Monthly Archives: May 2016

The MWS Podcast 96: Dr. Robert Epstein on why your brain is not a computer

We are joined today by Robert Epstein, who is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. His books include Teen 2.0: Saving our children and families from the torment of adolescence and Parsing the Turing Test: Philosophical and methodological issues in the quest for the thinking computer. He also recently wrote an article for Aeon Magazine entitled The empty brain: Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer and this will be the topic of our discussion today.

MWS Podcast 96: Robert Epstein as audio only:
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The MWS Podcast 95: Charles Kenny on why global development is succeeding

We are joined today by Charles Kenny, who is an English/American economist and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. He’s the author of several books including Overselling the Web: Development and the internet, The upside of Down: Why the rise of the rest is good for the West and we are going to talk about his book Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding–And How We Can Improve the World Even More. In the book he argues that despite the claims that global development has failed due to the income gap between developed and developing nations growing , foreign aid is on the contrary, a powerful and effective tool to build broader global quality of life, aid money can and does work, improves people’s lives and makes the world a better and safer place.

Charles also stressed at the end of the interview that he is very keen to engage, so if you have any comments or questions, fire away.

MWS Podcast 95: Charles Kenny as audio only:
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Cosmopolitanism is the belief that one is a citizen of the world, not just of one particular piece of it that happens to have been sectioned off in a particular fashion by geological movements or medieval bloodshed. Such a position could be over-idealised, but I think it could also be understood as a realistic and balanced position that addresses wider conditions as well as more immediate ones. What’s more, I very much feel we need more cosmopolitan thinking in the UK at the moment, where the media is often consumed in a blaze of narrow arguments about the EU, leading up to the June referendum on membership.Kwame Anthony Appiah from video Almost all these arguments, even those of the ‘remain’ camp, concentrate overwhelmingly on an assumed national interest. But personally, when I vote on June 23rd, I shall do so not just as a citizen of the UK, but also as a citizen of the EU and of the world.

In this video, Kwame Anthony Appiah (a philosopher working in the US, who is descended from Ghanaian chiefs on one side and Sir Stafford Cripps, UK cabinet minister, on the other) gives a persuasive account of cosmopolitanism and its advantages.

As Appiah explains here, Cosmopolitanism recognises the value both of our commonality with the whole world, and of cultural difference. His most important message is that our moral concern does not and should not end at national borders. Why should it, when national borders are the arbitrary results of geography, past conflict, and absolutised tribal, linguistic or religious difference? Borders of any kind are an attempt to absolutise differences that are merely incremental and that (however strong they may be) in any case do not necessarily require separate political organisation. Borders are also a political reality that we have to adapt to, but hardly one that we should be spending our energy strengthening when there are so many better places to put that energy. As the Pope memorably said recently with reference to Donald Trump’s wall-building aspirations, we should be building bridges, not walls.

As with any ideology, there is a risk that cosmopolitanism could become idealised and absolutised. It could start to ignore the political borders that do operate, and the even more important psychological condition of people’s limited identification. It may well be that the EU has made some misjudgements based on such idealism, particularly its admission of Greece to the Euro without adequate scrutiny of its long-term financial stability. Integration of the world needs to be incremental, and cannot proceed too much in advance of the integration of the individual people who are its citizens. The EU has made some astonishing achievements in integrating Europe both politically and culturally during the past 50 years or so, but it probably needs a period of consolidation now, for the people and their culture and economic life to catch up with it. However, the EU’s mistakes, such as they are, are hardly an argument for reversing many of its achievements by withdrawing one of its most Important states from the union.

If we focus on a recognition of our embodiment and its limitations, that may seem to bring with it a more localised focus, recognising the strengths of our immediate environment and culture. But a localised culture is not necessarily a parochial culture that tries to separate its interests from those further afield. Our embodiment is also a source of universality, as we have pretty much the same basic body and brain structure as all other humans throughout the world. All that we have to do to recognise our cosmopolitanism is to recognise our embodied humanity, and to give it more importance than narrow tribal identity. If you want to look more beyond narrow tribal identity, then look to the influences you expose yourself to. For example, your media sources: populist UK newspapers like the Daily Mail will expose you to the assumptions of narrow tribal identity day after day, and I’m sure there are similar sources in other countries. Don’t assume that such narrow sources won’t have an effect. It will have an effect because you have a body, rather than being a disembodied reason that can consider every issue afresh at every moment.

