Saturday, June 18, 2011

Major Competencies And General Cowardice

I hadn't heard the story about some Iraqi emigres planning to send weapons to Al Qaeda in Iraq from Kentucky. It is important to note the following, as the AP report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune does: "Neither is charged with plotting attacks within the United States".

That hasn't stopped Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Fried Chicken of the US Senate, from quaking in his boots:
"I think it's safe to say that a lot of Kentuckians, including me, would like to know why two men who either killed or plotted to kill U.S. soldiers and Marines over in Iraq aren't sitting in a jail cell in Guantanamo right now," McConnell said on the Senate floor this week.
According to the story I heard on All Things Considered yesterday afternoon, however, the Justice Department, having been forced to give up trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York thanks to political pressure, is standing firm on this one.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who lost the political fight over that trial, isn't backing down this time. He told the American Constitution Society Thursday night that the fight is on.

"Politics has no place, no place in the impartial and effective administration of justice," Holder said. "Decisions about how, where and when to prosecute must be made by prosecutors, not politicians."

Prosecutors, Holder said, have a better understanding of the law.
I will note, for the record if you will, that most prosecutors are also politicians, and politics, usually local, determine which cases get prosecuted and how they are prosecuted. Holder's protestation of political virginity is a bit of a stretch, to say the least.

Be that as it may, this slap fight between the Senate Minority Leader and the Attorney General of the United States was interrupted in the telling by an unusual character:
Jim Cullen, a retired brigadier general in the Army Judge Advocate General's Corps, is one of a group of retired military officers lobbying Congress not to tie the Justice Department's hands when it comes to national security prosecutions.

"The core competency of the Department of Defense is to defend the nation," Cullen said. "It is not to take over the role of the Justice Department."

Cullen said most of the terrorists convicted in U.S. courts are serving long sentences. They're behind bars for decades. They're no longer a terrorist threat. And they're no longer fodder for politicians.
The dynamic at work here is fascinating, to say the least. Apparently, some politicians still feel it possible to exploit public fear of terrorism and accused terrorists - the candidates from both parties for the governor's office are joining McConnell's call for the two men to head out for Cuba - ignoring the implications of such decisions. As Gen. Cullen makes clear, the military has a job to do. Piling all sorts of extra work on them, in the midst of an occupation in Iraq, military action in Yemen, and war in Afghanistan stretches an already taught and perhaps even fraying military bureaucracy near the breaking point. Furthermore, while there are elements of the military whose job it is to be prison guards, police officers, lawyers, and judges, their focus is the UCMJ, their jurisdiction members of the military violating that code. While the Constitutional problems with the Guantanamo Bay prison are legion, the personal toll on the prisoners (and the toll on any attempt at prosecutions after years of detention and interrogation worse), we should also consider the toll on the military personnel, tasked to do jobs that can be done by civilians, should also be part of the equation.

Yet again, we not only see the further militarization of what should be civilian justice; we also see the promotion of rank cowardice, the apathy toward our military personnel and their needs, preferences, and competence by a politician who believes he supports the military. Like the brouhaha over where KSM was to be tried, and the passage by Congress of a law barring any funding for moving those held at Guantanamo Bay to prisons here in the United States, the exploitation of fear and the promotion of cowardice gives to the terrorists yet another victory.

I have no idea who's going to come out on top in this spat between McConnell and Holder. Venturing a guess, Holder could win, or the President could undermine him yet again, perhaps as the price for getting some "compromise" on some piece of legislation (if McConnell were smart, that is how he would have operated).

President Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay prison during the 2008 campaign. After he was elected, he signed an executive order to that effect, only to have Congress cut off any funding for doing so. Three years later, we have more demand for more prisoners to be sent there. It seems to me high time the President spit in Congress' collective eye, shut the place down, and silenced Mitch McConnell. If the folks in Cuba are really as bad as all that, get them to courts and determine it once and for all. Stop saddling the military, who has a job to do, with stuff they shouldn't be doing.

Oh, and kudos to Gen. Cullen and other retired military officers for continuing to follow their oaths, defending the Constitution as lobbyists.

Friday, June 17, 2011

This Day In History

I don't give a shit what happens. I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up or anything else, if it'll save it, save this plan. That's the whole point. We're going to protect our people if we can.
Richard Nixon

Somewhere in a drawer or box at my parents' house is a piece of paper, an in-class assignment, from when I was in second grade. The assignment was simple enough - construct a sentence with a plural subject. One of the sentences I wrote puzzled my second grade teacher, Mrs. Anderson, no end. She had been my father's student a bit over a decade previous, so she contacted him, and - according to an account my mother gave me years later - the two of them laughed their fool heads off, not at poor Mrs. Anderson who was overworked, underpaid, and definitely underappreciated by the school administration.

