Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Sunday, 18 September 2011

And now I'm going to talk about telepathy.

I know what you’re thinking: Telepathy? Really, now, Thomas?
Never let it be said that this blog shies away from the real, important, practical issues on everyone’s lips. Yes I’m going to talk about telepathy, which I’m sure is a topic that has been playing on your mind too, dear reader.

Mmn. Ok, it’s not my intention to get all sci-fi, or even new-age, on your ass. I actually want to talk about the function of language, which is what I’m going to do, and the telepathy angle is just a (admittedly peculiar) way to do that.

Having been a fan of both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein in my time, what language is and what language does is something I’ve hmmm'd on extensively; and being currently a newspaper man, the use (and abuse) of words is something I continue to ponder, mostly to my own aimless distraction. Which is why it’d be nice to siphon some of it off here.

So here’s something language-related that’s bugged me for some time: I saw this guy giving a talk a couple of years back, and was generally impressed with the massively interesting and quite important stuff he was doing. However, I found myself wary about embracing his enthusiasm for one thing. He said something like (I paraphrase): “Wouldn’t it be good if we could just bypass language altogether and directly communicate our thoughts and feelings from mind to mind.” He seemed to think this would clear up arguments and misunderstandings with his spouse.

I’ll admit that, like many people, I have fantasised in the past about being able to see into the minds of others, and thought how much easier life would be if I could do that. I’ve also, in moments when I’ve felt misunderstood and lacking sympathy, wished I could just show someone what was going on in my head so they would get how I felt and understand what I understood.

But that kind of thing would only work as a one-off, if you were the only one with that power and could turn it on and off. If we all woke up tomorrow able to see and feel the inner-most workings of each other’s headspace, I think it would be nothing less than the end of civilisation as we know it.


Freud’s theories may have been largely discarded as science – his constructed model of ‘the psyche’ has little in the way of research evidence to back it up, and much of the detail just looks bizarre and wrong-headed in the light of modern psychology; but the basic notion of the unconscious still rings true to some extent: The idea that we really are not entirely rational creatures under the surface, and that there must be all kinds of processes going on within us that we’re just not aware of on a day-to-day conscious level seems self-evident.

Freud was convinced that our conscious selves – our identity, our persona, how we think of ourselves and present ourselves to others – is only the tip of the iceberg of the full entity that is us.

Beneath the surface everyone is a seething mass of childish, irrational, reactive animal urges, fears and desires that are necessarily kept repressed and hidden from the world - to the extent we ourselves barely acknowledge or understand them. This is true of everyone, no matter how sophisticated, controlled and professional they appear on the outside, from the Queen to Jeremy Paxman to Bez (some are better at it than others). How aware or unaware of this stuff we are is debatable, but we certainly need to learn, consciously or unconsciously, to keep it in check to participate in society as a responsible adult.

But just because this stuff is kept in check, doesn’t mean it's not there – and more importantly, thought Freud, these basic fears and desires actually influence our so-called ‘rational’ decisions and behaviour much, much more than we would like to admit: We tend to come up with rational explanations for our actions afterwards, but it’s obvious there is more to our behaviour than simple logical thought.

In short the idea that human nature and human society is driven by enlightened, logical rationality is a complete myth – reason is at best a regulatory tempering force, and a tool for use, in how we our go about our lives.

I must say personal experience of living in ‘rational society’ (not to mention living with myself and my own weather-like temperament and unmanageable whims) has led me to have a hell of a lot of sympathy with this aspect of Freud. Anyone who has spent time delving into the dispassionate, analytical world of philosophy and psychology and then turned their gaze once more on the barely-sentient everyday politics of human relationships will know the world really does not run on reflective rationality.

But never mind the unconscious – simply knowing what is going on in everyone’s heads, conscious or not, all the time would make any kind of business-like interaction or professional detachment impossible to maintain. Imagine if every minor resentment, annoyance or uncharitable thought you had was immediately known by everyone around you – or how you would feel if you immediately knew everyone else's. That’s bad enough, but it would be so much more than that – everyone would know how you were feeling all the time: There would be no way to hide boredom, reluctance, anger, fear, disdain, discomfort, silliness – or your preference for the company of certain people over others – or, God forbid, desire, neediness and lust.

Everyone’s internal landscape must be so unique, dense and complex that it may as well be an alien world. We would all have to become inconceivably more understanding and forgiving of others if we were going to be party to everyone’s inner-most secrets and feelings all the time. Just to glimpse what is going on inside someone is to know what it is like to be them, in the raw. I suspect the experience would be so over-whelming we would never recover from it.


Which tells us something about the function language plays. It is not, and has never been, simply for transferring dry information. It allows us to choose what we reveal or what we keep secret, it gives us a chance to control how we present ourselves. It acts as a buffer and is also a diplomatic translation tool that enables us to communicate sensibly, at a distance. It acts as both conduit and filter, and is to some extent a protective mask for our inner landscape.

I suppose at this point some readers might be raising an objecting finger - am I suggesting it's a bad thing to be honest and open? Am I advocating deception and secrecy? Aren't I being be pretty down on the purity of straight-forward truthfulness? Why should we have to hide our true selves?

Well, dear, dear, reader, I raise you Nietzsche. Things are not as simple as 'truth' and 'lie', said the walrus-‘tached one, not when it comes to how language is used. There are, in fact, many shades of grey between those supposed exclusive opposites.

Certainly there are lies - out-and-out untruths – things that are demonstrably not the case - complete fabrications, deliberately created - that you could utter, but this is not really our concern here.

Nietzsche's concern is what we mean by truth: Because 'truth' is a very difficult thing to pin down. “Every word is a prejudice” said he - one of my all-time favourite lines because it so succinctly sums up his view of language: The very words you select to convey information necessarily spin it in a particular way. Any expression in words will only highlight a small, limited aspect of the concept or situation you are dealing with, a concise and contained package of signs that gestures towards a wider reality and tries to pin it down in finite terms.

There's a whole raft of decisions that need to be made before you float an utterance out from your gob: What words are you going to use, what angle are you going to come at it from, how will you start, what are you going to include, what are you going to leave out, what are you going to highlight or prioritise as important? All of these elements serve to present the information in a way you want it presented, designed to have a particular impact. There are possibly infinite variations, all of which are 'true', in that the facts are the same, despite very different trajectories.

It sounds like I’m talking about spin, but it’s not necessarily deliberately manipulative or disingenuous – often you will express things the way you have picked up on them, the way you see or interpret them, and prioritise what is genuinely most important to you at that moment. In fact you can’t do anything else, but also, in fact, it’s very rare you will ever say anything that isn’t in some way in your interests to say, and pretending this is the same as speaking the whole dry truth is either naive or flat-out bogus.

Neitzsche was very aware of the power politics at work in language – far from simply conveying facts, language’s function is very much to advance the agenda of the speaker – to have an effect on the behaviour or thinking of the recipient. In the first chapter of Beyond Good and Evil he essentially suggests that even the most dry and rational of philosophical writings are trying to impose the author’s values and preferences on the reader – far from being the dispassionate, open minded explorations they pretend to be, they all start with an agenda, based on the writer's value system, and seek to persuade the reader towards it.

The manipulation of language for social effect is so common we do it unconsciously and when others do it to us it often slips under the radar. We notice it in politicians because we’ve learnt to look for it, but it happens everywhere – from polite small talk with strangers to the dynamics between loved ones, from interactions in the workplace to (especially) advertising and business, the media and the law courts. Where there are people trying to live together there will be power politics, and where there is power politics it will infuse language.

But again I should stress that language has to be prejudiced – it has to take a perspective. At the end of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche laments how his ideas look dull and dead now they have been immortalised on the page, that he hasn’t represented the vibrant flux of his thoughts fully. We speak only interpretations and perspectives – the true nature of things is not to be pinned down in words. The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way, the name that can be named is not the constant name...

Language is not truth, it is a tool. Together with non-verbal cues, it’s the primary social tool of our species, massively powerful in the effect it can have. As much as we may sneer and bemoan how much easier it would be if we could communicate simply and directly, language exists as it is for a reason – because we need it that way to protect ourselves, to advance our cause and translate our thoughts and feelings. If we were to take this away, to bypass this with telepathy, everything would change – millennia of social development, the whole structure of our society, would be redundant.


Nietzsche’s pre-occupation with language and its function is nothing compared to Wittgenstein – no philosopher took language apart as brilliantly as that guy.

