Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TOK: Reason and Emotion

The following is a post I put together for my TOK class this year:

 We're often told to listen to reason and not our emotions.  Emotions might help us in the moment, but they won't help us in the long run.  Emotions are about immediate gratification (getting what you want right away, living for the moment), not long-term planning.  Emotions are wild and unpredictable.  Reason is domesticated, calm and respectable.

But is that really so?

Or is the truth more like this:  People who try to change your mind about something by telling you not to follow your emotions are actually being hypocrites.  When they tell you not to follow your emotions, they are actually appealing to your emotions.  They are appealing to your sense of responsibility, and where does responsibility come from, if not emotions?

Emotions give us love, empathy, compassion, joy and excitement.  Emotions may just be the glue that holds society together.

Consider this scenario:  You don't want to do your homework--you'd rather go out with some friends.  A voice in your head says, "Aw, the homework isn't so important.  You can get it done during a break tomorrow.  It won't be great, but it'll be fine.  Just go out and have some fun!"

Then another voice says, "Wait a minute, now.  Let's be responsible.  You know that if you don't do the homework tonight, it's not going to get done properly.  You might get a bad grade, and you won't learn the material."

The first voice returns:  "Aw, you're no fun.  Come on, let's have some fun for once!"

The second voice answers:  "Fun?  Is that all you care about?  What about your education?  What about your future?"

I'm sure you've had similar arguments in your head about all sorts of things.  Is this a fight between reason and emotion?

We might say that reason is the voice that is concerned about the future, about education and responsibility.  We might say that emotion is the voice that wants to have fun with friends, and which is trying to justify not doing the homework.  Emotion is the voice of rationalization.  So reason seems smarter, perhaps, but also totally boring and a real downer.

But we don't have to look at it that way.  Actually, I don't think we should look at it that way at all.

First of all, there are reasons to go out and have fun.  Not every homework assignment is going to make that much of a difference.   That argument about your education and your future all hinging on this one homework assignment?  That's a very bad argument.  Why should you think that your entire future is going to be destroyed because of one homework assignment?  It's not like the first voice was saying that all homework is a waste of time, and that you shouldn't do your school work at all.  The first voice was just talking about one homework assignment and one night.  So the so-called "voice of reason" here wasn't being very reasonable.

We can easily be misled into thinking that we are listening to the voice of reason, when all we are actually hearing is a very bad argument.

This is not a fight between reason and emotions.  It is a fight between two different points of view:  One view is that you need a break and going out with friends is more important than doing your homework.  The other view is that doing your homework is more important than going out with friends.  Both views rely on reason and emotion.

QUESTION 1:  Can you think of any real situations where you had a conflict between reason and emotion?  How do you know it was not just a conflict between two different points of view, each with their own emotions and reason?

Emotion keeps us interested in the world and our role in it.  If we had no desires or feelings, we would have no motivation to act.  Without emotion, our reason would be a cold, heartless tool.  In fact, we might not be able to reason at all if we didn't have emotions.  What motivates us to formulate arguments in the first place?  What motivates us to accept premises?  Remember: no matter how well-reasoned your argument is, your conclusion is only as good as your premises, and those can't all be based on reason.  If we had no emotions, we would have no reason to use reason.

Yet, there is a common belief that reason and emotion are against each other.  It's a very, very old idea, going back many centuries.  In fact, the idea that reason and emotion are enemies is such a well-established part of Western culture that it was used in the 20th century for propaganda. And so we have the 1943 Disney cartoon, "Reason And Emotion."

(The actual cartoon starts about 30 seconds into the video.)

This unfortunately very sexist cartoon was one of numerous wartime propaganda films that Disney made for the US Government in the early 1940s.  On the surface, the cartoon appears to be about the dangers of being led by our emotions.  That is not what the film is really about, though.  The purpose of the film is not to educate Americans about human psychology or theory of knowledge.  It is to increase support for the American war effort.

The propaganda really begins in the middle of the cartoon, when we see John Doe, an everyman, sitting at home trying to "keep up with current events."  He does not know who to believe or what to think:  On the radio, in the newspapers, in the streets, everywhere he looks he hears people talking about the war, about how America is doomed, about how it is a waste of money.  His emotions are driving him crazy.  Then the friendly narrator's voice comes in to guide him away from his emotions and towards reason.  And, of course, reason tells him that America should be in the war and everything is going to be okay, so stop worrying and just be happy.

