Archive for Psychology

The Rational Animal? Really?

Posted in Aristotle, barriers to critical thinking, Carol Tavris, cognitive dissonance, critical thinking, Elliot Aronson, emotion, gadfly, irrational, Leon Festinger, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Psychology, rational animal, rationalizing animal, reason, resistance to critical thinking, social psychology, Socrates, UFO Cults, Uncategorized, When prophecy fails with tags , on August 29, 2013 by Uroboros
Socrates: the Gadfly, Godfather of Critical Thinking

Socrates: the Gadfly, Godfather of Critical Thinking

Last week I began teaching a philosophy course at Moraine Valley Community College on the Southside of Chicago. The course is PHIL 111: Critical Thinking, a topic that never ceases to amaze and, at times, perplex and challenge my assumptions about what it means to be human.

As a philosophy student, I was always struck by Aristotle’s description of human nature: we are the rational animal. But the more we analyze ourselves, the more we explore our capacities and limitations as a species, the more we discover that rational thinking is the exception, and not the norm…Far, far from it apparently. Neurologists, anthropologists, and evolutionary psychologists have all made convincing arguments that the human brain, and the thought patterns it tends to produce, evolved not to pursue logical explanations and objective evidence, but to concoct self-serving, self-justifying theories about how the world works. Why let objective facts and explanations ruin a good, wish-fulfilling story, right?

This is because the deluded, biased explanations serve a more fundamental purpose: survival. There’s an adaptive advantage to spinning yarns and fabricating facts that, though divorced from the realm of reason and objectivity, nevertheless reduce stress and anxiety, making the world a seemingly more sensible, human-friendly place and building our confidence.

When Prophecy Fails: classic study of cognitive dissonance

When Prophecy Fails: classic study of cognitive dissonance

For over fifty years, social psychologists have been exploring this capacity for mendacity. The theory of Cognitive Dissonance accounts for our need to justify core beliefs and behaviors. To justify them at almost any cost. Cognitive Dissonance is the uneasy, sometimes terrified, sometimes enraged, feeling you get when an event or a person challenges or threatens your beliefs. It was first proposed by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, the product of research into a doomsday UFO cult. Chronicled in the book When Prophecy Fails, Festinger and his colleagues wondered what cult members would do when the mothership didn’t come and whisk them away to another planet. How would these so-called rational animals behave then? So, did the cult members adjust their beliefs? Did they discard their delusions and wake up to reality? What Festinger found was that cult members actually doubled-down on their beliefs and tended to become more invested in the cult’s bizarre mythology. Instead of critically analyzing why they were so deluded, they used their powers of reason to recalculate the arrival of the mothership. They kept on believing. They were just too committed to back out and admit the truth.

Now you might say: that sounds about right. After all, they were UFO cult members. Shouldn’t we expect them to act that way? But Festinger and his student Elliot Aronson found cognitive dissonance to be a universal human trait. When confronted with contradictory and disturbing information, ideas and facts that threaten our core beliefs, we all put our creative mental powers to work defending those beliefs. And what is the most essential idea we are dying to protect? The most fragile one of all: the idea we have of ourselves as intelligent, well-meaning, competent people. Whether it’s smokers, music downloaders, cheaters, whatever the sin or vice, it’s so easy to come up with a story that makes your sin or vice or moment of incompetence sound like the most reasonable, ethical thing in the world. In other words, self-justification and esteem needs trump the desire for transcendent truth.

That’s why I love teaching critical thinking. That’s why we have to teach it. It doesn’t come naturally. The first step is to overcome cognitive dissonance, put your own ego in check, and really engage in that Socratic call to examine life. Critical thinkers listen to the buzzing inner-gadfly of skepticism and curiosity. Only then can a human being emerge from the muck of deluded, self-serving thoughts, shake off the slime, and become the clear-headed, rational animal Aristotle challenged us to be. Otherwise, we are, as Aronson pointed out, merely rationalizing animals. That’s what comes naturally. Thanks to evolution, I get to make a living teaching others, and myself, how to immunize the mind from the virus of irrationality.

If you’re interested in the topic, too, I suggest checking out Aronson’s and his colleague Carol Tavris’ work on cognitive dissonance. What are your thoughts on rationality? Do you agree or disagree with cognitive dissonance theory? Why? What would Socrates ask?

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Aronson and Tavris

The Dark Knight: Why So Existential?

Posted in Alan More, Batman, Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne, Christopher Nolan, comic books, Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises, DC Comics, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Film, Frank Miller, Gotham, graphic literature, graphic novels, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Knight of Faith, Literature, Morality, Nietzsche, nihilism, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, superheroes, teleological suspension of the ethical, The Dark Knight Returns, The Joker, The Killing Joke, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2012 by Uroboros

Four years after first seeing The Dark Knight, I still marvel at how Christopher Nolan managed to sneak so much thought-provoking material into such an action-packed Hollywood flick—how, amidst all the clever heists, over-the-top chase sequences, and ear-popping explosions, this sleek auteur didn’t shy away from post 9/11 political commentary; he neither neglected the psycho-social dimensions of the characters, nor waved his hand at the existential implications of the film’s wildly suspenseful dilemmas. Like no other filmmaker before him, Nolan and his co-writers, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, respect the literary depth of the comic source material. They see, and unapologetically embrace, the existential potency at the heart of the Batman mythos.

Influenced by the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, existentialism focuses on the individual’s struggle to find meaning in the modern world, one increasingly devoid of traditional notions of order and authority and constantly threatened by the specter of post-Darwinian nihilism. Existentialists argue that the cosmos doesn’t have a clear, predetermined plan. There’s not even an essential ‘human nature’ to help guide us through life’s obstacle course. There is only the purpose we create through our choices, and we can’t know with absolute, God-like certainty whether we’ve made the right ones. Rational debate and scientific research can help, but ultimately such truths, being contingent upon the evidence we have at the time, are provisional and may be revised in the future. Free will, an existentialist is likely to argue, is predicated on a state of inescapable doubt.

