social contact which the social theory of consciousness has a hard time explaining. As for integrated information, it purports consciousness is emergent.. an epiphenomenon of complex interactions of integrated information. Why, then, aren’t other complex systems like the Internet conscious? There is far more information on the Internet than in the human brain and it is all interlinked. But there is no question about the internet being “conscious”.
Next, Graziano starts to probe where the attention schema might be generated. This is the weakest area of the theory and his argument is not well substantiated. He focuses on both the STS (superior temporal sulcus) and the TPJ (temporo-parietal junction) which are indicated in MRI scans of subjects experiencing awareness. However, they seem to be directly linked to visual awareness. Patients afflicted with “neglect” which is a syndrome, usually as a result of a stroke, caused by damage to the STS and TPJ. They are unable to generate awareness of objects almost always in the left visual field. The problem here is that visual awareness is just ONE type of awareness. There is no discussion around whether or not their base awareness or consciousness is affected. In other words, are these people still aware they are aware? They seem to be, since they can report awareness of objects in the right visual field. Graziano readily admits there is no explanation as to why it mainly affects the left visual field, but to me this is an indication that this is the wrong place to look. In other words, it is a highly specified area.
The strongest chapters in the book are the last two. First, he tackles the question of whether free will exists. The attention schema theory it turns out does allow for the existence of free will. Graziano points out:
It has the capacity to shape the processing in the brain and to control behavior.
I do have a problem with this. If consciousness is, at its basic level, complex interactions of descriptions of information– where does free agency come into play?
He also makes a distinction between two “types” of consciousness.. what he calls type A and type B. Type A is the consciousness that we generate through awareness and can report that we have it. Type B is the consciousness we attribute to other people, animals, and even inanimate objects.
In the end, Graziano is essentially saying there is no traditional “consciousness” as many have thought.. in other words, there is a process of awareness but no singular “thing” that can be called consciousness. He points out that essentially Type A and B consciousness are the same. They are descriptions. “Consciousness” is only real because it is a description. Taken as a whole attention schema theory proposes that humans are data processing machines that include a property we describe and feel as “awareness”.
He explores the evolutionary (is this adaptive?) and spiritual (can consciousness survive after death?) implications. He also highlights that in theory computers could be programmed with an attention schema and could be considered conscious.
This book was especially exciting for me to read as it is one of the first completely material explanations of consciousness that seemed to be logical. Sobering, but logical. Because the book is so well written an amateur like me in these studies can easily pick it up and follow along.
The first section dealing with robotics was fascinating and thought-provoking. The author concentrates on mainly social, companion robots. She starts by tracing the development of very simple “robots” like Tamaguchis or Furbies. The more modern versions of these are being placed in nursing homes to assist staff and help seniors by alleviating depression and increasing their activity. The author also covers many studies done with young kids, teenagers, and adults interacting with relatively complex AI and life-like robots being developed at places like MIT.
There are several cases where the person interacting with the robot either consciously or unconsciously seems to relate better with the robot than with a person. Moreover, some vocally prefer the robot. The gut reaction is that this is troubling– robots do not feel, they do not have an inner life or a subjective consciousness. Robots do not care or have any preferences, etc. They are simply going by programming.
This brings to light a larger question, though. What makes a person different from a robot? Inevitably we’re taken to the hard problem of consciousness. If consciousness (meaning subjective experience) is something unique to a biological creature, then the difference is plainly obvious. But if we are nothing more than biological computers as materialists and reductionists purport, then where’s the difference? There’s growing evidence that our sense of “self” is an illusion in the sense that there is no “self” entity– it is made up of different functions of our brain which collectively give the experience of a self. Broken down, it’s really just small biological programs doing their own thing. And if no free will exists and we’re simply victims of determinism, this makes it even less of a distinction. A robot is completely trapped by its programming; it cannot deviate. If we’re to think of humans this way as most neurologists and many philosophers are telling us then I fail to see how interacting with a robot is any different than interacting with a human. If a robot can precisely emulate what a human is.. their physicality, responses (be it emotional or intellectual), etc– then would we consider the robot to be conscious? If we are are acutely aware it is programmed.. it is made of wires, microprocessors, capacitors, and resistors– does this make any difference? In order for there to be one, we must acknowledge there IS something different about a human. I can’t prove you have a subjective consciousness any more than I can demonstrate it, but we ourselves experience it.
Humans are forever trying to minimize what we perceive as negative. With robots, we can eliminate the responsibilities and anxieties we feel with human interaction. We can program robots not to judge and can program them to offer the perfect response we subconsciously are hoping for. There’s one story of a man who brings his father a social robot in a nursing home. The man no longer feels guilty for not visiting much because his father enjoys interacting with the robot. If his father has a robot and let’s say the son procures a robot for his own needs– why do they need to see each other at all?
