Thursday, January 22, 2015

How to Do Things with Your Hands

One of my favorite musicians, Bob Wiseman, put out an album many years ago called Accidentally Acquired Beliefs. Scholars, of course, pride themselves of arriving at their opinions by more intentional, methodical routes. But it's important to put the value of that actual belief—the "cognitive state"—in perspective, which I was reminded of during a Twitter exchange I just had with Steve Fuller.

Steve has had a great influence on my understanding of the way the knowledge "enterprise" is just that, i.e., embedded in a vast and sometimes overwhelming social process. These days, it is no stretch to say it's been outright "incorporated". Indeed, Steve also helped me to understand that knowledge is essentially "embodied", which is the material complement of social embeddedness. The general tendency in epistemology and philosophy of science over the past, say, fifty years has been to re-situate our sciences in their social and material contexts. To break through the illusion that knowledge is merely some exalted state of belief ("justified" and "true").

So I've been growing increasingly uneasy about Steve's "trans-humanism", which seems to me to deny especially the inexorable embodiment of our minds. One kind of trans-humanism, after all, is founded on the idea that one day, more or less inevitably, we'll be able to "upload" our minds to a sufficiently advanced computer. In our Twitter exchange, I was reminded of why I think that's very unlikely.

A few years ago I wrote a post called "How to Build a Scholar" in which I argued that the ability to "build a person", if it's anything like the "carpentry" John Pollock implies it is, can be developed, if at all, only through practice. My point was that it takes a lot of discipline. And I ultimately decided that you can't build a person but only become one, through the persistent self-discipline of the flesh. I left a more disturbing consideration unsaid: the apprentice carpenter will build a lot of wobbly (miserable, unhappy) tables (persons) before achieving anything like mastery. This is something that Georg Theiner emphasized to me in conversation at last summer Social Epistemology symposium. Our early forays into artificial intelligence, if they happen at all, should be expected to produce "minds" that live short and very painful lives. These ethical considerations should, perhaps, be enough to abandon the project.

But that's not the main point of this post. I'm trying to develop an idea that I've been thinking about for a while. (I'll be reusing parts of this post, for example.) Do we have any purely "cognitive" abilities? And, even if we do, how much of our "selves" do they contain (note I don't say "embody", since it is we, our bodies, that embody the capcities, not the other way around)? To get at these questions, let me first tell you about four things I've been getting better at doing with my hands these past few years. First, I'm becoming a reasonably good writer. It comes easily to me. I enjoy it and I'm pretty effective, if I do say so myself. Second, I've been learning how to play the piano. I'm much less confident in that area, but quite proud of what I've accomplished. Third, I've been learning how to draw. Finally, I've been working on my breast stroke and crawl. I've been swimming.

Do notice that the last one requires much more than my hands. That's important because so do all the others. To use your hands you need your arms at least at some level (more for the piano than the computer, but still). All this has to be coordinated with your eyes (and ears). Even where your legs aren't very needed, you need to, well, keep your ass in the chair. Your mind is certainly involved. And so is your "heart". Learning how to draw is learning how to see. Learning how to play music demands that you learn how to listen to it. Writing implies the ability to read. All of it forces a coordination of thinking and feeling. Differently in each case. But there is simply no such thing as a purely physical or pure mental skill. We are inexorably embodied and embedded.

James Randi, arch-skeptic, debunker of the paranormal, and an accomplished magician, has a great quip about Uri Geller. "If he's using his mind to bend those spoons," he says, "he's doing it the hard way." What he means, of course, is that it is possible to produce the illusion of bending a spoon "with your mind" through a variety of tricks, without actually doing it. Randi knows how he would do it, and that's of course how he presumes Geller is doing it too. Indeed, I recently learned that Geller has decided to become an entertainer. Being a mystic was apparently too hard, or just not enough fun.

I use Randi's line often to push back against the idea that the hard part about writing is thinking of something to say. Many people explain why they are not writing by invoking the intellectual difficulties their paper is giving them. But how does that explain not writing? Writing is a physical activity. If you're using your mind to write your papers, I suggest, you're doing it the hard way. Use your hands. The ability to write is simply the ability to sit down at the machine and write down what you know. It is true that you need to use your mind to come to know those things, but don't try to use it to do the writing itself. That's as silly as using it to type, i.e., to try to move the keys on your keyboard with your thoughts. Of course, the "trick", then, is to make your text look like it came fully formed out of a live mind. But that ability, like the ability of a magician, is ultimately in your hands. It's an intentional process.

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