Thursday, June 30, 2011

An Economic Critique of Pragmatism

I've been doing a little reading in America's great philosophical tradition, pragmatism, and in general I like what I see. Get to the point people, tell me why it matters. "Monism" or "pluralism," why does it matter? Pretty soon you get to such abstract notions that no one but two old men care one iota. Coincidentally, one of those men suspects that the other intentionally spilled water on his tweed coat during a seminar 30 years ago, and the other that vociferiously denies the allegation, and is quite bitter about it. Angels on dancing on the head of a pin.

As an economist, however, I must advance a criticism of the following statement from William James:

The great English way of investigating a conception is to ask yourself right off, "What is it known as? In what facts does it result? What is the cash-value, in terms of particular experience? "And what special difference would come into the world according as it were true or false?" (Emphasis in original.)

What if I were to take a suitcase of $100 bills with me to visit one of those Amazonian tribes just coming in contact with the outside world? What would be the cash value of such a suitcase? It might be worth $1,000,000 when I get on the boat to go up the river, but what it is worth when I get there, is going to depend on whether I can convince the tribe that this paper will be accepted almost anywhere else in the world in exchange for goods and services, that its value will be maintained (hopefully these days!) because it is backed by a economic and military superpower, and that people everywhere basically trust this superpower to pay its obligations and thus maintain the currency. They may trust me, and thus take the cash and create their own dollarized economy, ensuring that I am very well taken care of with my now substantial wealth. They may read the newspaper I brought with me talking about the current debt ceiling negotiations, and put me on the next boat out of town.

The point is, cash value doesn't exist unless a standard by which values are measured is established. (One does not explicitly need cash to do this as in a barter economy, but one of the functions of currency is to act as a numeraire.) Biological value is not a bad place to start, I will immediately be concerned about how many dollars I can exchange for a tasty grilled sloth. But, as the massacres over seeminly petty doctrinal issues during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation indicate, our concerns in life are not merely biological. In fact, the current nastiness over the teaching of evolution is, at its core, a fight over whether the biological is primary or the spiritual is primary. Perhaps, if I had a religous restriction on eating grilled sloth, I would be truer to my values by starving instead of eating its devilishly tasty flesh?

Does this throw out pragmatism? No, not at all. Pragmatism is a very useful solvent to dissolve issues that are inherently silly because fighting over them obscures implicit agreement on a host of values that are far more consequential. It can help us move past the abstract to issues of significant political, social, and spiritual consequences, which may underlie the abstract debates. A small abstract detail can radically change the standard by which the world and objects and actions in it are valued. We should count ourselves lucky that those abstract details are carried out in irrelevant debates, rather than with tanks and jets.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Brief Exercise in Subjectivity for Philosophy

After my prior post on what I took to be John Searle's misreading of Antonio Damasio's new theory that the roots of consciouness are in the primordial mind, I went out and bought Damasio's book. It is, (in my subjective opinion), quite excellent. It lucidly ties together neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and philosophy for an intuitively very plausible (to me) framework for how consciousness arose and how it operates.

What makes Damasio's account powerful is that it is rooted in the scientific and objective. But how I ended up reading his account, is an exercise in the power of the subjective. And whether I reduced my search costs for this book enormously with clever shortcuts, or whether I simply found a way to confirm my own biases, is up to the reader to decide.

I found Searle's review of Damasio through a posting by blogger/philospher John Wilkins. I recognized Searle's name and found it interesting because Hubert Dreyfus had noted repeated squabbles with him. As I find Dreyfus to be very engaging and insightful, I have an interest in seeing what Searle has to say because Dreyfus is interested in what Searle has to say. (I also have a bit of a bias against Searle because of Dreyfus but you can judge how much that influences me based on my previous post.)

The little flag raised by Dreyfus' interest in Searle got me to go back to look for the post after I wasn't able to read it immediately. Three times. Twice on my workstation, where for some reason Twitter malfunctioned, and the post didn't show, and then a third time on my smartphone where I found it. That amount of effort says something, I'm not exactly hard up for information to consume. The little flag had a powerful effect.

But how did I even see the post in the first place? I didn't even know who John Wilkins was two weeks ago, and now I'm following him on Twitter, seeing stuff he writes a few times a day. Well, a few weeks ago, Andrew Sullivan, who I find takes novel and well thought out positions on politics and provides a nice mix of philosophy and religion thrown in, posted a link to Massimo Pigliucci's blog. The post was interesting, so I started following it and his Twitter account as I figured one post of interest might lead to more posts of interest. A few days later Massimo posted a link to Sean Carroll's article requiring a physically testable hypothesis for the soul. I think this is a silly position, and had some back and forth with Massimo who doesn't believe this is a silly position. At some point, John Wilkins, started following me in Twitter. So I looked his back and forth with Massimo, and his blog post on the subject which I found covered the limits of science in this case, to be technically well done (and I agreed with his conclusions). So I started following John Wilkins on Twitter, and later saw his post on Searle's article.

So how many degrees of subjectivity do we have here? I bought a book because Searle disagrees with the author and Hubert Dreyfus disagrees with Searle. I found out about the book because Sullivan found Massimo's post interesting, then I disagreed with Massimo on a subsequent point and John agreed with me. It ended in an objective act, a $25 purchase on Amazon. And I've got a book I'm happy with, that I wouldn't have found otherwise. Perhaps I'm confirming my biases, but without my biases, how would I have found the book?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

John Searle's Illuminating Confusions

John Searle concisely summarizes what appears to be a very complicated but interesting book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio, in the New York Review of Books. The first part of the review itself is worth reading for the significant progress Damasio appears to have made on the problem of where consciousness comes from, notably, by looking at lower level functions of the brain. But Searle brokers confusion and advances a subsequent critique which says more about the baggage that he, and many of the rest of us brought up in the analytic tradition, bring to such problems.

