Friday, 6 May 2016

Can you Adam and Eve it?

Reading Augustine’s City of God by sortilege, what else, my reading finger picked out Book XIII on The Fall of Man and his Consequent Mortality. Cockney rhyming slang has ‘Can you Adam and Eve it’ for ‘Can you believe it’. Belief in a literal truth instead of treating the story as a symbolic myth continues to draw justification from Catholic theologians even as elements wither before the sere winds of science. How do you insulate a required belief in a single set of parents of the human race? Ingeniously the doctrine of the infused rational soul is brought forward to enhance the status of a selected couple drawn from a population that is in an unregenerate state, withal being in all physical ways similar. They are then the first true human beings.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson (Intro.)

If one were to characterise the approach of Dorothy Richardson to personal identity Narrativism would be a good place to qualify from. Is there such a system? Have I just made it up? In the novel series Pilgrimage Richardson as Miriam Henderson tells the story of herself to herself and to we readers, updating regularly, each bulletin a short novel. Her sense of herself is as a catenary of linked self-expression events. She is then like that self-service mini-market in Paris that proclaimed itself le self de selfs. I am reading the First Volume in the Virago Edition and also as a ebook from Internet Archive. Under both species then but in this case the printed form has the edge because the links are separated by white which does not appear in the scanned page. In the ebook sections are numbered in each chapter which hs a disjunctive effect. That sense of duration, a la Bergson, of a life rolled up and expressing itself in a moment is aided by a typographical device.

Does this construction of identity lead to a journey round one’s navel? Not in Richardson’s case but not being aware of biographical details I have no knowledge of how self-serving the account she gives of herself is.

More anon.

Friday, 29 April 2016

William James's account of the continuity of personal consciousness

William James writes:
Within each personal consciousness, thought is sensibly continuous. I can only define 'continuous' as that which is without breach, crack, or division. The only breaches that can well be conceived to occur within the limits of a single mind would either be interruptions, time-gaps during which the consciousness went out; or they would be breaks in the content of the thought, so abrupt that what followed had no connection whatever with what went before. The proposition that consciousness feels continuous, means two things:
a. That even where there is a time-gap the consciousness after it feels as if it belonged together with the consciousness before it, as another part of the same self;
b. That the changes from one moment to another in the quality of the consciousness are never absolutely abrupt.
The case of the time-gaps, as the simplest, shall be taken first.
a. When Paul and Peter wake up in the same bed, and recognize that they have been asleep, each one of them mentally reaches back and makes connection with but one of the two streams of thought which were broken by the sleeping hours. As the current of an electrode buried in the ground unerringly finds its way to its own similarly buried mate, across no matter how much intervening earth; so Peter's present instantly finds out Peter's past, and never by mistake knits itself on to that of Paul. Paul's thought in turn is as little liable to go astray. The past thought of Peter is appropriated by the present Peter alone. He may have a knowledge, and a correct one too, of what Paul's last drowsy states of mind were as he sank into sleep, but it is an entirely different sort of knowledge from that which he has of his own last states. He remembers his own states, whilst he only conceives Paul's. Remembrance is like direct feeling; its object is suffused with a warmth and intimacy to which no object of mere conception ever attains. This quality of warmth and intimacy and immediacy is what Peter's present thought also possesses for itself. So sure as this present is me, is mine, it says, so sure is anything else that comes with the same warmth and intimacy and immediacy, me and mine. What the qualities called warmth and intimacy may in themselves be will have to be matter for future consideration. But whatever past states appear with those qualities must be admitted to receive the greeting of the present mental state, to be owned by it, and accepted as belonging together with it in a common self. This community of self is what the time-gap cannot break in twain, and is why a present thought, although not ignorant of the time-gap, can still regard itself as continuous with certain chosen portions of the past.
Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.
(from Vol.1: Principles of Psychology)

My objection to this sketch of the continuity of consciousness is very simple. The casting back by means of memory to the state of drowsiness just before the onset of sleep and a discovery of congruence with that state of consciousness seems to me to be an artificial construction. A memory could be mistaken, you could reach back and ‘find’ somebody else. In any case this elaborate re-connection is not something that we do or need to do. The other difficulty is that we often report a calm deep dreamless sleep. How could we know this if we had to rely on a connection of experience to experience to establish continuity? We cannot remember what we did not experience and yet we have that quite secure knowledge of having slept without dreaming. By James’s account this knowledge would to be impossible.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

William James and Henri Bergson

No doubt it is often convenient to formulate the mental facts in an atomistic sort of way, and to treat the higher states of consciousness as if they were all built out of unchanging simple ideas which 'pass and turn again.' It is convenient often to treat curves as if they were composed of small straight lines, and electricity and nerve-force as if they were fluids. But in the one case as in the other we must never forget that we are talking symbolically, and that there is nothing in nature to answer to our words. A permanently existing 'Idea' which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodical intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades.
(from Vol.1 Principles of Psychology)

Now here it is clear. as he himself admitted, that he came under the influence of Henri Bergson who showed him a way out of his thrall to logical intellectualism.