The sentence: "Mitchell and Stans are guilty."

The question Mrs. Anderson wanted answered? Who were "Mitchell and Stans"?

John Mitchell was the former Attorney General of the United States and head of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, known without any irony as CREEP. Stans was Maurice Stans, one of those mid-level floaters between public service and private business that continue to plague us. As recently as 1972 he had been Richard Nixon's Commerce Secretary, when he left to be CREEP's finance chair.

How I knew who these men were, and how I understood they were guilty - indeed how I understood the whole concept of "guilt" - is a tale in and of itself that should await another day. I recall this because on the evening of June 17, 1972 a group of men was arrested in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, at the time located in the Watergate Apartment Complex along the Potomac River. The men were discovered because on this, their second such entry, they had taped the lock on a door leading to the stairs to the garage exit. Sitting across the street with a pair of binoculars and a walkie-talkie, former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy sat and watched as the men tried to hide as a pair of plain-clothed DC police officers entered the office. Unfortunately, the initial ineptitude the burglars displayed continued. They left their walkies on and the officers heard the crackle of static and they were arrested.

Arraigned the next day, the group included self-professed former CIA field officer Bernard Barker. From this interesting tidbit of information, that made struggling Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward mutter, "Holy shit," under his breath, began the long process of untangling the many cords of what many thought was the successful and competent Presidency of Richard Millhouse Nixon, revealing it to be nothing more than a vast criminal conspiracy, poorly imagined and even more poorly executed. Whether it was "milkmen" and "plumbers", ITT or Kent State, secret tapes or tossing a whole series of loyal underlings to the dogs, the entire structure of the Nixon White House was a bureaucratic recreation of the basic structure of Nixon's mind - petty, paranoid, uncomfortable in settings that called for relaxation (there's a famous photo of Nixon, supposedly strolling on the beach in California, supposedly looking relaxed, perhaps pensive; he's dressed in a suit and tie), and little concerned over matters of policy, preferring not to be bothered even by Cabinet officials, including long-time friends (like his old law partner William Rogers, whom Nixon named as Secretary of State, and consistently end-ran with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger on matters of important policy).

While other Presidents, before and since, have sidestepped the law, the Constitution, and common sense, none have rivaled Nixon for the sheer audacity of creating, within the Executive Office of the President of the United States, an organization that for all intents and purposes looked and acted like organized crime.

Memo To Feodor

I ran across the following quote from Shirley Sherrod, whose dismissal by Pres. Obama was among his most disgusting moments as President. Set up as that most elusive of creatures, a "reverse racist", through the judicial use of simple editing equipment, Obama fell for the bait, only to discover with the rest of the country, that she and the people she supposedly dissed in her speech, are larger and more magnanimous (in the original, Aristotelian sense of "great souled") than many a political appointee to come down the pike in the while.

Is this "anecdotal evidence"? Why, sure it is. It is used, however, to make a point.

The entire post I wrote below, writing about my own sense that the liberal tendency to hyperventilate about the Tea Party is overblown nonsense, was guided not by anything other than looking at what the Tea Party is, what its political positions are, and what it is working for. The "racist" label, tossed around so easily, not only makes it easy to dismiss them; it also makes those who toss it feel good about themselves. What happens, however, when we encounter someone who just adamantly refuses to surrender to the easy path of we virtuous versus those ugly racist hicks, whether they're from Tioga County, New York or the country outside Albany, Georgia?

I say, we set aside our desire to be both right and good, and listen carefully. But then again, I know that sounds just like a white guy, huh? Me and Shirley Sherrod . . .
Sherrod is taking Ben Jealous and some colleagues from the NAACP on a tour of her home county in Georgia.
She took them to a cooperative for rural black women that she helped organize, where the women shell pecans and make candy, and to an old school that has been converted into a community center and commercial kitchen for local residents.

“She was always there for the farmers,” said Cornelius Key, a peanut and soybean farmer who met the group. “She helped us set up markets with Whole Foods and other stores.”

As the tour neared its end, Sherrod took Jealous and the others past a 1,664 acre plantation on the edge of Albany called Cypress Pond. “It’s just beautiful,” she said. Her family and the others who invested in the New Communities cooperative that sued the federal government have placed a bid on the land and want to turn it into a modern version of their old project.