First, let us look at Demasio's conception of consciousness and Searle's problem with it.


The decisive step in the making of consciousness is not the making of images and creating the basics of the mind. The decisive step is making the images ours, making them belong to their rightful owners…. [Italics in original.]


Consciousness. In actual practice I think his idea of consciousness is essentially the one stated above. Its essence is qualitative subjectivity. But when Damasio defines it explicitly it comes out a bit differently: it is “a state of mind in which there is knowledge of one’s own existence and of the existence of surroundings” (italics in original). I do not believe this definition is correct. My dog, Gilbert, is plainly conscious, but in what sense does he have knowledge of his own existence? He is certainly aware of his surroundings when he perceives anything. But it is hard to say that when he is dreaming he has knowledge of the existence of his surroundings. It is Damasio’s right to define a word any way he likes, but I think in practice he uses “consciousness,” as I do, to refer to ontologically subjective states such as pains, and does not use it just to describe epistemic states, such as my knowing that I am in Berkeley.

Searle's, problem and confusion, arises from a quirk in the English language. In English we ask, "Where am I?" and the answer, might be, "Here, in Berkeley." But a Japanese speaker, would see this question as nonsensical. You are always here, indeed, "Wherever you go, that's where you are." The question for a Japanese speaker, is "Where is here?" This conception mirrors Heidegger's Daseins, each of which is its own "here." This formulation of here one Gilbert, Searle's dog (who is "plainly conscious?"), could deal with. Gilbert knows where "he" is. "He" always where "he" is. "He" doesn't have a concept of a "he" that can be placed anywhere else. "He" may be interested in the properties of what currently surrounds him, however, and proceed to sniff about, see if "here" has other dogs about, and foul smelling but delicious items to consume. Where Searle gets himself in trouble is by assuming the statement "I am in Berkeley" is somehow a more objective statement than "My leg hurts." We can see a man in a location called Berkeley on a map, or we can see a bleeding leg, but both these are objective observations of the above statements are predicated on the existence of a John Searle, which is a subjective experience of said John Searle. If John Searle had recently returned to Berkeley from Venice, he could wistfully say "I'm still in Venice," and the statement would make sense. We would understand that John Searle was subjectively still in Venice even though objectively his physical form was in Berkeley. Gilbert the dog, as he has no knowledge of himself, would not be able to make such a statement.

The second issue that Searle has is the apparent "circularity" of Damasio's account of consciousness:

The problem can be stated succinctly by presenting his account with the following dilemma: Is the self, as he describes it, unconscious or conscious? If it is unconscious then he has nothing to say about how its encounter with a mind results in consciousness. But if you look at the text closely it seems pretty clear that there is no way to understand the sort of self that he describes without supposing that it is already conscious. He frequently uses words like “primordial feeling” and “emotion” to describe the self. It is hard to understand these in a way that does not imply consciousness. This account is therefore circular because we are assuming a conscious self in order to explain the conscious mind, but this uses consciousness to explain consciousness.

Searle's problem arises from two assumptions 1) he treats consciousness as an objective property and 2) he is trying to encompass completely that objective preexisting property in the individual. The former assumes that just because we are able to label a set of subjective experiences as "consciousness" that this label is sufficiently descriptive of these subjective experiences that it is a valid cognitive concept. The latter assumes, that this property can be fully attributed to the individual.

To address Searle's first assumption, let's look at a couple of examples of consciousness. When Jesus says: "Forgive them Father, they know not what they do," what is he saying? Clearly the Romans, the crowd, and Jesus have a fairly good understanding of the objective attributes of the situation. But Jesus and his followers have a very different understanding of the subjective aspects of the situation. Executing the Son of God versus executing a criminal and rabble rouser are subjectively very different things. Each of these things implies a very different concept of self. A self God died for to atone the sins of, a self that relates to the Roman Pantheon and keeps law and order, and a self as part of a people that has a Covenant with God and acts as part of that people by keeping that Covenant. Given that the self is part of Damasio's formulation of consciousness, we can expect these different formulations of self to be the explanation for different experiences of the same event. Thus, "They know not what they do," is fully consistent with Damasio's formulation of consciousness, Jesus is speaking of radically different subjective experiences.

Another example of an appeal to consciousness is Shylock's famous monologue:

He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Here we see an appeal to a common human consciousness based on common experiences, across lines drawn by religion. It is a strong appeal for a new, humanistic consciousness. By my count, we have four different ways a self can be conceived above that each indicate radically different subjective experiences of the world. So while the term consciousness may encompass each of these, it tells us very little about them. By dealing with consciousness as a purely abstract concept, Searle has created a problem for himself.

Both of these examples also get to the second of Searle's assumptions, where how an individual becomes conscious. In a religious or other cultural tradition, consciousness is something that is received or cultivated. One's personal story becomes intertwined with that of the religion or tradition through ritual and simply because one's autobiography or self is immersed in the religion and tradition and thus picks up on narratives and habits of mind. It's no coincidence that we see language such as "awakening" and "enlightenment" in descriptions of religious experience. In a our society, our concepts of self are more likely to be tied to who we are as professionals, political actors, or consumers, but our concept of self is still tied to how we define ourselves and are ourselves defined culturally. A baby doesn't have a concept of self anymore than Searle's dog does.