Let us leave out the soul, then, and confront what I just called the residual dilemma. Can we, on the one hand, give up the logic of identity?—can we, on the other, believe human experience to be fundamentally irrational? Neither is easy, yet it would seem that we must do one or the other………..
I told you that I had long and sincerely wrestled with the dilemma. I have now to confess (and this will probably re-animate your interest) that I should not now be emancipated, not now subordinate logic with so very light a heart, or throw it out of the deeper regions of philosophy to take its rightful and respectable place in the world of simple human practice, if I had not been influenced by a comparatively young and very original French writer, Professor Henri Bergson. Reading his works is what has made me bold. If I had not read Bergson, I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately, in the hope of making ends meet that were never meant to meet, and trying to discover some mode of conceiving the behaviour of reality which should leave no discrepancy between it and the accepted laws of the logic of identity. It is certain, at any rate, that without the confidence which being able to lean on Bergson's authority gives me I should never have ventured to urge these particular views of mine upon this ultra-critical audience.
(from A Pluralistic Universe)

Mathematization of space as useful but untrue is a central theme of Bergson’s. A firm fixed identity to be postulated on the basis of our feeling of it does not line up with the flowing nature of consciousness. It is a logical construction that cannot be built out of the material to hand.

Yet nevertheless we must not dismiss the ultimate given of consciousness:
Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.

The vertiginous topsyturvydom expressed by the Bodhisattva seems to have come on James San:

Empty-handed, I hold a hoe.
Walking on foot, I ride a buffalo
Passing over a bridge, I see
The bridge flow, but not the water.

Roshi’s pandybat hovers.

(more yet to come)

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

In which I paddle in the Stream of Consciousness

Reading about Dorothy Richardson author of the series of novels entitled Pilgrimage I was informed that it was novelist May Sinclair who coined the expression stream of consciousness in relation to her narrative style. The doubt I have is not about priority of the use of the concept of consciousness proposed by William James to describe Richardson’s work but the notion that she initiated a new narrative style. The oddities of personal association, the meandering and saltation are in Tristram Shandy for instance and what novelist does not attempt to limn the turbulent, turbid or smooth flow of a character’s mind.

Pointed Roofs is the first of the 13 novel series by Richardson. I have just read it and will by the mill stream of my mind grind grind out the makings of a critical scone. Soon. My consideration now is that trope of James’s. What can it mean? Clearly I shall have to examine his usage of that metaphor in Principles of Psychology

Compare and Contrast:

Empty-handed, I hold a hoe.
Walking on foot, I ride a buffalo
Passing over a bridge, I see
The bridge flow, but not the water.
(Bodhisattva Shan-hui)

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Yohan J. John on the Brain/Mind Problem

In his latest two posts from the frontiers of neuroscience Yohan J John




appears to be entertaining methodic doubt in the first and methodical doubt in the second. The very method itself or the assumption that brain events are consciousness is questioned: that ‘the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile’ (Pierre Canabis) and the more we get to know about this neuronal traffic the closer we will get to the core question of how the identity of brain and mind is effected. Is this not searching under the streetlight of immediate apparent facts? No amount of this evidence will bring one to an understanding of how the one is the other. Metaphysical analysis can eliminate epiphenomenalism or occasionalism etc but the ‘thinkability’ of brain/mind identity remains in doubt.

The methodical doubts involve the ordered, systematic application of the principle of identity in the area of phrenology, improving your brain power and other nostrums. Writing on what we now consider the daft theory of the homunculus he reflects that we ought to rein in our scorn for the little chap may still be lurking in our modern theory:

The homunculus picture can also be discerned in the idea of the genome as a "blueprint" for the organism. Before modern genetics arose at the turn of the 20th century, some scientists (the "preformationists") proposed that the sperm contained a miniature version of the future organism. Modern scientists laugh at this causal passing-of-the-buck, but conceptually, a miniature person is not really that different from a miniature blueprint of a person.

Yohan J John’s, there’s a triple barreled name, has written an informative and witty brace of articles on the hard question.


Various formulations of the brain mind problem:
brain/mind formulas

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw (pub.1948)

Was that a joke, his saying that he initially started out with the idea of following the history of the bullet from the lead mine to its discharge into Christian Diestl to avenge the death of Noah Ackerman? That ‘Christian’ is an fluorescent underlining that bleeds into the next page and indicates that maybe the wise hand of an editor stayed him. The elephantine coincidence of Christian having met Michael Whiteacre’s girl in Austria before the war is unnecessary particularly as she plays scarcely any part in the book. I read on a door once - ‘my karma ran over my dogma’. Politics are fatal to good writing and the ready to wear asides in the novel man a picket line. It’s still a good novel and the writer’s notebook is evident in its pages. Shaw paid attention during the war and if he neverr put himself in harm’s way he surely met the warriors coming home.

Noah Ackerman among the ‘crackers’ is well wrought and his fight for respect is only successful when he flouts the law of their common enemy, the army. Their captain turns out to be a poltroon in Normandy. Ricketts the lisping Texan, careful now, is another bete noir that is well delineated in all his ever present splendor.

Ackerman’s walk around town with his fiancé’s father is superb and shows that Shaw made his mark initially in fiction with the short story form. I’m reading his ‘50 Years’ collection now. The man has a sense of humor too, which I do not associate with the blockbuster writer. Being an early success had not spoiled him in 1948 when he published ‘Lions’. A degree in Advanced Failure with a subsid in Chagrin is not a requirement but is useful. Fail better as your man said. The red under Jack Warner’s bed may have sent him off to Europe where the hysteria, whatever its frail grip on fact, was not a major impediment to best sellerdom and the curse of the mini-series.

War I don’t anything about, but he makes it real. I especially liked the way he stressed the need to be in a platoon of friends that would look after you in case you were inclined to volunteer to draw fire. Get the stranger ice-cream soldiers to do that. And the Luger souvenirs that they died for.

It is too big a book and too simple a book to get down to details about. ‘There were three soldiers went to war’ with a hey ho and a hey nonny no.
It surprised by by its quality and here I must incriminate myself; twas Stephen King mentioned it with approval in one of his books which I didn’t finish. Bring it on a flight to Australia and you will be still reading it on the transit bus and finishing it blear eyed on the day before you left.