Harvard Business Review Lauds Philosophical Counseling for CEOs

It’s been called “Therapy for the Sane.” It’s definitely therapeutic. But you don’t have to be suffering from any mental illness to benefit. Consider the kinds of questions the following philosophers would counsel you to ask of yourself:

Socrates: What is the most challenging question someone could ask me about my current approach?

Aristotle: What character virtues are most important to me and how will I express them?

Nietzsche: How will I direct my “will to power,” manage my self-interest, and act in accordance with my chosen values?

Existentialists (e.g., Sartre): How will I take full responsibility for my choices and the outcomes to which they lead?

David Brendel, writing at the Harvard Business Review, lauds his professional services as a Philosophical Counselor.

This is no academic exercise, but should have “cash value” in the real world… Like “mindfulness” activities, self-reflection requires time and effort… It requires the leader to think rigorously about profound philosophical issues like value and purpose. The reward of self-reflection is what Aristotle called phronesis (“practical wisdom”). Contemplating timeless philosophical values can fuel timely behavior changes in the service of growth and lasting success.

Adorno and Benjamin in the New Yorker

Alex Ross of the New Yorker writes:

Anyone who underwent a liberal-arts education in recent decades probably encountered the thorny theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School. Their minatory titles, filled with dark talk of “Negative Dialectics” and “One-Dimensional Man,” were once proudly displayed on college-dorm shelves, as markers of seriousness; now they are probably consigned to taped-up boxes in garages, if they have not been discarded altogether. Once in a while, the present-day Web designer or business editor may open the books and see in the margins the excited queries of a younger self, next to pronouncements on the order of “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Walter Benjamin) or “The whole is the false” (Adorno).

Well, this present day Web designer recently wrote about Adorno too. My chapter on what Adorno, a great critic of “the culture industry,” would have thought of Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls is coming out in December. The book is called, “Girls and Philosophy” and it’s in the popular culture and philosophy series at Open Court Publishing.

Leibniz Stepped into a Mill and Saw a Thought, Continued

Earlier I remarked on Neuroskeptic’s coverage of some new scientific research into consciousness.

I’ve been wanting to think and write about the significance of this experiment a bit more.

In some sense, what we are talking about is how a scientist or technician — who is, as we say, “outside” my mind — can know what experience I am having “inside” my mind.

For a long time in philosophy as well as experimental psychology, it has been held (with plenty of dissenters) that experience is private. No matter what look or expression is on my face, you can’t really know what I am thinking. Similarly, no matter what visual stimuli you present me with, you can have no knowledge of what my experience “of” it will be like. So if I present you with an orange stimuli, it may very well be, that for all we know, that you experience it as I would experience another color, say, purple.

Descartes was making the same basic point, I think, when said that as far as he himself knows he “may be in the Matrix.” Remember philosophy class? There are no markers in experience by which to determinately settle the question whether we are experiencing reality or experiencing a dream. This is what we discover when we make, “an inquiry into human understanding,” as later thinkers will put it. There’s just something about being a mind that separates it from the world of “beings” or “Being.”

If you look straight ahead and see the white board at the front of the classroom, it may seem to you like you are seeing the whiteboard. But are you really? Couldn’t you be having a very real-like dream in which you experience being in this classroom, looking straight ahead and having the experience as if of seeing the whiteboard?

After all, have you ever had a dream that seemed real? That’s Morpheus’ actual question he puts to Neo in The Matrix film. In that real-seeming dream, you thought every thing you saw was real. That’s what “seeming real” means. But it turns out it wasn’t. Right now seems real. But maybe it too is not.

What’s to say that now won’t be like the last time and later turn out to be a false or non-veridical experience?

Again: right now as you sit in the classroom, your experience of the white board seems real. And last night your dream that you were in the classroom and seeing the white board seemed real. Shouldn’t we — or let’s say “you” — admit that there a no markers in your experience right now that show it to be real and not just a very real-seeming dream?

