Sunday, August 7, 2022
Wednesday, June 29, 2022
Monday, June 27, 2022
I have noticed a number of tweets defending animal eating and exploitation as a matter of personal choice. I wanted to give a response.
I think the error might arise out of a confusion between artistic judgments and moral judgments. For tastes in art, we reasonably defer to individual preferences. If I like the movie Eraserhead and my wife detests it. We just assume that we have different tastes and leave it at that. We might say something like “well, each to their own.”
Many people assume that the same argument applies to moral choice, that morality is somehow simply a matter of individual preference. But a moment’s reflection will show that this cannot be. You can’t, or at least shouldn’t, believe that the morality of murder is a matter of personal choice.
Morality, by its very nature, is about how we behave towards others in the context of a society. It would be bizarre to say that in a personal relationship only my interests matter. Indeed, the prerequisite for a healthy relationship is attention to the interests of others. Thus, morality is about the totality of relationships and in it we must weigh the interests of others. In artistic judgments we really don’t need to justify our tastes, but in moral judgments we need to have arguments why one course of action is moral and another is not.
Thus, when meat eaters say that their enjoyment of eating animals is sufficient justification, their argument fails to take into account the interests of the sentient animal, that is capable of feeling pain and has value in its own life.
Thursday, June 16, 2022
Luria’s mentor, Vygotsky, died of tuberculosis in 1934. Around this time his work fell out of favor with Soviet authorities and, until 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, his books were banned. Luria continued to research and publish but refocused his work onto more strictly neurological topics.
While a Marxist, Vygotsky’s approach was too heterodox for the new Stalinist orthodoxy. Vygotsky had read widely in a number of languages and his writing bears the influence of thinkers such as William James, Jean Piaget, and Spinoza. Moreover, Vygotsky’s cultural psychology was accused of chauvinism. It was claimed that his theories devalued the thinking of peasants and workers.
This last point is important to explore because similar accusations have been made against other efforts to understand the evolution of the human psyche. Let us be clear, Vygotsky and Luria rejected any notion of biological inferiority of premodern people. They saw the differences embedded in social and historical forces. They did, however, accept a theory of progress.
Notions of progress have fallen out of favor, and the phrase “the myth of progress” has become an unexamined truisms.
Progress can be understood as some directional change toward the good. It is hard to draw up a balance sheet on history. One can find trends that have improved, such as enhancements in health and literacy. At the same time it is easy to see trends, such as climate change, that imperil our future.
The work of Vygotsky and Luria offers us an avenue for constructing a viable theory of human progress. Shifts in technology and sociocultural arrangements are closely linked to shifts in human mentalities. At certain historic junctures, there have been dramatic revolutions in our cognitive architecture.
Understanding these changes will help us solve some enduring mysteries. These include the origins of human hyper-altruism, the fact of moral progress, and the rise of abstract philosophic thought. In this essay, I will focus specifically on how shifts in cognition are closely tied up with our altruism.
Monday, June 13, 2022
The purpose of this blog is to disseminate a set of ideas that I believe deserve wider attention. In the process I have also set up a Twitter account to republish my blog posts on that platform. This drew me into the world of tweeting and now I have a sense of the difference between the two approaches.
In terms of responses, there is no doubt that I reach more people via Twitter than my blog. My blog posts rarely receive more than eight hits, while I have, at last count, 124 followers on Twitter. On the other hand it seems true that it is harder to engage in sustained explanation when I tweet. Perhaps this will change once I become more adept with the platform and make more extensive use of threads.
Also it seems clear that it is hard to unify disparate themes. One of my goals is to encourage veganism among Esperantists and to introduce vegans to Esperanto. But in general my tweets about veganism are read by vegans and my tweets about Esperanto are only read by those who are committed to the language. Once again I would like to figure out some way to unify both groups.
In the meantime I will continue to post longer pieces here on my blog, while also creating shorter tweets that may or may not be republished on the blog.