“Today, this land will belong to black people, white people, poor people,” Sherrod said. “Anyone who is a part of us. It belongs to us.”(emphasis added)
"Anyone who is a part of us," she said. Anyone.


It would be nice if more liberals felt that way, and acted on it, than decided it was far better to show the world how much better "we" are than "they" are.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Power Versus Truth - The Role Of Argument In Deliberative Democracy

We argue that one of the functions of reasoning is to produce epistemic improvement through deliberation.
Hugo Mercier and Helene Landemore, "Reasoning is for arguing: Understanding the successes and failures of deliberation", in press
The journal article about which I wrote yesterday has a kind of companion piece. One of the co-authors, Hugo Mercier, has teamed up with another co-author to investigate the fruitfulness of the argumentative theory of reason for explaining certain findings in political science. Like the explanation of the theory in the prior piece, the results are intriguing, although certain questions are begged that, I believe, would be more clearly addressed if we altered our view of the goal of politics.

The theory used in the paper in question (a .pdf document available for download and print) is the theory of "deliberative democracy", set forth by a variety of theorists, including Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls (cited in text). Mercier and Landemore write of this theory:
The questions that political scientists are trying to answer are, for example: Does deliberation have the transformative properties deliberative democrats claim it has on citizens' preferences? If a transformation is observed, can it be said to promote the betterment of citizens' preferences, whether this betterment is understood in terms of civic-mindedness, coherence, information, or some other sense?
The elephant in the room, as it were, the question begged - to me, at any rate - is whether or not these are the actual goals of politics in general, and political deliberation in particular. The authors use examples from recent American history of certain controversial policy decisions - the Iraq invasion and the economic bailout in the fall of 2008 - as real-world examples that push the boundaries of deliberative democratic theory, precisely because the epistemic standards often differ from case to case.
Epistemic standards allow us to judge whether a given deliberative process produces better or worse outcomes from a substantive rather than purely procedural point of view. Epistemic standards are routinely used unproblematically in psychology experiments, whether they measure the validity of logical arguments or the factual accuracy of answers to empirical questions. In political science, the question of what is an epistemically correct, right, or superior outcome often remains hidden behind the veil of the future, what Rawls called the "burden of judgment," or, more radically, is rendered inaccessible by the structure of much of politics as a situation of imperfect procedural justice. It is for example doubtful that we can ever answer with certainty the questions of, say, whether going to war in Iraq was the right political decision or whether the bailout of banks was the most appropriate answer the the impeding [sic] economic crisis of November 2008, yet we are still aiming for such answers when we deliberate and reason about these issues. . . .

The fact that we cannot know for sure whether the deliberative process yielded the right answer does not mean that we can evade the question of epistemic validity in politics.
These are intriguing examples not only because they continue to be subject to intense scrutiny by both commentators and policy-makers; they are intriguing because what the authors refer to here, quoting Rawls, as "the 'burdens of judgment'" do not, in fact, exist. Indeed, I would push the matter even further and insist that this notion that the outcomes of particular policy choices are routinely scrutinized as to possible outcomes, given the conditions under which they are offered, and in both cases - the Iraq War and the bailout - the outcomes were correctly predicted, yet not by those who implemented the policies. Rather, the critics of both these policies were far more accurate in their predictions.

Which, then, begs several questions. Not the least of them being, for our purposes in this post, was actual deliberation done in either case, or were a small group of like-minded individuals setting up policies based on sets of assumptions without inputs from critics (according to the argumentative theory, a necessary part of getting closer and closer to the point of successfully achieving some kind of positive epistemic outcome). As in both instances this is the case, with the added reality of a mass of disinformation that muddied the deliberative waters regarding the question of invading Iraq in 2003, we are left asking all sorts of questions, including whether or not these are, in actual fact, examples that give themselves over to the idea that "we cannot know for sure".

At the heart of this entire discussion, for me, is a simple misunderstanding of the real goal of political action, including policy deliberations. If the real goal of deliberative democracy was some kind of epistemic positive - arguing through various facts, weighing their relative importance and merit in order to arrive at a "best fit" between desired ends and the means through which we achieve them - then these are not examples of "we can never know" so much as examples of the breakdown of deliberative democracy as such. Which is much what critics of both policies allege.

If, however, we recognize that the end of politics (and here, we can speak of politics in a teleological fashion because it is a human construct, not a natural phenomenon, thus it is goal-oriented) is not the arrival at consensus that also has the best epistemic fit, but rather achieving and maintaining power for its own sake, then the whole set of rules regarding deliberative democracy, including those used in this article, are inapplicable.

