Cognition & Reality

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

“Living Together” And “Ms.”

Filed under: Sex & Love,Wilhelm Reich — drtone @ 8:00 am
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Among the most remarkable changes in society to occur during my life is that it is now routine for a couple to live together without being married. When I was a teenager in the sixties, such an arrangement was borderline illegal and potentially scandalous. It was confined to the very richest and very poorest segments of society, but within a decade it became an acceptable alternative across a broad spectrum of society. Now, we look askance at a young couple who jump into marriage without first living together for at least a year or two. A young woman who called me this morning about becoming a client mentioned, among the pertinent facts about her, that she lives with her boyfriend, something that, once upon a time, a “nice girl” would have been ashamed to admit. Now it’s nothing.

This is a manifestation of the fluidity marriage foreseen by Wilhelm Reich in the early thirties as women became economically emancipated from men. It’s no coincidence, I suppose, that the change in the status of “living together” corresponds almost exactly with the entrance of the birth control pill Because of the many more spectacular manifestations of “The Sixties,” we don’t appreciate some of the most revolutionary changes that remain from that era, changes that extend to important aspects of nomenclature. Perhaps the brouhaha over the use of “Ms.” as a term of address for any woman married or single, stood for the effort of society at large to accept the end of marriage as it has existed for hundreds of years. That “Ms.” now seems a bit out of style may reflect the end of that struggle.

Monday, 30 August 2010

The New Phrenology

Filed under: Behavioral Genetics,Psychomyths,Radical Constructivism — drtone @ 12:48 pm

Phrenology was once a popular and at times highly respected way of understanding the relationship of mind and brain. Whether they have known it or not, almost everyone has seen phrenology diagrams, because they are often displayed as a joke. No one seriously believes any more that you can tell about a person’s character and abilities by mapping the shape of his or her skull. Nevertheless, I defy anyone to distinguish between the main claims of phrenology, an acknowledged “pseudoscience,” and those made by proponents of the “innateness” of cognition and language.

The Wikipedia article on phrenology begins by stating, “Following the materialist notions of mental functions originating in the brain, phrenologists believed that human conduct could best be understood in neurological rather than abstract terms.” This is precisely what Fodor, Pinker, Chomsky and their thousands of disciples believe, as I have discussed previously. The warrant for the claims of these new phrenologists, although couched in zoomier scientific and logical terms, is just as murky and nonsensical as that of Gall and his followers two centuries ago. The problem begins with a confusion of mind and brain, as if we could know the former by intensive study of the latter.

The mind is not the brain, any more than “Two and a Half Men” is your television set. No doubt, if pressed, someone like Steve Pinker would admit that he believes in a future technology that could distinguish the electrochemical difference in the brain between the sentences, “Flying planes can be dangerous,” and “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Such a belief should be understood as such: It is an article of faith based on a cluster of misconceptions about the mind and how it really works (as opposed to Pinker’s description in his well-known book.

As I have researched this post, I have discovered, somewhat to my embarrassment that a 2003 book by William Uttal has the title The New Phrenology. Apparently, Uttal makes much the same argument as I have here…and more.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Fodor’s Confusion

Filed under: Uncategorized — drtone @ 9:20 am

One of the most mysterious things I witnessed while I was in grad school many years ago was the ascendence of Jerry Fodor as a leading theoretician in cognitive psychology. From my perspective, from any sane perspective, Fodor’s insistence on a language of thought is clownishly wrong. Extending Chomsky’s critique of language learning, and based on a complicated and empirically challenged chain of logic, Fodor claims that learning is impossible.

Suppose you are a child in the first stage of such a process of acquisition and you must try to learn the concept X, a concept of the second stage. If something is a second-stage concept, then it cannot be coextensive with any first-stage concept, otherwise there would be no distinction in expressive power between the first and the second stages, and no basis at all for such a hierarchy of learning stages. But if you are a child who cannot represent the extension of a second-stage concept in terms of the extension of some first-stage concept you are already familiar with, then you cannot represent the extension of that second-stage concept X at all because the first-stage concepts are all that you have at your disposal.