Kierkegaard, a 19th century Protestant theologian, coped by imagining a kind of philosophical hero tailor made for an uncertain reality. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes the ‘Knight of Faith.’ Exemplified by the biblical patriarch Abraham, a Knight of Faith doesn’t tremble at life’s uncertainties or delude himself about its fundamental absurdities. He embraces them as a call to adventure, a test of one’s commitment to his or her most cherished beliefs.

Kierkegaard’s paragon of faith resembles the Dark Knight in several key ways. Existential quests begin with absurd events that defy easy explanation and haunt our thoughts long after they’ve passed. For Bruce Wayne, of course, it’s his parents’ senseless murder. At eight years old, the orphaned Bruce inherits a fortune but is robbed of one of life’s true treasures: the sense of security that comes from belonging to a loving family. He spends the rest of his adolescence struggling to overcome grief, terror, and rage–the deafening psychological echo of the gun shots fired in Crime Alley on that fateful night.

Existentialists are quick to point out that we don’t choose to exist (our parents do that for us), but at some point, we do get the chance to take the reins and make decisions that shape our destinies. As Bruce matures, he refuses to become a helpless slave to his emotions. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, he says, “We must believe that our private demons can be defeated.” His parents’ murder teaches him that “the world only makes sense when you force it to.” Instead of becoming fatalistic, Bruce takes up the cape and cowl in pursuit of something that will bring meaning back to his life: a sense of justice.

The choice of the bat totem isn’t arbitrary. It symbolizes Bruce’s mastery of the fear and rage that threaten to turn him into the very criminals he’s battling against. In Nolan’s Batman Begins, Alfred, Bruce’s butler, asks him about his preoccupation with bats. “They frighten me,” Bruce replies, “and it’s time my enemies share my dread.” Batman takes on Gotham’s underworld and tries to rectify the forces that victimize people. This is how Bruce atones for the loss of his parents, who used their wealth and power to make Gotham a safer city.

While Bruce embraces conventional philanthropy, too, his fractured psyche craves a more concrete way of pursuing his goals. Batman turns fear and grief into an existential weapon, stalking the shadowy space between institutional order and criminal chaos, placing himself beyond the law, but not above it. It’s a place of paradox and uncertainty—a place also explored by Kierkeggard’s Knight of Faith. Through what Kierkegaard calls the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical,‘ the Knight Faith doesn’t have to limit his passion for moral order to conventional understandings, which are always temporal and flawed. Likewise, Bruce never lets the letter of the law get in the way of preserving its spirit, especially when the institutions charged with protecting us are so corrupt. That’s why he feels compelled to dress up as a bat and “strike fear in the hearts of those who prey upon the fearful.” It’s a leap of faith that, to others, looks irrational and absurd, but, according to Kierkegaard, that’s a risk the Knight of Faith has to be willing to take, and Bruce/Batman does, using all of his physical and mental abilities toward his teleological end.

A superhero’s greatness, however, depends on the nature of the nemeses who stand in his or her way, and arguably there’s no better rogue in any graphic lit gallery than the Joker. His relationship with Batman is a yin-yang of stark existential contrasts. For example, while Batman struggles to create order, Joker revels in disorder. Where Bruce’s world revolves around his parents’ murder, the Joker’s past, prior to the chemical bath that hideously deformed him, is ill-defined. In Alan More’s The Killing Joke, the Clown Prince quips, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” In Nolan’s The Dark Knight, each time the Joker explains how he got his scars, he puts a different spin on the story.

These dichotomous hero-villain origins reflect the diametrically-opposed nature of their subsequent crusades. Born of a singular act of random violence, Bruce channels his passions and focuses on a clear, if ultimately unachievable, goal: a war on crime itself in order to create a safer, more just society. The Joker, on the other hand, lives to create total chaos and debilitating fear. In the spirit of his ‘multiple choice’ origins, he is an advocate for meaninglessness, a champion of the purely arbitrary.

The Joker mocks Batman’s attempt to protect Gotham’s citizenry. In The Killing Joke, he claims the average man is “nature’s mistake.” With an air of dark, Nietzschean glee, he argues that it takes a “deformed set of values” and a “clubfooted social conscience” to pretend that life is anything but “mad, random, and pointless.” This was the point of his ‘social experiment’ in The Dark Knight. The Joker puts seemingly ‘good’ Gothamites in a situation where the corrosive power of fear would erode their consciences and reveal what lies beneath: a horde of primitive, selfish little ids only pretending to be civilized folk governed by high-minded morals. To him, the Dark Knight’s quest is the ultimate absurdity because life itself is just one big cosmic joke: “Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for,” he says in The Killing Joke, “it’s all a monstrous, demented gag.”

This contrast is part of what makes the Batman mythos one of the most profound in all of graphic literature. It speaks to the fundamental things we cherish and fear. The philosopher Heidegger says we are ‘thrown’ into existence, and once we wake up to the reality of our predicament, the rest is up to us. The true challenge is to face one’s fears and be an authentic person. As for the anxiety and dread of being a self-conscious creature, it’s the price of free will, and the suffering that comes with it is what makes the pursuit of happiness worth the effort—it’s the dark background against which moments of illumination stand out in joyous relief, the bitter seasoning that makes little successes along the way taste so sweet.

Batman and Joker represent divergent paths in the struggle. There’s Bruce’s effort to accept his past and prevail, not in spite of his suffering, but because of it. He chooses to make it meaningful. Then there’s The Joker’s quest, which starts with the question: “Why so serious?” and ends in chaos. He embodies the nihilistic suspicions that haunt anyone trying to lead a sensible, purpose-driven life. Batman overcomes these suspicions and commits himself to a worthy cause—even if it requires a seemingly absurd leap of faith in order to sustain it. Nolan brilliantly captured this yin-yang dialectic in The Dark Knight, and I never get tired of watching the interplay of all those wonderful ideas.

Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate: Terror Management and the Politics of Fear

Posted in 1984, 2012 Presidential election, Big Brother, Brain Science, Dystopia, Dystopian, Ernest Becker, freedom, Freud, hate, History, Ingsoc, Literature, mortality anxiety, Neurology, Nineteen Eighty-four, O'Bama, Orwell, politics, Politics and Media, Pop Cultural Musings, propaganda, psychoanalysis, Psychology, Romney, Terror Management Theory, thoughtcrime, Two Minutes Hate, Winston Smith with tags , , , , on May 17, 2012 by Uroboros

The opening chapter of Orwell’s dystopian nightmare Nineteen Eighty-four centers around the “Two Minutes Hate.” Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, describes pulling up a chair in front of the big telescreen, taking a seat among his Ministry of Truth co-workers, and participating in a ritual designed to reinforce party orthodoxy, Oceania’s version of Must-See-TV.

What follows is a wild display of enmity, precisely channeled and orchestrated by Ingsoc, the totalitarian rulers of Oceania. The chorus of hissing, squeaking, and screaming is focused on Goldstein, the ultimate enemy of the state, “the self-satisfied sheeplike face” that automatically “produced anger and fear” in everybody. Why? Goldstein stands for everything Ingsoc reviles. He demands peace and advocates “freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought.”

The Hate celebrates Ingsoc’s slogans—WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH—and helps stamp out thoughtcrime, i.e. the right to hold personal, unorthodox beliefs and value privacy, the very thing Winston secretly lives for. He’s actually a big fan of Goldstein. But even this devout intellectual heretic feels powerless to the overwhelming wave of emotion that ripples though the crowd and makes otherwise reserved and terse people start “leaping up and down…and shouting at the tops of their voices.”  Take a look at a cinematic interpretation of this.

The most horrific thing, Winston says, isn’t simply that he feels obliged to go along with it. It’s that even a true thoughtcriminal like himself finds it “impossible to avoid joining” the “hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer.” Winston helplessly watches as his secret loathing for Big Brother, the face of the Party, becomes, for a brief, but terrifying moment, true adoration. This foreshadows the fate of his desperate revolt. In the end, Winston’s rebellion fails. He is destined to love Big Brother. The Two Minutes Hate gives us a disturbing glimpse into the psychological, and indeed physiological, means by which totalitarian control is possible. Orwell takes the reader right to the intersection of nature and nurture, where political propaganda sets its scalpel and goes to work, ‘healing’ us through the power of ‘proper’ beliefs—the pseudo-salvation of mind and body that comes from loving and hating the ‘right’ faces. Being an accepted member of your tribe, Orwell argues, is invariably linked to being fervently hostile towards the other tribe.

In this way, Orwell’s diagnosis of totalitarian tactics prefigures a recent breakthrough in social psychology called Terror Management Theory (TMT). The idea is rooted in anthropologist Ernest Becker’s seminal work The Denial Death, which proposed that all human behavior is instinctively shaped and influenced by the fear of death. Whether we realize it or not, our ‘mortality anxiety’—a quality that appears to be unique to our species—is such a potent and potentially debilitating force, we have to repress and distract ourselves from it. But as Freud says, the repressed always returns, slipping into our conscious minds and affecting our behavior in lots of weird ways. This anxiety, according to Becker, feeds back into our psyche and influences everything we think and do. Our social practices and institutions—from politics to religion to art—are systematic attempts to explain away and allay this fear, which is why we can lash out so viciously at those who seem to threaten or undermine our beliefs. We can’t let their existence weaken our psychological armor against the ultimate enemy, Death itself.

Researchers Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg decided to put Becker’s hypothesis to the test by devising clever psychological experiments to isolate and measure the anxiety factor. Time and time again, they found that when people were made to think about their own death, they reacted in a more hostile way to those who were perceived as an ideological other than they did when they were not asked to contemplate it. You can check out these weird but illuminating experiments here.

Terror Management Theory (TMT) can explain everything from the bloody sacrificial rites carried out by the Aztecs to the sudden and unquestioning support Pres. Bush received from many liberals after 9/11, people who on September 10th didn’t even think he’d legitimately won the office. The theory helps us grasp not only the irrational, cult-like power of charismatic leaders and the effectiveness of negative political ads, it presupposes a neurological basis for our susceptibility to the Love/Hate style of propaganda—how it taps into the way we’re wired and re-routes the circuitry so we become unwitting puppets to elitist agendas that don’t actually serve our interests. We become mouthpieces and pumping fists for the very forces that oppress us. In other words, you are not in control of your own beliefs and behavior, Big Brother has already gotten to your amygdala—the brain’s subcortical fear factory—and told you what to love and what to hate, the faces worth admiring and the faces that need to be smashed with a sledgehammer…or with a prejudicial slur or with a cruise missile.

Orwell may not have grasped the neurology (he predates the f-MRI technology that allows us to see the amygdala in action), but he certainly understood the psycho-dynamics of TMT, fifty years before it was empirically verified by Solomon and Greenberg. The hate, Winston explains, flows through the group “like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.” And yet, since its a primitive instinct which has been manipulated by social conditioning, this hate is “an abstract undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another,” like a flashlight. In other words, we love and/or hate by nature, but the particular objects of our adoration and enmity are learned. The question is, have you learned how to consciously control this dynamic? Or has Big Brother already beat you to the punch?