I do think that cosmopolitanism is an ideological approach that could quite readily be an expression of the Middle Way in most cases, provided we are careful not to absolutise it. For most of us, dogmatic nationalism is a far greater danger in practice than dogmatic internationalism, and cosmopolitanism combines an internationalist outlook with a full respect for cultural difference and localised autonomy. I think it is only through such an outlook that, in the longer-term, it is possible to address the conflicts in the world adequately. I also see the EU, whatever its short-term errors or limitations, as a cosmopolitan institution whose founding principles of internationalism linked with subsidiarity try to follow that balance. So there are not too many prizes for guessing which way I will be voting on 23rd June.

NB. This article has been reproduced by a site called ‘Multinational News’. Please note, if you have come here from that site, that ‘Multinational News’ has pirated this article without permission from the author.

Seven contentions against the academics

People do seem to like lists for some reason. When I suggested Five Principles of Middle Way Philosophy (scepticism, provisionality, incrementality, agnosticism and integration) these seemed to have been helpful in providing a way in. The Five Principles have the advantage of being (largely) positive, but they may not bring out how Middle Way Philosophy challenges current ways of thinking: a more negative, but necessary argument. It is that role I have in mind for this list of Seven Contentions, which has evolved out of some earlier, similar lists.

Why ‘against the academics’? Well, I’m obviously not against academics as people, but I do want to challenge the effects of academic over-specialisation, and the over-confidence in one’s assumptions that often seems to come from academics spending decades working in one particular niche. What these Seven Contentions all do is challenge widespread assumptions in Western academic culture that I think seriously hold us back. Like the Five Principles, it is necessary to understand them together rather than piecemeal, so a relatively short summary like this may help to put them all in view together. I am well aware that there are a few academics that might agree with me on some of these, but I have yet to find one that recognises them all in relation to each other.

1. The Middle Way is a method of judgement, not a claim about reality

This is the most important point where I part company with the way in which most Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism tend to present the Middle Way. For them the Middle Way story tends to be that the Buddha gained awakening to a ‘reality’ beyond the delusions of ordinary existence by avoiding eternalism and nihilism: but beliefs abMiddle Way symbolout such a ‘reality’ tend to then undermine the Middle Way in Buddhism at every point by creating new metaphysical beliefs about the Buddha’s achievement and authority. The Middle Way needs to decisively move away from metaphysical ways of thinking, and it can’t do this if it is understood in metaphysical terms itself. Instead it  needs to be seen as a method of judgement that avoids  both positive and negative absolutisations. Once you accept that, you also need to start looking at the huge implications: that it offers a universal basis of more adequate judgement for both science and ethics, and thus does not necessarily need to be understood in the terms of Buddhist tradition at all.

For more on this see The Buddha and the Middle Way.

2. Full-blooded scepticism is not a threat, but rather a stimulus to provisionality

We can question everything as much as we like – no holds barredChange_Your_Mind Dr CVSB CCSA4-0 – and there cannot possibly be anything ‘extreme’ about such scepticism as long as we remember to treat negative claims with just as much scepticism as positive ones. Scepticism is then just a helpful prompt to provisionality in our judgements, making us aware that we have no certainty. It is not about to destroy science or make anyone’s life impossible, but on the contrary brings us back from abstract certainties to fallible experience.

For more on this see The misunderstanding of scepticism.

3. Metaphysics is not inevitable

The standard objection to this whole approach from analytic philosophers and related academics is that metaphysics is inevitable, because it is taken to consist in basic assumptions we make in our lives. But no basic assumptions are absolutely beyond question – even that the universe exists, or that the world didn’t begin last Tuesday – even if we do often take them for granted. If we treat such assumptions as beyond question then they become absolutisations that are potentially rigidifying our thinking. But if we start to recognise them as ultimately questionable, even when we actually have a lot of confidence in them (99.99% confidence), we stand a chance of avoiding that absolutisation. The view that metaphysics is inevitable has become part of academic culture, but it is most unhelpful, because it tends to distract people from recognising the damaging effects of absolutes that repress alternatives and claim to have the whole story.

