Tuesday, October 25, 2005

"A Philosophy Born of Struggle."



"Philosophy Born of Struggle" is a two day conference, which takes place on October 28 and 29 at the Wolff Conference Rook, 65 Fifth Avenue, New York. The keynote address will be given by Professor Lucius T. Outlaw, Jr., of Vanderbilt University, "In Search of Critical Social Theory in the Interests of Black Folks." Amongst the many participants is Munayem Mayenin, author of "Dehumanization of Humanity." The conference is free and open to the public. More details can be found at http://www.pbos.com

If anyone gives you a hard time when you show up at the door, just tell them that Cornel West and Richard Rorty sent you. Philosophy is always the result of effort directed at the resolution of problems that are experienced as pressing or urgent, calling for attention and some response. Think of the Marxist literature on the concept of "praxis." Also, John Dewey's work comes to mind.

According to Blanshard and many of his students, Dewey (who was no great lecturer), "biologized philosophy." For Dewey, an act of judgment, which is "the most elementary act of thought," is the "adoption of a plan of action aimed at surmounting some block to the behavior of the organism." We are in desperate need of some original philosophical work right now because there are quite a few blocks to the moral behavior of organisms.

We need to reimagine ourselves in light of new evidence of our biological and empirical natures, together with the moral challenges that we face. We need to think, much more creatively, about how best to make use of all that science has given us and may yet give us, which contributes to our self-understandings, while also thinking -- with equal intensity -- about the very great dangers and difficulties created by the misuse of science or lack of wisdom associated with recently developed technologies of war and industry, but also of social control by unethical psychologists at the service of governments or criminal organizations.

I wish to invoke Bertrand Russell's distinction between knowledge and wisdom, so as to remind people that neither of those things is sufficient by itself. We need scientific knowledge. Yet we also need philosophical (or religious) wisdom, perhaps just as much or more.

In addition to using science to cope with the difficulties created by science, philosophical wisdom requires that we learn to see ourselves as part of the human family, making use of new understandings of human nature to overcome outdated notions of geographical and other boundaries (racial prejudice, for example), in the effort to establish stronger international institutions to resolve disputes and limit recourse to military conflict.

We must begin to reconsider the current distribution of resources on our planet so that more people will lead better lives, even if this means that some of us will be slightly less comfortable. We can feed more people, much better than we are doing now; we can distribute medical services and make education available to many more people, more efficiently, than we are doing now.

These things are not mere "wishful thinking." They are genuine possibilities in our world. (One place to start is with the "ONE Campaign.") http://www.ONE.com I wear the ONE Campaign's and Lance Armstrong's "Livestrong" wristbands, mostly as reminders of all that there is to do. I hope that you will too.

On today's "Good Morning America" t.v. show, a popular crime writer was interviewed and she explained her enthusiasm for forensic science and the brain's hidden secrets concerning dispositions to commit crime. Good and evil are, of course, not essentially scientific matters. And the mysteries of human motivation will not be revealed by any brain imaging technology nor by dissecting the brains of pathological criminals. She forgot the old "chicken and egg" issue.

It appears that choices and mental experiences may alter the brain, as noted in previous comments in this blog, so that persons who routinely resort to crime develop different brains -- in the same way that those who exercise regularly develop different muscles -- probably for complex genetic reasons having to do with the "utility" of aggressiveness early in our evolutionary story.

Such evolutionary accounts need to be enhanced with cultural investigations and understandings that are unique to each offender's social setting. Thus, it appears -- once again! -- that the story of mind and brain is a reciprocal one, a kind of "symbiosis" (look it up, if you don't know the word) and not a one-way street. There will never come a time when prescription medication will cure the anti-social tendencies of persons.

Psychiatry will never be more helpful in understanding the mysteries of human "being in the world" (Sartre) than any of the humanities, in some ways it does far worse. You will learn just as much about why people do things from artists as you will from scientists, maybe more. Developments in psychology and psychiatry have led to new obstructions to the exercise of human freedom that may be more insidious in the long run than any that we have ever faced before. Aldous Huxley writes in Brave New World Revisited:

Pavlov's findings have important practical implications. If the central nervous systems of dogs can be broken down, so can the nervous systems of political prisoners. It is simply a matter of applying the right amount of stress for the right length of time. At the end of the "treatment," the prisoner will be in a state of neurosis or hysteria, and will be ready to confess whatever his captors want him to confess.

A professional torturer once stated what I call the "Tuchin/Riccioli principle of torture," named for some torturers I once knew: "Most people want to be told what to believe." The self-proclaimed scientists who do such horrible things to their fellow human beings -- many scientists, from all over the world -- do not necessarily suffer from brain pathologies (maybe in some cases they do), but are, paradoxically, the authorities entrusted with defining "normality" (what's that?) for the rest of us. Every society has devoted resources to the development of such "interrogative technologies." These are the concerns arising from scientific psychiatry today that may give us pause. For example, according to Mr. Huxley:

In Britain, where the process of manipulating minds below the level of consciousness is known as "strobotic injection," investigators have stresssed the practical importance of creating the right psychological conditions for subconscious persuasion. A suggestion above the threshold of awareness is more likely to take effect when the recipient is in a light hypnotic trance, under the influence of certain drugs, or has been debilitated by illness, starvation, or any kind of physical or emotional stress.

The struggle for philosophy and against the subtle restrictions on our freedom now available to governments making use of these techniques is an on-going and a very troubling one. In this new struggle, the American tradition of reflection on the values of freedom and equality -- values that are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution -- is more important and more threatened than ever before.

You have a right to philosophy. Do not let anyone deny you that right. You have the right to think and speak freely, under the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No one can take these rights from you. They are not a gift. They are part of your human endowment that must be respected by all governments and experts. We must fight to make it clear that all efforts to silence us will fail.

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