Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dembski and McDowell misrepresent Dennett - is this a shock?


A while back a colleague of my father's sent me a book on Intelligent Design - the title in question is Understanding intelligent design : everything you need to know in plain language by William A. Dembski and Sean McDowell.

Now, I'm not too concerned with the "debate" about evolutionary theory (it's not a real debate) - that something like modern evolutionary theory is right is pretty much a working certainty for me. I've read a few books on it, and it seems to me to be right - if it turned out that it was wrong, that is, if the scientific consensus was somehow shifted by new evidence or whatever, I'd probably have to rethink a lot of things, but that's about it.

So although I've had the book a while, I've had other things to read and haven't really had the time (or inclination) to skim it.

This morning I was looking through my books and I saw Dembski and McDowell's book lying on my shelf, so I thought I'd flip through the intro.
It's pretty standard creationist stuff, there were a few passages that were logically confused, but perhaps I could forgive that ... there were also some pretty provocative things insinuated about the morality of people who believe in evolution, this is par for the course with creationists too.

But then I came across a blatant lie. A shameless lie that, if it makes it's way into the popular mythology of the creationist crowd, paints atheists, agnostics, naturalists, humanists etc. as being as bad as the Satanists of their imagination (you know, the supposed hordes of evil doers who slay cats in nightclubs and sacrifice babies in the name of their Dark Lord? Those guys)

Here is the li(n)e -

"[I]n Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett suggests that religious believers who talk their children out of believing Darwinian evolution should be caged in zoos or quarantined because they pose a serious threat to the social order"
- Dembski & McDowell 2008 : 23
The only reason that they can get away with this is because their readers are almost certainly never going to read Dennett himself, and most of Dennett's readers will never (thankfully) come across this line because they'll never stoop so low (as I did) to read anything from these creationist nutjobs.

Dennett's Darwin book happens to be one of my all time favourite books - and so when I came across this line I was so angry I almost spat (if you can believe that). Anyone who knows/reads Dennett will know that he would never honestly say something like that. He is genuinely sensitive to human rights (as well as being a genuinely good human being). Secondly, the passage in which he mentions "zoos" he was explicitly speaking of preserving the cultural heritage of religion.

Let me quote from the passage in question -

"What, then, of all the glories of our religious traditions? They should certainly be preserved, as should the languages, the art, the costumes, the rituals, the monuments. Zoos are now more and more being seen as second-class havens for endangered species, but at least they are havens, and what they preserve is irreplaceable."
- Dennett 1995 : 519

The next mention of "zoos" comes on the following page

"What will happen, one may well wonder, if religion is preserved in cultural zoos, in libraries, in concerts and demonstrations? It is happening; the tourists flock to watch the Native American tribal dances, and for the onlookers it is folklore, a religious ceremony, certainly, to be treated with respect, but also an example of a meme complex on the verge of extinction"
- Dennett 1995 : 520

Having read those two passages, how is it possible to draw the conclusion the Dennett is talking about taking religious people and putting them in zoos?
It's not, without stretching the truth - and in this case the truth is stretched beyond the point of breaking - what we have here is the much spotted bald faced creationist lie.

Dennett does sound one warning to believers - and I think it's one worth repeating -

"If you want to teach your children that they are the tools of God, you had better not teach them that they are God's rifles, or we will have to stand firmly opposed to you: your doctrine has no glory, no special rights, no intrinsic and inalienable merit. If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods - that the Earth is flat, that "Man" is not a product of evolution by natural selection - then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity. Our future well-being - the well-being of all of us on the planet - depends on the education of our descendants."
-Dennett 1995 : 519

References

Dembski, William A. and McDowell, Sean, 2008. Understanding Intelligent Design : everything you need to know in plain language. Harvest House Publishers

Dennett, Daniel C., 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Penguin Books

Power Balance Bollocks - The Stat attack


a collaborative post by Bryan Gruneberg and Blaize Kaye.

Note : If you find this post useful, please consider doing a blog post of your own on some of the other athletes that have endorsed this product.


If you have seen any recent pictures of the infamous Shaquille O’Neal slamming, ramming, or generally ripping up the courts, you might notice that around his wrist he is sporting a shiny hologram powered energy regulation device. We’ll refer to this as the Power Balance Bracelet. Shaq, the 15-time NBA all star, has recently endorsed the Power Balance “Technology” behind the bracelet. The Shaq-Attack says that he “could feel something uncommon with the Power Balance wristband on” and when he took it off, “he just went back to normal.”
In 2010 SlamOnline reported that a number of NBA players have been using the Power Balance Bracelet. The players explicitly noted were Shaquille O’Neal, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza and Paul Pierce. Apparently Odom even doubles them up, wearing one on each wrist. Odom reportedly “feels a difference on the court when [he] wear[s] the wristbands... it gives [him] more energy and balance when [he is] on the court.”

Of course Shaq and the boys are respected athletes. If you can nab one of them as your two-a-side partner for a street ball game, you have significantly increased your chances of kicking ass. Similarly, if you find one of them on the opposing team, you might want to tap out early. However, this is no good reason to trust the Shaq-Attack-Brigade when it comes to the technology behind the Power Balance Bracelet.
According to PowerBalance.com, Power Balance Performance Technology is designed to work with your body’s natural energy fields. It supposedly does this by “optimizing the body’s natural energy flow”. The Power Balance technology is comprised of a hologram and some mechanism for keeping the hologram close to the body. It is the hologram in Power Balance that is “designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.” Apparently the holding device is unimportant, as they seem to come in all shapes and forms ranging from silicon bracelets, to silver chains, to stickers for your surf board. Apparently water does not interfere with our “body’s natural energy flows”, but that is a topic for another post.
If the Power Balance Bracelet does in fact increase performance, as these athletes and the manufactures claim, then it is fair to expect that this performance increase should show in the players statistics. Now, one of the great virtues of US sports-fanaticism is that they are nuts about statistics. Their nuttiness is evidenced in the fact that Justin Kubatko started a site called Basket-Ball-Reference.com which provides in-depth statistics about leagues, seasons and, of course, the players themselves.

Good news for sports fans, bad news for unscrupulous manufacturers and peddlers of hokum and fakery.

So how about we take a look at the statistics for some of these players, and see if we can extract anything significant? We will use the “Free Throws” measure as our unit of analysis. We will do this for a number of reasons, but primarily because Mr O’Neal is now the oldest active player in the NBA and we don’t want to open ourselves to the criticism or counter claim that, because of his age the Power Balance Bracelet might be having some kind of effect, namely, countering the attenuation in athletic prowess that human beings naturally experience as they grow older.

This isn’t a problem with free throws. Mr Ted St. Martin currently holds the record for making the most consecutive free throws - 5221 in a row, it took him seven and a half hours - and was almost at retirement age when he broke the record for a fourth time in April of ‘96. The previous record holder, Thomas Amberry, was 72 when he broke St. Martin’s earlier record. Age doesn’t really seem to be a factor when it comes to free throws, in fact, one should probably get better over time due to practice effects.

