Feets and Feats

tmp_2290_4-21-2014_110059_-1My  wife seems to be having the beginning symptoms of dementia.   Thank God she’s not anywhere near a drooling, muttering creature that some might portray.  But she is also not the vivacious, dynamic administrator of a large social service organization; not the woman she used to be.
And I…   …   …I am not the man I used to be, without her.  Without her!!  The thought trickles down my mind like a sliver of ice on an blazingly hot desert afternoon.  My shoulder muscles wink together in migraine pain.  Emotional brain-freeze.  I laugh too much; to keep from…   …   …I won’t it say out loud, for fear of what you must already know I’m trying not to express.
We met in Brooklyn, NY, in 1957:  teen-age lovers who went through high school and college together; though continents apart she at East Los Angeles College, (which actually is located on Brooklyn Avenue) and I at Brooklyn College-City University of New York.  I don’t know how to live without her.  And she’s fading away.  Not that anybody notices.  But I notice.  And my daughters notice.
Now we live in a “retirement community” which is not meant to be a prison, but is a prison nonetheless.  A prison of broken people, too tired to die, but without the energy to fully live.
The situation is too complex to describe fully today.  But, little by little, I’ll describe it to you.  I’ll describe it to you from my wheelchair, from our little room, which I am now going to leave for a moment, and contemplate my new world; to see what new opportunities await me. If any!!   If you remember my story, I’ve been dead before (not metaphorically;  but ACTUALLY!!) so anything I now accomplish is a death-defying feat.  So “Feets; don’t fail me now”!!!

NeuroScience: Anticipation And Feeling In Literature – 2


How is it that readers can sense a direction, a possible future meaning, from a given sentence?

This is the basic question of the neuroscience of literature.  David S. Maill, http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/ University of Wales, currently at the University of Alberta, CA,has studied in this area for decades.

“What are its causes, and what are the inferential processes that are initiated? How does the sense of a whole arise, and from what aspects of a text? And what is the relation between these two levels of response, the local and the global? These prospective aspects of response have not generally received much consideration from psychologists: models of response have proposed solutions drawn from non-literary fields (usually cognitive science) that underestimate the nature of the problem.

For example, the concept of macro-structure proposed by Kintsch and Van Dijk (1978) seems inadequate as a representation of the kinds of overall understanding at which readers of literary texts aim. Similarly, the discourse structure described by Hobbs (1990) takes no account of the poetic features of literary texts that delight and surprise their readers (see Beers [1987] and Miall and Kuiken [1994a], for some critical discussion of theories of this kind). Moreover, studies in the cognitive tradition have also tended to blur distinctions between literary and non-literary texts, and have provided no purchase on the individual differences between readers or on the personal and often feeling-rich meanings evoked during literary reading (cf. Zwaan, 1993, p. 162-7).”

“We do not wait until reaching the end of a text before beginning to entertain ideas about what the text means!

Various aspects of the text, semantic, stylistic, and narrative, provide suggestions upon which a reader is likely to build his or her own anticipations.

This can be demonstrated by a brief analysis of the following passage, taken from the opening of a short story by Virginia Woolf, “Together and Apart” (Woolf, 1944/1982):

Mrs Dalloway introduced them, saying you will like him. The conversation began some minutes before anything was said, for both Mr Serle and Miss Anning looked at the sky and in both of their minds the sky went on pouring its meaning though very differently . . .

The narrative situation at the outset seems to involve a social gathering, such as a party. From the second phrase, “you will like him,” we are likely to infer, perhaps without noticing it, that there will be a bias towards the point of view of the female character (which is confirmed by the remaining part of the long second sentence that I have not quoted). The opening phrase of the next sentence, “The conversation began,” picks up an obvious expectation that the characters will begin talking, but then thwarts it by stating that nothing was said. What kind of non-verbal conversation are these characters holding? We may already be predicting something like rapport or sympathy, especially as we have been told that she “will like him.” In the next phrase we discover that the meeting appears to be out of doors, and for many readers the reference to the effect of the sky might momentarily evoke a romantic aura; however, the appended phrase, “though very differently,” could be taken to undermine this. So far, then, a narrative situation has been invoked, in which a woman meets a man with whom she may feel an immediate sympathy: already, readers may be anticipating a romantic scenario. The stylistic features can be construed to support this, given the metaphors of a conversation without words and the sky that “pours” meaning. At the same time, hints of a possible distance between the characters could also be read into the same metaphors, for which the phrase “very differently” provides evidence. Perhaps these are two characters who will in some way fail to relate to each other.”

