Will is taking to his hobby like a Leiter-approved professional. But I still have to dissent from the thrust of his analysis.
I agree that the differences in intrinsic neural structure, not to mention the striking variety of ways that neurons come together to form the brain's proper parts, shows that the brain is not "an undifferentiated blob". But I don't see why anything as strong as what Will is calling "hard modularity" - that is, the idea that specific cognitive processes can be localized to neural "modules" whose proper functionings suffice for the realization of the processes in question - falls out of this observation, nor (and perhaps more importantly) do I see why the thesis of hard modularity would need to be true of the brain in order for its inner workings to be "intelligible". Connectionist networks, for example, are very often notoriously non-modular, but that does not stop cognitive scientists from providing illuminating analyses of how they work in both computational- and algorithmic/implementation-level (read software- and hardware-level) terms. It is the existence of what we might call dedicated neural substructures - that is, regions of the brain whose operations are specialized for those very cognitive functions that are turned up by neuropsychology - that is at issue here, and just as you (or Will, or perhaps my techie father, anyway) can understand how the hunk of silicon that is my computer manages to do addition even though there's no addition-dedicated part of it, you can analyze my brain's inner workings and account for its roles in any of the various components of my mental life without taking each such component to correspond to a specific part of the brain with respect to which the accounting must be done.
I fear that I have missed something. But I think that I have not. In each case it seems likely to be the entirety, or very nearly so, of the gray lump in my head that is responsible.
William Saletan is delighted that once we've replaced all of our blood vessels with plastic,
"it'll go a long way toward loosening our concept of ourselves as biological creatures."
actually surprisingly okay with that, so long as we don't loosen our
concept of ourselves as incarnate creatures (incarnate in the broadest
Can we move forward with the kinds of self-manipulating technologies that characterize the 'posthuman' project in such a way as to retain a shared reality of incarnate creaturehood (that is, as beings which were and are always already created)? If so, should we?
There's a nice back and forth going on at DTO. If you like humanzees or chimpumans, this is for you. Warning: in order to make headway with my unorthodox argument about suffering and truly human ethics, I've had to indulge in an unprecedented amount of sci-fi geekdom. Actually, this may greatly excite you. Admittedly, it's nowhere near as exciting as radical life extension.
It's not every day that I accidentally write a blog post which triggers an extended meditation on frontiers of the philosophy of mathematics capable of bending the uninitiated mind into a beautifully calisthenic pretzel. So hopping up and down I point you most energetically toward The Reactionary Epicurian's dazzling account of the Stages of Mathematical Development. I'm Stage 0. What stage are you?
Neither God nor Man seem to have died at Yale quite yet. The Yale Mafia is so in the running for my coolest undergrad posse of geniuses award.
Frank Furedi has an outstanding Arendtian piece up at Spiked:
Unlike ‘science’, this new term - ‘The Science’ - is a deeply
moralised and politicised category. Today, those who claim to wield the
authority of The Science are really demanding unquestioning submission.
The slippage between a scientific fact and moral exhortation is
accomplished with remarkable ease in a world where people lack the
confidence to speak in the language of right and wrong. But turning
science into an arbiter of policy and behaviour only serves to confuse
matters. Science can provide facts about the way the world works, but
it cannot say very much about what it all means and what we should do
about it. Yes, the search for truth requires scientific experimentation
and the discovery of new facts; but it also demands answers about the meaning of those facts, and those answers can only be clarified through moral, philosophical investigation and debate.
The authority of science is a funny thing, because authority is that which is conformed to without, and not because of, the exercise of power. Science is knowledge; or a certain privileged type of knowledge is the product of which science is the method. Fashionable in the philosophy of social science today is the notion that ontologically speaking one duality describes all there is: call it identity/agency or knowledge/power. The substrate of the material universe is given the status of 'brute facts', arrangements of particles with no meaning until we give it meaning. We give meaning, we are told, by socially constructing it, and social construction, we are told, is nothing but the product of intersubjective power relations. Identity/knowledge is thus the product of agency/power. Without agency/power, you cannot have an identity/knowledge. The authority of science derives from its power.
But this inverts the ideal type of authority, in which power is subsidiary. The classic example is religion, or certain types of religion, in which the commandments of God are to be conformed to not because of what God does but because of what God is. The is-ness of God -- the identity of God -- supervenes over the does-ness, the agency, of God. Complicating matters is that part of the proof of the is-ness of God, as told in Job's story, is the does-ness of God; in other words, God stands in a power relationship with regard to the universe, but an authority relationship with regard to human beings. God repeatedly declines to strike us dead when we're lying. But thou shalt not bear false witness.
