Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

A mind of its own

January 30, 2007

Hi, I’m back. About time, too–the holidays took me out of the habit of writing here.

The holidays. My family met with the other members of my extended family for a week at Christmas. For some of you, this is a normal occurance; for others of you, this brings nightmare scenarios. For us, it was somewhere in between. It had been perhaps a decade since we had all been together, but the worst thing that happened was the flu. Seven of us (none from my immediate family, yay!) succumbed; the rest of us did our best to clean up without catching it ourselves.

But that is not what I wanted to write about. What prompts today’s title, “a mind of its own”, was something my dad did during the reunion. He was playing with one of the younger cousins, and toying around with a little spinning top. Sometimes it spun perfectly, but at other times he could not manage to get it to spin at all; instead, it would careen off the table-top, and the little girl would have to search for it. On one of these occasions, my dad exclaimed “it has a mind of its own!”; it certainly seemed to. Its actions were unpredictable, dependent on the slightest variation in how he tried to spin it. We never knew what it might do next.

Of course, that is pretty much the way we speak of “mind”, even in people. We are not able to predict their actions perfectly, so we infer that they are acting in accordance with their own free choices. They do things because they have minds of their own. (And of course, most people reading this–yes, I delude myself that people read this–are rolling their eyes and thinking well of course we have minds of our own; we are human, after all!) But it seems reasonable to me to examine this. Does our inability to predict necessarily mean that a mind is responsible?

Let us begin by looking at some of the uses of “mind” in things other than human. We can also look at other words that typically are seen as “mental” actions–deciding, wanting, hating or loving. The top, of course, “had a mind of its own”. It was teasing my dad and my niece. At the reunion, there was a wood stove, with a fire that we had to keep stoking because it kept wanting to go out. And, with little kids around, we had to keep a close eye on the fire in case one of the logs decided to fall out. (In truth, we do also–and more accurately–say that the fire kept almost going out, or that the logs occasionally would simply fall out. We do not always use mentalistic terms with inanimate objects. But it is the times that we do that are most informative.) If we could predict when the logs would fall, we would not call it “deciding”; if there was an observable cause, then the falling is a simple effect.

Last week, we had a cold snap here, with the morning temperatures below zero (F); my car did not want to start. (I have had friends whose cars often chose not to start even on warm days; my friends would often beg, plead, or yell at their cars while cranking the starter.) There are times when my browser chooses not to open particular websites. Indeed, I could be excused for inferring, based on which websites and the observation that the more I want to see them, the less likely they are to be available, that my computer hates me. I know that I have had many, many students whose excuse for a late assignment is “my computer hates me; it’s evil; it wants me to fail…”

In each of these cases, the active agency on the part of the inanimate object is inferred from unpredictable actions. If the car never starts, it is broken. If it always starts, it is in good shape. If it unpredictably starts or does not… it has a mind of its own. If the browser never opens a particular website, it is incompatible (or one or the other is broken); if it always does, all is well. If it unpredictably does or does not… yup, a mind of its own.

Do tornadoes actively choose to hit trailer parks? It certainly seems that way. So we personify the North Wind (why is it always a fierce-looking bearded guy?), or say that it was Poseidon (the wind is not the chooser, but there is still a choice being made) who sent the wind. Today, of course, we know that the weather is a chaotic system, partly unpredictable but always determined by physical inputs. Of course, this does not stop us from using mentalistic terms when there is uncertainty: “of course, whether that storm hits New England will depend on what the jet stream decides to do; it looks like we might get a foot of snow, but I’m only about 70% certain of it at this point. We’ll know more by this time tomorrow.”

If human behavior is also a chaotic system, it will be partially unpredictable but still completely determined by environmental factors. It is, of course, impossible to prove this absolutely, but I am convinced by what evidence we have that this is the case. When a person acts with “a mind of her own”, what is happening is that her behavior is the result of environmental factors, but factors that we are not aware of. If we had more information, her choice might be much less surprising.

Even the reasons for our own behavior are often not available to us. We know that classical and operant conditioning do not depend on awareness. We can shape a person’s behavior without his knowing what the contingencies of reinforcement were (indeed, sometimes it is more efficient that way!). Social psychologists can easily demonstrate variables that change behavior, even when their experimental subjects deny they were influenced at all!