For that reason, while relatively uncontroversial matters can lend themselves to some model that utilizes both deliberative democracy and the argumentative theory of reason to explain various factual findings, for matters that strike at the heart of the questions, "Who has power?", and "How do those in power maintain that position?", both must be tossed aside for a far different approach to understanding decision-making.

The example of global warming, and designing policies to address the potential environmental, economic, and political impact fit well. The theory of global warming, combining various sciences from climate history through chemistry and physics, asserts that industrial production in the western world (and increasingly in the non-western world, as well) has released various effluvia in to the atmosphere that over time and with an accumulative effect drastically alter the global climate, including weather patterns, sea-level, species viability, agriculture, and the like. The theory is well-tested, and continues to be so, fruitful both of explaining disparate data as well as further research. Its acceptance by the scientific community is not a matter either of political preference (as alleged by some critics) or controversy (again, as alleged by some critics). Rather, it is accepted because, like the best theories, it not only explains an abundance of seemingly diverse, even contradictory data, it offers fruitful avenues for research, as well as explanatory power for ongoing phenomena.

There are, however, powerful interests both domestically and internationally, that have the potential for severe financial and economic distress should policies be implemented to address the impact of global warming. In particular, various fossil-fuel industries and their subsidiaries - coal and oil, plastics production and power-generation - could be faced with costs too high to continue their current business models. In order to address this direct threat to their very survival, these same interests engage in a variety of practices, including using in-house scientists and technicians to raise questions regarding the soundness of the theory of global warming; these questions lead these same groups to insist in public that the theory is "controversial", or perhaps even incorrect precisely because there are those who question it. They then insist that, since we do not - or perhaps even cannot - know how strongly correlated the theory is to the various events and phenomena it addresses, they insist that policy-makers do nothing. Because of the potential for financial and economic dislocation - the threat of potential job loss is usually the simplest and most direct claim made in this regard - they insist the cost of addressing what is alleged to be a controversial scientific theory is far higher than any long-term benefit that might accrue from addressing a problem they insist may not even exist (while they occasionally slip and admit the existence of global warming, usually their public statements are filled with denial of all sorts of evidence, or citing counter-factuals as a way of sowing public doubt).

Were this truly a "deliberative process", an instance of deliberative democracy in action, using arguments and public reason to reach an optimum goal, including optimizing an arbitrary set of epistemic standards, the forgoing discussion would be offset by an equally vigorous, equally well-financed and well-connected public campaign setting forth the myriad errors of fact, of science, and the potential disastrous consequences of following a policy of inertia regarding global climate change. Yet, precisely because there is an imbalance of power, signified not only by the amount of money involved in the two sides, but the perceived self-interest of the parties involved, we have the situation we are in currently. Scientists promoting global warming and its effects, policy analysts who offer possible solutions, even some politicians and public interest groups who favor action over inertia in these matters, not only do not have the same amount of political power; they also do not have the same interest, and therefore the salience of the issue is less strong than with those parties who very existence might be threatened by possible policies to address matters of global warming.

Deliberative democracy, it seems, works ideally in settings where there is a rough equivalence of power, of interest, and where questions of "Qui bono?" do not impact the outcomes of deliberation. As a working model of a society with vast differences in power and influence, as well as recognizing the relative interest and salience of various issues among various groups, creates a situation where matters not least of reaching some kind of epistemic standard, are irrelevant. Who is right and who is wrong is not nearly as important as who wins and who pays because they lose.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Social Dimension Of Reason

According to the argumentative theory, however, the function of reasoning is primarily social. In particular, it allows people to anticipate the need to justify their decisions to others. This predicts that the use of reasoning in decision making should increase the more likely one is to have to justify oneself.


Reasoning contributes to the effectiveness and reliability of communication by enabling communicators to argue for their claim and by enabling addressees to assess these arguments. It thus increases both in quantity and in epistemic quality the information humans are able to share.
Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, "Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory", Behavioral and Brain Science(2011)34
"Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth" claims the headline. The sub-head, which is in the URL, reads "People Argue Just To Win, Scholars Assert". Intrigued, I clicked over and read through the piece by Patricia Cohen.
For centuries thinkers have assumed that the uniquely human capacity for reasoning has existed to let people reach beyond mere perception and reflex in the search for truth. Rationality allowed a solitary thinker to blaze a path to philosophical, moral and scientific enlightenment.