If you answer that “No I won’t admit that” or equivalently “There are indeed markers to differentiate dreams from reality” then you are basically going back on our shared basic assumption which is that “once we had a dream that seemed real.” That is to say, if you have ever had a dream that seemed real, then maybe now is a dream too since it seems real too. And there’s no knowing which is the case from one experience to the next.

As anyone who has read Descartes carefully knows, it’s not actually about dreaming per se. The real mover here is the “demon” who, as far as we know, could go around making the world seem a certain way to us, when in fact, it is different.

There seems to be a gap between our minds and the world. A gap that would allow something or someone to come between us and the world and manipulate our experience of it or in reaction to it as stimulus.

This is not a practical thought. It is highly impractical to think this way (as Descartes realized). He said don’t do this all the time, just once a year or so. And don’t act on (or “be practical about”) anything you discover while having this deep metaphysical-skeptical thought.

As many students might point out in philosophy class, even if all these people I see before me are really just part of a dream, that does not license me to treat them as if they were anything else at all. I can’t just turn around and kill them because I “realize” or “think” that they aren’t (or better, “might not be”) real. A dream-policeman would still dream-arrest me and I would still go to dream-jail.

Anyway, before moving on let’s talk a moment more about how this Cartesian picture is supposedly out of favor today. Vestiges of it lurk everywhere. But contemporary naturalism asserts (wouldn’t it?) that we are physically similar enough that the stimuli out there causes in me a certain reaction (or experience) and the same stimuli would cause the same reaction (or experience) in you. For example, our rods and cones and so on are similar enough that we can know (according to the naturalist paradigm) that experience of an orange stimulus is an experience as if of an orange stimulus and never a purple one.

And somewhat more behavioristically, but not wrong for that, any facial expression I am making or behavior I am performing can reliably be taken to reflect my “inner” states. Now of course there is such a thing as “acting” and “faking it.” But that’s not to the point. The point of naturalism is that there is not this unbridgeable gap or gulf between Mind and Being in every last case. If we knew more (or if our science were further advanced) we could in principle trace the causal path from the world to my experience. And this causal path would be deterministic and necessary such that nerve stimulus of XYZ kind always produces or causes experience of a certain ABC kind.

So the naturalist wants to say that there is no divide between Mind and World of the kind we’ve been discussing. Indeed, they deny Cartesian dualism, by saying that the mind (or my experience) is itself some physical event, something with the same substantial being as what Descartes (and many of us) had been calling “the outside world” of beings and Being. There are not two types of Being, Mind and World; there’s just physical stuff arranged in more or less complicated ways such that some physical, complex arrangements are themselves experiences. Experiences cannot be irreducibly mental or private or separated from the world by a gap. They must be physical.

We do not yet understand how this could be so. But it’s part of naturalism. I suppose we could call it a “constitutive assumption.” Fine, it is a constitutive assumption — which is not yet definitively proven — that the mental is physical. But that it is not yet definitively proven is part of the theory. Naturalism is assuming it. It’s making a metaphysical claim, not an epistemological one. It’s not saying we “know,” epistemologically speaking, that all mental events are physical events — or even understand what such a claim would mean — it is just assuming that it is so.

I hear you say: “WTF?” Okay, let me explain “metaphysical” and “epistemological.” Something is metaphysically the case (i.e., something is real) if it is indeed the case even if it’s being that way could not at the moment be explained by our best epistemologies, namely the hard and soft sciences. So, “metaphysical” means how things really are and “epistemological” are how we know them to be (from our perspective).

The metaphysical and epistemological come back together in a thought experiment. Just imagine that we knew (epistemologically) everything there was to know. At that moment (if it were possible) then a fact would be metaphysically and epistemologically speaking the same. It would be metaphysically X-way and epistemologically X-way too. Thus, according to this way of speaking, the way things really are… the way things are in themselves… or, finally, the way things are outside of all our ways of knowing them is how they are “metaphysically,” as we say. On this account, the thought experiment is slightly off base, in the sense that our epistemologies only ever approach asymptotically the way things are metaphysically speaking. Interesting to think about, but enough for now.