But age issues aside, there are other reasons for using free throws as a standard. Unlike almost every other element of basketball play, the free throw doesn’t have an opposing team actively interfering with the player’s performance. Sure, there are the crowds trying to distract the players, but it’s about as close to a controlled environment as we’re going to get. Furthermore, if there was some advantage that the players were getting from the Power Balance Bracelet, it could be argued that the “edge” that any individual player might be getting could have been offset by the “edge” given to opposing players who might possibly have be wearing bracelets of their own.
Free throws it is.
As far as we’ve been able to ascertain, Shaq began wearing his Power Balance Bracelet a little before his transfer to the Cleavland Cavaliers - unfortunately we don’t have exact dates, but the press release for Shaq’s endorsement of the product tell us that he started wearing it some time during his stay with the Phoenix suns which was during the 2008-2009 season.
Shaq has a career average of 53% from the top of the key - that is, he’s made only 53% of the free throws that he’s taken. His career high came in the 2002-2003 season where, wearing his LA Laker’s vest, he was able to make 451 out of 725 baskets for a whopping 62.2%.
PowerBalance was only established in 2007 so, at the very least, we know that they had nothing to do with that bumper year.
So Shaq has been actively “using” (actually, just wearing) the Power Balance Bracelet for one season, his 2008-2009 stint with the Cavs - how did he fare now that his “energy balance” has been optimised? Well, not that well to be honest, in fact “O'Neal averaged career lows in almost every major statistical category”.
In terms of his free throw success rate, he managed to make a paltry 49.6% of his baskets - which is under his career average, let alone anywhere near his career high.

And given the current season’s stats (it’s still early in the season though - perhaps it takes a while for energy to become aligned) it looks like Shaq’s free throw percentage will fall somewhere between 50-60%, like it has for the last 18 or so years.

But perhaps we’re being unfair; It’s well known that Shaq has had trouble with free throws throughout his entire career. So let’s take a look at Lamar Odom, who - if you recall - likes to double up on his Power Balance bracelets. Can we expect the result to be doubly unimpressive?

Lamar Odom is a 6 foot 10 inch, 220 pound L.A. Lakers player. Looking over some of his on-court action shots, it is difficult to imagine that Odom’s “natural energy flows” (if there were such a thing) are in anything other than pristine working order.

Like with Shaq, it is difficult to establish exactly when Odom started wearing his double-whammy Power Balance Bracelets. Again, we know that Power Balance can’t have affected Odom’s pre 2007 statistics because the company was not formed until then. However, we do know that Odom openly endorses the product at the Power Balance site (http://www.powerbalance.com/athlete-lamar-odom). Odom claims that “playing at a championship level requires him to perform at his peak day in and day out” and that “the Power Balance silicon wristband helps him keep that balance” - but do the stats concur?

Odom’s career average is a nicely squared away 70%. This means that of the 3320 attempted free throws, he has sunk 2323. His career best year was in 2002 where he sunk 77% of his free throws. This was a comfortable 5 years before the Power Balance Bracelet was helping athletes out. Assuming that Odom started wearing the Power Balance Bracelets (yes - notice the plural) in 2009, it would be fair to expect that 2009 and 2010 would be record high years for him.

But alas, 2009 saw Odom only able to sink 69% of his 202 attempted free throws. That is 8% less than his career high, and a percentage point less than his career average. Unfortunately for both Odom and Power Balance, the 2010-2011 season is not yet shaping up to be much brighter, with Odom only achieving 67% of his attempted 107 free throws, leaving him 3% down on his career average and 11% down on his personal best.

Given the unambiguous claims made by Power Balance and the individual athletes that endorse them, we would expect that in 2009-2010 these pros would have bettered, or at least matched, their personal bests. In fact, neither of the players we have looked at here got close to their records. Both players actually performed quite averagely.

But what else could we expect from a little rubber band with a hologram attached? Thanks Power Balance.

References :

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tetris and the site-specific hypothesis


Right, so I said I would post a little more about the fairly recent paper "MRI assessment of cortical thickness and functional activity changes in adolescent girls following three months of practice on a visual-spatial task" by Haier et. al.

If you do a quick Google search for "tetris and cortical thickness" you'll find a number of popular articles, blog posts, and news items detailing the findings from the lab of Haier and his colleagues - great, but it seems as though most of them have missed something important. Everyone is going on about brain thickness and efficiency (a concept that doesn't seem to be nearly as straightforward as the blogosphere makes it seems - more on this soon) and yet they almost all skip over one of the major findings as if it were an added extra.

I don't want to spend time going over the same ground as the hundreds of items you'll find online - but I do think that I can add something that seems to have been mostly overlooked.

take another look at the abstract :-
Neuro-imaging studies demonstrate plasticity of cortical gray matter before and after practice for some motor and cognitive tasks in adults. Other imaging studies show functional changes after practice, but there is not yet direct evidence of how structural and functional changes may be related. A fundamental question is whether they occur at the same cortical sites, adjacent sites, or sites in other parts of a network.
now carefully reread the last line and you'll see that they're not only interested in whether there are structural (thickening of the cortex) or functional (Haemodynamic response) changes, these facts had already been established in earlier studies but are interested in exploring what they call the site-specific hypothesis, the idea that when structural and functional changes occur in the brain, they'll tend to happen in roughly the same places.
Their investigations show that, in this case at least, the site-specific hypothesis doesn't seem to hold as there was almost no overlap between changes in BOLD (blood oxygen level dependent) changes and increases of cortical thickness (there were also no measured decreases in cortical thickness).

This is a pretty cool fact.

Of course I'm not saying that the results that there were structural and functional changes aren't interesting in themselves - especially considering what they've revealed about the areas that were affected through tetris practice. It's just easy to overlook a fairly interesting and potentially significant fact in all the fuss being made over the fact that playing a computer game "can make your brain bigger and more efficient".

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why I am not not an atheist.

I never had the experience religious people call a "loss of faith" - did I once believe in God? Yes. Would I consider that belief as having FAITH? No, not at all. As a child I had absorbed this kind of common ontology from my culture, from friends and family. There was the soul stuff that belonged to God forever, and it would always be happy. And there was the body-stuff that belonged to the Devil, and if you let him, he would grab onto your soul stuff by convincing you to do bad things (back then it was things like smoke, drink, talk back to your parents and what have you - later it would be sex and further unthinkable soul staining activities). If the Devil managed to get hold of your soul stuff he would take a perverse and, critically, inexplicable pleasure in torturing you for eternity. A strange pastime to be sure, but surely justified by the fact that the Devil is evil through and through? And what's more, God - the intelligence that created EVERYTHING in 6 days (remember, he rested on the 7th) - is, psychologically, as one dimensional as the Devil; being as good as the Enemy is bad.

But the story of God and the Devil wasn't a particularly important part of my background beliefs, it was quite like my belief that if I dropped something it would fall to the ground, or that my father would be able to protect me from any variety of hulking threats.

Nothing particularly special.

