Tag: human condition

Identity games

May 14th, 2012 — 10:53pm

I’ve recently seen the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on John le Carré’s novel with the same name. In the 1970’s a TV series based on the same novel, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley, was very popular in Britain. This film, with Gary Oldman as the protagonist, is supposed to be something like an update for the new generation.

It is a very good film indeed. (I cannot remember the last time I was so gripped by a film shortly after its release.) I was also inspired to read several of le Carré’s novels, including but not limited to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. What they have in common is a subtle, rich portrayal of the spy trade from the viewpoint of Britain during the cold war; a world that seems to be, increasingly, a thing of the past. Voice recognition, social profiling and data mining seems to be taking the place of a good chunk of what le Carré calls tradecraft – the concrete skills that spies with 1970’s technology need in order to perform their work on the ground in enemy territory – and computer scientists like myself are to blame.

While being hailed as the anti-Ian Fleming due to his relatively gritty realism, Le Carré is not without his own spy romanticism. But the bleakness inherent in the work comes through on every page.

In his commentary on the film, le Carré states that

[The world of spies is] not so far from corporate life, from the ordinary world. At the time of writing the novel, I thought that there was a universality that I could exploit. The book definitely resonated with the public; people wanted to reference their lives in terms of conspiracy, and that remains central to the relationship between man and the institutions he creates.

There is something profound in this. Spies are merely concentrated versions of something that we all are ourselves, something that we must be every day. Spies project false personalities in order to gain access and information, either about enemy assets or about other spies. They hide to survive, and they hide so that they may uncover a kind of truth. With a view to the spy as the most concentrated form of a certain kind of existence, let us take a look at some other forms that this existence may take.

The modern professional. To be professional means to effectively project a professional identity in the workplace. To be unprofessional almost always means that too much of another, possibly more genuine personality shines through – one has become too unrestrained. The professional needs to always be projecting, to a degree, in order to remain compatible with the workplace and retain his income and career prospects. Young people are socialised into this condition very early – at career workshops, students learn how to polish their CVs, how to embellish their record, and to hide their flaws. This is essentially a partial course in spycraft. But all this is only at the entry level. When any kind of sophisticated politics enters the organisation – as it does – the professional may be pushed ever closer to the spy. A recruiter: “Too bad that we couldn’t hire him, he seemed genuine.”

The academic. The academic can be thought of as a special version of the professional with some essential differences. First, professionals do not yet have universal records that follow them around for their entire lifetime – much of the “record” that they create, which is associated with the persona they are supposed to project, exists only in the memory of people and of one organisation. Academics build their records with units such as publications and conference attendance. Publications in particular form an atomic record that does not go away. On the other hand, the everyday life of the academic may – possibly – be less artificial than that of the professional, since focus is on the production of publishable units, not on pleasing people in one’s surroundings as much as possible.

The philosopher.  Philosophers seek to uncover some hidden truth about the world. In this sense, they are spies without enemies. The philosopher lives among people with a view to analysing them and understanding their behaviour, so that he can explain it to them. But most of the time the philosopher is likely to be a flaneur or a quiet observer, like the spy often is: someone who seeks to learn something hidden from situations that other participants may regard as being routine and their everyday existence. In this sense spies may have something in common with philosophers.

Here I have highlighted a phenomenon but not made any recommendations. Maybe it’s for the better that we are all a little bit like spies. Masks of some kind are worn in most social interactions, not just the ones above, and they are not a recent phenomenon. Exposing something like a true inner self requires that the inner self remains static long enough for it to be possible to expose. But the difference between most social relationships and the relationships we have with institutions today is that the former can change or dissolve naturally to fit spontaneous changes in people’s characters or needs. Relationships between people and modern institutions do not seem to be capable of this dynamic as of yet.

1 comment » | Life, Philosophy

The limits of responsibility

December 23rd, 2011 — 2:26am

(The multi-month hiatus here on Monomorphic has been due to me working on my thesis. I am now able to, briefly, return to this and other indulgences.)

Life presupposes taking responsibility. It presupposes investing people, objects and matters around you with your concern.

In particular, democratic society presupposes that we all take full, in some sense, responsibility for society itself, its decision making and its future.

However, he who lacks information about some matter cannot take responsibility for it. And thus we often defer to authorities in practice. Authorities allow us to specialise our understanding, which increases our net ability to understand as a collective, assuming that we have sufficiently well functioning interpersonal communication.

