A Reflexive Rant

In a recent comment (here) the pseudonymous Jewish Atheist writes:

Basically, I’m suggesting you get a grounding in the facts before setting out to read what some very smart but relatively ignorant men wrote thousands of years ago.

(splutter) %&#@!!! (a “rant” follows below the fold).

In our age of technological wonders it is reflexive for the ignorant as well as the wise to assume that our great wealth is due to our superior wisdom and knowledge. All of those of us in the technologically advanced countries spend decade(s) of schooling learning facts galore. We learn chemistry, mathematics, medicine, arithmetic, geometry, how to “use” modern computer “application” suites, and more. We mostly learn facts and practice ways of patching them together. We have encyclopedic volumes of data available at our fingertips and stored in our short and long term memories. But facts are not the same as wisdom, insight, and do not lead to happiness.

The human condition has not altered. What it means to be a man, and the relationships between men (and women) has not fundamentally changed with the advent of our wealth. Instead the reverse has occurred. Our wealth blinds us to our human condition. Why do we need social interaction when we have the PS3, Wii, DVDs, home theater systems (Dolby 5.1 surround sound ‘natch). We have grand “theater”, of the NFL, NBA, MLB, plus our movie “stars”, movies not to mention the booming sex industry. Oh, behold our the wisdom of this age (and weep). Aristotle wrote of the virtues. More men today write of Barry Bonds then they do of virtue. We have gone the way of the worst of Rome. The later Caesars, whose debauchery and decadence was celebrated is being matched today in the excesses not of the few, but in massed numbers by our college children freed from parental restraint.

Compare this to long ago, especially those the ages have deemed wise, such as the author of Genesis, Plato, Aristotle, et. al. The men who thought about what it meant to be man, had more time to devote to such things than we do today. They had less distractions. Athens had the agora, celebrated the wise. Aeschylus, Sophocles won national prizes celebrated by the common citizens for their excellence in their wisdom. Few men today can name more than two living philosophers or even playwrights whose work is not aimed at the lowest common denominator. Excellence today means … not getting caught taking performance drugs.

Plato was “ignorant” but smart? What then do you call those men stalking the hallowed halls in the Beltway? or the scribes writing of their actions? Aristotle was “ignorant”? What do you call those we celebrate today, say for example Mr Pitt or Mr Trump? Epicurius wrote that moderation was the key to happiness. Today, epicure means something quite different because “we” are not so ignorant. “We” realize (not being ignorant) that excess is the route to happiness.

More seriously, specialization is the killer today. Branches of inquiry take decades to master. Few and far between are those whose expertise is broad and wide enough to make connections between fields of study. N.T. Wright (theology and history), Ed Witten (mathematics and physics) are two examples of men whose genius makes the leap across (albeit related) fields to contribute in both. Socrates (via Plato) notes famously the common fallacy that expertise in one field does not translate to expertise in others even though that is a common mistake. The error of our age is thinking our mastery of the transistor and electron, the reciprocating engine, and our grand gadgets does not give us any measure of wisdom when it comes to knowing what it means to be human. In fact, those things distract us from that (quite possibly) more important matter.

So … when a question about man’s state and nature comes up, who do we seek for answers first? Those whom millennia of study has deemed wise … or the hyper-specialized idiot-savants of today?

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9 comments

  1. decorabilia says:

    “Self-Reliance” currently dominates my thinking. I watch a Sopranos episode where Carmela visits Paris, all the while remembering Emerson’s observation, “Traveling is a fool’s paradise… [the tourist] carries ruins to ruins.” I read Pseudo-Polymath on the lack of modern wisdom, all the while thinking, “Society never advances.” After all, The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has got a fine Geneva watch, but he has lost the

  2. m looking forward to the results of this experiment by Jim. “Coming soon: I’ll describe what I learned, how my outlook changed–and didn’t–and why doing this with any piece of literature is potentially good and bad.” This is why we like Mark Olson Quoth Mark, “In our age of technological wonders it is reflexive for the ignorant as well as the wise to assume that our great wealth is due to our superior wisdom and knowledge. All of those of us in the technologically advanced countries spend

  3. I didn’t mean to imply that studying ancient philosophers is worthless, nor that they were ignorant of the human condition, nor that they were not wise. I was simply stating the fact that –through no fault of their own — they were woefully ignorant in science. Since what we were talking about (volition and choice) is in significant part a scientific question, I argue that it makes more sense to start with the scientific literature.

    Did Plato or Aristotle know any of the following facts?

    * That seemingly volitional traits such as religiosity, for example, are highly (genetically) hereditable?

    * That apparently conscious decisions to act are preceded by an unconscious buildup of electrical charge within the brain?

    * That researchers can cause a person to “choose” to move a particular hand by stimulating the frontal lobes in either the left or right hemisphere?

    * That mental illnesses, addictions, and proclivities have large genetic components?

    * That stimulating part of the brain makes people feel the presence (they believe) of God?

    * That medically altering the levels of and degree of absorption of neurotransmitters can drastically affect one’s sense of anxiety or depression?

    We’re not dealing with questions of how to live your life or how to find a purpose. We started this conversation by asking whether one can choose to believe something. It seems to me that shutting your eyes to the relevant science would be a much graver error than neglecting to read Plato and Aristotle.

  4. Mark says:

    JA,
    On the question of volition and choice, I don’t see any connection with any of those scientific facts with the question at hand.