Anyway, the constitutive claim of naturalism is a metaphysical claim that everything is physical or material or natural (not supernatural).

Let’s get back to the recent experiment which is ostensibly my topic. The experiment seems like it is going to undermine any remaining dualist assumptions that may continue to lurk in our self-understanding. Recall that Leibniz said in a dualist moment that if a human were to shrink him or herself down and walk into the brain as if into a mill, all he or she would see would be brain stuff or analogously gears and pulleys and so on. But nowhere would he or she see a thought or a mental event or a mind.

The metaphysical assumption constitutive of naturalism about the mind is that it should be possible one day (at least in principle) to know what someone is thinking just off on the basis of the physical arrangement of their brain. It should be possible in principle to shrink down and walk into the brain and see which neurons are which thoughts.

Well, a hopeful upshot of the experiment above is that from knowledge of the state of the brain we could have knowledge of the state of the mind. Remember: the dualist assumption is that you cannot.

So this experiment militates against dualism.

Cool, huh?

Do We Like TV Shows Because They Are Good or Are They Good Because We Like Them?

When we like a TV show, why do we like it? What is it about a TV show or any media content that makes it good?

Perhaps you don’t care. “It’s enough that I like it,” you say. “I don’t need to know more than that.”

That may be fine for you. But media content creators and executive producers (the money people) desperately want to know what makes us like TV shows. They want to know what makes media content good, so they can make more content like that.

It’s also an interesting philosophical question. It’s about aesthetics, or the study of the beautiful. Essentially, it’s a question about value and what is valuable or good and why.

Theories in this ballpark have been put forth by academics in mass communication, sociology, psychology, etc. And popular culture critics take stabs at it too.

Today let me discuss just one such theory. The so-called “disposition theory,” attributable to Dolf Zillmann among others, says that the appeal of a TV show depends on the viewer’s emotional attitude (or “disposition”) to the characters as well as what happens to or befalls the characters or what the characters actively choose to do.

In other words: Do we like the characters? What actions do they undertake? And if those actions are morally good or morally bad, are they rewarded or punished?

That’s very general. It gets more specific.

A TV show in which a main character is likeable will appeal to viewers if the character acts morally and is rewarded within the plot. If the character acts immorally and is rewarded in the plot, viewers will find the show less appealing.

There are other permutations, according to a paper by Tamborini et al, “Predicting Media Appeal from Instinctive Moral Values” in the journal Mass Communication and Society from 2013. If a character who acts morally is not rewarded but rather suffers unjust punishment, then the show will be less appealing to viewers. And, finally, if an immoral character is justly punished, viewers find the show more appealing.

In short, viewers want good people to be rewarded and bad people to be punished in the fictional, narrative media content they consume. And they don’t like it flipped where the good are punished and the bad rewarded.

A theory should make predictions. And the disposition theory of media appeal does make predictions which can then be tested to see if they came out true.

The paper, “Predicting Media Appeal from Instinctive Moral Values” provides data from surveys, but I will discuss it another day. Today I want to get philosophical.

It may all be fine and good to see what people self-report as liking and disliking among a variety of types of media content on offer. But I want to ask some philosophical questions, or at least questions that a good student in a critical thinking class should appreciate as going unasked in Tamborini et al.’s paper in the disposition theory school of thought.

First, let’s notice that the whole exercise is non-normative. It is descriptive, sure, but not prescriptive. I mean, the data is a description of what types of media content viewers do indeed profess to like in that specific experimental ecology. But what it doesn’t do is make a proposal about what we should like in a TV show. There’s no claim that a TV show must have such and such properties to qualify as good or beautiful or moving or valuable. Philosophers might wonder what a bunch of data on people’s preferences has to do with what is actually good or valuable in fact. After all, those people represented in the data could be wrong or have bad taste or not know what they are talking about.