The irony is that the narrator does not really lead us away from emotions at all.  Instead, we are given exaggerated representations of Hitler which appeal heavily to our emotions.  Apparently reason and emotion have a common enemy:  Nazi Germany.  At the end, we are told that reason and emotion should be patriotic--notice that patriotism is an emotion--and they should fly together.  If our emotions are good and healthy (in other words, if they are patriotic), then they will let reason drive.

The conclusion of the movie is very clear:  It tells us that any Americans who oppose the war are unpatriotic and led by emotions.  Of course, the cartoon does not appeal to reason--we are not given factual reasons to support the war--but only to emotion.  But it creates the illusion that we are following reason, and that is the key.

Again, it seems that when we are told that we must choose between reason and emotion, we are being misled.

QUESTION 2:  Why do we distrust emotions?  Perhaps because we think that emotion and reason are at war.  Where does this idea come from?

QUESTION 3:  What if reason and emotion don't compete for the driver's seat?  What if we need a totally different metaphor to understand the relationship between reason and emotion?  Can you think of any other possibilities?

Perhaps reason is the navigational tools on a sailboat, and emotion is the water and wind that keeps it afloat and moves it forward.

Or maybe reason is a flashlight, and emotion is the bulb that glows.  Or is emotion the flashlight and reason the bulb?

QUESTION 4:  The ultimate question is, in our quest for knowledge, how do we know when we can trust our emotions and the emotions of others?

TOK: Language, Identity and Community

The following is a post I put together for my Theory of Knowledge class this year:

How important is your language for your sense of identity--your identity as an individual, but also as a member of a nation?  It's common nowadays to associate a nation with a language, even though many nations have more than one national language.  Should a nation be defined by a single language?

Consider what political factors have shaped the language that you speak.  Why do you speak Polish, Flemish, Danish, Czech, German, Russian or English?  Why did you grow up learning your native tongue, and why are you learning new languages today?  Are you learning new languages so that you can join new knowledge communities?  Bigger knowledge communities?  Better knowledge communities?

Communities rely on communication.  Community, communicate:  Both words come from the latin root, communia, meaning a large gathering of people sharing a way of life. Communication is not simply about sharing information.  Some say language is primarily for persuasion:  for getting people to think and act the way you want them to.  We communicate, ultimately, to arrange a shared way of life.  Language helps us work together; it shapes our expectations, allowing us to create very sophisticated maps of ourselves and the world around us.  But it also gives us a shared identity, and keeps foreigners out.  It brings people together, but it also builds walls.  It controls and limits, perhaps as much as it guides and enables.

The people who control language have control over the community.  Who controls the language in your knowledge communities?  (Think of the languages of science, of art, of culture, of politics, of education.)  What gives them that power?

Have you noticed how language can shape your political views?  Have you ever criticized a nation or a political faction for the way they talk?  Are there political conflicts in your home country that involve language?

In America, there are some cities with large Spanish-speaking populations.  Should those cities have Spanish street signs?  Should there be government agents in those cities which are fluent in Spanish?  Or should the residents in those cities have to become fluent in English?  Some Americans say that all Americans should speak English, but this is a controversial topic in America.  Are there similar issues in your home country?

There can be benefits to having a shared language, of course.  One benefit is that language helps us share information, and this is necessary to create a knowledge community.  Do we need a shared language to have shared knowledge, though?

Imagine you and a friend visit a beautiful landscape and watch the sunset together.  You do not speak about it--and maybe you don't even speak the same language.  But you have shared an experience, and that gives you shared knowledge.

Imagine you want to teach a friend how to tie their shoes, but you don't speak the same language.  You can still instruct them with gestures.  You can show them how to do it, and so you can share your knowledge, even without a shared language.

When it comes to more abstract ideas, however, you need a shared language if you want to share knowledge.  The problem is, which language should be shared?

This is a political issue that has an influential history.  Some people believe that their language is just better than all the others.  A couple of centuries ago, people in Germany started to take this idea very seriously.  They believed that their language was pure, original and natural, and that other European languages were corrupt and weak.  The modern German language was still being formed in the 18th century and German nationalism was growing rapidly, with dreams of unification.  As you can imagine, some people felt a very strong connection between the need for a shared language and the swelling tides of nationalism.  People started to believe that the very identity of a nation was reflected in its language.  German intellectuals believed that the power of the German mind and spirit was determined by its language.  This idea became known as linguistic determinism, which says that language determines what you can think.  (These days, experts are more likely to believe in a weaker view, called linguistic relativity, which says that your language only influences what you think.)