    • heritability of traits just means that people, like their innate size, strength, perceptiveness et al, all vary. All of these traits however are trainable and can be improved on … if one choose. I’m positive Aristotle realized that we differ in all aspects from birth.
    • Decisions are preceded by electrical activity in the brain. And the implication for volition is … ?
    • You can bypass the brain to force movement … means the body is physical. We all knew that.
    • Addictions have heritable aspects (see the first point). Not all people with a disposition to addiction get addicted. So?
    • You can (as said earlier) mimic revelatatory experiences by stimulating sectors of the brain with varying magnetic fields. You can simulate the experience of flying in a simulator. What’s your point? Do you expect us to think that random large fluctuations in the geo-magnetic (or other) fields cause historical revelatory experiences?

    I’m unclear on how these scientific facts have any connection with volition, choice, and the illusion (or not) of our free will.

  5. Decisions are preceded by electrical activity in the brain. And the implication for volition is … ?

    The implication for volition is that it’s an illusion. The decision is made before people think they’re deciding. That’s pretty relevant to our discussion, yes?

    You can bypass the brain to force movement … means the body is physical. We all knew that.

    Maybe I wasn’t clear. You can stimulate the frontal lobes in such a way that the subject is sure he’s choosing randomly but is caused to pick his left hand (if stimulated in the right hemisphere) 80% of the time. The subject will insist the whole time that they are choosing randomly. This, too, is relevant.

    Addictions have heritable aspects (see the first point). Not all people with a disposition to addiction get addicted. So?

    Addiction is a fascinating subject for dealing with volition. Why would a person *choose* to drink to excess every single day, knowing that it’s killing him, even if it costs him his job, his wife, his children, etc.? Surely this is relevant to the subject. That addiction is largely genetic makes the question that much more interesting.

    Do you expect us to think that random large fluctuations in the geo-magnetic (or other) fields cause historical revelatory experiences?

    I don’t know if there’s evidence for that particular hypothesis, but it certainly sheds light on the idea that there may be some natural explanation for what earlier generations thought “revelatory” experiences.

  6. Mark says:

    JA,
    I’m not sure your examples are indeed relevant. For example, on the first, that decisions are preceded by electrical activity … in whose brain? Unless the electrical activity has external origins, the precedence of the activity prior to decision means the conscious mind is unaware of much of the process involved in decision making, not that the actor making that decision is in doubt.

    Your intimation that “you” aren’t involved in decision making when interior processes within your own brain of which your conscious mind is not aware implies that you regard only the conscious mind as “you”, the rest is what? I think you have a narrow definition of what constitutes “I” or ego.

    The second point has the same difficulty as the first.

    I’ll expand on the addiction point tonight (or at least this weekend).

    On the last, I thought that hypothesis, that these revelations were caused by the same mechanism as the simulated mechanism was clearly and almost certainly false, which is why I question it’s relevance. If someone shows you a image in a window which you think is real, but are later shown that it is a projection does that lead you to doubt that your seeing of things not in the laboratory is false?

  7. Mark,

    Unless the electrical activity has external origins, the precedence of the activity prior to decision means the conscious mind is unaware of much of the process involved in decision making, not that the actor making that decision is in doubt.

    I think the question of who the actor is is exactly the point. Our intuition tells us that our consciousness is the same as our actor, but the evidence seems to indicate that this is not the case. Moreover, this disparity between our intuition and reality seems to imply that perhaps our consciousness is simply making up stories about the act of choosing — that the part of the brain that is “us” does not have free will but is merely a storyteller riding atop a machine it has little or no control of. That the “machine” can be affected by electronic stimulation and that the consciousness will still cover for it by making up a story about choosing adds credence to this idea.

    If someone shows you a image in a window which you think is real, but are later shown that it is a projection does that lead you to doubt that your seeing of things not in the laboratory is false?

    I understand your point on this one, but I think it’s silly to throw out the idea of hallucinations or other strange brain phenomena to explain “revelatory” experiences without cause. After all, seeing something real in a laboratory is verifiable by other people. Nobody can verify a revelation.

  8. Mark says:

    JA,
    You still haven’t said why the “us” is only the conscious portion of the brain. You are clearly both your conscious and unconscious processes taken as a whole. The unconscious parts while unappreciated by the conscious can be influenced by training and practice. For example, you can train perseverance/endurance, by acclimating your unconscious to new “standards” by which you are operating one can influence the decision-making process.

    I wonder if you don’t admit the unconscious as “you” because you are unaware of how it operates. If, for example, external agents (supernatural or not) were influencing unconscious decision making processes (as in your quoted experiment) you would (by definition) be unaware of this. Hence, you reject it as part of “you”.

    The alternative is to admit the unconscious as part in parcel with self and to admit that debate over volition in that respect is axiomatic. That is, you might take it axiomatic that there is not any external influence … or that there is.

    I think your necessity of requiring “repetition” or verification for revelation requires the assumption that the source is unintelligent and denies that this is while not a universal experience is also not uncommon. “Nobody can verify a revelation” does not mean it didn’t happen (I refer to our previous remark about your friend who claims to have toggled his light switch in the morning).

  9. I agree that “we” are made up of both our conscious and unconscious parts. The question is whether our conscious parts ever make a decision. And the answer appears to be “no.”

    “Nobody can verify a revelation” does not mean it didn’t happen

    Of course. But I see no reason to put Christian revelation in a different category than Muslim revelation, psychic visions, or alien abductions.