Rain rain – when you go away…

The wettest holiday ever – well nearly; that was in Biarritz a decade and a bit ago. Still two glorious sunny days in Cornwall fooled us into thinking it was summer… It then rained unremittingly, both there; and then on our French campsite this week. 

Yesterday we called it a day; fighting the family holiday ‘sunk cost fallacy’. This was best captured in an overheard quote, during my own childhood, which became our family standard: 

“We’ve paid for it, so you will enjoy it.”

But we did ok. We all mucked in: cycling in the teeming rain, wedging into a crowded crèperie, feasting on rotisserie chickens, washing pots and pans and squelching through bogs to the bogs. 

But, facing another uninterrupted day of pouring rain, ‘practical reasonableness’ kicked in. Aquinas would have been proud…

We checked out our options, discussed it en famille and concluded, as they say en français: “on se casse” – we’re off. And a mere seventeen hours later: four solid London brick walls, a proper roof and a warm comfy 3am bed…

Family holidays can be memorable for all sorts of reasons. Rain ensured this wasn’t a classic. But sticking together through the soakings, meant, it was a good one all the same.

Aquinas – a life’s work

 

Some years ago on holiday, we stayed in a French house which had a multi-volume set of philosophy books. Of all the great philosophers of history only Aristotle and Aquinas merited three entire volumes; which was reassuring – I was already reading on Aquinas when we arrived.

Whilst this standing in philosophy is well merited (in my humble opinion), I’ve found Aquinas’s particular method of logical argument, makes his original texts a bit of a struggle.

But, as I dug out from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy – for an especial friend – Aquinas’s prescription for the good life is disarmingly straightforward:

The basic human goods:

(i) life, 

(ii) “marriage between man and woman and bringing up of children [coniunctio maris et feminae et educatio liberorum]” (not at all reducible to “procreation”), 

(iii) knowledge, 

(iv) living in fellowship (societas and amicitia) with others, 

(v) practical reasonableness (bonum rationis), and 

(vi) knowing and relating appropriately to the transcendent cause of all being, value, normativity and efficacious action.

You might argue with one or two of them, but it’s not a bad recipe… 

There’s plenty of ‘practical reasonableness’ about Aquinas.

Embodied

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Blame René Descartes. Mind separated from body – dualism – was his big idea. “I think therefore I am” is probably a fair bet, but Thomas Aquinas got the whole story – we are but one; body and mind entwined.

If in doubt, check out the limbic system or the brain of a crocodile – or indeed the limbic system responding to a crocodile. Fright, fight and flight. Simple instinct doing automatically what nature intended, without the need for laboured thought. The body is more intelligent thank we think. Conscious thought is a bit-part player in most of what we are.

As an aside, I’m increasingly persuaded that the main block to artificial intelligence is not the number and speed of processors mimicking ‘neurones’ but the lack of ‘sensors’ – ie no body to carry so called embodied intelligence. Look at an iPhone – is it software or hardware? It’s neither – it’s both.

At the recommendation of two friends I’m trying ‘mindfulness meditation’ in pursuit of ‘inner peace’. And in the process it’s a shock to discover I am blissfully unaware – almost 100% of the time – of what my body is doing, feels like or needs. All I generally think about is what I’m thinking about.

Bodies get a raw deal, celebrated only for ‘beauty’, reviled for decline and decay. But like a well kept older car, a classic chassis is something to celebrate – and keep rust free and polished.

This week, in my fist ever eye test, I discover I have two healthy optic nerves, two unblemished retinas and scored a perfect 16 in the ‘puff’ test of eyeball pressure. My eyes will neither explode nor collapse in the foreseeable future. Marvellous.

Part of the point of ‘mindfulness’, I’m learning, is to recognise that there’s 70+ kilos of amazing living breathing body here as well as 1.5kg of grey matter.

Remembering you actually are your body – forgetting the contemporary obsession with how it looks – and instead marvelling that it lives and breathes and broadly speaking works, is harder to do than it seems.

Western philosophy has largely forgotten bodies since Aquinas. So I’m going East for a few weeks to meditate on the philosophical reconnection of mind with body. It’s no more complicated than breathing.

Relevant Complexity 5) Age

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Talking to someone at work, she said she’d been surprised that a very experienced chap in his late 50s had come on a training course.

We concluded that age shouldn’t matter in deciding who gets training. I know plenty of pig-headed twenty and thirtysomethings who’d have got less and will give less as a result of that training course – it’s openness to new ideas that matters.

It dawned on me that nearly all the people I most enjoy conversation and contemplation with, are at least ten years older than me. And many much older. When it comes to thinking about things, you can’t beat the right sort of older person.

Contemporary society glorifies youth. But younger people haven’t always got much to say. Of course there’s freshness and simplicity but relevant complexity in people takes time to grow.

Openness, curiosity and the experience of age are key attributes of the Aristotelian ‘friend in contemplation’. Aquinas’s ‘prudentia’ – practical wisdom – is not innate, it is learned. Wisdom takes time. Forget youth, when comes to interesting people – the oldies are the goodies.

