08/27/14

Montaigne’s cat and Descartes’ reality


“When I play with my cat,” wrote French philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne, “Who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.*

That statement encompasses two very distinct paths of contemplation.

First is one of animal sentience. The recognition that animals are conscious, that they are sentient creatures, with feelings and intelligence, not simply biological machines, is fairly new. Most of our modern awareness of animal intelligence and consciousness comes only in the last century (although the debate was opened in Darwin’s time). The 17th-century philosopher, Rene Descartes, believed animals were machines that acted out of reflex only (or not… what he meant by his statements is a hotly debated issue, it appears – although the Cartesian view is still cited to justify use of animals in research).

Montaigne, writing almost 200 years before Descartes, recognizes that cats can play. Amuse themselves, have fun – just like people can. That strikes me as a considerable leap in understanding: play is the act of an intelligent, self-aware being, not an automata. Montaigne knew that cats were conscious.

The second thread is that of our own consciousness and what it can know of itself and the external world. Montaigne’s comment is remarkably akin to Chuang Tzu’s famous butterfly dream from the third century BCE:

Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is what is meant by the transformation of things.**

Who is the awakened, who is the dreamer in Montaigne’s statement? Is the cat or the writer the active player? Or are they actually cooperating in the act, a shared reality that neither holds independently without the other?

Sara Bakewell, writing in The Guardian, explains it:

One of Montaigne’s favourite hobbies was imagining the world from different perspectives…. At home, he extended his perspective-leaping to other species. “When I play with my cat”, he wrote, “who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” He borrowed her point of view in relation to him just as readily as he occupied his own in relation to her. And, as he watched his dog twitching in sleep, he imagined the dog creating a disembodied hare to chase in its dreams – “a hare without fur or bones”, just as real in the dog’s mind as Montaigne’s own images of Paris or Rome were when he dreamed about those cities. The dog had its inner world, as Montaigne did, furnished with things that interested him.
These were all extraordinary thoughts in Montaigne’s own time, and they remain so today. They imply an acceptance that other animals are very much like us, combined with an ability to wonder how differently they might grasp what they perceive.

Montaigne isn’t merely projecting himself into his cat. The question has greater reach: how does any of us really know what reality is? Is there even an objective reality outside our subjective viewpoint? Is there some objective reality that is separate from the observer or are effect and observer inseparable (the Schrodinger’s cat theorem…). And of course it leads back to Descartes and thus to the TED video posted at the top of this page.

What, after all, is reality and can we discover it? Timothy Leary philosophized about what he called the “reality tunnel” of subjective perspective:

The theory states that, with a subconscious set of mental filters formed from his or her beliefs and experiences, every individual interprets the same world differently, hence “Truth is in the eye of the beholder”.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” wrote Anais Nin, in her novel, The Seduction of the Minotaur, 1961

Can we really know what another person is thinking or feeling – let alone what a cat is thinking? We don’t even know for sure if another person sees the came colours or hears the same sounds as we do. And we assume there is some objective, measurable reality about such physical phenomena. So how can we know thoughts?

Montaigne, of course could not get into the mind of his cat any more than we can get into the mind of Montaigne. It was a rhetorical question, really, meant as an observation, or perhaps the starting point of a discourse on the subjective nature of reality. Unfortunately, he left that line alone and never followed through in a later essay to explore the thought further.

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08/27/14

Social media and social dialogue


Angry at social media
A recent poll done by Pew Research reiterated what I’ve been saying for the past two years: social media (SM) doesn’t necessary facilitate social debate and in fact may be stifling it. Discussion on many SM platforms tends to reinforce existing beliefs because in general only those who feel their beliefs are shared by their circle of “friends” or followers will express them. It’s called the “spiral of silence.”

The Pew report noted:

…social media did not provide new forums for those who might otherwise remain silent to express their opinions and debate issues. Further, if people thought their friends and followers in social media disagreed with them, they were less likely to say they would state their views… Previous research has shown that when people decide whether to speak out about an issue, they rely on reference groups—friendships and community ties—to weigh their opinion relative to their peers… Those who do not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agree with their opinion are more likely to self-censor their views…

When social media emerged as a concept or platform that could be labelled* it was hailed as the new tool for social engagement, the panacea for flagging social interaction in many spheres like politics, education and government. And for a while, it was.

