Archive for March, 2007

links for 2007-03-13

links for 2007-03-12

“And if our technological progress is so great, why don’t we have transporters yet?”

I’m certainly not yet willing to to concede the ontological premise that human minds are no more than manifestations of physical processes in the brain. I’m even a little afraid of the picture of the mechanical dog that the materialist Daniel Dennett has on his website, becaue I’m suspicious that he looks at people and sees the same thing. But for purely instrumental purposes, it has proved to be an extremely useful hypothesis to grant for the current wave of neuroscience. Which is what makes the recent broad assault on the whole notion of a scientific understanding of the human mind and behavior by Theodore Dalrymple rather bizarre. Granted, this is a man (or more precisely nom de plume of a man) who always reminds me of what Principal Skinner once said to Mrs. Krabappel: “I admire your ability to be personally offended by broad social trends.” But when he says:

Those who say that we are on the verge of a huge increase in self-understanding are claiming that enlightenment will suddenly be reached under the scientific bo tree. The enlightenment will have to be sudden rather than gradual because, if it were gradual, we should already be able to point to an increase in human contentment and self-control brought about by our already increased knowledge. But even the most advanced societies are just as full of angst, or poor impulse control, of existential bewilderment, of adherence to clearly irrational doctrines, as ever they were. There is no sign that, Prozac and neurosurgery notwithstanding, any of this is about to change fundamentally.”

it’s really quite strange, given that earlier in the article he mentions that some scientists have discovered that when people see someone they claim to be in love with an ancient lizard part of the brain (literally) gets activated. Is that not a significant growth in knowledge of the human heart and mind? Well, some of us cynics would claim it’s more just a confirmation of an intuition, but still an important one. He also mentions the amazing before-and-after videos of people being treated for Parkinson’s and Tourette’s syndrome. That doesn’t constitute an “increase in human contentment and self-control”? Whatever, it’s impossible to argue with the kind of people that dismiss any claims to progress in human history because the occaisonal war still breaks out. It’s shall we say a rather anecdotally-based view of the world. He also complains: The fact is that, however many factors you examine, you cannot fully explain behaviour, not even relatively simple behaviour.” So? Even if it is true I see that more as a healthy sort of modesty about the limits of knowledge than a discouragement to future research and investigation. It’s like proclaiming that quantum physics is worthless because it can’t pinpoint exactly the location and motion of subatomic particles simultaneously. Well, actually some people do claim that, but still. Again, I certainly don’t think that one need accept all the claims of neuroscience as absolutely true, but working within that framework has been very fruitful in recent years. And just as it’s starting to get off the ground to complain that it hasn’t already arrived at some ill-defined ultimate goal of total self-knowledge is like bitching about medical science not having made people live forever yet. Even if it has already vastly increased the understanding of human behavior there’s no reason to think that that knowledge would have diffused throughout the population and ushered in a golden age of self-understanding, since most people don’t know the first thing about neuroscience. And the weird assertion that perfect neuroscientific understanding of the human mind would necessarily take the form of a scanner that could read everyone’s thoughts seems anachronistic even in its premises, since one of the most provocative current areas of research is the study of how the mind deceives itself even in its inmost thoughts for evolutionary purposes. And sure it is (at least in my own experience) that people spend a lot of time constructing elaborate principled rationalizations for what they do in their own self-interest. Again, I’m not sure that any of this is ready to compete with 42 to explain Life, the Universe and Everything, but at least give it some time.

The school of empty repitition

I would feel worse about working as a teacher while lacking any teaching qualifications if I had seen any evidence so far that there was anything to teach. Maybe the notion of really teaching English to students who have already been studying it for the better part of a decade is already a bit of a stretch, although there is always an infinite array of amusing expressions like “playing with myself” to be eradicated. But even if you accept that your only purpose is to stand around practicing the language every week, the possibility of actually trying to engage students with any ideas while you’re at it always seems to end in slightly baffled disappointment, like trying to rough-house wih a camel kneeling on the ground just patiently waiting to be loaded up. It passes for a cliché among the foreign teachers that the students are all smart and motivated, and I suppose they are, but they for the most part seem to conform to that pack animal-like lack of initiative and confinement to fulfilling mechanical tasks. I haven’t seen American students from the perspective of a teacher, so it’s hard to truly say how they woud compare; however, the lack of any sort of perceptible intellectual culture is proving to be a recurring theme in China, and the elite universities seem to be the vacuum-like exemplars of this.

Which is especially disappointing because, although I knew that the economy garners the most attention and success, somehow I expected the dynamism of all the new money and opening-up to spark a mental outpouring as a side effect, like spit flying out of the mouth of an over-excited speaker. Instead much of the coursework of the students at my university seems to consist memorizing 40 page long passages, rather than reading a wide variety of different texts and analyzing ideas. Plus, at least at my university there really don’t seem to be many places to meet up and talk. All the dorms monitor visitors heavily, and I believe most of the restaurants on campus are illegal, since supposedly they’re a distraction to students who shouldn’t be tempted away from studying by, say, regular meals. There are a few coffee shops (which I guess bribe the police better), but they seem to be mostly full of people playing mah jong or girls haranguing their boyfriends for not buying them more clothes. All of which may seem a rather abstract complaint when half the students are presumably children of peasants and the state of whose teeth alone shows something about the conditions they come from. But copying/stealing technology from more advanced nations only goes so far, as does temporarily raising wages by cornering the market on low-paid manufacturing labor. Forcing foreign companies to hand over their proprietary technology and enter into “partnerships” with local companies to get into the market is never going to get the country out into the lead of anything. That can only come from developing some creative ideas independently, and for that you need a culture that cultivates creative minds. It could happen here, but it still seems a long way off.