The 4 Cs


Sometimes, when I am in reading-after-a-hard-day-at-work mode, I feel mentally unprepared to tackle difficult books. On such days it is better to settle on the sofa with a glass of chardonnay and a text that entertains as well as informs. I confess that Ruth Whippman’s America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks had me snorting my wine a few times; her wry British cynicism kept me giggling even when her observations strongly critique some serious aspects of the culture and nation to which I belong.

In her book, Whippman finds understandable fault with the commodification of happiness, but she also threatens an American sacred cow: the concept of individual happiness that arises from our foundation document concerning our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Implied in her critique of the American “happiness industry” (including positive psychology, attachment parenting, yoga, mindfulness, Facebook…) is that maybe our nativist stance of rugged individualism and the freedom to make money on anything we can capitalize upon, thus pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, does not result in “happiness.” (Maybe Jefferson meant something else by that term. We cannot really know.) One reviewer mentioned that it is just Whippman’s “outsider” status as a person not raised in the USA that makes her book so useful. Changing one’s usual perspective, as I constantly reiterate to my freshman students, can hardly fail to be a valuable exercise in critical thinking and broadening one’s outlook.

Here is an observation of Whippman’s with which I heartily agree: “If happiness is community, then a psychologically healthy society takes collective responsibility for the well-being of its most vulnerable members.” I agree, however, because Whippman’s conclusion happens to coincide with my culture, upbringing, or perspective. Like her, I am willing to accept contentment–with occasional bouts of joy–rather than run relentlessly after happiness; and like her I find most contentment among human beings, though I may want them to shut up and just hang out quietly in the same room with me for awhile! Furthermore, it increases my happiness when I know that in my community (or nation), other people are cared for, not just me. In my point of view, happiness–including personal happiness–arises when I know that all human beings have their needs met.

But I recognize that not everyone will agree with Whippman’s, or my, conclusion that community is happiness; indeed, there is a good argument to be made for Sartre’s “Hell is other people,” too.


Recent discussions on diversity among fellow people employed in academia (what it appears to mean, what it might include) and reflections on mortality, consciousness, the notion of the self–and spirituality and religion–not to mention science writing on evolution, have pushed me into a deeply introspective mode. Yet I find I want to converse with other people about these ideas, not hole up in my own head; I seek, and have been happy to participate in, discourse with others.

In another word: community.


Here’s a paragraph from Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell that I want to share with my students:

If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person. [italics Dennett’s]

Complexity, community, curiosity, contentment. The four Cs?

Oh, let’s add chardonnay. Make it five.  🙂

Slightly less difficult books

photo ann e. michaelI recently read Paul Bloom’s book Descartes’ Baby while simultaneously reading Daniel Dennett’s Content & Consciousness. Of these two, the latter falls a bit under the “difficult books” category, but it is not too hard to follow as philosophy goes. Dennett’s book is his first–the ideas that evolved as his PhD thesis–and in these arguments it is easy to see his trademark humor and his deep interest in the ways neurology and psychology have aspects useful to philosophy. Bloom’s book, a somewhat easier read, suggests that the mind-body problem evolved naturally from human development: young children are “essentialists” for whom dualism is innate; Descartes simply managed to write particularly well about the evolutionary project (with which, I should note, Bloom disagrees; as a cognitive psychologist, he maintains a more materialist stance).

It turns out that because I have read widely if shallowly in the areas of philosophy, cognitive psychology, evolution, art, aesthetics, and story-making, I find myself able to recognize the sources and allusions in texts such as these. Quine, Popper, Darwin, Pinker, and Wittgenstein; Schubert, Kant, Keats, Dostoevsky, Rilke…years of learning what to read next based on what I am currently reading have prepared me for potentially difficult books. [Next up, Gilbert Ryle and possibly Berkeley.] I don’t know why I feel so surprised and happy about this. It’s as though I finally realized I am a grownup!

And I am glad to discover I am not yet too old to learn new things, young enough to remember things I know, and intellectually flexible enough to apply the information to other topic areas. Synthesis! Building upon previously-laid foundations! Maslow’s theory of humanistic education! Bloom’s taxonomy! The autodidact at work in her solitary effort at a personal pedagogy.

If I ever really discover what consciousness is, I’ll let you know.




Mere philosophical speculation

I have been reading more of Daniel Dennett. One of his earlier books, Brainstorms, consists of essays and talks and thus, being available to read in short bursts, has served as my intellectual entertainment in between the busy social events of this particular June.

