Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves by Patricia S. Churchland

Patricia Churchland is a well-known professor of philosophy. She is married to another well-known professor of philosophy, Paul Churchland. The Churchlands were profiled in The New Yorker in 2014 in an article called “Two Heads: A Marriage Devoted to the Mind-Body Problem”. They are both associated with a philosophical view known as “eliminative materialism”. Very briefly, it’s the idea that we are mammals, but with especially complex mammalian brains. and that understanding the brain is all we need in order to understand the mind. In fact, once we understand the brain sufficiently well, we (or scientists anyway) will be able to stop using (eliminate) common mental terms like “belief” and “desire” and “intention”, since those terms won’t correspond very well to what actually goes on in the brain.

So when I began reading Touching a Nerve, I expected to learn more about their distinctive philosophical position. Instead, Prof. Churchland describes the latest results in neuroscience and explains what scientists believe goes on in the brain when we live our daily lives, i.e. when we walk around, look at things, think about things, go to sleep, dream or suffer from illnesses like epilepsy and somnambulism. She admits that we still don’t understand a lot about the brain, but points out that neuroscience is a relatively new discipline and that it’s made a great deal of progress. I especially enjoyed her discussion of what happens in the brain that apparently allows us to be conscious in general (not asleep and not in a coma) vs. what happens when we are conscious of something in particular (like a particular sound), and her reflections on reductionism and scientism, two terms often used as pejoratives but that sound very sensible coming from her.

The closest she comes to mentioning eliminative materialism is in the following passage, when she seems to agree (contrary to my expectations given what I knew about the Churchlands) that common mental terms won’t ever wither away:

If, as seems increasingly likely, dreaming, learning, remembering, and being consciously aware are activities of the physical brain, it does not follow that they are not real. Rather, the point is that their reality depends on a neural reality… Nervous systems have many levels of organization, from molecules to the whole brain, and research on all levels contributes to our wider and deeper understanding [263].

I should also mention that the professor shares a number of stories from her childhood, growing up on a farm in Canada, that relate to the subject of the book. She also has an enjoyable style, mixing in expressions you might not expect in a book like this. For example, she says that reporting scientific discoveries “in a way that is both accurate and understandable” in the news media “takes a highly knowledgeable journalist who has the writing talent to put the hay down where the goats can get it” [256].

Here is how the book ends [266]:

Bertrand Russell, philosopher and mathematician, has the last word:

“Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”

Rock on, Bertie.

American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology by D. W. Pasulka

I don’t know what to make of this book. The author is a professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. The book was published by Oxford University Press. It’s received positive reviews in a number of reputable publications.

For the most part, Professor Pasulka treats the subject of UFOs or “unidentified aerial phenomena” from a scholarly perspective. She says the book is “about contemporary religion, using as a case study the phenomenon known as the UFO. It is also about technology” [1], in particular, how technology can affect the development of religion. A well-known example is how the printing press allowed the the mass production of Bibles in languages other than Latin. Widespread use of that powerful new technology contributed greatly to the Protestant Reformation. Based on her research, she believes there is a “widespread and growing religiosity focused on UFOs”, not only because of evidence or testimony regarding UFOs, but because the mass media (especially TV shows and movies) have convinced millions of people that UFOs represent highly-advanced technology, possibly of extraterrestrial origin.

To further her argument, she points out that religious references to supernatural events and entities often sound just like contemporary reports of strange phenomena in the skies and visitations from otherworldly beings. She argues that people who report contact with extraterrestrials are often greatly affected, in the same way that figures from religious history who reported visions (of the Virgin Mary, for example) were said to be affected.

I’m not sure there really is “widespread and growing religiosity focused on UFOs”. Maybe there will be one day. But I don’t think it’s going to happen unless more evidence is provided. One of the problems with American Cosmic is that the scientists and technologists who speak to the author about their beliefs aren’t identified. She says there is a significant group of well-known, extremely successful individuals who are convinced we are being visited by beings from other worlds or other dimensions. Some of them believe these beings are helping us make technological progress, rather like the mysterious black monoliths did in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Unfortunately, these respected researchers apparently insist on remaining anonymous out of fear that their professional reputations will suffer. So when Professor Pasulka tells us how she visited a secret location in the New Mexico desert in the company of one of these world-famous researchers, and that they found an artifact there, which other scientists later determined was “so anomalous as to be incomprehensible”, which “could not have been generated or created on Earth”, which “could not have been made in this universe”, we  are asked to take her word for it [240].