There are echoes of Nietzsche’s assertion that language is not simply a logical conveyance of information in Wittgenstein’s later work Philosophical Investigations, particularly in the idea of language games – that the way people use language falls into different categories, each with its own set of rules, that language is woven into the various activities and modes of being we can slip into. Language is an extension of action and behaviour and the way we use it – for example commanding, requesting, pleading, joking, debating - denotes which mode we are in, and requires a response appropriate to that language game.

To understand language you really have to understand human interaction – Wittgenstein contended that without interaction it would be impossible to learn language in the first place – without feedback from others in active situations there would be nothing to tie the system of rules and symbols to. You cannot learn language by watching TV in a room on your own, and you cannot not develop your own language on a desert island on your own - you need to communicate with at least one responsive other.

The real reason Wittegenstein was so interested in language was that for him language, logic and consciousness are inseparable. Thought and language develop side by side, and both through communication and interaction with the world and others – language does not just express thought; thought is influenced by language, since language solidifies and gives shape to concepts, perspectives and ways of thinking – it structures thought, to the extent that developing language may be essential to developing a reflective consciousness, certainly to developing rationality.

It’s easy to see why – without language we have no way to consistently pin down thoughts and concepts, let alone analyze them; and in having to consider how we are going to present our thoughts in language, it makes us analyze and reflect on them.

Without the need for, and practice of, communication with others, there is really no need to be that conscious or reflective at all. Language does not arise, neither does rational thought.

Which raises the point – if we scrap language, do we become less conscious, less rational? If we have direct access to each others’ minds, would we lose our individual identity altogether and no longer have the need for considered communication; or would we have to develop a new 'language' of thought behaviour?


I don’t think for a second that the kind of total mind-merge telepathy I’ve been considering is possible at all – it seems a condition of consciousness that each perspective is isolated.

So, maybe the above is so much blather about nothing. But we’ve explored some things, and if nothing else it demonstrates that language is not just something we do to tell each other stuff – it is essential to who and what we are, and awesomely sophisticated.

Wishing that we could bypass words and see directly into each other is, I suggest, a folly, fraught with unforeseen problems, and underestimates what language does.

A telepathic society would be unrecognisable to us. It sure as hell wouldn’t look like it does in sci-fi movies, where telepathic aliens are just like us but a bit quieter, all peace-nik and touchy-feely and possibly bald. No: With that kind of power, and without language, we wouldn’t be looking at conscious individuals as we currently understand the concept at all – we would have transformed into something else entirely. That would no longer be human life as we know it.

Careful what you wish for. I’ll be monitoring your thoughts.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Over-used words #1: Inappropriate.

What it's ‘sposed to mean: You have woefully misjudged your behaviour and it's completely misaligned with your situation.

How it's used: A subjective authority-stamping command masquerading as a cool, detached objective statement of FACT. It may sound like a dispassionate observation, but make no mistake, if you’re told your behaviour is inappropriate you are being told off - "This is my 'hood, I don't like what you're doing and I'm telling you to stop it": The terrifying doom from on high - Oh my Christ, have I done something... INAPPROPRIATE? It’s not just your actions that are being trashed, it’s your judgement.

But: Who decided what was appropriate here? Are you sure they’re correct? It is a judgement call, after all – are they infallible? Do they have any better handle on the situation than you? Do we all have the same goals here? Are we all on the same agenda? Do we all see all facets and perspectives of this set of circumstances? Because if not, what is “appropriate” or not is very much relative and up for grabs…

I admit there is something delicious about the word though - such a lot of power for such a politely unassuming bunch of syllables. The quieter it's said, the better... *Ahem*. Excuse me, that's (whisper it)… inappropriate.

Monday, 8 August 2011

As much Steinbeck as sitcom ~or~ it’s ok for things to be "just ok”

~or~ in defence of the "downbeat" ~or~ why is enduring contentment SO DAMN ELUSIVE?

Dermot O Leary: Do you enjoy life?

Morrissey: I don’t think anybody enjoys life, Dermot, do they? ...I think it’s thrust upon them and they just get through it.

BBC Radio 2 interview April 30, 2011


Happiness: Miserable old Morrissey does come out some things, eh? Indeed he does, but in this case I found myself chuckling in recognition, because I happen to wholeheartedly agree.

My life thus far: Some of it has been fun. An awful lot of it, if I think about it, really hasn’t. I have a lingering suspicion that I’ve been doing it wrong.

Certainly there have been agreeably regular moments of laughter, excitement, intrigue and contentment; but really, on a day-to-day basis these seem to be heavily outweighed by the more frequent and enduring stretches of frustration, anxiety, irritability, grey monotony, disgruntlement, confusion, listlessness, embarrassment, panic, exhaustion, alarm, despondency... you get the picture.

What’s worse is that such moods and experiences don’t always tie up with your situation – I’ve often found myself looking forward to, and working towards, situations that leave me bored and restless when I get there; or experiencing out-of-the-blue high times when things are otherwise pretty grim. You can never guarantee a good time, or the whims of your weather-like temperament, it seems.

Happiness in a society like ours really shouldn’t be difficult – God knows we’ve got everything we need, food, shelter, considerable freedoms, entertainment, and countless comforts, tools and toys to play with...

So what, dear reader, gives? Well, the most salient thought-cloud hovering on my mental horizon is sheer disparity between my escapist dreams of a happy, successful, functional life and the rather more grey and complicated reality.

And here’s the rub: I’m increasingly convinced that the myths and values we’re bought up with, that teach us what we should strive for and expect out of modern life, are actually extremely dysfunctional and ill-matched with reality as we find it.


Fairness: To put it simply, life is tough. It always has been tough and always will be. The apparent stability and security of our everyday lives, our escapist entertainments and the creature comforts we surround ourselves with lull us into thinking we should have all the problems of existence sorted – but they are very much all still there, and refuse to go away.

For a start, of course, our affluence and comfort is only attained through the hard graft of millions of other people and the downright inequality of the wider world – but I‘m not intending to get all political here, so to move swiftly on...

This idea that life is, or should be, fair: adhering to this sense of entitlement has caused nothing but anxiety and grief throughout my days.

We live in an aspirational society. Pop culture feeds us myths that we will all be rewarded for our hard work and our talents, that life and work could and should be fun and that everyone can meet their potential (ie. get to develop what they want to develop and applause for what they want to get applause for.)

This is supposed to be motivating, but can actually end up convincing you that, if the above is not how you experience life, something is terribly wrong – either you are a failure or you have been screwed over by “life”.

Actually, it’s really obvious that “life” is simply too complex and chaotic to get too upset when things don’t turn out the way you thought they should in your escapist fantasies – because what pop culture is feeding us is, of course, escapist fantasy, and should never have been taken literally in the first place.

Believing that there is a grand plan and purpose to the universe, and that everything happens for a reason (or even, God forbid, the “best”,) has, more often than not, resulted in nasty surprises for me when faced with the curve-balls, snarl-ups and compromises of reality.

Sure, things work fairly well, you are rarely given more on your plate than you can cope with – but not always, not for everyone every time. To put it bluntly, awful things do happen, good things do sometimes turn terminally bad, tragedy does strike, and you... get through it. Hopefully. These days any talk of destiny or karma make me gnash my teeth for just that reason – given all the injustice and suffering in the world, how dare you suggest that everything is “for the best”?


Work: I’m grateful that I’ve done mainly interesting jobs that I’ve found, on balance, quite compelling and rewarding. But all the same, work has been at the very core of some of the more soul destroying staring-into-the-existential-abyss moments of my life.

The problem is not with the concept of work per-se (on the contrary, without work you face the equally abysmal existential void of zero purpose, achievement or self-worth) but more with the relentlessness and compromise of it all. The tragedy is that there is so much to explore and experience that you are aware exists to explore and experience, and are promised that you can; but in reality you realise you will never explore and experience half of it because your time and energy is all invested in doing what you have to do to pay your way.

The fact that you have to do it is automatically galling, not to mention that it often means doing tasks you really don't want to do, or in a way you really don't want to do them, and then getting harshly judged on the results. Even the most exciting or agreeable of tasks lose their appeal if that's all you do - if you were told you had to relax with a cup of tea in a chair for eight hours a day (but, of course, in a particular way that your boss or clients want it done,) it would quickly become a constricting chore.

I’ve got to admit that without a doubt the happiest periods of my life have been when I’ve been slightly removed from the politics of the workplace and demands of authority, and been relatively independent – when I’ve had time and energy to explore things, to indulge my preferred talents and interests, to consider and discuss and even joke around, to pay as much care and attention as I like to things I’m doing and produce results I’m proud of, to interact with others as a fully rounded human being.

