Saturday, September 6, 2014

Straw Dogs

A couple of weeks after I dusted off Throughlines and got her up and running again my son Barney sent me a link to a couple of other blogs that had recently just been re-started by their authors. One of them belonged to Elizabeth Spiers. I liked what she had to say and began drilling down into some of her previous posts, and in one of them she made some reading recommendations. They included John Gray's Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, which I took it upon myself to procure from the (again let me say terrific) local library system; and now once again I find myself bushwhacked: the other stuff I have been reading is on hold long enough for me to work myself through Straw Dogs

It's not a book that is going to appeal to everyone, and I can well imagine that it would make many readers uncomfortable, and engender in a select few a spluttering rage. Gray is a (British) college professor and economist, but in this volume he brings his considerable intelligence, skepticism, and good sense to bear on the question of exceptionalism. Not the profoundly idiotic version of exceptionalism that asserts that the American governmental system (and, in its more extreme versions, Americans themselves) is/are somehow inherently better than any others, but the more widespread and less obviously absurd notion that human beings are somehow different from, and better than, other living creatures.

You are probably thinking to yourself, well, of course we are. And in this remarkable little book John Gray sets himself the task of explaining quite clearly to you why you exactly why you are wrong about that. And not just you, by the way. He has bones to pick with Plato, with Hume, with Kant, with Schopenhauer, with Heidigger and Hegel and Wittgenstein, with Nietzsche and Descartes and Galileo and Newton. Among others. Nor does he have much good to say about Christianity, or for that matter, about modern humanism, which he sees as being the same old communion wine in a slightly more malleable bottle. He also has issues with many of the bedrock beliefs that most of us accept unthinkingly: that humans are for the most part rational creatures, that there is any such thing as free will, or for that matter, that there is any such thing as a "self" to begin with.

You are now likely thinking to yourself that this is a book which would not be fun to read. And again, you'd be wrong. One of Gray's special gifts is that he is able to talk about complex ideas in ways that make them quite clear, and often quite entertaining. The following passage will serve as an example of both the tenor of his argument and his ability to articulate it with satisfying clarity:

            These are strong arguments against free will, but recent scientific research has weakened it even more. In Benjamin Libet's work on the 'half-second delay', it has been shown that the electrical impulse that initiates action occurs half a second before we take the conscious decision to act. We think of ourselves as deliberating what to do, then doing it. In fact, in nearly the whole of our lives, our actions are initiated unconsciously: the brain makes us ready for action, then we have the experience of acting. As Libet and his colleagues put it:

 …the brain evidently 'decides' to initiate, or, at the least, prepare to initiate the act at a time before there is any reportable subjective awareness that such a decision has taken place… cerebral initiation even of a spontaneous voluntary act… can and usually does begin unconsciously.

 If we do not act the way we think we do, the reason is partly to do with the bandwidth of consciousness—in its ability to transmit information measure in terms of bits per second. This is much too narrow to be able to register the information we routinely receive and act on. As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 million bits of information per second. The bandwidth of consciousness is around 18 bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive.
The upshot of neuroscientific research is that we cannot be the authors of our acts. (65-67)

Now, I don't know whether you are willing to buy his argument, or whether you will find yourself wanting, as I sometimes do as I'm reading, to say, "Wait a minute…." But you have to admit he's got already got you thinking, and that it wasn't all that painful.

What he really has in mind is to enlist you, and me, and all of us, in a thought experiment aimed  at clearing away the accumulated ballast and bombast and cobwebbery in our minds, and at getting us to distinguish between what we can hope to have certainty about, and what we must accept that we will never know:

Formerly philosophers sought peace of mind while pretending to seek the truth. Perhaps we should set ourselves a different aim: to discover which illusions we can give up, and which we will never shake off. We will still be seekers after truth, more so than in the past; but we will renounce the hope of a life without illusion. Henceforth our aim will be to identify our invincible illusions. Which untruths might we be rid of, and which can we not do without? —that is the question, that is the experiment. (83)
For those of you with a taste for this sort of thing, I'll close with a passage in which Gray considers the notion that consciousness is what differentiates us from other living things:

The old dualisms tell us that matter lacks intelligence and knowledge can only exist where there are minds. In truth, knowledge does not need minds, nor even nervous systems. It is found in all living things. As Margulis has written:

 Small mammals communicate the coming earth-quake or cloudburst. Trees release 'volatiles', substances  that warn their neighbours that gypsy moth larve are attacking their leaves… extinct packs of wolves and flocks of dinosaurs enjoyed their own proprioceptive social communication…Gaia, the physiologically regulated earth, enjoyed proprioceptive communication long before people evolved.

Bacteria act on knowledge of their environment: sensing chemical differences, they swim towards sugar and away from acid. The immune systems of more complicated organisms display learning and memory. 'Living systems are cognitive systems. And living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system.'
            Even in living things in which awareness is highly developed, perception and thought normally go on without consciousness. Nowhere is this more true than in humans. Conscious perception is only a fraction of what we know through our senses. By far the greater part we receive through subliminal perception. What surfaces in consciousness are fading shadows of things we know already.
         Consciousness is a variable, not a constant, and its fluctuations are indispensable to our survival. We fall into sleep in obedience to a primordial circadian rhythm; we nightly inhabit the virtual worlds of dreams; nearly all out daily doings go on without conscious awareness; our deepest motivations are shut away from conscious scrutiny; nearly all of our mental life takes place unknown to us; the most creative acts in the life of the mind come to pass unawares. Very little that is of consequence in our lives requires consciousness. Much that is vitally important comes about only in its absence… (59-62)

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