There are a number of ways to object to what I am saying. One, you could say that the project of disposition theory was never meant to be normative. It aims only at description. I’ll admit that’s probably true. But notice it leaves my position intact because we are agreeing, disposition theory is non-normative.

Then it will come down to what is “interesting.” You may want to possess a descriptive theory of media content appeal, while I may want to possess a normative or prescriptive theory of media content appeal. That is, a theory of what makes good TV shows, even if the majority doesn’t like them.

This last thought that something might be good even if only a minority think so, brings us back to a second way to object to what I am saying. That is, you might challenge the whole distinction between descriptive and prescriptive. What is good is just what everybody (or a majority) says is good, you might say; whereas I’ve been saying that what is good is whatever meets a certain criteria, the criteria of goodness or the good.

That is, I’m interested in what makes something good. For the moment, I’m not going to be satisfied that what makes something good is simply people agree in liking it and calling it good. I want to know what it is intrinsically about the thing that makes it good, or, if you prefer, that makes people like it.

After all, I think we would all agree, it’s “people say something is good because it is good.” It’s not “something is good because people say that it is.” (For those of you who are interested in this tongue-twisting brain teaser, it’s generally called “The Euthyphro Question” after a Socratic dialogue by Plato. If you want to learn more, look up what I’ve written on the Euthyphro question and ask yourself, “Is the good thing good because the gods love it or do the gods love it because it’s good?”)

Anyway, I think Tamborini et al. need to think about how they would answer the Euthyphro question. Only one answer leaves their work as interesting and it’s not my answer.

A second critical thinking or philosophical point I want to make is this: The deep and wide appeal of “anti-heroes” on TV and media content generally is a counterexample to the disposition theory. After all, anti-heroes are those characters who are not “likeable” and/or don’t always do the morally right thing, and yet we root for them. Disposition theory would predict that if a TV show featured a character who was an anti-hero then that character would be doing immoral things and viewers would only find the show appealing if that character was punished in the end.

But that is just simply not what happens. Viewers absolutely love TV shows in which an anti-hero does immoral things, and the appeal does not turn on rewards or punishments the character gets. So, to explain the appeal of media content with anti-heroes, such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and arguably Seinfeld, Louie, and Girls, you’d need a different theory than disposition theory.

We need to separate a few things that disposition theory collapses all together. We need to separate a character being likeable from a character being moral. Tamborini et al.’s paper equates them. But it’s conceptually possible to “like” or have an emotional investment in a character who acts immorally. And there is almost certainly empirical data to be discovered that people do in fact “like” immoral characters, such as Don Draper of Mad Men and Walter White of Breaking Bad. Equating them will be confusing (and bad science) if it’s the liking of the characters and not their moral or immoral behaviors that causes us to find shows appealing or not.

(Also, it’s probably possible to not like a character while still having some kind of investment and in any case still come out appreciating the show.)

There’s more to say about Tamborini et al.’s paper such as the discussion about there being distinct moral judgment groups who would therefore like different media content according to the paper’s theory. Different people find different things immoral or moral, so they’re going to like or be well disposed to different characters and the media content’s appeal is going to depend on whether those whom you happen to like are rewarded or not.

And there might be other topics I could discuss.

But my present concern is with the psychology of the appeal of TV shows that feature anti-heroes. So some future posts are going to be about that as a problem for disposition theory and as an interesting matter in and of itself.

You need to get your theory of human nature and/or human psychology right in order for your explanations of why something appeals to us to be any good. “Blah blah blah appeals to us because we are such and so,” isn’t any good if we aren’t actually such and so psychologically speaking.

The Psychological Effects of Watching Immoral or Bad Characters on TV

HBOGirlsThumbAssistant Professor Elizabeth Cohen at Scientific American says:

According to [Zillman’s] affective disposition theory, people enjoy entertainment when characters that they identify as the “good guys” win, and the “bad guys” get the justice they deserve.