That kind of freedom, quite understandably, does not exist in most workplaces, which, it’s got to be said, tend towards a slightly dehumanising effect. During business hours you are essentially a tool controlled by the demands of others – whether it’s management or clients or customers – who will rarely be happy unless you are giving 100% of yourself to their agenda 100% of the time. The majority of us still have to spend the majority of our active waking hours doing this, and struggling to exert some kind of influence over the course our own lives.

It’s also got to be said that, especially in the current climate, most organisations, private or public sector, are predicated on everyone being squeezed and stretched all of the time, which means morale is always under threat and inter-personal resentments undergo a kind of hot-house incubation.

My point is even if you, broadly, on balance, enjoy your work, it’s still a daily struggle. If, God forbid, you really don’t enjoy your work, or get on with the people you work with, then it doesn’t matter how much money you're making or how great the stuff you buy is – a massive portion of your life is spent in teeth-grinding misery, and you are perfectly justified in despairing about it.

Is there any way out of this? The answer would appear to be, for most of us, no – not unless you win the lottery or luck out in some other way. But that’s not a real solution, you have not really found the key to self sufficiency - it's fraudulent, because you haven’t earned your escape from the wheel of drudgery; and irrelevant, because without responsibilities or contribution to the world you end up no more than a pampered parasite, swaddled from the world, with no right to comment on the lot of everyday man. If you don’t muck in with society, why should society care two hoots about your over-privileged ass?


Resentment: It’s easy to look at successful and wealthy people and make glib, resentful proclamations about how much easier their lives are and how you wish your life was like that – but it’s all relative and that’s only how it appears on the outside.

Beneath the veneer everyone has their own frustrations and constraints, demands on their time and person, hopes and fears, heartbreaks and tragedies, flaws and failures, dramas and neuroses. No apparent “perfect life” is static and permanently sustainable. Life has a habit of compromising and complicating things and every element of our lives is subject to change and entropy.

The Greeks said “call no man happy till he is dead” – meaning it’s futile to envy the living, before their life stories are complete – because no matter how happy someone appears to be now, it might all go tits-up tomorrow, and you sure as hell won’t be envying them then.

No matter how buffered against catastrophe and sorrow and suffering we are by wealth and success, no buffer is totally bullet-proof. In fact everyone is faced with the same unpredictable, unknowable onslaught of chaotic events that life throws at us, and there is at least a kind of final fairness in that. We all still die.

You may feel resentment that you haven’t got every box ticked: the healthy energetic lifestyle, the fun and interesting social life, the professional recognition, the idyllic home, the perfect relationships, all the time, money and leisure that you feel you should, in a fair and ideal world, have got by now. But look around you – who the crap has? I mean really, beyond the surface showboating bullshit?


Getting By: I suppose the point I’m trying to make, is that your life is your life – it’s pointless comparing it to someone else’s and thinking yours should be like that; or to an idealised fantasy and getting upset that it’s not like that. Reality can be as much Steinbeck novel as sitcom, and feel as much Kafkaesque nightmare as Glee-esque dream, no matter who you are.

We are brought up to think if we are not having fun and doing amazing things and being happy and content all the time we are a failure, and something is wrong.

But life is strange, unpredictable and all-over-the-place, and everyone has their own unique challenges, obstacles, tragedies, deficiencies, demons and regrets – everyone has their own “shit to deal with”, everyone has their own hard times. In these uncertain times, certainly - clinging on to your youthful assumptions of "how things should be" just looks like a naive dream borne of a cotton-wool-swaddled bubble. Everything is different now, and everything could be different again tomorrow.

For the vast majority of people through the vast majority of history life has been grim, or at least a struggle. Life never has been all about having constant fun and high times, no matter what the movies and sitcoms and endless aspirational TV series seduce us into believing. You are doing well if you manage to keep poverty and despair at bay and just get on with living. As long it stays generally tolerable and functional enough to keep you moving along day to day, then that’s all anyone is really “entitled” to.

This sounds relentlessly grim, but I actually take a fair bit of comfort in it – it’s ok that things did not turn out like your perfect and wonderful day-dreams, but it's also ok to rage against your lot once in awhile, and it’s ok not to be all happiness all the time. Things are tough all over and everyone should give each other more of a break. We may dream visions of a halcyon Hollywood life made up of those all-too-fleeting fun and exciting moments, but in reality there is Steinbeck too. This is life: We’re all just getting by.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Gradations ~ or ~ the male/female "friendship" issue...

This is bound to get me in trouble. It came out of a recurring pub conversation, and I know I am biased because of my wretched romantic history, and I know the issue is controversial – my female friends would (and do) strenuously disagree, and shake their heads at my hopelessly male perspective. It’s the Harry met Sally conversation - you know, that a man and a woman can't just be normal close friends without romantic complications.

Just a couple of points to make clear before we start, to head off any awkwardness the below may raise in my circle of friends and acquaintances:

1) I am not talking about light, well-established, casual friendships, rather the more emotionally intimate sort.

2) There is no passive-aggressive subtext here – I mean only what I say, and it’s not aimed at anyone – it’s precisely because I am, for once, currently, thankfully, free of any of this kind of emotional weirdness (to my conscious knowledge at least) that I can talk about this kind of thing openly, freely and dispassionately. Amen.


I’m fascinated by these unspoken things that go on between people of the opposite sex – because, while we like to think in black and white that “these two people are together in the romantic category” and “these two people are together in the friendship category”, and there is no possible cross over between the two, in the hidden, dank corners of people's brains there are often all kinds of gradations.

The line can be a deceptive one - you think you know where it is, but then, one day, suddenly it's hazy and shifting. After all, isn't that the romantic ideal - an intimate friend who we also find hot?

As if all friendships are exactly the same and emotionally equivalent; as if, because there is no overt romantic activity, or because these two people aren’t sleeping together, that means your gender is irrelevant and there’s no frisson there at all. Male/female friendships are nearly always of a different quality, have a different dynamic.

Ok, maybe not so much in distant, casual friendships or in friendships where the boundary is rigorously clear and strictly imposed, in thoughts as well as actions (very important)but what about those acquaintances where the “what if” hovers in the air? That, even if you have no intention or even much attraction towards it, you know you could get together, if only briefly, if you just ignored any emotional fall-out: Maybe, if the circumstances were just right and you were weak and needing affection and decided in a moment of madness “what the hell”...

That knowledge changes everything about the dynamic of a friendship. I’ve seen so many male/female friendships that clearly don’t act like same-sex friendships – where he acts as the strong, fatherly protector, where she’s happy to snuggle up to him when in need of a bit of affection, where there’s a crackle of mischievous flirtatiousness as the bed-rock of the thing, where they tease and show off to each other – and it’s simply naive or disingenuous to maintain these are totally bloodless and identical to every other friendship you have.

And I’ve also seen the surrogate boyfriend/girlfriend thing happen too much, where at least one party is getting all the benefits of having a devoted member of the opposite sex to lavish them with attention, talk deep with, respond to their beck and call and even go on pseudo-dates with – knowing they can walk away at any time and that there is no binding, overtly-stated claim to emotional commitment.

This isn’t necessarily unhealthy – if both sides are happy with that kind of relationship as it is, and take comfort from it; if both understand what it is and have no buried yearning towards anything more, then fine. But in reality, it’s rarely that evenly balanced or well understood. Someone is usually more interested than the other, and that someone is, even if it's not conscious or deliberate, being used.

The “friend trap” – where you get locked into a thing that you think is going somewhere, only to be told that you’re “just a friend”, by which point it's too late and you are smitten – is a well known phenomena amongst my male friends, and something that’s happened to me, admittedly, too many times for comfort (which has perhaps jaded me... sigh. Ok then, has very clearly and definitely jaded me).

It’s not specifically a male affliction – it’s just as possible for women to be on the receiving end of that, but it does seem to happen to men more – maybe it's my soft friends, but I’m not sure I know a guy it hasn’t happened to at some point. Because there is a tendency for men and women to view male/female “friendships” differently...

If a single heterosexual bloke suddenly becomes a girl’s “new best friend” and starts going out of his way to spend loads of time with her, then 95% of the time he is sweet on her. It’s that simple - sad, but in my experience, true. Other blokes can see this a mile off. Many women apparently can’t – or at least won’t consciously acknowledge it or think about it, because that would complicate a nice, pleasant situation.

The difference between close same-sex and male/female friendships is that the attention of someone of the opposite sex that you recognise as hypothetically eligible and reasonably attractive (even if you don’t really fancy them yourself) is flattering.

