Friday, June 12, 2009

Psychology: Don't think about it, and you probably won't do it

In a New Yorker article titled admirably simply, "Don’t!" The secret of self-control,
Jonah Lehrer reflects on what investigators have learned about how children develop self-control:
At the time, psychologists assumed that children's ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel's conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the "strategic allocation of attention."
In other words, focus of attention.
Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow - the "hot stimulus" - the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from "Sesame Street." Their desire wasn't defeated - it was merely forgotten. "If you're thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it," Mischel says. "The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place."

In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. ... Mischel’s large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. "What's interesting about four-year-olds is that they're just figuring out the rules of thinking," Mischel says. "The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that's a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room."
In the adult world, this need for focus of attention is one key reason for the millennia-old practice of religious retreats.

People often say they are going to make more time from their work day to think about the meaning of life. But do they? No, because they can't. They can't stop looking at the In Tray, the way many kids looked at the marshmallow.

Now just put that same person in a room with a chair, a desk, and a work by a serious spiritual writer - and NO phone, e-mail, or visitors - and many people begin to see key patterns in their lives that they had never noticed before. The trick is, as the kids discovered, to lose sight of the marshmallows of life.

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Consciousness: Conference offers challenging new ideas

The Metanexus Institute offers an interesting sounding conference July 18-21 in Phoenix, Arizona, details here: A number of the speakers seem to want to develop a theory of consciousness that is materialist but does not fall into the "there is no self and no free will" trap. Eric Weislogel writes, reviewing a book:
Campbell is one of many proponents of non-reductive physicalism. Non-reductive physicalism is purportedly an alternative to reductive physicalism, but one which does not revert to dualism. It is best not to think of non-reductive physicalism as a theory in its own right. Think, instead, of non-reductive physicalism as a disideratum, as a standard by which to judge how satisfactory to our intuitions is any particular theory of mental causation. The tenets of non-reductive physicalism represent our basic intellectual commitments going into the question from the start. What are those tenets?

First, there is the commitment to non-reductionist explanations of consciousness, of mental states, and of mental causality. We will not be satisfied with any theory that explains away thought, consciousness, intentionality, desire, creativity, or moral responsibility as mere illusion. We are committed, for example, to the idea that our wanting a drink is causally connected to our getting a drink. We are committed to the idea that our desire for that which is not our own is causally connected to our stealing that thing and that we are responsible for that theft.
So he wants to maintain that the self and free will really exist, but that a materialist account of them can ultimately work.

That I doubt. The whole point of materialist accounts is reductive.

Here is an explanation: If I offer to explain why ants feed and defend their queen instead of killing and eating her, you will not value my explanation if I describe their actions as guided by loyalty. You likely doubt that ant minds host such a concept. You want a reductive explanation.

However, most people think that "loyalty" might be an actual cause of human behaviour. Yet loyalty is an abstract concept. Any approach that attempts to explain loyalty in a material or physical way will end up being reductive, no matter how the explainer talks around the point.

Now, there is, ofc ourse, a difference between being reductive and being vulgar. A "selfish gene" explanation for loyalty is vulgar as well as reductive.

I am glad these cognitive philosophers as so anxious to avoid the Gadarene descent into vulgarity chronicled in - and illustrated by - the pop science media.

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Consciousness: Is there no such thing as a self?

A friend draws my attention to this musing by Bradlaugh at "Secular Right: Reality & Reason" on Thomas Metzinger's new book, The Ego Tunnel, which I have not yet read. Bradlaugh quotes,
We may no longer be able to regard our own consciousness as a legitimate vehicle for our metaphysical hopes and desires. … Max Weber famously spoke of the “disenchantment of the world,” as rationalization and science led Europe and America into modern industrial society, pushing back religion and all “magical” theories about reality. Now we are witnessing the disenchantment of the self.

One of the many dangers in this process is that if we remove the magic from our image of ourselves, we may also remove it from our image of others. We could become disenchanted with one another …
Hmmm. I get disenchanted with other people all the time, as I assume they do with me. However, I am pretty sure that's not what the philosopher means. Here's Publishers Weekly:
Consciousness, mind, brain, self: the relations among these four entities are explored by German cognitive scientist and theoretical philosopher Metzinger, who argues that, in fact, there is no such thing as a self.
If so, Metzinger seems to be adopting the same strategy as Alva Noe, whom I have read and reviewed, noting,
Noë seems to want to move away from reductive explanations, but not away from the materialism that underlies them. So he ends up with non-reductive explanations that still don’t explain. By the time he ends up arguing that most human language is like dogs barking, he sounds like the people he critiques.
Given that there is no reductive way of understanding consciousness or self, the temptation to deny their existence beckons.

But what, then denies its existence? A self must exist in order to deny itself. I am told that Metzinger makes the intriguing suggestion that consciousness limits what we can experience, which is surely correct because we can only experience by focusing, and focusing excludes far more than it includes.

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Religion: Why did the pig become so unpopular?

Recently, a friend alerted me to an item of junk called "Clean Conservatives and Filthy Liberals" that I can no longer find online. It may have been a gag, or perhaps a riposte to some other junk, like this ("From the Iszatso? dept: Thoughts from Sharon Begley on "liberal" vs. "conservative" brains ")

Anyway, gag or not, it raised some interesting questions for me, one of which is how some animals come to be forbidden food. Obviously, most devout people are just going to follow their religion's guidance in these matters, but sometimes there is more to the story. I am thinking of the interesting case of the pig in the Middle East.

Years ago, an author pointed out in a book on economics that pigs differ from most animals kept anciently in those regions because they are not multipurpose. I quickly made a list of factors that he mentioned, plus a few others:

1. Pigs compete directly with humans for food. (Most agricultural animals do not compete directly with humans for food, because they can eat things humans cannot.)

2. Pigs drink a lot of water. That is inconvenient in a dry environment.

3. Pigs cannot be milked.

4. You cannot ride a pig.

5. Pigs cannot be used as pack animals.

6. Pigs do not pull carts.

7. Pig skin is useful as leather, but it is not a fleece.

8. Stampeding pigs may trample their keepers. (You’re lucky if they just run off a cliff in that case, as in a famous incident in the New Testament.)

9. Pigs can give humans diseases like “swine flu.”

10. It is difficult to develop a relationship with an adult pig, unlike say, a horse or donkey.

So, if people who live in a semi-desert environment are not going to eat an animal for religious reasons, to demonstrate their faith, it may as well be the poor old pig. Perhaps he isn't quite as bad as his reputation, but he is too ecologically expensive for many environments.

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