Death Becomes Us

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I’m reading the ‘Death’ edition of the redoubtable Philosophy Now magazine. And a bone-rattlingly good read it is too. Death dissected through metaphor, thought experiments, cool logic and rational argument.

The core issue, this issue: as medical technology advances should we prepare for immortality or stick with three score and ten? Imagine a typical lifetime of 300 years, the necessary absence of children, the ceaseless marinating in one’s own juices.

As always with philosophy there are no easy answers, but plenty of better ways of thinking about the problem. I remember reading the last half chapter of Julian Barnes ‘A history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters‘ at university as suggested by my philosophy tutor.

It perfectly captures the problem of eternal life – and heaven. Once you’ve had sex with everyone, studied and discussed everything, got your golf handicap down to a straight 18 (‘holes in one’ all the way round) and scared yourself at the ‘Hell’ theme park, what’s left to do.

Easy to say with the expectation of a good few years ahead, but I’m with Aquinas – the human animal makes no sense outside or beyond nature’s limits. Philosophy has always wrestled with it, but ‘death becomes us’.

As Seneca said its not so much the shortness of life, it’s not properly filling it, which is the tragedy.

Note to Self

20111217-121831.jpgI came upon a terse description of ‘identity’ this week in a longer piece by neuroscientist Terrence W. Deacon of USC Berkeley:

An intrinsic tendency to maintain a distinctive integrity against the ravages of increasing entropy as well as disturbances imposed by the surroundings.

He was describing the way molecules come together in sympathetic, then symbiotic relationships to form ‘auto-catalytic’ processes – where one chemical reaction feeds, and is fed by another. But deliberately he was defining ‘self’ in a way which embraces chemicals, bodies and minds.

I watched a chilling piece on the news last night about Alzheimer’s, with an awareness raising TV ad portrays sufferers fading through transparency to invisibility. Another of Deacon’s definitions – intended for chemicals, is as true of minds:

To be truly self-maintaining, a system must contain within it some means to ‘remember’ and regenerate those constraints determining its integrity which would otherwise tend to dissipate spontaneously.

Which leads me to the conclusion that:

After Aristotle, as moral animals, we are what we repeatedly do.

After Aquinas and McCabe, as linguistic animals, we are what we think, say and write.

And after Deacon, as forgetful animals – sometimes helpfully, sometimes tragically – we are what we can remember against the ravages of entropy, the environment and time.

All the more reason to write the odd reminder I think.

Embodied Intelligence

20111119-181205.jpgWhy is an octopus smarter than a snail? Same family, same squishy body. Yet one is entirely predictable, the other spookily individual. Is it ‘in’ their bodies?

Having reflected on the ’embodied intelligence’ in a strawberry last week, I read that some Roboticists are moving on from the clever brain/dumb body ‘central processor’ model. Powerful chip-sets and nuts and bolts are being pushed aside by inherently ‘clever’ squishy limbs and appendages better adapted to their task.

Why pick up a fragile glass with a big clunky metal hand, when a rubber bag filled with coffee grounds, attached to a vacuum pump, morphs perfectly to the job?

Embodied intelligence is an interesting thought. Millions of years of evolution mean my leg swings naturally forward and lands in front of the other when I walk. The brain has very little to do. The ‘intelligence’ is largely designed in. Aquinas would recognise this – for him our bodies, like our emotions, are a full part of our ‘reason’.

The matter arising is, are octopuses smart because they evolved a big brain – for the joy of contemplation, communication, complex waving and changing colour? Or does an eight legged body (actually two ‘arms’ and six ‘legs’) mean high intelligence ’emerges’ as a bigger brain develops in response to increasing bodily complexity?

It’s all a bit simpler for a snail – A to B at a foot per minute. Perhaps that’s why they’re a bit simple. The surest predictor of animal brain size is body size. I wonder whether complexity of motor skills and sensory apparatus isn’t a big driver too.

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What does it mean for us? First our intelligence is ’embodied’ in quick fingers, rapid eyes and sharp ears. Perhaps also what it means, is we aren’t Cartesian ‘ghosts in machines’. We aren’t software and hardware. We are completely integrated ‘wetware’ – like an octopus, as much arms and legs as big brains.

So if we want to build smarter tools and helpers, and understand ourselves better, inspiration from nature – not Fritz Lang – is the answer.

Strawberry

20111113-150850.jpgI’ve discovered Philosophy Now via Kindle. And a find it is too. This month’s edition delves into the Philosophy of Mind which I studied twenty odd years ago. What’s new? Quite a lot. But, also, quite a lot is not.

Neuroscience is the new 200lb gorilla on the scene. Is philosophy, contemplation and introspection irrelevant when you have brain scanners and MRI? The argument cuts both ways. Reductionism says its a simple case of describing something complex. I used to agree, now I’m less sure.

Before cosmology we harboured intuitive, and often mystical, beliefs to explain sun, moon and stars. Then telescopes were invented and we moved on to facts and evidence. Aristotle imagined ‘biles and humours’ drove the body, until medicine discovered intricate circulatory and nervous systems. Reductionists say we’ll get over our belief in ‘consciousness’, ‘intentions’ and ‘ideas’ once the science advances enough to describe ‘brain states’ better.