When we are unaware of the very real influences that our environment has on our behavior, our behavior can only seem unpredictable. And, from a young age, we are taught that this unpredictability is evidence of “a mind of our own”. Well…if we want to use “mind” as a synonym for unpredictable behavior, fine. But most don’t stop there. Most, in our culture, see the mind as causal–as the reason for our unpredictable actions. We infer a mind from our behavior, but then claim that mind as the cause of the behavior, with no more evidence at all. That is circular reasoning, and it is a logical fallacy.

I will close with a definition–from Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary”:

DECIDE, v.i.
To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences over another set.

A leaf was riven from a tree,
“I mean to fall to earth,” said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
“Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: “‘Twere wise to change my course.”

With equal power they contend.
He said: “My judgment I suspend.”

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”

“First thoughts are best?” That’s not the moral;
Just choose your own and we’ll not quarrel.

Howe’er your choice may chance to fall,
You’ll have no hand in it at all.


labels (love, part 3)

November 21, 2006

So…where does that leave us? What are the differences between saying that love is a label we put on a fuzzy category of public and private behavior, and saying that it is an internal state that causes these public and private behaviors?

Well, part of the difference (improvement, I would say) is not so much that it answers some of the age-old questions about love, but rather that it suggests that the age-old questions might be wrong. Copernicus did not answer the question “how does the sun climb through the sky?”, but rather showed that the question itself was faulty. A change of perspective allowed him to answer the question “why does the sun appear to climb through the sky?”, which not only appeased the earlier curiosity, but also added tremendously to our understanding of the universe.

How can I tell the difference between True Love and simple Infatuation?” (One love researcher, when asked this question, answered simply “hindsight.”) The question presupposes that the two terms are definable (say, by a standard list of characteristics for each) and that these definitions can be compared with one another for similarities and differences. In truth, there is no reason that both definitions, fuzzy and individual, cannot overlap broadly. Indeed, if the researcher mentioned parenthetically above is right, then the definitions are identical while one is in the midst of it, and only after sufficient time has passed can one see, in hindsight, the key difference.

What is the chemical responsible for love?” Um…this presupposes that there is one thing called love, with one chemical signature. This may sound reasonable at first…so let me use a different example. Or two or three. Picture someone with OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). I ask students this one, and I get a classroom full of disparate descriptions; this one checks stoves, this one touches things in multiples of three, this one has a ritual about light switches. There may or may not be one single cause of these very different behavioral patterns. We have labeled a spectrum of behaviors “OCD” because we see similarities, but we can only infer that the similarities are because of an underlying cause. There may (or may not) be different causes for each of the different patterns, which we have grouped together under one label. Our labeling of something does not magically make it the same as other things with that label; it is what it is, regardless of how we label it.

Another example, from an argument I had recently about Near-Death Experiences (NDE’s). The published anecdotal accounts of NDE’s list many different sorts of phenomena—from “seeing a bright light” to “feeling a sense of euphoria” to “having one’s life flash before one’s eyes”, and more. The first two (light and euphoria) are most commonly explained by skeptics as the result of hypoxia—the supply of oxygen to the brain is reduced, and this causes (in experimental manipulations) a bright tunnel-vision perception and a giddy euphoria. Hypoxia seems a perfectly good explanation for these common NDE phenomena. But those who think NDE’s are evidence of something beyond death point out that hypoxia does not explain the phenomenon of having one’s life flash before one’s eyes. Nor does it explain numerous other experiences claimed by others who have been through an NDE. Hmmm… If we look more closely, we see the source of the problem. There is a wide range of experiences that have been swept into the catch-all category “Near-Death Experience”. One individual may have had her heart stop on the operating table and have been at the point where she had no detectable brain activity before being revived. Another individual may have been in an automobile accident which should have killed him, but which he was, miraculously, able to walk away from. Another lost consciousness, fainting, with no doctors around to check pulse or brain activity; if her friends say “I thought you were dead!”, she may describe her experience as an NDE. Each of these types of experience, and many more, have been cited in the NDE literature; there is absolutely no reason to suspect that each of them involves the same underlying physiological processes. Hypoxia still explains the bright light and euphoria of the individuals who have been close to brain-death. The “life flashing before one’s eyes” does not happen to this group, but to others with vastly different NDE’s.

But I was talking about love. The same word serves to express our attitude toward a lover, a child, a friend, a parent…even ice cream. Is it really reasonable to expect one chemical (or even one complex combination of chemicals) to explain each of these? Taking it further, if (as Hikmet says) “you can’t wash in the same river even once”, is it reasonable to think that my love for the same person is reducible to the same chemical each time I love her?