Friday, June 10, 2022
A short review of Christian Anarchist: Ammon Hennacy, A life on the Catholic Left by William Marling
William Marling has done us a great service in telling the story of the remarkable Christian pacifist Ammon Hennacy. Hennacy spent time in prison during the First World War for draft refusal. While imprisoned in prolonged solitary confinement, his careful reading of the Bible led him to become an uncompromising Christian Anarchist.
Over the course of his life Hennacy would practice what he called “the one man revolution” (the phrase borrowed from a poem by Robert Frost), where he tried to transform himself to live as close to his ideal as possible.
One does not have to agree with all of Hennacy’s ideas to recognize the importance of his experiment in living a radical life. His example raises many deep questions about the relationship between individual and social transformation.
Marling does a good job of telling the story. The account is occasionally marred by some small factual errors (Linus Pauling did not discover vitamin C, “Civil Disobedience” was not a chapter of Walden) and he occasionally lapses into obscurant academic jargon including the obligatory quotation of Michel Foucault. But these are minor problems and overall I highly recommend this book.
Thursday, June 9, 2022
Our humanness is then tied up with our sociality. To understand how our mind evolved we need to understand human social cooperation. Indeed, standard evolutionary models do not seem to predict the high degree of altruism we observe in people. No explanation of human cooperation is possible without an appreciation of human culture and psychology. To understand our sociality we must comprehend how cultural change has shaped the mind.
Now, if the Vygostskian view is correct, then we can expect that people living a premodern life would think about the world in a radically different way than modern people. The dramatic transformations that took place in Soviet Uzbekistan during the 1930s, where illiterate people living a traditional life style, resided in proximity to people receiving modern education and taking employment in schools, factories or on collective farms, provided an opportunity to test this proposition.
The people Luria interviewed included illiterate villagers “not involved in any modern social activities,” as well as people who had “access to a technological culture and mastery of mechanisms such as literacy and other new forms of knowledge.”
Luria’s research consisted of lengthy interviews where he presented “specially developed tests that the subjects found meaningful and open to several solutions, each indicating some aspect of cognitive activity.” Luria was particularly skilled at neuropsychological diagnosis. A number of tests he developed are still used by physicians today.
In this case, the tests Luria used consisted of deductive reasoning problems where “the solution could be either graphic-functional and situational, or abstract and categorical.” He borrowed this functional-situational versus categorical-abstract distinction from the work of psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein.
Goldstein described these two orientations as concrete and abstract and wrote “in the concrete attitude we are given over passively and bound to the immediate experience of unique objects or situations.” In the abstract orientation, he claimed that “we transcend the immediate given specific aspect of sense impressions, we detach ourselves from the latter and consider the situation from a conceptual point of view.”
In a typical interview Luria would ask participants to classify and name geometric figures such as circles, triangles, and squares. Only the most educated, students in the teacher training program, identified the figures with their geometric names. Indeed when, given an incomplete figure they would say it was “something like a circle,” or “something like a triangle.”
In contrast individuals with less formal education tended to describe the shapes with names of everyday objects. For example, they would describe a circle as a plate, a bucket, or the moon. A square might be called a door, a house, or an apricot drying board. When shown an incomplete circle, Luria would receive responses such as a bracelet or an earring. For Luria, such response confirmed his view “that the perception of geometrical shapes varies from one culture to another,”
Prior to Luria’s work, most psychologists assumed that basic syllogistic reasoning is a universal feature of the human mind. But when Luria asked unschooled and illiterate peasants to reason syllogistically, he received surprising responses.
For example, when presented with this problem:
“In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the far north. What color are the bears there?”
Luria found that “as a rule, many refused to accept the major premise, declaring, ‘I’ve never been in the north and never seen bears.’” The interviews revealed that while people could reason well about their direct experience, they were unable to abstract the process to events and objects outside of the particularities of their lives.
From these observations, Luria concluded “the facts show convincingly that the structure of cognitive activity does not remain static during different stages of historical development.”
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