“Within a few seconds a range of complementary but also contradictory responses has become possible. While some of the inferences that are made may be confirmed or not confirmed quickly (as happens with the inference of point of view), others may not be satisfied so soon: the reader may need to keep in play several possible meanings that will have a bearing not only on the outcome of the story (the narrative dimension) but also on what it means (the point of the story, or its theme). The reader must, in other words, assess the strength of the different implications, such as those presented in the second sentence, in the light of subsequent evidence, and decide which offer the best fit to the story as a whole. In fact, the failure of relationship is the implication that the story will emphasize. (A study of readers’ responses to this story found that readers tended to shift from a romantic interpretation at the beginning of the story to one involving isolation or inability to communicate: Miall, 1989a.)”

“Woolf’s story is not particularly unusual as a literary text in posing such problems, except perhaps in being unusually compact. The problem, from the perspective of reader response theory, is to account for the processes by which local details, of the kind we have been describing, project the larger meanings. In what form are such anticipations made, and what control processes do readers use to evaluate and monitor their anticipations?”

“Two reader response theorists who discuss the experience of reading in this way are Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser. In “Affective Stylistics” Fish (1980) argued persuasively for the significance of the experience of the reader during reading. The extraction of a “correct” final meaning for a text is not the only reading activity in which we should be interested. Fish pointed in particular to a range of syntactical devices by which readers are led to expect meanings that are then contradicted. At the sentence level, Fish would, for example, recognize the shift in meaning of “conversation” in Woolf’s second sentence as a significant strategy from the reader’s perspective. He proposed that “the temporary adoption of these inappropriate strategies is itself a response to the strategy of an author; and the resulting mistakes are part of the experience provided by that author’s language and therefore part of its meaning” (p. 47). Iser (1978) has offered a comparable account of reading, based primarily on concepts drawn from phenomenology and gestalt psychology. The “gaps” or “blanks” in a text (such as the possible contradiction we noticed in the Woolf passage) require readers’ acts of “ideation” and the building of a schema adequate to the text as a whole. Neither Fish nor Iser, however, have undertaken to develop their models in psychological terms; nor have they attempted to test them empirically with readers (and Fish has not continued to develop his model).”

“A part of Iser’s argument is the contention that fiction texts differ from expository texts in terms of the mental processes required for understanding them. An expository text refers to a given object, thus the range of possible meanings of each sentence must continually be narrowed down to make reference precise. During a fictional text “the very connectibility broken up by the blanks tends to become multifarious. It opens up an increasing number of possibilities, so that the combination of schemata entails selective decisions on the part of the reader.” (1978, p. 184). In effect, an expository text refers to an object that is specified with increasing precision; a fictional text refers forward to a schema that the reader must bring into being. The two reading processes may roughly be described as retrospective and prospective. An empirical comparison of readers’ activities during the reading of an essay or a fictional text by Olson, Mack, and Duffy (1981) showed that while few anticipations were made during the reading of essays, anticipations were characteristic of the response to stories. Readers of essays appear to be engaged in building a model of the text: “Each new element in the essay is related to earlier elements. There is little anticipation of what is coming up, except at the most general level.” In contrast, the reader of a story “is looking ahead, trying to anticipate where the story is going. Except at the beginning, where an overall hypothesis is being developed, the story reader tends to relate each sentence to the general hypotheses and predictions that have been developed” (p. 311).”