Tragically, Winston can’t choose who to love and who to hate, and this, Orwell implies, is the ultimate agenda of an effective totalitarian state, one of its defining properties and ultimately its most fundamental power. Nineteen Eighty-four‘s dystopian vision—unrelentingly bleak and terrifying—still resonates because the kind of manipulation it describes hasn’t gone away with fall of the Soviet Union. Its machinations have just grown more subtle and are all the more powerful and hideous for it.

Hate on the Left and Right

Orwell’s novel reminds us to step back from the histrionic media frenzies that pass for political discourse these days, take a rational breath, and ask ourselves: am I really in control of what I believe? Or am I motivated by fears I’m not even aware of? When I step into the booth and cast my ballot, am I making a conscious choice or has Big Brother already pushed the button for me?

Remember, Hitler initially gained power through the democratic process, which he then systematically dismantled. Do we really want to be free and rules ourselves or is there, as Freud argued in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922)  something deep within in that longs to be subjugated and dominated? Do you secretly like it when Big Brother mashes his political finger against your limbic button?

 Take a minute or two and think about it.

2003’s Hulk Revisited: Time for a Fresh Look.

Posted in Ang Lee, Avengers, Batman, Christopher Nolan, Entertainment, Father Son, Film, Frankenstein, Freud, Horror, Id, Joss Whedon, Literature, Mark Ruffalo, Marvel Comics, Mary Shelley, Monster, Oedipal, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, Repression, Science fiction, The Hulk with tags , , , , on May 4, 2012 by Uroboros

It’s a notorious film in the Marvel cannon—so vilified that a decade removed and we’re already two regenerations—from Edward Norton to Mark Ruffalo—away from it. But it’s time to re-think this weird and wonderful take on the ultimate embodiment of unleashed id.

Ang Lee's Hulk: Worth another look?

Ang Lee’s Hulk: Worth another look?

I’ll up the ante: it’s the most thought-provoking movie to come from the Marvel Universe yet (though, I’ll grant you, not as entertaining as Iron Man). It’s the closest Marvel has come, in terms of literary depth and psychological complexity, to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Yeah, I just said that. Indulge my ‘apology’ for this heretical position. First, Ang Lee and his screenwriters, two years before Nolan went there, were the first to build a psychoanalytical foundation for their origin story. Second, Lee understood, with gamma-ray-like precision, that Hulk is not only a Freudian tale, but a Frankensteinian one two.

The key here is ‘regeneration.’ Plastered over and over in the title sequence, Hulk milks the term for all its Freudian implications. If you’ll recall, (the oversimplified version of) Freud’s argument about human nature is that a child’s aggressive instincts are invariably repressed by his or her parents, who shape and mold the child in their own image. They imprint their preoccupations and anxieties onto the child’s psyche, creating a neurotic version of themselves. We are haunted, Freud argues, by the hangups are parents instilled in us. Whether we like it or not, we are just as much their psychological replicants as we are their genetic ones, and the more we deny this, the more we make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bruce Banner, Freudian timebomb

The connections to Hulk are clear. Bruce’s father, a passionate geneticist with something of a temper, is obsessed with the power of biological regeneration, so much so he’s willing to experiment on himself. David Banner alters his own DNA in the process and passes the mutation onto his son. But that’s only part of the equation: the really trauma was when David, while in the throes of a murderous rage toward his son, killed his wife. Young Bruce saw it all—a memory too traumatic for his consciousness to bear. As an adult, Bruce is a beaker full of scientific passion mixed with repressed trauma. The sins of the father are visited on the son, a thousand-fold. Freud’s argument is echoed here: repression always regenerates, and, left unchecked, the tragic cycle kicks into high gear. Bruce has an extraordinary mind, his father tells him. His thirst for knowledge assures he’ll overstep his bounds and unleash the beast within. Bruce’s fate is to Hulk-out.

Like Father, Like Son

Which feeds into the second point, Lee’s other stroke of genius is making Hulk a thoroughly Frankensteinian story. By invoking Shelley’s 19C masterpiece, Lee forgoes the usual Jekyll-Hyde spin and goes right back to the original sci-fi template. The key ingredient is the father-son dynamic. Frankenstein is essentially a story of strained familial relationships played against a science fiction/gothic horror backdrop. In the novel, Victor initially blames his fascination with reanimation science on his father. Apparently, Frankenstein Sr. didn’t properly steer Young Victor away from the alchemical texts which galvanized his imagination and led him astray. So much for home-schooling.

Victor turns out to be an even worse paternal figure to his artificial offspring, the Creature/Monster. Victor’s refusal to accept responsibility for his creation not only costs him his life, it leads to the violent deaths of everyone he loves. A slight oversight on the part of the father feeds the self-absorption of an insensitive son, who in turn fathers a wretched, demonic being. The cycle evokes Greek tragedy, the logistics are the birth of science fiction.

Betty, Beauty calms the Beast

Hulk expands this dynamic to superheroic proportions and adds a twist. “A physical wound is finite,” Betty tells Bruce, “but with emotions, what’s to say it won’t go on and on and start a chain reaction.” The Hulk is a reaction to the buried rage implanted by Bruce’s father, the child of his mind. Bruce is not Mr. Hyde, who is what humans become when our socialization is stripped away. He’s the outcome of his father’s Faustian desire to harness and manipulate ‘the essence of things.’ Frankenstein’s Creature suffers because his father wants nothing to do with him. Bruce’s problem is that his father won’t leave him alone. He wants to ‘harvest’ the results of his experiment. The truly disturbing part, the really horrific sin visited upon this son, is, in Bruce’s own words, “When it happens, when it comes over me and I totally lose control…I like it.” Frankenstein’s Monster never takes pleasure in his rage, but something in Bruce wants to become the Monster—wants to Hulk-out and wreak havoc on the forces that seek to control him, on those who want to exploit his monstrosity for their own gain. Ultimately this creature wants to kill his creator—to absorb his father’s destructive energy and try to tame it—and the tragic cycle goes on.