The problem of the lie is central here. The identity, the is-ness, upon which authority is predicated receives the scientific appellation 'subjectivity'. Along the model of social science I have mentioned (and in significant part actually endorse), subjectivity is not a brute fact. The production of meaning that results from intersubjective power relations affords some humans 'more' identity than others. Identity is contingent on power. Along the model of religion I have mentioned (and also endorse), the subjective identity of human beings is a brute fact. In that way, the agency of God does frame the identity of God with regard to the divine relation to humanity. The soul, which (at least initially) confers each person with their subjective identity, is a creation of God. But one of the capabilities -- perhaps the central capability -- with which the soul has been bestowed is the power to ignore or disobey divine commandments. The divine relationship of power over human beings is, by design, supervened by the divine relationship of authority over them.
We must not lie, but we can and do. Our power over the word may supervene over the authority of the word; as agents in power we may do violence to the truth, even while as subjects in authority we must not. I took the time to talk theology in order to now point out that this paradox about the lie reveals how and why our mutual reliance on the authority of our words is so important to cultural, social, and -- as Arendt insisted -- political order. The 'tyranny of science' that Furedi describes is a tyranny of power, in which the only knowledge treated as real is the knowledge of power. Identity is completely contingent on agency. The science of agency rules. Furedi reveals clearly the fundamental opposition of this tyranny to the just rule of authority:
As Thomas Henry Huxley once declared: ‘The improver of natural
knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority as such.’
‘[S]cepticism is the highest of duties’, said Huxley; ‘blind faith the
unpardonable sin’. That is why Britain’s oldest and most respectable
scientific institution, the Royal Society, was founded on the motto:
‘On the word of no one.’ The message conveyed in this motto is clear:
knowledge about the material world should be based on evidence rather
Arendt teaches us that a world in which the authority of the word is not to be trusted on anyone's lips is a world in which citizens are forcefully deprived of the power to tell truths. This is a profound political danger, a danger to politics itself. Power, in this fashion, is removed from politics and arrogated to science. For reasons like this Weber tried to insist that politics and science be kept rigorously and vigilantly separate, even to the point of segregating 'values' from 'facts'. But Furedi takes us further than Arendt:
The critical spirit embodied in that motto is frequently violated
today by the growing tendency to treat science as a belief that
provides an unquestionable account of the Truth. Indeed, it is striking
that the Royal Society recently dropped the phrase ‘On the word of no
one’ from its website, while its former president, Lord May, prefers to
use the motto ‘Respect the facts’ these days (see The Royal Society’s motto-morphosis, by Ben Pile and Stuart Blackman).
As it happens we have this strangely unquenchable desire to revert to authority. Some might say this only proves Weber's other big contention that all authority is simply a power relationship, either viscerally immediate or charismatically institutionalized. But by collapsing the difference between authority and power, Weber made it too difficult to maintain the difference between 'value' and 'fact'. Furedi points us to the striking way in which the re-admixture of fact and value on terms of power explicitly hostile to pre-scientific (religious) authority winds up leading us in somewhat tortured fashion back to our longing to stand in a relationship of order defined not by power/agency but authority/identity. But the reason why this would be a bad thing is because it remains confused on the subject of whether authority supervenes on power or the other way around. And therapies of 'deep commitment' to both 'science' and 'respect' are designed to cope pragmatically with the repressed pain of contradiction fostered by that confusion and the things we do within it. As I've suggested before, the whole concept of 'deep commitment' is designed to simulate authority -- create merely the experiential sense of it -- from within a frame in which power supervenes on all. 'Values' become the lies we tell ourselves about 'facts', and 'facts' the lies other people tell us about their 'values'.
This chaotic contradiction will not do. Phony authority must be pulled back out of science, and the power of science must not usurp the authority of subjective identity. Though Weber deprived himself of the best -- and, I think, necessary -- tool to accomplish this delicate but fundamental peace, his hope to do so was virtuous, and his attempt to do so crucial. Understanding why, and why it fails, is an essential project for political philosophy on which Furedi helps us gain fresh traction.
The big movement to minimize agony, even if it results in a disproportionate increase in anxiety, is, in many ways, a proud and noble effort, although it also tends to erode the habits that create and maintain proud and noble people. It also helps strengthen one of the impulses that set it in motion -- the idea that we can bear a great rise in anxiety, by adapting ever more ingeniously, with the tools of pragmatic morality and innovative technology, to learn and practice the coping strategies that large and multifarious amounts of anxiety require.
But in order to do this we need our bodies to be healthy enough to keep up the psychocalisthenics. And unfortunately the logic of the movement itself trains us to be ever more anxious about our physical well being -- without actually necessarily doing the kinds of things that would lower that anxiety. So this study manages both to replicate common sense and to stick in the craw of the conventional wisdom. Another dutch shoe in our coping mechanism? Or just another anxietoid to be integrated into the system?
One phrase that should never be used by anyone, even Julian Sanchez, is "a very literal sense in which," i.e. "There's a very literal sense in which Julian Sanchez still blogs, albeit anonymously, at The Economist's Democracy in America." But Julian's post on Nozick, Einstein, and science as actually philosophy redeems itself nonetheless in fine style. I think his line of argument travels quite nicely to Freud, too. You may not be interested in metaphysics, but metaphysics is interested in you.