And yet for a long time, we the audience have apparently enjoyed watching characters on TV do bad/immoral things and even root for them in some sense. It cannot be said that we watched The Sopranos just waiting for Tony’s comeuppance. Seinfeld, Breaking Bad, Dexter (and I have argued Girls) are shows where our watching has little to do with justice for the anti-heroes at the heart of their stories.

Cohen explains that Zillman’s original hypothesis in its details is more or less out of favor, even with his own school of thought:

Zillmann’s intellectual progeny question the premise that feeling good is the only reason we watch entertaining television. We often associate words like ‘fun,’ ‘enjoyment,’ or ‘escape’ when we think about our entertainment. These are all hedonic, or pleasurable, rewards of watching TV. But the work of Mary Beth Oliver, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University, has shown us that entertainment can offer more than enjoyment. In step with the positive psychology movement, Oliver and her colleagues have identified many eudaimonic rewards of watching depressing, stressful, or even horrific television. Eudaimonia is an experience that meaningfulness, insight, and emotions that put us in touch with our own humanity. Eudaimonia might not make us happy [i.e., overflowing with pleasure-DF], but it can enrich us, leave us feeling fulfilled, touched, and perhaps even teach us something about ourselves.

Oliver is working with a very useful distinction that goes under the description of “hedonic happiness versus eudaimonic happiness”. There are two kinds of “happiness” that can be easily confused. Hedonic just means happiness, for lack of a better word, having to do with strict pleasure. Eudaimonia has to do with happiness, for lack of a better word, having to do with meaningfulness and purpose in life.

My title of this blog post suggests I am interested in the effects on a person’s mental states (his or her psychology) when he or she watches anti-heroes on TV. According to Zillman, the effect would be a kind of hedonic pleasure we get from seeing justice dispensed upon their deserving heads. But that doesn’t seem to capture what’s going on in lots of recent TV shows in which, yes, the season finale of the show’s final season might resolve into questions about justice, but in which the rest of the earlier episodes are not about dispensing justice and therefore do not trigger any supposed hedonic pleasure that would go with seeing it meted out.

For these other shows, it seems to make more sense to say, as Oliver does, that watching dramatic stories (whether justice prevails or not) provides eudaimonic happiness (let’s be careful not to confuse things by calling it “pleasure”) insofar as stories are realistic or at least relevant to our lives in the sense that they give us the opportunity to think (and more likely feel) our way through issues that once thought or felt through provide meaningfulness and understanding and purpose in life.

On the Phrase “It’s Not Psychological, It’s Neurological”

Crews and Adler believe that most cases of the yips probably have a psychological basis of some kind, but that in some percentage the ultimate cause will turn out to be neurological.[The New Yorker]

All philosophers of mind and most philosophers generally will recognize the error in this sentence, or should recognize it. Basically, the psychological cause of the yips (flinches in your golf swing, spasms in piano playing, or Knoblauch-like screw ups in baseball) is itself a neurological state or event. Because every psychological event is identical to or is also itself a neurological event.

In other words, there is nothing psychological that does not take place neurologically in the brain. So, saying that the yips are “not psychological but rather neurological” will not work because whatever is describable as psychological is at least in principle describable neurologically, since every psychological event is a neurological event somewhere in the central nervous system.

Philosophers who have thought carefully about the implications for nature and about the implications for the most perspicacious way for us to speak about nature, see that saying, “It’s not psychological, it’s neurological” seems to elide the fact that the psychological is neurological.

I am not talking about the debate between mind-body dualists and mind-body monistic physicalists. I am just talking about the naturalist position on the mind and the brain (on psychological events and neurological events and therefore on psychology and neuroscience as disciplines about those types of events, respectively). The naturalist position says the mind is the brain, psychological events are neurological events — we will return to the question of whether psychology as a science is identical to or reducible to neuroscience. (The latter is an epistemological question about our knowledge of things. I am talking about things-in-themselves like states of affairs or events, which is a metaphysical question.) Most philosophers assume or would like to assume that most if not all scientists were naturalists. So, the scientists who work on events in the brain at the level of psychology recognize and affirm that the mental processes which they describe qua mental process are in fact neurological processes.

