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Nothing is Hidden

Wittgenstein famously said “Nothing is hidden.” He’s talking about human behavior. His point is there isn’t some hidden realm of human experience– the mind, the private realm. We talk as if these things exist. That isn’t because we are referring to known phenomena or artifacts. When we talk about this rock right in front of (both) of us, we have an object. When we talk about our sensations, .e.g “this afterimage I see right now,” things are quite different.

Consider this game: I tell you I’m thinking of a number between one and five. You have to guess it.

You first try “One.”
I say “Nope.”
You try “Two.”
“Nope.”
You try “Three.”
“Sorry. Still wrong.”
You guess “Four.”
“Jeez, still wrong.”
Finally you say “Okay, five then!”
I Say, “I’m so sorry: still wrong.”
You are pissed. “You said between one and five!”
“I never was thinking of a number.”

Now, during the game, because of the set-up, you acted as if there was this kind of quasi-object, “the number” that was in a weird kind of domain, “my mind.” But I wasn’t playing that game. I was playing a different, “trick you and be annoying” game. So the “picked number object” was just in the game you were playing. Or maybe I was thinking of “1.872.” Again, I was playing a different game.

Wittgenstein says “When our language suggests an object, and there is none, there is, so to speak, a spirit.” The game you were playing had the quasi-object as a feature of the game. That doesn’t mean it really existed in any sense. It was like a paper-thin image or “illusion” that arose from the game. It kind of lurks behind the game. We want to say that to “really” play the game I need to create this object, the chosen number, and keep it fixed, so it behaves in a way analogous to a physical object. The metaphor is that when asked to pick a number I’ve picked up a card with a number on it, from a field of cards with the numbers one through five. This physical analogy is important. It’s the materialist, real situation. The physical analogy is important: the mental operation is kind of a transformation of this operation into “the mind.”

You can imagine that after tens of thousands of years of manipulating physical objects, with the development of language it became became possible and useful to talk about objects that weren’t like this rock, here, but did other useful things. So they exist elsewhere. And when we turn and ask where “elsewhere” is, we end up saying, “in this weird location, the mind.”

There isn’t really space in the physical world for a mental world to exist. There isn’t anything there that can give the mental its “mental” qualities. They are two different sorts of things.

Another game. I take your hand and lay it against mine, so your thumb is against mine, your index finger against my index finger, etc. I ask you to think of a finger. I will probably be able to guess which finger you are thinking of. When you “think” of a finger, to choose it, you tense up that finger. And I can feel this in my finger against it. A card player or con-man knows all about these sorts of “tells.” The point is: to choose the finger you perform a physical ritual of pointing or choosing, and you have to physically do something. Now you can avoid this by “thinking quietly” and just sort of making a “sideways glance” at the finger. But this just amounts to “moving the finger a little.” Or you can get abstract and say “I’ll pick a number between one and five, and that will correspond to the finger, with the thumb as one, etc.’” But this just leaves the “point and connecting” ritual for the future. It is still out there.

A professional poker player tries to not “let his emotions show” while playing. But the point is: you have to make an affirmative effort at this. You have to practice it. Imagine that we devoted all the resources of a small country to reading and analyzing the physical states of a poker player. He was totally wired up and it went to big screens in a control center with hundreds of technicians staring into flat-screens reading all his neural and other physiological activity. Assume we’d studied his reactions for years, his whole life. A huge team that was expert in every twinge of this one person. When he gets a new card from the deck, don’t you think we’d be able to tell quite a lot, just from the reactions of his body?

Another issue with the mental is the fact that it contains two components: an observer or actor, and a field. When we recall a fact we are acting, and we are also the field of action (the thing we search or the place from which we retrieve the information). There is this dual form. But if we are dual in this way, what do we say about the active half? What sort of thing is it? Isn’t it just sort of a reflection of our normal social selves? So we have a whole “self” inside ourselves. And how does it work? Doesn’t it need another whole “self” inside it? Isn’t this an infinite regress. And how does it operate? What is the operation of, say, recalling a phone number? We either remember the number or not. The thoughts and images that may accompany this task are not necessary to the task.