I didn’t find the parts of the book dealing with the relationship between religion and technology, or the detailed biographies of various researchers, very interesting. The descriptions of UFO sightings and bizarre visitations, however, were interesting in the way that good science fiction can be interesting. I didn’t come away convinced that all of the incredible stories are true. On the other hand, when you read stories in the New York Times or see something like this on CNN, who knows? (Note: the CNN story features the dangerous clown who lives in the White House for a few seconds at the end. Just a warning.)

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill

This book comes with a story. The author got an assignment from an entertainment magazine to write about the effect of the Manson Family murders on Hollywood. It was to be published in 1999, to mark the thirty-year anniversary of the horrible events of August 1969.  The magazine went out of business before he finished the article. In fact, he never finished the article. He finished this book instead. Chaos was published this year, in time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the murders. He found the subject so complex and so mysterious, he did so much research, he conducted so many interviews, that it took him twenty years to finally publish something (with the help of another writer). The story of how the book got written is part of the book.

I bought Chaos after reading a brief interview with the author in the New York Times. Having grown up in Southern California and being old enough to remember 1969, I was  interested in the topic, not especially in Manson or his followers, but in the setting, the investigation and prosecution, and one of the people involved, Dennis Wilson.

The book’s subtitle refers to the “secret history” of the Sixties. Some of the history the author recounts isn’t that secret. It’s been known for years that police departments, the FBI and the CIA engaged in questionable, even illegal, practices in the Sixties, trying to fight or take advantage of the counterculture.

The real secrets the author uncovers pertain to relationships between Manson and various organs of the state, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the office of the L.A. County District Attorney, Manson’s parole officers, scientists on the government payroll and shadowy figures apparently associated with the FBI or CIA. He doesn’t figure out that someone else committed the crimes, but he does cast a lot of doubt on the famous “Helter Skelter” explanation for what happened, i.e. that Manson wanted to start a race war and thought killing innocent people who lived in nice houses would do the trick.

O’Neill lists some of his accomplishments:

I’d discovered [what] no one else had, what I knew I had to share with the world. Like: Stephen Kay [a Manson prosecutor] telling me that my findings were important enough to overturn the verdicts. Lewis Watnick, the retired DA, saying that Manson had to be an informant. [Researcher] Jolly West writing to his CIA handlers to announce that he’d implanted a false memory in someone….The DA’s office conspiring with a judge to replace a defense attorney. Charlie Guenther fighting back tears to tell me about the wiretap he’d heard [which suggested the murders were committed to help jailed Family member Bobby Beausoleil look innocent]. [425-426]

But way too many mysteries remained:

The evidence I’d amassed against the official version of the Manson murders was so voluminous, from so many angles, that it was overdetermined. I could poke a thousand holes in the story, but I couldn’t say what really happened. In fact, the major arms of my research were often in contradiction with one another. It couldn’t be the case that the truth involved a drug burn gone wrong [revenge for being sold poor quality drugs], orgies with Hollywood elite, a counter-insurgency trained CIA infiltrator in the Family, a series of unusually lax sheriff’s deputies and district attorneys and judges and parole officers, an FBI plot to smear leftists and Black Panthers, an effort to see if research on drugged mice applied to hippies, and LSD mind-control experiments tested in the field … could it? There was no way. [394-395]

The two tantalizing theories I came away with were (1) that Manson was a government informant, which explains why he was able to get away with so much obvious criminal behavior without being tossed back in prison for violating his parole, and (2) that an uneducated ex-con like him was able to convince a group of hippies to commit terrible crimes because somebody who had researched the question taught him how to use acid and speed to screw with impressionable people’s minds. Whether either of those theories have any truth to them, you’ll come away from Chaos convinced that there is more to the story than what was reported over and over fifty years ago and has been repeated ever since.

Democracy by Joan Didion

Democracy was Joan Didion’s fourth novel. I began reading her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer, a few days ago, but it didn’t grab me, partly because the writing didn’t sound like Joan Didion. The writing in Democracy, published seven years later (in 1984), does.

The central character is Inez Christian Victor. She is from a prominent Hawaii family and married to a prominent mainland politician. The story Didion tells does not go in a straight line. Instead, she jumps around in time and space. The events she describes tend to involve Inez’s relationship through the years with Jack Lovett, a kind of “international man of mystery”. Lovett is apparently connected to the CIA. Events in the novel take place in New York City, Honolulu, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and, during the war, in Viet Nam.

Didion suggests at one point that we call her “the author”. This “author” supposedly began writing a different novel. She eventually focused on Inez, possibly because Inez is frequently in the public eye, written about and photographed as if she were Jacqueline Kennedy (except that Inez’s husband lost his race for the presidency). I can’t say we get a very clear understanding of Mrs. Victor. She sort of drifts through the novel, reacting to other people. Jack Lovett, the apparent CIA man, and a few other characters have more personality.

