Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Cognition and Decision in Nonhuman Biological Organisms

Friday, October 28th, 2011

My edited volume, Cognition and Decision in Nonhuman Biological Organisms, has just been published as part of the new Living Books About Life series from Open Humanities Press.

I’m excited about the entire Living Books About Life series. It represents a new form of collaboration between scientists and scholars in the humanities. And it is entirely open access as well. Each volume contains a number of crucial science articles, collected (or curated) and introduced by a humanities scholar.

My own volume covers topics such as “free will” in fruit flies, moods and emotional tones in bees, and more generally processes of affect, cognition, and decision found not just in animals, but in other sorts of organisms (trees, slime molds, bacteria) as well.

When the biologist and science fiction writer Joan Slonczewski, in her recent novel The Highest Frontier , envisions plants that display a sense of humor, and that can learn to resolve “Prisoners Dilemma” situations with mutual cooperation, she isn’t extrapolating all that much from what we actually already know about “mental” operations even in entities that have few or no neurons.

Fruit Flies and Slime Molds

Saturday, December 25th, 2010

Two recent scientific articles help to illuminate the notion of decision, which for Whitehead is constitutive of all actual entities.

In the first place, Bjorn Brembs, who was one of the co-authors of a 2007 paper that suggested that fruit flies are able to generate spontaneous behavior that is not determined in advance either by genetic pre-programming or by environmental cues, has released a new paper in which he generalizes his argument. Brembs cites research by himself and others that points to the “common ability of most if not all brains is to choose among different behavioural options even in the absence of differences in the environment and perform genuinely novel acts.” That is to say, fruit files and other animals possess a sort of “free will.” Brembs dismisses, of course, what he calls “the metaphysical concept of free will,” i.e. the traditional Cartesian notion that is “inextricably linked with one variant or another of dualism.” But he also rejects strict determinism, both on account of quantum indeterminacy, and — more directly in biological terms — on the basis of the idea that, for animals, complete predictability of behavior is not viable. Any organism that reacted to stimuli in a completely predictable manner could all too easily be wiped out by predators who were able to anticipate these responses. Therefore, “predictability can never be an evolutionarily stable strategy. Instead, animals need to balance the effectiveness and efficiency of their behaviours with just enough variability to spare them from being predictable… Competitive success and evolutionary fitness of all ambulatory organisms depend critically on intact behavioural variability as an adaptive function. Behavioural variability is an adaptive trait and not ‘noise’.” All this suggests that motile animals, at the very least, have evolved mechanisms to generate behavioraly variability — action that is not pre-determined, and hence not predictable. Moreover, organisms are able to control the extent of this variability. In many circumstances, routine, habit, and “instinct” are the best strategies; but “faced with novel situations, humans and most animals spontaneously increase their behavioural variability.”

Brembs cites many examples of “self-initiated actions” (behaviors that are spontaneously and endogenously generated) in all sorts of animal organisms, and not just among vertebrates. He suggests that neural mechanisms have evolved which exhibit and exploit an “unstable nonlinearity.” These brain mechanisms are “exquisitely sensitive to small perturbations,” and they are irreducible to any binary alternative between “complete (or quantum) randomness and pure, Laplacian determinism.” This provides the basis for what Brembs calls a scientific concept of free will: one that is not an absolute, dualistic concept, but an immanent and relative one: “The question is not any more ‘do we have free will?’; the question is now: ‘how much free will do we have?’; ‘how much does this or that animal have?’. Free will becomes a quantitative trait.”

Brembs rightly draws philosophical conclusions from his argument, even though he disclaims being a philosopher. “Analogous to mutation and selection in evolution, the biological process underlying free will can be conceptualized as a creative, spontaneous, indeterministic process followed by an adequately determined process, selecting from the options generated by the first process. Freedom arises from the creative and indeterministic generation of alternative possibilities, which present themselves to the will for evaluation and selection. The will is adequately determined by our reasons, desires and motives—by our character—but it is not pre-determined.” From this point of view, free will requires something like a “self,” which is able to determine its own action; we may infer such self-willed action whenever “no sufficient causes for this activity to occur are coming from outside the organism.”

Free will does not, however, necessitate consciousness in the human sense. Fruit flies make decisions — they determine and generate their own behavior, to the limits that external constraints allow them to — without necessarily being “conscious” of making these decisions. Even among human beings, this is most likely the case. Brembs cites, in passing, Benjamin Libet’s experiments, which suggested, by means of testing neural responses, that human beings make decisions prior to being conscious of their decisions. Libet’s results have often been cited as disproving the existence of “free will”; but Brembs rightly says that, although these results discredit the “metaphysical” (dualist) notion of free will, they “are not relevant for the concept proposed here.” For what Libet showed was not that I do not make spontaneous or uncaused decisions, but rather that my “mind” makes these decisions, or my brain generates them, prior to my becoming consciously aware of them. Brembs’ empirically grounded notion of free will is entirely consonant with the argument — one metaphysically beyond the scope of Brembs’ paper, but which I would want to make on Whiteheadian grounds — that things like consciousness and responsibility are not the grounds or preconditions for decision or the exercise of free will, but rather the consequences (in some, but not necessarily all, cases) of making decisions and (thereby) exercising free will.

Brembs suggests that free will is an evolutionary adaptation of the nervous system; it would thereby be restricted to animal organisms. But what about biological entities that don’t have nervous systems (including plants, fungi, protists, and bacteria)? All these organisms have been shown to engage in various sorts of cognitive activities. “Plant cognition and behavior” has come to be a recognized biological subfield; bacterial “quorum sensing” is widely recognized and experimented upon; and slime molds (in particular, the model organism Physarum polycephalum) have been shown to exhibit “smart behavior” in solving a maze, and to solve “combinatorial optimization problems.” But most of this research has focused on cognition and problem-solving, not on the issue of free will that Brembs raises in connection with fruit flies and other invertebrates.

Slime molds are particularly interesting organisms, because they are neither unicellular nor multicellular, but something in between. They exist for most of their lives as blobs of protoplasm with many nuclei. Meiosis occurs at the end of the life cycle, when the slime mold develops “fruiting bodies” composed of haploid spores. These spores are widely dispersed, and begin their lives as haploid, single-celled organisms. Two of these unicellular organisms mate, forming a larger cell with a diploid nucleus. But from that point on, mitosis, or the separation and replication of nuclear DNA, is not accompanied by cell division. Rather the entire blob grows in size as it comes to contain multiple nuclei. The blob moves around, sending out filaments of protoplasm in various directions as it searches for food. It is in the course of this process, which seems not to be centrally coordinated, but to involve internal communication among different parts of the organism, that slime molds have succeeded in threading mazes and solving combinatorial problems. [I am referring here to myxomycetes, or “true” slime molds; as opposed to the also interesting, but vastly different, cellular slime molds].

[One might also note that Gilbert Simondon ponders at great length on the question of whether animals that live in colonies, like coral, are truely individuated or not. Is each organism an individual? Or is it only the colony that is an individual? Obviously, the same question could apply to the notion of ant or bee colonies as superorganisms. But the case of slime molds is even stranger; as far as I can recall, Simondon never mentions them (please, somebody, correct me if I am wrong). Slime molds are more than individual cells, but less than differentiated multicellular organisms. Not only don’t they divide into separate cells, but they don’t differentiate into separate tissues or organs, except when they form fruiting bodies at the point of sporulation. And, as mentioned above, this differentiation takes place, and the spores become separate entities, only via meiosis. This question is related to the fact, discussed below, that slime molds do not make decisions as unified “individuals,” but only as loose, decentralized collectivities — although, again, the members of this “collective” are not separate from one another, as they are in the cases of corals and of ants.]

This brings me to the second recent article I mentioned above. It concerns “irrational decision-making” processes in slime molds. This article, by Tanja Latty and Madeleine Beekman, is of much narrower scope than Brembs’ essay; and its explicit focus is entirely cognitive. Nevertheless, I think it is relevant to the questions that, following Brembs, I am raising. Latty and Beekman created situaitons in which slime molds were allowed to choose between different food sources, which varied both as to how nutritious they were, and as to how illuminated they were. Slime molds prefer richer food sources to poorer ones, but they also prefer darkness to light (since they are easily harmed by exposure to bright light and ultraviolet radiation). What “preferences” would the slime molds establish, when confronted by the alternative between a rich, but brightly-lit food source, and a poorer, but dimly-lit and therefore much safer one?

With multiple trials, and the insertion of additional alternatives, the scientists determined that slime molds, like human beings and other animals, do not operate in accordance with the dictates of what has been called (in the human social sciences) “rational choice” theory. That is to say, they do not make “economically rational” choices “based on the absolute value of items” they are choosing among, but rather “use comparative valuation rules.” There are many problems with rational choice theory, and even with the amended version, “behavioral economics,” which acknowledges that people (and other organisms that make decisions) often make use of “comparative valuation rules” and other, not-strictly-rational, cognitive shortcuts. I will not go into these problems here (that would require an entire separate essay, or several); suffice it to note that these approaches have an impoverished notion of “decision,” since they regard it not as spontaneously-generated activity, but merely as an ordered selection among items on a pre-determined menu or list.

Letty and Beekman don’t address Brembs’ question of free will, because they remain within an entirely cognitivist and behavioural-economic context. But two aspects of their experiments are nonetheless relevant here. In the first place, they suggest that the presence, among slime molds, of the same limited rationality and behavioral strategies that one finds among animals with nervous systems suggest that such strategies of choice are not just  “a consequence of the way brains process information,” but rather indicate “an intrinsic feature of biological decision-making,” even when brains and neurons are not involved. Although they (wrongly, in my opinion) regard decision in exclusively cognitive terms, as a form of information processing, they do not see this “processing” as an exclusively animal-based, or neurally-based activity, but give it a much wider provenance. We know that it is taking place in slime molds and other brainless organisms, even though we do not yet understand how this happens. This suggests that the biological basis of free will is not necessarily tied to neurons and nervous systems in the way that Brembs suggests; it is a broader, or more basic, evolved feature of organisms.

The researchers state that “acellular slime moulds, like insect colonies, are collective decision makers, where the behaviour of the collective is a result of the behaviour of its underlying parts. Each slime mould is made up of many tiny pieces of slime mould, each oscillating at a frequency determined partly by the local environment, and partly by interactions with adjacent oscillators such that each oscillator can entrain those close to it.”  Given this situation, and “owing to the slimy nature of acellular slime moulds, it was not possible to test [rationality] in individuals, and instead, we relied upon population-level preferences.” But there is still a weird difficulty here. The authors note that “recent work on rationality in ants,” in which each organism in a colony makes individual decisions, and the colony’s behavior as a whole is the sum of these decisions, “has led to the suggestion that organisms using collective decision-making processes may be immune to irrational decisions.” However, even if thisis the case with ants in a colony, it turns out not to be the case for slime molds. Is this perhaps because a slime mold is neither a unity, nor a collection of entirely separate individual units, but something strangely in between?

Another problem with rational choice theory and behavioral economic theory is that they assume separate individual “preferences” which are only summed secondarily and extrinsically. But in actuality,this is never the case. Every individual’s decisions are influenced by (even if not reducible to) the decisions of others, plus all sorts of supplemental contextual factors. As Whitehead says, in every process of decision “whatever is determinable is determined” by the situation in which the individual finds itself, the “stubborn fact” that it cannot evade; although at the same time “there is always a remainder for the decision” to be made by the actual entity itself (PR 27-28). This mixture of self-determination and dependence is a matter of degree, just like the balance between externally determined and internally self-generated action that Brembs describes. Slime molds represent an extreme ontological case, in which the contrast between internal and external definition, as well as between individual and collective determination, is pushed to its most intensely ambiguous point. This is why slime molds seem to slip in between the logic of separate individual decisions, and that of collective, but extrnisically-summed, decisions. Reducible to neither, they embody the point at which the logic of preferences-among-a-menu-of-items breaks down. And this is why Latty and Beekman’s focus on limited choice expands into something more like the indeterminacy of free will as defined by Brembs.

The second point I’d like to note from Latty and Beekman’s article is their finding that “even within a treatment group, slime moulds varied in their choices. This is particularly surprising as we controlled for weight, nutritional state and genetic differences.” In other words, even the slime molds’ compliance with “irrational” comparative valuation rules is not absolute. It is a statistical result, rather than something observed in every instance. This again suggests that there is a margin, or remainder, of indeterminacy that allows for unconstrained, spontaneous decision. The authors suggest that “some of the variability we observed arises from slight differences in the experiments’ initial conditions… These small differences in initial condition, combined with feedback via biomass recruitment mechanisms, could ultimately result in the observed variability.” This is undoubtably the case; but I would add that, as sensitivity to initial conditions approaches a point of indiscernibility, we get closer to Brembs’ claim that “determinism versus indeterminism is a false dichotomy,” which he bases in part on observing situations of extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. As Brembs puts it, “stochasticity is not a nuisance, or a side effect of our reality. Evolution has shaped our brains to implement ‘stochasticity’ in a controlled way, injecting variability ‘at will’.” The only amendment to this that we need to cover the case of slime molds is that this evolved ability to inject variability at will is not just a property of brains, but “an intrinsic feature” (as Letty and Beekman put it) of all biological entities.