But that proved not to be the case any more than previously existing platforms (forums and list servers). In fact, for many who embraced it, social media proved more of a liability (think Anthony Weiner).

Blogger Raed El-Younsi blames the technology as at least partially responsible for the way we interact online. He wrote:

The internet gives us an unprecedented opportunity to understand one another. And yet anyone familiar with internet “discussion” boards knows that NOISE, group think and personal attacks can drown out most attempts at constructive dialogue. (For an extreme example, try discussing politics or religion in the YouTube comments.)
Similarly, the recent U.S. Government shutdown is a visible symptom of a much deeper trend: the polarization of our global society, online and offline…
Going into online discussion boards often means going into “hostile” territory and, as such, it can be a risky proposition. People often resort to attacks out of boredom, to be seen, or to “rally the troops” and win the numbers game. Strategically, our options are usually fight or flight – aggression or avoidance.

I have written in the past that it’s equally because we see the Internet as ours and respond to things online as if they were a threat to our personal property. It’s our computer, our modem, our house, our phone or cable bill, our wireless router… of course it’s our internet, too. And we respond to anyone who dissents or offers different ideas as we would a home invader or trespasser: with aggression. (Read the signs of narcissism here: listening only to dismiss; feeling the rules don’t apply to you; quick to anger; refusal to take responsibility; inability to take criticism.)

The notion of digital democracy at first suggested a great step forward. After all, what’s to dislike about free speech, freedom of expression, free exchange of ideas and open debate without borders? That quickly proved naive. The new social media proved an easier platform for the expressions of ideology than an exchange of ideas – just as the old forms had been. And in these situations, people who offered alternate or conflicting positions often found themselves denounced, attacked, insulted and vilified; their ideas or comments drowned out in a sea of vituperation. Instead of civil debate or an intelligent exchange of ideas, often these threads degenerated into a race to see who could type the nastiest rejoinder soonest.

Social networking sites (SNS) opened a whole new venue for harassment and spawned a neologism: cyberbullying.**

One recent poll suggests 25% of Americans have been harassed, bullied or threatened online and 62% of those had been harassed on Facebook. Some writers have suggested countermeasures, but these seem not to have gained much traction yet:

While keeping in mind that this is a self-reporting survey, the findings nevertheless illustrate the seriousness of online harassment and attacks, and the fact that people are increasingly becoming disenchanted with the negative behavior they experience.
We know online harassment and attacks are a huge social problem. We know they are a huge social GLOBAL problem. And it’s up to all of us to help turn things around.
While the steps needed to make this happen aren’t simply or easy, and also won’t solve the problem overnight, they will be concrete actions towards creating a positive cultural shift in online communication.

Free speech in social media does not come with any sense of responsibility, just narcissistic entitlement. People feel they have the right to comment on anything, in any manner, for any reason, regardless of their involvement in the issue, understanding of the idea, or respect for the feelings and rights of the others. Look what happens when some “hot-button” issues are broached – look at the angry back-and-forth over gun control or abortion.

Strangers can enter the fray, too, and anonymous posters can sling mud and spew invective at the original poster. It is difficult enough to argue with people you know or work with but generally much more polite and engaging; arguing with violent strangers or angry cowards hiding their identities through pseudonyms quickly makes people reluctant to engage.

Compounding it is the sheer number of people who can participate almost simultaneously: the confusion of multiple comments can turn what began as a discussion into a cacophony. A mob mentality that takes over and users on one side gang up to batter the outsider or dissenter into submission to the group mind – it’s called “seal clubbing.”

When ideology enters the fray – particularly political or religious – there is often no real civil debate on social media, but there is clearly intolerance as opposing sides batter away at each other.

And it doesn’t seem to be getting better: the Pew report found people are more willing to self-censor themselves on social media than among friends and co-workers. Based on earlier studies done by the organization, this suggests to me that the initial enthusiasm with which many people embraced social media has been curbed by the actions/words of the users themselves.
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