Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Woolly Mammoth of Ideas

If you’re exhausted by all of the new books on happiness, maybe you want to move on to something a bit heavier – say, wisdom? If so, you could start with Stephen Hall’s new book by that title, which he refers to as the “woolly mammoth of ideas.”  Hall is a science journalist who writes about philosophy (seriously? my new hero), and has turned a New York Times Magazine article he wrote in 2007 into a full “philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific enquiry into the subject of wisdom.” I haven’t read it yet, but a recent review by A.C. Grayling brought up several points about investigations of this kind (you know, the kind where someone applies the scientific method to the most perplexing riddles of humanity and hopes to emerge with something of real interest.)

First, Grayling points out that minds – and the wisdom they contain – are not mere isolated, individual brains, but instead depend very much on social interactions:

One must point to another and quite general difficulty with contemporary research in the social and neurosciences, namely, a pervasive mistake about the nature of mind. Minds are not brains. Please note that I do not intend anything non-materialistic by this remark; minds are not some ethereal spiritual stuff a la Descartes. What I mean is that while each of us has his own brain, the mind that each of us has is the product of more than that brain; it is in important part the result of the social interaction with other brains. As essentially social animals, humans are nodes in complex networks from which their mental lives derive most of their content. A single mind is, accordingly, the result of interaction between many brains, and this is not something that shows up on a fMRI scan. The historical, social, educational, and philosophical dimensions of the constitution of individual character and sensibility are vastly more than the electrochemistry of brain matter by itself. Neuroscience is an exciting and fascinating endeavour which is teaching us a great deal about brains and the way some aspects of mind are instantiated in them, but by definition it cannot (and I don't for a moment suppose that it claims to) teach us even most of what we would like to know about minds and mental life.

I don’t think Grayling is making any controversial claim here – sure, you can’t reduce wisdom to electrochemistry. But I am not sure what he means by distinguishing so sharply between individual brains and socially-produced minds. If social interaction is crucial in providing much of the content for the mind, isn’t it crucial because it changes individual brains? As long as social settings have some effect on our conscious experience, wouldn’t some of that effect take place in our brains? Studying brain matter may not provide the content of wisdom (or happiness, or morality, other topics of the contemporary research he refers to), but that seems like a separate – although related – point. I guess I’d have to read more about how exactly he makes this distinction between brain and mind. But I do certainly agree with him that looking more closely at social interaction (and studying social, historical, and educational dimensions) is important if we want to find out more about wisdom. He continues:

But the complexity of the task does not entail that it is permanently unresolvable; rather, it forces us to think afresh about what questions we are asking and what phenomena we are investigating…wisdom relates to character and behaviour in a social setting, and that we are therefore more likely to learn about it from literature, history, and philosophy than from other sources. This is not to downplay the importance of the new neurologically-informed social sciences, which are fascinating and promising in equal measure; but it is to insist that all our studies need to connect with all our other studies, and that some of them might merit still taking the lead even though others now have superb new machines to aid them. I suspect that Hall shares this view; which is the most interesting implication of his book.

Studies connecting to all our other studies? I’m all for it. It seems that an interdisciplinary approach may be our best (or wisest?) bet in tackling this woolly mammoth of an idea.

Related Link: What is Wisdom? 2009 lecture by Brown University professor Charles Larmore (PDF)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

All Wrapped Up

Some of the best things come wrapped. Like food. Not wrapped-hidden, more like wrapped-swaddled. Packaged (sometimes precariously) to prevent the un-preventable: drips, oozes, and messes that afflict anyone who is truly enjoying their food (you could even say that deliciousness is directly proportional to how much of a mess you make eating, despite frantic efforts to keep clean.) So I guess it's fitting that the best food I've had in Paris has been precisely this sort of wrapped-up sloppy goodness: caramel-melting ice cream cones, tahini-dripping falafel wraps, and chocolate-oozing crêpes. 