I’ll end my own discussion here with a speculative epilogue that makes claims I cannot presently defend (although I am hopefully working towards them). It may be noted that research into biological free will and biological decision-making is not entirely unrelated to the questions about panpsychism raised by such analytic philosophers as Thomas Nagel, Galen Strawson, and Sam Coleman, and which I have discussed previously in this blog. For Strawson, the emergence of mentality from non-mentality is a serious problem, even though the emergence of life from non-life is not. He argues, therefore, that an incipient mentality must already exist on the level of subatomic particles. I suggest that it helps to make sense of this claim if we understand mentality in terms of “decision,” rather than in terms of consciousness or “qualia.” The evolution of biological decision making, and biological free will, might well depend upon, and make use of, an implicit potential of all matter. If decision were not already possible, then living things that actually do make decisions could not have come into existence. Rather than decision being a power of life, then, life would be a consequence of the potentiality of decision.

Splice

Saturday, June 12th, 2010
I can’t stop thinking about Vincenzo Natali’s new SF/horror film Splice. Although narratively straightforward, thematically and emotionally it is very rich, and I am not sure how much of it I was able to grasp in just one viewing. Kim has a great discussion of the film, to which my own discussion here is greatly indebted. As often happens, Splice seems to be one of those cases in which my own enthusiasm is not generally shared either by the critics or the fanboys. The movie seems not to have performed as well at the box office during its first weekend as the studio had hoped (it earned $7.4M, well below pre-weekend projections of $12M — figures from boxofficeguru.com). It’s also gotten fairly mixed reviews, at best. (For a representative sample of fan-based negative reactions, see the comments to Annalee Newitz’s largely favorable review). Interestingly, reviewers’ complaints mostly have to do with the movie’s ending; but where some critics dismiss the ending as a lapse into the most predictable and hoary genre cliches, others deplore it as being beyond the pale, absolutely reprehensible and unbearable. I find this split to be symptomatic of a certain confusion on the part of viewers and critics who remain anxious about whether genre pieces can truly be embraced as works of art. In fact, Splice never departs from being a genre film; but the way it twists genre conventions is powerful and original.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW, OBVIOUSLY]

Most obviously, Splice addresses our hopes and anxieties concerning the prospects of genetic engineering and transhumanism. It draws upon, yet also subtly undermines, both extremes of opinion regarding these issues. On the one hand, there are the utopian dreams of human self-transcendence, of tweaking our own genome in order to become stronger, smarter, and more than human. On the other hand, there are the cautionary moralisms warning us against transgressing limits, violating the natural order, and usurping the role of God. Though Splice can be understood as a cautionary tale, it finally puts no more credence in the latter of these opinions than it does in the former. Actually, the film is disillusioning, or deflationary, with regard to our sense that technological advances Change Everything, whether for the better or for the worse. The film suggests that both our hopes and our fears are greatly exaggerated; and that technocentrism ignores too much, both about social structures and about ourselves. Splice is (quite unusually, for speculative films today) anti-apocalyptic, although in a way that is grim rather than reassuring.

Splice has familiar genre coordinates. It reworks motifs from (among other obvious sources) Frankenstein, Eraserhead, and Cronenberg’s early biohorror films. But it reworks these motifs, by placing them in the context of today’s computerized and corporate-financed biotechnology. Even when the scientist works alone and in secrecy, she is entangled in social and economic circumstances that would have been unthinkable for the Victor Frankenstein either of Mary Shelley’s novel, or of James Whale’s films for Universal. It remains noteworthy, however, that the main characters in Splice take their names from the Universal films. Meet Elsa (played by Sarah Polley, and named after Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and The Bride in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein) and her partner Clive (played by Adrian Brody, and named after Colin Clive, who played Victor Frankenstein in both of Whale’s films). Elsa and Clive are science-superstar biochemists, with boho-hipster sensibilities and a rebellious streak. They live for their cutting-edge research, and don’t seem to have much in the way of lives outside it. Their home is not a lavish mansion, but a hip but grungy, run-down downtown loft. And they don’t have sex very often; they (and especially Elsa) are always too busy with work. Elsa and Clive are living, walking embodiments of a sort of nerd chic, that has become one of the myths of contemporary society (though the film works to make us skeptical as to what sort of work this myth actually does). Working in a lab provided for them by a Big Pharma company, Elsa and Clive splice genes to make hybrid organisms, whose use is to secrete marketable pharmeceuticals. But their real passion is not the meds (which is what the company has hired and bankrolled them for), but the thrill of creating new forms of life. They are always arguing with their corporate overlords, who want to see something profitable now; whereas they demand creative freedom in their research, which they unconvincingly claim will pay off for the company in the long run. We are given a familiar opposition — Creatives vs. The Man, or entrepreneurial initiative vs. corporate/bureaucratic fossilization — which will be thoroughly deconstructed in the course of the film.

Splice begins with a prosthetic childbirth scene, as Elsa and Clive “deliver” a new organism they have created. We see the whole process from the newborn creature’s own POV, as enters into the world, by being drawn out of the incubator, or artificial womb, in which it was first encased. It’s all very sticky and oozy, and the camera’s POV-from-the-birth-canal feels claustrophobic. (One might compare the POV here to the POV-from-inside-the-gas-tank-as-Gerard-Butler-pisses-into-it shot in Neveldine/Taylor’s Gamer). The creature given birth to in this way is a gross and enormous slug-like organism, looking to me like nothing so much as a gigantic turd (though others have seen it as phallic). This specimen, we are told, is a female; Elsa and Clive immediately plop it in a tank with a previously-created male of the same invented species, and the two proceed to copulate, or at least “imprint” on one another. (It is noteworthy that the film only imagines heterosexual attractions and relations. While it may well be that Natali simply fails to entertain other erotic possibilities, I think that — as will become more evident later — the film’s insistence upon a compuslory, and indeed compulsive, heterosexuality is actually a big part of its point).

The grotesquerie and messiness of the turd/phallic thingies contrasts with the generally sterile, high-tech look of the lab in which they are produced — all the scenes that take place here are shot in with an uninviting bluish glow. The lab continues to feel sterile even at crisis moments when tanks and test tubes get smashed, material falls off the shelves, etc. (One of the strongest resemblances between Splice and early Cronenberg has to do with its portrayal of the grim sterility of official corporate spaces and architectures). These genetically engineered organisms may be ugly, but they do indeed produce the chemicals that the Big Pharma bosses need. The problem is that Elsa and Clive are bored with the thought of merely taking the extraction process to its conclusion, by isolating the important proteins and maximizing their production. They want more; or more precisely, Elsa does, as she is both the true genius, and the active, enterprising one, of the pair. So, without the authorization or knowledge of the corporate bosses, and even in the face of laws that explicitly prohibit it, Elsa soon takes the next step, growing a transgenic organism that includes human DNA together with that of other organisms. She tells Clive that the DNA is from an unidentified “Jane Doe”; but he later figures out that it is in fact her own.

There is clearly something narcissistic and self-obsessed here; all the more so when we learn that Clive wants to have a child, but Elsa is reluctant. She’s the one who would have to become pregnant, after all. The film doesn’t judge this, and indeed suggests that Elsa is moved both by a legitimate worries about the gender inequality involved, and how this would interfere with her work and career, and by a kind of squeamishness about her own body, however down and dirty she is able to get with the animal bodies she creates. This is the aspect of the film that most directly references, and rewrites, Frankenstein. Instead of a man who seeks to create new life without feminine mediation, we get a woman who produces new life while replacing her womb with a technological prosthesis — a substitution that also allows her more complete control over which genetic material gets mixed with her own. (And indeed, it is arguable that the mixed species DNA that Elsa uses — evidently including fish, amphibian, reptile, and bird components, though it is hard to say whether any invertebrate material is also included — is far superior to any DNA that the rather creepy Clive could provide).

The gender switch makes for a very different sort of Prometheanism than Mary Shelley envisaged. Frankenstein revolves around issues of patriarchal fiat. It is also centered on Victor’s disgust at working with putrefying dead matter; since the monster is made by revivifying this dead matter, it is no wonder that the monster turns out to be an ugly and terrifying figure. It’s as if Victor’s moral failure is the consequence of a previous aesthetic failure or mistake. Victor sees everything maternal or feminine as a “filthy workshop of creation,” and this disgust spills over into his own prosthetic creation of life as well. Splice, however, “feminizes” this process, and gives us maternal relations between creator and monster instead of paternal ones. The movie has to do with questions of intimacy, continuity, and trust, instead of with ones of disgust. Abject, matter-based technologies are replaced by (relatively) cleaner computer-based ones, in which matter is not so much treated with horror, as it is distanced and made manipulable through being regarded as merely information or digital code. Elsa may not want to give birth physically, but the logic of her displacement of maternity into a computer-mediated process does not have the Manichean overtones one finds in Frankenstein. Splice seems to take for granted the affinities between constructions of femininity and technoculture. Infotech with its horizontal networks is far different from the older, hierarchical and patriarchal, structure of science and technology; though this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is “freer” or less oppressive.

Of course, Splice‘s focus upon a woman instead of a man as the “mad scientist” figure whose creations ultimately lead to catastrophe has been quite a point of contention. Some bloggers have seen the film in anti-feminist backlash terms, on the grounds that Elsa is punished by the narrative for being too uppity. But this seems to me to be wrong, and based in an overly literal-minded take on the film, not to mention regarding it as far more moralizing than it actually is. I am inclined to think that the film is on-target in the way that it suggests that a certain “feminization” is at work in our current digitally-based regime — without implying that this actually translates into actual equality for women. Most other films that approach this sort of territory — I am thinking of Cronenberg’s earlier films, but also of something like Fight Club — tend to see the development of prosthetic or virtual embodiment, and the leveling, horizontal tendencies of network culture, as leading to crises of masculine subjectivity. Splice seems to me to be refreshingly free of this sort of retro, conservative anxiety. It takes recent shifts in gender politics — especially as they relate to the workplace — for granted, without nostalgia for the good old days of male supremacy (cf. Mad Men), but also without imagining that this somehow means that gender equality has actually been achieved. — But all this is really a subject for another essay.

I should also note that the digitization of the flesh has deep consequences in the narrative of Splice. Gender itself is a binary — male/female — which means, in digital terms, that it can easily be flipped from one state to the other. The sudden transformation of a transgenic organism from female to male — something that actually happens in many species of fish — becomes a major plot point and thematic concern in Splice. One of the movie’s highlights is the comedic-horror scene where Elsa and Clive are demonstrating their success with the sluglike thingies to the stockholders, press, and public. They put the two beasties in the same tank; but instead of copulating as before, they fight to the death, smashing up everything in the process and raining blood and gore over the audience. It turns out that the female organism had flipped over to male, without Elsa and Clive noticing. And males, of course, must always be aggressive and fight one another. What’s significant here, I think, is the combination of utterly stereotyped norms (of what males and females supposedly always do, regardless of species) and the utter arbitrariness of their expression (one of the gender terms can flip over into the other, without motivation, just like that). As in all the other cases I mention, the juxtaposition of assumptions is so telling that I think that all this is not a flaw or limit to the film, but something that the film is itself quite self-conscious about.

After some experimentation, the transhuman splice is fertilized and then born — it bursts traumatically out of its sac or artificial womb, long before it should have been ready. This is the first of several traumatic ruptures in the course of the movie. One could easily regard this in Freudian/Lacanian terms; but I prefer to see it, more generally, as having to do with the lack of fit between information and embodiment, or between genotype (what is “written” in the DNA) and phenotype (the actual living body that is ostensibly “programmed” by that DNA). In general, I would want to argue that Freudian Nachträglichkeit and Lacanian “prematurity of birth” are themselves not primordial formations, but merely derivatives of the more general situation — not restricted to human beings — in which what determines, codes, or “preforms” a given body is never adequate to the full range of “what a body can do.” Here, Spinoza and Deleuze must come before Freud and Lacan. Elsa knows precisely how she has coded the new transhuman organism that she creates; but she still does not know, and cannot know in advance, how it will grow and change, how it will act, and what it will feel. As Natali puts it in a recent interview: Elsa and Clive “understand life in its chemical form, but they don’t really understand the essence of what life means, what life is. And that’s where things go wrong.”

In any case, the birth of the new entity isn’t premature, so much as it is a reflection of the fact that the very nature of this new entity involves a continual getting-ahead-of-itself. It has an alarming vitality, which translates into both an accelerated developmental span, and a progress through several larval forms, metamorphosing from one to the next in stages. The new entity apparently recycles some of the DNA from Elsa’s previous creations. Nonetheless, it — or rather, as we quickly learn, she — has a backbone, and isn’t a slug. We get a chimera that starts out very animalistic, but that becomes more human as she grows up. Elsa immediately adopts a stereotypically “maternal” attitude towards this new being. Clive wants to destroy the larva, but Elsa cuddles and encourages it/her, thereby winning its/her trust. There is a very peculiar and interesting thing going on here, and throughout the film: Natali thoroughly mixes together (or “confuses”) those sorts of attitudes, gestures, and behaviors that our ideology tells us are “natural,” with those which, being the immediate product of high technology, are manifestly “artificial.” The result is to destabilize our habitual binary between the two. Either the splice is herself just as “natural” as any other biological organism; or else Elsa’s supposedly “intuitive” maternal behavior is just as “artificial” as the genetically engineered organism. In our hyper-technologized world, and precisely because of all this technology rather than in spite of it, any nature/culture or natural/artificial distinction breaks down. This has the effect of undermining our currently hegemonic biological determinism (tracing all qualities and behaviors back to “the genes” or to DNA) as much as it does so-called “social constructionism.” The fact that we now how such extreme power in manipulating DNA does not mean that DNA determines everything — indeed, quite the contrary is the case.

