Thursday, 23 August 2012

Oh Cecilia!

Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) by Elias Garcia Martinez/Cecilia Gimenez

After the heartfelt restoration job that Cecilia Gimenez conducted on the fresco of Jesus  at the Sanctuary of Mercy Church near Zaragoza, some more of her work has come to light:

Mantegna's classic piece deserved some added decorum, Gimenez thought
Da Vinci had forgotten to add a pink handled fork as the talking point of The Last Supper, apparently

And she rectified some loss of detail on the Turin Shroud

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Friday, 17 August 2012

Empathy for the Poor Devil

UPDATE 22/8/12: Today Tony Nicklinson died. My thoughts are with his family and friends.

The High Court in Britain yesterday refused Tony Nicklinson and 'Martin' the means to end their lives without causing another to commit a crime. The judgement of Lord Justice Toulson concludes:

Tony’s and Martin’s circumstances are deeply moving. Their desire to have control over the ending of their lives demands the most careful and sympathetic consideration, but there are also other important issues to consider. A decision to allow their claims would have consequences far beyond the present cases. To do as Tony wants, the court would be making a major change in the law. To do as Martin wants, the court would be compelling the DPP to go beyond his established legal role.These are not things which the court should do. It is not for the court to decide whether the law about assisted dying should be changed and, if so, what safeguards should be put in place. Under our system of government these are matters for Parliament to decide, representing society as a whole, after Parliamentary scrutiny,and not for the court on the facts of an individual case or cases. For those reasons I would refuse these applications for judicial review.
Well, I have some sympathy with this: Parliament should be sorting this out. But gone are the days, it seems, when judges like Lord Denning made ground breaking but eminently sensible changes to common law. No doubt, though, that assisted dying has more import than obscure civil law. Mr Justice Royce agrees with Toulson:
Any change [to the law] would need the most carefully structured safeguards which only Parliament can deliver.
As does Mrs Justice Macur:
However, Mr Bowen QC does not succeed in persuading me that this process may reassure society that the development of common law for which he contends is merited by separate consideration of individual circumstances by individual tribunals of whatever stature and experience. The issues raised by Tony and Martin’s case are conspicuously matters which must be adjudicated upon by Parliament and not Judges or the DPP as unelected officers of state.

In his submission to the Court Tony wrote:
My life can be summed up as dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable. …it is misery created by the accumulation of lots of things which are minor in themselves but, taken together, ruin what’s left of my life. Things like…constant dribbling; having to be hoisted everywhere; loss of independence, …particularly toileting and washing, in fact all bodily functions (by far the hardest thing to get used to); having to forgo favourite foods; … having to wait until 10.30 to go to the toilet…in extreme circumstances I have gone in the chair, and have sat there until the carers arrived at the normal time.
He is prepared to starve himself to death to end the tortured state in which he finds himself. His state, to remind everyone, is not of the terminally ill, but of the terminally locked-in. He faces up to half a century of this 'life' which he would rather not; or, at least, he would like the freedom to decide when he has had enough. We currently impose this sentence on some, because as a society we worry about the consequences of letting a very few people, like him, do what they want. The argument goes, it seems, that by allowing folk of right mind to determine their own destiny, we will allow an avalanche of abuse against certain folk who are not of right mind. Tony has to suffer in this real world for the putative premature termination of the lives of others. But individual autonomy, which is the goal of choice in dying advocates, empowers even those who think they would be at risk from such legislation.

Even if we were to allow this dubious premise, balancing current lives and future ones is notoriously difficult.  I'm currently reading Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons which explores in excruciating detail a number of these questions for their moral implications, and I'm still not entirely clear what I think. However, I do not see how anyone, outside of those with religious reasons, could fail to support Tony in his quest. Most people appear to agree with me; apparently opinion polls have consistently shown a high percentage in favour of the right to die. Today's Independent leader says:
Few lawyers expect him to succeed. But concern at the dangers of a new precedent must come second to the inhumanity of condemning a person to so intolerable an existence. Mr Nicklinson must be allowed to make his choice.
However, the Daily Mail's Steve Doughty begs to differ, and bizarrely seems to suggest that a continuation of the campaign is good for Tony:

He can communicate by blinking at letters held up by his wife Jane on a perspex board. He has an eye-blink word processor he describes as ‘a ray of sunshine on an otherwise bleak horizon’. He is writing his memoirs.