Now some researchers are suggesting that reason evolved for a completely different purpose: to win arguments. Rationality, by this yardstick (and irrationality too, but we’ll get to that) is nothing more or less than a servant of the hard-wired compulsion to triumph in the debating arena. According to this view, bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason are instead social adaptations that enable one group to persuade (and defeat) another. Certitude works, however sharply it may depart from the truth.(emphasis added)
As there was a link provided, I did what probably four other people did - I downloaded and printed off the article under review. I was shocked - SHOCKED! - to discover that The Old Gray Lady got the article wrong, pretty much all the way around.
The mental action of working out a convincing argument, the public action of verbally producing this argument so that others will be convinced by it, and the mental action of evaluating and convinced by it, and the mental action of evaluating and accepting the conclusion of an argument produced by other correspond to what is commonly and traditionally meant by reasoning (a term that can refer to either a mental or a verbal activity).


We see three complementary explanations for the saliency of reasoning. First, when we reason, we know that we are reasoning, whereas the very existence of intuitive inference was seen as controversial in philosophy before its discovery in cognitive science. Second, while an inferential mechanism, that delivers intuitions about arguments is, strictly speaking, highly domain specific, the arguments that it delivers intuitions about can be representations of anything at all. . . Third, as we will now argue, the very function of reasoning puts it on display in human communication.
The short version of the theory set forth is simple enough - the view of reason, nous, ratio as the supreme mark of individual human specific difference, the height of individual accomplishment, shown to be problematic by a host of cognitive research over the decades, errs because it does not take in to account the role of communication in social groups, as an enhancement mechanism to the way human beings make clear the reasons for choices.

The Times article erred in a number of ways. First, the authors never claim that the question of truth or falsity is irrelevant to their argumentative theory of reason; on the contrary, they show through reference to abundant research that, in fact, group dynamics tend toward convergence on correct choices through a process of setting forth, and assessing, arguments for various choices. Second, the sub-header is something that should be clear, but the inference is wrong. The mechanism set forth in the argumentative theory of reason is more subtle and complex, not least because it is set not only in a social context, but also an evolutionary context. They argue that human communication is an evolutionary adaptation, and the social dimension of reason - including the ability to assess arguments for and against various choices - enhances survivability. Groups that are better able to assess arguments and make correct choices are more likely to survive, even thrive, producing more offspring.

Which is the source of one of the more intriguing criticisms of the theory. Jean-Louis Dessalles, of Teleco Paris Tech, writes:
If the biological function of reasoning is to achieve shared knowledge optimization (SKO), as suggested in the target article, then why do people show obvious limitations such as confirmation bias? M&S answer that information quality is optimized, not at the individual level, but at the group level. It would even be a good thing that individuals specialize on their (probably erroneous) line of reasoning, as long as argument exchange restores global information quality. The problem is that natural selection does not operate at the collective level. Shared knowledge belongs to the phenotype of no one.
Biologist and philosopher Ernst Mayr writes, in "The Origins of Human Ethics", in the collection Toward a New Philosophy of Biology:
The evolution of uniquely human ethics was closely correlated with the evolution of human cultural groups. These groups - enlargements of the original family groups - were held together by leadership, dialect, geography, rituals, and cultural traditions. The crucial question to be asked is whether such cultural groups could act as units of selection in the evolution of human ethics. That is, could a cultural group be the target of selection? . . .

In my view, one must avoid lumping under the term group selection entirely different evolutionary phenomena. I agree with Williams, SOber, and others that group selection among animals . . . is not supported by any evidence. Of the three kinds of so-called group selection among animals that I can distinguish, none is supportable by the evidence. In all of the animal groups, the individual is the target of selection.

But human cultural groups are something quite different. There is a great deal of evidence that human cultural groups, as wholes, can serve as the target of selection. Rather severe selection among such cultural groups has been going on throughout hominid history. . . . This form of selection is of such special importance because, in contrast with individual selection, cultural group selection may reward altruism and any other virtues that strengthen the group, even at the expense of individuals.
So, yes and no. Seeing human cultural groups as unique manifestations open to evolutionary pressure offers, at the very least, the possibility of taking an argumentative theory of reason in to account in the story of human evolution.

I find the theory set forth intriguing, to say the least. I hardly consider myself qualified to make any other claim for it. In all honesty, I just can't think of any arguments for or against it . . .

Random Exposure

I have to admit that I am glad the 30 Day Song Challenge I decided to do is over. It got tiresome. It became boring. I started to feel predictable in my choices. A better such exercise, one that might actually represent a challenge, would be, first, to choose three different musical genres not normally a part of one's usual listening preferences. Then, each of ten days choose an artist, or small group of artists within that genre, listening for trends, developments, variations, etc. Each day, post a song representative of the style in general, and the group's contribution to that style in particular.