I’m just scraping the tip of the thematic iceberg here. The point is that there’s real intellectual depth to Ang Lee’s vision. I’ve heard rumors that, given the positive reaction to Ruffalo’s performance, a post-Avengers regeneration of the Hulk is in the works. My hope is that Marvel will stop leaping away from this version, and fans will stop treating it like a bastard offspring. Sure there are are plenty of reasons to rip on it: 1) The CGI gets cheesy in parts, 2) Josh Lucas’ performance is distracting, 3) there’s always the issue with Hulk’s pants, and 4) I still can’t quite figure out what happens during the climactic battle (I think you have to be high to follow it). In the end, the film’s symbolic reach perhaps exceeds its cinematic grasp. But is that a reason to bury it and pretend it never happened (‘paging Dr. Freud’)? I only wish the comic book crowd will give this flawed masterpiece a second look. It’s my hunch that, given the blockbuster success of Nolan’s erudite interpretation of Batman, we’re finally ready for a more psychoanalytic, literary take on the Hulk.

Isn’t Lee’s film worthy of a fresh look?

More Human Than Human: Blade Runner and the Radical Ethics of A.I.

Posted in A.I., artificial intelligence, Blade Runner, Brain Science, Christianity, Consciousness, Descartes, Entertainment, Ethics, Film, Jesus, Morality, Neurology, Phillip K Dick, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Psychology, Religion, Ridley Scott, Science, Science fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on April 27, 2012 by Uroboros

Blade Runner: What makes us human?

Self-consciousness is a secret, or at least its existence is predicated upon one. The privacy of subjective experience has mystified philosophers for centuries and dogged neuroscientists for decades. Science can, in principle, unravel every enigma in the universe, except perhaps for the one that’s happening in your head right now as you see and understand these words. Neurologists can give rich accounts of the visual processing happening in your occipital lobes and locate the cortical regions responsible for parsing the grammar and grasping the concepts. But they can’t objectively identify the ‘you’ part. There’s no neuron for ‘the self.’ No specific neural network which is essentially causing ‘you’ –with all your unique memories, interpretive quirks, and behavioral habits—to read these words have the particular experience you are having.

This problem is illustrated in debates about artificial intelligence. The goal is to create non-biological sentience with a subjective point-of-view, personal memories, and the ability to make choices. The Turing Test is a method for determining whether a machine is truly intelligent, as opposed to just blindly following a program and reacting algorithmically to stimuli. Basically, if a computer or a robot can convince enough people in a blind test that it is intelligent, then it is. That’s the test. The question is, what kind of behaviors and signs would a machine have to have in order to convince you that it’s self-aware?

Voight-Kampf Test

The 1982 film Blade Runner, based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, has a version of this called the Voight-Kampf test. The androids in the story, Nexus-6 Replicants, are so close to humans in appearance and behavior that it takes an intense psychological questionnaire coupled with a scan of retinal and other involuntary responses to determine the difference. A anomalous emotional reaction is symptomatic of artificial, as opposed to natural, intelligence. Rachel, the Tyrell corporation’s most state-of-the-art Replicant, can’t even tell she’s artificial. “How can it not know what it is?” asks Deckard, the bounty hunter charged with ‘retiring’ rogue Replicants. Tyrell says memory implants have given her a sense of self, a personal narrative context through which she views the world. The line between real and artificial humans, therefore, is far from clear. Rachel asks Deckard if he’s ever ‘retired’ a human by mistake. He says he hasn’t, but the fact that Rachel had to ask is telling. Would you want to take this test?

If you think about it, what makes you’re own inner subjectivity provable to others—and their subjectivity provable to you—are the weird kind of quirks, the idiosyncrasies which are unique to you and would be exceedingly difficult for a program to imitate convincingly. This is what philosophers call the problem of other minds. Self-consciousness is the kind of thing which, by its very nature, cannot be turned inside out and objectively verified. This is what Descartes meant by ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Your own mental experience is the only thing in the world you can be sure of. You could, in principle, be deluded about the appearance of the outer world. You think you’re looking at this computer screen, but who do you know you’re not dreaming or hallucinating or are part of Matrix-like simulation? According to Descartes’ premise, even the consciousness of others could be faked, but you cannot doubt the fact that you are thinking right now, because to doubt this proposition is to actually prove it. All we’re left with is our sense of self. We are thinking things.

Fembot Fatale

The Turing Test, however, rips the rug away from this certainty. If the only proof for intelligence is behavior which implies a mindful agent as its  source, are you sure you could prove you’re a mindful, intelligent being to others? Can you really prove it to yourself? Who’s testing who? Who’s fooling who?

The uncanny proposition hinted at in Blade Runner is that you, the protagonist of your own inner narrative, may actually be artificial, too. Like Rachel and the not-so-human-after-all Deckard, you may be an android and not know it. Your neural circuitry may not have evolved by pure accident. The physical substrate supporting your ‘sense of self’ may be the random by-product of natural selection, something that just blooms from the brain, like an oak grows out of an acorn—but ‘the you part’ has to be programmed in. The circuitry is hijacked by a cultural virus called language, and the hardware is transformed in order to house a being that maybe from this planet, but now lives in its own world. Seen this way, the thick walls of the Cartesian self thin out and become permeable—perforated by motivations and powers not your own, but ‘Society’s.’ Seen in this light, it’s not as hard to view yourself as a kind of robot programmed to behave in particular ways in order to serve purposes which are systematically hidden.