I should make it clear that I do not for a moment doubt Mr Nicklinson’s sincerity or his determination to end his own suffering. But it seems that what may be keeping him going, for now, despite affliction that would crush most others, is his campaign for the right to be killed.
Many have this idea that simple existence itself is an unalloyed good (often fuelled by religious doctrine). But we can see clearly that it is the right thing to put a family pet out of its misery when there is no quality of life to be had. Without defending some form of human exceptionalism, we should conclude the same for people in Tony's position. Now, I suppose, if I'm reading Steve Doughty charitably, he is suggesting that maybe humans are unique in having an inner mental life of contemplation, and that that life is worth living. Well perhaps, but just as the physical life can become unbearable, so too the mental life, and it can become even more unbearable for humans because of their inner mental life of contemplation. The decision to end it should still be Tony's to make, just as somebody able-bodied is free to make it.

How can we stand back and allow Tony to be treated like this? As Polly Toynbee writes:
Of all the various harms religions can do, their successful opposition to the right to a peaceful death is one of the most pernicious. Tony Nicklinson asks this: "The next stroke could affect you. Would you be happy to end up like me?"
If anything makes us human it's surely a deep empathy for his position. To see somebody suffering now demands our action.

Support Tony here.

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Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Are Minds Functional?

H/t Julian Baggini, The Ego Trick

René Descartes’s two substance dualism, which proposes that mind is a separate immaterial substance from body, has a number of conceptual problems that are hard to overcome, but it is in tune with many of our common intuitions about the way we are. It appears to us that there is a material world out there in four (or perhaps more) dimensions and it also appears to us that we have an inner world, comprising thoughts, memories, feelings and so on, that justify their own ontology but do not have any extension in space.

However, problems of interaction between these two substances are particularly difficult to overcome; Descartes himself threw up his hands at the problem when, in answer to the question "how can the soul be affected by the body and vice versa, when their natures are completely different?", he replied:
This is very difficult to explain; but here our experience is sufficient, since it is so clear on this point that it just cannot be gainsaid. This is evident in the case of feelings and so on.
A poor reply from the usually thorough Descartes. Julian Baggini sums up the objection to dualism through Gilbert Ryle's explanation in The Concept of Mind:
They [dualists] started from the correct idea that thoughts, feelings and sensations were not physical things. The category mistake was to conclude that they must therefore be a different kind of thing, a non-physical thing. But there is another, more plausible alternative: they are not things at all. Rather, thinking and feeling are what brains and bodies do. Mind should not be thought of a substance, but as a kind of activity. (from The Ego Trick)
So monist (one substance) ideas have become more accepted. Monistic idealism states that everything is at bottom derived from immaterial mind and monist materialism says that everything derives from matter. Idealism solves the interaction problem at a stroke, but also suffers from some of the other problems that plague advocates of the immaterial mind – problems of identity and other animals’ minds, for example. Materialism, or physicalism, has become the most favoured world view of late, but the task remains to reconcile our common intuitions with this physicalist view. By suggesting that thinking and feeling are what brains and bodies do, Ryle suggests a functionalist approach to solving this problem.

Advocates of functionalism argue that it acknowledges Cartesian intuitions about the mind but also allows for a materialist world view (although it’s not strictly speaking a materialist theory of mind since it’s also compatible with idealism). With other material theories of mind, problems have arisen when trying to accommodate the mental states with which we are all familiar with the material. Identity theories of the mind, for example, have contended that mental states are the same as brain states. This would mean that the idea of a red tomato, a mental state, is the same as a brain state. But it’s difficult to see how the grey matter that makes up our brain could be the same as the idea of a red tomato. It’s difficult to see how grey matter can be about anything, in fact, and this aboutness, or intentionality is a stumbling block for many materialist theories of mind.

