Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kahneman, Dyson; Freud and James; plus Pinker

Daniel Kahneman is an intellectual grey-eminence of the past several decades.  If you read at all, you have met some of his ideas (usually written in conjunction with his trusty sidekick Tversky) , though generally at second-hand.  Now he has written his own lengthy and systematic account of his research, aimed at a lay audience.

Most reviews of Daniel Kahneman’s new book (Thinking:  Fast and Slow) simply choose a few from his wealth of anecdotes  and recount them.  Not a bad plan -- they are all worth hearing.  By contrast, Freeman Dyson, in a typically canny offering in the current New York Review of Books, goes beyond the usual review, offering some trenchant personal experiences that illustrate the cognitive case being made, and -- quite surprisingly in the current climate -- puts in a word for Freud:  not the Freud of Die Traumdeutung or the cigars, but of the seminal Psychopathologie des Alltaglebens.   He concludes: “The insights of Kahneman and Freud  are complementary rather than contradictory.”
Noting that neither Sigmund Freud nor William James comes in for mention in Kahneman’s long book, Dyson also outlines the present relevance of this giant of psychology (and one of the heroes of this blog).

Make no mistake -- Kahneman, like Steven Pinker, is one of psychology’s good-guys, plumbing the richness of human experience  though coming to mostly dry and deflating conclusions.   Unlike the eliminative materialists (which includes many of the tribe of neuroscientists), they do not take mere mechanism as a posit, rather than as an occasional result.  James and Dyson, unlike most of their scientific colleagues then and now, have thought deeply about religion and take it quite seriously;  our family had the benefit of Dyson’s teaching at the Presbyterian Church in Princeton.   His invariably broad and thoughtful perspective is ever welcome.


In an earlier essay, we examined the politics and natural selection of sex as reflected in the writings of Steven Pinker.   There is a Kahnemanian cognitive dimension here as well, of which we now give an example.

Pinker wades patiently through the swamps of Political Correctness;  we salute his perseverence.   It really is remarkable, the sort of emotionally-founded cognitive distortions he must contend with.

Thus, consider this thought-experiment:  Imagine that some researchers published a study suggesting that the higher crime rate for American Blacks is a consequence of innate criminality.  They would of course be denounced by Blacks and their champions;  but would scarcely be denounced as blaming White crime victims.  So much is obvious.

Yet now put in different substitutions for x and y, and though the logical structure has not changed, the political picture has changed entirely.   The Blank Slate, p. 161:

Even heavier bipartisan fire has recently been aimed at Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer  for suggesting in their book A Natural History of Rape  that rape is a consequence of men’s sexuality.  A spokesperson from the Feminist Majority Foundation called the book “scary” and “regressive” because it “almost validates the crime and blames the victim.”

By contrast,  men as such  did not object.  We’re used to it.
The average zealot would be quite incapable of perceiving the logical parallelism between the two accounts.
Similarly Pinker, op. cit., p. 372, re the "Laws of Behavior Genetics":  "It is because the laws run roughshod over the Blank Slate, and the Blank Slate is so entrenched,  that many intellectuals cannot comprehend an alternative to it, let alone argue about whether it is right or wrong."  A depressing, accurate, and important observation.

Here and elsewhere, Pinker counters the Noble-Savage ideology that whatever is found in nature must be good.  P. 164

It is inherent to our value system that the interests of women should not be subordinated to those of men, and that control over one’s body is a fundamental right  that trumps other people’s desires.  So rape is not tolerated, regardless of any possible connection to the nature of men’s sexuality.

So far, the standard viewpoint, sensibly put.  But then Pinker, whose logical scalpel is sharp, cuts down another level to make a quite interesting philosophical point:

Note how this calculus requires a “deterministic” and “essentialist” claim about human nature:  that women abhor being raped.  Without that claim  we would have no way to choose between trying to deter rape  and trying to socialize women to accept it, which would be perfectly compatible with the supposedly progressive doctrine that we are malleable raw material.

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For college psychology instructors:
Here is an experiment you can do with your class, if you don’t mind being denied tenure.

Divide your students randomly into two groups, and send them to separate rooms.  To the first group, present the sentence:

Men are hot;  women are cold.

(This is along the lines of such parlor-game titles as “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”.)
To the other group, present this sentence:

Women are hot;  men are cold.

Assignment:  Discuss.
Prediction:  Both groups will denounce their respective sentence as sexist and anti-woman.