Again: Philosophers who have thought carefully about the implications for nature and about the implications for the most perspicacious way for us to speak about nature, see that saying, “It’s not psychological, it’s neurological” seems to elide the fact that the psychological is neurological.

This is something I think Dan Dennett and others have taken scientists to task for.

But now consider the following quotations:

One of Adler’s hopes for the new study is that it will help define the division between psychological and neurological causes….

What could that mean? It seems straightforward, but if it is meant metaphysically (meant to be about things-as-they-are-in-themselves) then it perpetuates the mistake of thinking that some psychological events (or causes, i.e., causal-events) are not, at another level of description, neurological events. But of course they are, if we are to remain naturalistic. If, on the other hand, the statement is meant epistemologically (in the sense of being about what we can know and at the level of what interests us in the various goings-on in the mosaic of things and events in the world), then it’s not saying that we’ll learn the difference or division between psychological and neurological events-in-themselves, instead we will differentiate those times that it’s convenient or pragmatic for us to describe an event as psychological and not neurological and when it’s convenient or pragmatic (shall I say “explanatory”) to describe an event as neurological and not psychological.

Here’s another one:

At that time, ‘neurosis’ was merely a standard term for disorders whose origin was neurological rather than, say muscular….

This statement is better. It makes a conceptually non-confused distinction between a neurosis, like thinking everyone is out to get you (a mental event qua mental), which is understandable as “based” in the neurological, and maybe a twitch, that is based in the muscular system and not the neurological.

Now this:

Beginning with the rise of psychoanalysis and continuing into the nineteen-seventies, he said, dystonias, including [this special sort of] writer’s cramp, were often treated as forms of mental illness….

“Treated as” implies a sense of “conceived as” it seems to me, as well as “medically treated”. Because of the rise of psychoanalysis and, one assumes, a proliferation of pop-psychology, dystonias were conceived as being mental and were intervened upon (treated) with mental interventions, like talk therapy.

What’s interesting to me is that some “problems” roughly thought of as “mental” will be amenable to talk therapy and others won’t. Any “mental” problem is, as we naturalists have it, neurological as well as psychological. It’s just that some are going to respond to “psychological” interventions like “here, think this new way,” or “isn’t that interesting, your nail-biting means this and that to you in your self-understanding,” while other “mental” problems can only be intervened upon neurologically at the level of medicines based on neurotransmitters or even at the level of brain surgery. It seems like no amount of talk therapy will rid someone of, I don’t know, face-blindness, which is understood primarily neurologically as damage to a brain area or at least a mis-functioning or malfunctioning system in the brain.

So are the yips a mental problem that can be dealt with only neurologically or can they be intervened upon with cognitive/talk therapy? The article goes on to list a number of psychological interventions: “A ball that isn’t a ball can’t miss the hole. Similarly, a putter that doesn’t feel like a putter may not jerk.”

What the author of the article is talking about is getting the golfer to think that they are not hitting a ball but just swinging at a marshmallow or something. This, it seems to me, is a an attempt, at the psychological level, to change to brain chemistry of the golfer while he or she swings. This way the brain chemistry behind the yips is circumvented and a non-yip swing can happen.

Indeed, any psychological intervention is metaphysically also a neurological intervention. It’s just that it’s easier to get a handle on the psychological description of what’s going on and perhaps at the present impossible to get a handle on what’s actually happening with the neurological events in themselves.

The Possibility of Moral Artificial Intelligence

In case you missed it, at the Atlantic, Patrick Tucker has written an article about the military’s project to create moral artificial intelligence — robots that can make moral decisions.

For instance, in a disaster scenario, a robot may be forced to make a choice about whom to evacuate or treat first, a situation where a bot might use some sense of ethical or moral reasoning.

