Earlier this morning I was trying to begin to really grapple with the determinism of guys like Pinker and Dennett (these are liberal determinists–meaning they have good intentions, really, they promise with a spoon full of the toxin formerly known as sugar), folks that see the forces at work in nature as being primarily a text already written, at least on a larger social scale, but likewise at the level of the person in degree. There are always lots of qualifiers and I’m not sure yet if any of these make differences that make a difference. I think I heard Pinker posit that it’s possible that we are who we are as “characters” by possible happenstance of a single event occurring to us at just the right/wrong (depending on your view) time in our development so that this particular event determines the programming with which you will “scaffold” all other experience and thought.
I do happen to find that immensely interesting. Determined but not just by genes–perhaps one moment of circumstance is all that matters. And who knows when and where it might occur. Your dad hugged you just as your code was being written, or he slapped you, or you had diarrhea, or you ate a Twinkie, or you had your hands in the sand, or your mom was pushing you in a swing, or the daycare was bathing you with Clorox wipes (a friend tells me I can sell my blog by dropping “products” into my writing–I haven’t–but thoughts?), or your grandma was spraying the garden with malathion (I did it again, it’s easy!).
(Aside, upper or lower case for products? Upper case and I “respect” the “naming” function as a proper and socially correct thing; lower case and I either reduce it to a generality or I offer it the pervasive role of cultural identity beyond its productness. A conundrum of a high order.)
And while the consideration of “determining moments” is endlessly fascinating for imaginative scenarios, this seems to me a conundrum equivalent to that of the idea that electrons have no fixed position and may in fact be “multiple and one” at the same time within the same molecule–and that when viewed they are changed and different upon every viewing.
We have quantum temperaments maybe? Indeterminately determined.
Anyway, right now I’d have to class much of this with phrenology or I’d say I am only really able to think of it as I might think of phrenology. That is as an “answer” that’s as speculative as any other answer (as time, thwarting dimension, will tell) on the spectrum from religion to alchemy to science, which seem like just different words for the same quest. Why, damn it, why? And then because the why is impossible, puny mind, “How?” Aha! Answerable question, that. The knee bone is connected to the thigh bone after all (I had to look that up…sad).
Perhaps you know phrenology measured skull size as an indicator of intelligence, personality, and so on. A kind of determinism of physiognomy. As you can imagine much of this science (yes, we now call this “pseudoscience” but potato potahto, right?) was used to show how one ethnic or racial group was superior/inferior to others. He who has the university, the press, the money, speaks the science of the day!
The modern urge to describe humans on a new, explicitly scientific basis took many, often strange, forms in the nineteenth century. For example, the science of phrenology, whose heyday was between 1820 and 1850, and later racial anthropological physiognomy, attracted many followers. That man’s physical and, by extension, moral, intellectual, and social development, could be determined by, and seen in, his physiognomy — in, say, jaw structure and shape of the head– were to many respected sciences that enjoyed wide currency. (When the archvillain, Moriarity, meets his adversary Sherlock Holmes for the first time, Moriarity’s immediate comment was, “You have less frontal development that I should have expected.”) After Darwin popularized the idea that humans are descended from apes, the prognathous (protruding) jaw became a sign of lower development and of a closer relationship to primitive man. It also became the basis of much racial stereotyping of the Irish, and racial anthropologists argued that working class people were more prognathous than their social superiors- who were- self-flatteringly described as also biologically superior.
In his very influential book, The Races of Man (1862), John Beddoe, the future president of the Anthropological Institute, emphasized the vast difference between the prognathous (protruding) and orthognathous (less prominent) jawed people of Britain. These were terms originally The Irish, Welsh, and significantly, the lower class people, were among the prognathous, whereas all men of genius were orthognathous
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. (Beddoe also developed an Index of Nigressence, from which he argued that the Irish were close to Cro-Magnon man and thus had links with the “Africinoid” races!) These activities were reminiscent of Pieter Camper’s theory of a ‘facial angle’.