If anything, God was a drag because, occasionally, my mother would decide that her children needed some of that old time religion - so we would all dress up and spend a few hours kneeling and intoning prayers that we didn't know at all - reading out of prayer books and trying to follow along with the well practised cadence of the parishioners. If we were lucky they would serve biscuits and weak tea after the service.

When I was a little older and my friends started taking religion seriously, I would occasionally decide to take my religion "seriously" - so I would kneel at the foot of my bed and say my evening prayers. Bless me father ... no, don't know that one ... Hail Mary ... don't know that one either ... Please God could you make everyone in the world happy. Amen. And that would be it, I would be in bed dreaming of building a time machine or of one day kissing a girl. But these spurts of religious interest never lasted more than a day or two.

I was never really invested in God, and - despite protests from the pews - I never really got the sense that God was very much invested in me, and WHY that was so would become clear soon enough. I must have been about 20 when I finally realised the centrepiece of our common-onotology was nothing but a trick of the light.

God, it turned out, was made up.

This wasn't at all a violent realization. There was no anger in me, no feeling of betrayal, no regret at having grown up with a lie. For me it was like waking up. I couldn't remember just when it happened, but there I was awake, stretching, and happy to be alive.

Perhaps I was a little giddy, a little uncertain, as we are when we first swing ourselves out of bed, but I was fully conscious and ready to live - even if I was a little disappointed that "living" now meant something quite different to the endless, actually infinite, stretch of time I thought I had in front of me.

My realization that, perhaps, there was no god was not accompanied by anything other than a shrug and a shudder.

I think that this is where my experience may differ a little from some of my friends'. Having never been weighed down by religion, I never felt that "escaping" from it was any more significant than giving up any other false belief - crucially, I felt no accompanying sense of "freedom" from a morality that had been imposed from above. For my moral self, the day I gave up believing in god was like any other day - it was my epistemological self that had lost a little weight.


But why am I angry?

I don't want to be angry - I don't possess the kind of personality that's driven by conflict - conflict, I confess, makes me feel slightly nauseous. I honestly want to live my life as well as I can, as virtuously as I can. I love my wife, I love my family, I feel compassion for the Congolese (to mention a slightly less immediate and more abstract emotional and moral engagement with the world - this kind of example is easily multiplied though).

I don't want to be angry - I say it again because I truly mean it - but I have to be. I have to be because there are people who tell me that my non-belief in god means, almost necessarily, that I am morally deficient. There are people who tell me that my belief in evolution is merely a thinly veiled excuse for an ethical free-for-all, no accountability, no morality, no consequences. Atheism and the belief in evolution are, apparently, nothing but a soul in rebellion.

This is what I can't understand though - my experience (and I'm hardly the only one) manifestly attests to the fact that one can give up on religion without giving a moment's consideration to the morality of it all, for my religion fell from me with the merest shrugging of the shoulders. I felt no more or less moral after giving up my belief in god.

It's not even that I'm concerned with the ultimate-truth-of-the-matter - whether or not there is some kind of ultimate answer that is there to fill in the void left by god is irrelevant to me - like Borges I am interested in and distrustful of almost everything, if that makes me an ol' time sceptic, so be it (although I don't think I am).

What makes me angry is people telling lies. Anybody who has ever opened their mouth to foul up the air with the nonsense that without god there is no meaning, no value, is lying about me and about all my fellow atheists. Our lives, projects, concerns, and loves are no less meaningful than those whose lives are informed by religion. Our lives are no less moral than those whose set of beliefs include the dubious - and generally comfortably vague - belief in an all knowing, all powerful, shockingly one dimensional being that, somehow, created them and the world around them and then magically invested it with meaning, with value.

Without these lies I would not be an atheist, I would just be a guy who happens not to believe in one of the many gods who have met their demise at the hands of time - and so I am forced to either accept these falsehoods, or argue back with all my might. Showing that my life is meaningful, ethical, valuable in spite of my non-belief.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reading about Tetris

Tetris ... who would have thought that this simple, yet highly addictive, game would have spawned so much interesting research?

It makes sense though, the game has a number of properties that make it an interesting and useful research tool. Most importantly, in my opinion, it's fun to play (this is one of Kirsh and Maglio's observations) so actually getting the subjects to sit down and play the game for the required amounts of time is nowhere near as challenging as if, say, you were getting calculus naive subjects to sit down and learn differentiation.
That's obviously not all there is to it though - other than the pragmatic value in it being fun, some of the really interesting properties are that
  1. It's simple - it has a very low barrier to entry (unlike the learning differential calculus example above)
  2. It (potentially) engages a number of cognitive processes (like perception, planning, mental rotation, learning etc.)
  3. The processes that are engaged are put under pressure because of the high speed of game play.
For the most part this general specification of the properties of Tetris more than suffice to justify it as a research tool.
I'm going to be blogging about any interesting papers / stories I find about Tetris in the next couple of months, but to illustrate how Tetris has been put to use, I'll give a quick gloss of two recent studies involving the game.

Tetris "inoculation" against Post-traumatic stress disorder

Of course one can not be literally "inoculated" against PTSD, but a recent study suggests a way of reducing the number of trauma related flashbacks using Tetris (or, presumably, something that has the same kinds of functional properties as Tetris).
The researchers had their subjects watch a distressing film in which people were injured and killed. They then randomly selected subjects to play Tetris for 10 minutes (after a shared 30 minute break). The subjects were then asked to record the number of times during the week in which they experienced flashbacks of the film. It turns out that the group of participants who engaged in the Tetris task experienced significantly fewer flashbacks.

The basic idea behind the study is nicely summarised by the authors - this is taken from the abstract

Our theory is based on two key findings: 1) Cognitive science suggests that the brain has selective resources with limited capacity; 2) The neurobiology of memory suggests a 6-hr window to disrupt memory consolidation. The rationale for a ‘cognitive vaccine’ approach is as follows: Trauma flashbacks are sensory-perceptual, visuospatial mental images. Visuospatial cognitive tasks selectively compete for resources required to generate mental images. Thus, a visuospatial computer game (e.g. “Tetris”) will interfere with flashbacks.
You can read the paper here

(thanks to Michael Meadon for drawing my attention to this study)

Tetris increases cortical thickness and changes brain functioning

Another recent study comes from Richard Haier, Karama, Leyba, and Jung who took a group of adolescent girls and had them play Tetris a few hours a week for three months. They also obtained structural and functional data on the girl's brains
before and after the Tetris training.

What they found was doubly interesting - firstly, they found that there was increased cortical thickness (structural change) as well as functional changes in the brains of the girls who had been playing Tetris compared to the control group who hadn't. Something along these lines were expected, however, there was another interesting result, and that was that the location of the thickening of the cortext and the functional changes were in different places in the brain.

The paper, in all it's gory detail, can be found online here

I'm going to hold off discussing this paper in any depth though - it links up with a number of other interesting things that I think deserve a little more attention. So give it a read, and we can get into it next time.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

NaNoWriMo - look Ma, I wrote a book!



Right, so every year when November rolls around it's time for National Novel Writing Month (despite the name it's very much an international affair).

