For those interested in the evolution and neuroscience of
empathy, here are two books I’ve enjoyed
The first is Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins
of Mutual Understanding, by Sarah Hrdy (Harvard / Belknap, 2009).
It’s important because it gives a good evolutionary story of human empathy based on
group child rearing practices. So it decenters (w/o unduly neglecting) the mother / child relation in
favor of the “it takes a village” angle. What’s great is that she criticizes a
common reading that war provides the selection pressure for in-group empathy,
as well as the “Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis” (i.e., humans got good
at mind-reading in order to cheat and catch cheaters w/in the group). She
also criticizes her earlier work (Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species [Random House, 1999) for being too
individualistic / competitive. Very interesting stuff!
The other is Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry, Born for Love: Why Empathy is
Essential and Endangered (HarperCollins, 2010). This book, in the popular science genre, has some great stuff on infant and child neurodevelopment and the need
for love, affection, and care to enable eventual self-regulation of the
stress response system. So more science to support the “essential
interdependence” model. Covers some of the same ground as a favorite of mine,
Bruce Wexler, Brain and Culture (MIT, 2006). Notes on Wexler available here. More stuff in this vein from the "Evolution and Biology of Morality" course I've taught recently.
Q: How did you decide on case studies as a method of doing philosophy?
A: I think case studies are an important and under-used tool in philosophy, as opposed to thought experiments ... with case studies we’re not after essential distinctions at the borders of categories. Instead, we’re trying to explore concrete situations and the “problems” they express. Here is where my reliance on the thought of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze comes in. Deleuze did not think in terms of essences that would slot things into categories, but thought that events are the points of intersection of “multiplicities.” That’s a technical term for Deleuze which, roughly speaking, means a field in which several processes meet to produce events, much as a crystal or a lightning bolt or a hurricane forms out of a field of multiple processes. In dealing with analogous multiplicities in our social fields we see that (1) any one move changes the conditions for future moves and that (2) no one solution exhausts the potentials for future creatively different solutions ... The more we explore the Schiavo case, the Columbine case, the Katrina case, the more we realize that concrete situations are “crystallizations” of a problematic field, and that a change here or there, if it occurs at a critical point, might make all the difference in the world. (READ THE FULL Q&A)
A few remarks on Alva Noë's Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessors from the Biology of Consciousness. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.
Alva Noë follows up his wonderful Action in Perception (MIT, 2004) with this book aimed at a popular readership. This post will be less formal than a book review, but I would like to set out some reactions.
First, I think it's great that philosophers write this kind of book. There is a well-established popular science genre, but by and large philosophers have not taken up the challenge of addressing ourselves to the educated lay public. That's a shame, as we should all take seriously our obligations to now and again take on the role of the "public intellectual." There's a complex history here with the mid-20th century turn of mainstream American philosophy away from pragmatism cutting us off from the great example of John Dewey, as well a rather different cultural landscape from Europe, where Bergson, Russell, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu, Habermas and many others have filled the role of "public intellectuals." Noë thematizes just these issues of public engagement in his Preface, where he writes "Natural science … is not discontinuous with broader human concerns." Rather than being "value neutral," it is a human project, aimed at broadening the human understanding of the world. I would have liked a reference here to Dewey. Not that I know too much about him, but I do recognize these themes as resonating with his.
Second, it's not easy writing this kind of book, for you have to balance some technical precision (why else have a professional philosopher be the author, rather than a journalist?) with a format and writing style accessible to educated but not specialized readers. Noë succeeds, I think, in setting forth his main thesis – that consciousness is an activity arising from the interplay of brain, body, and world, and is thus not located purely in the brain – in clear, precise terms that allow the professional philosopher to recognize the issues involved as well as allowing the intended lay readership to grasp what's important in the debate.
Having said all that, I would like to bring up some fairly technical issues here, but as they concern the political context in which consciousness arises, I think that's warranted. Also, I won't write so much about all things I agree with, or that I like in the book, which are many (for instance – but this is only an example – the great stuff on the "mind in life" thesis). But I hope it's clear that I wouldn't write at all if I didn't think the issues were very important and that Noë's contributions need to be taken seriously. It's more praise to disagree with someone on important issues, I think, than agree with him or her on trivial ones. To be more precise, it's not that I *disagree* with Noë on many of these points, it's just that I would like to extend the argument a few more steps.