Everyone likes to be a sun with planets orbiting them, and your sun does not like to lose one of those satellites, even if you had no intention of doing anything with them. I’ve been as guilty of taking pleasure in this in the past as anyone else.

When a friend you suspect has “a thing” for you, that you keep at arms length because of this (but nevertheless keep) suddenly finds someone else and stops talking to you so much – well, in a small, barely registered way, it still smarts a bit. You feel just a tiny little bit less attractive and important and a tiny bit more alone in the world – a slight slight against the brightness of your sun.

When you are at a low point yourself, starved of affection and slightly insecure – whether long-term single, or just coming out of a failed relationship, or stuck in a stale and "complicated" one – these weird, repressed, need-feeding attachments resonate all the more.

But none of this is ever acknowledged. Such things are rarely thought about clearly, spoken about out loud or discussed amongst friends unless they are extreme and obvious and causing problems. Many close male/female friendships feed a need that same-sex ones don’t, but everyone pretends – for the sake of avoiding awkwardness and complications and repercussions that no one wants to explore – that they are just the same.

Which is not to say close but bloodless male/female friendships aren’t possible – they clearly are, and I have some myself – but in order to happen they have to involve at least one of the following:

A) that neither party finds each other remotely physically attractive;

B) both parties have very clear boundaries, with very good reasons for them, so that there is absolutely no possibility of even imagining in your most wild, futile dreams that it would ever cross into sweet and tender romance;

C) both parties share a long history, a lot of water under the bridge, so that roles in each other’s lives are firmly established and any early attraction or question of romantic involvement has been dealt with and laid to rest long ago.

B) and C) are things that take time to establish – they are not in place with recent acquaintances, and therefore any so-called “close friendship” that suddenly springs up between a bloke and girl is quite understandably a bit suspicious and inappropriate.

This is why properly close non-romantic friendships between the sexes are comparatively rare; and why the term “friends” is viewed by a million guys as a cruel and baffling card that women will sometimes play to tear a bloke’s heart in two.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Consciousness ~ the kernal that will not be cracked (#2): HIVE MINDS

The attached PPT is from the first ever talk I did for the first ever Hmmm Squad group meeting.

Thought it’d be fun to throw up some far-out pictures and videos of ANTS and WIERD SEA CREATURES, because 1) They are hellish cool and 2) they’re so alien that they stretch our understanding of what living things are like - and so raise some profound, thought-provoking questions for the philosophically inclined...

I’ve rarely seen these creatures discussed in standard philosophy textbooks. But: When I was teaching philosophy of mind I found I kept using these examples when discussing certain ideas. This came out of that.

There’s not a massive amount of explanation in the PPT – was meant to be accompanied by me talking and that, so some stuff may not come across (and you’ve missed out on my gags). Ah, well. I’m sure you can do your own research on the things shown (check out honey pot ants - URGH!) – there’s this thing called the internets, you know. Seriously though, google siphonophores, or their real relevance will be lost - they are extremely hard to classify, with individual creatures tied together (some responsible for eating, some responsible for movement, like organs in a body) in a colony that acts like one organism.

But I should, at least, explain that China/Satellite/Robot diagram...

The China Brain:

The China Brain or China Mind* scenario is designed to explore the idea that consciousness arises out of complex information processing.

It’s related to the idea that if info processing just gets complex enough, then you start getting thoughts about thoughts – or rather information processing about the information processing you’re doing – ie higher level, second-tier processing - feedback, monitoring and reflection: This higher-order thinking is what “consciousness” is.

The neurons in the brain all carry out simple information processing functions, which on their own are just single mechanical actions, like chips in a computer – but when they are all put together, communicating with each other, could a “mind” arise? Is the whole “greater than the sum of its parts"?** Is that how consciousness happens?

To explore that question, the likes of Lawrence Davis and Ned Block came up with this analogy: Imagine everyone in China is asked to work together to control a big robot. Everyone is assigned one simple task to carry out, to act like neurons in the robot’s “brain”. Each individual performs their function and they communicate via walkie-talkies to co-ordinate their actions.

The results of everyone’s activity is sent up to a satellite. That processes the information and transmits the resulting commands to a MASSIVE ROBOT (awesome). That, simplified, is the China Brain scenario.

So – people are neurons, the satellite is the core hub of the brain processing their activity and bring it all together, and the robot is the body. Now the key question: Could we then say that that robot was conscious? Would an over-all CHINA MIND come into existence?

Common sense would appear to say NO, said Ned Block. No matter how well co-ordinated the Chinese people’s actions, there would still just be a lot of individuals working together. You could not say "China" had a single mind or self, that could experience things the way we do.

Yes, it would create a certain zeitgeist or culture amongst the Chinese people, and the robot would have characteristic responses and actions and ways of doing things – like any society working and living together does. But that is not the same as a fully CONSCIOUS identity and perspective. It is still a bunch of people moving as one, not a single unique being – the “China mind” remains a metaphor, no more – China doesn’t actually have a single mind, it just outwardly acts like something that does.

At least that’s how the China Brain idea is usually interpreted. In this PPT I speculate wildly about social insects and siphonores (ie colonies and "super-organisms") and hmmm about the idea of hive minds – and in the process realise I’m not so sure about the "common sense" pooh-poohing of the “China Mind”.

It seems to me the most essential question in this is what exactly is ONE thing and what is MANY things? – the clear division between fundamental concepts such as “single” and “multiple” here start to look more hazy and less defined – and I’m quite convinced this issue is at the heart of understanding consciousness, since consciousness has to be both – a complex communication between parts, and yet one single perspective, one whole thing. There is a paradox right at the centre of consciousness - and that's what makes it so tricksy. Tricksy, tricksy.


* (aka the Chinese Nation or Chinese Gym – variations on the idea have been used by many different philosophers.)

** (look up the term "Supervenience" if you want to explore that idea further.)

Wednesday, 4 May 2011


The hot topic that everyone is talking about certainly isn’t this. But anyway, out of a sense of duty (because I happen to actually know what the terms mean) I suppose I should say something about the referendum on voting reform – should we stick with First Past the Post (FPP) or change to the Alternative Vote system (AV) to elect our MPs? - for those who don’t have a clue and can’t be arsed to otherwise look up the details... well, bad luck, because by the time you read this it’ll all be over. Should have written this a couple of weeks ago. Still.

Let’s cut to the chase:

FPP = everyone in your area (“constituency”) votes for one candidate off the list standing for that area. Whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. Simple.

The main criticism of the current FPP system is that in constituencies which are a "safe seat" (ie. The “majority” will always vote Conservative even if the Conservative candidate is a half-eaten tube of Pringles) anyone not voting Conservative may as well take up the Tibetan nose-flute as exercise their democratic right to vote.

Bear in mind, the “majority” in FPP might be quite small, and not really a majority at all – if only 30% vote Conservative, as long as every other candidate gets less than 30% they have won. It’s actually the larger loyal minority that wins. This can lead to a stale old deadlock that FPP supporters like to call “stability”. In times of voter apathy these loyal minorities are sometimes the only people who turn out. Voters are apathetic because they have no faith in politicians, or that their vote will ever change anything, partly due to… this system.

With AV, where there's no majority over 50%, second and third choices etc are taken into account - so you're more likely to get a less predictable result, and a vote that more accurately reflects the diversity of voters’ preferences.

AV = everyone votes by ranking the candidates in order of preference (first choice, second choice, third choice etc.) If a one candidate gets over 50% of “first choice” votes, they win.

If they don’t, this happens: The candidate with the least number of “first choice” votes gets scratched out – they have now left the Big Brother house. So are the ballot papers of everyone who voted for them wasted? No – because for those people, their “second choice” is now moved up to “first choice” and added to the totals. This may bring up one candidate to 50% now – if it doesn’t, another candidate is scratched out and… so on until SOMEONE gets 50%. Sounds horrendously complicated. It is - but also a subtler gauge of voters' prefs.

The main criticism of AV is that you end up with nobody's first choice and only a second or even third-choice compromise. While compromise may seem preferable to being rail-roaded by a small, set-in-their-ways minority, it could make unstable coalitions more likely, as there could, theoretically, be a greater mix of different party MPs. Another main criticism is... Nick Clegg.

Clegg likes it because it should be (or would have been before they screwed up their image in this coalition) better for Lib Dems by breaking the deadlock of “safe seats” – Lib Dems may win on second choices. Milliband likes it because that’s how he beat his brother to the Labour leadership – on an AV vote amongst Labour party members.