“The different orientations are described in the Olson et al. study as retrospective and prospective. Unlike this report, however, accounts of literary reading proposed by psychologists have more frequently tended to embody retrospective models, based on discourse theory or schema theory (e.g., Hobbs, 1990; Simon, 1994). While such theories have been notably successful in accounting for some of the processes of comprehension, given relatively simple prose or stories, the key role of the anticipatory processes of the kind required by literary texts is largely invisible to such models. The difficulty of studying the anticipatory aspects of reading, and the lack of constructive thought about this problem on the part of cognitive scientists, points to the strategy offered in this article. As a way of posing more explicitly and in more detail what specific problems face the literary reader in the anticipatory domain, and to enrich theoretical understanding of reader response, the present focus will be on a neuropsychological model of reading.”

“The focus of the discussion will thus be on anticipation, and its role in the constructive process by which a reader interprets details in a text and works towards an understanding of a text as a whole. However, several of the neuropsychological studies that will be mentioned point to the role of feelings and emotions in creating and supporting the anticipatory function. Feelings, it will be suggested, probably play the central role in initiating and directing the interpretive activities involved in such complex activities as reading. A glance at recent accounts by psychologists shows that the anticipatory role of feeling in this respect has not received much consideration (e.g., Frijda, 1986; Oatley, 1992; but see Aylwin, 1985, pp. 136-7), although it was recognized by various authors in the last two centuries, such as Coleridge and William James. This points to the need for a systematic investigation of what the neuropsychological research suggests, in order that the hypotheses it provides can be brought to the domains of both psychology and reader response studies for elaboration and testing.”


NeuroScience: Anticipation and Feeling in Literary Response

Poetics, 1995, 23, 275-29 


Anticipation and feeling are taken to be significant components of the process of literary reading, although cognitive theories of reading have tended to neglect them.

How does the brain make sense of its neurological inputs in order to make sentence make sense?  This is the first of two posts from David S. Miall, Department of English, University of Alberta, in which he expounds on the Neuroscience of literature.

“Recent neuropsychological research is described that casts light on these processes: the paper focuses on the integrative functions of the prefrontal cortex responsible for anticipation and on the contribution of feeling to the functions of the right cerebral hemisphere.”

It shows how feelings appear to play a central role in initiating and directing the interpretive activities involved in such complex activities as reading.

“In particular, a key feature of literary texts that captures and directs response is foregrounding, that is, distinctive stylistic features: these defamiliarize and arouse feeling. Such responses are likely to be mediated by the right hemisphere, which is specialized to process novelty. An analysis of the neuropsychological mechanisms implicated in response to foregrounding suggests how readers discriminate among competing interpretive possibilities, and how other important elements of literary response such as imagery, memory, and self-referential themes and concerns are recruited.”

“Several studies are cited indicating that response to various characteristic components of literary texts is mediated by this hemisphere, including the prosodic aspects of foregrounding, figurative language, and narrative structure. This hemisphere also provides the context for elaborating and contextualizing negative feelings, a process related to Aristotle’s notion of catharsis. It is argued that the neuropsychological evidence sketched in this paper provides a more reliable basis for future theoretical and empirical studies of literary reading.”

The article is comprehensive and goes on for several pages.  In the last installment, below, I’ll summarize the findings and conclusions.    The link to the entire article is included.


Me Dreyfus, You Jane

I found a friend from grade school on Facebook.

Coney Island Express

She wrote,

I joined the circus so part of time I’m traveling and
performing as a high wire ballerina-the rest of the
time I live in New York City and work as a dental
hygienist. Life is good!

 And I responded,

The circus? Where were you when I needed you? All those floppy shoes in my closet! And me, in my baggy pants, doing my sailors jig looking for you. What a pair we would have been!

Instead, I’m a retired psychotherapist in California. You haven’t been on this website for years. But just in case, I’ve left you the keys to my locker and, if you need help, just whistle. Phew! Phew. and we’ll run off together. I have the keys to my dad’s old jollopy, jellopie, JALOPY, what-ever [thanks, wikipedia] and off we’ll go.

Its a shame you’ll never see this. I had great fun writing it.  Hope all is well.

And now, we’re now corresponding.  So;

Hi, Jane:

There’s so much to tell.  But first, the formalities.  I’ve learned the hard way how easy to be misinterpreted on the ‘net so don’t get angry but I just want to correspond.   Hope you have similar good, healthy social instincts too.