NaNoWriMo is a challenge to anyone who has ever wished they could write a novel (and most of us who love books have, at one stage or another, dreamt that they could write one of their own). The challenge is to do just that, write your damn book!

You are challenged to put aside the things that usually distract you, those things that usually absorb all of your free time, and concentrate on simply putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to knock out 1667 words per day for 30 days.

This is the first year in a long time that I've actually had a little free time (no exams, no assignments - bliss) and I had desperately wanted to do it in 2009 when I'd first heard about it - so I decided that I would give it a shot.

I don't want to give a blow by blow account, but it was surprisingly easy to write a coherent story of at least 50000 words (the, disputed, minimum length of a novel).
The trick for me was to switch off my inner censor and just write, regardless of whether I thought I was pushing out absolute tripe. Having the minimum word count (and a fancy graph that let's you know if you've fallen behind) was something that I found seriously motivating.

Although my novel is really only good enough for kindling, I learnt a lot along the way. First off, I learnt that writing something of novel length is not nearly as intimidating as it seems at first (although writing something of quality at novel length is a slightly different story). Secondly, I learnt a lot about pacing something that's longer than a few pages - I learnt that I can slow things down a little, take my time to develop ideas and scenes. Pushing through this first NaNovel was an invaluable lesson in writing, worth way more to me than final product.

I can't recommend NaNoWriMo enough, it was a fantastic experience. If you've ever wanted to write a novel, but have never managed to get past the first few pages, consider tackling NaNoWriMo next year.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Intelligent machinery


Anyone with an interest in AI will know of Alan Turing - he, along with a handful of other mathematical geniuses with a penchant for the pragmatic, lay down the foundations of modern computer science.

Turing is known primarily for the contributions that bear his name - that is, Turing machines, and the Turing test (although just what the Turing test is supposed to be testing, and whether it can actually discern what it's supposed to be testing for, is an issue that has never quite been resolved to anyone's satisfaction).

These two ideas were laid out in two supremely famous papers - the Turing test is described in Turing's, much read, paper Computing machinery and intelligence (although Turing called it the "imitation game"), and his Turing machine is described in the much less widely read (there are far clearer and accessible treatments than his original paper - but I don't think that's why people don't read it) On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem

However, there is a third paper that deserves to be equally well known - that is his remarkable paper "Intelligent machinery" (not to be confused with the similarly named "Intelligent Machinery, a heretical theory" - I would guess that it is generally unknown because Turing never actually published it which is a real shame. In B. Jack Copeland's words the paper

is a wide-ranging and strikingly original survey of the prospects for Artificial Intelligence. In it Turing brilliantly introduced many of the concepts that were later to become central in the field (Copeland 2004 : 401)


These concepts included brief treatments of genetic algorithms, logic based programming, and an early description of the Turing test - however
"[t]he major part ... consists of an exquisite discussion of machine learning, in which Turing anticipated the modern approach to AI known as connectionism" (Copeland 2004 : 401)

If you're at all interested in the history of AI, Turing, or the ideas that have shaped our last century - you can (and should) read this document, available in Copeland's collection The essential Turing

References :
Copeland, B. J. (ed) 2004. The essential Turing. Oxford : Oxford University Press

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

CompSci resources

Just a couple of quick Computer Science resources.

Aho and Ullman's great introductory text on CS has been taken out of print, so they've put it up online here - well worth checking out.

Also, I just found the draft of Arora and Barak's Computational Complexity : A modern approach another great free resource.

Ahh, free stuff rules :)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Thinking about intuition - some short notes

Reading about man and other apes

I recently read De Waal's Tanner lecture "Morality and the social instincts : continuity with other primates". It seems a fairly useful introduction to to the notion that our emotions are the product of evolutionary processes, and not only the "nasty" emotions like jealousy, shame, fear, guilt, disgust etc. but also - and in particular - those nice emotions that help us get along with others are, too, products of a process that isn't particularly "nice" - in de Waal's own words
The ... error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures
while the lecture itself is rather thin on technical detail - it contains, primarily, results from de Waals own work - its great virtue is as a source for new intuitions. I've not read much else of de Waal's but I imagine that if it is anything like this paper / lecture it can be an extremely useful tool in bridging the gap that exists within our imagination between us and our closest animal relatives.

Dennett notes, quite rightly, in his introduction to his book Darwin's dangerous idea is that people are seldomly swayed by arguments. Following him, I would guess that those of us who believe that evolution explains the origin of species were not knocked down by the clean logic of it (and it is a beautiful logic) but, when first presented with the idea most likely found that it fit our intuitions about the way things were,
"yes, that seems to ring true, it kind of fits, doesn't it?"

No doubt our eyes grew wider and wider with shock and awe as we came to realise the full implications of evolutionary theory, about just how much it explains, but on first contact with it we most likely had an intuition that there was something right about it. We had, with some luck, been prepared to receive this startling insight by a lucky confluence of reading, observation, thinking ("my cat has eyes and ears just like mine"), and our parents (and, failing that, hopefully teachers and friends), so that when the day came, we recognised that this was something worth closer attention, and, for some of us, further study.

De Waal's work helps us develop new intuitions about our relationship with animals by showing us the ways in which his non-human primate friends engage in behaviour that is remarkably close to the kinds of behaviour that we see as being essentially human. Consider his discussion of "consolation behaviour"

Consolation is defined as reassurance and friendly contact directed by an uninvolved bystander to one of the combatants in a preceding aggressive incident. For example, a third party goes over to the loser of a fight and gently puts an arm around her shoulders. Consolation is not to be confused with reconciliation, which seems mostly self-interested, such as by the imperative to restore a disturbed social relationship. The advantages of consolation for the actor remain unclear. The actor could probably walk away from the scene without any negative consequences.
What could be more "human" than walking over to someone who has just been handed their ass, putting one's arm around their shoulder's and telling them that everything is going to be alright?
The more we're exposed to this kind of story, the more difficult we find it to see there being an unbridgable gap between human and animal.

This is the kind of thing I have in mind when I speak about it being a source of new intuitions, in this case, intuitions about the - false - absolute human/animal distinction.

Most of us are in desperate need of new intuitions, because the ones that come standard aren't that great.

Against naive intuition

A while back I had the distinct displeasure of watching Ray Comfort on Pat Robinson's show.

One thing you'll notice about Ray Comfort is that whenever he argues against atheism, or evolutionary theory, he appeals to our "common sense" intuitions about how things work.

For example, his appeal to the design argument for the existence of a god - sure, when we're faced with some complex artifact, like a computer or a car, we intuit that said artifact would have been designed and built by some reasonably intelligent person (or, at least, something possessed of active intelligence). So it's natural, when faced with something as complex at a cat or a cow, for us to have the same kind of intuition - "Of course it was designed, look how complicated it all is, that could never come about by chance".

The problem is, though, that in a lot of cases, our intuitions, our common sense about how things hang together is just plain wrong. If we take a look at some of the most important scientific discoveries, we see the extent to which our intuitions fail to correspond to the way things are. Things like space(-time) being curved or the strange ways that subatomic particles go about their daily routines. For anything other than our experience world of "medium sized dry goods" - operating at a time scale of minutes, days, hours, years, decades, even centuries - our intuitions begin falling apart.