Almost makes you want to support Florida Governor Rick Scott for President. (Droll eye-roll, please.)
Of phrenology the Wikipedia entry offers this nugget of progressive wisdom: “Phrenological thinking was, however, influential in 19th-century psychiatry and modern neuroscience. Gall’s assumption that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in the brain is considered an important historical advance toward neuropsychology.” Of course, there is “mind” in the gut also, I’m told, and this did not advance that thinking. Has anything advanced “gut-mind”? Seems fruitful (fruit’s good for digestion!). We do use our “guts” to make decisions but that is a metaphor that means we didn’t really think about that decision at all. What did the thinking? Our pre-determined mind? Is that “me” or do I need to call that process a “not me”? Was Walter Whitman, one of the roughs, right when he offered us a tripartite self, Me, Real Me, Me Myself? (Walt was moved by the phrenological fad of the day, so you know.) Why threes? Id, Ego, Super Ego; Father, Son, Spirit…is it only in the “western mind” that there are so many dang tri-fold (folding, unfolding, revelation) imaginings?
Why am I babbling about this? I’m not sure, but it popped into my pre-determined quantum mind when I saw this post at Jonathan Turley’s blog, “Teachers of the World, Unite! Cartoon Triggers Controversy In Iowa Over Depiction of Capitalism.” I guess the word “trigger” hit me in the phrenological quarks.
Besides the abject boorishness revealed of the folks who make use of these kinds of non-stories in order to advance a political agenda of controlling populations, what caused me to hiccup was the reminder of the sheer power of psychological manipulation that has over-ridden our very processes of mind we call thought. The controversy is the by now uncontroversial presentation of representations of economic ideologies, Capitalism and Communism (Cartoon link). I’ll spare you more verbiage from me on the “there is no real capitalism in the world” and “there is no real communism in the world” diatribes for now. It is clear propaganda. But that was why it was used in the classroom, as an example of propaganda. One imagines a basic act of instruction might be to examine a thing and think about it–you know, look at it, talk about it, investigate its historical context.
Given world enough and time, we could all sit down together and examine a thing and offer stories, details, facts, impressions, prejudices, opinions, history and try to come to consensus on as many points as possible. (We would, in this space too, take the opportunity to discuss the Marvell poem linked to above and see how it is relevant to the discussion.)
But we act, we are forced to act, as if we had no time, and that the world will not wait upon our consideration. And one thing we might be able to agree upon, though we might value it differently, is that of the two ideologies displayed in the cartoon, one presupposes world enough and time and the other prepares the field fresh daily and hurries on to dusk because it will be new again tomorrow.
How can we be moral beings at all given no past, no history, in our consideration of living? Everything new is best. Or this old ignorance was preparation for this new answer that is right. Succession is not a value in itself is it? Is this all progress means?
How can we be moral beings in the face of an economic mind wipe that must occur daily if we are to believe this next phase of history does not relate at all to a previous one? If we cannot make comparisons that cause us to stop short of living with minds in a constant state of “preemption.”
It is repeated, but it is always new, that history teaches us lessons that we constantly fail of learning. This primarily because no one has actually learned them who would be interested in making use of them as a way to alter a trajectory. We argue over ideology and image only. And this is how we are managed. This is how we are unthinking and predetermined.
We are being predetermined by people who know that our brains work a particular way. That brains and people are complex is true, but that brains and people are simple is also true. Buttons exist to elicit emotional responses and they are pushed to a purpose.
Examples are legion and you know them already–they are your backdrop and framework and you would have to have time enough to examine them in order to even see them. We are “as advertised.”