And consider the field, the inner realm. If I ask you “How many windows are there in your home?” you will probably have to sit for a bit. You are moving around your home, in your mind, counting windows. You finally reach a total and tell me. But you could be wrong– maybe you forgot that little window in the corner of the kitchen, or one in the attic, etc. The mental show does not reliably give you the answer because it is not an external source of information . It seems essential, in that you certainly have no idea how many windows there are without taking the mental “tour” of your home. But this dance only gets you in the ballpark of the answer. It is a necessary path to get to any answer, but it doesn’t itself generate the answer.

In summary: The mental is a form of social game. It suggests quasi-objects. When we try to pin these down, we find ourselves in a weird realm “the mind.” We think we can operate here and perform tasks in this realm, but this is just because we’re applying the qualities of a physical location to this mysterious place. When we look at how we use “the mind” we see that it does not actually operate like any sort of location.

If learning stops

There is a sentence in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations that has always freaked me out (actually, there are several). This particular one occurs in a discussion of rule-following and learning. He’s describing a student and he says something close to “The pupil’s capacity to learn my come to an end here.” The point is that a pupil, having learned several steps of some lesson, may not be able to learn the next step. It is beyond his/her capacity.

Now I taught myself calculus when I was in 9th grade, two years early. I didn’t think much of doing it– I wanted to do well at math to be a physicist so I figured I better get on with it. I have always enjoyed learning stuff, especially on my own. It raises my self esteem.

The idea that I could reach a limit and no longer be able to learn is scary. The Wittgenstein quote gives me a particular image. The pupil becomes a neuro-biological robot that has a finite range of functionality. We are no longer wonderful beings full of infinite potential. We can only go so far. And this limit may differ among individuals. So I may find myself the kid who can’t learn more. Adding to this anxiety is my early grade-school experience as the cross-eyed dyslexic kid in who always went off to the tutor. I was always worried that any day I’d reach my limit and become cognitively “trapped” against a ceiling to my abilities.

Now we all acknowledge our own limits in lots of ways. I’m not really into sports, and I’m not good at them. Am I not into them because as a material biological entity they exceed my capacities (e.g. in physical coordination)? Yes: I have bad depth perception due to my eye problem, and in grade school coaches always wrote comments like “Tim tries, but struggles with some skills because of his eye problem.” So yeah, obviously it’s all related.

But when we get to mental skills, it gets harder to see limits. We do not want to see limits. Personally, I find it pretty creepy to see people as having mental limits. Here’s a real-world example. I had a friend who lived in midtown Manhattan. She could not visualize the (to me, very straightforward) rectilinear system of streets and avenues. So she couldn’t figure out that to get to the restaurant we needed to go two avenues east and three streets south, for example. I found this a little frustrating. Why? Why didn’t I just think “her brain can’t handle this operation?” Because then in a sense “she would just be her brain.” It was dehumanizing by being objectifying. It annihilated her soul, and replaced it with an organ. With a physical limitation we don’t feel this way. E.g. “Tim, pal, you’ll never be a fighter pilot, you just don’t have the eyes for it.” That doesn’t creep me a bit.

Rather than beating up on my friend, let’s take me. I have for a while been interested in a thing called quantum nonlocality. Basically, it’s a phenomenon in quantum mechanics where two different events in space can seem to affect each other “instantly” with nothing travelling between them. It is frightfully interesting and subtle. I have studied it enough to be able to talk to theoretical physicists about it, to have my own point of view, and to be provocative. I think I understand it, in my own way, coming at it from philosophy and not straight physics.

Now a few times I have gotten a good start on working through quantum mechanics textbooks. The goal is to learn the full mathematical theory of quantum mechanics to help me better grasp nonlocality. But I always get bogged down. It’s a very abstract mathematical representation of the situation. It works very well to solve problems. But it doesn’t capture my imagination at all. It’s like learning an obscure language that you may never need. I lose motivation. Or do I? Could I be hitting my own mental limit? Couldn’t some people “in my position” easily learn the mathematical theory? So to not feel humiliated I make all these excuses about how I don’t really need to learn it?

Consider now generalizing my situation. First of all, we like to think that people end up where they are due to a blend of choice, chance, effort, etc. But what if a lot of the features of the world we see around us is people simply “operating at their limits?”
The “Peter Principle” says people in an organization rise until they reach a job they are just barely able to do. Then they don’t get promoted. So everyone is at their limit. So I’m just sort of generalizing this idea and making it neurological and materialistic and world-wide.