And in the case of complex living beings needing a creator, our intuitions are, again, dead wrong regardless of how right our intuitions feel.

Smarter intuitions

This brings us back to my first point - our naive intuitions stand in need of some serious straightening out - we need to find good sources of new intuitions.

In a perfect world we would all get a good few years of quality science education under our belts before we are unleashed on a world that is, no doubt, sick of our misunderstanding the way it hangs together (like me, with my constant personification).

Failing that, we turn to our best popularizers of science.

Now, an intuition isn't just "knowing a fact", it's more about that fact having taken hold of you, and structuring the way you see things. In this way, educating our intuitions is a lot more difficult than preparing ourselves for an exam.
And it is at this task where the best science writers shine.

The finest example of intuition education that I have ever come across is to be found in the first few chapters of Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker.
In it he describes a computer program that allows one to build up "creatures" - biomorphs - through selection. You start with a simple critter and are presented with a few variations of this "parent" biomorph. You can then select which "child" will survive to become the next parent of the next generation of biomorphs (each of which will vary in their own way from their parent). With this process of random variation and selection in place (is this beginning to sound familiar?) one can actually force the development of these creatures down a certain path of development. One can select biomorphs to look like, for example, crabs - at every generation one would just need to select the biomorph that most looks like a crab, and after a few generations you have what can reasonably pass for a graphical representation of said crustacean.


The point is that through this process of playing around with biomorphs, one gets a kind of wax-on-wax-off education of our intuitions. And when one is presented with the fact of evolution, it just doesn't run up against one's common sense, because you've already got a feel for how something complex could be built up in little steps. It feels more plausible because your intuitions have been well prepared for it.

I don't want to use this post to speculate on how well or badly our naive intuitions affect high level decision making policy, but one can only guess - but one thing is certain, if we are making decisions that are informed by misleading "common sense" intuitions, we have a duty to reeducate our intuitions.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

MIT OCW Modal logic

Just a quick one,
I just spent a couple minutes looking through one of the newer offerings from MIT's OpenCourseWare, and their Modal logic course looks quite good. They've got some neat exercises / problem sets (with solutions) and the lecture notes and handouts have a little more meat on them than the typical OCW module.


Only problem is that one needs to purchase a textbook (or not, depending on how you feel about piracy) ...

Be sure to also check out OCW's Logic 1 and Logic 2 - both are really excellent resources and you can get away without any text book purchases because the lecture notes are the readings.

Now, go do some logic.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Carnival of the Africans #15


Right, time for rounding up the best African scientific and skeptical blogging from the last couple of months - we haven't had a Carnival for a while, so while foraging for posts I decided to consider stuff written in June and July only, so that the posts would be relatively fresh.

Angela, the Skeptic Detective, has managed to cover the whole spectrum of woo-craziness, from its most air-headed and harmless, to its most grave and seriously shocking. In the former category she's given us a great series of posts of psychics and the Soccer World Cup. In the latter category, she's written what has to be one of the darkest blog posts I've read in a long while in which she deals with practice of "magic" and the associated "muti" killings which are a consequence of this system of beliefs. If you read only one of the blog posts in this Carnival, I suggest that it be this one.

Over at ionian-enchantment, Michael has been doing some interesting work. Firstly, he's posted about a commentary that he and his supervisor have just had published in Behavioral and Brain sciences (go Michael!). The target of their commentary is an article that points to a potentially significant problem in the behavioral sciences, which is that for the most part the subjects of their studies are WEIRD (that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and thus not representative of human beings in general. The problem being analogous to trying to say something about human fitness in general through studying professional athletes, or trying to draw conclusions about the average state of human livers through studying people who abuse alcohol - you just don't know if what you find can be legitimately generalized. Michael and Prof. Spurrett take this one step further, pointing out the fact that, if the subjects of these studies are WEIRD, then the researchers undertaking these subjects are extremely WEIRD, and that this fact itself has far reaching implications that have themselves been overlooked. Check out Mike's post summarizing the target article and his commentary, as well as a follow up post on the target articles authors' response to the commentary.
Be sure to also check out his post on the ASA and the Rock solid church of "miracles" (how did those shudder-quotes slip in there?)

At 01 and the Universe Owen defends SETI against some spurious, skeptical objections. He does a really great job of taking SETI's detractors to task, but I think that a little more can be said about the very first objection raised against them in his piece - I'm sure Owen wont mind if I add a little to his defense.
The point I have in mind is that "SETI is 'almost science', which [Massimo Pigliucci] justified by saying that although SETI is employing scientific methods in their endeavor, their hypothesis (that extra-terrestrial intelligence exists) is virtually unfalsifiable".
From the tone of his reply to this point, I think Owen would agree with me that this is an unsatisfactory objection to SETI's project. It's unsatisfactoriness can be demonstrated by a very unsatisfactory response, one that nevertheless meets this formal objection head on. Lets assume that the biggest worry is that SETI's working hypothesis, namely that "aliens exist" is unfalsifiable. Would SETI, without changing their day to day activities one iota, be rendered "scientifically acceptable" by adopting the eminently falsifiable "working hypothesis" of "Extra-terrestrial intelligence doesn't exist" - a hypothesis that can be easily falsified at the very first instance of prime numbers encoded in a signal from Vega? A hypothesis that is corroborated every single time they boot up their radio-telescopes and find nothing?
Somehow I don't think that SETI's critics would be satisfied with this response, but - without spending too much more time on this point - I think the fact that we can fudge the hypothesis to meet their formal requirement so easily speaks to the fact that there isn't much substance to their objection (at least, this simple version of it) in the first place. The point needs to be seriously developed before we should take it ... well ... seriously.

Sticking with space, at Communicating Science, the African way there is an interesting (if a little short) piece that asks whether Africans should care about space exploration. Also well worth checking out is the piece about whether we should be worrying about whether cell phones cause cancer - this latter question is particularly interesting because cell-phone technology has penetrated almost every level of African society. This is certainly not only a "first world" concern.

A few other notable highlights I found while looking for posts are Jacques Rousseau's article To ask for evidence is not (necessarily) scientism and Fluxosaurus' Cnidarian ecstasy. Both well worth a look.

And if you've not yet exhausted your enthusiasm on all this great writing above, feel free to take a squizz at my humble offerings on the reactive emotions, and Shame.

Okay - that about sums it up for this month - if I've missed anyone's awesome blog posts, I apologize, but - then again - shame on you for not submitting it. The only way you can make amends for not submitting is by hosting this very carnival on your own blog in the following months. If you're interested, browse over to this page, where you'll find all the relevant details.



Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Carnival of the Africans : call for submissions

Although it's a last minute arrangement - I'm going to be hosting this month's Carnival of the Africans; the South African Scientific and Skeptical extravaganza - so if you have anything you'd like to be considered for inclusion, mail through the URL and a short description to blaize{dot}kaye{at}gmail{dot}com.