Do you mean the same thing when you say ‘I love you’ as I do when I say it?” Um… the only possible answer to this is “yes and no”. It is impossible that two people will have exactly the same learning history with the word, so no. But… you understood, didn’t you? You didn’t sit there, sounding out that middle word, trying to figure out if you should be insulted, or should be passing the salt or something. There is enough overlap in our learning that you can be fairly confident that the words mean the same. Of course, the more different your cultures (including the micro-culture of your family), the more different your meanings; some people are more expressive, others reserve “I love you” for the most special occasions. Perhaps the best answer is to be a good behaviorist again—if love is a set of behaviors, answer your question by watching. Is the “I love you” accompanied by other evidence? As someone I love once said, “I am listening to your words—but I am watching your feet.” Or, to paraphrase Forrest Gump… Love is as Love does.

I have the urge to post a poem I love. I mentioned Hikmet above; the line I quoted is from the poem “Things I didn’t know I loved” (appropriately enough). It makes me wish I could read Turkish…

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved

it’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don’t like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird

I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it
I’ve never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

and here I’ve loved rivers all this time
whether motionless like this they curl skirting the hills
European hills crowned with chateaus
or whether stretched out flat as far as the eye can see
I know you can’t wash in the same river even once
I know the river will bring new lights you’ll never see
I know we live slightly longer than a horse but not nearly as long as a crow
I know this has troubled people before
and will trouble those after me
I know all this has been said a thousand times before
and will be said after me

I didn’t know I loved the sky
cloudy or clear
the blue vault Andrei studied on his back at Borodino
in prison I translated both volumes of War and Peace into Turkish
I hear voices
not from the blue vault but from the yard
the guards are beating someone again
I didn’t know I loved trees
bare beeches near Moscow in Peredelkino
they come upon me in winter noble and modest
beeches are Russian the way poplars are Turkish
“the poplars of Izmir
losing their leaves. . .
they call me The Knife. . .
lover like a young tree. . .
I blow stately mansions sky-high”
in the Ilgaz woods in 1920 I tied an embroidered linen handkerchief
to a pine bough for luck

I never knew I loved roads
even the asphalt kind
Vera’s behind the wheel we’re driving from Moscow to the Crimea
formerly “Goktepé ili” in Turkish
the two of us inside a closed box
the world flows past on both sides distant and mute
I was never so close to anyone in my life
bandits stopped me on the red road between Bolu and Geredé
when I was eighteen
apart from my life I didn’t have anything in the wagon they could take
and at eighteen our lives are what we value least
I’ve written this somewhere before
wading through a dark muddy street I’m going to the shadow play
Ramazan night
a paper lantern leading the way
maybe nothing like this ever happened
maybe I read it somewhere an eight-year-old boy
going to the shadow play
Ramazan night in Istanbul holding his grandfather’s hand
his grandfather has on a fez and is wearing the fur coat
with a sable collar over his robe
and there’s a lantern in the servant’s hand
and I can’t contain myself for joy
flowers come to mind for some reason
poppies cactuses jonquils
in the jonquil garden in Kadikoy Istanbul I kissed Marika
fresh almonds on her breath
I was seventeen
my heart on a swing touched the sky
I didn’t know I loved flowers
friends sent me three red carnations in prison

I just remembered the stars
I love them too
whether I’m floored watching them from below
or whether I’m flying at their side

I have some questions for the cosmonauts
were the stars much bigger
did they look like huge jewels on black velvet
or apricots on orange
did you feel proud to get closer to the stars
I saw color photos of the cosmos in Ogonek magazine now don’t
be upset comrades but nonfigurative shall we say or abstract
well some of them looked just like such paintings which is to
say they were terribly figurative and concrete
my heart was in my mouth looking at them
they are our endless desire to grasp things
seeing them I could even think of death and not feel at all sad
I never knew I loved the cosmos

snow flashes in front of my eyes
both heavy wet steady snow and the dry whirling kind
I didn’t know I liked snow

I never knew I loved the sun
even when setting cherry-red as now
in Istanbul too it sometimes sets in postcard colors
but you aren’t about to paint it that way
I didn’t know I loved the sea
except the Sea of Azov
or how much

I didn’t know I loved clouds
whether I’m under or up above them
whether they look like giants or shaggy white beasts

moonlight the falsest the most languid the most petit-bourgeois
strikes me
I like it

I didn’t know I liked rain
whether it falls like a fine net or splatters against the glass my
heart leaves me tangled up in a net or trapped inside a drop
and takes off for uncharted countries I didn’t know I loved
rain but why did I suddenly discover all these passions sitting
by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
is it because I lit my sixth cigarette
one alone could kill me
is it because I’m half dead from thinking about someone back in Moscow
her hair straw-blond eyelashes blue

the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn’t know I loved sparks
I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty
to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return

19 April 1962

Emergent Properties (Love, part two)

November 14, 2006

Ok, I promised this…a different way of looking at love. (I know, previous posts have described some incident in my life, then showed the science behind them. You will simply have to imagine the life incident for this one; although I could name names, I will not.)