As the splice grows up, Elsa eventually names her Dren, which is “nerd” spelled backwards — a kind of ironic self-reference, as Elsa sees Dren as an offshoot or rearrangement of herself. (The theme of rearrangement is emphasized by the way in which “nerd” is first spelled out in Scrabble ® tiles; “dren” is then the result of looking at these tiles upside down). Dren is hairless, but with a largely human face and upper body, bird-like legs that can be articulated in several directions and with claws for feet, a tail that ends with a stinger, and the ability to extrude and withdraw wings at will. I think that one of the brilliant aspects of the film is the way that it positions Dren in between the allure of the enticingly unfamiliar, and the frightfulness of the truly alien. When fully grown, Dren is played by Delphine Chanéac, whose digitally-altered body has been carefully tweaked by Natali to maximize a sense of “exotic” beauty and mystery, in a way that is just barely this side of a creepy “uncanny valley” effect. (I put “exotic” in scare quotes in order to call attention to the often racist/colonialist implications of the term; Chanéac is white, and French, but the makeup and digital effects alter her just enough to “other” her). This presentation allows the white male heterosexual viewer (if I am at all representative) to be suspended just at the precise point in between voyeuristic drooling lust on the one hand, and castration anxiety on the other. As I will soon explain, this is crucial within the diegesis itself, as well as outside it for the normative viewer.

As befits this “exotic” or alien portraiture, Dren remains largely inscrutable both to her creators and to us the viewers. We never get “inside” Dren’s mind anytime in the film. Some critics have seen this as a defect in the movie, but I think that it is poignant and effective. Her facial expressions do indeed communicate, at different points in the course of the film, such feelings as contentment, fear and dread, and anger. But none of this is ever made entirely concrete. Dren is highly intelligent. She evidently comes to understand human language; she clearly comprehends and responds to the English that Elsa and Clive speak to her. But she is apparently unable to speak; evidently Elsa failed to provide her with the genes that would have allowed for the development of human vocal cords — an omission that may well be symptomatic. For it guarantees Dren’s outsider status, and her subordination; she will always be enough of an animal that she cannot be regarded as superhuman.

Dren communicates, occasionally, by arranging Scrabble ® tiles into words. Elsa and Clive are thrilled when this happens, because it is sign of her high intelligence. But they don’t seem at all interested in the content of what she tries to tell them. They are too invested in studying her scientifically, in disciplining her properly, and in securing her from the risk of discovery. All too much in accord with contemporary scientific ideology, they are intrigued by Dren exclusively in cognitive terms. They don’t have any sense of her affectively; they don’t even know to look for her feelings, let alone to try to consider how they might work. This is all the more the case, in that Elsa’s and Clive’s own behavior is equally incomprehensible to themselves. Elsa and Clive, no less than Dren, are driven by affects that are out of their control or even of their awareness. They do not look at Dren’s affectivity, precisely because they are unable to comprehend even their own affectivity. And this is not just a personal failing of theirs; it is a symptomatic consequence of the cognitivist assumptions of the contemporary biological and behavioral sciences in general.

The import of all this is that Dren’s inability to speak is itself an expression of her existential situation. She cannot speak, in effect, because she cannot help feeling like an alien or an Other even to herself. (Clearly we need to reject the Lacanian assumption that it is somehow language which “alienates” us as subjects; this assumption rests on the unjustified anthropocentric belief that non-human or non-linguistic beings are somehow simply “natural,” simply immediate, simply at one with the world, unaware of mortality, etc. Dren is alienated by the way that she only has a partial and oblique relation to language; this relates to what I said above about trauma and prematurity not being exclusively human experiences or attributes). Dren is brought up in isolation, she is effectively abused, and there is no other being who is anything like her. When she spells out the word TEDIOUS in Scrabble ® tiles, in order to complain of her boredom and frustration at being locked up alone and not allowed even to go outside, Elsa and Clive respond simply by dismissing her complaint; doesn’t she know that they cannot risk letting her outside, since nobody must know of her existence?

Most of the movie is taken up with Elsa’s “mothering” of Dren, with Clive as the somewhat distant father figure. And this is where any prejudice that “mothering” might be “natural,” or inherently “feminine,” or inherently hardwired in Elsa’s, or any woman’s, genes, definitively breaks down. For Elsa engages in a kind of arbitrary, schizophrenic parenting style that would be enough to drive any child crazy, let alone one as “gifted” and “different” as Dren. At one moment, Elsa is exceedingly warm towards Dren, drawing her out of her scared shell and winning her trust; and then at the next moment she is overly severe in her disciplining of Dren, on the basis of distinctions between permitted and forbidden behavior that Dren clearly cannot understand (and that no child or teenager would ever be able to understand). For instance, Dren at one point adopts a stray cat, as a compensation for her boredom and loneliness. But Elsa takes the cat away from Dren, berating her for doing something unsafe (which seems to mean, both something that might expose Dren to discovery by other people than Elsa and Clive, and something that might interfere with the level of control Elsa needs in order to study Dren as a scientific experiment). A few scenes later, however, Elsa changes her mind, and brings back the cat, returning it to Dren as a “present,” and a sign of her (Elsa’s) warmth and affection. This is clearly just as incomprehensible to Dren as the original gesture of taking the cat away had been. Confused and panicked by the erratic nature of Elsa’s affection, Dren freaks out and kills the cat by stinging it with her tail. Elsa — in a rage all the more disquieting for being kept under wraps by an external calm — responds by physically restraining Dren, and subjecting her to (unsuccessful) surgery to remove the stinger. Castration, anyone? This is yet another moment of violence and trauma for Dren; and another moment to which Elsa remains completely oblivious. She is entirely unable to notice or understand her own effect upon her “daughter.”

Throughout the relationship between Elsa and Dren, therefore, intimacy is tied together with a horrific sense of violation. In Polley’s amazing performance, Elsa’s fucked-up parenting is utterly horrific, and yet entirely understandable from the inside. For Elsa is nothing if not well-intentioned; and she herself is also a victim of her own mother’s crazy abuse of her, when she was a child. Elsa mentions her past history as an abused child several times in the course of the movie; yet she thinks nothing of hiding or imprisoning Dren within the very walls in which she (Elsa) grew up and suffered this abuse. (We even get to see the spartan room, much like a prison cell, that was Elsa’s childhood bedroom). Thus Elsa troublingly (but not unsurprisingly) replicates, with Dren, all the ways that her mother mistreated her. But even when Elsa explicitly tries to do the opposite with Dren from what her mother did to her, the results are problematic and messed up. Thus Elsa gives Dren a Barbie doll which she had loved as a child, but which her mother had taken away from her. Elsa also has Dren wear baby-doll dresses and put on makeup. The Barbie doll, the dresses, and the makeup have the effect of “humanizing” Dren, making her over in accordance with human norms — which in this case means, in effect, making Dren stereotypically “feminine.” Even worse, the sexy-alien Dren gives off something close to a pederastic vibe.

In this way, all-too-human (by which I mean, culturally specific) gender roles are oddly reinforced, precisely when we are supposed to be getting beyond the human. Yet again, the film entirely scrambles our sense of what is natural and what is artificial, or of what is innate and “genetic”, and what is implanted or learned. We often reflexively assume the idea that nature, or the given/innate, is inherently deterministic and programmed (“hardwired”), while culture — that which is invented, transmitted through language and behavior, and which can be learned — allows for the possibility of difference. But Splice entirely reverses this dynamic. Dren is radically new and different, as far as her genetic endowment is concerned; but Elsa (and Clive) work to contain this difference within the cultural norms that they take for granted without question. And indeed, the film as a whole plays on the way that we, too, take these norms for granted; they are built into our genre expectations, which regulate how we take both the film’s form and its content. This is also the reason why the film is, as I noted before, heterosexual with a vengeance: it depressingly chronicles the ways that, faced with the prospect of difference, novelty, or radical otherness, we try to reduce this difference to the same, to police it and regulate it by inserting it within these pre-assumed norms. The film highlights these normative aspects (of cinematic genre, of socially-enacted gender, and of assumptions about what is natural and what is artificial) in a way that makes us troublingly conscious of them, instead of just letting them go “without saying.”

I should say something here about Clive as well as Elsa. She is the main mover and shaker of the couple; but his role as enabler should not be ignored. He is in fact is exceedingly creepy, without this ever quite coming out up-front. He simultaneously objects to all of Elsa’s transgressions, and yet helps to further them by his attitude and actions. All this is captured in Brody’s excellent performance, which really makes me squirm. Clive is a passive enabler, while at the same time disavowing this role by coming off as a (fake) voice of moderation and reason — despite the fact that he is evidently every bit as crazy as Elsa is. Clive encourages Elsa, while at the same time doing this in such a way that she must take responsibility, or take the fall, when anything backfires. Beneath the veneer of hipness and reasonableness, he is really a self-righteous prick. He sits back and lets Elsa take the initiative and maneuver them both into difficult situations. Then he objects, but at the same time provides evidence that there is no way out. He manages, therefore, both to express moral qualms and yet to use those qualms as an alibi for the fact that he is really excited by what Elsa is doing, and that he is desperate to get involved.

This also relates to the fact that Elsa and Clive turn out not to be the perfect couple that they seemed to be at the start of the film. I have already mentioned that they rarely have sex, and that this seems to be something of an issue for Clive. The one time in the film that they do get it on, it becomes sort of a primal scene for Dren, who sees them in the act without their being aware that she is viewing. them. But beyond this, all the tensions between Elsa and Clive get acted out in relation to Dren, and are directly projected onto Dren. She both becomes the alibi for, and suffers the consequences of, their instabilities and their lack of self-knowledge. In addition, all the traditional Frankenstein/SF arguments about morality, responsibility, the limits of knowledge, etc., are taken up in Elsa’s and Clive’s arguments; which has the effect of undermining the discursive force of the arguments, since they so clearly become masks or alibis for the couple’s own feelings, which they are quite obviously not at all in touch with.

All of this comes to a head in the third act of the film. This is the part that, as I mentioned above, some reviewers deplore as a capitulation to Hollywood/exploitation norms; while others condemn it as ugly and nasty, morally unacceptable, horrifically misogynistic, etc. I am inclined to think that these incompatible responses are symptomatic of the way that Natali has touched nerves, and thereby done something right. A conventional macho action film, with its taken-for-granted misogyny, would never get denounced for being “a thoroughly repulsive science fiction-horror flick that slicks up its B-movie tawdriness with high-gloss production values and two otherwise classy stars… a singularly cynical enterprise, exploiting our anxieties about reproduction, parenthood, control and betrayal while engaging in the crudest forms of sensationalism” (Ann Hornaday, in The Washington Post). I think that the ending of Splice succeeds both in fulfilling the pre-assumed requirements of the genre (there has to be a climax of violent monstrosity, in which all the creepy suggestions raised earlier in the film are pushed to a point of extremity, and, perhaps, catharsis), and in working through the logic of its premises — which, as I have been suggesting, have to do with the uses and abuses of technology, with both the creation of otherness and the attempt to contain and reduce it, with the regendering of processes in global, highly technologized capitalism, and with the relation of innovation and creativity to corporate control and corporate property.

In the third act, there are two significant — highly disturbing, and even shocking — events. The first one is that Clive has sex with Dren, in a way that is psychologically suggestive of incest. The attraction is apparently mutual. Dren, having been “feminized” by Elsa, and put off by the violent abusiveness of Elsa’s treatment of her, seems to idealize Clive as the more distant, and therefore less painfully-associated, authority or parental figure. There is something perversely innocent (oxymoron entirely intended, since it is something that at once seems childlike and yet is very post-puberty-aware and erotic) about Dren’s desire for Clive. On Clive’s part, the desire seems shifty and creepy in the same way that all his actions and affects have been throughout the film. He first formulaically tells Dren that we cannot do this, only to respond avidly to her allure a moment later.

Clive claims — sincerely,as far as we can tell, in his lack of knowledge of himself — to be attracted to Dren because of the way she reminds him of Elsa. He disavows the other elements of her appeal: for Dren, of course, is more sexy than Elsa on account of being younger, not tied to her work the way Elsa is, not Clive’s evident intellectual superior the way Elsa is (though we don’t know the level of Dren’s intelligence for sure) — not to mention that, of course, Dren’s not-entirely-human makeup makes her thrillingly exotic/unknown in a way Elsa could not be. Clive is able to enact, in other words, the fantasy relation to Dren that (as mentioned above) the film produces for the normative male-heterosexual spectator. In fact, Clive’s coming on to Dren, and his self-understanding about doing this, simply replicates the most boring and banal, and most common, scenario of heterosexual-male psychodrama imaginable. It’s a syndrome that forms the basis of far too many melodramas and far too many real-life divorces (not to mention its featured role in award-winning movies like American Beauty, and in prominent real-life careers like that of Bill Clinton). It bespeaks a kind of self-blindness that could only come out of (unacknowledged) privilege. In the (fairly explicit) way that the movie presents this sexual act, it is shocking, jolting, and disturbing, and yet at the same time disappointing: as if this extravagant, transgressive act were at the same time the enactment of a failure to change, a failure to get anywhere, a failure to do anything different from business (and prejudice) as usual. My sense of the film is that, precisely, Natali manages to have it both ways: to give us the genre-specific thrills that we need and expect, and to make a meta-commentary which precisely turns on the the oppressive sameness of what the genre gives us.

Of course, Elsa walks in on Clive and Dren while they are in the midst of fucking: this, again, is both a genre necessity, and acutely true to the strained and messy psychodynamics of the entire film. Elsa is angered and disgusted; she walks out and drives home — but first she stops at the lab in order to do the banal protein sequencing that the corporate bosses had demanded of her all along, and that she had previously considered beneath her. Apparently Dren’s DNA coding, no less than that of the slug-like creatures, causes her to produce and secrete the meds that the Big Pharma company wanted in the first place. And this is apparently the first thing that Elsa thinks of, in her rage that Dren and Clive have betrayed her.