You can find the guidelines for the Carnival here.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A brief note regarding Oatley's brief history of emotions

I'm currently reading Oatley's "Emotions : a brief history".
He's a wonderful writer, and the book's methodological eclecticism - dipping into evolutionary psychology, literature, philosophy, and neuroscience - is something that I heartily endorse in investigations of the emotions.

In his first chapter, Oatley gives a useful taxonomy of broad emotional types.
We have reactive emotions, those emotions that have a sudden onset in response to some immediate environmental stimulus, say, the way that anger overcomes you when you're cut off while driving.
We have moods, which unlike the ephemeral reactive emotions typically last for a few hours or days. They're also distinguished by the fact that they need not have an intentional object, they're often not directed at anything in particular.
We then have sentiments, which last longer still. These do have an object, typically a person. Love, hate, and distrust are examples of sentiments.
Finally, Oatley lists preference as part of our emotional types, he says that we should "think of it as a silent emotion waiting for an opportunity to express itself in a choice we make".

Oatley then turns to the "workings of emotions" - and here is where I take issue. In his discussion of how reactive emotions are "triggered" he says the following.

Reactive emotions occur when the appearance of the world as we assume it to be is pierced by reality. In our assumed world, objects and people take on the colors of our understandings, of our hopes, of our desires, of our likes and dislikes. A reactive emotion occurs with the unexpected; it is a meeting of what we assumed with what we did not assume ...
We know from dreams that our brains have the machinery to make scenes that we experience. So eyes are not windows that let in aspects of the world. Instead they pick up clues to enable us to construct the world as we experience it. the clues are used, along with our assumed and implicit knowledge of the way the world works, to construct what we perceive.
Reactive emotions are caused when something in the assumed world unexpectedly affects a concern. Sometimes the unexpected is delightful, and we have the sense of new possibilities. Sometimes the unexpected is painful : in anger, for instance, the world narrows to plans of how we might confront the offender with the offense.
I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and would especially like to see the idea developed further; perhaps there is more to it than what can be expected to be delivered in this non-technical introduction to emotions?
But I don't think that this provides us with anything like a satisfactory account of how and why our emotions are "triggered".

As a simple counterexample let us consider anger. Anger is a paradigm case of the reactive emotions but I don't think that it's necessary for me to have my expectations frustrated in order to experience anger, far from it. I may experience anger even in cases where what I expect is exactly what plays out in reality.
Suppose there is some individual in my office is an apartheid-era-style white South African blockhead who can't go for an hour without uttering some racist remark. It's thus part of my "assumed world" that this idiot will regularly vomit up some disgusting hateful comment. Not only that, but I expect myself to get angry! I know beforehand that this is what's going to happen but I still get angry when it does happen.

This is not to say that surprise, or the unexpected, doesn't play a role in triggering emotions - think about surprise itself - but it seems to me that in order to make this workable, we'd need to either restrict the domain of reactive emotions to those emotions that are essentially characterized in terms of this relationship between the "real" world and our "assumed" world, or we need to drop the whole notion as defining of reactive emotions in general.
I have a feeling that the problem may well run in another direction as well. We experience our expectations coming up short the whole time without an accompanying emotional experience. For example, I thought my wife was sitting in the living room and when I get there I see that she isn't, she's outside. Unless there is something seriously wrong with me I don't think that we can expect me to feel anything at all. I make the appropriate adjustments to my beliefs and move on.
In this case there is still something "extra" that needs to be added into the mix to get an emotional response, the fact of there being a difference between my "assumed" world and reality isn't a sufficient condition for an emotional response at all.
And if we do, in fact, require another "extra" something to pick out emotions from non-emotional reactions, why even bother with this notion at all?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Gödel without tears

While being nice and technical - Peter Smith's truly excellent textbook An introduction to Gödel's theorems (it's not just about the completeness and incompleteness theorems btw) can be a challenging to the uninitiated. Smith has made available a great supplementary resource, a set of lecture notes he calls Gödel without (too many) tears.
If you're at all interested in these things, I suggest you check it out.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On Shame

Over the last few years I've become increasingly interested in the philosophy of emotion. In particular, I'm interested in Shame. As an emotion, Shame seems to have everything one could want, and can be approached from numerous directions. It's distinctive qualitative feel means we can look at it through a phenomenological lens, it's intentional content means that it's amenable to conceptual analysis, and it's role in socialization (among other things) opens it up to some interesting studies in terms of evolution. Finally, as one of the so-called "emotions of self-evaluation", it opens up a new way of investigation our notions of self and our conceptions of what a "self" is.

Plus, if one spends their time studying Shame rather than, say, Love - there is the added bonus of sounding like a tortured existentialist. But that's just more to impress people in coffee shops ... now, where did I put my beret?

I recently read Michael L. Morgan's little book "On Shame". What I imagined I had ordered was a popular book that would give a useful synthesis or review of the literature on Shame, but what it turned out to be was - on one hand - rather more interesting than all that, but - on the other - a little less satisfying than what I had hoped for.
In his book Morgan wants to put Shame into action, he want to use it as a force for moral change. In doing this he is making use of the fact that part of Shame's intentional content is a self-reflexive judgement. Barring edge cases - and in the study of emotion there are always edge cases - Shame tends to signal that we have found ourselves to have fallen short of some standard that we've internalized.
Shame tends to be holistic in its condemnation of the self - it is the whole self that has failed, that isn't worthy etc.

There are a few typical reactions to this kind of negative self-evaluation. The first is to hide one's self - we avert our eyes from the Other, we withdraw into ourselves, and in extreme cases we may wish the self extinguished, to dissapear completely.
The second reaction is the desire to change the Self - to become other than what one is (or at least, other than one is presented as being in the judgement at the heart of Shame).

In essence these kinds of responses involve the same kind of reaction - doing something with or to the self - the only difference is that the second kind of reaction is positive - Shame, in the second instance, is used as a vehicle for change.

Philosophers tend to be divided on the utility of Shame. Those philosophers who doubt that Shame is a useful moral emotion tend to emphasize the first type of reaction, while those who champion Shame tend to focus on it as a source of motivation for change. While I don't want to get into this question now, I just wanted to point out that Morgan falls squarely in the camp of the pro-shamers. He thinks that Shame's power to motivate deep change in our selves makes it an extremely useful emotion.

Morgan's endorsement of Shame isn't at all interesting or exceptional in itself, it's a fairly common position. However, where his book gets interesting is in his endorsement of Shame as a collective emotion, and in particular, as a collective emotion in response to us living in a "world of genocide". His book is an attempt to work on the consciences of it's readers, to get us to actively invoke Shame in ourselves for the existence and persistence of genocide in our world.
It is in these respects that his book is most provocative. Collective emotions, and especially Shame, have long been neglected in the philosophy of emotions - most theories tend to explore individual instances of emotions and leave it there. But we cannot ignore the existence of collective emotions. Collective Guilt and collective Shame are serious players in our emotional repertoire and we miss the point if we merely reduce them to collections of coordinated individual emotional episodes.
Furthermore, his suggestion that we employ Shame as an active emotional strategy for change challenges the (by no means universally held) notion that emotions are passive, that they are - in a sense - beyond conscious control.
These two points alone take us deep into the heart of the philosophy of emotion. And this is where, for me at least, the book dissapoints.
Morgan introduces a novel and potentially illuminating approach to Shame, and yet does hardly any work to back it up.
My complaint isn't that he gets his account of Shame wrong but rather that he doesn't give us enough to tell if he gets it wrong. There just isn't enough theoretical detail to evaluate his argument.