This perspective has interesting moral implications. The typical question prompted by A.I. debates is, if we can make a machine that feel and thinks, does it deserve to be treated with the same dignity as flesh and blood human beings? Can a Replicant have rights? I ask my students this question when we read Frankenstein, the first science fiction story. Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley was already pondering the moral dilemma posed by A.I. Victor Frankenstein’s artificially-intelligent creation becomes a serial-killing monster precisely because his arrogant and myopic creator (the literary critic Harold Bloom famously called Victor a ‘moral idiot’) refuses to treat him with any dignity and respect. He sees his artificial son as a demon, a fiend, a wretch—never as a human being. That’s the tragedy of Shelley’s novel.

Robot, but doesn’t know it

In Blade Runner,the ‘real’ characters come off as cold and loveless, while the artificial ones turn out to be the most passionate and sympathetic. It’s an interesting inversion which suggests that what really makes us human isn’t something that’s reducible to neural wiring or a genetic coding—it isn’t something that can be measured or tested through retinal scans. Maybe the secret to ‘human nature’ is that it can produce the kind of self-awareness which empowers one to make moral decisions and treat other creatures, human and non-human, with dignity and respect. The radical uncertainty which surrounds selfhood, neurologically speaking, only heightens the ethical imperative. You don’t know the degree of consciousness in others, so why not assume other creatures are as sensitive as you are, and do unto others as you would have them do to you.

In other words, how would Jesus treat a Replicant?

Jules Finds God. Vincent Gets Got.

Posted in Christianity, Entertainment, Existentialism, Film, Filmspotting, Hubert Dreyfus, Kiekegaard, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, Pulp Fiction, Tarantino, Uncategorized, William James with tags , , , , on March 20, 2012 by Uroboros

Pulp Fiction’s Themes Re-visited

If I had a dime for every time I’ve debated the meaning of that damn briefcase in Pulp Fiction I could buy a round of milkshakes from Jack Rabbit Slim’s.  It’s the mark of a film’s greatness that 18 years later people  are still talking about it. My favorite filmgeek podcast, Filmspotting, recently explored Pulp Fiction’s legacy and re-visited it’s deeper meanings (or lack there of).

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading All Things Shining by philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelley which briefly touches on the existential themes in Pulp Fiction, too. So, film/philosophy geek that I am, I had to revisit Tarantino’s masterpiece in search of deeper meanings. Every frame of that film is bursting with style, but, as Adam and Josh from Filmspotting ask, does Pulp have any substance? Is there any ‘there’ there?

Dreyfus and Kelley argue there is. They call the ‘hand cannon’ scene a contemporary version of an ‘Odysseus event,’ an incredible experience which forces you to feel either extraordinarily lucky or grateful to a higher power. In Homer’s Odyssey, when a barrage of spearheads miss the mark and Odysseus escapes, he thinks it’s because Athena is looking out for him. When the Jerry-Seinfeld-looking dude charges out of bathroom and unloads point blank on Jules and Vincent, they have irreconcilable interpretations as to what the inexplicably errant shots mean. Take a look: http://youtu.be/anhdphUxNVo

Vincent says they were lucky. Jules says it was divine intervention.

As Dreyfus and Kelly point out, Jules and Odysseus both felt a power outside of themselves had gotten involved. Vincent, of course, doesn’t accept the metaphysics. He’s a Han Solo-style skeptical realist: higher powers don’t exist, and the fact that they’re still alive is a fluke. Nobody’s ‘up there’ pulling the strings.

One event. Two different experiences.

This moment mirrors the modern existential concern with subjective freedom, choices, and responsibility. Jules suddenly sees the world in a new light. He decides to leave the business and walk the earth—an inner transformation evident in the new meaning he finds in his (largely made-up) Ezekiel quote. What was once just some cold-blooded shit to say before he popped a cap becomes a formula for how to see himself and his place in the world. He’s finally connected with the spirit of what he’s been saying and now wants to lead a more authentic life. Vincent, on the other hand, rejects the religious interpretation, scoffs at Jules’ plan, and tries to change the subject.

Take a look: http://youtu.be/YujYTVQ4_S0

The debate ends when Vincent goes to the bathroom and the robbery goes down. Afterward, when Jules and Vincent leave the diner, there’s a sense of accomplishment and finality. The two men exit, the movie ends, and we’re left to wonder if Jules will actually retire and pursue his new path. Thanks to the non-linear structure, though, we know what happens to Vincent at least. Accidentally shooting Marvin in the face and the close call with Mia fail to make an impression. It’s almost comical how Vincent refuses to be spooked by all his ‘bad luck.’ The only thing he really agonizes over is whether to have sex with Mia or not, a debate that happens while he’s in the bathroom and not outside preventing Mia from snorting the heroin. Turns out, Vincent is pretty dense. His fate, of course, is to be gunned down by Butch after…emerging from the bathroom.

Coincidence? Is somebody trying to tell us something? Is there a ‘there’ there?

The scenario prompts some intriguing questions: Is the hyper-stylish Pulp Fiction—a brutal, often sadistic film about the apparent morality of immoral men—actually a deeply spiritual story? Is Vincent’s fate a subtle critique of the agnostic/atheist worldview? Setting metaphysical issues aside, is Taratino rewarding Jules’ existential openness while punishing Vincent for his close-mindedness? It’s almost as if Tarantino is daring me to call Pulp Fiction a religious movie.

After all, if we had absolute insight into how the cosmos works, then there would be no room for faith, and we wouldn’t really be free. The choices that matter—the ones which define our identity and imbue our days with meaning—are always made from behind a veil of uncertainty. There’s an inexorable element of risk. Otherwise, we’d just be taking marching orders. We’d be drones. The miracle/fluke dichotomy dramatizes the rare opportunities life offers: the chance to reassess who we are, take a long, hard look in the mirror, and ask, ‘Is something up there sending me a message? Is it time to consider another path?’ That’s the question Vincent should’ve asked himself. Jules asks these questions and gets a clear response.

One event. Two experiences. Two divergent paths.