The belief in linguistic determinism was very racist.  For example, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) wrote: "the German speaks a language that has been alive ever since it first issued from the force of nature, whereas the other Teutonic races speak a language which has movement on the surface but which is dead at the root."  In other words, languages like English, French, Dutch, Flemish, and so on--these languages were all inferior to the pure, original German language.

Another German, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), was one of the first to promote the idea that a nation was defined by its language. He wrote the following lines of poetry in 1772, which are rather offensive to the French (and other non-Germans):

Look at other nationalities.  Do they wander about
So that nowhere in the whole world they are strangers
Except to themselves?
They regard foreign countries with proud disdain.
And you German alone, returning from abroad,
Wouldst greet your mother in French?
O spew it out, before your door
Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine.
Speak German, O You German!
While Herder wrote poetry, Fichte believed that simpler language was necessary to unite the German folk.  The Brothers Grimm agreed.  They believed their beloved book of fairy tales, published in 1812, was authentically German and could unite the nation with a common language and cultural heritage.  Around the same time, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 - 1835), a German philosopher, linguist, Minister of Education, diplomat and founder of the University of Berlin, also promoted the idea that a people is defined by their language.  He wrote:
Language is deeply entwined in the intellectual development of humanity itself . . . Language is . . . the external manifestation of the minds of peoples. Their language is their soul, and their soul is their language. . . . The creation of language is an innate necessity of humanity. It is not a mere external vehicle, designed to sustain social intercourse, but an indispensable factor for the development of human intellectual powers . . . .
In other words, language is not just a tool for communication; it is a fundamental property of humanity.  We would not be human--we would not have our advanced intellectual powers at all--if it were not for language.

On the one hand, the belief in linguistic determinism helped develop Germany into a remarkably strong nation which would come to lead the world in the arts and sciences.  However, the same belief fostered racism and helped pave the way to war and genocide in the 20th century.  Ideas like "linguistic purity" and "linguistic determinism" can be dangerous; however, that does not mean they are wrong.  They are powerful ideas and should be treated with caution.

Consider other ways language can alienate or oppress people.  When you learn a new area of knowledge, like a science or art, you learn a new language.  The more advanced the field, the more alien the language.  Expert languages can be alienating and can even be used to oppress people.

Even common language can be used to oppress people.  For example, poor people tend not to finish secondary school or go to university.  Their language skills are often noticeably weak.  They tend to speak in ways which are usually not accepted in professional or formal situations.  This can make it very difficult for them to move up in society and improve their economic situation.

Another interesting case is so-called "Black English," which I encourage you to read about.  Basically, the idea is that many black Americans have not been able to get a proper education because their unique language has not been respected, or even recognized, by schools.  Imagine being a child at a school that did not recognize that your language was significantly different.  You were told that your speech was simply wrong, even though it was how you were raised and how your family talked.  You were basically taught that your community was inferior.  What kind of psychological effects might that have on a child?

Can one language be inferior to another, or are all languages equal?  This is often a political question, as history has shown us.  To avoid war and oppression, should we just say that all languages are equal?  What if some languages really are better than others?  What if we can improve lives and our communities by improving our language?

Well, how do you improve a language?

One belief, which was popular in the early 20th century, was that a perfect language can be created: the language of logic.  It was believed that all the ambiguity and confusion that arises with natural languages could be avoided.  All we needed was a system of logical symbols and we would be set.

Another belief, which actually goes all the way back to Galileo, if not older, is that mathematics is the ultimate language, the only pure language with which we can understand the world.  Many modern physicists agree.  When you try to put physics in common language, you end up with nonsense.  You can only understand the world with mathematics.

On the other hand, there is the point of view of Nobel prize-winning Danish physicist Neils Bohr (1885-1962).  Bohr was one of the pioneers of Quantum Mechanics; yet, he famously said that anybody who claimed to understand it didn't really understand it at all!  One of the key ideas in Quantum Mechanics is complementarity.  Two properties are complementary if they cannot both be known at the same time.  For example, position and velocity are complementary:  The more you know of an electron's position, the less you can know its velocity; the more you know its velocity, the less you can know its position.  Bohr once claimed that for every measurable quantity, there was another which was complementary to it.  He was then asked, "What quantity is complementary to truth?"  He replied, "clarity."  In other words, the more you have truth, the less you have clarity; and the more you have clarity, the less you have truth.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian-British philosopher, made a related observation in the middle of the 20th century.  While some philosophers were trying to find perfect clarity through logical analysis, Wittgenstein realized that ordinary language is clear enough.  And when we try to "fix" it with logical analysis, we actually make it worse.  He wrote:
When I say: "My broom is in the corner",—is this really a statement about the broomstick and the brush? Well, it could at any rate be replaced by a statement giving the position of the stick and the position of the brush. And this statement is surely a further analysed form of the first one.—But why do I call it "further analysed"?—Well, if the broom is there, that surely means that the stick and brush must be there, and in a particular relation to one another; and this was as it were hidden in the sense of the first sentence, and is expressed in the analysed sentence. Then does someone who says that the broom is in the corner really mean: the broomstick is there, and so is the brush, and the broomstick is fixed in the brush?—If we were to ask anyone if he meant this he would probably say that he had not thought specially of the broomstick or specially of the brush at all. And that would be the right answer, for he meant to speak neither of the stick nor of the brush in particular. Suppose that, instead of saying "Bring me the broom", you said "Bring me the broomstick and the brush which is fitted on to it."!—Isn't the answer: "Do you want the broom? Why do you put it so oddly?"
What is clear to you might just depend on what you are expecting; it depends on your map.  Would a perfect language give us a perfect map?  What would the perfect language be like?