Other scare stories are that it’ll give power to the BNP (but only because it’ll give a better chance to a wider range of political parties in general – some of which are, yes, extreme – but if that’s the way the public votes, that’s the public’s stupid fault – ain’t democracy grand) and that it’ll cost loads of money to change, something which is being angrily denied by the AV camp. Mainly, it’s just a bit of an unknown – no one really knows how it will change things. It may make no difference at all.

And neither, of course, is a direct vote for who runs the country. Who gets to be government is who has the most MPs in the House of Commons, NOT who has the most overall votes. Both FPP and AV are still just to decide which MPs get a "seat" in any given constituency - but then if it was the total number of individual votes that decided government you could end up with party in power who don't actually have a majority of MPs, and then they could not be sure they’d be able to pass any legislation once in power – you’d have a weak, toothless government. Confusion over whether you’re voting for an MP to represent your area or voting for who you want the actual damned government to be is inherent in the system. This is democracy at a considerable second-hand remove – it ain’t Athens.

I have no faith that AV will change anything for the better, but I’m going to vote for it anyway – mainly because, after years of whinging about the stagnation of politics and how my vote is pointless and wasted, I’d be a coward and a hypocrite not to take the opportunity to shake things up.

This idea that FPP is tried and tested and works and AV may mess things up and we’ll all be running around unable to make decisions and the country will grind to a halt – did anyone pay attention to the last general election? Or the one before that? We HAVE a coalition under FPP. Voter apathy as been a problem for decades. People are massively disillusioned with the system and the choices facing them in elections – the whole point is, the election system is NOT working like it used to these days. If this makes the political parties rethink how they go about the business of getting votes, that might not be such a bad thing.

Plus many arguments against AV have struck me as alarmingly missing the point of democracy. All this Hobbesian “we need a decisive result, not compromise and coalitions” pretty much = we need to ignore variety of opinion and have a strong, single-minded leadership. Well alright! Dictatorship it is then.

But then, while the crucial element of democracy has been aptly shown by goings on in the middle east recently – the ability to criticise and GET RID of your government – when it comes to political parties, it always has been, to some extent, a prettier word for “mob rule”. Plato certainly thought so. We can but hope that most people are reasonable and sensible and most of our politicians are competent and conscientious. Mmn. Happy voting.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Consciousness ~ the kernal that will not be cracked (#1)

This blog is a very strange beast I know. I tried a few times to write something accessible on consciousness for it; but it's a subject where you have to be so precise in what you say, with such a massive history, that there's no way to talk about it in my usual "chatty" style.

But what the hell - I may as well post up a few of the flawed attempts to say SOMETHING about this area of philosophy - few will read it, fewer will understand it, but here it is - take #1:

There is something that, to me at least, it seems utterly absurd – a total non-starter – to think we could ever reduce to an objective account: Consciousness. This is not because of any new-agey faith in the idea, but rather from weary experience of exploring the endless arguments and schools of thought on it; and, more importantly, that the very task would appear to be a logical impossibility. It should become clear why I think this. Consciousness has pride of place amongst those concepts that we simply can’t get outside of – so much of our language simply presupposes it, to talk dryly about what it might be without using terms grounded in an idea of some kind of conscious experience happening would appear to be intractably problematic. Some have tried – Phenomenologists like Husserl and Heidegger come to mind – and they were certainly brave attempts that threw up some enlightening ideas, but ultimately failed to lay the question of “what is consciousness and how does it arise?” to rest. In the mind of the common pleb it might simply be a matter of mind-as-soul (religious account) vs. mind-as-brain (physical account), but this dichotomy is bullshit. You don’t have to take either of those views. I’m quite sure both are massively inadequate.

Old News (Yawn).

The most common religious view of consciousness is the idea that the “soul” is distinct from the physical body – an idea essential to the possibility of an “afterlife” since, well, the body... stops; and goes away. Extraordinary damage has been done to this concept by the study of the brain and body and how it affects people’s experiences, abilities and behaviours. Through biology and neuroscience there is an undeniable avalanche of examples of how what is going on, chemically, mechanically, electronically, in the body and brain at any particular time correlates with what you are feeling, perceiving, remembering, thinking, doing: The activity of the nervous system, the firing of neurons in specific parts of the brain, the balance of chemicals in the brain and body, the activity of organs and their effect on the rest of the system – all of these things are observable, and consistently correlated with sensations, moods and cognitive (mental) tasks (from doing a Sudoku, to remembering a shopping list, to reading a book, to chatting with friends, listening to music, delivering a presentation, visualising the face of an ugly fisherman, assessing the correct trajectory for reverse parking into a space tighter than James Brown’s funk, feeling pain in your eyeball, feeling gung ho for combat after watching (the first) Die Hard, feeling really quite sad indeed, feeling faintly aroused in a sexy-sexy way) – the body behaves in different specific ways when these things are going on, and they are correlated to the point we can look at the physical process and predict what is going on in that person’s “head”. But it’s more than this: We know cause and effect goes both ways – yes, your thinking affects what goes on in your body, but your body also affects your “mind” - by playing about with the brain and body we can cause changes in mental “stuff” to happen. Both drugs (which simply alter the balance of chemicals in your body) and brain damage (from accident or disease) can alter not just your abilities but your personality, your moods, tastes, values – even your sense of humour – everything about your personal identity. If there is a soul, that can survive the obliteration of the body, then it is simply a blank life spark – it is not your conscious “self”, your personality, your faculties or your memories, because all of these can be changed or obliterated by brain damage and manipulation. This suggests very strongly that the split between mind and body is false – even if they are two things, they are bound up in one system. More likely they are two perspectives on the same thing.

But there were problems for the concept of a separate soul even before such scientific knowledge. The idea of a split is kind of ill-conceived, and even its most famous and rigorous champion, Descartes, never quite resolved how it worked. He said since mental events like “the idea of a circle” or “a feeling of sadness” cannot be located in space, then the mind was not a spatial thing – i.e. it’s “outside” of physical space, non-physical. So far so “soul”. But how can a non-physical thing interact with a physical body? Descartes, bafflingly, decided the soul was linked to the body via the pineal gland in the brain. Hmm.

Problem A: Gilbert Ryle called the idea of mind/body dualism “the ghost in the machine” and thought it was guff. Ryle said the idea of our “minds” driving our bodies like we drive a car was simplistic and silly – we do not “get in” our bodies and then tell it to do things, rather the “mind” is totally integrated with the body. When we stub our toe, we feel the pain in our toe. When things happen to our bodies, it directly affects our minds. Problem B: Worse, there is no account of how something non-material and outside of space can have any contact with something material at a point in space. The idea does not seem to make sense – how can the non-spatial mind be “located” in one particular body in space? How can the “link” with the mind (which can’t be located in any particular place) be with the pineal gland (which occupies a specific place in the body)? Descartes’ own later attempt to say the non-spatial mind was distributed evenly throughout the body is clearly a contradiction in terms. Problem C: David Hume, the rotund Scottish sceptic par-excellence “pooh-poohed” the idea of a separate “mind” or “soul” altogether. He said the soul was simply a nonsensical idea – the concept itself was meaningless. We cannot conceive of a “thing” that exists outside of space and time, nor say anything about it that would make any real, meaningful sense, let alone give an account of what it would be like to experience such a thing. Therefore the word “soul” is an empty concept – it’s just a word that doesn’t refer to any actual thing that we can pin down. Problem D: Finally, even if the mind is separate to the body, it still causes the body to do things and the body causes it to have experiences. Even if we carve the world up into two distinct realms – physical (body) and non-physical (mind) – if they interact at all they must still be part of the same over-all causal system.

All of this would seem to be old news, laid to rest in the minds of the average Atheist. There is no mind/body split, the mind is the body, or at least just something the body does. Consciousness is mechanical – in the sense that it is part and parcel of, inextricably bound up with, the mechanisms of the body. So it would appear to be settled, and so far I have not told you anything that isn’t a commonly held view.

Thomas F***s It Up.