Enough of that.

When I saw your bio I thought, “I should have known you better”, in the day.  I was so ‘spaz” then.  I was so scared.  Vietnam, the “Cuban Missile Crisis“, the whole 60s thing…and all I could think of was “Should I join the ”Weathermen’ or be an upstanding citizen.  So I became an upstanding citizen.  No serious regrets.  Little ones, but no biggies.  I loved, and still love, being a father.  My two daughters are joys.  The eldest, S., gave up a good career in non-profit management to open a knitting store.  My youngest, J., is a good third grade teacher.   S.’s husband owns a small, small medical PR firm.  They adopted my grand-daughter, M.S., from China the same week I was dieing [sic] in the hospital after a stroke.

That’s whole other story.  Later!

J. has a boy, J., 10; and and girl, M., 6.  J. has my personality.  Thoughtful.  A little too thoughtful…he gets paralyzed by doubt.  He thinks things through, and through…I encourage him to let go…most things work out well, don’t they?  Otherwise we all, as a Human Race, would have been long gone.  But he’s so young, poor kid, and he needs a wise grandfather.  Eureka!  He has me!!  J.’s beau is among other things, a blues guitarist, and went back to grad. school at State to be a nutritionist.  Come to our house for Thanksgiving, y’all.  He’s from Dallas!

I know what you’re thinking.  This guy really know how to write the shit out of a piece of paper!  That’s the rest of my story.  In 2002, I had my second stroke.  It left me paralyzed on one side, and aphasic.  I was in rehab at university hospital  for months.  I am The Six Million Dollar Man.  I joke about it, what else is here to do.

I blog about my good fortune, and my newly acquired neuroplasticity, at http://taxi-dog.com

I’d love to talk to you.  And I will!  But first another story.  An embarrassing one.  I don’t know you!  Of course I know your name.  But nothing else.  My elderly mind thinks we knew each other in grade school…maybe even Mrs. Callahan’s class by…what, Ditmas Park, before even The Caton School?  Maybe not.

In the1980’s, at the reunion, Larry S. was saying, “You’ve got to see Jane…You’ve GOT TO SEE Jane.  She’s been looking for you.”   It was the scene from “American Graffiti“!  I was Richard Dreyfus and you were Suzanne Somers.  But I never found you!

And now its 30 years later, and I’m still looking but my stroke-leaden mind just doesn’t compute.  Were you my Cadillac Girl?  Was I your chubby little Jewish philosopher?


“Eliphino”, he trumpeted!


Help Me: I Am Addicted To Rat Poison!

Well, I know!  Rat poison?  How?  Why?  Let me explain.

—–     —–     —–

Warfarin is an anticoagulant drug sometimes given to humans after strokes and heart attacks. The drug thins the blood and prevents it from clotting, allowing the blood to move more easily through the body’s arteries. Warfarin also works to prevent the blood of mice and rats from clotting. Rodent baits containing Warfarin work by thinning the blood of the animal until it bleeds to death internally. Mouse baits containing Warfarin generally work well and have a low incidence of secondary poisoning when the poisoned mice are consumed by scavengers and other animals.


“Given in sufficient amounts warfarin will cause animals to bleed to death. For this reason is has been used as a poison to eliminate rats and mice. Warfarin works by binding to and interfering with the activity of an enzyme that produces some of the clotting factors that are essential for blood clotting.”

When warfarin has been used as a rat poison it has been found that some rats are resistant. The more warfarin is used the more common resistant rats become. In rare cases, warfarin has been found not to work in some people who are given it for medical reasons.


What  does this warfarin have to do with me?  Well warfarin, when used medically, is called coumadin.  And I’ve been taking it for years as a result of a significant family of strokes.  My mother one from which she survived.  And one from which she didn’t!  And I had two.  One which I I went right back to work with; and the one which I have survived but still don’t take care of!

And this, dear reader, is what happened.  Actually, no one really knows what happened to me for certain.  One day, as I was getting to work, I said to my wife, “I don’t feel good”.  Within minutes, I was puking all over the car, unconscious!  Thankfully, I lived less than a mile from a well-known regional medical center, was rushed to the emergency room, and had immediate brain surgery.  I was told I had ‘coded’ three times before I recovered.  I was unconscious for several weeks.