The scoops of salted-butter caramel ice cream came from Berthillon, a Paris landmark that has almost 70 different flavors of ice cream and sorbet. From a tiny little window on Rue Saint-Louis en l'Ile you get handed a perfect scoop in a sugary cone, along with a frilly white napkin and a "merci beaucoup!" 

The stuffed-to-the brim pita bread came from L'As du Falafel, apparently the best of all the falafel places in the old Jewish district of Le Marais. It didn't disappoint – and was probably made even better after the the 5 mile adventure walk we took looking for the place.

And then there were the crêpes. The street vendor crêpes are like mini challenges against the clock – you need to be finished eating before the flimsy wrapper is soaked with butter and too hot to hold (this can be managed with high heat tolerance or a hungry friend). Then there are the sit-down deluxe crepes that come filled with anything from roquefort cheese and spinach to stewed apples and whipped cream, making you wonder why every meal doesn't come in a pancake. These kinds of crepes we got at Josselin's, one of literally dozens of crêperies on Rue du Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. 

So here's to wraps... and eating!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How French Does Posters

Being in Paris, I think its appropriate to post the gorgeous French posters that have been sitting on my desktop for a while now, in a folder called Designs I Like. I'll be adding to this list, but for now here are some of my favorites:

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Facts, Values, and the Moral Landscape

 Say I told you a story. A story chock full of facts, evidence, and detailed descriptions of human beings – everything you’d want to know about this species of ours. I could even throw in a brain scan or two. But despite my bundle of empirical, scientific data, I still could not tell you how we should be. There is a fundamental gap between facts and values, and it's here to stay. Period.

Or maybe not. The ought/is distinction - namely, the idea that I cannot make any claim about what ought to be based simply on what is - may not be as chasm-like as previously thought in philosophical circles. At least, Sam Harris would like to think so. Best known for his book "The End of Faith" and his vocal criticisms of religion, Harris has now moved into the domain of morality and neuroscience. In his TED talk and subsequent article, Harris argues that it is possible to make objective, scientific statements about what is morally good. In other words, is possible to be right about right and wrong. So how exactly does Harris manage to resolve centuries of ethical inquiry and debate? By brushing past the fact/value distinction altogether and basing morality entirely in the notion of human well-being - which he claims is ultimately rooted in human consciousness.

“science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of the mind… there are facts about human and animal well-being that we can, in principle, know – simply because well-being (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world.”

Harris is fully aware of the controversial claim he is making, but he chastises philosophers and scientists for elevating the ought/is distinction (what he calls Hume’s “lazy analysis of facts and values”) to the status of mathematical truth and thereby hindering all critical thought on the matter. Most of all he worries that the philosophical skepticism that divides facts and values leads to a moral relativism with dire consequences: 

“Many of my critics piously cite Hume's is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time… There are very practical, moral concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything – the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride-burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see what an abject failure of compassion their intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference amounts to.”

Harris admits that science is not guaranteed to map the entire realm of morality, or that it will produce answers to every conceivable moral question. He also acknowledges that there may not be a single "good" for everyone or every society. He draws the analogy to food. There is no one single best food to achieve optimal health good nutrition can be achieved in a whole multitude of ways. Nevertheless, there is still an objective difference between food and poison.

“there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive – many peaks on the moral landscape – so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in life, this diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science…the concept of "well-being," like the concept of "health," is truly open for revision and discovery.”

Much depends on this concept of “well-being." At times Harris uses the word “happiness,” or invokes the Aristotelian notion of “flourishing,” but in general he leaves the term extremely vague on purpose. By doing so, he tries to avoid the objection that there are some moral values (say, equality), that are not encapsulated in “well-being” and therefore cannot be established with his scientific approach. But Harris declares that every bit of morality (and all notions of value) are related to the experiences of conscious beings, and furthermore “those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the well-being of conscious creatures – are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of well-being in the end.”

I am still rather skeptical about the details, but no doubt Harris will elaborate on these arguments in his forthcoming book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Given the heated discussion he has provoked in the past few weeks, it’s sure to get quite a response.