When Clive goes after Elsa and tries to explain what happened, she tells him: “you aren’t going to talk your way out of this one.” But in fact, Clive succeeds in talking his way out of trouble within just about two minutes of screen time. Clive convinces Elsa that the rules have changed, that they have both overstepped limits, etc. etc. It becomes clear to the audience that neither Clive nor Elsa has learned anything whatsoever from all that has happened to them, and to their creation. Worried about further consequences, and at least sensing the need for damage control, they return to the farmhouse/barn where they had left Dren.

The very ending of the film pushes all this contradiction and tension to its most extreme point. For the second significant, and disturbing happening in the third act is that Dren (quite predictably, in genre terms) turns monstrous and murderous. But there’s more: Dren’s turn towards homicidal behavior is correlated with her shifting gender from female to male (just as slug-like creature did earlier in the film). The male Dren-creature murders Clive and some secondary characters, and concludes by raping Elsa. This is also the notable point when Dren — turned male — speaks a word for the first and only time in the movie. The word has trouble coming out of his throat; the Dren-organism’s difficulty with articulating spoken language still remains. The barely articulated word is “inside.” Male Dren wants to enter/penetrate/fuck/rape Elsa; but also, perhaps, he wants to return to the womb, to an ultimate inner place where the outside world cannot harm him. It makes no difference that, in fact, Dren’s original womb was not literally Elsa’s, but a prosthetic one. The whole film has worked through an ambivalently aggressive dynamics in relation to technologies of reproduction, and now this is all quite horrifically and nastily literalized and embodied — in a way that collapses back on Elsa, the originator of these dynamics, and now their victim.

As before, I think it makes sense to see this rape scene in relation or contrast to Frankenstein. In the original novel, the monster, denied his own possibilities of sexuality and reproduction, murders his creator’s bride, but leaves that creator himself uninjured, to stew in his own regrets and guilt. In Splice, Elsa suffers a worse fate than Victor Frankenstein; I think indeed that this is because she is a woman, but (as noted before) I take this, not as evidence that the film is misogynistic, but precisely as an indication that misogyny is part of the situation that the film reveals, and of which it offers a diagnosis. Frankenstein’s transgression of the laws of God and Man has been transformed into Elsa’s pseudo-transgression, which ends up only reinforcing the order it had seemed to be rebelling against. Elsa has worked throughout the film to create life prosthetically, to give birth to and raise a being that transcended the limitations of the human order. But (as her confusions and failures in parenting Dren have shown), she proves unequal to this task, and ends up reproducing the same all-too-human (and in fact culturally as well as genetically determined and limited) order that she had thought to get beyond. Which is why, at the end, she is reduced to the limited role of having/being a womb and nothing but a womb, after all. She manages to destroy the “monster” that she has created, but only after it has inseminated her (in effect, returning to her the burden she had imposed upon it).

A sort of epilogue shows Elsa, pregnant and evidently close to term, signing everything away to the corporation, in return for ample (we presume) financial considerations. She would seem to be giving the corporation both her scientific expertise and the contents of her womb (produced, presumably, by the rape, though we do not know this for sure); the distinction between them has entirely collapsed. And this is the saddest and most horrific thing in the entire film — much more so than anything having to do with Dren. Whatever the film has to say about gender and familialism, everything is overcoded by the reality of corporate ownership. Property and profit come first. It’s significant that the corporate boss with whom Elsa negotiates this abdication of power is also a woman: as if to explicitly show us both that there is nothing special about a woman-to-woman bond, and that the regime of captial is always ready to allow exceptions to conventional hierarchies without thereby ceasing to rule. Elsa can be a successful scientist, and a woman can be the CEO of a Big Pharma company; but these individual exceptions or exemptions don’t ever rock the boat. Corporate power is what bought Elsa and Clive their lab with its high tech machines in the first place; and corporate power accumulates the profits that are generated with the help of that lab and its machines. Elsa’s and Clive’s creative surplus does not belong to them, and never did. Movies in the last three decades of the twentieth century tended to figure corporate power in terms of vast conspiracies (this has been discussed at length by Fredric Jameson, and more recently by Jeff Kinkle here). But in 2010, there is no longer any need for a conspiracy in order to explain corporate dominance. The corporation is just there, a banal fact that is not in the least bit hidden, and that everybody takes for granted without even thinking about it.

Indeed, I think that we can go further, and say that Elsa and Clive’s whole hipster/boho/rebellious vibe not only doesn’t threaten the reign of capital (or Big Pharma in this case), but also actively helps to maintain it, and may even be necessary to its functioning. It’s not just because the hipster-rebellious genius image appeals to disaffected arty-intellectual types like me, and thereby helps (just as “cool” corporations like Apple, Google, and Starbucks do) to draw me into a more active and engaged complicity with the mechanisms of capital accumulation. But beyond this (and on a more fundamental level than that of mere “ideology”), techno-innovators and “creatives” like Elsa and Clive both provide the corporations with continual streams of innovation and insure that these innovations will be channeled in normative and profitable ways. Old Deleuze/Guattari enthusiasts like me have tended to privilege, celebrate, and idealize flows of becoming, monstrous metamorphoses, and lines of flight and escape from the normative and the all-too-human. At times in our enthusiasm, we would tend to forget Deleuze and Guattari’s own warnings that capitalism recuperates (“reterritorializes” and “recodes”) whatever crazy, destabilizing fluxes it unleashes.

But Splice suggests that the relation between capitalism’s “creativity” and its recuperations is even more intimate. It’s not that Elsa and Clive create something radically new, and then desperately try to recuperate it within conventional or normative parameters. Rather, the normalizing drive is at the heart of their “creativity.” Elsa doesn’t secondarily familialize a transgenic creation that initially threatens to escape her control and that of the conventional gender coordinates. It is rather the case that she develops the transgenic creation in the first place in order to produce a body upon which those conservative, familiar and familialist coordinates may be inscribed. She rebels against corporate management in order to fulfill its aims better than that management would be able to do by itself. Her very choice of private, emotionally meaningful goals instead of externally-imposed corporate ones is a vital and necessary element of the corporate seach for ever-expanding profits. In this way, Splice suggests that the fantasy of transgressive genius, the dream of liberating metamorphosis, and the dedication to personal fulfillment, are themselves adjuncts to, and enablers of, corporate power.

Or, to use a biological metaphor here, Splice suggests that evolution is only the result of the essential conservativism (drive to self-preservation and self-perpetuation) of “life.” Mutations happen, and grow within a population, not out of any drive for change, but precisely because life’s only goal is to replicate and multiply itself, to continually reproduce itself as the same. Whatever does the best job of this flourishes. Biotechnology’s current vision is bloodless, rationalistic, cognitivist and computational. Splice challenges this vision, by suggesting that it must ultimately be brought back into contact with a politics of affect, of the visceral, and of the body. But the film is deeply disillusioning, in that it further suggests that the movement back to affect and the body doesn’t have anything emancipatory about it. Rather than moralistically warning against the dangers of experimentation beyond socially acceptable limits, Splice suggests that such experimentation itself works to return to and reinforce those limits, so that it is inherently disappointing. Indeed, we are never imaginative enough.

Panpsychism

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

In my last book, I wrote that Whitehead’s position, that all entities have a “mental” as well as a “physical” pole, needs to be distinguished “from the ‘panpsychism’ of which he is sometimes accused” (page 28). I now realize that this is entirely wrong; such a distinction cannot be made, because Whitehead’s position is, in a very classical sense, a panpsychist one. Moreover, panpsychism is a respectable philosophical position, and not something that anyone needs to worry about being “accused” of.

I come to this new understanding from reading David Skrbina’s work on panpsychism — the philosophical doctrine that “mentality” is in some sense a universal property of all entities in the universe, or of matter itself. Skrbina’s book, Panpsychism in the West, both argues for panpsychism as a philosophical doctrine, and gives an extended history of this doctrine. Skrbina shows that panpsychism has been a leading strand in Western thought for 2500 years, from the pre-Socratics through Spinoza and Leibniz, on to William James and Whitehead a century ago, and up to many thinkers today. The idea that everything in the world thinks, in some fashion, is far more prevalent than its “crackpot” reputation might lead us to assume.

Skrbina’s companion edited volume, Mind That Abides, contains essays on the possibilities of panpsychism by a variety of contemporary philosophers, ranging from analytic philosophers (among whom Galen Strawson is probably the best-known), through post-Whiteheadian process-oriented thinkers, to “speculative realists” along with other non-analytic metaphysicians (there are contributions from Graham Harman and Iain Hamilton Grant). Together, these volumes make a powerful case for the plausibility of panpsychism, as well as making it clear that Whitehead’s contention that all entities have some sort of incipient mentality is a central expression of the panpsychist doctrine.

Arguments for panpsychism come in many forms, and its adherents often contradict one another. But if there is a central strain to contemporary panpsychist argumentation, it is this. If we reject radical mind/body dualism, and accept materialism, physicalism, or any other form of monism, then we must face the question of \emph{how to explain} the indubitable existence of mind or mentality. I am using “monism” here in its widest possible sense; I define it to include, not just scientific physicalism (the doctrine that the world is composed entirely of mass-energy, or that it is reducible to the subatomic particles described by contemporary physics), but also any form of what might be called “immanentism” (the doctrine that the world is composed of something like Spinoza’s unique substance, or of Bergson’s multiple durations, or of “experience” as it is understood in William James’ “radical empiricism”, or indeed as pure multiplicity, or as an open collection of independent objects a la Graham Harman). In other words, any philosophy that rejects supernaturalism or mind/body dualism as a way to explain the existence of mentality, must find some naturalistic, or at least immanent, way to do so.

I am trying to give as broad as possibile a definition of “mind” or “mentality” as well. This may be defined as consisting in cognition, and cognitive operations, of some sort; and, I would argue, in affectivity as well. But above all mentality consists in phenomenal experience, or of what analytic philosophers call “qualia”: my sensation of the redness or hardness of some particular object, or of pain or delight, or simply of being present in the world. Phenomenal experience is often conflated with consciousness, or the state of intentionality, being-aware-of; I have reservations about this identification, which I will get to later, but the rough equation may be accepted for the moment.

Understood in any of these ways, mentality would seem to be an irreducible aspect of our own existence, at the very least — leaving open the question of what other beings might have it. The question nagging at philosophers is how to explain the seeming indubitability, or incorrigibility of phenomenal experience. (“Incorrigibility” is what Descartes bases his entire philosophy upon. Everything that I think may be false or mistaken; but the fact that I am thinking cannot be mistaken). Cartesian dualism is the great classical solution to this dilemma, of course. Descartes has been (rightly) criticized for hundreds of years for reifying the act or fact of thinking into the the form of the “I” as a thing-that-thinks, and for separating the thinking-mind from any notions of body, matter, or extension. But this doesn’t negate the urgency of his initial observation.

Few of us are willing today to take Descartes’ dualist route, however. So the question becomes: how do we explain qualia, or phenomenal experience, or consciousness, or “inner” experience, on a materialist or monist basis? Modern thinkers have tended to favor either eliminativism or emergentism. Eliminativism is a reductionist thesis; it argues that qualia, consciousness, intentionality, and phenomenal experience are merely illusions, or linguistic misunderstandings, which disappear once we understand how neurological mechanisms operate on the physical level (one can find different versions of this position in Daniel Dennett, in Thomas Metzinger, and in the Churchlands).

Emergentism argues that mentality is the epiphenomenal result of interacting physical processes that have attained a certain level of complexity, as is the case with the massive aggregations of neurons in our brains. Phenomenal experience emerges at some point in the course of evolution; it may be associated either with the existence of neurons and nervous systems in animals, or with some more complex development of the nervous system in organisms of sufficient complexity, or in vertebrates, or in mammals, or just in human beings.

Both eliminativism and emergentism can be criticized, however, for just “explaining away” mentality, rather than actually explaining it. As Whitehead says, “philosophy destroys its usefulness when it indulges in brilliant feats of explaining away.” Eliminativism doesn’t account for mentality so much as it suggests that it is too trivial or illusory to even merit being accounted for; it ignores Whitehead’s insistence that “the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electrical waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.”

Emergentism, for its part, can be accused of begging the question. It is one thing to say that certain physical properties emerge out of other physical properties (in Strawson’s example, a single molecule of H2O isn’t in itself wet). But it is another thing altogether, Strawson argues, to maintain that mentality, or experience, or phenomenality, can emerge from something that is entirely non-mental, non-experiential, and non-phenomenal.

More generally, I think that it is worthwhile to challenge our almost reflexive belief, today, in the power of emergence or self-organization. (See my previous post, “Against Self-Organization”, for more discussion of this). It’s all too easy for “spontaneous emergence” or “self-organization” to be put into play as a catch-all explanation for things that cannot be explained any other way. The emergentist thesis threatens to violate Whitehead’s ontological principle, which is that “there is nothing which floats into the world from nowhere.” Theories of emergent self-organization may well be ways of illicitly reintroducing an idea of preprogrammed finality, or of a benevolent “invisible hand,” into our understanding of events, as Jean-Jacques Kupiec has recently suggested.