So Functionalism proposes that the mind isn’t determined by what it is, but by what it does. That is, mental states are functional states. It proposes causal relations which are generated by sensory input (we see and hear stuff) and other mental states (we feel pain), which then cause behavioural output (we avoid obstacles), and other mental states (sadness, say!). Consciousness and intentionality, then, are causal relations generated by functional states. For example, if we are thinking about a red tomato, we see the red tomato, but then further, think we’re seeing the red tomato. This awareness gives us an advantage because we can then plan and revise our thinking about red tomatoes, and the world around us.

Some proponents think that this incorporates many people’s intuitions about our mental lives, per Descartes, but also gives an explanation of mental states that isn’t reducible to the physical, but can be implemented in the physical. Sidney Shoemaker, for example, says:
The view I favor is ...a radically ‘nonreductive’ version of materialism. Neither in the case of properties and states nor in the case of particulars will it hold that there is any neat mapping of our common sense mentalistic taxonomy on to the taxonomies of the physical sciences. In this it agrees with Cartesian intuitions. But the sense in which psychology (whether it be common sense psychology or scientific psychology) does not reduce to chemistry and physics is the same as the sense in which biology and geology do not reduce to chemistry and physics, and in which chemistry does not reduce to physics. No one doubts that the entities and phenomena that are the subject matter of geology, biology, and chemistry are ultimately composed of entities and phenomena that are the subject matter of physics. There is good reason to think that the same is true of mental phenomena. The philosophical task here is not to carry out a reduction but to make it intelligible that there is this compositional relationship. (from Warner, R. and Szubka, T. (eds) (1994) The Mind-body Problem: A Guide to the Current Debate, Blackwell, pp.55–60)
This irreducibility of functionalism, if that's what it offers, dispenses with the brain-mind identity problem, since the functionalist mind could be multiply-realised – if the mind is what it does, then whatever hardware can implement these mental functions could be the platform for mind. Functionalism also fits well with natural selection as a theory of speciation, since a brain function that provides a benefit would be preferred, and we can explore how brain function might have developed accordingly.

So, the upshot is that Functionalism is compatible with the notions that prompt dualism, that the brain is not identical to the mind, and also with physicalism, because brain functions can be implemented in the physical. However, some objections to Functionalism have been noted.

Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument highlights a major objection to functionalism. Imagine a person, Mary, in a room completely washed of colour – a black and white room. Mary could be taught everything there is to know about colour so that she functions as if she can see colour. However, when she emerges from the room for the first time, there is something new she will learn about colour – what it feels like to see red, for example. This suggests that functionalism does not account for qualia (colours, taste etc), because Mary was functioning fine without this colour knowledge. So we can see that there is something about redness that seems superfluous to Mary's adequate functioning. Why do we have this sensation if our minds are purely functional? If we could function without redness, why has evolution delivered that sensation, and how? There appears to be no advantage to operating with or without redness, if this thought experiment is to be believed, so it could not even be selected for.

Another argument that highlights this knowledge, or epistemic, problem is the inverted qualia argument; twins could experience colours diametrically opposite (one sees black as black, the other as white, one sees red as red and the other as blue) but these differences are in no way reflected in the functioning of each twin. They will both behave the same way with inverted qualia, which leaves us wondering what relevance the actual qualia experience has to function. What is the function of the colour qualia? And, once again, how can we explain the evolutionary benefit of different colours if they have no functional difference?

Ned Block also proposed the China Brain argument; he imagined hooking up the entire population of China to behave as neurons do. If this configuration functioned in a way that the mind does, but apparently without qualia, then, again, what is the functional value of qualia?

The functionalist could grasp the nettle and claim that it would have qualia. We intuitively reject the possibility that lots of people hooked up in the right way could form a mind like a human mind, so long as they functioned correctly. In this respect, functionalism comes over as too liberal; it doesn't rule out some apparently ridiculous candidates from being minds. However, that lots of atoms hooked up in the right way can act as mind doesn't seem so much more plausible than the China Brain, if considered in the abstract. No doubt supernaturalists would agree that both are implausible; should naturalists conclude that both are plausible?

