Tuesday, March 28, 2006

nerve pills and Ted Chiang

Before I apologize for the Midgleython: I did read some stories of Ted Chiang's, and enjoyed them, but I don't think they're literary. The prose is lively, he's got some good natural swing, he's clever and has some interesting ideas, but I don't feel the power of the English language in his writing. It's neither poetry nor fine rhetoric. Which is no tragedy, but I don't think his writing should be held up as an example of literary science fiction. And it's possible that he's got more literary work than what I've read, but I don't think literary writers generally turn it on and off like that; I think you're a poet or you ain't. Which, again, is fine. I'm reading one of Asimov's autobios, and he's got this to say about literary writing:

The trouble with writing poetically is that if you hit the target, the result is beautiful; if you miss, it is rotten. Poetic writers are usually uneven. A prosaic writer like me, who consistently misses the heights, also avoids the depths.

I think that's true. On request, though, just because I'm a pedant, I'll do a side-by-side comparison of literary and Ted, and then people can get hysterical about that, if they want to. But I think it's probably not worthwhile.

(What kind of a snobby reader am I, anyway? The kind that largely agrees with Harold Bloom about Harry Potter, but mostly likes Bloom's headline: "Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes." There, now I've alienated all six of you.)

Anyway, about Midgley: I hadn't meant to turn this into the Mary Midgley Hour, but she writes seriously, and without appeals to God, about why we shouldn't believe Rodney Brooks (remember Rodney Brooks?) when he says we're machines and no different from any other kind of biological machines, possibly no different in any important way from any other kind of machine, period. And why Dawkins is wrong when he says that science is the only way we have of understanding the world. So I'm taking my time reading her book, and doing something that's unusual for me, scribbling arguments all over it. I don't usually write in books, but hers needs a conversation.

Hang on, I've got to go tell the shrink I don't want any more Xanax. Half a pill and I felt like one of those things you poke with a stick and it doesn't move. To think people build an empire on this.

Monday, March 27, 2006

the narrow throne of reality

Midgley on why talk about the self sounds flaky and unscientific:
Metaphysical materialism [the idea that the biochemistry is all there is to life] got into European thought in the first place as a weapon used, first by the early atomists and then by political campaigners such as Hobbes, against the dominance of religion. In modern times the prime motivation behind it was horror and indignation at the religious wars and persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its main target was the notion of the soul as a distinct entity capable of surviving death....this social and political motivation was quite close to that of the ancient atomists, who were also moved by outrage at disastrous religious practices.

This motivation was a suitable one for forging a weapon in campaigns against the churches. But it was much less able to provide a balanced foundation for the whole of science, let alone for a general understanding of life. For that wider understanding, change and interaction needed to be seen as intelligible in their own terms and the first-person aspect of life had to be taken seriously as well as the objective one.

Descartes notoriously saw this last problem and made a magnificent attempt to deal with it by making mind or consciousness the starting point for his systematic doubt. He did succeed in getting subjectivity finally onto the philosophers' agenda, but for a long time they were puzzled about what to do with it. Descartes still described mind ontologically, not as a first-person aspect or point of view but as a substance, something parallel to physical matter but separate from it and not intelligibly connected with it.

This kind of dualism had the fatal effect of making mind look to many scientists like an extra kind of stuff, not like one aspect (among many) of the real world but like a rival substance competing with matter for the narrow throne of reality. This vision inclined scientifically-minded people to sign up for an ideology called materialism, meaning by that not just allegiance to matter but in some sense disbelief in mind. The idea of the two as rivals for the status of reality persisted. Mind was seen as an awkward non-material entity which perhaps ought to be removed with Occam's Razor, one which was certainly too exotic meanwhile to deserve serious scientific attention. And alarm about it went particularly deep in the social sciences, which were becoming increasingly sensitive about their scientific status.

This is why, through much of the twentieth century, scientists, both social and physical, in English-speaking countries were extraordinarily careful to avoid any mention of subjectivity and particularly of consciousness....

