The Self, Neuroscience, and Wittgenstein

Diary 5/8 to 5/9/22: John Oliver; Noam Chomsky and Putin’s propaganda; genocide; Assange; how to explain a lapse of memory: neuroscience vs nonsense for profit; Wittgenstein and James and The Self.

Noam Chomsky, one of my heroes

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

{5/8/22} Continued.

John Oliver of “Last Week Tonight” is very funny and I agree with his politics.  But I don’t have 25 [or 45] minutes to “waste” on his show.  Why is it a waste?  Well, it’s not, really, compared to the sudoku I work every day, or the way I “cruise” movies on TV with the sound off, hoping to get a sexual tingle.  One wants to wallow with the hogs from time to time, and I devote much of my day to such wallows.  What can I say, men are pigs and I am one.  It’s regrettable but necessary—evolution designed us this way, to have a “fire in the belly,” or we wouldn’t have seven billion apes today.  It would be nice if our laws reflected truth rather than illusion.

Specifics?  No, I’m not going there right now.  It’s not something I can be expected to be “objective” about, seeing that I’m an ex-con.

Finally got around to reading the Noam Chomsky interview on Truthout that I mentioned on 4/30/22; titled “Propaganda Wars Are Raging as Russia’s War on Ukraine Expands,” here’s the link, and several quotes:

“According to this view, to punish Vladimir Putin, all material emanating from Russia must be rigorously barred from American ears. That includes the work of outstanding U.S. journalists and political commentators, like Chris Hedges, whose long record of courageous journalism includes his service as The New York Times Middle East and Balkans bureau chief, and astute and perceptive commentary since. Americans must be protected from his evil influence, because his reports appear on RT. They have now been expunged. Americans are “saved” from reading them.”

And a second quote, in two paragraphs, regarding a comparison of attention paid to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the US war in Iraq:

“We constantly witness instructive effects of this rigid indoctrination. One is that it is de rigueur to refer to Putin’s criminal aggression in Ukraine as his ‘unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.’ A Google search for this phrase finds “About 2,430,000 results” (in 0.42 seconds).

“Out of curiosity, we might search for ‘unprovoked invasion of Iraq.’ The search yields “About 11,700 results” (in 0.35 seconds) — apparently from antiwar sources, a brief search suggests.”

And: “…the Russian invasion of Ukraine was most definitely provoked — though in today’s climate, it is necessary to add the truism that provocation provides no justification for the invasion.” [Some very smart people, like Thom Hartmann, will class such statements as Putin’s propaganda. Given that Putin last night again talked about this, I’d think that serious attention should be paid to the issue, rather than throwaway labeling to get rid of the difficult question.]

Lastly, “There is, of course, a flood of commentary about ‘genocide.’ By the standards used, the U.S. and its allies are guilty of the charge over and over, but voluntary censorship prevents any acknowledgment of this, just as it protects Americans from international Gallup polls showing that the U.S. is regarded as by far the greatest threat to world peace, or that world public opinion overwhelmingly opposed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (also ‘unprovoked,’ if we pay attention), and other improper information.”

The interview also considers such issues as Florida’s removal of mathematics textbooks from schools and the persecution of Julian Assange.  Highly recommended.


John Gielgud, actor (1904-2000)

Did I watch a movie last night?  I can’t remember.  Is it John Gielgud?  Is that the name of my favorite actor?  It is, isn’t it?  This is how my memory is this morning, i.e., sluggish at best.  The Gielgud thing reminds me strongly that maybe ten years ago I was trying to remember, and could not, whether it was Ralph Waldo Emerson, or something else.  I had come across the full name in a list of books from Library of America—it didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t (of course) come up with “the real names.”  It was inconceivable that they would have gotten the name so very wrong, but then, what was right?  I struggled with this for two full minutes before recovering a bit of the feel, that it was indeed Ralph Waldo.  I had read hundreds of pages of RWE and enjoyed some, so this was very troubling at the time.

I wonder how someone who has not read neuroscience would interpret such a thing; would they think, “I have a hole in my soul”?  Or, “De Debbil is messing with me”?  Or, “Damn those aliens!”?  Or, “Who could the witch be?”  Or (last try), “What is the government doing to my head now?”  America is neck-deep in nonsense for profit.

And how do I interpret this, I who have read much neuroscience?  “Degradation of a memory circuit, possibly the death of a neuron which circuit has since been restored (i.e., worked around or reconstructed) through normal brain mechanisms.”  Is this better than “a hole in my soul,” followed by a visit to the minister or a few Hail Marys?  Yes, it is.  (If I felt like it, I would expatiate on the meaning of “better.”  I.e., philosophize.)

My alternative “explanations” show a surprising lack of creativity—three are religion-related (and not very well, I’d guess).  But what’s lacking is the New Age “explanation,” something like, “Better drink some alkaline water,” perhaps, which sounds rather sensible, or “The vibrations are wrong, where are my crystals,” which does not.

Thus I grope my way through fantasy-reality.

I would do well to buy myself a teddy bear or Cookie Monster stuffed toy, so I’d have someone to talk to at home.  Or, maybe that would just siphon away stuff that could or should go in the diary, thus making its way to my blog.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher (1889-1951)

Reading Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations, G. E. M. Anscombe (tr), The Macmillan Company, New York, 1953, and this morning I think I begin to see, finally, at least one of his major points.  To explain this I must quote a couple of paragraphs:

“413. Here we have a case of introspection, not unlike that from which William James got the idea that the ‘self’ consisted mainly of ‘peculiar motions in the head and between the head and throat’. And James’ introspection shewed, not the meaning of the word ‘self’ (so far as it means something like ‘person’, ‘human being’, ‘he himself’, ‘I myself’), nor any analysis of such a thing, but the state of a philosopher’s attention when he says the word ‘self’ to himself and tries to analyze its meaning. (And a good deal could be learned from this.)

“414. You think that after all you must be weaving a piece of cloth: because you are sitting at a loom—even if it is empty—and going through the motions of weaving.” p. 124e-125e.  I’ve normalized the quotation marks, but not the placement of commas.

Now why do I see this as important?  The question I answered to my satisfaction this morning (yesterday I was puzzled by these paragraphs) is, “What is this piece of cloth?”  The general trend of the book in these pages seems to be that of trying to understand meaning, and how words can convey meaning.  He seems to be saying that the cloth we think we are weaving is meaning, or understanding.  We do certain observable behaviors, “going through the motions,” and think we are creating an understanding that we want to convey to others.

Something like that…it’s difficult and slippery.  Maybe he means something more specific, like an understanding of “self” or “myself.”

And the quote from James relates to the mind-body connection, something very relevant to my “bleak philosophy,” and especially “bleakspeak,” when I translate “I want” to “this body right now wants.”  The definition of “I” is very important in philosophy: cogito ergo sum [from Descartes] is one frequently-quoted indication of this.

William James, philosopher-scientist (1842-1910)

I should reread the section on “The Self” in James:  The Principles of Psychology.  It’s a very long book that I liked a lot when I read it ten or twelve years ago; I’d like to read it again, but doubt that I’d have the stamina (as I keep failing with Herodotus) to sustain my interest.  (That is, the body is hesitant over such a commitment.)

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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