One way to look at Inez is to compare her point of view to Didion’s. I’ve sometimes wondered what point Didion is trying to make, especially in her essays. But recently I came upon an article about her written by Daniel Kaufman, a philosophy professor. He offers an answer:

It’s difficult to say, specifically, what I find so compelling about Didion’s work.  With most of the writers whom I admire, there are particular elements to which I can point — Hunter S. Thompson’s fierce independence; Kingsley Amis’s deliciously malevolent sense of humor; George Orwell’s unaffected, unpretentious humanity – but with Didion, the elements that make her work resonate so strongly with me are harder to pinpoint, because so much of it is characterized by ambivalence, sometimes studied, at other times bemused.  Ultimately, it is an ambivalence about whether we should view our lives and the things that happen to us and that we do as having a certain kind of significance; as playing into some meaningful, hopeful, and ultimately vindicating story.  It is Didion’s view that we feel a strong need to believe this – the opening line of The White Album reads, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — but she is doubtful whether any of these stories are true or even if it is good for us to believe them.

That doesn’t describe her prose, but it helps me understand what she’s often doing. As for her prose, Democracy contains passages like this:

We were sitting in a swamp forest on the edge of Asia in a city that had barely existed a century before and existed now only as the flotsam of some territorial imperative and a woman who had once thought of living in the White House was flicking termites from her teacup and telling me about landing on a series of coral atolls in a seven-passenger plane with a man in a body bag.

An American in a body bag.

An American who, it was being said, had been doing business in situations where there were not supposed to be any Americans.

What did I think about this.

Finally I shrugged.

Inez watched me a moment longer, then shrugged herself.

“Anyway we were together”, she said. “We were together all our lives. If you count thinking about it.”

I wouldn’t read Democracy for the story. There hardly is one. But I enjoyed it anyway.

Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason by Justin E. H. Smith

Smith teaches philosophy at the University of Paris. This book is more of a survey than a history. He has chapters on irrationality as it relates to logic, nature, dreams, art, myth, pseudoscience, humor, the internet and death. He occasionally discusses the fact that the American president is a dangerous buffoon. (Or, as a New York Times columnist put it so well: “The most powerful country in the world is being run by a sundowning demagogue whose oceanic ignorance is matched only by his gargantuan ego”. Or, as a Washington Post columnist concluded: “If he can’t argue that he has delivered prosperity, all that remains is the single most repugnant human being to ever sit in the Oval Office, befouling everything he touches”. But back to the book.)

Smith argues that the difference between rationality and irrationality often depends on one’s perspective. For example, is it rational or irrational to concern ourselves so much with the future when we’re all going to die anyway? It depends on what our goals are. His principal thesis is that “irrationality is as potentially harmful as it is humanly ineradicable, and that efforts to eradicate it are themselves supremely irrational” [287].

It’s an interesting book, but I’d say the first part of that last sentence didn’t need to be proved (irrationality is harmful, both actually and potentially, and will never be eliminated) — and that Smith fails to prove the second part (that efforts to eliminate irrationality are supremely irrational).

This is from his chapter on death and one of the best passages in the book:

… what lifted the soldier out of his foxhole was not his faculty of reason, but rather something deeper, something we share with the animals, which the Greeks called “thumos” and which is sometimes translated as “spiritedness”. It is a faculty that moves the body without any need for deliberation. It is like something that propels us when we are driven by desire, when we dive into a mosh pit or into bed with someone we don’t quite trust. It is something to which we are more prone when we are drunk, or enraged, or enlivened by the solidarity and community of a chanting crowd.

These manifestations of irrationality, it should be clear, are, as he saying goes, beyond good and evil. Life would be unlivable if they were suppressed entirely. But to what precise extent should they be tolerated or, perhaps, encouraged? It will do no good to say flatly that they should be tolerated “in a reasonable balance” or “in moderation”. For the ideal of moderation is one that is derived from reason, and it is manifestly unfair to allow reason to determine what share it should itself have in human life in a competition between it and unreason. So if we can neither eliminate unreason, nor decide on a precise amount of it that will be ideal for human thriving, we will probably just have to accept that this will always remain a matter of contention, that human beings will always be failing or declining to act on the basis of rational calculation of expected outcomes, and that onlookers, critics and gossipers will always disagree as to whether their actions are worthy of blame or praise.

The speeder and the duelist and the others seem guilty of no failure to correctly infer from what they already know, in order to make decisions that maximize their own interests. Rather, in these cases, there is a rejection of the conception of life that it must be a maximization of one’s own long-term interests in order to be a life worth living [263-264].