Dramatic?  Yes; of course.  But here’s the rub.  Once in a while, I still forget to take my medicine!  My wife cries with shock and anger: “Are you trying to kill yourself!!!?”

And I don’t know?  Am I?  Or am I being my manic self, feeling invincible, too busy to pay attention, caught up in minutiae to pay heed to my real life-or-death needs?

And does it matter?  Take your f@@king medicine, you $%*&~#@!.  Please, I beg you!


Related articles

NeuroPsychology Of Politics – Haidt Three


—–     —–     —–

I don’t want to believe this.  I want to believe that moderate political beliefs are choices!  That the different beliefs exist so that compromises can be made.  No one SHOULD believe on face value.  Competition of ideas promotes better ideas.   That’s why I am a proud Conservative.  Let the best ones one win.

But Haidt seems to say, “No”.  The rest of this interview should clarify this discrepancy.   Let’s see what happens next.  After we read this, let’s have some discussion.

—–     —–     —–

BLVR: Let’s take a more concrete question. Gay marriage. You brought this up in your talk at Dartmouth and the one I saw at Duke. You say that conservatives in America employ all four of the modules, whereas liberals only employ two. You said that liberals have an impoverished moral worldview, and that conservatives somehow have a richer moral life. Now, I don’t know if that’s just a way to shock the liberal intelligentsia…

JH: No, I meant it, although I don’t mind doing a bit of shocking.

BLVR: You said that we as liberals have pared down our moral foundations to two modules, fairness and do-no-harm—whereas perfectly intelligent conservatives have all four modules

Er…I want him to re-conceptualize that.  Maybe Haidt hasn’t fine-tuned his categories.  One thing I’m learning about neuro-psychology is that the field is much too young for anyone to make sweeping generalizations.

JH: Exactly.

BLVR: So if you take gay marriage, and let’s say we’re not in Massachusetts, we’re in Mississippi, and you have people who have the intuition that gay marriage is really wrong, it’s impure. Because they have that purity module that liberals lack. Do you want to say that in that culture that gay marriage is really wrong?

JH: I think it depends on the kind of society you have. I’m glad that we have a diversity of societies in this world. And some societies become experts in lives of piety and sanctity and divinity. The four modules are not virtues themselves. Virtues come out of them. America is very much about individual happiness, the right to expression, self-determination. In America you do need to point to harm that befalls victims before you can limit someone elses’ rights. While there’s not necessarily an objective truth about whether gay marriage is right or wrong, when you look at the values and virtues that we hold dear in America, and you look at who is helped and harmed by legalizing gay marriage, if you start with a utilitarian analysis, so many people benefit from gay marriage and no one is directly harmed by gay marriage. So that in itself argues in favor of gay marriage.

On the other hand, conservative morality looks not just at effects on individuals, but at the state of the social order. The fact that acts that violate certain parts of the Bible are tolerated is disturbing to conservatives even though they can’t point to any direct harm. So I do understand the source of their opposition to it. And this is a difficult case, where it can’t work out well for everyone. Somebody has to give. If we were in a Muslim country, or a Catholic country where much of social and moral life was regulated in accordance with the purity and hierarchy codes, then it would be very reasonable to ban gay marriage. But we are not in such a country. We are in a country where the consensus is that we grant rights to self-determination unless a limiting reason can be found. So in this case, I think conservatives have to give. It is right to legalize gay marriage.