There are whole categories of problems that routinely are assigned to specific, predefined authorities and experts; for instance legal matters, constitutional matters, whether some person is mentally ill, medical matters, nuclear and chemical hazards, and so on. Fields where some degree of extensive training is generally required. (However, under the right conditions, these authorities could probably also be called into question by the public opinion.) The opposite is those categories of problems that are routinely assigned to “public opinion” and all of its voices and modulating contraptions and devices, its amplifiers, dampeners, filters, switches and routing mechanisms.

Responsibility aside, in order to maximise an individual’s prospects for life, and by extension society’s prospects for life, it seems important that the individual possess just the right knowledge that they need in their situation. Adding more knowledge is not always a benefit; some kinds of knowledge can be entirely counterproductive. Nietzsche showed this (“On the use and abuse of history for life”), and we can easily apply the idea of computational complexity to see how having access to more information would make it harder to make  decisions.

This is especially true for some kinds of knowledge: knowledge about potential grave dangers, serious threats, monumental changes threatening to take place. Once we have such knowledge we cannot unlearn it, even if it is absolutely clear that we cannot act on it and that we do not have the competence to assess the situation fully. It  takes effort and an act of will to fully disregard a threat on the basis of one’s own insufficient competence.

On the other hand, knowledge about opportunities, about resources, and about problems that one is able to, or could become able to deal with, would generally be helpful and not harmful. However, even this could be harmful if the information is so massive as to turn into noise.

Even disregarding these kinds of knowledge, one of the basic assumptions of democracy – that each individual takes full responsibility for society – seems to be an imperative that is designed never to be fulfilled. An imperative designed to be satisfied by patchworks of individual decisions and “public opinion”, and whatever information fate happens to throw in one’s way. Out of a basic, healthy understanding of their own limitations, individuals generally assume that the democratic imperative to know and to take responsibility was never meant to be taken seriously anyway, but one does one’s best to match one’s peers in appearing to do so.

It seems to me that the questions we must ask and answer are about the proper extent of responsibility, and the proper extent of knowledge, for each individual. For the individual, taking on no responsibility seems detrimental to life; taking on full responsibility for all problems in the world right now, here today, would also be an impossibility. There would be such a thing as a proper extent of responsibility. One’s initial knowledge and abilities would inform this proper extent of responsibility, and the two might properly expand and shrink together, rather than expand and shrink separately.

In a democratic society, in so far as one wants to have one, we should ask: what is the proper level of responsibility that society should expect from each individual, and what level should the individual expect from himself as an ideal?

More generally, empirical studies of how public opinion functions and how democracies function in practice are needed. It is inappropriate to judge and critique democracies based on their founding ideals when the democratic practice differs sharply from those ideals – as inappropriate as it is to critique and judge economies based on the presumption that classical economic principles apply to economic practice in the large.

3 comments » | Philosophy

Generalised violence

July 27th, 2011 — 12:39pm

As members of society, we usually dislike violence. Societies generally have laws that restrict or control the legal application of violence, limiting it to a certain segment of the population. Also, because we have a capacity for empathy, we may suffer when we see others suffer, in many kinds of circumstances (but not all).

The assumption that violence is almost always wrong or bad is widespread. But widespread beliefs that usually seem to be beyond questioning can yield interesting ideas when they are dissected and put to the test. Why do we really dislike violence?

If I have to rationalise my intuitive dislike for violence today, on the spot, I would say that violence scares me because of the potentially irreversible effects. If a thug injures me gravely, it might take me a long time to recover my physical abilities, or I might never recover them fully at all. The most irreversible physical injury seems to be death, of course. Violence that is guaranteed to be reversible is somehow a much less scary prospect.

Physical violence is a form of influence that is very rapid, very focussed and that potentially has effects that take a long time to recover from, if recovery is at all possible. If somebody throws a stone at me it is more “injurious” than a light rainfall, even though both situations affect me physically. The stone is more targeted, more intense, more sudden.

What, then, about a more general definition of violence, based on these observations? Suppose that violence is simply sharply focussed influence directed at me from somebody else; not necessarily physical. In this way advertising, music, newspapers can potentially do violence to me. If we also remove the condition that the effect should be sharp and rapid, we can accept slow-acting influence as being violent; the condition is now only that recovery should be relatively slow or impossible. Under this condition, the kind of influence I receive from going to school (education), from watching TV, from advertising, or from random events may indeed be a form of violence, depending, of course, on what my sensitivities to these events are.

Of course we cannot shield ourselves from violence in this broader definition. We must accept it and accept that our identities probably are, partly, the results of such influence.