I liked three of his essays better than the others. The first one in the book describes, explains, and argues for “intentional systems;” the author also does a fairly good job of asserting that philosophers and psychologists ought to study computer models of intelligence as a means of leaning more about human intelligence. He does not make lots of mechanistic claims, however–he does not suggest human beings are mere soft machines, and he gives a good argument in Chapter 11 as to why we cannot make a computer that feels pain. But he does separate, by degrees, the differences between basic consciousness states and consciousness that exhibits intentionality, and he separates basic consciousness from simple instinct–something that confuses many people when they are posed difficult questions about non-human animal “minds”.

His essay “How to Change Your Mind” offers terrific, logical insights about human “feelings,” “intuitions,” and opinions. Dennett shifts the perspective on the psychological question of why it is so difficult for human beings to “change their minds” and to give genuinely rational (or mechanistic) reasons for doing so.

The book’s final chapter, “Where Am I?” is available as a PDF at this link, and here Dennett offers a much more entertaining and readable philosophical thought experiment on personhood (and consciousness/mind) than Derek Parfit posits in his book Reasons and Persons. Those readers who are interested in how a thought experiment can argue for the existence of a person-as-consciousness-state without embodiment-in-carbon-based-materiality, without the usually-required religious or spiritual crutch, but also without the dense counterarguments of Parfit’s approach, may wish to check out this chapter.

Granted, I understand that many people feel thought experiments are a monumental waste of time, tantamount to navel-gazing; others feel sure that teleportation out of fleshly bodies is the stuff of science fiction (emphasis on the fiction). But as our inventions permit us to test out theories that once were “mere philosophical speculation,” all kinds of surprises may await us. Quantum physics was an imagined idea, for example, that scientists have been able to revise and explore in a more machine-based way…Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions does, often, operate historically as he envisioned the process. The recent excitement over teleportation of coded data provides an example of mechanical testing of theories (here is a good basic article on the experiment for the layperson, with graphics and a Star Trek image, and here is the scientist-written article).

All of which is fascinating, yet none of which decreases my enjoyment of a run of perfect June summer days. Incarnate, I attempt meditation. There is honeysuckle on the breeze. Insects whir and buzz around me; sun warms my left shoulder. Time for consciousness. Time to be here, among the things of this world.



Consciousness as multiple drafts

Daniel C. Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, has kept me entertained and interested for a couple of days now. How could I refuse a book with that title? And Dennett–whose conversational writing style appears to toss off one idea after another in quick succession–actually stays mostly true to classic philosophical reasoning in his arguments as he endeavors to make claims for what consciousness is. He begins with phenomenology as one way to initiate the concatenation of empirical science (physics, biology, neurological research) with logic. He dispenses with Husserl and the early Phenomenologists but invents his own form–hyperphenomenology–breaking phenomena into three divisions and exploring each until he arrives at a way to destroy the long-held concept of the mind, hence consciousness, as “Cartesian Theatre,” and replace that model with a construction more biologically sound.

The book is far too complex to summarize, but the concept he develops that most appeals to me is what he calls the multiple drafts theory of consciousness. Dennett draws upon neurological and psychological research as well as past and current philosophical thinking to propose that what we term consciousness may consist of multiple narratives created through physical input, memory processing, and other processes that result in fraction-of-a-second “revisions” in thinking. Narratives! Revisions! As a writer, I can certainly relate to this idea. The theory of multiple drafts consciousness would explain many phenomena, such as the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the repression and re-constructing of traumatic experiences, the embellishment of stories (as Dennett puts it, “What I should have said at the party becomes what I said at the party”)…and it has examples in the way we “tell” fiction, movies, and family stories.

Currently, I am engaged in the work of revising dozens and dozens of poems. Many drafts. Many narratives, many layers. Subtle shifts in perspective or story or language or style–which version is the real me? All of them, across a continuum.

Derek Parfit’s Reasons & Persons suggests some of the same conclusions through a more traditional philosophical approach (harder to read than Dennett’s often-humorous prose which is geared more toward the non-philosopher and which employs considerable neurological and psychological research as part of its rational evidence).