I suppose this is far too much work for Facebook, huh.

The list just feels less random than it might otherwise . . .

Raconteur Troubadour - Gentle Giant
The La La Song - Zebra
Milenburg Joys - Dr. John
STATUIT (St. Martin's Day) - The Gregorian Chorale of Eglise Querin
All of Me - Billie Holliday
Easy Wind - The Grateful Dead
Da Gab Er Ihnen Barrabam Los (St. Matthew's Passion) - Johann Sebastian Bach
Breathe - Pink Floyd
Procession - Vangelis
Carolina Reprise - No-Man

The words are easy enough to remember . . .

Monday, June 13, 2011

They Were Sore A-Freud (UPDATE)

[O]n the whole Freud's science has held up just as well as Darwin's. They were both wrong about a number of things and a number of specifics, even a few significant things. But their major findings prevail. In Freud's case, his discovery of the modern notion of the unconscious. Of the activity of the unconscious in dreams. And, yes, the role of aggression in sex, by which he anticipated the discovery of testosterone among other factors. But most grandly that our need for and reception of affection and affirmation when we are children bear terrific weight on who we become sexually, relationally, socially and politically.

Freud compared the ego to a "man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse." For Hartmann and his followers, this image conveys an impression of man's power over nature, whereas Freud clearly intended it as a reminder of man's dependence on nature and of the precariousness of his mastery over natural forces - including his own capacity for destruction, which haunted everything Freud wrote after World War I.
Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, p.220.
The unconscious in Freud is therefore one into which something can only be pushed back. Or which at best, as id, surrounds consciousness as if this were a closed ring: a phylogenetic inheritance all around conscious man. 'With the help of the super-ego, the ego draws, in a way that is still obscure to us, on the experiences of prehistory stored up in the id.' The unconscious of psychoanalysis is therefore, as we can see, never a Not-Yet-Conscious, an element of progressions; it consists rather of regressions. Accordingly, even the process of making this unconscious conscious only calrifies What Has Been; i.e., there is nothing new in the Freudian unconscious.
Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, p.56
Just as Kant warned us not to overlook the fact that our perception is subjectively conditioned and must not be regarded as identical with the phenomena perceived but never really discerned, so psycho-analysis bids us not to set conscious perception in the place of the unconscious mental process which is its object. The mental, like the physical, is not necessarily in reality just what it appear to us to be.
Sigmund Freud, "The Unconscious", 1915
Blogs are an interesting medium. By and large, they allow someone who is willing to invest the time, the ability to say one, perhaps two, things with relative succinctness. Anything more, however, risks losing readers, starting yawn-fests, or, worst of all, hurrying through where a bit of time and care - and space - is warranted. An early influence on my own developing style was Arthur Silber, who wrote long, impassioned posts and had, at one time, quite a following among other blog writers whom I held in high regard. Through him and Glenn Greenwald, I discovered it is possible to write intelligent, thought-provoking posts in a medium that is dominated by inheritors of ad copy writing.

All the same, making a clear point on a subject as fraught as one's attitude toward as important a person as Sigmund Freud is difficult in any medium. Doing it on a blog post? Wish me luck.

I would be the last to dispute the seminal importance of Sigmund Freud on everything from how we understand ourselves to how we understand society. Along with Marx and Nietzsche - the latter with whom he shares much in common - he forms a triumvirate of 19th century thinkers who, in a sense, created the template for much of the intellectual life of the first half of the 20th century. Just as all theology is said to be commentary on St. Augustine, so much psychological and social thought ought to be considered commentary on these three men.

Yet, few people read Freud anymore. There are certainly Freudians, just as there are Marxists. The bulk of his work, however, seems to remain the province of specialists. I was fortunate, therefore, that the seminary bookstore where I worked had the five volume "Collected Papers" in English translation, published by Basic Books as parts of The International Psycho-Analytical Library. The papers are shorter works - journal articles, case histories, some prefatory work on a discarded longer work on what Freud called "metapsychology", and occasional writings for popular audiences. Since no one had purchased the set, it went on our discount rack when we were revamping the store, and I got all five volumes in a "Bag Sale", where all the books from the discount rack one could put in a Cokesbury shopping bag were $20. Considering each volume originally retailed at $50, that was, to put it lightly, a deal.