Physical violence is a form of domination/influence, and it is the most obvious form. It is shockingly easy to notice, a grotesquely rude form of influence. But if all we care about is the effects of violence, the slow or impossible recovery, then we should perhaps also be worried about things that we don’t usually think of as violence. A life free of domination or external influence, however, does not exist.


5 comments » | Philosophy

Free will (2): Decision making, cause and effect

May 24th, 2011 — 10:26pm

When we claim that an act was carried out as a decision made freely, we implicitly seem to say that the acting subject is fully responsible for the action at hand. In other words, if I suggest to you that you should buy blueberry ice cream and not vanilla, and you go ahead and buy the blueberry ice cream, it is still your responsibility to have done so, were it to lead to prosecution or adverse consequences. Of course, if I have some important knowledge about the blueberry flavour that I have not disclosed, such as it being poisonous, some of the blame may fall on me, out of convention. In this case we may assume that I have tried to manipulate you into doing something you would not have done, had you had full knowledge.

The act of “making a decision” or “making a choice” is an essential part of the model we have of human beings as individuals with their own will and their own choice. If one disregards situations where people try to betray others in some sense, such as the above example (using a preliminary, intuitive conception of “betray”), the act of making a decision firmly grounds all responsibility in the subject, even though various influences, sensory impressions, emotions and so on may have led to the decision.

But if we look at decision making and acting more closely, we discover that a great deal of our behaviour is not rooted in reasons that we are aware of or understand. If we are aware of the reasons, they may be something else than what we think they are. The thoughts “I am doing this because…” or “He did that because…” only apply to a vanishingly small fraction of everything that we may categorise as Actions.

In fact, causality is a tricky problem in general, and not just in the human mind. The world is a never-ending stream of sensory stimuli, and out of this stream, we isolate things that we call events, objects, individuals, delineations, contrasts, causality. We know, as physicists, that heating water ultimately causes it to boil. But this does not mean that we have identified a causal link between event A and event B, in the way that we can identify an electric current with a measurement device, and say “see, there’s 5 Volts in this wire”. The causal model is our best guess, and clearly, there cannot be a final seal and confirmation that the model is the only true one, and the complete one. It merely stands all the trials we can come up with. Details that remain unchanging in the trials, because we did not think of testing them, or because we are not even aware of them, will not be part of such a model.

Suppose now that we do things, on a daily basis, and the majority of things we do we do not know the reasons for, or if we know the reasons, they are incomplete, falsified, or not revealed to us, because of an inner battle between different aspects of our mind. Suppose also that impressions of different kinds may influence our decisions, possibly in ways that we do not understand. For instance, seeing the color blue may lead us to walk briskly, because of some association we made years ago. It seems clear then, that attributing responsibility to the subject, for all of her actions, is a practical thing to do but not a fair thing to do. It may be that we can in fact subject anyone to a series of influences that lead them to carrying out a certain action, if we know enough about their mind, and we can control the environment sufficiently well. Is this not what artists do with their audiences?


3 comments » | Philosophy

Free will

May 17th, 2011 — 12:48am


Free will is an important idea in ethics, politics, metaphysics and philosophy of mind, since it allows for many important conclusions and principles to be derived. For instance, the fundamental reasoning of a court (at least on some level, historically) that holds somebody responsible for a crime, is that they had a choice whether to commit the crime or not, and by choosing to commit it, they exhibit their deplorable moral character, warranting a punishment. We can see this in how in modern times, psychiatrists are able to declare someone unfit to take responsibility for their actions, which greatly impacts what kind of punishments may be meted out.

Free will can also be used as support for Cartesian dualism, the idea that the body is somehow essentially separate from the soul. Some people would perhaps argue that “we can perceive that we have a free choice, therefore we have a free will, therefore the soul is separate from the body”.

Without having gone too deeply into the literature about the topic, I will posit an idea. Clearly, it is not the case that the mind is perfectly separated from the body, since physical trauma, drugs, stimulants etc, can influence our thinking. On the other hand, the mind is not immediately joined to the body either. This is in the sense that there is no “happy button” or “sad button” that I can press on my skull, or a phrase I can hear, that immediately provokes the feelings of happiness or sadness. Such feelings come only in response to complex stimuli over time. And the mind may reconfigure its responses to a certain stimuli: we may decide to be brave in the face of fear, or sad in the face of something that used to make us happy. We may find a new understanding of some object. So if two extreme ways of thinking about the will are that it is 1) perfectly coupled with the body/surrounding world, or 2) perfectly decoupled from the body/surrounding world, maybe the most accurate way of thinking about a mind is as decoupled to a very high degree, but not perfectly, from the world.

2 comments » | Philosophy

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