Functionalists counter that qualia are functional too, so would deny that these thought experiments are valid, but it’s clear they have some work to do to back up this contention. Frank Jackson himself reflects the thoughts of many philosophers when he gave up his own Mary's Room argument, writing:
Most contemporary philosophers given a choice between going with science and going with intuitions, go with science. Although I once dissented from the majority, I have capitulated and now see the interesting issue as being where the arguments from the intuitions against physicalism—the arguments that seem so compelling—go wrong.
Jackson rejects the knowledge argument because he believes that the nature of colour experience is illusory: argument will involve the claim that we are under an illusion about the nature of colour experience, an illusion that fuels the epistemic intuition. 
He accepts a Representational Theory of Consciousness, in short. He notes that qualia and so on are diaphanous - they are a little vague, variable and unclear:
I think, with the current majority, that ['experience is a representation'] is the right way to think of the lesson of diaphanousness. My reason is that perceptual experience represents. My experience as of a round, red object in front of me represents that there is a round, red object in front of me. I may or may not accept that things are as they are being represented to be, but I take it as axiomatic that each and every sensory experience represents that things are thus and so.
... but that is beyond this piece (and possibly me!).

Functionalism powerfully accounts for our common Cartesian intuitions about the mind while not falling into the problems that plague identity theorists. However, it is in danger of being too liberal as a theory, allowing too many examples of the operating mind than would seem plausible. And more work is needed to explain intentionality and qualia through the notion of mental states as functional states, to confirm the defeat of  knowledge arguments.

Bibliography (not otherwise linked):

Wilkinson, R. (1999) Minds and Bodies , Milton Keynes, The Open University

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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Advantages of History but None of its Risks

This appears to be the only picture of Van Harvey available. He's the one in the hat, I think.
The title of this piece is, I think, a pretty fair description of what faith, in the religious sense, gives a believer (I've paraphrased it from a better writer than me).

I've long been intrigued by faith, having failed to maintain it myself, and puzzled over the Catholic definition of 'certain' faith. There is always, it seems to me, a fundamental ambiguity at the heart of anyone's faith: it is based on historical events but it refuses to countenance their non-occurrence.

Weird Catholic leaning blog First Things recently posted a piece by Thomas Cothran (an attorney who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, so there) called Against Faith in Faith. He rails against a naive depiction of faith:
Confronted with inadequate evidence for the deeper truths of life, one must conjure up a commitment to ideas for which the subjective act of faith can be the only ground, and one must believe not only in the content of faith but in the faith-act itself. 
This is the faith described by Dennett, Dawkins and Harris, he says, and also professed, embarrassingly, by Christians too (well done for admitting that). Indeed, as I have discussed, William James defends a pragmatic faith against Clifford. Incidentally, for (another!) good discussion of James and Clifford, see this and this from Massimo Pigliucci.

But Cothran wants to draw a different picture of faith:
Far from posing a threat to one’s faith, knowledge reinforces it: the more reason one has to believe in God’s providence, the more readily the believer entrusts himself to God. 
But if one has more reason to believe, that is not faith, but reason. He then attempts to objectify his faith:
The knowledge of faith, rather than relying on the outmoded theories of knowledge where the mind merely represents external objects, is participatory; the act of contemplating the things of God partakes in God’s own Trinitarian activity. The knowledge of faith is not therefore “subjective” in the sense that it happens primarily in the believer, but is “objective” because the believer participates in the eternal activity of the object of faith; the believer’s subjective faith is therefore secondary and derivative.
I have no idea what phrases like "the act of contemplating the things of God partakes in God’s own Trinitarian activity" and "the believer participates in the eternal activity of the object of faith" mean, but Cothran appears to be trying to remove subjectivity from faith. Well, that would be nice, but baffling sentences do not by themselves give faith objectivity. Sadly, Cothran has more in the bank:
The tacit participatory metaphysics in which Christian faith becomes intelligible emphasizes that Christianity is not an abstract system or an existential human possibility, but the ontological union of God and man in time and history through the recapitulative activity of the incarnate Word of God.
Yikes. It's hard to believe someone wanting to make themselves understood put these words together like this. He ends by trying to set aside a faith that is different, I presume, from the faith attacked by Dennett, Dawkins and Harris:
One must attack (or defend) Christian faith where it may actually be found, not in the mind as an idea but as a form of life realized in the historical community established by Jesus Christ.
It's a No true Scotsman defence of faith. But, as he himself pointed out, the problem is that many profess the version of faith he dismisses, so any attack on that version is perfectly justifiable, and there is no 'must' about what is attacked or defended. In any case, his version of faith appears to be incomprehensibly post modern.