Which sounds grand and sensible, but I'm still waiting for Midgley to admit that the physical stuff generates mind, rather than saying, "These are aspects of human life which must be considered together in understanding what we are." I understand her impatience with the idea that we're windup toys, and that we're helpless to our biological fate. I like her attempt, later in the book, at arguing that mere physical state does not push our actions; our own conscious thought does. But the thoughts must come from somewhere, and must be part of the physical system somehow. As important as the subjective experience is, and as real as I consider it to be, her arguments do not, so far, persuade me that it drives us as powerfully as other parts of the chemical machinery do. Or that mind is a special kind of emergent property, different from all others, and more important in its effect on the organism. Which is saying something, since I've spent most of my adult life writing fiction, or contemplating subjective experience.

Last week I tried Xanax, a benzodiazepine prescribed for anxiety. Subjectively: It's an abomination, emotional Botox, but it sure does work. I took half the minimum prescribed dose and within half an hour had a heavily anesthetized gut feel. No adrenaline, not even in the middle of a quarrel with my husband -- which I made up by saying, "Was this really so important?" No spring in the feet, no fight. The drug left me with an overwhelming sense of Whatever, and I can't imagine that under its influence I would, say, mount a political campaign, or bother flossing my teeth, or find television inane enough to turn off.

I mention this because it's a dramatic example of what seems to me an ordinary reality. While my thoughts influence my action, so does my gut feel, my physical sense of excitability, dread, paralysis, calm, anesthesia. It seems to me obvious that the biochemistry influences this physical sense and the thoughts and action that stem from it, and so far I am not seeing Midgley account for this ordinary experience.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Who you calling a semi-illusion?

Midgley quotes Dawkins on what selves are:

The individual organism is not exactly an illusion. It is too concrete for that. But it is a secondary, derived phenomenon, cobbled together as a consequence of the actions of fundamentally separate, even warring agents. I shan't develop the idea but just float the idea of a comparison with memes. Perhaps the subjective 'I', the person that I feel myself to be, is the same kind of semi-illusion....The subjective feeling of 'somebody in there' may be a cobbled, emergent, semi-illusion analagous to the individual body emerging in evolution from the uneasy co-operation of genes.

Midgley is very sharp about this idea that higher-level functions like mind, or individual organisms -- both of them cobbled, emergent -- are not as real as their constituent and creating particles are. And obviously I agree with her, since just a few weeks ago I wrote:

But I don't know that "emergent" and "illusory" are necessarily the same thing. If you are willing to assign selfhood a level of mythic reality, whatever it may spring from, then you are going out to lunch with Teresa, not the illusion of Teresa. Even though you may be aware, if you are inclined to think about these things as you pick the olives out of your salad, that at some level of pre-organization there is no Teresa with lipstick on her teeth, only quantum biochemistry fizzing around in some humanly unimaginable way.

Why do I care? Whatever Roberta Rae imagines people are, surely that sense affects how she deals with them, and how she views herself. My own sense of what people are must affect both the story and the way I write the characters. If I believe Roberta is a semi-illusion, but the idea would never occur to her, then I have a problem: Do I write her as a benighted character? Why, and how do I avoid condescension? Should I write her diffidently, as someone who might be right? If so, how do I negotiate my own visceral sense of what people are? However I do it, I want to be fairly clear about what I believe and why, and what Roberta Rae believes and why, and how the views argue with each other.

Why might nonrepresentational artists want to think about these things? In 1998 I went to see the Rothko show at the Whitney, and saw for the first time his black paintings. The room where they hung was an obvious sanctuary, and I sat looking at them for a long time. I felt they showed, as fact, an inhuman universe, and yet they answered some human groping for sacredness in a rich and unusually articulate way. They had authority. What strikes me now is how specific and articulate they were about both that universal absence of human importance and the sense of sacredness, which was so immediately palpable it made people sit down and be quiet. I doubt an artist comes to that sense of reality accidentally or casually.

