Monday, October 31, 2011

The Streetlight Effect

We've all heard the story: A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a street light and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys, and so they both look under the street light together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he's sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he's searching here if the keys are in the park, and the drunk replies, "this is where the light is."

I was reminded of that story reading a brief piece by the atheistic materialist David Barash. He recounts an incident after a lecture when he was asked what he thought the hardest problem in science is:
I answered without hesitation: How the brain generates awareness, thought, perceptions, emotions, and so forth, what philosophers call “the hard problem of consciousness.”

It’s a hard one indeed, so hard that despite an immense amount of research attention devoted to neurobiology, and despite great advances in our knowledge, I don’t believe we are significantly closer to bridging the gap between that which is physical, anatomical and electro-neurochemical, and what is subjectively experienced by all of us.
What Barash is putting his finger on is the problem of understanding how chemical reactions in the brain could produce sensations like color, sound, fragrance, or taste. How does a mix of neurochemicals cause us to have the experience of red or sweet?

Another aspect of this problem is explaining how electrons flowing along neurons can generate meaning when we see a paragraph of text. How do the patterns of ink on paper create an understanding in the brain? No one knows, and no one can even suggest a way to find out. This is why this is called the "hard" problem of consciousness (as opposed to the easier problem of mapping the parts of the brain that "light up" when subjected to different types of physical stimuli).
To be sure, there are lots of other hard problems, such as the perennial one of reconciling quantum theory with relativity, whether life exists on other planets, how action can occur at a distance (gravity, the attraction of opposite charges), how cells differentiate, and so forth. But in these and other cases, I can at least envisage possible solutions, even though none of mine actually work.

But the hard problem of consciousness is so hard that I can’t even imagine what kind of empirical findings would satisfactorily solve it. In fact, I don’t even know what kind of discovery would get us to first base, not to mention a home run.
So what does this have to do with what's called the streetlight effect - i.e. continuing to look for an answer where it's easiest to look even though it seems pretty clear that the answer won't be found there? Well, in his next paragraph Barash describes his own "street light":
I write this as an utter and absolute, dyed-in-the-wool, scientifically oriented, hard-headed, empirically insistent, atheistically committed materialist, altogether certain that matter and energy rule the world, not mystical abracadabra. But I still can’t get any purchase on this “hard problem,” the very label being a notable understatement. Cogito ergo sum may well be the most famous phrase in Western thought, yet I am convinced that Descartes’ renowned dualism is nonsense, that mind arises from nothing more nor less than the actions of the brain. I am also nearly as confident that some day, we’ll understand how.
Rather than entertain the possibility that his worldview is inadequate to give a satisfying description of the world Barash insists on looking under the streetlight of atheistic materialism for an explanation of consciousness. Maybe the answer doesn't lie elsewhere, but wouldn't it be wise to at least admit that it might? Wouldn't it be a step in the right direction to admit that his faith commitment to materialism is just that, an act of faith that all explanations are ultimately material explanations. It's not that materialism is an ersatz religion, it's that, for people like Barash, it is a religion.

It's intriguing that even scientists, who are supposed to be the most open-minded and most liberated of thinkers, are really imprisoned in their worldview and unable to imagine that the answers they seek are actually not to be found under that particular streetlight.

Racial Catalyst

Why is it that if conservatives oppose President Obama's policies they're automatically saddled by the left with the presumption of racism, but the left can say all sorts of insulting things about Herman Cain, as a black man, and it's simply considered cogent political analysis? For many liberals, opposition to Obama is prima facie evidence of racism, but opposition to Cain is a civic duty.

Imagine what the reaction would be if someone were to insult a black Democrat the way this woman insults Cain:
There are more examples of this sort of rhetoric here. It often seems that truth, evidence and logical consistency are irrelevant to some on the left. Such bourgeois values are dismissed as encumbrances, impediments which get in the way of the effort to maintain political power. What matters is winning and whatever accomplishes that goal is justified even if it means falsely accusing others of being guilty of doing the very things one does oneself.

When people on the left accuse Cain's admirers of supporting him just so they can mask or expiate their own racism, not only do they make themselves look foolish for advancing such a ludicrous explanation of Cain's popularity, but they project, I suspect, their own deepest sentiments onto their political opponents. They themselves think this way, even if they're unaware of it, and they can't imagine how anyone else could think otherwise. That's why they never offer evidence to support their claims of racism among conservatives. It must be there, they're convinced, because they know it's common among people on their own side and in themselves.

If Cain continues to do well in the polls I fear the attacks against him and his supporters will get increasingly ugly and more explicitly personal and racial even as any legitimate criticism of the president's policies and political tactics will be portrayed as racially motivated hatred.

Most of the manifestations of racial and religious bigotry in the early years of the 21st century have been found primarily on the progressive left, and Herman Cain could well be the catalyst that, like Homer's sirens, entices it all the way out into the light of day for all to see.

Slouching Toward Violence

Some of the protestors at Occupy Phoenix have apparently had second thoughts about the effectiveness of peaceful demonstrations and are now ruminating on the ethics of shooting police officers. This was excerpted from a flyer circulated at OP:
Pick any example of abuse of power, whether it is the fascist “war on drugs,” the police thuggery that has become so common, the random stops and searches now routinely carried out in the name of “security” (e.g., at airports, “border checkpoints” that aren’t even at the border, “sobriety checkpoints,” and so on), or anything else. Now ask yourself the uncomfortable question: If it’s wrong for cops to do these things, doesn’t that imply that the people have a right to RESIST such actions? Of course, state mercenaries don’t take kindly to being resisted, even non-violently.

If you question their right to detain you, interrogate you, search you, invade your home, and so on, you are very likely to be tasered, physically assaulted, kidnapped, put in a cage, or shot. If a cop decides to treat you like livestock, whether he does it “legally” or not, you will usually have only two options: submit, or kill the cop. You can’t resist a cop “just a little” and get away with it. He will always call in more of his fellow gang members, until you are subdued or dead.Basic logic dictates that you either have an obligation to LET “law enforcers” have their way with you, or you have the right to STOP them from doing so, which will almost always require killing them.
Let's see, sexual assaults, thefts, riots and arrests, drug use and general squalor. Now talk of killing cops. No wonder the media has pretty much given up trying to compare the "Occupations" to Tea Party demonstrations. How many people were ever raped or arrested at a TP demonstration?

This sort of thing was predictable, though. People with legitimate grievances demonstrate for redress, but their protest, if it's dominated by liberals, inevitably gets hijacked by the far left and others who seek to exploit it to inflict chaos and anarchy.

We might anticipate that the extremists at the occupations will try to instigate more ugly confrontations with police to goad them into an over-reaction. The occupations will either break up with the cold weather or they'll become increasingly violent. The status quo is never an option for the left.