Of course, you could also say that if Jules hadn’t walked away, he would’ve had Vincent’s back and Butch wouldn’t have killed him. Again, Tarantino leaves it open to interpretation because life itself is an open text, and we have to connect the dots. We may never see the big picture, but we can learn a lot about ourselves from the connections we try to make.

It’s Okay to Kill Zombies ‘Cause They Don’t Have Any Feelings.

Posted in Brain Science, Christianity, David Chalmers, Descartes, Entertainment, Ethics, Metaphysics, Morality, Neurology, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, The Walking Dead, Zombies with tags , , on March 10, 2012 by Uroboros

You’re sprinting and stumbling through a thick, dark forest. Gun cocked, finger on the trigger. You’re fleeing a zombie horde. You want to survive. They want to eat you. You trip on a rotten limb, tumbling to the ground. Looking up, you’re face-to-face with a zombie. It can’t move, though. A broken leg, severed arm. It’s basically a piece of animated flesh, writhing madly, but not a true threat. You can skirt by it, no problem. What do you do? 

Season Two of The Walking Dead has brought the zombicide issue to the fore. Is it ever wrong to kill zombies? On a practical, survival level, of course, the answer seems morally unambiguous: If a Walker is after you, self-defense necessitates doing what you have to do. 

Self-defense notwithstanding, let’s explore how the characters in TWD view what they’re doing. What’s their ethical stance? As in all zombie fiction, the dominant position is the kill’em all approach: the living dead aren’t people, which excuses or dismisses any moral qualms one may have about pumping a few shotgun rounds into the side of a Walker’s head. But TWD is too thoughtful a series to let this issue go unexamined. 

The existential and moral status of zombies themselves, which has lurked in the background of the series since Season One, moved front and center as we reached the climax of the middle of this season—brought to a head by Herschel, patriarch of the farm. As you’ll recall, Herschel doesn’t share the kill ’em all approach that Rick and company had pretty much taken for granted—and who could blame them? After what happened at their camp and in Atlanta, there’s been little time and reason to contemplate the possible personhood of the herds of Walkers chomping at the bit to kill them.

But, since farm life has slowed things down and afforded the time to think, the issue has slowly but surely lumbered and lunged out into the open. It was just one of the crises interwoven into the drama, but, by Episode Seven, the status of zombies became the key issue, the breaking point in the tension between the main characters and their hosts.

Rick and Herschel's Moral Debate

If you were like me, you couldn’t believe what Herschel was hiding was in the barn. At first, I was with the rest of the gang who thought he was either delusional or up to something sinister. It’s easy to react like Shane and dismiss Herschel’s view. A Walker is a Walker, and the only good Walker is a dead Walker. When Rick confronted him, however, the conviction in Herschel’s reasoning and ethical stance was interesting. From his perspective, a zombie is just a sick human being. What if zombiehood could be cured? What if someone comes up with a serum or antidote to the disease or whatever the TWD mythology eventually puts forth as the cause of the zombocalypse? Behind the evil eyes and pale, rotten skin, Herschel sees a human being waiting to be saved. If that’s your philosophy, then killing a zombie when you don’t have to is murder.    ‘Personhood’ is a tougher thing to verify than you might think. We all walk around assuming the people around us have a subjective awareness of the world—have feelings and memories and intelligence, the ability both to make decisions and be held responsible for them. This assumption frames one’s experience of reality. You can criticize or condemn your fellow human beings for their improprieties—but you don’t feel the same way towards your car or laptop if it let’s you down. You may, for a second or two, get angry at the laptop for freezing up—might even smack it a few times—but that’s just an instinctual projection of your own emotions. If you actually think your laptop is trying to undermine you, then I’ll post a link for the psychiatrist you need to consult.

It’s okay to hit computers because they don’t have any feelings (yet). But how do you know other people have feelings? Sure, they appear to—they have the body language and can speak about intentions and inner states—but that, too, could be just an appearance. After all, that’s just behavior. It could be a simulation of consciousness, a simulacrum of selfhood. You can’t get ‘inside’ somebody’s head and experience the world from their point of view. We don’t have Being John Malkovich portals into the subjectivity of others (yet). Philosophically and scientifically speaking, the only state of consciousness you can be sure of is your own.  

Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, pointed this out in the 17th century, and it’s been a tantalizing issue ever since. When Descartes said cogito ergo sum—I  think, therefore I am—he was trying to establish a rock solid foundation for philosophy and science, but leave it to a Frenchman to lay an intellectual foundation in quicksand and produce the opposite of what he intended. The problem with cogito is that—unless you assume the same things Descartes did about God, language, and math—you can’t really be sure about the existence of other cogitos or even the world outside your own head. What one experiences could be like a dream or a fake reality conjured up by a Matrix-style evil genius. ‘I think, therefore I am’ opens up a Pandora’s jar of radical skepticism and solipsism.

So how do you know that other people are conscious like you and not ‘philosophical zombies,’ i.e. beings which behave like they’re conscious but are in fact only organic  machines without actual intelligence and free-will. Contemporary philosopher of mind David Chalmers has made a career of pointing out the deep quirk—the so-called ‘hard problem’—embedded in the modern concept of personhood. Scientifically-speaking, we can only observe and measure objective phenomena. So, what is ‘mind’ to a neurologist? It’s the product of brain states—it’s located in the synaptic mesh of neurons and electrochemical flow of hormones which happens inside the skull, a purely physical thing which can be observed with an fMRI machine.