Where were we? Ah, yes, love. The thing that makes us write poetry, sing songs, climb balconies in the middle of the night, write notes in the damp sand of the shore for the tides to carry away to her. The thing that makes catches our breath, quickens our heart, steals every second thought and nearly every memory. We once spoke of love as a gift (or curse) from the gods—Aphrodite’s blind bow-boy, Eros, shooting his arrows capriciously, striking any and all, leaving us love-struck. The motivation for this form of divine madness was ultimately out of our control. Although it sometimes still feels out of our control, we have relocated love; we no longer attribute our behavior to the influence of Eros, but to this thing called love, held deep in our hearts.

We have, though, simply substituted one fiction for another. Oh, I will not (never!) deny the powerful feelings of love, or that a person in love may act like a person possessed! But just as the appearance of a sunrise is also evidence of a spinning earth (instead of a rising sun), this beautiful thing called love may still yield to examination…

Let us begin at the beginning. How is it that you learn the word “love”? The people who were teaching you language (parents, siblings, friends, teachers, complete strangers) did not have any access to your thoughts, your feelings, your sensations, your memories. (I must write about “private behavior” some day soon.) It is quite impossible for any of them to have seen an emotion in you, pointed it out to you, and labeled it “love”. Nor is it possible that you were able to somehow peek inside their own private sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or feelings. All that you both have access to—all that can be pointed to and labeled—is what is publicly available.

A digression… How is it that you learn any word? Let’s start with something simple, and work our way up to love. How is it that we learn, say, the word “red”? As with love, there is no way any person can look into your thoughts to see your personal experience of red, nor can you look into their thoughts and see their experience of red. My students laugh in recognition when I suggest that this situation gives rise to countless late-night conversations on the theme “how do you know that you see the color I do? Maybe the color you call red looks to you like what I would call blue…maybe all of our colors look different to each of us…” Indeed, it is quite impossible for us to know. We simply do not have access to the private thinking of other people.

What we do have access to, though, is the real world. Our teacher can point to a red ball, a red block, a red sign, a red sweater, and eventually we generalize the concept of “red”. Anyone who has taught a child his or her colors has seen this process at work. The process may be explicit (“Point to the red ball. No, that’s the green ball; point to the red one!”) or subtle. Even a color-blind individual knows that the answer to “what color is a stop sign?” is “red”, even if he (The vast majority of color-blind individuals are male) lacks the biological equipment needed to sense the characteristic needed to generalize “red”.

In a very real sense (more real, I argue, than our current view), “red” is simply what our language community has agreed that it is. It is the set of thing in our environment that we have collectively labeled “red”. Red is fairly simple for a child, but as we learn to discriminate, we learn scarlet, crimson, rose, carmine, cherry, ruby, etc. The same sweater that is red to a child may be maroon to an adult.

“Red” is defined by the agreement of a language community. So is every other word, whether noun, verb, adjective or adverb. Anyone who has spent time with kids who are learning the language will recognize the effect that the language community has on language development, as we progress (as we did with “red”) from general examples to more specific uses of words:

Noun—“Could you hand me the mug? No, that’s a cup; I want the mug.”
Verb—“I said hand it to me, not throw it to me!”
Adjective—“The big one—the really big one. The huge one!”
Adverb—“Quickly, please—as fast as you can!”

Each of the examples above, though, requires a physical referent, something in the observable world which is a mug, not a cup, which is handing, not tossing, which is bigger or smaller, which is faster or slower. It requires something observable not only to one person, but to both (or to as many as necessary). But love is supposed to be this internal feeling, which no one else has access to—is it possible that a word like love is learned the same way that “red” is?

I cannot conceive of any other way it is possible. Until the day when telepathy—direct transver of one person’s thoughts to another—is actually demonstrated (it has been often claimed, but as yet cannot be demonstrated under controlled conditions—I strongly doubt that it ever will be), we are stuck with the reality of private thinking. I cannot read your mind, and you cannot read mine.