The alternate thesis – much more where Aquinas, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche might land – is that describing a TV’s wiring misses what’s on screen. The ’emergent phenomenon’ is a living feeling being, living a unique life, intimately connected to other living feeling beings, all equally unique but interdependent with each other.

It comes down to complexity in the end. A computer or iPhone full of data apparently weighs fractionally more than an empty one. But it is only fractionally more. I read the entire ‘weight’ of data contained in the Internet could easily be stored in the mass of a strawberry. But the ‘knowledge’ exists in myriad computers, data centres and browsers interlinked with myriad minds.

In one way a strawberry already contains a nearly perfect dataset to describe humans. In its DNA it describes carbon-based life, an oxygen rich atmosphere, the rise of flowering plants – and who knows, maybe, some clues to cultivation. It is already bursting with data, just of a ‘natural’ flavour.

And this is the point for me. Let’s imagine we could load the entirety of human culture, knowledge and experience into a strawberry and fire it into space. Billions of years on, when our planet has long since expired, suppose an alien civilisation finds it. From which would they learn more about living as a human being – reading the data locked in the atomic structure of the strawberry, or simply eating it?

Of Angels

20111105-201745.jpgSmarting from the accusation I seldom read the source, I’m wading through Aquinas at present. Corblimey he’s obsessed with some things well beyond my interest. But that’s because I’m reading him for his ethics, and he’s writing a science book as far as he’s concerned.

Summae Theologica is, I come to realise, describing Aquinas’ views on how the world, universe, animals, minds, substance and energy all work – the lot.

Not surprising then he spends considerable time on causation – what causes what, what is primary, what is secondary and what is ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, what is an ‘operation’ what is a ‘state’.

His method is famously rigorous: three or four well sourced views on a theme, his own judgement and an answer to the opening views.

I think he quite carefully integrates a humanist perspective with a religious one. At times he acknowledges tantalisingly what ‘would’ be the case if there was no God – Aristotle ‘would’ be right on human happiness for instance he says.

After Aristotle, he concurs that our ‘end’ is indeed happiness. But we achieve happiness imperfectly in our mortal lives. We achieve it most in contemplation. In contemplation of what though?

For Aquinas, of course, that would be God. But contemplation of God is, he acknowledges, tricky. Not least as He is infinite and Our reason is finite. We’re snookered from the off.

What to do? It could be worse. Animals are even further from God than we are. They lack our intellect and capacity for reason and thought and so can’t contemplate God at all.

Aquinas explicitly acknowledges that nature has fitted us and animals with desires and emotions to further our own survival and that of our species – positively Darwinian. But they are ‘beneath’ us and we are a rung down from – you guessed it – Angels.

God tops Angels of course, but each in the chain comes closer to ‘perfection’ and achieves ‘happiness’ most by ‘touching’ the one above.

I’m not sure how many farm animals would agree they are ‘perfected’ and happier ‘touching’ humans. Perhaps a well trained sheepdog. But we humans can attain greater happiness in the use of our more ‘perfect’ power, namely contemplation. And among the things we can happily contemplate are Angels.

Now this is a thought I can honestly say I have never had. Beyond the one on top of the Christmas Tree and my daughter in the school nativity, I have never spent any time contemplating Angels. Perhaps I should?

But the point I take from Aquinas and Angels is this: contemplation, seeing beauty around us and perfecting and developing our human capacities, skills and aptitudes is where Earthly happiness lies.

Csikszentmihalyi comes to mind. As I said to someone last weekend it’s all about adding ‘relevant complexity’ to our lives and personalities.

And I think this is what Aquinas is getting at too. A life of virtue, self-improvement and integration of the body, soul and mind might mean at the end of it all, the ‘bottled essence’ of us – probably in frail and wizened form – is a shimmering soul ‘touching’ that of an Angel.

In Praise of ‘Prudentia’

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The virtue of ‘Prudentia’
In Aquinas’s teaching,
Is ‘practical wisdom’ in
Choice and decision.

It’s a Bayesian thing,
Not just logical stages.
Which a life of experience
And virtue engages.

Grounded in reason
But felt in the boots,
You can’t teach Pudentia,
We must find our own routes

Each person’s is different,
Our wisdom’s our own.
When we try to describe it
The words struggle to form.

But don’t deconstruct it,
The details mislead.
If you try to explain it,
Confidence bleeds.

Invest in Prudentia.
Your gut’s not often wrong.
Thought, experience, emotion
In symphony belong.

I’ve spoken in praise of ‘Prudentia’ twice today. The first time was inviting someone to really use their ‘practical reason’ in designing something. That meant acknowledging complexity, personalities and what we’re trying to do – and really, based on their experience and judgement, coming up with something that has a fighting chance of working.

The second was in acknowledging and appreciating a way forward I’d not thought of. On the face of it I had ruled it out, but on reflection it had a good deal to commend it.

Not everything in life is rational, simple or binary. As someone said to me yesterday, probability is rarely 0 or 1. ‘Prudentia’ is our Bayesian gift for dealing with complexity – practical wisdom.