Panpsychist thinkers propose, against the eliminativists, that mentality is real. Against the emergentists, they propose that mentality doesn’t just come into being out of nothing; it is always already there, no matter where you look. Mind, in some form or other, exists all the way down. Panpsychists argue that mentality, or experience, is itself a basic attribute of matter (of subatomic particles, of quanta of mass-energy, of actual occasions, of minimal differences, etc.). In other words, mentality is not separate from physicality, but coextensive with it. One might think of this, classicaly, in Spinozian terms (matter and mind are two attributes of the same unique substance) or in Leibnizian ones (every monad is at once material and mental, since it is both a particle of the world and a perspective upon the world). But Galen Strawson, David Skrbina, and others have reconceptualized these arguments in terms that are grounded in contemporary physics. As Strawson puts it, the “ultimates” out of which the universe is composed “are intrinsically experience-involving… All physical stuff is energy, in one form or another; and all energy, I trow, is an experience-involving phenomenon.”

This line of argument intersects in interesting ways with the arguments of the Speculative Realists. For it implies that mentality must be seen as intrinsic to the universe itself — rather than just being a feature of the way that “we” (human beings, rational minds, subjects) approach it. To restrict mentality just to human beings (and perhaps also to some other species of “higher” animals) is an unjustified prejudice, an instance of the “correlationism” denounced by Meillassoux, or the human-centeredness questioned by Harman. (This also accords with Whitehead’s frequent point that the duality of subject and object is a situational and always changing one. Every entity is a “subject” in some conditions or some relations, and an “object” in others).

In Skrbina’s anthology, both Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman write about the relation between realism and panpsychism in ways that are too complicated for me to do them justice here. Grant argues for “panpsychism all the way down, that is, without exception”; but in doing so, he complicates the whole question of emergence. For his part, Harman is reserved with regards to panpsychism. He sees mentality as an inevitable component of any relationality, or interaction between objects; “objects collide only indirectly, by means of the images they present as information.” But objects are not reducible to the “information” that they transmit to other objects. Harman therefore denies the property of information, or mentality, to objects insofar as they are in themselves, and therefore to objects that do not enter into “vicarious” relations with other objects. And of course, for Harman, relationality is only incidental to, and not constitutive of, the nature of objects. Hence, for Harman, “even if all entities contain experience, not all entities have experience.” Grant’s and Harman’s articles both raise important issues that I do not have the space to pursue right now — I will have to leave them both for another occasion.

In any case, Whitehead gives his own crucial twist to the overall panpsychist argument. In Whitehead’s formulation, all “actual entites” or “actual occasions” have both a “physical” pole, and a “mental” or “conceptual” pole. He also expresses this by saying that they have both a “public” aspect and a “private” aspect. “There are no concrete facts which are merely public, or merely private. The distinction between publicity and privacy is a distinction of reason, and is not a distinction between mutually exclusive concrete facts.” Everything exists, to different degrees, both physically or publically, on the one hand, and mentally or privately, on the other. Every occasion is inwardly mental or private, in its own process of “concrescence,” as it prehends other (previous) occasions. But every occasion is also physical or public, insofar as it enters into relations with the universe by serving as a “datum” to be prehended in turn by other occasions.

(There is thus a temporal as well as existential asymmetry between the mental and the physical, or between private and public dimensions of existence. This asymmetry has important consequences for how we understand relationality in general. In the privacy of its self-constitution, the occasion prehends, and thereby relates to, the entire universe. Publically, as a datum, the occasion is prehended by other occasions, and functions as a relational factor. I need to work out this asymmetry in more detail — I think that it is crucial for how Whitehead is able to maintain both relationality all the way down, and the sense that an occasion is something more than just the sum of its relations).

The most crucial way in which Whitehead revises the panpsychist argument is that, for him, mentality — or what William James calls “experience” — is not equated (as it is in the work of most panpsychists) with consciousness. Photons and quarks, and stones and thermostats, all have “experiences,” which means that they do possess some sort of incipient mentality; but for Whitehead, they are probably not conscious. Even in human beings, Whitehead says, most mental processes occur unconsciously, or below the threshold of consciousness. What makes them “mental,” then? Whitehead’s notion of unconscius thought is related to, but also quite different from, both the psychoanalytic sense of the unconscious, and from cognitive science’s recognition that most cognitive processes are unacompanied by, and often irreducible to, consciousness. Like psychoanalysis, Whitehead sees unconscious experience as having to do with “feelings” and “appetitions”, processes of action and reaction that are not merely automatic responses to stimuli; but in contrast to psychoanalysis, for Whitehead these feelings and appetitions do not necessarily involve any sort of representational activity.

For Whitehead, mentality is characterised by what he calls “conceptual feelings,” or “valuations.” These are processes in which potentialities are in some sense contrasted or weighed against one another. There is not just the perception (and perhaps the recognition) of what is. For Whitehead, such a perception and recognition is exactly identical to physical causality; to say that B physically perceives or prehends A is exactly the same thing as to say that A physically affects B, or that A is the cause of which B is the effect, e.g. in the way that one billiard ball transmits energy and motion to another billiard ball by hitting it, and causing it to move in turn. In addition to all this, Whitehead says, B also has a mental or conceptual experience of A: the experience, let’s say, of being-caused-to-move. I doubt that the billard ball is in any sense conscious; but the event of energy-transfer is a mental experience for Whitehead, because it involves the activation of a potential (precisely of a potential for movement). Mentality consists in the comparison of moving and not-moving; this comparison is the “mental pole” of the “occasion” in which billiard ball B is hit by billiard ball A and propelled into motion.

Now, the role of mentality, or experience, in the case of the billiard ball is vanishingly small, or (as Whitehead tends to put it) negligeable. Nonetheless, it exists — it is at least present structurally, you might say. Experience is present potentially, but almost not at all actually. But if this is so, it is because experience is in itself the impress of potentiality. The energetic shock of being hit by another billiard ball is precisely a prehension, or an apprehension, of possiblity. Possibilities, or conceptual prehensions according to Whitehead, are always perceptions of what he calls “eternal objects,” or “pure potentials” — and these, in turn, are equivalent to what other philosophers call “qualia.” The apprehension of qualia — of the red glow of the sunset, for instance — is intrinsic and irreducible, because it is felt, pleasantly or unpleasantly as the case may be, and because, insofar as it is thus felt, it implies potential and contrast. Redness-as-a-potentiality is in excess of merely being a quality or an aspect of this particular moment, this particular sunset. My sense of redness implies that this scene could perhaps change, so as not to be red after all; and also that something else could be imbued by redness as well. And my affective response to the sunset has to do with my liking or disliking of this redness, a reaction that extends into the prospect of other things being red, or of this redness itself disappearing (as it does, once the sun has entirely set).

Experience, or conceptual feeling, thus always involves a certain process of “valuation,” or evaluation. Whitehead agrees with the cognitivists in seeing that these evaluative processes are most of the time non-conscious. But he does not see evaluation as itself a “cognitive” process — it has much more to do with “appetition,” which “includ[es] in itself a principle of unrest, involving realization of what is not, and may be… All physical experience is accompanied by an appetite for, or against, its continuance.” In this way, mentality (or experience) is not just the calculation and representation of what is, but also involves a striving towards some potential novelty. As a result of this, experience always issues in some sort of decision; and for Whitehead, such decision “constitutes the very meaning of actuality.”

Experience is, as Whitehead says, irreducibly private; which means that I cannot observe anyone else’s experience aside from my own. (There may very well even be a limit as to the extent of my ability to observe my own experience — as Harman also suggests from another angle). The privacy of experience has fueled the skepticism found throughout modern Western philosophy, from Descartes to Hume, and beyond into the twentieth century. (I include, under this head, the answers to skepticism, or dissolution of its paradoxes, given by thinkers such as Wittgenstein and Cavell). But for Whitehead, the decision in which private experience culminates is also what makes it public and potentially conscious. Decision is not grounded in consciousness or cognition; rather, decision is what makes consciousness, cognition, and public relationality possible in the first place. “Feelings,” or movements of “appetition,” are the basic elements of mentality (or “inwardness,” or “qualitative experience”). Cognition, consciousness, and responsibility are consequences of this basic mentality, rather than preconditions for it. An aesthetic of decision precedes and grounds cognition and consciousness — rather than either of these being the grounds or preconditions for any process of decision. I say an “aesthetics” of decision, because it is a non-cognitive, and non-generalizable process; the problem of how decision leads from privacy to publicity, in Whitehead’s account, is a transformation of Kant’s problematic of how a singular, non-cognitive, non-conceptual aesthetic judgment can nonetheless lay claim to universality, through the process (precisely) of being made public.

I will stop here; instead of explicating this in more detail (which certainly needs to be done) I will conclude by simply juxtaposing Whitehead’s notion of experience-as-decision with some recent speculation in the physical and biological sciences. This is a continuation and expansion of some of the speculation that is already in my book.

The biologist Martin Heisenberg, in a recent article called “Is Free Will An Illusion?” makes a similar point about the “decisions” made by biological organisms. Arguing from experiments on bacteria, fruit flies, and other organisms, Heisenberg states that such organisms exhibit “behavioral output” that is independent of “sensory input”; that is to say, these organisms “actively initiate behavior” that is “self-determined,” rather than being “determined by something or someone else.” Studies of plants and slime molds, as well as bacteria and fruit flies, have isolated instances of “decision” that are not causally determined by the circumstances in which they occur, or the conditions to which they are a response.

Recognizing decision in all living organisms might seem to point to a kind of vitalism. But it would be considerably different from traditional vitalism, because it would not claim that some sort of intrinsic vital force would make living beings radically distinct from non-living things. Rather, as Whitehead says, the line between life and non-life of fuzzy, and the mentality or decisionality of life is something that is essential to life, but not exclusive to life: it extends all the way down.

Along these lines, the physicists John H. Conway and Simon Kochen propose what they call the Strong Free Will Theorem. According to Conway and Kochen, under certain conditions that arise as a result of quantum entanglement, subatomic particles respond “freely,” that is to say, non-deterministically, unconstrained by any prior physical events. If experimenters may be said to be acting “freely” when they collapse a quantum-indeterminate state by choosing which of several possible parameters they will measure, then to the same extent the particle thus measured is acting “freely” when it “chooses” which value to give this parameter. If this is correct, then even photons may be said to have a certain sort of inner “experience,” and to make a kind of “decision.”

Against Self-Organization

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Life on earth is doomed, according to the biologist Peter Ward in his new book The Medea Hypothesis. This book is meant to be polemical and provocative; I lack the knowledge to evaluate its particular scientific claims. But just as a thought experiment, it is bracing.

Ward’s book is a critique of the quite popular Gaia Hypothesis, originally developed by James Lovelock, which claims that the Earth as a whole, with all its biomass, constitutes an emergent order, a self-organizing system, that maintains the whole planet — its climate, the chemical constitution of the atmosphere and the seas, etc. — in a state that is favorable to the continued flourishing of life. Essentially the Gaia Hypothesis sees the world as a system in homeostatic equilibrium — in much the same ways that individual cells or organisms are self-maintaining, homeostatic systems. Gaia is cybernetically, or autopoietically, self-regulating system: continual feedback, among organisms and their environments, keeps the air temperature, the salinity of the sea, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, etc., within the limits that are necessary for the continued flourishing of life.

Ward’s Medea Hypothesis directly contests all these claims. According to Ward, the ecosphere is not homeostatic or self-regulating; to the contrary, it is continually being driven by positive feedback mechanisms to unsustainable extremes. Most of the mass extinction events in the fossil record, Ward says, were caused by out-of-control life processes — rather than by an external interruption of such processes, such as the giant meteor hit which supposedly led to the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic. The great Permian extinction, for instance — the most catastrophic of which we have knowledge, in which 90% of all species, and 99% of all living beings, were destroyed — was caused by “blooms of sulfur bacteria in the seas,” which flourished due to greenhouse heating and poisoned the oceans and the atmospheres with increased concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, which is extremely toxic.

More generally, Ward claims that life processes have destabilizing effects, rather than homeostatic ones, upon the very environment that they rely upon for survival. This is largely because of the Malthusian basis of natural selection. Traits that give any organism a selective advantage over its rivals will spread through the gene pool, unless and until they overwhelm the environment and reach the limits of its carrying capacity. An organism that is too successful will ultimately suffer a crash from overpopulation, depletion of resources, and so on. The success of sulfur bacteria means the poisoning of all other organisms; or, to give another example, the rise of photosynthetic organisms 2 billion years ago poisoned and killed the then-dominant anaerobic microbes that had composed the overwhelming majority of life-forms up to that time.

Now, biologists in recent years have given careful attention to the evolution of cooperation and altruism as means of averting these dangers. For instance, in an environment of cooperating organisms, a cheater will outperform the cooperators, and through natural selection will eventually drive them into extinction, thus leading to an environment of cheaters who no longer have access to the benefits for all of cooperation. But this prospect can be averted, and altruism can be maintained within a group, if the cooperators evolve mechanisms to detect, and punish or otherwise discipline, the cheaters. Scenarios like this have led to something of a revival of the once-discredited notion of “group selection” (a group all of whose members benefit from cooperation will be able to outperform a group dominated by cheaters).

Be that as it may, Ward does not see any evidence that cooperation or altruism can evolve on a meta-, or planetary, level. He argues, counter-intuitively but with impressive statistical analyses, that in fact the total biomass, as well as the diversity of species, has been in decline ever since the Cambrian explosion. And he suggests that life on Earth is doomed to extinction long before the heating and expansion of the sun make the Earth too hot to live on. The depletion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to the extinction of all plant life, the decline of atmospheric oxygen, the consequent extinction of all animal life, and finally the evaporation and loss to outer space of the oceans, could happen as little as 100 million to 500 million years from now — a span far less than the 1.5 billion or 2 billion years we have before the sun roasts the planet to a cinder. The Earth will end up much like either Venus or Mars — both of which initially had conditions that were favorable to the origin and sustenance of life, but no longer do (in this regard, it would be quite interesting if we were to discover, as has often been hypothesized, that Mars once did have life but no longer does).