BLVR: I want to make sure I understood that. If we were in the 1930s—I don’t want to stereotype—but 1930s Alabama, there’s a pretty safe one, maybe the modules of purity and tradition played more of a role then than they do now. Let’s say you’re the father of a man who wants to marry another man. You would feel comfortable saying to your son that it’s wrong to marry—it’s wrong for you do that…

JH: I do think that facts about the prevalence of homosexuality and the degree of repugnance to it are relevant. In the present case, 5 percent of people are gay. That’s a lot of people. And in the present case, repugnance against homosexuality is not nearly as strong as it used to be. I think we are now at the point where we ought to legalize gay marriage, and some people just won’t be happy about it. But now look at Justice Scalia’s argument in opposing Lawrence v. Texas. Scalia’s argument is very interesting. I think it’s ultimately wrong, but wrong for an empirical reason. I’m paraphrasing: he said, “If we have to legalize sodomy, the next step will be incest and sex with animals.” But I don’t think that would be the next step. Five percent of people cannot live full happy lives if homosexuality is outlawed. If 5 percent of people could not live full happy lives without having sex with their siblings, or with sheep, then we’d have a difficult moral problem on our hands. But we don’t. Very few people fall into either category. So legalizing homosexuality is not the first step on a slippery slope to legalizing everything.

BLVR: OK, but getting back to my question, we’re in 1930s Alabama. Five percent of the people are still gay, I imagine, but repugnance is much higher. Is it wrong then? Or maybe you think it’s not a proper question.

JH: No, I think it’s a very good question. The amount of shock and outrage would have been much greater then than it is now. Plus back then they didn’t know the facts about homosexuality; they didn’t know that it’s caused by hormonal conditions in utero, it’s not a choice. Now that we know these facts we’re in a much better position than they were then. I don’t know if that answers your question.

BLVR: Well, maybe it does. Correct me if I’m wrong. Maybe you want to say yes, in that case it probably would have been wrong. Maybe you want to say to your son: no, you ought not marry that man, or even carry on a relationship with him. But given that we’re not in that situation now, that’s changed. Is that not a fair analysis of what the implications of your theory are?

JH: Yes, I think so. Given that there’s not an objective (nonanthropocentric) fact of the matter, and what makes our moral life so interesting is that any particular act can be justified or opposed by reference to a different constellation of these four modules, of these foundational intuitions, it really is a matter of argument, public discussion, triggering people’s intuitions, and somehow or other the chips fall in a certain way. Sometimes, with time, they fall in a different way. Ten years ago, or even three years ago, we never thought that we’d be this close to having gay marriage—we have it, actually.


Related articles

NeuroPsychology Of Politics – Haidt Two


—–     —–     —–

This is the second installment of an interview with BELIEVER  magazine, in which Dr. Haidt says that “reason is the press secretary of the emotions”.  In a process he calls “moral dumbfounding”, the students’ moral beliefs are challenged, forcing them struggle intellectually.  How they struggle, how they come to their conclusions, deal with their emotions, is the ultimate goal of the research.  I believe.

it’s actually our intuitions—fueled by our emotions—that are doing most of the work

—–     —–     —–

BLVR: I want to talk about the philosophical implications of your model for a moment. When I came across your work, I thought it provided a good deal of support for a position we can describe as moral skepticism. In particular, I thought the social intuitionist model makes plausible the claim that there is no such thing as objective moral truth, even though human beings believe that some of their moral judgments are objectively true.[1] But you don’t draw skeptical conclusions from your findings, do you?

JH: For me it all hinges on the distinction made by David Wiggins between anthropocentric truths and nonanthropocentric truths. If anybody thinks that moral truths are going to be facts about the universe, that any rational creature on any planet would be bound by, then no such facts exist. I think that moral truths are like truths about beauty, truths about comedy. Some comedians really are funnier than others. Some people really are more beautiful than others. But these are true only because of the kinds of creatures we happen to be; the perceptual apparatus—apparati—that we happen to have. So moral facts emerge out of who we are in interaction with the people in our culture.

BLVR: So you would call those truths? Take someone like Drew Barrymore—some people find her fairly hot while other people don’t see what the big deal is. You would say that there is some truth concerning what her aesthetic appeal really is?

JH: Well, apparently, if there’s that much disagreement about her, she must be somewhere in the middle. There’s much less disagreement about Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney. So they are more attractive than Drew Barrymore.

BLVR: So in other words, the way you determine the truth is by how much agreement there is?

