April 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
As I am away this week, I am republishing some old material that has not previously appeared on Pandaemonium. This is a review of Gray’s Anatomy, a selection of writing from the philosopher John Gray, It was first published in the Times in April 2009.
On the eve of the Iraq war, John Gray published an essay in the New Statesman entitled ‘A Modest Proposal for Preventing Torturers in Liberal Democracy from Being Abused, and for Recognizing their Benefit to the Public (with Apologies to Jonathan Swift)’. It suggested that there should be a universal right to torture enforceable by regime change and that torturers should receive counselling for the mental traumas they suffered. The trouble is that few readers got the joke. ‘Months and years later’, Gray observes, ‘I continued to receive protests taking me task for my indecent suggestions’.
February 24, 2013 § 22 Comments
Iain McGilchrist has written a response to my post about his book The Master and his Emissary and about the RSA workshop that discussed it. Since it is a long reply, Iain asked me whether I could publish it as a post, rather than as a comment, which I am happy to do. I have appended my own response at the end. (And just to avoid any confusion, while I have set up the discussion in the form of two open letters, Iain’s piece was written as a straightforward essay, not in letter form.) I am slightly puzzled, as I observe in my reply, by the tone of Iain’s piece. He seems to suggest in places that my original was written in bad faith and that I seem not to have not read his book or the RSA document. Whether I have adequately understood either is, of course, a matter for debate. But my post was written in good faith, and while critical of Iain’s thesis was also, in my eyes at least, respectful of his work. I wrote it to engage in the kind of debate for which I had hoped that Iain himself had written his book, and the RSA had held its workshop. I am publishing Iain’s essay in the spirit of such debate, I have written my response to it in that spirit, and I hope that people will engage in that spirit with both sets of arguments.
When Jonathan [Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre] and I agreed to attempt this short publication we did so with a degree of foreboding. We knew that the attempt to abbreviate an argument that is, for the most part, carefully articulated, and already somewhat compressed, in its original 350,000 word form, was inviting difficulties. One such difficulty was that in further compression much would be lost: subtlety, nuance, complexity of argument, qualification of expression, and that I would be taken as saying something cruder than I am. Another was that the casual reader might be lead to think that they could substitute an acquaintance with the paper for a careful reading of the book. Yet we were encouraged by the advice of many readers from many academic disciplines and from many walks of life to think that it was worth risking such casualties in order to engage readers who otherwise might not have come across it at all, trusting that, at least before passing judgment, they would be led to do the book justice by reading it for themselves.
But perhaps even the RSA document is too long for today’s reader. Our fears would appear to have been more than justified. It is a little dispiriting that most, if not all, the comments and objections that KM raises are addressed, sometimes at considerable length, in the course of the document. Of course, those responses might still not satisfy KM, but at least if he had read them the debate would be at a higher level. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 21, 2013 § 14 Comments
In November the RSA in London held a workshop to discuss Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary. The RSA has now published Divided Brain Divided World, a report of that workshop, together with a long conversation between McGilchrist and Jonathan Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre.
McGilchrist’s book deals with the social, political and philosophical implications of the lateralisation of the brain, that is, its division into two hemispheres, left and right. The difference between the two hemispheres is not, McGilchrist suggests, as much pop psychology would have it, that the left hemisphere primarily processes language, and the right visual imagery and spacial representation. The difference, for McGilchrist, lies in the manner in which each hemisphere analyses the world, rather than in what it analyses.
‘For us as human beings’, McGilchirst argues, ‘there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognizably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain’. What opposed realities or modes of existence? ‘The left-hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt’: « Read the rest of this entry »
August 26, 2012 Comments Off
‘…and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.’ It is not the phrase for which Neil Armstrong, who sadly died this weekend, will always be remembered. But it is the one that perhaps best sums up not just Armstrong’s vision but also the sense that to be human is forever to be reaching out to grasp what may seem beyond us. And that once we stop doing this, we diminish ourselves as humans.
The moon landing was one of the defining moments of twentieth century, which was, as Phil Platt puts it on the Bad Astronomy blog,
a defining, crystallizing slice of time that confirmed that we humans had become a space faring race. One world could not and would not contain us, and the sky itself was no longer the limit… The end of homo sapiens terrestrialis and the birth of homo sapiens cosmos.
Few people more embodied, or better articulated, the sense that ‘One world could not and would not contain us, and the sky itself was no longer the limit’ than Armstrong himself. ‘The important achievement of Apollo’, he once suggested, ‘was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet and our visions go rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited.’ It was an optimism he expressed well at the end of a 1970 BBC interview with Patrick Moore, just ten months after the moon landing, when asked ‘Do you think, from your knowledge of the moon, having been there, that it is going to be possible in the foreseeable future to set up scientific bases there on anything like a large scale?’: « Read the rest of this entry »
October 26, 2011 § 3 Comments
It has long been known that different groups of chimpanzees have different cultural habits. Now, new research has revealed the degree of behaviour plasticity among orangutans, plasticity that gives rise to cultural differences between different groups, each possessing behaviours specific to that group, and each passing on such behaviours from one generation to another.
For many, the empirical discoveries about ape cultures are important not just because of what they tell us about the mental abilities of the Great Apes, but also because of what they tell us, or potentially tell us, about humans and human cultures. (‘Great Ape’, I know, is often seen as synonymous with the family Hominidae, which includes humans; here I’m using the term to refer to non-human members of Hominidae.) In particular, many see such studies as shining significant light upon the common evolutionary roots of human and Great Ape culture. ‘Now we know that the roots of human culture go much deeper than previously thought’, Michael Krützen, the lead author of the orangutan study suggests. ‘Human culture is built on a solid foundation that is many millions of years old and is shared with the other great apes.’
In one sense, of course, this has to be true. Humans are evolved beings and our propensity for culture must have evolved at some point in our evolutionary journey. If the Great Apes possess the same cultural propensities as humans do, then there are likely to be common evolutionary roots for those propensities. But do they possess the same cultural propensities? « Read the rest of this entry »