Now I’m going to f*** that shit up. Because there is a massive, glaring problem here, and this is really where the modern arguments involving consciousness begin. Q: What do we mean by “explaining consciousness”? It seems to me there are two distinct avenues of enquiry here; 1) Giving an account of how human activity, behaviour and functioning arises in the world; 2) Giving an account of how subjective experience or “raw perspective” arises in the world. Now while we may presume these two are linked, they are not the same thing. In most “scientific” approaches to the problem, the second line of enquiry is put on hold, “bracketed out” – there doesn’t appear to be any way to investigate this scientifically, so “subjectivity” is ignored as an ill-defined wishy-washy idea full of misleading errors in conception – as a starting point for enquiry it is a scientific dead-end, a blind alley. Much better to concentrate on the first account. The more optimistic tend to believe 1) will lead to 2), though it’s far from clear how this will happen. The more stubborn and mule-headed tend to insist that 2) will be reduced to 1), so we don’t just have to “bracket” 2) out for now, we can forget about it altogether. But this to me seems utterly nuts – pathological denial and nonsensical self-contradiction of what is most glaringly self-evident – us, our own perspective, what “we” are. It’s presenting an observation and then denying that there is any observer, there is only what is observed; and that is either stupidly naive or flat-out bogus and fraudulent.

We cannot subtract ourselves out of the equation – not even (or especially not) when we are trying to explain ourselves. Q: How do we account for the difference between observing a brain process and being the “experienc-ee” of that brain process without a concept of experiencing or perspective? To try to ignore the issue of perspective is to ignore the very framework and grounds that make any observation, measurement, or ordering and interpreting of factual data a) possible and b) meaningful. You cannot “explain away” the concept of “experience” in the way that you would explain away the concept of, say, ghosts. You can say “ghosts don’t exist” because the concept of a “ghost” is a hypothesis, a constructed explanation for “anomalous” events in the world. You can show that, with research and deduction, there are other, more convincing explanations for those so-called “anomalous” events, and that the explanation “ghost” is incoherent. But the concept of “experience” or “raw perspective” is not a “hypothesis” to be proved or disproved by research and deduction. These are simply basic labels for something ill-defined, that needs explaining ourselves and what we fundamentally are – the fundamental grounds of our existence. The argument is about how we are supposed to grasp and define “conscious experience”, not whether it is a valid term or not – to explain away the concept of “conscious experience” before we have started to try and describe it and how it works is self defeating – we lose the very thing we are analysing in a puff of confused smoke. But it is so hard to pin down that we have a hard time saying anything more about it other than shoddily labelling it. It is not, therefore, truly a fully-formed concept yet. We need to be careful in how we talk about it, what presumptions and distinctions we make about it and attach to it (eg. the idea of a “soul” clearly goes beyond a pure label and into an explanatory hypothesis, which is why it can be pooh-poohed). Essentially 2) is the more primordial question, and, whether we like it or not, a “subjective perspective” (or however we choose to label it) is the starting point we all have. The possibility of “subjective experience or perspective” is in fact unwittingly presumed in, and necessary to, any meaningful account of human activity, behaviour and functioning, i.e. 1). Without it we are left with a dry description of mechanics that may have characteristic features, but ultimately no single definable element that makes it unique from other complex (apparently non-conscious) mechanical systems. And no formulation of 1) alone could do justice to the question of how a unique, non-exchangeable perspective or identity could arise from a point within the undifferentiated flow and interaction of matter and energy in the physical universe.

Just You Try

Q: If “consciousness” is indeed reducible to an account of physical mechanisms, what is it about our brain and body processes exactly that causes “consciousness” to happen? Or to put it another way: Q: How does a subjective perspective arise out of an arrangement of matter? In order to be scientific about what conscious experience is and how it is caused we would need to able to observe and measure when something is “conscious” or “consciously experiencing” – be able to test whether “consciousness”, whatever it is, is present in any object or physical mechanism. Q: How do we observe and measure when something is “conscious” (carrying out the function labelled “being conscious”?) We must accept: Some matter arranges itself to carry out this function (eg. me) some does not (eg. my unappetizing sandwich). Q: What observable and measurable data do we have to tell us about what is happening with any arrangement of matter? We can observe and measure its physical properties and processes, and we can observe and measure its behaviour. Q: What physical properties or processes or behaviour would be sufficient to conclude that that “arrangement of matter” is “being conscious” – let’s say, that it has an identity and perspective in the way that we do? Let’s break that down:

If we look at the physical properties and processes of the working body, is there anything there that tells us that that body is experiencing, has an identity, a perspective? Well, it responds to stimulation – but those are just chemical reactions, electrical responses, mechanical forces, no different to standard chemical reactions etc. elsewhere. So “consciousness” is not observable in this way.

So it must be in the behaviour of that body, what it does, right? Q: Is it feasible that we could create a robot that could behave and respond just like a living, breathing human being, and yet it does not have a perspective or identity of its own – it is simply going through the motions, a puppet of its programming? Computer scientist Alan Turing suggested that if we talked to a human (let’s call her Colin), and a computer with artificial intelligence, in a Skype-style conversation, and could not tell which was which, we would have to conclude that the computer was conscious. But we can turn this on its head and point out that we still have no definite firm empirical evidence that the computer definitely has its own perspective and identity – we are just relying on some undefined human judgement. The computer could still be simply mimicking “conscious” responses through clever, complex programming that it is just too subtle to detect. If we admit that this is at least, in theory, a possibility, then we have just admitted that we also have no way of empirically testing that Colin has her own perspective and identity. We have no way of knowing anyone but ourselves experiences like we do. Behaviour does not give us measurable and observable “consciousness” either.

“Behaviourism” is (or was) a philosophical school of thought that suggests that “consciousness” should simply be defined as behaviour. It ultimately fails as an account of “consciousness”, because it has zero explanatory power – by limiting itself only to what is observable, it only looks at the surface, the end result, the output. It’s like asking “how does a biscuit factory work?” and expecting “it produces these biscuits” to be a sufficient response. Furthermore it would seem impossible to reduce a description of a person’s behaviour to dry, mechanical terms that do not pre-suppose conscious activity – at least not without losing the sense of what you are trying to describe in the first place. You are left with a description that could refer to any non-conscious physical process, and have again evaporated what you were trying to explain. You cannot say some matter carries out the function of “consciousness” and some does not, since nothing empirical can show you the difference.

In short, there is no way to observe and measure when something is “conscious” or “consciously experiencing” – there is no way to test whether “consciousness”, whatever it is, is present in any object or physical mechanism. Whether we look at physical properties and processes or outward behaviour, our “scientific” criteria for whether that thing is carrying out the “consciousness” function or not is this: How similar is it to ourselves – the only example of a “perspective” that we know. There is no unique, identifiable, observable element we can measure in that thing that will tell us definitely, empirically, that that thing has a perspective. We just measure it against ourselves. From a scientific point of view this is appalling. It means all these high-minded attempts to reduce and explain consciousness as a physical, mechanical process essentially, at the core rely on... personal introspection. This is outrageous – that’s not scientific at all! What a dirty secret! What a swizz! The only other option available to us is to deny consciousness altogether – ignore ourselves and state that there is no difference between so-called “conscious” arrangements of matter and “non-conscious” arrangements of matter. Because: Dry descriptions of physical properties, processes and outward behaviour contain nothing that suggests a “perspective” is occurring in that arrangement of matter; and, if you are truly reductionist and refuse to use any terminology that presupposes consciousness, there is no element that is unique to so-called “conscious” things. Therefore there is nothing “conscious” doing the observing, measuring and describing – “you” don’t exist.

This is clearly a failure. Why? What has gone wrong? Well, there is some kind of category mistake here. The problem is treating consciousness as if it is a property to be found by observation and measurement. When we observe the world scientifically, whether observing matter, energy, properties, behaviour, mechanical interactions, processes – in every case we are looking at something we have come across in the world, something we can analyse, compare to other things, take apart. We can even do this to ideas – they may not be physically “in the world”, but we do still come across them “in the world” in a broad sense – they exist outside of "us" and have a mechanics and behaviour in the function they serve, so again we can analyse, compare, take apart. But our perspective is not something we “come across” – it is the starting point, the grounds for being able to “come across”, measure, observe, analyse, compare, take apart, anything at all. It is so utterly primordial and basic that it fundamentally resists analysis – it is analysis. Consciousness is a concept so fundamental it cannot be broken down, and there is nothing to compare it to – it is a kernel that cannot be cracked. You can’t observe and measure consciousness because it is observation and measurement. It is not a thing to slot into in our framework of how things work it is the framework itself. You cannot explain your framework by slotting it into itself – that’s simply a logical nonsense.