Now, even 100 million years from now seems too far off in the future for us to worry about today. And, as Ward points out, our current problems — for the next century or so — have to do with too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, even if ultimately the Earth will die from too little. Nonetheless (and regardless of whether or not the book’s arguments stand up in their scientific details, which is something, as I already said, that I am unable to judge), Ward’s replacement of Gaia (the good mother Earth) with Medea (the ultimate bad mother, who murdered her own children) makes an important point. In critiquing the Gaia Hypothesis, it is really questioning our contemporary faith in self-organizing processes and systems.

I use “faith” here in as strong a sense as possible. The widespread contemporary belief in “self-organization” is almost religious in its intensity. We tend not to believe any more in the Enlightenment myth (as it seems to us now) of rationality and progress. We are skeptical of any sort of “progress” aside from technological innovation and improvement; and we no longer believe in the power of Reason to dispel superstition and to make plans for human betterment. The dominant ideology in these (still, despite the economic crisis) neoliberal times denounces any sort of rational planning as “utopian” and thereby “totalitarian,” an effort to impose the will on matter that absolutely resists it. This also entails a rejection of “grand narratives” (as Lyotard said in the 1980s), and an overall sense that “unintended consequences” make all willful and determinate action futile.

Instead, we turn to “self-organization” as something that will save us. The anarchist left puts its faith in self-organizing movements of dissidence and protest, with the (non-)goal being a spontaneously self-organized cooperative society. Right wing libertarians, meanwhile, see the “free market” as the realm of emergent, spontaneous, self-organized solutions to all problems, and blame disasters like the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the current Depression as well, on government “interference” with the (allegedly otherwise self-equilibrating) market mechanism. Network theory, a hot new discipline where mathematics intersects with sociology, looks at the Internet and other complex networks as powerfully self-organizing systems, both generating and managing complexity out of a few simple rules. The brain is described, in connectionist accounts, as a self-organizing system emerging from chaos; today we try to build self-learning and self-organizing robots and artificial intelligences, instead of ones that are determined in advance by fixed rules. “Genetic algorithms” are used to make better software; Brian Eno devises algorithms for self-generating music. Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis is taken by humanists and ecologists as the clear alternative to deterministic and mechanistic biology; but even the harcore neodarwinists discover emergent properties in the interactions of multiple genes. Niklas Luhmann, in his turn, applies autopoiesis to human societies. This list could go on indefinitely.

Now, it is certainly true that many phenomena can be better understood in terms of networked complexity, than in those of linear cause and effect. It is rare for an occurrence to be so isolated that linear models are really sufficient to explain it. And it is also certainly true that unexpected consequences, due to factors that we did not take into account (and in some cases, as in chaos theory, that were too small or insignificant to measure in advance, but that turned out to have incommensurably larger effects), interfere with our ability to make clear predictions and to impose our will. The best laid plans, etc. But still —

I think that we need to question our reflexive belief — or unwarranted expectation, if you prefer — that emergent or self-organizing phenomena are some how always (or, at least, generally) for the best. And this is where Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, even if taken only as a thought experiment, is useful and provocative. Lovelock is almost apocalyptic in his worries about environmental disruption; his recent books The Revenge of Gaia and The Vanishing Face of Gaia warn us that human activity is catastrophically interfering with the self-regulating and self-correcting mechanisms that have otherwise maintained life on this planet. For Lovelock, human beings seem entirely separate from, and opposed to, “nature,” or Gaia. From Ward’s perspective, to the contrary, human beings are themselves a part of nature. Human-created climate change and ecological destruction are not unique; other organisms have caused similar catastrophes throughout the history of life on earth. All actions have “unintended” consequences; these consequences may well be destructive to others, and even to the actors themselves. Presumably bacteria do not plan and foresee the possible consequences of their actions, and discursively reason about them, in the ways that we do; but this does not mean that ecological catastrophes caused by bacteria should be put in a fundamentally different category than ecological catastrophes caused by human beings. [I am enough of a Whiteheadian that I am inclined to think that bacterial actions have a “mental pole” as well as a “physical pole” just as human actions do, albeit to a far feebler extent; there is definite scientific evidence for bacterial cognition.] Rather than separating destructive human actions from “nature”, Ward suggests that “nature” itself (or the organisms that compose it) frequently issues forth in such destructive actions. The mistake is to assume that the networks from which actions emerge, and through which they resonate, are themselves somehow homeostatic or self-preserving. Rather, destructive as well as constructive actions can be propagated through a network — including actions destructive of the network itself.

Of course, on some level we are already aware of this destructive potential — as is witnessed in discussions of the propagation of both biological and computer viruses, for instance. Yet somehow, we tend to cling to the idea that positive self-organization somehow has precedence. And this idea tends to arise especially in discussions that cross over from biology to economics. Both Darwinian natural selection and economic competition tend to be celebrated as optimizing processes. Stuart Kauffman, for instance, the great champion of “order for free,” or emergent, self-organizing complexity in the life sciences, has no compunctions about claiming that his results apply for the capitalist “econosphere” as well as for the biosphere (See his Reinventing the Sacred, chapter 11). The highly esteemed futurist Kevin Kelly, a frequent contributor to Wired magazine, has long celebrated network-mediated capitalism, analogized to biological complexity, as a miracle of emergent self-organization; just recently, however, he has praised Web 2.0-mediated “socialism” in the same exact terms.

But the most significant and influential thinker of self-organisation in the past century was undoubtedly Friedrich Hayek, the intellectual progenitor of neoliberalism. For Hayek, any attempt at social or economic planning was doomed to failure, due to the inherent limitations of human knowledge, and the consequent prevalence of unintended consequences. In contrast, and inspired by both cybernetics and biology, Hayek claimed that the “free market” was an ideal mechanism for coordinating all the disparate bits of knowledge that existed dispersed throughout society, and negotiating it towards an optimal outcome. Self-organization, operating impersonally and beyond the ken of any particular human agent, could accomplish what no degree of planning or willful human rationality ever could. For Hayek, even the slightest degree of social solidarity or collective planning was already setting us on “the road to serfdom.” And if individuals suffer as a result of the unavoidable inequities of the self-organizing marketplace, well that is just too bad – it is the price we have to pay for freedom and progress.

Hayek provided the rationale for the massive deregulation, and empowerment of the financial sector, of the last thirty years — and for which we are currently paying the price. But I have yet to see any account that fully comes to terms with the degree that Hayek’s polemical argument about the superiority and greater rationality of emergent self-organization, as opposed to conscious will and planning have become the very substance of what we today, in Europe and North America at least, accept as “common sense.” Were the anti-WTO protestors in Seattle a decade ago, for instance, aware that their grounding assumptions were as deeply Hayekian as those of any broker for Goldman Sachs?

I don’t have much in the way of positive ideas about how to think differently. I just want to suggest that it is high time to question our basic, almost automatic, assumptions about the virtues of self-organization. This doesn’t mean returning to an old-fashioned rationalism or voluntarism, and it doesn’t mean ignoring the fact that our actions always tend to propagate through complex networks, and therefore to have massive unintended consequences. But we need to give up the moralistic conviction that somehow self-organized outcomes are superior to ones arrived at by other means. We need to give up our superstitious reverence for results that seem to happen “by themselves,” or to arrive “from below” rather than “from above.” (Aren’t there other directions to work and think in, besides “below” and “above”?).

Whitehead says that every event in the universe, from the tiniest interaction of subatomic particles up to the most complex human action, involves a certain moment of decision. There are no grounds or guidelines for this decision; and we cannot characterize decision in “voluntaristic” terms, because any conscious act of will is a remote consequence of decision in Whitehead’s sense, rather than its cause. Decisions are singular and unrepeatable; they cannot be generalized into rules. But all this also means that we cannot say that decision simply “emerges” out of a chaotic background, or pops out thanks to the movement from one “basin of attraction” to another. No self-organizing system can obviate the need for such a decision, or dictate what it will be. And decision always implies novelty or difference — in this way it is absolutely incompatible with notions of autopoiesis, homeostasis, or Spinoza’s conatus. What we need is an aesthetics of decision, instead of our current metaphysics of emergence.

Reinventing the Sacred (Stuart Kauffman)

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

Stuart A. Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion recapitulates many of the ideas about the role of emergence in biology that were worked out in Kauffman’s earlier books (At Home in the Universe and Investigations), but also tries to place these ideas within a broader philosophical focus. Ultimately, Kauffman hopes to repair the breach between reason and emotion, or between science and culture, or between a naturalistic worldview and one that emphasizes spirituality.

It’s really a question of how we get there from here. Kauffman, who has long been associated with the Santa Fe institute, draws upon complexity theory in order to elucidate the role of emergence in biological processes. Working with computer simulations rather than with actual organisms, he has sought to show how, given the right conditions, autocatalytic loops might have emerged out of a primary soup of organic chemicals, and how such a process might have contributed to the origin of life. He has pioneered the idea that living organisms, and the environments they interact with, might exist in a zone of “criticality” in between excessive stability, on the one hand, and excessive chaotic tendencies, on the other. And he argues that the emergence of spontaneous, self-generated order — “order for free” — plays a major role in evolution, alongside natural selection. All these themes from Kauffman’s earlier books are recapitulated in the course of Reinventing the Sacred.

Kauffman is thus one of the few scientists who challenges the neodarwinist consensus that is endorsed by the overwhelming majority of contemporary biologists. Alongside Kauffman, one could also list Lynn Margulis (theories about the role of symbiosis in evolution), Stephen Jay Gould (both for punctual evolution, and for his insistence, together with Richard Lewontin, on the importance of exaptation), Susan Oyama and her colleagues (Developmental Systems Theory), Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela (autopoiesis), James Lovelock (the Gaia hypothesis), Jean-Jacques Kupiec and Pierre Sonigo (who deploy Darwinian selectionism against genetic determinism). One might also mention recent attempts, from within the neodarwinist framework, to rehabilitate the idea of group selection (e.g. David Sloan Wilson), to insist upon the continuing importance of embryology and development, rather than seeing these as a mere matter of implementing what is already coded in the DNA (e.g., the work of Mary Jane West-Eberhard on developmental plasticity, and other work in so-called “Evo-Devo”), and to show the importance of non-adaptive “genetic drift” (e.g. Michael Lynch). These numerous strands of recent biological theory differ greatly among themselves; and they also differ in terms of the degrees to which they are conciliable with, or in opposition to, mainstream neodarwinism. Also, these strands are not themselves all mutually compatible; and it is too early to judge the extent to which any of them stand or fall. But together they point to the fact that the neodarwinian synthesis has not altogether disposed of philosophical questions about “life.” It is possible to take issue with neodarwinist reductionism without thereby slipping into vitalism or creationism. Darwin’s legacy remains richer and stranger than is accounted for in current mainstream discourses of genetic determinism and evolutionary psychology.

Kauffman is one of those scientists who strongly insists that the neodarwinian synthesis leaves far too much out of account. Reinventing the Sacred moves from biological speculations to a broader attack on the very notion of scientific reductionism. Kauffman insistd that biological emergence (and other forms of emergence in the natural and social/cultural worlds, for that matter) leads to the existence of phenomena that cannot be accounted for or predicted on the basis of physical laws alone. Nothing in biology contradicts the laws of physics; but the biological world does not follow from the laws of physics in themselves, and cannot entirely be described or understood in terms of those laws. Even in principle, a perfect knowledge of the positions and velocities of all the particles in the universe (Laplace’s demon) would not suffice to determine the future. For the future is open and unpredictable. The universe is characterized by a “persistent creativity,” operating on all scales and in all contexts, but especially where there is life. This creativity cannot be accounted for in terms of natural laws, and elementary particles and forces. It will not be comprehended within whatever supposed “theory of everything” the physicists manage to come up with (if they ever do). Kauffman is arguing very much in the tradition of Bergson and Whitehead (though, unfortunately, he never mentions these thinkers, and doesn’t seem to know anything about them), and Ilya Prigogine.

Reinventing the Sacred is mostly concerned with “breaking the Galilean spell” that has held us in its thrall for something like four hundred years. Even complexity theory, with its understanding of “deterministic chaos,” involving abrupt, nonlinear changes from one phase state or basin of attraction to another, does not break with the logic of linear causality and mechanistic determinism. It is still “fully lawful” (in the sense of scientific laws — 141). Kauffman claims, however, that what he calls “Darwinian preadaptation” — by which he means pretty much the same thing as Gould and Lewontin do by exaptation, a word that Kauffman oddly does not use — does indeed break with such a logic. In taking already-existing phenotypic features and detourning them to new uses, organisms explore what Kauffman calls the “adjacent possible,” and thereby expand the range of actuality in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways. For “Darwinian preadaptations appear to preclude even sensible probability statements” (139). This is because judging probabilities requires knowing at least the “sample space” within which all possible outcomes are contained. But biological innovation (and cultural innovation as well) changes the very shape of this space itself. It doesn’t just choose among already-existing possibilities, but changes or expands what is possible.