Consider the lie of technology as a tool of learning. Here is a story in the L.A. Times that questions the motivations of those who speak of the unalloyed good of “product-centered” instruction, “Who really benefits from putting high-tech gadgets in classrooms?” This shows us how men and women can use any old arguments about any old thing as long as they hit certain buttons. These buttons are general (fear, hunger, pleasure) but our constant reception of ideology and image has overlaid these “primal” buttons with language triggers. These triggers can be single words like “success” but are often phrases like “achievement gap” or “falling behind” or “technological innovation.” This is a victory over thinking. It’s interesting that words like “greedy” or “selfish” are not as “sticky” because they would adhere to us all in some sense. It’s hard to tar and feather a “greedy” capitalist, because the ideology prizes wealth accumulation and because of that greed becomes a kind of logical good. This kind of manipulation uses our “coding systems” against us. Reason fails us in this way because reason, like all other human thought, relies on an original frame. Make the ideology fit the frame, no matter how nonsensical, and you come up with logic.
This allows us to look directly in the face of the lie, call it a lie, call it out and disparage it, and still be persuaded by some other “cognition” event that is happening on some other level.
An example in Florida is this post at Bob Sikes’ blog “Scathing Purple Musings” where he presents what seems like clearly connected dots, clearly visible, regarding politics, money and privatizing the public good that is, in the main, what many of us believe government is for and what it does best (regardless of the propaganda that says otherwise).
The privatization lines have blurred in Florida. Few any longer even bother to dispute the fact that Florida’s republican-dominated legislature is engaged in attempted to privatize the state’s education apparatus via any means possible. The privatization template is currently placed over the state’s prison system. Like on education, republicans don’t seem to mind that their efforts are easily labeled as not being above-board…
State republicans are really getting hammered by the state’s editorial boards, but are astonishingly unmoved and remain remarkably unencumbered. The campaign donation disparity is a simple argument. What’s more crucial to Floridians is the wisdom in privatizing such vital services as prisons and schools. The zeal in which republicans are imposing privatization without either limitations or evidence of past success is irresponsible.
Prisons are bad places; you must be bad to go there; you must be bad to be accused of something; you must deserve to go there. “Prison” and “Inmates” and “Defendant” and “Accusation” all create a biased thought in our minds. In some respects having a discussion about the horrible practices of private prisons becomes irrelevant because so many of us have our internal triggers pulled or buttons pressed by the words above. We then think in that mind–that framework. On top of all that there is the truth of racial bias in this as well. Prison and Black Man are nearly synonymous. Black Man, Prison and Drugs are nearly synonymous. Mexican, Drugs, Murder has become another constant association. I’ve tried to consider this specifically in “How to Blind Justice.”
How can we have slow, committed, community responses to these issues at all when we come to the table with predetermined minds?
How can we learn anything else, especially as Apple and Microsoft and “tech learning” companies are now running education policy nationally and locally?
Technology is always a short cut. (What is a tag? What is a “key” word? Single identifiers that attach predictable associations.)
In this way humans are not in control of their thinking.
Were we ever? I think so. Can we ever be again? I am afraid of that answer.
photo credit: Double–M, From the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, published in Russia,1890-1907
I’m not quite sure where to start responding to this – too many neurons firing!
1) Yes, very interesting indeed to think of ourselves as the result of random life events. I frequently find myself puzzled by the memories that come up in my dreams because they’re always things that seemed insignificant at the time, and the people that pop up are often people I don’t think about much in my waking life. So, clearly some odd imprints!
2) Moral history. Have us humans ever lived a moral life? I mean, as societies, cultures, etc. We can say we’re moral people as individuals, but this, of course, is comparative to our culture, and if we look at the actions our societies take we would have to contend that we’re not moral. I don’t think there has been a truly moral society in the history of mankind, though feel free to correct me if you think there is was a society that would fit more of a morally ideal bill.
3) Technology in classrooms. I shudder to think that THESE may be those random moments that shape our children’s beings. At least my imprints are from actual people. Who will our kids be if they are imprinted by an experience with an iPad? Bizarre!
1. what would we do without our terms like “imprint” and “encode”?
2. I think morality abounds–it is the vagaries of such that seems most at issue. When one can claim a moral stance either through jingoism, race, religion and so on then we are at an impasse. We reach with much desperation towards the pseudo-neutrality of the practice of “science” to offer an equation for right action.
3. Yes, well…Elroy still seems like a nice boy, Jane.