The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

Someone gave me this book, but I don’t remember when. It’s been sitting in the smallest room in the house for quite a while, because it’s the kind of book that’s best to dip into. It consists of more than 200 questions that you might think you know the answer to, but probably don’t.

So the first question is: “What’s the name of the tallest mountain in the world?” Mount Everest, you say? Well, actually, according to the current convention, the “tallest” mountain in the world is Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. It boasts the greatest distance between its top and bottom (33,465 feet). It just so happens that its bottom is in the ocean. Mount Everest, on the other hand, is the “highest” mountain, measured from sea level up to its summit (at 29,029 feet).

It’s that kind of book.

One more:

“What shape did medieval people think the earth was?” The authors don’t actually say. What they do say is that hardly anyone thought it was flat. The idea that Columbus was trying to prove the earth was round most likely originated in a book by Washington Irving written in 1828. Ten years later, an Englishman seriously tried to prove it was round. The subtitle of his book was “A Description of Several Experiments Which Prove That the Surface of the Sea is a Perfect Plane and That the Earth Is Not a Globe”. Columbus thought it was pear-shaped and about a quarter of its actual size. (Back around 200 B.C., a very smart man named Eratosthenes of Cyrene got within 10% of the actual circumference.)

Ok, just one more: “What is the loudest thing in the ocean?” This one I found hard to believe. The blue whale produces the loudest noise of any individual animal in the ocean or on land, but the loudest natural noise of all is made by shrimp. So-called “snapping shrimp” live in tropical and subtropical waters. Trillions of them will get together and snap their single over-sized claw all at once. The sound they make has been measured at 246 decibels (the equivalent of 160 decibels in the air, or louder than a jet plane taking off). The sound of this “shrimp layer” can damage a submarine’s sonar and make dents in a ship’s propeller. Really?

Yes, it’s that kind of book.

 

Picture by Lillian Ross

Lillian Ross was a writer for the New Yorker magazine for many years. In 1950, John Huston, the director of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, invited her to come to California and see how a movie was made. The movie in question was The Red Badge of Courage, based on Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War novel of the same name. It’s the story of a young soldier who runs away from a battle but overcomes his fear.

When Ross arrived in California, Huston and the movie’s producer, Gottfried Reinhardt, were still working on the script. Ross closely observed the whole movie-making process, up until the film’s release in late 1951, spending hours with everyone invovled. She even lived in Huston’s guest house. The process may have changed since then, but I have a feeling the personalities and the power plays haven’t.

On one side, there was John Huston, the acclaimed director with a big personality, and the less flamboyant Reinhardt, an Austrian émigré from a theatrical family. They wanted to make an excellent movie that would also make money. On the other side were Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the management of Loew’s Theaters, the New York corporation that owned MGM. Mayer thought it was a mistake to make the movie, arguing that it had no stars and no story and wouldn’t sell tickets. Loew’s management was even less interested in the movie’s quality. They saw it as a pure business proposition.

The only reason MGM agreed to make the movie was the man in the middle, Dore Schary. He was Head of Production at MGM. He was enthusiastic about the project and convinced Mayer and Loew’s to fund it for $1.5 million, a substantial sum in 1950. Mayer probably agreed to make it so he could tell Schary “I told you so”. The head of Loew’s, who everyone called Mr. Schenk, probably allowed it so Dore Schary would learn a valuable lesson about art vs. commerce.

Ross describes how closely Huston and Reinhardt worked together, trying to keep the budget under control but still making something they’d be proud of. The suspense builds as the film is shot, mostly on location; as batches of film are reviewed at the studio; as the final product is scored and edited, with changes being made all along for both financial and artistic reasons. We see Huston, Reinhardt and Schary constantly reassuring each other that it would be a great picture and also sell tickets.

Finally, The Red Badge of Courage is presented to a “sneak preview” audience. The preview doesn’t go well. That leads to even more changes and more previews. Dore Schary eventually takes control and institutes bigger changes over Reinhardt’s objections, while John Huston sails away to make The African Queen.

The main things I took away from Picture are that a movie’s producer probably has a much bigger role than I realized; that most directors aren’t in total control of their movies, unlike what’s sometimes suggested; that people in Hollywood circa 1950 talked a lot, but rarely listened to anyone they didn’t think was important; and that nobody called it a “movie”, a “film” or a “motion picture” — it was always simply a “picture”, as in “It’s going to be a great picture, isn’t it, sweetie? It sure is, kid!”

Having spent so much time with The Red Badge of Courage, and having closely followed the addition of this scene and the elimination of that one, I want to read the novel again (it didn’t impress me in high school) and then see the picture again (I think I saw it once and it didn’t impress me either). As they say, that’s Hollywood!