As I mentioned earlier, the point of the book is to galvanize the reader to change his or her self. Responding to genocide is serious business, and perhaps theoretical issues can be put on hold by the exigencies of the mass slaughter of fellow human beings. The problem is, though, that a book like this sits uncomfortably between a philosophical investigation of a problem, and a manifesto for change, and although I can't really say whether it hits it's mark as a manifesto, it fails to satisfy philosophically.

I hope that what we're seeing here is the first salvo in a longer philosophical project dealing with Shame by Morgan (although, it must be pointed out that his work seems to have always had Shame on it's periphery). The brief sketch that he provides in this book is barely enough to whet the appetite, but what he does provide is enough to make me pay attention.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Thought on metaphor, God, Jesus, and the Bible

I've been giving a little thought to hermeneutics and the Bible - and, how the fundamentalist strategy for biblical interpretation seems to be just to read the bible as literally as is possible - here we can understand "literal" to mean something like, not as metaphor, as what actually happened.

I don't want this to become another discussion about contradictions in the bible, that's not my concern. What I want to know is how people who adopt a literalist interpretive strategy manage to reconcile their way of reading with the existence of Jesus' parables.

If you accept that

1 - Jesus was/is god
2 - The word of god is to be understood/read literally (therefore the bible should be understood literally)

Then you have a bit of a problem with the status of parables as extended metaphorical narratives. We know that Jesus taught with parables, and so in order to remain consistent (remember, I'm only concerned with their hermeneutic strategy - I'm not gunning for anything more here) one would have to deny either that Jesus was/is god, deny that parables were metaphorical, or give up the literalist interpretive strategy.

It seems that anyone of the literalist mindset would never give up the idea that Jesus was/is god. So let's take that off the table.

Does it make sense to bite the bullet and say that the parables aren't metaphorical? Maybe it does - especially for literalists - they've bitten bigger bullets in their time. However, if we try and read - for example - the parable of the mustard seed, wherein the kindom of God is compared to a mustard seed ... we get some strange results (granted, it's a simile, but still ... to me it does seem to show, pretty conclusively, that God isn't above using figurative language)

It seems to me that unless you're willing to bite some pretty big bullets, you need to allow for the fact that God has used figurative language, and that some of the stuff that he's said was not meant to be taken literally (only if you believe Jesus was/is god). So you need to give up interpreting everything in the bible literally.

If there is anyone out there reading this who has any idea about how these two things are reconciled in fundamentalist/literalist readings of the bible I'd love to hear from you - I honestly don't know where to begin looking.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The negative effects of religious thinking.

Of course I'm interested in the climate change debate. I do worry about the future of humanity, and - barring the occasional slide into deep cynicism where I think that global extinction may be the only real option - I hope that the future of humanity is better and brighter for the majority of those future people than it is for the majority of people living today. I hope for a more enlightened, more humane world where the kind of things that precipitate my cynical slides don't happen.

I'm no expert on the climate change debate, and so I'll refrain from engaging with this heated (no pun intended) issue at this point. All I will say is that on an issue like this it seems rational to me for us to err on the side of caution - the nightmare scenario isn't just that we'll not have to all use public transport in 50 years, the nightmare scenario is that we might not actually be around in 50 years, or, if we are, the only kind of life we can hope for is going to be characterised by war, famine, disease. Pretty much hell on earth. If there is a fair chance of this happening without change, even if all the evidence isn't in just yet, or is contentious, it still seems a serious enough threat to human life to warrant a move towards prevention.

Some people don't think this way though. And not because they don't believe that the evidence points to the conclusion that global warming is a real phenomenon, not because they don't believe in the peak oil scenario, or because they aren't aware of the water crisis.
They could be entirely convinced of any of these and yet choose to do absolutely nothing about them.

These individuals choose inaction not because they are in any sense evil, they choose this kind of inaction because of a particularly pernicious religious logic which finds it's foundations in a reading of the last book in the Christian Bible, the book of Revelation.
I'm sure most people are aware that there are some people who interpret Revelation as the history of the future. When I was younger I remember of being terrified of "end times", I thought of it as a kind of horror story, one that I was always assured was just around the corner. I was lucky that I grew up in an a-religious family, I can only imagine the nightmares of children whose parents are fond of end-times-mongering.

But the nightmares of children is the least worrying aspect of this reading of Revelation. There are potentially dire political, economic, and environmental consequences to thinking
Richard Holloway, in his book "How to read the Bible", warns us about the implications of this kind of thinking in a discussion of Jerry Fallwell's views on the depletion of the planet's resources. Fallwell was of the opinion that we might as well use up what resources we have because of Jesus' imminent return. Fallwell was not just some isolated crackpot hillbilly, but someone with real political clout. And even if the views of someone like Fallwell don't affect policy directly, he has (or had, at least) hundred's of thousands of followers - it encourages inaction against these potentially devastating threats to humanity.

Another recent example stupidity of similarly biblical proportions, is to be found in last week's issue of "The Economist" where "Lexinton", while discussing a new carbon capping bill proposed by Maria Cantwell, mentions the Illinoisan congressman John Shimkus who believes that there is no reason to worry about global warming because when the water's had retreated, and Noah's watery excursion came to it's happy end, God had promised to never "curse the ground because of man ... And never again will [he] destroy all living creatures". There it is, in black and white, Man can't cause the destruction of life on Earth, God said so. So relax.

This kind of "negative" effect of religious thinking is not nearly highlighted enough in debates about religion and their public role. It seems to me that the kind of inaction encouraged by this logic can be devastating, in the long run. Religion doesn't only have to affect political, economic, and ecological policy directly, but can be just as (in)-effective in formation of policy by the kinds of things that they discourage. Irrationality, even if it is private irrationality, will almost always have negative consequences.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reading Hountondji

Paulin Hountondji's "African philosophy : myth and reality" was his first, and most controversial, book - and to a large extent it's still definitive of his philosophical project.
In it he defends the idea that there can be a genuine African philosophy, but without resorting to the hysterical myth-mongering of the so called "Afrocentricist" scholars. I don't deny that there may be something to their claims, and there certainly is some evidence that classicists have "white washed" the early history of Greek philosophy - and hence philosophy in general. The debate around the early history of philosophy is very emotional, but we can expect it to become less so as more classicists and philosophical historians do decent scholarly work in this direction. This is a topic for a different time. There is, however, no question that Africans have contributed to the history of Western philosophy, and not only in the 20th and 21st centuries. Two important, and immediately recognizable, historical Africans being St. Augustine, and Anton Wilhelm Amo (Amo's story itself is fascinating, taken from Ghana as a child, given a top notch European education, eventually rising to become a respected professor of philosophy - there is a chapter dedicated to Amo in Hountondji's book).