TOK: Sense Perception and Illusions

What follows is a collection of illusions I put together for my Theory of Knowledge class this year: 

Everybody's familiar with optical illusions, but there are other kinds as well.  We experimented with tactile illusions in class and I mentioned that there are also aural illusions.  Have you experienced any other kinds of illusions?  Illusions of taste or smell?

Here are some optical and auditory illusions to enjoy.  What do they reveal about the limits of sense perception?

First, an image.  When you look at it for the first time, you might not see a pattern at all.  It just looks like random black spots on a white background.  But eventually, all of a sudden, you can see a picture. Once you see it, you cannot unsee it.

Here's another one with the same effect:            

These examples raise the question:  How much of what we see depends on what we have learned to see?

The same phenomenon can occur with sounds. Here's an audio track with a stunning demonstration. You will hear a sentence which has been digitally altered to sound like gibberish.  You won't be able to figure out what the voice is saying.  Then you will hear the original sentence. When you then hear the digitally-altered recording again, it suddenly won't sound like gibberish anymore.  You will now be able to recognize the sentence.  Try it!

You may have experienced a similar effect--though not quite so dramatically, I'm sure--when you started learning a new language.  When we learn a language, we have to learn how to hear the speech patterns.  When you hear a new language for the first time, it's not just that you don't understand the words; you cannot even hear them as words at all.  It just sounds like gibberish.  Then, eventually, you can hear specific words, even if you don't know what they mean yet.  You have learned how to perceive the speech patterns.

Do we also learn how to perceive smells or tastes?  Is it possible that we learn how to perceive by touch as well?  Perhaps all sense perception relies on prior knowledge.  We perceive because we know how to perceive.

Is this a kind of map knowledge?  Remember, map knowledge is all about expectations.  If we know how to perceive, that could mean that we have expectations which guide the way we perceive.  This raises the question:  How much does sense perception rely on our expectations?

Here's a visual test.  Are you aware of what you see?  (This one's better big, so expand to full screen if you can.)

Sometimes our expectations for one sensory organ can be altered by another, and this affects what we perceive.  For example, as you probably know already, what you smell affects what you taste.  Did you also know that what you see can affect what you hear?  Welcome to the McGurk Effect!

Sometimes a 'b' sounds like a 'b', and sometimes like an 'f', depending on what you see.  But here's a tricky question:  Do you actually hear the 'f', or do you just think you do?

In other words, should we say that your perception has changed, or should we say that you are wrong about what you are perceiving?  What's the difference?

Now here's another audio illusion--an illusion of music.  This link will take you to a new page where you will hear a woman talk in a normal speaking voice.  She says, "The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible."  Then the part where she says "sometimes behave so strangely" repeats over and over again, and eventually it starts to sound like music.  You will hear melody in her words and you will hear her singing, even though it is just a repetition of the same, spoken recording.  Her normal speech becomes (or seems to become) music through mere repetition!

When the recording is over, start the recording again from the beginning.  It will sound like she is talking in a normal voice again, but when she gets to "sometimes behave so strangely," it will sound like she suddenly begins to sing!

The same recorded words can sometimes sound like speech and sometimes like song.  In this case, the change is not because of what you see, but because of what you have heard in the past.  Our past experiences can change the way we perceive the world.  Again, however, we have a difficult question:  Do you actually hear music in this case, or do you just think you do?  What is the difference?

Finally, another auditory illusion.  Listen to this short musical recording, and then play it again, and again.  It's like it changes every time, getting higher and higher in pitch.

Do we actually hear the recording at a higher pitch each time we play it, or do we just think we do?