Leaving aside the issue that, supposing that apparent “learning” proceeds based on “innate representations,” there would remain a purpose in describing the manifestation of mature concepts (i.e., a psychology of learning), Fodor’s logic is founded on an unnecessary assumption that is the foundation of his claim: There must, he claims, be a distinction between “first-order” and “second-order” concepts. It should be obvious that this begs the question because it presupposes a discontinuity between more and less complex concepts. What if learning consisted of a continuum of concept acquisition? What if? Let us be clear: Such a continuum is apparent in the cognitive development of every child, as Eleanor Rosch was the first to formalize within the cognitive paradigm with her prototype theory of categorization.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Genes And The Mind: Radical Disinformation

Filed under: Uncategorized — drtone @ 10:42 am

Although there is no central agency or individual involved, there has long been a campaign to persuade society that human behavior reflects inherited characteristics and that it can be explained biochemically. So successful has this campaign been that the heretability of personality and of mental disorders is taken for granted almost everywhere. “We know” that personality is genetically determined. “We know” that mental “diseases” such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are “genetically based.” The extent to which these conjectures, riven with assumptions about the state of the world, have become conventional wisdom should scare anyone willing to examine the facts, which do not, by and large, support these widely accepted conclusions. I think Mao said something about repeating something until it becomes the truth. It works.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Medicalizing Sadness

From Wikipedia:

“Depression is associated with changes in substances in the brain (neurotransmitters) that help nerve cells communicate, such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. The levels of these neurotransmitters can be influenced by genetics, hormonal changes, responses to medications, aging, brain injuries, seasonal/light cycle changes, and other medical conditions.”

From NIMH:

“Research indicates that depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain. Brain-imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have shown that the brains of people who have depression look different than those of people without depression. The parts of the brain responsible for regulating mood, thinking, sleep, appetite and behavior appear to function abnormally. In addition, important neurotransmitters–chemicals that brain cells use to communicate–appear to be out of balance. But these images do not reveal why the depression has occurred.”

Thus “depression” is a term for medical “condition,” and not what it really is, a human condition caused by events in life that leave most people sad: death, divorce, loss of income, lack of necessities, etc. Medical “treatment” for depression, it follows, must consist in pharmaceutical means of alleviating a “mood disorder.” In this way, it is possible for our society to pretend that many of its ills do not exist, and that ordinary reactions of dismay and despair are phantoms caused by chemical imbalances, rather than experiences frequently caused by social and economic imbalances.

Notice that depression is “associated” with changes in neurotransmitters. That solves the knotty problem of disentangling the relationship between supposed brain states, which can be seen only through a glass darkly, and emotional states that are all too obvious. “Environmental” events are admitted as a possible cause of depression, but it remains a ‘brain state.” The reason for this insistent claim is so complex as to have probably escaped those responsible for disseminating mainstream information on depression. Briefly, a “brain state” is an isolated entity susceptible to specific medical treatment. Potentially, it can be measured and controlled. Life, the real life of real individuals, conceived as such, escapes any form of definition, and cannot be the object of medical or any other “treatment.”

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Thursday, 26 August 2010

“Innateness”: Burden Of Proof

Filed under: Uncategorized — drtone @ 10:07 am

As I have already indicated here and here, I view with great skepticism the proposition that our behavioral dispositions, let alone our ideas, result mainly from inherited characteristics encoded in one’s DNA. When I was in graduate school the concept of “innateness”  had gripped cognitive psychology and particularly my subdiscipline, cognitive development. Individuals who remain important, Jerry Fodor and Steve Pinker, among others, following the lead of Noam Chomsky, promoted the bizarre, yet widely accepted belief in the innateness of ideas. Such a belief might have been permitted to Descartes or Leibniz or Kant, who were forced by law and circumstance to believe in a God who can plant ideas in the mind, but it remains an absurdity. That learning takes place in a human life should require no proof and yet that is where the burden presently lies.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

A History Of Nothing

Filed under: Film — drtone @ 10:51 am
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Watched “A History of Violence” (2005) last night. It has some great people in it, including Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, and the production values couldn’t be higher, with beautiful indoor and outdoor cinematography and great colors. The director, David Cronenberg, has done some good stuff. It has a 7.6 rating on IMDB, which is quite high. That’s the good news. It’s a pretty terrible movie, featuring three or four violent set pieces and that’s about all, short-circuiting the family drama that could be at its core. One question is, “Why is it so bad?” Another question is, “Why has it been so well-liked?”