The question of African philosophy

One of the most central (though now moribund) questions of African philosophy for at least the last sixty or seventy years, has been whether, and to what extent, African philosophy exists. This isn't as paradoxical as it may fist seem - or, perhaps more accurately - this isn't as unusual as it may seem. Western philosophy routinely questions it's own essence and it's own existence - as Roger Scruton likes to point out, the question "what is philosophy?" seems to be one of the most important questions in philosophy. Philosophers are often puzzled about the exact nature of their business, and on more than one occasion some philosopher has predicted that philosophy is on it's way out or, in fact, died a long time ago. We shouldn't be too surprised, then, that African philosophy should take up the question of whether or not it exists as a central concern.

This is what Hountondji addresses in his book - the question of whether African philosophy exists. His answer is, in short, "yes it does, but not where you thought it did".

In order to understand his answer we need a little historical context. When Hountondji first took up his pen, "African philosophy" was supposedly explored and explicated in a vast ethnological literature initiated, more or less, by the Belgian missionary Placide Tempels' book "Bantu philosophy". This ethological literature and style of inquiry - which Hountondji calls "ethnophilosophy" - is based on the premise that there is a unanimous, static, generally unarticulated, "philosophy" underlying and animating African thought and Action, and the goal of these ethnological studies to to make explict what was implicit in folk tales, idiomatic expression, art, and so on.

This conception of philosophy is the "myth" of Hountondji's title - he flatly rejects ethnophilosophy as being philosophy in any serious sense. Even without the theoretical framework Hountondji develops throughout his book, one can understand his indignation. To compare what is at best a "folk philosophy" to the highly technical, theoretical disciple that is Western philosophy is condescending, to say the least. Less condescending would have been to flat out deny that philosophy per se had not developed as a discipline in Africa at all (this, however, would not be entirely true - a quick look at the history of Islamic philosophy in Africa should be enough to at least suggest this claim's falsity).

Briefly, Hountondji believes that ethnophilosophy's dual appeal to both Western scholars and African nationalists was because of it's tendency to emphasise the idiosyncratic aspects of African thought and culture. He says :

"Everybody was happy: not only the conventional nationalists (and their accomplices, the 'progressive' European anthropologists or intellectuals), for whom cultural authenticity coincided with an exclusive revaluation of the past, but also the traditional ethnologists, who were quite prepared to trade the word 'mentality' for the word 'philosophy' as long as the adjective 'primitive' remained and the structure was regarded as immutable, ahistorical, and inert"

The problem with ethnophilosophy

Hountondji sums up his argument against ethnophilosophy in the maxim "philosophy is a history, not a system". This is meant to capture some important aspects of the practice of philosophy as he sees it. Hountondji is not denying that there are important systematic elements to the practice of philosophy - that goes hand in hand with his generally professionalized view of the practice. What he is denying here is the claim made for African "philosophy" by the ethnophilosophers - namely, that there is a systematic structure that can be captured and explicated in precise, quasi-philosophical, language and that expresses all there is to be said about "African philosophy". This leads into his defining Philosophy structurally as history - as an ever changing dialogical process that can never be captured and finally defined. This is something that will ring true with anyone who knows even a little bit of the history of Western philosophy - every generation someone comes along who thinks that they have said all that there is to be said about philosophy, that their system of thought is the pinnacle, that it encompasses anything of worth in it's historical predecessors' systems, and that it it speaks in advance, as it were, for any future philosophies. Then comes along the next guy who puts the former champ in his place and erects his own system on the smouldering foundations.
Wittgenstein is a wonderful example of this process at work. When he came back to philosophy after spending a little time building houses and generally mucking about, he took on himself and set to work to demolish the philosophy that he developed in his youth.
If we're comfortable with defining philosophy as such, then the African philosophy posited by the ethnophilosophers is not "philosophy".

If African philosophy isn't to be found in the various manifestations of traditional African culture - where the ethnophilosophers seem to be getting "African philosophy" - where is it to be found? Hountondji sees it as being made up of the very ethnophilosophical works that he sees as being so wrong-headed and misguided - He reads the ethnophilosophical literature written by Africans as products of original philosophical thinking on the part of the authors, not as explications of pre-existing philosophical systems.

To what end?

His metaphilosophical ruminations lead him into some dodgy territory - for example, following his teacher Althusser, Hountondji sees all great philosophical revolutions as in some sense being a function of scientific revolutions. This is a reflection of Hountondji's notion of philosophy as being primarily an activity whose aim is to reflect on science. This seems to be a rather arbitrary truncation of philosophy in general, at the very least unfairly relegating Ethical and Aesthetic reflection to the philosophical sidelines. Hountondji attempts to explain the cause of philosophical revolutions through his strong linking of philosophy and science - In his view scientific revolution explains the periodic irruption into the history of philosophy of new philosophical insights and positions. But this link with science is not the only way of explaining this kind of irruption - for instance, one could appeal to the, admittedly deeply unfashionable, notion of "genius", or - a more contemporary version of the same idea - Bloom's notion of the "Strong poet". Hountondji's makes no real attempt to cash out his claim about the deep links between scientific and philosophical progress. Without any hard evidence, how are we to decide between his Althusserian thesis and the notion of genius or "strong poet"?

Hountondji's linking of philosophy with science is motivated by a pragmatic bent to his thought, and this does, to some extent, shed some light on some of the oddities in his metaphilosophy. He wants to see progress in Africa, and he sees the way to progress is through science. He wants to see a flourishing scientific community in Africa that is not dependent on the North, but which engages the North on Equal footing, as equal partners in the universal scientific dialogue. The problem is that this aspect of his thought bubbles up to inform his definition of philosophy per se. This isn't something I'd ordinarily have a problem with, except that he doesn't acknowledge that he's structured his entire metaphilosophy to "promote" scientific growth - I doubt that he's unaware of this bottom-up influence, he's way too self-conscious in general to miss that. Regardless, once one is aware of this progressivist dimension, some of the difficulties in his position start clicking into place and making sense. But the fact that it isn't explicitly acknowledged means that his ruminations on the history of philosophy straddle uneasily between prescription and description.

To this end

"African philosophy : myth and reality" is a gem of a book, and an especially important book for Africa and Africans. In my remarks above I don't think I've stressed it's primary virtue nearly enough.
This book is a testament to rational thinking and questioning.
The issues that Hountondji raised with his book have made him deeply unpopular in some African philosophical circles. Regardless he pressed, and presses, on undeterred. His primary aim is progress in Africa, and progress for Hountondji isn't about reclaiming the "spiritual power" of Africa - it's about people having enough to eat, having governments that don't slaughter their citizenry, medicine, research centrers, and access to education. Hountondji sees these the only way to solve these problems to stop bothering ourselves with pseudoproblems and start getting something done. This is the sense one gets reading Hountondji, a desperate sense that something must be done now, and - in Africa - it's a breath of fresh air.