This theory was dramatized in Episode Six of Season One by Dr. Jenner at the CDC facility. When he shows Grimes and the gang an actual transformation from human to Walker using (what looks like) an fMRI, Dr. Jenner claims the brain images represent all that one is—the sum total of your memories and dreams, the hopes and fears which define you as a person—and the death of the brain is the irrevocable end of that identity. What is revived through zombification  is not that person—it’s not even human. In other words, you are your brain. Brain dead equals you dead. The zombie that emerges may resemble you in some way—it may move its eyes and limbs as if  it’s a being with some kind of conscious intentions—but it’s not. At least, that’s Dr. Jenner’s theory, and, up until we meet Herschel, nobody on the show seems to disagree or question it.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous essay on the issue called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” which argued we shouldn’t reduce mindfulness to purely physical, objective descriptions because such descriptions, by definition, leave out the very thing we’re trying to understand, namely, what is it like to be that being, what it is like to have that mind. We’re right back in Descartes’ quicksand. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics notwithstanding, we seem to be able to explain everything in nature, at least in principle, in physical, materialist terms, except for the very thing we’re using to explain everything else in nature, i.e. our own minds.

These days the debate has become divisive, even ideological. Which side are you on? Are you a materialist—do you believe the mind is either caused by brain states or so closely correlated to them as to be functionally indistinguishable—or are you still haunted by Descartes’ cogito and believe the mind is not just an illusory ghost in the machine? Do you believe there’s something irreducible to the self, maybe even soulful or spiritual? If you do, you’d be labeled a dualist, which, in contemporary philosophy of mind, is a euphemism for superstitious.                         

I think Herschel’s theory offers another way of approaching the problem, one that sidesteps the Cartesian quicksand. After all Herschel’s not interested in proving scientificallythat he’s right about zombiehood. For him, it’s a given: the creatures corralled in the barn aren’t soulless ghouls who can be exterminated with impunity. They’re family members and neighbors who happen to be sick and might someday be cured. He can’t kill them. What’s intriguing about his approach is how it bypasses the metaphysical problem in favor of the ethical question. If you can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that zombies aren’t conscious—devoid of some sliver of humanity swirling around inside their skulls—then isn’t Herschel’s theory a more appropriate moral response, a more humane approach?

Zombies on leashes?

If a zombie attacks, and you can subdue it with out scattering its brains across the grass, then why not leash it and put it in the barn like Herschel did? It’s an ethically-complex question with implications that go beyond the do’s and dont’s of zombocalypse survival. It answers the question of consciousness and selfhood not by getting bogged down in the metaphysical quicksand, but by recognizing the ambiguous metaphysics and essentially saying, until you neurologists and philosophers get a better grip on the issue, we’re going to treat the zombie-other as if it’s a conscious being deserving of humane and dignified treatment. The show roots Herschel’s ethics in his religious beliefs, his faith. Agnostic or atheist viewers might find this a facile cop out, more a symptom of intellectual weakness than a sign of moral integrity. But I don’t think Herschel’s ethics should be dismissed as merely the product of old-timey superstitions. In a situation where there isn’t absolute certainty—where empirical observation and rational explanations can give you two valid, but logically irreconcilable descriptions—isn’t some kind of faith necessary? The zombie dilemma on The Walking Dead echoes the actual debate going on in neurology and philosophy of mind and reminds me of the lines from Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? about truth and illusion. We don’t know the difference…but we must carry on as though we did. Amen.

Herschel has decided to carry on as though the zombies are persons who deserve to be treated with some degree of dignity. His faith justifies his moral stance; it’s an act of religious compassion. Even if zombies seem like enemies, he must love them. If they terrify and enrage him, he must pull the beam from his own eye, judge not, and learn to care for his zombie brothers and sisters—in a way which doesn’t threaten the lives of his non-zombie kin, of course. Hence the leashes and barn accommodations. It may not be room and board at a cozy bed and breakfast, but it’s certainly more humane than Shane’s handgun or one of Darryl’s arrows.

There is something to a Sermon on the Mount ethical approach to such quandaries. If we can’t know with scientific certainty the objective nature of consciousness, we shouldn’t be so quick to jump to conclusions and endorse policies, especially violent ones, which depend on assumptions about subjectivity, or the lack there of. The greatest atrocities in history all begin with  dehumanizing the other—by drawing a line between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Religious beliefs always cut both ways—sometimes they reinforce that line—they sharpen the blade—and sometimes they undermine it by redefining and expanding the definition of what counts as a human being—of who deserves to be treated with respect.

I mean, what Jesus would do to a zombie? Wait, didn’t Jesus become a zombie? (Sorry, couldn’t resist;)

That matters is how you treat the other, the stranger. I think it’s no accident that Herschel is a veterinarian and not a ‘human ‘doctor, which would’ve served his initial plot function—saving  Carl—just as well, if not better. As a vet, Herschel has to care about the pain and suffering of creatures whose states of mind he can’t know or prove. He  has to carry on just the same. What matters most is not trying to test and determine the degree to which a creature is conscious and then scaling your moral obligations in proportion to that measurement—after all, such a measurement may be in principle impossible—what matters is how you treat others in the absence of such evidence. In short, it depends on a kind of faith, a default assumption which necessitates hospitality, not hostility. In an uncertain world, it’s the right thing to do—not only what Jesus might do, but a logically-consistent, rationally-valid thing to do.

The implications are profound. The perspective we adopt, the stance we assume, defines how we relate to animals and the planet as a whole—to other human beings and ultimately oneself.

Of course, by Episode Eight, Herschel backs away from his radical ethical stance. In a state of despair, he regrets putting them in the barn—says it was his way of avoiding the grief over losing his wife. Maybe so. But something tells me that’s just the despair talking. Whether Herschel returns to his old perspective or embraces a kill ’em all approach, I don’t think the issue itself is dead and buried.

My hope is that it will be raised again, and it’ll have something to do with what Dr. Jenner whispered to Rick at the end of Season One. After all the suicidal doctor told Rick that all the survivors are carrying a latent form of the zombie virus. Maybe they’ll meet another scientist down the road who can cure the plague. If this scenario or something like it plays out, then the show will have to confront the zombies-are-people-too versus kill ’em all question again.        

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