This is not to say that there is nothing that we can say about consciousness, simply that we will never be able to reduce it to what is empirically observable. We are also unlikely to ever pin it down sufficiently, but that does not mean we can’t explore some aspects of its mysterious workings, only that the final question of “what is consciousness and how does it arise?” is never likely to be answered properly. It’s more than an attribute we developed like language capability or the opposable thumb – it is our defining essence and a concept that we cannot make sense of anything without, that it is impossible to remove from anything, that we cannot think outside of or around – obviously, because consciousness is implicit in all of those statements. Indeed it is more than just a ‘conscious’ concept – consciousness is not just our persona or ego it is raw perspective, ‘unconsciously’ presumed, there, a priori, unspoken no matter how ‘conscious’ of it we are and whether we have a word for it or not.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Sheila’s Bigoted Wheels

So. Car insurance companies giving women cheaper deals, just because they are women, has been ruled as sex discrimination by the EU's European Court of Justice. Ohh! How deliciously controversial, eh?

Unlike one of my good friends, who, to my amused bafflement, always gets apoplectic at Sheilas' Wheels ads, I was pretty accepting of it as a fact of life: Women are statistically safer drivers. Men’s premiums are skewed by the abundance of moronic boy-racer tw*ts – and I do not apologise for my cuss word there – I may be generous with my swears elsewhere for comic effect, but here I really mean it. I get properly furious, and not in an amusing way, whenever I see those utter, utter bell-pieces deliberately, actually, properly, genuinely putting people’s lives at risk for the sake of their barely-sentient, testosterone-p*ssing egos. F*** them. Really.

But, anyway, so, women are statistically safer drivers. Sure they might get ripped on for being slow and nervy and having poor spatial awareness when parking (I know this is a stereotype. Bear with me.) Slow and over-cautious drivers are dangerous to some extent, yes, because they infuriate other drivers and make them take risks; but more dangerous are the drivers who’re convinced they’re brilliant – so brilliant that they apparently have powers of pre-cognition about what other road-users are going to do, and can get away with all kinds of death-defying gambles, ‘cause they’re Michael f***ing Schumacher. And these, statistically, are more likely to be men.

So I understand the price difference. I can see how frustrating it would be for a young bloke buying his first car to be whacked on the bonce with such a massive insurance bill, and my sympathies go out... but, y'know, the premiums do come down with age. That’s just the way it is. Blame our sex – the insurance companies just go on the stats.

And that is one of the objections to this ruling – sex discrimination, the nay-sayers say, should refer to unfounded bias and prejudice. But this isn’t unfounded: Insurance companies don’t make decisions on social prejudices and out-dated conventions, they look only at the hard statistics. It is a fact that men cause more accidents than women do – and so are more likely to claim.

Insurance companies calculate their premiums by looking at past claims, and current relevant risk-factors, and use the trends they see in those statistics. The more probable it is that you, in your specific situation, will claim, the higher your premium will be. All very dry and scientific – no room for prejudice there.

Or is there? Because, what the above account fails to note is that any judgement you make about an individual based on generalising from a larger group/category they belong to, is prejudice. Of course it is – statistically a lot more men follow cricket than women, a lot more English people drink tea than, say, American people, and a lot more black people listen to reggae than white people. But that doesn’t mean you can just presume that any English black man you meet will drink tea, love reggae and be a massive cricket fan.

But this is exactly what insurance does – it judges you on looking at general trends in masses of people. Whether it’s looking down its nose at where you live, trying not to look alarmed at you smoking at your age, or getting all cautious over you being male, it works on the probability of you or your situation leading to certain costly consequences. It is the disparity between the individual and crowd that creates any unfair prejudice, rather than groundless, ignorant stereotyping, but it’s still prejudice.

In fairness what else do insurance companies have to go on? How else could it work? Are they expected to take our word for it (“Oh, yes, I’m ever so safety conscious, Dan.”)? They can’t possibly follow everyone around individually, and get to know them properly, before quoting them. (“Dan” works for the insurance company. I hope that was clear.)

The big problem for insurance is that it works this way for everything, leaving the way open to similar rulings banning age discrimination for life-insurance policies and such like – and pretty soon we are in a situation where you cannot discriminate (in the broad sense) between people or their situations in any way at all, whatever the statistics tell you – and basically, everyone is charged the same for insurance whatever their situation.

As a rugged individualist (and, it has to be said, a bit of a weirdo in some respects) I think it’s a very good rule of thumb to not presume stuff about the people you come into contact with based on their apparent “type” or situation – but even I have to admit that much of the time you simply have to, in order to make decisions and make sense of the world around you. In terms of general trends there are real differences between men and women, the young and the old, the wealthy and the not so, and people of different cultural backgrounds. Stereotypes can be depressingly accurate, and people depressingly predictable. In business this is an essential factor to grasp when planning any interaction with your customer base. The insurance industry would cease to exist as we know it if it couldn’t make decisions based on such statistics.

How I feel about that, I don’t know. Part of me has always thought the whole industry is a scam anyway – ever since I tried to claim after my first accident, thinking, naively, "this is what I pay for, so I won’t have to somehow find £300 for repairs now..." only to realise my excess, which I had to pay, was £300. They would pay nothing, or scrap my car and give me £600 if I fancied that, and then ask for more money because I’d lost my no-claims bonus. Cheers. That was well worthwhile, then. (I didn't claim.)

However, on my second accident, where I wrote off my car (a different car) in a ditch (male drivers, eh?) I was looking at a much greater sum than £300 to find. To my surprise they paid out generously and I was very, very relieved and grateful. None of which has anything to do with sex discrimination, but, well... I clearly don’t know what my opinion is on that either. You decide – I'm afraid I can only say I have sympathies with both sides of the argument. I'm not convinced such a terrible miscarriage of human rights has been done either way. Life ain't fair, kids - or at least it can't always be fair to everyone all the time. Either way, that's just how it's gone down this time - I'm not going to discriminate.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Like Getting Angry at a Copy of "Jackie".

It’s funny what Facebook will bring out in people. People who are quite intelligent and independent-minded in the flesh sometimes show an altogether different side on the ‘book. One acquaintance springs to mind whose status updates, quite unexpectedly, revealed her to be like something out of a Jane Austin novel: All how wonderful her boyfriend was, how many babies she planned to have, how her wedding would be, what dresses and shoes she’d bought and – I kid you not – kittens. I mean, I knew she was a bit of girly-girl, but Jesus wept, it was relentless, y’know? “Feminism was obviously lost on you, luv.” I’d think, in an offensive Bernard Manning voice. (In my head. Not out loud.)

Others all too easily fall into the habit of posting up alarmingly intimate status updates: Needy, passive-aggressive, “me, me, me!” statuses about their alarming private lives. I’m often tempted to comment with some kind of cautionary response: “You do know that you just told ME that? I hardly know you, y’know, I feel a little awkward here.” My advice: Click on your Friends-list and take a long hard look at who’s there – do you really want all those work colleagues, old school acquaintances, friends-of-the-family and people you met on holiday/down the pub listening to your latest drunken snipe at your loved one? You do? Really? Mmn, well. Go ahead then.

But even some of those who have managed to control themselves and maintain an intelligent and independent-minded status update will still pop up on your News Feed “like”-ing all manner of needy, passive-aggressive bullshit. Well, alright, strokes for folks and all that, people will like what they like; but one strand in particular annoys the hell out of me – and that’s the “guys are like this/girls are like this” gender-stereotyping tosh.

Some people, like the ‘kittens, babies and boyfriend’ girl, really are genuinely like that, and all power to them. It’s no different to blokes who only ever post about football, beer and cars, and I know plenty of them too. It’s kind of comforting to know that the gender stereotypes do happily exist somewhere; but it really annoys me when people presume that those stereotypes apply to everyone, across the board – and all at once, a) perpetuate a bunch of bullshit myths, b) peer-pressure folks into thinking that’s how people should behave and c) simultaneously judge everyone with one massive sweep of that tarring-brush.

So, hey kids! Let’s have a look at some gender-stereotyping “like”-page favourites:

“hi. i'm a boy. here's how it goes. i'm gonna flirt with you, then diss you. i'll send you mixed messages, hit on your friends, lie to you. then i will lead you on so you fall for me. i'll make you happy for a night, but tomorrow i'll completely ignore you. you'll be the one i turn to when i need for a friend or a confidence boost. know what the best part is? you can't do anything about it because you love me. and you don't want to lose me. ha.”

My initial response to that was “Oh really? Strange, ‘cos that’s what I thought girls did to guys.” Aw, I didn’t mean that though, I’m just talkin’ out of hurt. The point remains: The gender is interchangeable in that one. Have I met guys who have acted like that? Yes. Have I met girls who have acted like that? Yes. That’s not girls or guys, that’s just people. Some people are simply selfish, manipulative emotional black-holes who have an empathy deficiency. They probably didn’t even realise they were doing it.