The reduction of human interaction and destruction of the subjective self leads us to these absurd scenarios. Authenticity is becoming less and less important and individuality is being reduced while the collective hive is being celebrated. Ultimately this brings images of THX 1138 with holographic TV channels designed to fulfill every urge, machines to satisfy your sexual and erotic needs, and pills to manage your emotional responses.
The title of this section is actually “Networked”. It explores our increasing reliance and obsession with smartphones, the internet, games, and the like. Building on the Robotics section, the author demonstrates that with robots we treat objects as people, and with smartphones and constant connectivity we treat people as objects.
The theme is this– we seek to avoid responsibility, reduce consequences, and overall minimize variables when we design, build, and use these devices. A person is an infinitely variable thing.. a person, outside of the physical sense, has no defined boundaries. A Facebook profile cannot accurately model this so inevitably we are dealing with objects that we then seek to turn and relate to as people. The author shows that Facebook profiles become an externalized, minimized self. It is not anywhere near our true self– it is preened and groomed until we are satisfied with what we want to show the world. Additionally, ideas and thoughts shared via this medium are superficial. If they cannot fit in 200 characters or so, they don’t exist.
This increased connectivity has tipped the work-life balance to the former. As being with yourself becomes increasingly intolerable, being “busy” with work becomes a reprieve. The skill of solitude is becoming a lost art. Multitasking has become the norm, and instead of doing one task in a focused, concentrated manner we end up doing many tasks in a mediocre fashion. This has wide ranging neurological effects as well.
Our selves have been externalized using technology. Our phones are a crutch.. something to grab when the slightest hint of discomfort creeps in. Text messages have become a way to absolve ourselves of guilt, responsibility but they are rarely received as such. The author interviews several teens that have apologized for something online, but the receiving party viewed them as dishonest and empty. Our society has turned to such a hedonistic and consumerist direction that people seem incapable of dealing with discomfort, responsibility, or the possibility of consequence. The cult of the self is magnified online. Paradoxically, the self matters not in this space. The collective hive is what drives the Internet, not individuals.
Families become as the author puts it “postfamilial families” in that they are together, but alone. I’ve seen this with my own family in that after dinner, we all sit down and several of us will take out our phones. We’re all sitting around, but we’re not actually together. Social interaction is becoming less tolerable yet we yearn for it, but our devices play our brains. Constant notifications– the possibility of a “connection”– stimulates our nervous system into action and makes us addicted. Our society’s emphasis on extroverted qualities has likely contributed to the problem.
The concept of privacy is changing as well. The current generation of teenagers view privacy as something that will inevitably disappear and be violated. This is in service to the collective hive. It becomes selfish, almost blasphemous to withhold your thoughts, feelings, and any other content.
The bottom line is.. when we interact with devices, we are not interacting with people. There may indeed be a person on the other end, but that is lost in translation. These are simulations, they are not real.
This is a collection of essays by several philosophers and neuroscientists. It’s actually quite well-rounded with thoughts from either end of the spectrum regarding free will, its existence, and how it relates to consciousness.
My favorites were Roy Baumeister’s “Understanding Free will and Consciousness on the Basis of Current Research Findings in Psychology”, Kathleen Vohs’s “Free Will Is Costly”, and Jonathan Schooler’s “What Science Tells Us about Free Will”.
Overall the most compatible view I’ve found is that actual free will exists but mainly in long term, abstract decisions. Many every day decisions are thought to be performed by “zombie agents” (Christof Koch (2012). Consciousness: confessions of a romantic reductionist. MIT Press.) that work studiously in the background outside of conscious awareness. For example, I can say relatively certainly that my consciousness does not direct attention or awareness when I put my seat belt on in the car (unless I run into an issue getting it buckled). My thoughts are generally elsewhere, so a zombie agent running as a background process takes over and directs muscle movements. Longer term, abstract decisions like “I’m going to learn another language” or “I want to exercise more” could conceivably be a product of actual free will. While executing that “Will” may be made up of many “zombie” actions, the actual genesis of the decision was free.
There is a large issue, though. Everything in the universe, outside of quantum physics, is known to work via determinism aka cause-and-effect. Schooler references compatibilism and highlights Velmans:
“…our brain controls our actions, but yes, we also control our actions because we are our brains. Conscious desire doesn’t spawn or lead to neural processes any more than neural activity spawns or leads to conscious experience. The experience of conscious free will is the first-person perspective of the neural correlates of choosing.”
Still, though, one has to be able to reconcile the deterministic nature of the universe with the possibility of free will. Compatibilism doesn’t do this, but it does get closer to a more encompassing explanation. Quantum physics has been used to try to explain free will and subjective consciousness, but this is even more of a problem given the random nature of the quantum world.
There is also the visceral, subjective experience of free will. Taking a hard deterministic view of the world has been shown to be detrimental to emotional states and morality. Belief in free will seems vital to the subjective experience of being human.
Overall, this book is an excellent collection of essays that helped me develop my ideas a bit further on free will and consciousness.