End of life issues. On page 34, Noë writes about the end-of-life issues concerning the difference between PVS (Persistent Vegetative State) and locked-in syndrome. Noë writes:
When the family of a person who has 'become a vegetable' refuses to give up on that person, refuses to consider 'pulling the plug' or 'pulling out the feeding tubes,' what they are saying is that the kind of love and commitment they feel for the daughter or parent or partner is simply incompatible with making the kind of cost-benefit decisions that would justify making the life-ending decision. Others, of course, reach very different kinds of decisions.
There are a number of things to say here. I've tackled many of them in my study of the Terri Schiavo case, which can be read here, here, and here.
First, there's a difference between respecting the wishes of a person, recorded before the onset of PVS, not to receive feeding tube care after the onset of PVS, and a third-party decision. In the Schiavo case, it was never a third-party decision, but a matter of respecting Terri Schiavo's wishes. I explore why most people tend to think of these kinds of decisions as self-centered: "I don't want to be a vegetable, so please pull the plug on me!" But it's also possible that one can wish not to receive feeding tubes for the sake of others. In other words, you might know that your loved ones could never make that decision on their own, so you make it for them.
Second, to be legally ratified, third-party decisions have to be made on a "best interest of the patient" basis. There's a way this could be said to be a "cost-benefit" basis, but just that phrase alone makes it seem like just a monetary decision.
Third, the use of "person" with regard to PVS cases is philosophically fraught. There are many, many issues involved here, but let me just refer to the longer pieces mentioned above, along with this distinction: it might be that when a person before the onset of PVS asks not to receive feeding tubes, that the death aimed at here is not suicide (killing the organism in order to kill the person), but "organismcide," that is, killing the organism that used to support a person but is now only the remains of the person, who died when the parts of the brain necessary for consciousness (but not sufficient – I agree with Noe here totally) were destroyed.
Fourth, I think we need to support the right of persons to direct in advance that they not receive tubal feeding not just in PVS, but also in MCS (Minimally Conscious State) and the locked-in condition. In MCS, severe cortical damage has occurred, but some, "minimal," cognitive function remains. A catatonic "locked-in syndrome" occurs with no cortical damage, hence full cognitive function, but with a closing off of motor control. I would speculate that most people fear a "locked-in condition" when they don't want tubal feeding, though the only reason to believe an MCS is any better than being locked in would be the lowered cognitive function. An other-directed motivation for refusing tubal feeding would not be to avoid the horror of the locked-in state (though that is horror indeed), but to allow some peace of mind, closure, and the ability to grieve, to come to our loved ones.
Again, I don't want to make too much out of just a few sentences, and I don't want to criticize Noe for not going into the details of these knotty issues in a popular book. I just wanted to lay out these reactions.
Dynamics of Consciousness Noë writes at 50-51: "the baby-caretaker 'dyad' is a unity from which the child only gradually emerges as an individual. We can speak of attachment here, but I prefer to speak of oneness.” This bothered me, as it seems to neglect the Meltzoff-Moore experiments on neonate imitation, which Shaun Gallagher interprets in terms of an early body schema of the infant, which would belie the talk of "unity" and "oneness." Now I completely agree with Noë that independence as isolation is not the correct way to talk about maturation of human beings: "There is no such thing as complete detachment from the community of others" (51). But if you're going to do away with isolation as the telos, you should do away with fusion as the arche.
But I also worry about Noë's reading of maturity as "growing comfortably into one's environmental situation," or as "integration" (51). Many people grow up and become mature but precisely into social situations that are disempowering for them, because they belong to disempowered political categories. It's not that this disempowering experience is limited to immigrants, as Noë seems to imply; it's right here at home that many people never quite feel at home, if you see what I'm getting at. Even though it's a great advance to talk about the embodied, embedded, extended, enactive, affective subject (4EA), we shouldn't talk about "the" 4EA subject, but about populations of subjects, many of whom suffer disempowering subjectification practices.