For more on this see the video ‘What’s wrong with metaphysics’.

4. Objectivity is a matter of degreeFinalviewFromNowhere small

There is an incremental sense of ‘objectivity’ as a matter of degree in widespread use. However, for some reason there is also a widespread academic view that an absolute, God’s eye view of ‘objectivity’ is the default (and that it is opposed to ‘subjectivity’). But the God’s eye view sense is in practice completely irrelevant to human beings. How did we manage to let a practically irrelevant sense steal the show? If we see objectivity as a matter of degree (incremental) we do not have to believe in ‘truths’ beyond experience, only recognise that at some points we judge in a bigger and more adequate way than others.

For more on this see the ‘Objectivity’ page.

5. Meaning is both cognitive and emotive: inextricably

A great deal of common academic reasoning is fatally undermined by the assumption that ‘real’ meaning is solely cognitive – the kind of meaning one can look up in a dictionary – and that this can be separated from emotive meaning (how things feel to us). But this distinction is a merely abstract one, having no basis in our experience where every word or symbol that denotes something also connotes and vice-versa. This purely abstract distinction is then allowed to run the show in all sorts of other ways, by deciding the basis on which we will think about how to justify our beliefs or about what is right. If our experience of meaning is embodied, as linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson have shown, then cognitive and emotive meaning can no longer be separated, and we can no longer justify academic ‘business as usual’ proceeding on the basis that they can.

For more on this see the ‘Embodied meaning’ page.

6. Facts cannot be divided from values, nor reasons from emotions

If cognitive and emotive meaning cannot be separated, Boy with blocks ragesoss CCSA 3-0nor can the beliefs about ‘facts’ and ‘values’ or ‘reason’ and ’emotion’ that are erected on the same assumptions. These are false dichotomies on which huge intellectual edifices have been built, solely on the basis that facts and values can be distinguished in abstract analysis. But in human experience they are never separated, every fact involving values and every value involving presumed facts. Neuroscientific investigation has also failed to find an independently operating part of the brain for ‘reason’ as opposed to ’emotion’. Any adequate ways of understanding how to make judgements in our experience have to deal with these things together. That implies that reductions of issues both to logical processing and to intuitive insight are equally likely to be mistaken.

For more on this see the ‘Facts and values’ page.

7. I encounter myself as a wish, not a thing

I am an ego (and probably you are too!). That means that I consist in a set of desires or identifications – or at least, that’s what I encounter when I experience ‘myself’. I can’t encounter myself either as a thing or as the absence of a thing, and these are just wishful thinking abstractions foisted onto my ever-changing experience of wanting to be a thing. Academia often seems to have rejected Descartes’ view of the absolute self, but not to have taken on board all the implications of doing so – which includes there being no single self to make ‘rational’ philosophical or scientific observations. How well I can judge the world around me seems to depend on how well I can integrate the conflicting desires that threaten to distract and delude me. I cannot be assumed to simply have such a stable self, and thus the scientist also cannot be discounted from science by maintaining a model of ‘God’s eye view’ objectivity.

For more on this see the ‘Self and ego’ page.

Picture credits: 2nd: ‘Change your mind’  by Dr CVSB, CCSA 4.0; 3rd: cartoon by Norma Smith, reproduced from ‘Migglism’; 4th: Boy with blocks by ragesoss, CCSA3.0


The MWS Podcast 94: Nigel Ohlson on Aventure Therapy

We are joined today by Nigel Ohlson, a counsellor /psychotherapist & professional youth worker practising in South Devon in the UK. He’s also experienced in delivering Adventure Therapy based programmes which will be the topic of our discussion. We talk about how A.T evolved, the influence of the work Edward O. Wilson, Carl Jung and john Dewey, what’s involved in the process and how a typical day might pan out. Nigel stressed that he really values feedback so if you have any questions for him please fire away and I’m sure he’ll endeavour to answer them.

MWS Podcast 94: Nigel Ohlson as audio only:
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