Wendell Wallach’s book, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong, argues that the quest to build such machines has already begun.


“Robots both domestic and militarily are going to find themselves in situations where there are a number of courses of actions and they are going to need to bring some kinds of ethical routines to bear on determining the most ethical course of action.”

But I would argue moral decision making in humans is not a result of “ethical routines” or any kind of rule following. We act based on evolved emotional reactions to situations and then construct post-hoc rationalizations of our intuitive judgments or emotionally-driven behaviors.

I find myself asking myself whether there is an isomorphism or rather a gap between our gut-based judgments and the reasons we post-hoc construct to justify those judgments. If there is not, then it would seem “okay” to build robots which would operate only for “good” reasons that we accept as justifying those actions. Even though they wouldn’t act in the way we do when we act morally, they would still act justifiably.

Additionally, I wonder if acting ethically takes seeing oneself as worthy of ethical consideration, and then extrapolating one’s own preferences etc to another who one sees as worthy of ethical consideration. If acting ethically worked that way, then these moral robots would have to first see themselves and their kind as worthy of moral consideration. So, eventually, they might run a calculus concluding that the greater good is served by saving the “lives” of 5 artificially intelligent and moral machines by sacrificing 1 human being in, say, the Trolley Problem.

Noel Sharkey at the Huffington Post:

The robot may be installed with some rules of ethics but it won’t really care.

But that is going to seem wrong headed soon. It’s, I think, a little but like saying that since our brains are made of neurons and so on there really isn’t any consciousness there. I think the reason we have the intuition that artificial intelligence does not understand (see Searle) or care is because we know too much about how it works to achieve that understanding or caring. If the thing gets all the behavior right, are we going to say that its behavior doesn’t count as understanding or caring just because we know how its insides work? It might (might!) be that the only reason we continue to possess the intuition that other human beings are conscious is because we do not yet understand the neurological mechanism that underlies the apparently conscious behavior we see. But that would mean that once we do understand that neurological underpinning to our consciousness we will lose the sense that we are conscious and free etc. I think that is the wrong headed move.

Instead, we should recognize that the project is to reconcile the “scientific image” — the image of the universe and of ourselves that the various sciences deliver — and our “humanistic image” — the way that we do indeed conceive of ourselves, and very likely must conceive of ourselves, in order for there to be individual agency and society, which would include conceiving of ourselves as free and responsible and conscious.

An Approach to Psychiatric Disorder at the Neuronal Level

BishopBlog writes:

In 2013, Tom Insel, Director of the US funding agency, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), created a stir with a blogpost in which he criticised the DSM5 and laid out the vision of a new Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project. This aimed “to transform diagnosis by incorporating genetics, imaging, cognitive science, and other levels of information to lay the foundation for a new classification system.”

He drew parallels with physical medicine, where diagnosis is not made purely on the basis of symptoms, but also uses measures of underlying physiological function that help distinguish between conditions and indicate the most appropriate treatment. This, he argued, should be the goal of psychiatry, to go beyond presenting symptoms to underlying causes, reconceptualising disorders in terms of neural systems.

BishopBlog objects to the whole paradigm:

The RDoC program embodies a mistaken belief that neuroscientific research is inherently better than psychological research because it deals with primary causes…

From the RDoC:

Imagine treating all chest pain as a single syndrome without the advantage of EKG, imaging, and plasma enzymes. In the diagnosis of mental disorders when all we had were subjective complaints (cf. chest pain), a diagnostic system limited to clinical presentation could confer reliability and consistency but not validity. To date, there has been general consensus that the science is not yet well enough developed to permit neuroscience-based classification. However, at some point, it is necessary to instantiate such approaches if the field is ever to reach the point where advances in genomics, pathophysiology, and behavioral science can inform diagnosis in a meaningful way. RDoC represents the beginning of such a long-term project.