The short answer to the first question is that there is no story, but that raises the deeper question, which is why there is no story. Shouldn’t Cronenberg, who is old enough and smart enough, know better? I suspect that part of the answer is that it’s based on a graphic novel, and graphic novels inevitably emphasize the “graphic,” depending on darkness and violence to carry them.

Demographics give no answer to the second question. “A History of Violence” has scored well in every audience category, nixing my first hypothesis, which is that it was hugely popular with males in the 18 to 45 bracket, and not so popular with women and older viewers. Although there is a drop-off among the latter groups, it’s not much. Perhaps I’m applying obsolete standards to cinema story, and movies nowadaze don’t have to be about anything. In some instances, it’s easy to understand how that could be true because there is a class of movies that depend more or less solely on explosions and other forms of violence for their appeal. “A History of Violence” does not at first appear to be that shallow, but then it’s based on a comic book…

Monday, 23 August 2010

Eliminativism I

Eliminative materialism, which posits the non-reality of consciousness, is right on one score and so off on another that to say that it is wrong does not capture its insanity.

Correct, subjective consciousness is not real. The idea of self, the idea of mind, the idea of the  physical world, the idea of the psychological world, all these are illusions. There is nothing new is such a view, which has been held and developed for millenia by Hindus and Buddhists. I am a story I tell myself.

Eliminativists follow up this insight–or derive it from–an insane ontology, the ungrounded belief, little more than a faith, that cognition can be reduced to brain states that will eventually be elucidated as neuroscience matures. Although it is axiomatic for elimativists that “folk psychology” is nonsense, there is nothing but folk psychology in confounding mental states with neurophysiology. This specific form of reductionism involves the familiar folk confusion of mind and brain, such as describing someone who is very intelligent as having a big brain.

There is a direct connection between this form of philosophical posturing and other errors I point out with regularity. The first is the “innateness” fallacy, the nonsensical though widely held view that what we know is somehow inherent in our physiology, determined by our DNA. The second error is the medical fantasy that all forms of mental disorder are in some measure “genetic” and can be understood as “chemical imbalances.”

Friday, 20 August 2010

Feeling, Saying

Filed under: Uncategorized — drtone @ 9:53 am

I’ve had a couple of encounters with clients recently that reminded me how hard it is to believe in the healing process.

In one instance, I asked a man to describe where in his body he experienced his recent disappointment in love. Although it was clear that a tremendous amount of his energy was tied up in his feeling of devastation, he did not seem to understand the question. He spoke of “heartache” without grasping that there could be an actual ache in his heart.

I asked another man who also had a relationship go south on him, a marriage of many years. He spoke of the many unexpressed negative feelings he had about his former wife, how they had festered over the years. I asked him how he would avoid the same thing in another relationship. His answer was about choosing better, about finding a woman with whom he had more comfort and more passion. When I asked him about how he would address the inevitable instances in which he would feel anger and disappointment in a new relationship no matter how well he chose a new mate, again it was as if the question was  too hard to answer.

Both of these men are intelligent and successful, capable of grasping complex, abstract concepts. Nevertheless, the simple, concrete act of facing a painful situation directly barely seems possible to them. This demonstrates not that these men are incompetent or weak. Neither of them is that. It’s that the idea of acting on feelings as they happen represents a remote impossibility, so far-fetched as not to warrant consideration.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Love Of The Self

Filed under: Advaita,Non-Dualism,Perennial Philosophy — drtone @ 6:29 am

“Replace self-love with love of the Self and the picture changes.”–Nisargadatta

Does this mean than self-nurturing is misdirected?

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