To say that Freud is a necessary person through whom anyone serious about understanding human beings and society must work is only the first sentence. The second sentence, of course, is to recognize that so much of his work has been revised - often by Freud himself as he changed his mind - criticized, altered in emphasis (sometimes by students, such as Adler and Jung), and quite simply superseded. Not least of this last is the change in neuropsychology wrought by revolutionary technologies. In his 1915 article, "The Unconscious", Freud explicitly writes that he is neither competent nor interested in writing about the physiological roots of his subject. While granting that brain pride of place as the seat of what he called consciousness, as well as the preconscious and the unconscious, his was a systematic work on the operations of the human mind, rather than an investigation into the physical etiology of brain function, because, as he rightly notes, the relationship between brain function and various psychological processes was unknown.
[I]t is clear that the question - whether the latent states of mental life, whose existence is undeniable, are to be conceived of as unconscious mental states or as physical ones - threatens to resolve itself into a war of words. We shall therefore be better advides to give prominence to what we know with certainty of the nature of the debatable states. Now, as far as their physical characteristics are concerned, they are totally inaccessible to us: no physiological conception nor chemical process can give us any notion of their nature. ("The Unconscious", 1915)
The past couple decades alone, however, has brought a revolution in the technology by which we can understand the physiological roots of what we consider "consciousness" or "mind" without ever believing we have bridged the gap between these physical conditions and their reality as mental states. Just an example, which I recorded here, from Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music, p.191:
Listening to music caused a cascade of brain regions to become activated in a particular order: first, auditory cortex for initial processing of the components of the sound. Then the frontal regions, such as BA44 and BA47, that we had previously identified as being involved in processing musical structure and expectations. Finally, a network of regions - the mesolimbic system - involved in arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opioids and the production of dopamine, culminating in activation in the nucleus accumbens. And the cerebellum and basal ganglia were active throughout, presumably supporting the processing of rhythm and meter. The rewarding and reinforcing aspects of listening to music seem, then, to be mediated by increasing dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, and by the cerebellum's cotribution to regulating emotion through its connections to the frontal lobe and the limbic system. Current neuropsychological theories associate positive mood and affect with increased dopamine levels, one the reasons that many of the newer antidepressants act on the dopaminergic system. Music is clearly a means for improving people's moods. Now we think we know why.
Another example, more directly related to researches in the connection between subjects near and dear to the heart of Freud - sex and aggression - is this from Scientific American:
To understand which other areas might be implicated in violent behavior, Lin and Anderson's team exposed male mice to consecutive encounters with other intruding male and female mice. They then examined the brain areas activated by the encounters by labeling brain cells with a fluorescent tag that can distinguish recently active neurons. Surprisingly, neurons within a region called the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH) snapped into action during fights--but also during sex.

Perplexed, the team implanted male mice with electrodes capable of measuring single cells in this area of the brain and watched what happened when mice fought or mated. Most of the neurons fired specifically during sex or bouts of violence, but a handful fired during both of these seemingly opposing behaviors.
Does this mean we no longer need look at the specifics of an individual's history in order to understand how and why a person acts in such-and-such a way? Actually, it is just to note that the ability to investigate brain activity is becoming more and more refined, including the ability of researchers to investigate how the brain functions during activities that were once the province of psychologists investigating what Freud called, variously, the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious (as systems, rather than any actual "thing"), or, later, the id, the superego, and the ego.

As to "discovering" the unconscious, it is far better to say that Freud created the unconscious. Like Kant's ding-an-sich - to which he refers specifically - the unconscious is a marvelous invention, allowing Freud to say all sorts of things about human behavior, including abnormal behavior, without actually saying anything instructive. His argument is a kind of via negativa. Reading the article "The Unconscious", one finds that, in essence, his argument seems to be that the unconscious has to exist because evidence from clinical studies suggest that human beings act on impulses, or display some other affect, without being able to identify the source of these acts. Sometimes, the subject may not even be aware he or she is displaying a particular affect.

In other words, Freud offered the unconscious as a space on the human mental map that could be labeled, not without reason, "Here There Be Monsters."

As an explanatory tool, however, the unconscious leaves much to be desired. Like phlogiston or the luminiferous ether, or dark matter and energy, it is a way of explaining that for which current scientific theories are incapable, without offering a serious, detailed definition or understanding of what, exactly, we are talking about. It is useful, to be sure, but hardly illuminating.