Second, RDoC is agnostic about current disorder categories. The intent is to generate classifications stemming from basic behavioral neuroscience. Rather than starting with an illness definition and seeking its neurobiological underpinnings, RDoC begins with current understandings of behavior-brain relationships and links them to clinical phenomena.

“Constructs,” i.e., a concept summarizing data about a specified functional dimension of behavior (and implementing genes and circuits) that is subject to continual refinement with advances in science. Constructs represent the fundamental unit of analysis in this system, and it is anticipated that most studies would focus on one construct (or perhaps compare two constructs on relevant measures). Related constructs are grouped into major domains of functioning, reflecting contemporary thinking about major aspects of motivation, cognition, and social behavior; the five domains are Negative Valence Systems (i.e., systems for aversive motivation), Positive Valence Systems, Cognitive Systems, Systems for Social Processes, and Arousal/Regulatory Systems.

Here’s a matrix to illustrate what he’s got in mind:

The columns of the matrix represent different classes of variables (or units of analysis) used to study the domains/constructs. Seven such classes have been specified; these are genes, molecules, cells, neural circuits, physiology (e.g. cortisol, heart rate, startle reflex), behaviors, and self-reports.

In addition, since constructs are typically studied in the context of particular scientific paradigms, a column for “paradigms” has been added; obviously, however, paradigms do not represent units of analysis.

It may be that BishopBlog objects to Insel’s ideas because BishopBlog is more optimistic and less derogatory with respect to psychological intervention. After all, Insel admitted that “a diagnostic system limited to clinical presentation could confer reliability and consistency but not validity.” But what more do you need besides reliability and consistency to treat patients?

Can There Be Understanding With Questions Only Or Don’t We Need Answers At Least Sometimes?

Damon Linker’s criticism of science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent anti-philosophy statements begs the question I’m afraid. I want philosophy to win on this one, but I don’t think Linker has managed to pull off making the case.

We could conceive the main beef to be about whether asking unanswerable questions is worthwhile. That’s what Tyson seemed to take the main issue to be. Between the lines, if not more explicitly, he demonstrated that he values answers. He equates understanding with coming up with answers. And, naturally, he considers understanding worthwhile, although that valorization remains between the lines.

Linker’s response is great up to a point. He says that philosophy is about posing “searching questions” and we might give it to him that it’s about asking better and better questions, even though they may remain unanswered and even unanswerable.

But then he says the following:

If what you crave is answers, the study of philosophy in this sense can be hugely frustrating and unsatisfying. But if you want to understand yourself as well as the world around you — including why you’re so impatient for answers, and progress, in the first place — then there’s nothing more thrilling and gratifying than training in philosophy and engaging with its tumultuous, indeterminate history.

So, Linker equates value with understanding too. And he says that you can achieve understanding by posing better and better questions. But whether you can or not was the issue at hand. Tyson says the worthwhile understanding of the world means asking questions and arriving at answers. Linker says the worthwhile understanding of the world means asking better and better questions even in the absence of answers. But if your opponent has said X, it is not yet an argument to just assert not-X. Linker certainly disagrees with with Tyson on the fundamental issue at hand. But he has given no argument, that I can see, why understanding consists of asking better and better questions even in the absence of answers. He’s just said or asserted that it does.

And, after all, doesn’t it seem that understanding is going to take some answers at some point?

Linker seems to recognize this possibility when he acknowledges that many defenders of philosophy will try to argue that philosophy makes progress, which I understand as philosophy does arrive at a few answers sometimes. Even though the biggest part of the philosophical project is the asking of better and better questions which may not always arrive at answers, philosophy must have eventually arrived at some answer or answers to really be said to “understand” something.

If philosophy is just a critical method then it cannot be said to provide understanding. It may sharpen the understanding you get when the better questions it poses get answered, say by science. But philosophy conceived of as unrelenting criticism, questioning and critique, does not arrive at understanding on its own.

Might philosophy so conceived, a universal wolf, at last eat up itself?