JH: It’s not that simple. But these are truths in which how people respond is the most important piece of evidence. You could never say that person X is really hot even though nobody thinks so. I think about it this way. One of my favorite quotes is from Max Weber: “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun.” So I think that with morality, we build a castle in the air and then we live in it, but it is a real castle. It has no objective foundation, a foundation outside of our fantasy, but that’s true about money; that’s true about music; that’s true about most of the things that we care about.

BLVR: So give me an example of some ethical truths in the limited sense that you’re talking about.

JH: Let’s see… you should value and repay those who are good to you. You should protect and care for those who you are superior to, in a dominant position to. You should not hurt people unless there’s a very good reason to do so—where good reason means a moral reason, not just a reason advantageous to yourself.

BLVR: So let’s take one of those: you should take care of those people who are in an inferior position to you—

JH: You have a position of authority over them… so you should take care of them.

BLVR: What makes that true?

JH: What makes that true… what makes that true… now I feel like I’m the subject of one of my own dumbfounding experiments.

BLVR: Well, that’s what I’m wondering. Why isn’t this one of those cases?

JH: Nothing makes it true—it’s a truth that grows out of who we are… what makes that true… See, I guess that’s the wrong question. This is—I know that philosophers are very into justifications but… nothing makes it true.

BLVR: OK, but then how—

JH: Well, OK, let’s see. Catherine Zeta-Jones is beautiful—what makes that true? Um, her… shape, I suppose.

BLVR: But don’t people think that there’s a difference between moral truths and aesthetic truths? If someone doesn’t find Catherine Zeta-Jones beautiful, for whatever reason, you don’t necessarily think that he’s wrong, do you?

JH: I might, actually.

BLVR: Most would think that maybe he just has different tastes. Maybe he likes blondes, he likes men, he hates Australians, or whatever. But now take a moral judgment like “it’s wrong to torture people.” If someone says, “no, it’s not wrong at all… it’s fun, actually, you should try it,” you don’t just think: to each his own. You think he’s wrong, that he’s made a mistake. And that’s where you want justifications—you want to be able to convince people that they’re wrong in a way that has nothing to do with their individual preferences on the matter.

JH: That’s right, so we need justifications for our moral beliefs; we don’t need them for our aesthetic beliefs. We can tolerate great diversity in our aesthetic beliefs, but we can’t tolerate much diversity in our moral beliefs. We tend to split and dislike each other. I recently wrote a paper on moral diversity, addressing the fact that many people, especially in academic settings, think that diversity is a virtue in itself. Diversity is not a virtue. Diversity is a good only to the extent that it advances other virtues, justice or inclusiveness of others who have previously been excluded. But people are wrong when they say that everything should be more diverse, even, say, rock bands. It’s an error, an overgeneralization. I’m sorry—back to your question. And this relates to the distinction between moral pluralism and moral relativism. I subscribe to the former, not the latter.

BLVR: Talk about that for a moment. What’s the difference?

JH: What I want to say is that there are at least four foundations of our moral sense, but there are many coherent moral systems that can be built on these four foundations. But not just anything can be built on these four foundations. So I believe that an evolutionary approach specifying the foundation of our moral sense can allow us to appreciate Hindu and Muslim cultures where women are veiled and seem to us to lead restricted lives. These are not necessarily oppressive and immoral cultures. Given that most of the world believes that gender role differences are good and right and proper, they are unlikely to be wrong, by which I mean, they are unlikely to be incoherent or ungrammatical moralities. We in America, especially liberals, use only two of these four bases. Liberals use intuitions about suffering (aversion to) and intuitions about reciprocity, fairness, and equality.

But there are two other foundations—there are intuitions about hierarchy, respect, duty… that’s one cluster. And intuitions about purity and pollution, which generate further intuitions about chastity and modesty. Most human cultures use all four of these bases to ground their moral worldviews. We in the West, in modern times especially, have to some extent discarded the last two. We have built our morality entirely on issues about harm (the first pillar), and rights, and justice (the second). Our morality is coherent. We can critique people who do things that violate it within our group. We can’t critique cultures that use all four moralities. But we can critique cultures whose practices are simple exploitation and brutality, such as apartheid South Africa or the American slave South.