Now to get really provocative. I am not advocating what follows, I am just throwing it out there as possibility. I am saying the real world may be this way (what follows), not that I think it is.  It amazes me that our modern western world is the product of a few key inventions (i.e. the industrial revolution). Electricity is… a pretty important invention. Engines like the railroad or automobile engine. Flight. All of electronics, including radio and computers and thus the Internet. You could also throw in all of science, medicine, and social innovations like democratic government. These are all basically the product of dead white males from Europe or the US. What about all the other cultures of the world? Why aren’t they more creative in a practical sense? Well, maybe they were colonized by the west or are just poor or whatever and that holds them back. Maybe. Though you’d have to show how that affects innovation and creativity.  You would have to show they were forced into their state, not that it just arises naturally.

There is the freaky possibility that human capacities are genetic and different cultures or gene-groups create different capacities. I would like to think that if I took someone from a very different, less “advanced” (i.e. less like mine!) culture, I could still teach them anything. But what if it isn’t just a “lack of western education” or “a very different culture,” but also a “limit to ability to be educated”?

I’m not being White-centric here or anything… if the situation is reversed an average western person could have cognitive limits when they try to learn, say, Chinese. Maybe their brain doesn’t handle images the same way, so learning the thousands of Chinese characters is more difficult, and has an absolute capacity lower than an average Chinese person’s.

Obviously if this depressing situation exists it will be statistical so there will always be exceptions. So somebody from any culture could end up at MIT or Oxford. Thank God. But imagine how weird the world would be if limitations of different gene-groups were all known and recognized.  We would no longer have the idea that “everyone has infinite potential” if they have the motivation, etc. It would be more the way we think about mentally disabled people (e.g. “David can dress himself, use the toilet, but he can’t go out in public alone, “ etc.).  We could have this kind of detailed understanding of limits of… everyone. And if it’s genetic, whole populations could be known on average to be able to do X and Y but not Z. Now I would hope there would be lots of trade-offs, so no group would be “overall better” than some other. But we are talking nature here, why should it be so fair as to do that?

This dark vision lurks, for, me, in the back of Wittgenstein’s phrase: “The pupil’s capacity to learn may come to an end here.” Because there aren’t sharp lines in nature, I am inclined to think these gene-group-limits probably exist to some extent. I sure hope that individual variations in natural ability are much larger and thus more important. These creepy neurological limits could then be kept, as it were, down in the noise level of individual variation.

Race, Culture, and Ferguson

PBS recently aired a town hall meeting on race.  This is in the wake of the riots in Ferguson Missouri.  The show was really, really depressing.  There was a lot of talk along the lines of “we have to better understand each other.”  Whenever anybody in a public forum says anything along the lines of “We have to do this” you know nothing is really happening.  Nobody “has” to do anything.  Nobody is going to suddenly act differently after being told to do so by a stranger on a PBS show.  People are too busy just getting through their day to care about “reaching out across the racial divide” and doing some sort of “bridge-building.”

Racial issues are intractable because they deal with culture.  This is “deep culture”– how we think and perceive the world. I am not talking about food and music and folklore.  I’m talking about how you move, perceive, act.   If someone asks why African Americans don’t do better in our culture, it’s because they come from a different one.  And there is no particular reason why they should do well: I don’t blame them at all.  African culture evolved in Africa where the environment (natural and social) is totally different.  The more similar a culture is to our own (e.g. European, Asian) the more functional someone can be in ours.

You might say “but they’ve been here for like, 150 years.”  So have many other groups, and they still have their culture.  Irish Catholics act Irish, English Protestants act their way, Asian immigrants act their way, etc.  Everybody is immersed in their own culture.  This culture is not something you can objectify and change easily.

There isn’t some “basic culture” that we all share.  And assimilating to a new culture happens really, really slowly.  It is not something you can just will to do and do.  This is because your perceptions of the world are part of your culture.  There is no “outside.”  So you can’t even see what someone else sees.  You can try to empathize, but when you do, it is forced and shallow.  This is not a character flaw.  You can’t just “stand in someone else’s shoes” because their shoes are part of their centuries old culture which you do not, and can not, “get.”  It’s not an object and you can’t grasp it the way you grasp an object.