Although these texts intrigue, and are convincing, they remain speculative. For me, the science aspects of the inquiry remove none of the mystery or delight I experience in terms of my own consciousness. Nor do they negate my sense of myself as individual, unique as to perspective, or whole in myself and in the cosmos. I know that many people resist the idea that consciousness is not soul, who feel that scientific research somehow diminishes human beings into–what? Fancy hardware for intelligent software? Automatons with the illusion of free will? Purposeless life forms? Robotic zombies with no moral bearings?


A continuum version of tao

Apparently, we desire awe; but knowledge doesn’t have to kill awe.

I find myself fascinated with the ideas posed by Douglas Hofstadter wherein he theorizes consciousness-as-continuum (see this post). People love to default to a black & white way of analysis, thinking, and judging, but everything in nature contradicts that concept. No doubt our brains, wired to make quick decisions using the simplest shortcuts, sieve out a great deal of content and then justify later (Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow covers this process in fascinating depth). It’s simply easier to think of balance as tao, perfectly harmonious black and white, or to sort people or objects or ideas into yes-or-no categories. But the distinctions are seldom so clear–there’s a continuum that stretches from the black to the white, as in the spectrum, as in the fringes of a forest or a meadow, as in the so-called races of human beings, as in places where societies and cultures meet and often intermingle, as in the coastline of the sea or a riparian environment. And all of those things are awesome, even miraculous.

In Dennett’s Chapter Five, “Multiple Drafts vs. the Cartesian Theater,” he offers this diagram:


dennett003It’s a proposed version of what happens when we think.

You will have to read the book to decipher this illustration; but I recognize in it the way I tell a story, think about a story, remember an event, record an experience, and the narrative method of the many kinds of stories (many genres, many media) that I love.

One thing it is not is straightforward. We have all those revisions to make, to layer our experiences with, to explore along the fringes of, and to find deeply miraculously awesome. Wading among my drafts now, I feel revitalized. These reflections and revisions are part of my Self as a conscious being in a physical and wonderful world.




Consciousness reconsidered

A few months back, I was reading about consciousness (see here and here). This article on “brain tubules” caught my attention, although I admit to considerable skepticism as to how applicable, or even correct, this research will turn out to be. The material seems exciting–quantum vibrations in the brain!–because of the possibilities inherent in a synthesis of chemistry, biology, and physics and how such synthesis could lead to a theory of human consciousness.

The earliest article I could find on this theory dates to 1998 (an abstract is here). I suppose I should now break down and tackle Werner Loewenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain. But I have a huge to-read list at present and no time or concentration to get to those books. Besides, at the moment I find myself more concerned with the less empirical side of consciousness theory. I mean: belief, attitude, faith. Those non-provable abstracts that nevertheless seem so much a part of most human beings’ operating systems…the things that psychology and neurology do not seem able to answer and that keep philosophers continually at work (the only true knowledge being the knowledge that one knows nothing).


And maybe, as Daniel Dennett suggests, the very idea of consciousness is an illusion–the brain evolving to fool us through perception.


This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here:

This bust resides in the Louvre,
and was found here:

Do our brains fool us through our perceptions of emotion, too?


And how does this affect how we understand, say, literature, or art? Poetry, for example: Is it possible to deconstruct the pleasure I take from a poem into quantum vibrations in connective synapses as a result of the evolutionary process and, if so, where does the knowledge get me?

Would I still love the poem? (I think I would.) Would I consciously love the poem, consciously find pleasure and surprise in it, once I understand fully the process and development of consciousness? (Why not?) Would such knowledge flatten my emotional or aesthetic attraction to the poem? (I doubt it.)

If loving my perception of art, my relationship with it or attachment to it, is “merely” an evolutionary development, that does not cheapen or devalue the way I feel.


What brain studies and consciousness studies have to say about faith may perhaps set up more antagonism between science and consciousness-as-non-biological/i.e. religion, spirituality, etc. By faith I mean not necessarily religious faith but any non-provable conjecture, some of which are imaginative and potentially marvelous, not to mention potentially true. Some statements can be disproven but not proven…and there is the apagogical argument…and then there is the definition of faith (or belief) as Wikipedia defines it: “Faith is subjective confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion, or view (e.g. having strong political faith) without empirical evidence, or as confidence based upon a degree of evidential warrant (as in a Biblical sense).”

That empirical evidence thing is the perpetual stumbling-block, yet–paradoxically–it’s also what makes faith so appealingly…human. Yes, maybe we are fooling ourselves. And maybe that’s what is so marvelously cognitively neurologically fruitful and imaginative about the whole human endeavor.