I think that a lot of this resonates with Whitehead’s speculations on creativity and innovation, and with Deleuze’s notion of the virtual or potential (and how it differs from the merely possible). But this in turn brings up the entire question of how to relate science and philosophy. Whitehead and Deleuze are opposed, as Kauffman is, to scientific reductionism: that is to say, they are opposed to the claim that the reduction of mental experiences to neural firings, and of physical phenomena to elementary particles and forces is all there is. As I say in my Whitehead book:

Against all reductionism, Whitehead insists that “we may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electrical waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon” (1920/2004, 29). The phenomenologist only considers the red glow of the sunset; the physicist only considers the mechanics of electromagnetic radiation. But Whitehead insists upon a metaphysics that embraces both. For “philosophy can exclude nothing” (1938/1968, 2).

The problem is not with scientific explanations in themselves, whose truth we can and should accept. The problem is only with thinking that these lower-level scientific explanations are ultimate and exhaustive, so that “higher-level” sorts of explanation can be entirely reduced to them — as E. O. Wilson claims with his notion of consilence, or as Paul and Patricia Churchland do with their notion of eliminative materialism. In other words, the problem comes when the low-level scientific explanation is accepted as what really is the case, and everything else is regarded as illusion or mere appearance. (This ironically reinstates the old reality/appearance distinction that scientific empiricism was supposed to get rid of once and for all). Now, it is unclear to me that this really makes much of a difference to the way that working scientists actually do their research. It only comes up when those scientists sit back and reflect upon their research in a non-experimental context — or when philosophers like the Churchlands, or armchair cultural speculators like myself, ask meta-questions about such research. But such speculations are themselves inevitable and unavoidable — it is impossible to separate “pure science” from them. The result is, we are left in a kind of circle. And Kauffman’s generous speculations are certainly welcome in contrast to Wilson’s “scientific imperialism,” his reductionist attempt to subordinate all other forms of understanding and inquiry to his particular kind of science.

At the same time, of course, we need to beware of the trap of taking Deleuze or Whitehead as an absolute starting point, and judging scientific theories on the basis of how well they conform to an already-existing philosophical argument. Both Whitehead and Deleuze were keenly interested in the science of their times, and both of them sought to create a metaphysics that was in tune with that science. This was (is) a two-way process. Both Whitehead and Deleuze insist that there is no such thing as positivistic, value-free science; all empirical research presupposes a background of theories, assumptions, and already-accepted facts. There is no physics free of metaphysics. Whithead and Deleuze therefore both strive to provide a metaphysics that will be adequate to the needs of modern science; but this does not mean that they claim, in the Kantian manner, to stipulate in advance the necessary and sufficient conditions for all knowledge (scientific or otherwise). This is part of what it means to say that they are (as Deleuze put it) “transcendental empiricists” rather than Kantian transcendental idealists. As the metaphysical process of what Whitehead calls generalization or speculation proceeds, it must continually test itself and modify itself in accordance with the developments of scientific knowledge (and other sorts of knowledge), even as it resists the exclusivist or imperialist claims that arise from, or are made on behalf of, these developments of knowledge.

To get back to Kauffman: given his interest in the role of creativity in the universe, and particularly in life processes, it’s really too bad that he seems entirely unaware of Whitehead. It is all too easy for me to translate Kauffman’s formulations into Whiteheadian terms; but I’d like to get more of a sense of how Kauffman’s speculations might allow us to modify or ‘update’ Whitehead. The weakest aspect of Kauffman’s book is his attempt to move from science to philosophy: there is a sense in which his philosophical musings are just too simplistic, or “naive.” When he gets beyond the technical details of his computer simulations, Kauffman is way too eager just to make a “leap of faith” into an embrace of teleological and spiritual concerns. There’s a lot of blather in the book about the wisdom of past civilizations, and the need to construct a “global ethic,” and far too little a sense of what it means to engage in speculation.

Now, when I say that Kauffman’s claims are largely speculative, this is not a criticism, because I do not share the positivist sense that speculation is unacceptable and that we must confine ourselves to hard empirical evidence and legitimate induction from such evidence. As Whitehead says, “the Baconian method of induction… if consistently pursued, would have left science where it found it.” A certain amount of speculation is necessary, if we are to discover or invent anything at all. Kauffman is indeed unique among contemporary scientists because of the degree to which his research has been almost entirely speculative — his work has largely consisted, as I have already noted, in running computer simulations of biological processes, rather than looking at any actual organisms. This is precisely why his claims about emergent order have been ignored, rejected, or dismissed as incomprehensible by the vast majority of biological researchers. But it’s also why his suggestions are important, for any effort actually to think the biological in terms that go beyond genetic determinism and strict adaptationism.

However, some of Kauffman’s speculations in Reinventing the Sacred are just too tenuous, too lame. This is especially the case when he spends a chapter proposing a quantum model of the brain — one that differs from Roger Penrose’s better-known proposal, but that shares with it an argument that quantum indeterminacy could account for brain processes that are non-deterministic, and (especially) non-algorithmic. This is a case where Kauffman protests way too much — every step in his tortuous line of reasoning is qualified by statements like, “the hypothesis… is not at all ruled out” (211), certain factors “may remain available” according to his particular scenario (212), “perhaps something similar” is happening in a completely different realm from the one in which a particular kind of pattern has been noted (214), “it may always be the case” that such and such a process can take place (219), and so on at embarrassing length. In effect, Kauffman is constructing a Rube Goldberg machine to account for a process — let’s call it “decision” or “choice” — that classic determinism cannot explain, but only explain away. This seems utterly misguided to me — it makes far more sense just to accept, as a primary datum, recent observations about, for instance, fruit flies making unconstrained, undetermined decisions, than to go through Kauffman’s barely plausible chain of inferences and pleadings in order to allow for such a possibility.

The trouble, in a case like this, is that Kauffman’s speculations are simply not speculative enough. There needs to be some middle way between Kauffman’s appeal to a tortuous chain of reasoning on the one hand, and delirious invocations of cosmic forces on the other. It is especially noteworthy, and symptomatic, that Kauffman pulls off his explanation by appealing to quantum mechanics. It strikes me that the appeal to quantum indeterminacy, to give a scientific explanation of some otherwise unaccountable phenomenon, is a sort of get-out-of-jail-free-card to be used on all occasions when one cannot come up with anything else, or anything better. The same thing happens, for instance, in Greg Egan’s novel Teranesia — except Egan pulls out his quantum trump card in defense of neodarwinist reductionism, while Kauffman does so in defence of anti-reductionism.

In any case, for all that Kauffman is a speculative biologist (and, again, I am using this in a laudatory rather than dismissive sense), he fails to realize how his own mode of speculation is itself an example of the creative process that he sees at work throughout the biosphere, and perhaps the entire physical universe. Even though he has in effect abandoned the “scientific method,” he remains overly attached to “hard” factual claims, rather than understanding the continual play between what Whitehead calls “stubborn fact” and the way that, as Whitehead also says, “there is not a sentence, or a word, with a meaning which is independent of the circumstances under which it is uttered”, so that “every proposition proposing a fact must, in its complete analysis, propose the general character of the universe required for that fact.” This is why science must always be accompanied by robust speculation, whether in the form of metaphysics or in that of science fiction.

The Head Trip; consciousness and affect

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

I’ve been reading Jeff Warren’s The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness, basically on the recommendation of Erik Davis. It’s a good pop-science-cum-therapy book, which explores basic modes of conscious experience, both nocturnal and diurnal, and combines accounts of what scientific researchers and therapists are actually doing with a narrative of Warren’s own subjective experiences with such modes of consciousness-alteration as lucid dreaming, hypnotic trances, meditation, neurofeedback, and so on. Warren maps out a whole series of conscious states (including ones during sleep), and suggests that consciousness in general (to the extent that there is such a thing “in general”) is really a continuum, a mixture of different sorts of mental activity, and different degrees of attentiveness, including those at work during sleep. These various sorts of conscious experience can be correlated with (but not necessarily reduced to) various types of brain activity (both the electric activity monitored by EEGs and the chemical activity of various neurotransmitters; all this involves both particular “modules” or areas of the brain, and systematic patterns running through the entire brain and nervous system).

The Head Trip is both an amiable and an illuminating book, and I really can’t better Erik Davis’ account of it, which I encourage you to read. Erik calls Jeff Warren “an experiential pragmatist in the William Jamesian mode,” which is both high praise and a fairly accurate description. Warren follows James in that he insists upon conscious self-observation, and looks basically at what James was the first to call the “stream of consciousness.” Like James, Warren insists upon the pragmatic aspect of such self-observation (what our minds can do, both observing and being observed, in all its messy complexity), rather than trying to isolate supposedly “pure” states of attention and intention the way that the phenomenologists do.

At one point, Warren cites Rodolfo Llinas and D. Pare, who argue that consciousness is not, as James claimed, “basically a by-product of sensory input, a tumbling ‘stream’ of point-to-point representations,” because it is ultimately more about “the generation of internal states” than about responding to stimuli (p. 138). But this revised understanding of the brain and mind does not really contradict James’ overall pragmatic style, nor his doctrine of “radical empiricism.” James’ most crucial point is to insist that everything within “experience” has its own proper reality (as opposed to the persistent dualism that distinguishes between “things” and “representations” of those things). Not the least of Warren’s accomplishments is that he is able to situate recent develops in neurobiological research within an overall Jamesian framework, as opposed to the reductive dogmas of cognitivism and neural reductionism.

Nonetheless, what I want to do here is not talk about Warren’s book, but rather speculate about what isn’t in the book: which is any account of emotion or of affect. Shouldn’t we find it surprising that in a book dedicated to consciousness in all its richness and variety, there is almost nothing about fear, or anger, or joy, or shame, or pride? (There’s also nothing about desire or passion or lust or erotic obsession: I am not sure that these can rightly be called “emotions,” but they also aren’t encompassed within what Warren calls “the wheel of consciousness”). There are some mentions of a sense of relaxation, in certain mental states; and of feeling a sort of heightened intensity, and even triumph, when Warren has a sort of breakthrough (as when he finally succeeds in having a lucid dream, or when his neurofeedback sessions are going well). Correlatively, there are also mentions of frustration (as when these practices don’t go well — when he cannot get the neurofeedback to work right, for instance). But that’s about it, as far as the emotions are concerned.

The one passage where Warren even mentions the emotions (and where he briefly cites the recent work on emotions by neurobiologists like Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux) is in the middle of a discussion of meditation (pp. 309ff.). The point of this passage is basically to discuss the difference between how Western rationalism has just tried to repress (in a Freudian sense) the emotions, whereas the Buddhist tradition has instead tried to “cultivate” them (by which he seems to mean something like what Freud called “sublimation”). Warren oddly equates any assertion of the power of the emotions with evolutionary psychiatry’s doctrine that we are driven (or “hardwired”) by instincts that evolved during the Pleistocene. The existence of neuroplasticity (as recognized by contemporary neurobiologists) effectively refutes the claims of the evolutionary psychologists — this is something that I am entirely agree with Warren about. But Warren seems thereby to assert, as a corollary, that emotions basically do not matter to the mind (or to consciousness) at all — and this claim I find exceedingly bizarre. Warren seems to be saying that Buddhist meditation (and perhaps other technologies, like neurofeedback, as well) can indeed, as it claims, dispose of any problems with the emotions, because it effectively does “rewire” our brains and nervous systems.

What is going on here? I have said that I welcome the way that Warren rejects cognitivism, taking in its place a Jamesian stance that refuses to reject any aspect of experience. I find it salubrious, as well, that Warren gives full scope to neurobiological explanations in terms of chemical and electronic processes in the brain, without thereby accepting a Churchland-style reductionism that rejects mentalism or any other sort of explanatory language. Warren thus rightly resists what Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.” Nonetheless, when it comes to affect or emotion, some sort of limit is reached. The language that would describe consciousness from the “inside” is admitted, but the language that would express affective experience is not. I think that this is less a particular failing or blind spot on Warren’s part, than it is a (socially) symptomatic omission. Simply by omitting what does not seem to him to be important, Warren inadvertently testifies to how little a role affect or emotion plays in the accounts we give of ourselves today, accounts both of how our minds work (the scientific dimension) and of how we conceive ourselves to be conscious (the subjective-pragmatic dimension).

Some modes of consciousness are more expansive (or, to the contrary, more sharply focused) than others; some are more clear and distinct than others; some are more bound up with logical precision, while others give freer reign to imaginative leaps and to insights that break away from our ingrained habits of association. But in Warren’s account, none of these modes seem to be modulated by different affective tones, and none of them seem to be pushed by any sort of desire, passion, or obsession. Affects and desires would seem to be, for Warren, nothing more than genetically determined programs inherited from our reptilian ancestors (and exaggerated in importance by the likes of Steven Pinker) which our consciousness largely allows us to transcend.

Another way to put this is to say that Warren writes as if we could separate the states (or formal structures) of attentiveness, awareness, relaxation, concern, focus, self-reflection, and so on, from the contents that inhabit these states or structures. This is more or less equivalent to the idea — common in old-style AI research — that we can separate syntactics from semantics, and simply ignore the latter. Such a separation has never worked out in practice: it has entirely failed in AI research and elsewhere. And we may well say that this separation is absurd and impossible in principle. Yet we make this kind of separation implicitly, and nearly all the time; it strikes us as almost axiomatic. We may well be conscious of “having” certain emotions; but we cannot help conceiving how we have these emotions as something entirely separate from the emotions themselves.