So, for example, when Noë writes at 77: "The body is present in our normal, active, engaged experience … as a range of possibilities of movement and action" I want to say that such an empowered body schema is not available to everyone at all times. Leaving aside for the moment the issue of disability (but what a sentence that is to write!), I also want to refer here to Iris Marion Young's great essay "Throwing Like a Girl" which discusses the restricted body competence of the feminized body-subject. Young's critique is aimed at Merleau-Ponty, in which the assured competence of the presumably neutral or non-gendered body subject hides a masculinist presupposition. Feminized and masculinized body subjects have different "spheres of competence": a flat tire can appear as a mildly irritating challenge or as an insurmountable problem; a subway entrance as the enticing gateway to the city or as an anxiety-producing danger.
It would be, in my opinion, an unacceptably reductive biologization to generalize the analysis of anorexia Noë gives at 78 ("Her body schema is likely to be just fine…. Her problem is that she feels bad about her body, about how it looks and about her ability to control it.") to cover Young's analysis. In other words, I don't want to say that we all have the same body schema as set of capacities, but that some people have culturally installed distorted body images – in other words, that feminization is a matter of giving people falsely limited opinions about their bodily capacities and / or installing a set of limiting emotional reactions over a body schema that functions just like that of masculinized subjects. Rather – and I think Noë would be open to this approach given his interest in "plasticity" – since our biology is to be open to our culture, we have to locate the analysis of feminization and masculinization at the level of body schema, not just body image.
The key here is to propose a level of analysis that would not be merely idiosyncratic, but that produces traits that would be reliably repeated (to use the distinction Paul Griffiths uses in discussing Developmental Systems Theory in biology) and that would be open to political analysis. This is of course the major problem of feminism, race theory, queer theory, and other such analyses: where to locate the analysis so that you avoid the Scylla of personal anecdote and the Charybdis of ignoring difference altogether. Can we isolate structured subjectification practices that reliably reproduce what we can call a feminized or masculinized body subject? And can we propose that as a philosophical desideratum for the discussion of 4EA cognitive science?
I'll just end these remarks by saying those are the stakes of Political Affect. And by repeating my admiration for Noë's book that it brings up so many important issues, far beyond the few points I treat here.
While close-range killing is sometimes
performed in "cold blood" (with full conscious awareness of a
subject), it is more often performed in a de-subjectified state, as in
reflexes, rages, and panics. We explore two military modifications of
de-subjectified killing: (1) Vietnam-era training for “free fire zones” and (2)
current digital and video simulator training for urban warfare of the “shoot /
no shoot” type. We focus on how dehumanization of the enemy temporarily allows
for activation of a “hunting agent,” but often cannot stop an “empathy agent” from
kicking in afterwards, producing a sense of retrospective guilt, even though
the practical agent and the moral agent did not coincide at the time of the act
Recent works in the cognitive sciences have championed various
approaches to embodied and situated cognition, including concepts of
enactive perception and extended minds. The assumption that cognition
can be studied by looking exclusively at what goes on in the head or in
the brain has undergone considerable criticism. A diverse and growing
number of researchers now claim that an organism’s cognitive abilities
are partly constituted by proprioception, action, environmental
manipulation and intricate couplings that spread the causality across
organisms and structures in their physical, social, and technological
environments. Research in this area is interdisciplinary in nature,
drawing on fields such as philosophy, cognitive science, developmental
studies, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, simulation science and
robotics. Much of it is inspired by or complemented by the insights of
thinkers in the phenomenological tradition, such as Heidegger and
Merleau-Ponty, who emphasize the ways in which experience and thought
are structured by bodily constraints and environmental interaction.
Special focus will be on topics related to extended and augmented
The Warriors / Mavericks was a great NBA game last night. I've seen a few games in the last 35 years (since Al Meltzer on Channel 17 in Philadelphia with the Sixers and the Big Five), and this was excellent basketball. The Warriors were leading 112-103 with 3 minutes left and lost as the Mavs scored 15 points in a row, 12 by Dirk Nowitzki. So did the Warriors panic, choke, or just plain lose?
When I saw it last month, I was struck by this bit of rampant cognitivism in the news. In discussing
waterboarding an AP writer – Katherine Shrader – says “In that technique,
a detainee is made to believe he is drowning.” It hit me that “belief” is a
poor way to describe the activation of a deeply embedded and evolutionarily
inherited panic reflex. It's not the "belief" that you are drowning, it's the intensity of the panic that is induced that makes waterboarding a torture.