Anyway. I imagine Dawkins would dismiss "assigning selfhood a level of mythic reality" as a poetic (and self-delusional) view that doesn't reflect known fact: there is known biochemistry, and nobody has to arbitrarily assign reality to it. Meantime there is no objectively provable "I". But Midgley says Dawkins and others who think like him are children in the grip of philosophical fashion. Next time I'll post her short history of scientific squeamishness about "I"'s reality.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

I feel scientific, oh so scientific

So I lied. Reposted from the Lab Lit forum:


I don't know that arts and science are that far apart in individual minds. It could well be that many artists would turn into scientists, and maybe vice-versa, if certain things were suppressed. I had a back injury some years ago and ended up on a subclinical tricyclic dose as a pain modality, and it wrecked my writing. The emotional perceptions weren't as acute, my language was duller & slower. So I stopped trying to write and instead did chem and system admin. All that systematizing stuff was suddenly much more interesting than it had been before. Granted, I wasn't very good at either of them, still too jumpy & qualitative (and I've forgotten most of it now). But I wonder now what would've happen if we'd upped the dose.

Not that I'm willing to experiment, now that I'm off the stuff.


That's rather freaky! But I suppose no more freaky than Oliver Sachs-eque tales of people receiving head injuries and then suddenly believing in God - or losing their faith. You really felt more scientific on drugs? I guess lithium can cause bipolar people to lose their creative spark too.


I never really thought of it that way (I feel scientific, oh so scientific...) but I certainly felt calmer, more interested in how things went together step-by-step, less distracted by the force & intensity of how things feel. For me, that intensity is tied to verbal acuity, so the usual speed & sharpness in naming things also went away. It's also tied to the ability to make swift connections between various experiences, emotional states, views of moments. I just felt slow & rather dull in those respects, on the drugs. I was also aware that the people doing real science had a swiftness with nonhuman abstractions that I don't have at all.

Mind, I was only doing undergrad science at best, so although it did get exciting and possibly even creative for me at a few points, I'm not sure I know what "feeling scientific" is. It might be more accurate to say that I was calm enough to sit still for it, unmolested enough by emotional experience, and bright enough not to be terrible at chemistry at an undergrad level. I might have made a decent mid-level career of it if those had been my normal settings, probably tied to administration or policy.

A few years ago I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and thought the groovy/systems distinction was a useful one. I was almost permanently bewildered as a kid, could not figure out how anything went start to finish or what one bit of a process had to do with another. Frequently failed to notice processes existed, even when I was in the middle of them. I just didn't think of things in terms of how they were put together. Was much too busy with the experience of little chunks. "Red. Smooth. That fabric is criminal and making me ill, how can that woman not notice? I can see the fibers in the paper, the blue line is unexpectedly hopeful." I don't think I started thinking of things in terms of systems, or of the existence of systems, until I was in my 20s. And I'm still fairly oblivious.


I just remembered the title credit sequence for The Sopranos -- it's really true to my experience. We used to drive Pennsylvania-NYC once or twice a month when I was a kid, and I don't know how many hundreds of times we made the trip, but I left for college with absolutely no idea how to get from PA to NYC. No concept of a highway system; the on- and off-ramps were mysterious to me. You're on one road, then you're on another, that's all. All I noticed along the way was the way the highway looked, the light reflected in house windows, tired siding, the giant menacing smoothness of tanks in the tank farms, store signs, cut rock along the highway, etc. The Sopranos sequence is exactly right.

The Prof:

The Sopranos sequence is indeed a work of high art. I have the episodes on DVD and I never fast-forward through it.

I think what you are describing is very accurate as far as science thinking - and so nice to have such a right-brained description of it as well. Drugs...well, if autism is a perturbation of the mind then why not a pharmacological equivalent?

Read more of this thread at Lab Lit.

Monday, March 06, 2006

time out

I'm trying to get a story out and probably won't post till the 15th. Meantime there's a few posts down there looking lonely, so please comment or hijack. When I come back there'll probably be elaboration on the idea of fault and the line between blind biological drive and will.