But what is the observed reality of the feeling of love? How is it that we come to know this word? Fortunately, there is an answer to this—and one which I believe will shed light on many other mysteries of the human experience.

Picture two people in love. What are they doing? Are they holding hands? Gazing deeply into one another’s eyes? Kissing? These (very observable) behaviors come to mind (among many others) because they are the public behaviors which were labeled as “love” when we were first learning the word! As we grew and learned, we added more behaviors to the list of things associated with “love”. Eventually, we generalized the concept “love” just as we did the concept “red” in our earlier example.

The trick is, with “red”, the public referent is fairly narrowly defined by our language community. “Love”, however, is a different animal altogether. That couple, engaged in earnest conversation—are they in love? Or is it a debate? The delivery of flowers: love, or obligation? Is that look love, or lust? Love, or respectful admiration? Is love independent from lust, or inseparable? Can there be love at first sight? Is it possible to love more than one person? (Is it possible not to?)

The truth is, there is no single right answer, or set of right answers. We each will have a unique set of experiences that teach us the meaning of the word “love”. Some experiences are ours alone; some we share with a few others; some we share with millions. Everyone who has heard the Beatles sing “All you need is Love” has a slightly different understanding of love than the people without this experience. Everyone who has seen Romeo and Juliet has a different view of love than those who have not. Everyone who has read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”) defines love differently from those who have not. Everyone who has had reason to learn to say “I love you” in a different language has a different view of love than those who have never needed any but their native tongue.

And we have some paradoxical learning going on as well. A child about to be spanked may hear “I am only doing this because I love you.” A battered woman explains that she stays “because I love him, and I know he loves me.” A manipulative lover (that word!) says “if you really love me, you’ll do it…” We learn the negative connotations of the word “love” the same way we learn the magical positive ones, and as a result our definition becomes fuzzy, broad, and at times self-contradictory. If there were one Platonic Ideal of Love that we had access to, we might be able to say that some of these uses of the word were legitimate, while others were false. But no such Ideal is available to us; what is available is this rich exposure to varied public uses of the word. Like with “red”, we cannot know what is in another person’s heart; we can only see how that person uses the word, and what public referents they associate with “love”.

Your unique learning history is what makes you unique. Your unique history with the word “love” has defined it for you.

Note, this does not mean we cannot define it, or recognize it, or that it does not exist! It means that love—real love—is what you do, not why you do it. When we see a couple kiss, and say “that is love”, we cannot see the motivation, only the behavior. We may be wrong about the motivation; we cannot know. But we learn the word, just as we learned “red”, from these examples. Love is not why you write sonnets, climb balconies, send flowers, take moonlit strolls on deserted sandy beaches, think obsessively about her eyes, or let someone warm their cold feet on your back…love is writing sonnets, climbing balconies, sending flowers, taking moonlit strolls, thinking obsessively, and allowing cold feet on your back. Love is not the motivation; it is the actual behavior. We can study the motivation separately (and have), but if we are looking for a thing called love which causes this public and private behavior, we will not find it. There will be no one single chemical in the brain responsible for love; even though our behavior can be reduced to biology, love is an emergent property of a fuzzy category of behaviors. Having been learned from a multitude of examples, it is not a single thing. You might as well ask what it is about the metal sodium and the gas chlorine that makes salt taste the way it does!

(As for motivation, social psychologists have explored many variables—proximity, physical attractiveness, similarity or complementing attitudes, sexual cues, situational arousal, and more. Both operant and classical conditioning also clearly play roles in the learning of the public and private behaviors we call love. It may be a lot of work to try to understand so vast and complicated a subject, but there is no reason to think that love cannot be explored by scientists as well as by poets.)

From a behaviorist viewpoint, love is not something you hold deep within your heart, but something (or rather, a great many things) that you do. It is a fuzzy category of public and private behaviors; it is all those things that we used to say were caused by love.

So, does love exist? Yes, of course—but not in the way we naively supposed that it does. It is still wonderful, and it still turns your whole world upside down. Sunsets did not cease when we discovered that, rather than the sun rising, what we saw was the result of the earth spinning. Sunsets are every bit as romantic now as they ever were; ignorance does not add beauty, nor does knowledge take it away.

Perhaps you will, some day, be fortunate enough to watch a sunset with a special someone, and fall in love with one another. If you are really lucky, perhaps you’ll watch the sun rise together as well. And you will realize that neither the sunrise, nor the love, nor even the luck, are really what we originally thought they were. And it won’t matter a bit, because you’ll be with her (or him), watching a sunset while in love, and it doesn’t get much better than that.