It may be that consciousness studies and affect studies are too different as approaches to the mind (or, as I’d rather say, to experience) to be integrated at all easily). Indeed, in this discussion I have simply elided the difference between “affect” and “emotion”: the terms are sometimes used more or less interchangeably, but I think any sort of coherent explanation requires a distinction between the two. Brian Massumi uses “affect” to refer to the pre-personal aspects (both physical and mental) of feelings, the ways that these forces form and impel us; he reserves “emotion” to designate feelings to the extent that we experience them as already-constituted conscious selves or subjects. By this account, affects are the grounds of conscious experience, even though they may not themselves be conscious. Crucial here is James’ sense of how what he calls “emotions” are visceral before they are mental: my stomach doesn’t start churning because I feel afraid; rather, I feel afraid because my stomach has started churning (as a pre-conscious reaction to some encounter with the outside world, or to some internally generated apprehension). The affect is an overall neurological and bodily experience; the emotion is secondary, a result of my becoming-conscious of the affect, or focusing on it self-reflexively. This means that my affective or mental life is not centered upon consciousness; although it gives a different account of non-conscious mental life than either psychoanalysis (which sees it in terms of basic sexual drives) or cognitive theory (which sees non-conscious activity only as “computation”).

There’s more to the affect/emotion distinction than James’ account; one would want to bring in, as well, Sylvan Tompkins’ post-Freudian theory of affect, Deleuze’s Spinozian theory of affect, and especially Whitehead’s “doctrine of feelings.” Rather than go through all of that here, I will conclude by saying that, different as the field of consciousness studies (as described by Jeff Warren) is from cognitivism, they both ultimately share a sense of the individual as a sort of calculating (or better, computational) entity that uses the information available to it in order to maximize its own utility, or success, or something like that. Such an account — which is also, as it happens, the basic assumption of our current neoliberal moment — updates the 18th century idea of the human being as Homo economicus into an idea of the human being as something like Homo cyberneticus or Homo computationalis. For Warren, this is all embedded in the idea that, on the one hand, our minds are self-organizing systems, and parts of larger self-organizing systems; and on the other hand, that “we can learn to direct our own states of consciousness” (p. 326). Metaphysically speaking, we are directed by the feedback processes of an Invisible Hand; instrumentally speaking, however, we can intervene in these feedback processes, and manipulate the Hand that is manipulating us. The grounds for our decision to do this — to intervene in our own behalf — are themselves recursively generated in the course of the very processes in which we determine to intervene. The argument is circular; but, as with cybernetics, the circularity is not vicious so long as we find ourselves always-already within it. This is in many ways an enticing picture: if only because it is the default assumption that we cannot help starting out with. And Jeff Warren gives an admirably humane and expansive version of it. Still, I think we need to spend more time asking what such a picture leaves out. And for me, affect theory is a way to begin this process.

Bad Quote of the Week

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

From an interview with Satoshi Kanazawa, co-author (with Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, a pop intro to “evolutionary psychology.” Kanazawa has just made the claim that “our brain (and the rest of our body) are essentially frozen in time — stuck in the Stone Age,” because “when the environment undergoes rapid change within the space of a generation or two, as it has been for the last couple of millennia,” there is not enough time for evolutionary adaptation to take place.

This reference to the environment undergoing rapid change, without mention that human beings themselves are the agents and initiators of such change, is strange enough. But Kanazawa goes on to say:

“One example of this is that when we watch a scary movie, we get scared, and when we watch porn we get turned on. We cry when someone dies in a movie. Our brain cannot tell the difference between what’s simulated and what’s real, because this distinction didn’t exist in the Stone Age.”

The major claim here is entirely false and ridiculous. Because, quite evidently, our brains can and do tell the difference betwen what’s simulated and what’s real. Despite the legends — pretty much debunked — of people terrified by the train coming towards them at the Lumiere Brothers’ very first movie screening in 1895, nearly everybody alive today can easily and effortlessly tell the difference between something happening on a movie or television screen and something happening in real life. My 2-year-old daughter understands this difference without difficulty.

“Pretend” (as my daughters call it) or simulated experience is perfectly real in its own right, of course; and we get scared from movies just as “authentically” as we get scared when something dangerous or horrible threatens us in “real life.” But not only does this have nothing to do with not being able to tell the difference, it absolutely depends upon being able to tell the difference. Vicariousness is crucial to aesthetic experience (it is the basis for what Kant called “disinterest”). I eagerly go to watch horror films. I do not eagerly go to places where there is a strong likelihood of feral monsters or chainsaw-wielding psychopaths dismembering me limb from limb. And I cry much more readily at the movies than I do in real life situations.

Probably if I said this to Kanazawa, he wouldn’t disagree with me, exactly, but rather say something about how the fear response evolved in such a way that it operates on its own, on the assumption that what is being seen is real — before some other, more highly conscious, part of our mind can remind us that, after all, “it’s only a movie.” But I don’t think this gets him off the hook. For the point of the example — and, I’d argue, the point of aesthetics (among other things) overall — is precisely that the brain, or the mind, or “human nature” in general, is massively underdetermined by the particular biological traits of which the evolutionary psychologists make so much. In the example here, the dismissal of vicariousness, together with the unexamined assumption that the physiological fear-response is meaningful in itself and enough to account for all the varied situations in which human beings can possibly feel afraid, or give meanings to being afraid, exemplifies the extreme naivete to which evolutionary psychology in general is always prone.

I am inclined to think that William James is right in saying that we feel afraid because we have a certain physiological reaction, rather than we have the physiological reaction because we feel afraid. But this is precisely why it is a category error to think that fear can be defined in cognitive terms, which would have to happen in order for the question of whether the experience is real or simulated to even come up. A corollary of this is that, when the cognitive question does come up, it is not constrained by the physiological response in the way that Kanazawa assumes. This is the ground of possibility for the astonishing diversity, between individuals and even more among cultures, of the meanings that are assigned to fear, of the situations that give rise to fear, of the ways that fear is dealt with, and so on and so forth. Evolutionary psychology can dismiss these differences as inconsequential (just as it dismisses the question of vicariousness as inconsequential) only because it has already assumed what it claims to prove. Its cognitivist assumptions (such as the assumption that the physiological fear-response has something to do with a cognitive judgment as to whether something is real or simulated) leave it utterly incapable of dealing with the non-cognitive, affective aspects of human life, as well as (ironically enough) with the ways that “cognition” itself contains far more than it can account for.

Bad Science

Monday, May 8th, 2006

It’s been too long since I last unpacked an example of bad science (or of bad reporting of science, it is sometimes difficult to say which). Jacalyn sent me the url for an article on a new study: “Lesbians’ brains respond like straight men.” Now, what does this mean, exactly? In what way do lesbians’ brains respond like the brains of straight men? First of all, we are given no indication of how the survey defined “lesbians” and “straight men”; if they used peoples’ own self-definition, that is well and good from a sociological standpoint, but it is way too vague to stand as a biological category. Do they mean to imply that, if somebody’s self-definition changes, say if I stop defining myself as a straight man (which I am very often tempted to do, because of all the baggage that comes with the phrase “straight man,” baggage which goes very far beyond the accurate but fairly vague observation that most of the time I am more likely to be turned on sexually by women than by men), then their hormones suddenly change? But that is getting ahead of myself. We also have to ask, when lesbians’ brains “respond” like those of straight men, to what are they responding? Well, the article says, “lesbians’ brains react differently to sex hormones than those of heterosexual women… Lesbians’ brains reacted somewhat, though not completely, like those of heterosexual men.” Now, isn’t there something circular going on here? “Sex hormones” are defined later in the article as “pheromones” — but this is itself a category that far too little is known about, and that is so dubious, especially in human beings, that making generalizations on their basis is unacceptable to begin with; the article itself notes in passing that “whether humans respond to pheromones has been debated.” But even if we accept the pheromones, all the research is saying, really, is that lesbians and “straight men” are both more sexually attracted to women than to men; which is of course the tautology that the survey presupposed in the first place. Oh, I should add that the physiological correlate of this arousal is that the scent which someone finds sexually arousing is processed in a different part of the brain (the hypothalmus) from the normal scent-processing areas. So again all we have is a tautology, the repetition of what was presupposed at the beginning. Of course the arousal is taking place on a subconscious level, by the scents of pheromones themselves, without the test subjects knowing which gender’s scent they are smelling. But this was also presupposed in the initial plan of the study; it’s just another tautology. (I should also note that the idea that biological males and females have completely separate pheromonal scents, which supposedly do not overlap, or show enough variation to undo the rigid binary, is also being unwarrantedly presupposed). However, even this is not quite accurate as a basis for the alleged “similarity” between “lesbians” and “straight men.” The report notes that “ordinary odors were processed in the brain circuits associated with smell in all the volunteers.” However, “in heterosexual males the male hormone was processed in the scent area but the female hormone was processed in the hypothalamus, which is related to sexual stimulation.” Whereas in lesbians, “both male and female hormones were processed the same, in the basic odor processing circuits.” But wait: if this is the case, then they entire claim of the study, that lesbian brains respond somewhat like straight male brains, collapses. Lesbian brains (I have given up putting up scare quotes just out of laziness; of course they should be present each time any of these pseudo-categories is mentioned) are similar to straight male brains in terms of what both categories of brains share with straight female brains — they all process scents of the gender they aren’t aroused by in the ordinary “odor processing circuits.” But lesbian brains, unlike straight male brains, do not process the odors of the gender they are attracted to in the hypothalmus. Therefore, by the study’s own terms, and even accepting their dubious categories, the entire parallel between “lesbians” and “straight men”collapses.

I could go on, but this is probably enough. The largest claims the study makes, according to the article, are that “there are biological factors that contribute to sexual orientation,” and that “homosexuality has a physical basis and is not learned behavior.” The first of these is something that nobody of any sense would ever doubt; since to doubt it you would have to think that the mind is entirely disconnected from the body, to a degree that even Descartes never maintained. And the second statement is utterly nonsensical, since any behavior whatsoever has a “physical basis” by definition (if it had no physical basis, in what sense would it even exist? what would it mean to observe it?), regardless of whether it is “learned” or innate, or something else (I am not convinced that learned vs. innate is a meaningful duality to begin with, since there is so much overlap between the two terms, and since you have to define them way too broadly in order to eliminate other possibilities, and include every observation on either one side of the duality or the other).

The thing is, a “scientific” report or study this idiotic, this devoid of any meaningful terms, or real scientific basis, can be found in the press every week. All it shows, basically, is that people (both scientists and news reporters and, probably, the general public) “want to believe” that everything in human life has a “genetic” basis (something else that is way too ill-defined to pass muster), and that the “common sense” prejudicies of our culture are true. At the start of Western science, empiricist mocked the old philosophy’s explanation of opium’s power to put people to sleep by its being alleged to have a “dormative virtue.” But today human genetics seems itself to be entirely based upon the positing and proclaiming of such imaginary virtues and essences.

The next time I post, this blog will return to its usual programming.

Creationism

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005

In the wake of Bush’s statement endorsing the teaching of “intelligent design” theory alongside Darwinian evolutionary theory in the schools, I saw a debate on CNN between somebody from the Discovery Institute (the foundation behind the recent push for “intelligent design”) and Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine. I was appalled. The Discovery Institute guy sounded open-minded and reasonable, with all his talk about new research and intellectual flexibility — though of course everything he said was pure garbage. On the other hand, Shermer was pompous and overbearing, the condescending voice of Authority, lecturing the public about the importance of peer-reviewed articles in prestigious journals, and actually saying at one point that only allowing the expression of ideas that have been properly peer-reviewed is “how we do things in a free society.” (He also kept on referring to “the marketplace of ideas,” evidently not realizing that the “marketplace of ideas,” like any other marketplace, has no concern for the truth or rationality he was otherwise trumpeting).

If you didn’t know anything about the subject, whom would you believe? Shermer’s performance justified everything Isabelle Stengers has said about the imperialist arrogance of official spokespeople for Big Science. Though ostensibly he was talking about the importance of rationality and of the objective gathering and weighing of empirical evidence, his affect was one of argument from authority, as if to say: “how dare you contest what we, the enlightened elite, have determined to be the case!” (Not to mention that, as an academic myself, I have ample experience with “peer review,” and I know how corrupt and dishonest it is). With supporters like this, Darwin doesn’t need enemies. Shermer, just like the Democratic Party, almost seems to go out of his way to justify all the sterotypes the Republicans and fundamentalists have been promulgating for years now about “liberal elitism” and liberals’ contempt for the common person. After hearing advocates for Science like Shermer, most Americans will find Bush to be speaking plausibly when he says that “intelligent design” ought to be taught alongside evolution because “part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.”

In reality, of course, teaching “intelligent design” is an historical falsification. It is equivalent to teaching the theories of people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, and of people who say that blacks were treated kindly and humanely under slavery. I doubt that even Bush would endorse Holocaust denial as a benevolent example of exposing people to different schools of thought. But the argument is never made along these lines, not in the courts, and not in the statements of any of the scientists who oppose creationism.

Of course, giving any legitimacy at all to “intelligent design” is actually a form of religio-political indoctrination; but recognizing this forces us, too, to recognize the unpleasant fact that no form of education is entirely devoid of indoctrination. (I am referring not only to formal education in the schools, but also to things like teaching my 3-year-old daughter to use the potty and to be polite and show consideration for other people). There’s no easy way out of this dilemma; it brings us to the limits of secular humanism/liberalism, which is the dogma I prefer over all others, except for the fact that it refuses to admit that it is one dogma among others, and which (like all dogmas) can only establish itself by vanquishing others.

I have no conclusions here, no suggestions as to how we can better defend historical truth against imposture (to give the whole question a more 18th century turn of phrase than perhaps it merits in these postmodern times). Currently science is losing the battle to religious fanaticism, and to a large extent this is science’s own fault (just as all the recent Republican victories are the Democrats’ own fault). Which probably just means that we are doomed (as I already said after Bush’s re-election).