BLVR: OK, but why is it that we can critique apartheid South Africa whereas we can’t critique a culture that uses genital mutilation where chastity and fidelity of females is considered a high virtue? What makes us able to do one and not the other?

JH: You have to look at any cultural practice in terms of what goods it is aiming for. Veiling, or keeping women in the home, is usually aimed at goods of chastity and modesty. Not all human practices are aimed at moral goods. Sweatshops, child pornography, child slavery, the slavery of Africans in the American South—none of these is aimed at goods provided by any of the four foundations. These are just people hurting and exploiting others for their personal monetary benefit.

BLVR: Do you ever worry that you’re doing what the subjects in your experiments do—attempting to justify a strong intuition against exploiting people, and then trying to come up with a reason why that’s wrong, whereas maybe your intuition doesn’t flash as powerfully against the veiling of women… I would think in your work that that’s something you might be extremely sensitive to. How would you answer the charge that you’re merely trying to come up with a reason why exploitation of different races is wrong, and veiling of women is not, without providing a sufficient basis for this judgment?

JH: That’s an excellent question. Consistent with my theory, I must say that I never looked at the other side and considered whether I might be wrong in that way. We tend to think that we’re right, and we’re not good at coming up with reasons why we might be wrong. So, that’s a great question to think about. Whether I am motivated to apologize for or justify some practices and not others. That said, I certainly don’t think I’m motivated in that way… my first experiences in Muslim or Hindu cultures were emotionally negative, in seeing the treatment of women and the hierarchy. It took me a while to get over that. And to see that these practices offended my American sensibilities, but that I was being ethnocentric in that respect.

The women that I spoke to in India—while there was a diversity of opinion, most of them do not see it as American feminists see it; they did not see veiling as something imposed upon them, to oppress them, to deny them freedom. In contrast, most black slaves in the American South were not happy about their position. And many slave owners knew that what they were doing was wrong, or at least they were ambivalent about it. Now you might say: well, maybe the women have been brainwashed? So there are two tests you can do. The first is to ask: do the people who appear from the outside to be victims endorse the moral goals of the practice? The second test is: how robust is this endorsement? Even when they learn about alternative ways in other cultures, do they still endorse it? So while you might have found black slaves in the South who were so brainwashed that they accepted their status, I believe that if they heard about other countries where blacks were not enslaved, they would not insist that blacks ought to be enslaved.

BLVR: OK, so then tracing it back to these four modules or bases on which moral systems are based. Because that’s where you’re going to provide your justification for whether we condemn other cultures or whether we can’t…

JH: That’s right, those are the four pillars in the air upon which we’ll build our culture-specific moralities.

BLVR: These four pillars are a product of evolution. How do you respond to the age-old philosophical question that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”? Darwinism gives us a descriptive story of why we might endorse things that come out of them. How do you get the claim “one ought to treat people below you kindly” out of this “don’t harm people” module that’s in place because of its contributions to biological fitness? That’s the puzzle. Because when you do put your foot down and say that a culture ought not to act in a certain way, how are you getting that “ought” from a purely descriptive story about pillars of morality that evolved for nonmoral reasons?

JH: You keep asking me to provide some kind of external justification, to go outside the system. But when I’m within the game—

BLVR: Not external justification… even internal, I’m just looking for any kind of justification.

JH: Well, from within the game, within our web of significance, it’s wrong to hurt people.

—Continued Tomorrow—

Focus and Distraction

Human Brain Evolution
Image by hawkexpress via Flickr

In a new study to appear in in Neuron, scientists have uncovered mechanisms that help our brain to focus by routing only relevant information to perceptual brain regions…and on how this focus can be disrupted, suggesting new ways of presenting information that augment the brain’s natural focal capabilities.

“Focus on what I am about to tell you!”, the report begins:


Our complex modern world is filled with so many – flashing images on a television screen, blinking lights, blaring horns – that our ability to concentrate on one thing at a time is of critical importance. How does our brain achieve this ability to focus attention?

The answer is believed to lie in two distinct processes, referred to as “sensitivity enhancement” and “efficient selection”.

A more detailed report can be found at:  http://www.riken.go.jp/engn/