[Postscript]  Chesterton anticipated this sally:
Re G.B. Shaw:
He has pleased all the bohemians  by suggesting that women are equal to men;  but he has infuriated them by suggesting that men are equal to women.
-- G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (1905)

Kahneman, as Dyson points out, avoids discussing religion; this is probably just as well.  Pinker -- whose range of interests is extraordinarily broad -- to his credit  does not avoid it;  indeed he quotes (pp. 186-7) from the magnificent 1996 address by Pope John Paul II on the subject of Natural Selection and the “ontological  discontinuity” (we have treated of this subject here);    but analytically, in this arena, he is not at his best.  On page 189  he dishes up an absurd false-dichotomy:

Who says the doctrine of the soul is more humane than the understanding of the mind as a physical organ?

Already so much has gone wrong.  We do not adhere to the doctrine of the soul (or of free will) because it is “humane”, but because it is true, and we experience it as such.   Nor does such a doctrine impede or even impinge upon the understanding of the brain as a physical organ.  As for the mind as a physical organ, um, did you really mean to write that?  Are we back with Descartes and his lodgement of the soul in the pituitary or the pineal gland or wherever the hell he placed it?
It gets worse.  The consequences of the “doctrine” of the soul (though, in our view, this is rather like speaking of the “doctrine” of the existence of the physical world)  is “letting people die of hepatitis  or be ravaged by Parkinson’s disease  when a cure may lie in research on stem cells…”  Indeed a cure might be thus expedited, or it might not;  the soul is nothing to the issue.   The moral quandary is rather to what extent society is willing to go, to benefit group A at the expense of group B.   Effective but morally debateable maneuvers include:  harvesting stem cells from embroyos;  harvesting embryos; harvesting aborted fetuses; harvesting fetuses not yet aborted but which, for a fittybone, the unwed mother would be happy to sell you.  Plus harvesting organs from dead adults; from living but brain-dead adults; from criminals; from political prisoners; from the luckless, kidnapped for this very purpose.  Perhaps less effective from a flinty Western medical perspective, but quite real and effective to its practitioners, is harvesting such organs as genitals from living children (our group B, here rather at a disadvantage) for use in sorcery to benefit group A (which in their own estimation, includes all the best people).  All these practices may be found in the world today, though generally not in places where the influence of the Holy Mother Church is at its strongest.   John draws the line at one place, Mary at another; and if you were to do a statistical study, it might well be that churchgoers, on average, place it somewhat more towards the less-interventionist end  than do vivisectionists, grave-robbers or eliminative materialists.   That would be sociologically rather interesting, if true;  Pinker has however made no logical point.   Nor does his heroically rising to the defense of helpless Alzheimer’s patients, who apparently are being abused by nuns when these are not otherwise engaged in cackling over the sufferings of Parkinsonians,  contradict anything a theist would say (apart perhaps from heretics like Christian Scientists):  “Sources of immense misery” (notice the purely emotion-evoking addition of the adjective) “such as Alzheimer’s disease … will be alleviated   not by treating thought and emotion of manifestations of an immaterial soul  but by treating them as manifestations of physiology and genetics.”   Amen; hear, hear;  we can all of us drink to that.  Pinker’s lance has pierced a straw-man.

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Pinker touches bottom with this assertion:  “The doctrine of a soul that outlives the body  is anything but righteous, because it necessarily devalues the lives we live on earth.”   (Compare:  "The doctrine that we should become adults  is offensive, as it devalues childhood.")
Leave aside that outsider’s-assessment-word “righteous”, analogous to the skewed perspective of the word “humane” above (We believe, or disbelieve, or simply hope, as the case may be, in eternal life, from conviction or revelation or even logic or what have you, but not because such a belief -- true or false -- seems “righteous”).  Notice, though, that qualifier “necessarily”, which changes the assertion from a sociological generalization or barroom opinion  into one of logico-philosophical apodixis.  Yet the only evidence he offers for this extraordinary doctrine  is the self-serving rationalizations (or irrationalizations) of maniacs who kill their kids, and the rants of al-Qaeda suicide-bombers.  (Page 189 -- look it up if you can’t believe your eyes.)
Good - Heavens!  For all we know, some serial killer has excused his crime-spree by an allusion to the Riemann Hypothesis;  the effect of such grotesques upon number theory  will rightly be nil.
Beyond the logical point, Pinker’s assertion is psychologically absurd.   It may well be the case (though God forbid), that those who hope they may one day rest in the bosom of Abraham  are destined to be cruelly disabused;  but their doctrine does tend rather to distinguish this view of life  from that of scorpions in a bottle.

For a glimpse at the value placed upon human life  among a proud, free people  unpolluted by Christian superstitions, click here, and here.
[update 8 May 2012] And now here:
South Korean customs said it had confiscated more than 17,000 “health” capsules smuggled from China that contain human flesh, most likely extracted from aborted fetuses or stillborn babies.

(Note, though:  these are quibbles;  just a turf thang, folks.  Pinker's book overall is broad, sound, and beautifully written.)

(For more along these lines: )

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