Furthermore, a reading of even a few of Freud's case histories reveals an interesting (to me at any rate) innate belief that Freud understood what his patients were thinking far more than they themselves did, or even could. In "Contributions to the Psychology of Love: A Special Type of Choice of Object made by Men" (1910), Freud sets out to explain two seemingly unrelated phenomena - the attraction some men seem to have for, on the one hand women already involved in relationships with other men, and men whose preference is for women best described as "of loose morals" - as related, in the end, to the relationship between the men in question and their mothers. While certainly not doubting that an individual's relationship with his mother is important for understanding how he may relate to women in the future, these two phenomena may well have other explanations, not the least of them being, on the one hand, being a cad, and on the other simply preferring women of questionable reputations for a variety of factors unrelated to whether or not she is freer with her sexual favors than what is considered the norm.

Furthermore, as the emphasis upon primal relationships - with one's parents; with primal sexual fantasies as well as instances of precocious sexual behavior - indicates, throughout Freud's writings, either in case histories or more general writings, he approaches these subjects with a thick cover of moral presuppositions that beg as many questions as they answer. Freud sees sexual dysfunction in adult masturbation, in anal eroticism, in a variety of sexual activity that one would be hard pressed, today, to consider outside any "norm" of sexual activity. All of which begs many questions, not the least of them being the goal of psychoanalysis in seeking to bring to consciousness all these unconscious drives rooted in behaviors and experiences an individual would seek to suppress.

Here, for me, there is an irony. In the course of comments below, I am accused of being "ameliorative" - in what way, I can't precisely understand in the context of the comment - when it is precisely Freud whose entire goal was ameliorative. While insisting that much of the causes of psychological disturbance was rooted in primal relationships and the sexualization of these relationships, it is clear he never once questions the moral approbation attached to most sexual acts outside intercourse between a man and a woman. Along with a kind of assumption of a moral code that, by and large, would be difficult to defend today, there is the goal of psychoanalysis as one of making subjects less uncomfortable within the broader confines of bourgeois society - including bourgeois sexual morality - without ever calling the assumptions of that society in to question.

The Marxist critique of Freud - for example, throughout his revery on human psychology, The Principle of Hope, Ernst Bloch refers to Freud as "the bourgeois Freud", just as he refers to Carl Jung as "the fascist Jung" - I find far more compelling than many others. Rather than draw attention to what was, in essence, a struggle between an individual's desires and the censoring mechanisms that he later termed "the superego", an individualized expression of the moral code of what is and is not acceptable, Freud assumed the goal of psychoanalysis was not overthrowing this mechanism of control - however it functioned, whatever its name and source - but rather overcoming it in specific instances, bringing awareness of its function in order to realign it. The whole purpose of psychoanalysis is not "curing", or even "making aware". Rather, it is, according to these critics, accommodating the individual to the needs of capitalist society, including the moral codes it deems necessary.

To repeat: None of this is to dismiss Freud, or to say that others should either take him lightly (if at all). A banal, but important, point is that, writing a hundred and more years ago, much of Freud has been supplanted by later developments, a greater understanding of the interplay between the individual and society, as well as better techniques for investigating the relationship between the human brain and psychological states. These latter we should take seriously, for Freud was not, by his own lights, a philosopher, but a scientist, and one should always be aware when scientific revolutions change the very nature of the subject under study. Even so, it is important to go through Freud in order to get where we are now.

I know this is too long already, but one final note - on the comparison of how Freud "holds up", using Darwin as a canon. The reality is the theory of evolution is far different from that proposed in 1859's The Origin of Species (another one of those books everyone talks about but too few read). As Ernst Mayr makes clear in two volumes, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, and The Growth of Biological Thought, only after Mendelian genetics was integrated in to the theory of evolution in the years immediately following the Second World War did the contradictory theories of genetics (whose biochemical roots were still under investigation at the time) and evolution by natural selection become possible. Key to this was making clear that evolution occurs both at the individual level - variation - and at the level of populations - population genetics. Understanding the interactions between them is necessary, a point Darwin could not have made because he did not have Mendel's original work (not having been done yet). To say that Darwin's theory, or Freud's, has held up well, is a bit like saying that Newton's physics has held up well.

UPDATE: As if this weren't too long . . .

I downloaded and am reading the article referred to here. It's 55 pages long, dense, complex, and interesting. One point relevant, however, to this discussion, is the authors' description of what they call "inference." Specifically, they describe the process of "unconscious", yet note further down that, in fact, the process of inference has been mapped in the brain by cognitive science. In other words, it isn't "unconscious" in any sense Freud has or would understand. Rather, the word here means "a physical process identifiable within the brain that is not under voluntary control, as in the case of argumentative reasoning." Since "the unconscious" in Freud bears no relation to any physical location within the human body, let alone the brain, as he specifically states, using the word "unconscious" to describe a specifically located physical process within the human anatomy redefines the term beyond (original) recognition.

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