On the converse, I’ll see the above and raise you:

“Hi, I'm A Guy, I Ignore Decent Girls, And Only Date Cheating Hoes ...”

– again, gender is interchangeable. Blokes get a lot of stick for having a weakness for dumb, fickle, glammed-up bimbos; but then plenty of nice, intelligent women have a weakness for nasty, swaggering, bad-boy alpha-male cocks, so, y’know, its pot/kettle/black on that front. Both sexes are perfectly capable of being equally shallow and superficial, and equally dysfunctional in their romantic choices.

"If a girl looks sad....the best thing you can do no matter what is hug her."

No matter what. Following this advice could get a guy in serious trouble, say, in the workplace or, as a friend of mine japed (I hope), using public transport. I assure you, "... but she looked a bit sad," is not going to carry much weight in that ensuing sexual harassment case.

Seriously though, this is obviously written by a girl angling for a bit more observant and hands-on attention from her emotionally-stunted boyfriend. He will have seen her “like” this on his News Feed, and you can be sure next time they meet up she’ll be doing the big watery cow-eyes at him and, dammit, expecting that hug.

Because, of course, women are all such fragile, childlike things: Constantly in danger of complete emotional collapse that only the safe, paternal, bear-like embrace can head off. If they don’t get that hug when they are “sad”, they might just crumble into a jellied mess and spend the rest of their days rocking back and forth in knee-hugging catatonia. I think that’s pretty much what Germaine Greer said. Sometimes the comfort blanket and thumb sucking just don’t cut it (they, after all, don’t involve the flattering attention of a “fit guy” – unless he hands her his blanket and offers his thumb for slobbering over).

Guys on the other hand are fine. They don’t ever want or need hugs. When a guy looks “sad”, the best thing you can do no matter what is slap him in the face and tell him to stop bawwwwing like a baby, and if it really matters to him then he should sort it out, maybe by getting steely vengeance with his fists on some other dude. Either that or just do a comedy fart to lighten the mood, and he’ll forget about being “sad” because blokes don’t really have much in the way of deep emotions anyway.

“50 things every guy should know about a girl.”

There are infinite variations on this “like”-page favourite, and endless spin-offs and responses. The “...girl should know about a guy” responses tend towards the tounge-in-cheek comedy-sexism slant (which is, of course, a very “male” way of dealing with things), though there are at least a couple of “sensitive guy” versions which, like what they’re responding to, have a couple of fair points but are mainly sweeping personal statements from some wilting wallflower.

One of the most prevalent originals is the “50 things every guy should know.” which ranges from the ludicrously obvious: 14. When a particular guy flirts with a girl very often, a girl would start thinking the guy likes her (well, yes – that’s the point of flirting); 22. Keep a calendar. Remember her birthday and your anniversary; 23. If you love her, tell her once in a while; 38. Appreciate her (what kind of cold, half-arsed relationship does this NOT happen in?)

...to the ludicrously specific: 4. Girls love it when a guy she likes come up behind her, put his arms around her, squeezes her tightly against his chest, and whisper softly in her ear; 40. When girls go to the restroom together, they're gossiping about you (HOW DO YOU KNOW THIS?)

...from the infantile: 43. When you play games always let her win (like you do when playing games with a child - because all girls are rubbish at games); 2. When a girl says she's sad, but she isn't crying, it means she's crying in her heart (This “sad” business again – Oh, is THAT what the word means?! Because, of course, girls get sadder than blokes do, NO MATTER WHAT.)

...to the flagrant bullshit: 3. A girl can't find anything to hate about the guy she loves (Pfff. Huh. Mmn. Give it time.)

...and finally, the frankly unreasonable: 8. Keep in mind to be happy in front of her. She'll think you're not having fun. 31. Smile a lot (Your feelings do not matter – you don’t have any, you’re a bloke, so fix that forced smile on your face and dance, clown-monkey-man!); 20. Take her everywhere you go with your friends. If she can't come, say you will miss her. Don't invite anyone else (EVERYWHERE. Nothing scary and insecure about this. I'm sure she'll do the same with her friends. I'm sure.); 41. Be first and last to wish her a happy birthday (One assumes this assumes you live together – otherwise how the hell would you know? What happens if someone texts her before you wake up – IT’S OVER!).

The document is stated with such absolute certainty, it's like it's the 10 f***ing commandments: 18. Thou shalt always give her a peck on the cheek when you depart from each other, even when friends are watching. 37. Thou shalt hold her during a movie. 42. Thou shalt never tell a girl she's useless in any way.

Aside from the obvious fact that really, these are sweeping generalisations and in reality everyone is different, the majority of "things" mentioned could – with very slight gender-specific alterations – apply both ways, from guy to girl or girl to guy. But what’s depressing is that, well, you just kind of think... can’t couples work this shit out for themselves? I mean really, we’re all human beings, we all have feelings and we all occupy space in the same world – do we really need lists like this to understand each other? Is this list a revelation to anyone? Who isn’t autistic, that is?

Well, the answer is no. It was clearly written as a list of “how I feel about that guy I like and what I want him to do/be like towards me.” Which really is sad, if he has to be told these things... I mean, she has to explain what the word "sad" means, instruct him on how to show affection, and offer guidance on appropriate facial expressions - this isn't a guy she's after, it's a robot - it's "every girl's guide to programming a man-automaton". My advice to the author: Ditch that insensitive plank and stop being all “Hi, I'm A Girl, I Ignore Decent Guys, And Only Date Pricks Who Take Me For Granted And Treat Me Like Shit ...”

Thomas’s Final Thought

Ok, I know it’s not really fair for a jaded, embittered 30-something to be passing judgement on what are obviously the whimsies of over-emotional teenagers: I’m evidently not the target audience for this guff. It is, as a friend of mine said, “a bit like getting angry at a copy of Jackie.” Yes it is, but I’ve been known to do that kind of thing also... I once threw a copy of Heat magazine clean across the room to stop the rising revulsion it elicited within.

But moving swiftly on – since these things are continually brought to my attention via the delight that is Facebook (often by mature adults who really should know better), it’s worth noting why I find it so depressing and annoying – because what it shows is just how utterly ingrained such gender stereotypes are in society, still. You can see them being blatantly and blindly perpetuated by the next generation without so much as a second thought; and are still very much in evidence in a hell of a lot of people my own age. There are differences in how men and women respond to the world and what’s important to them, though much of it is conditioned rather than biological – studies suggest there is more variation within each gender than there is between them, meaning you can’t just presume “men are like this” and “women are like this”, though there are general trends. We are vastly more alike than we are different, and it does no-one any favours to characterise men and women as two different species, unknowable to each other.

Whatever, the important differences in behaviour and preferences are emphatically not about the need to be loved, noticed, appreciated, valued, understood and supported – that’s just universal human stuff. The real issue here is not so much gender – it’s romantic relationships in general. Love is cruel, and frequently sets up situations that most people simply have no idea how to sensitively deal with. Sometimes no amount of sensitivity will make it ok – how do you “make it ok” that you don’t really love someone, who still loves you, anymore? Or that you just don’t find someone, who is crazy about you, attractive in the first place? That’s one hell of a bowl of shit for even the most kind, thoughtful soul to serve up, let alone your average clumsy, semi-articulate punter.

Most heterosexual people’s close friends will be predominantly of the same sex as them, and their focus on the opposite sex will be pre-occupied with the idea of love-interest - not to disregard my female friends, whom I really do value like gold-dust for... well, not being boring blokes... but still... You don’t think much about the fact that members of your own sex are just as frequently horrendous, thoughtless, needy, manipulative, ham-fisted, unfeeling, spiteful, desire-led shits when it comes romance, because you’ve never had to deal with them in that way (I’m quite sure the gay perspective on gender stereotypes is very different). Sure, no one likes their same-sex friends to take them for granted, ignore them, or put them down – but even with your closest friends you simply don’t have that kind of intense hair-trigger emotional attachment, the same need for reassurance and affirmation and exclusivity – friendships are not quite as directly and critically tied to your sense of self-worth and emotional wholeness. And, with the fondest of regards to my house-mate, you don’t hang all your dreams of settling down, starting a family and growing old side-by-side on your friends.

At the end of the day it’s all about the empathy. I just don’t see that there’s any great mystery to how the opposite sex works – if you’re ever frustrated by what she/he wants or why she/he is acting in such a way, forget the gender-stereotyping bullshit and just think – I mean, properly, think: Why might I act like that? What would I feel/think/want in her/his shoes – and, whether you like the answer of not, you’ll probably get one.