I'm currently reading Van Harvey's The Historian & the Believer, which, while exploring the tension between history and belief, includes a chapter on dialectical theology's attempts to set aside faith (in a similar fashion to Cothran) from the attack of the 'rational robots' of the enlightenment. In fact, I find Cothran's blurb reminiscent of Bultmann's, Barth's and Tillich's. Consider this analysis of Barth's view of faith, by Van Harvey:
Faith is...the realisation of the abysmal gulf separating man from God. It is the recognition of the "qualitative distinction between time and eternity." Consequently, faith is closely allied to, if it is not identical with, a recognition of the ambiguity and questionableness of life. (p.132)
I don't begin to understand this, but that, of course, may be my failing. Barth appears to accept the ambiguity that I find troubling, but it's not clear how that helps the situation. In discussing the tension between the historical reality of the resurrection and belief in it, Van Harvey quotes Bultmann as arguing that the Christian faith proclaims to man:
...that in what happened then, however it might have been, God has acted, and through this act of God the Word of divine judgement and forgiveness which now confronts him is authenticated. The meaning of that act of God is nothing other than the actual establishment of this Word - the proclamation of this Word itself. No historical science can control or confirm or reject this affirmation. For that this Word and this proclamation are God's acts stands on the other side of historical observation. (p.143)
Orrly? How convenient that one's beliefs lie "the other side of historical observation". Talking about Tillich's notion of absolute faith, Harvey says:
What seems remarkable about the description of absolute faith is its apparent formlessness, although Tillich, like Bultmann and the early Barth, understands it to be the way of talking about the cruciform structure of faith, the self-surrender and negation of everything finite which brings one into confrontation with the Absolute. (p.147)
(note that the goal appears to be transcendence from our poor finite existence to some absolute infinite, er, existence, or knowledge, perhaps)

Now, I don't begin to understand dialectical theology (as is surely plain), but in Harvey's analysis of Barth's defence of faith in the face of facts, I think he puts his finger on the issue that drives me mad about much apologetic writing: its special pleading (and I quote extensively from the book because I think it's worth it):
To say that Barth's view is an arbitrary one is to say, first of all, that he makes historical assertions on the basis of faith which he then claims no historian has the right to assess. He claims that the bodily resurrection is a guarantee that it was Jesus who appeared to the disciples and yet insists that no historian can, in the nature of the case, assess this claim. He insists that the resurrection was physical and appeals to the story of Thomas in the Fourth Gospel to prove it but deals with none of the numerous critical questions concerning the historical veracity of that Gospel or the function miracle stories have in it. He appeals to the forty-day tradition and the empty-tomb stories but in no way answers the many questions biblical critics have raised about these stories. Consequently, Barth uses the stories to argue for the historical nature of the events but concedes that the stories cannot, from a historical standpoint, stand any critical scrutiny. this leaves the believer in the position of accepting an argument the warrants of which are historical in type but which are, at the same time, confessed to be contradictory and "imaginative-poetic." It leaves the inquirer in the position of having to accept the claims of alleged eyewitnesses or risk the state of being a faithless man, Insofar as the believer wants to be historian, or the historian a believer, he has to surrender the autonomy of critical judgement. Barth, in effect, claims all the advantages of history but will assume none of its risks. (p.157-158)
Spot on, and I would say that many apologists and believers do the same - they are inconsistent in their application of critical judgement. Of course, we all are inconsistent, at times, but it is surely our duty in such weighty matters to eliminate such inconsistencies, and rule out subjective influence where we can.

To sum up, the faith claims of believers are a non-starter without the assumption of rules that they then go on to deny, because those rules threaten their faith. It's a vicious circle, and I don't think obscure redefinitions of faith break that circle, but simply twist it. Cothran's 'historical community' is confirmed by rules that rule out the events that spawned it.

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