Where was I?

A survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.

From NYTimes


Ought but can’t

THE history of moral philosophy is a history of disagreement, but on one point there has been virtual unanimity: It would be absurd to suggest that we should do what we couldn’t possibly do.

This principle — that “ought” implies “can,” that our moral obligations can’t exceed our abilities — played a central role in the work of Immanuel Kant and has been widely accepted since. Indeed, the idea seems self-evidently true, much as “bachelor” implies “man.”

Suppose that you and a friend are both up for the same job in another city. She interviewed last weekend, and your flight for the interview is this evening. Your car is in the shop, though, so your friend promises to drive you to the airport. But on the way, her car breaks down — the gas tank is leaking — so you miss your flight and don’t get the job.

Would it make any sense to tell your friend, stranded at the side of the road, that she ought to drive you to the airport? The answer seems to be an obvious no (after all, she can’t drive you), and most philosophers treat this as all the confirmation they need for the principle.

Suppose, however, that the situation is slightly different. What if your friend intentionally punctures her own gas tank to make sure that you miss the flight and she gets the job? In this case, it makes perfect sense to insist that your friend still has an obligation to drive you to the airport. In other words, we might indeed say that someone ought to do what she can’t — if we’re blaming her….

“Ought” judgments depended largely on concerns about blame, not ability. With stories like the one above, in which a friend intentionally sabotages you, 60 percent of our participants said that the obligation still held — your friend still ought to drive you to the airport. But with stories in which the inability to help was accidental, the obligation all but disappeared. Now, only 31 percent of our participants said your friend still ought to drive you.

Professor Sinnott-Armstrong’s unorthodox intuition turns out to be shared by hundreds of nonphilosophers. So who is right? The vast majority of philosophers, or our participants?…

Even when we say that someone has no obligation to keep a promise (as with your friend whose car accidentally breaks down), it seems we’re saying it not because she’s unable to do it, but because we don’t want to unfairly blame her for not keeping it. Again, concerns about blame, not about ability, dictate how we understand obligation.

So here we face the other possibility, one less flattering to most moral philosophers: It’s their moral judgments that are distorted.

In the last decade or so, the “experimental philosophy” movement has argued for greater use of empirical science to inform and shape the discussion of philosophical problems. We agree: Philosophers ought to pay more attention to their colleagues in the psychology department (even if they can’t).

From The NYTimes


While this one study alone doesn’t refute Kant, our research joins a recent salvo of experimentalwork targeting the principle that “ought” implies “can.” At the very least, philosophers can no longer treat this principle as obviously true.

It is often thought that judgments about what we ought to do are limited by judgments about what we can do, or that “ought implies can.” We conducted eight experiments to test the link between a range of moral requirements and abilities in ordinary moral evaluations.  Together these results demonstrate that commonsense morality rejects the “ought implies can” principle for moral requirements, and that judgments about moral obligation are made independently of considerations about ability. By contrast, judgments of blame were highly sensitive to considerations about ability (Experiment 8), which suggests that commonsense morality might accept a “blame implies can” principle.



Are you crazy?

The British Psychological Association released a remarkable document entitled “Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia.” Its authors say that hearing voices and feeling paranoid are common experiences, and are often a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation: “Calling them symptoms of mental illness, psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.”

The report says that there is no strict dividing line between psychosis and normal experience: “Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having an illness. Others prefer to think of their problems as, for example, an aspect of their personality which sometimes gets them into trouble but which they would not want to be without.”

From The New York Times

I found it helpful in some cases to “work with” delusions and auditory hallucinations.

Often delusions and auditory hallucinations can be a patient’s best attempt at dealing with a brittle sense of self.

The continuum from ideas of reference to auditory hallucinations and delusions.

The sharp dip into visual hallucination.

My work with Zeke

To be happier…

To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death

Will cultivating awareness of the scarcity of your time make you grim and serious? Not at all. In fact, there is some evidence that contemplating death makes you funnier. Two scholars in 2013 published an academic paper detailing research in which they subliminally primed people to think about either death or pain, and then asked them to caption cartoons. Outside raters found the death-primed participants’ captions to be funnier.
From The New York Times

Construct Alternativism

Personal construct psychology (PCP) is a theory of personality and cognition developed by the Americanpsychologist George Kelly in the 1950s. From the theory, Kelly derived a psychotherapy approach and also a technique called the repertory grid interview that helped his patients to uncover their own “constructs” (ways of seeing the world) with minimal intervention or interpretation by the therapist. The repertory grid was later adapted for various uses within organizations, including decision-making and interpretation of other people’s world-views.

Kelly explicitly stated that each individual’s task in understanding their personal psychology is to put in order the facts of his or her own experience. Then each of us, like the scientist, is to test the accuracy of that constructed knowledge by performing those actions the constructs suggest. If the results of our actions are in line with what the knowledge predicted then we have done a good job of finding the order in our personal experience. If not, then we can modify the construct: our interpretations or our predictions or both. This method of discovering and correcting our constructs is simply the scientific method used by all modern sciences to discover the truths about the universe we live in.

People develop constructs as internal ideas of reality in order to understand the world around them. They are based on our interpretations of our observations and experiences. Every construct is bipolar, specifying how two things are similar to each other (lying on the same pole) and different from a third thing. They can be expanded with new ideas.

The UK Council for Psychotherapy, a regulatory body, classifies PCP therapy within the experiential subset of the constructivist school.

A main tenet of PCP theory is that A person’s unique psychological processes are channeled by the way s/he anticipates events. Kelly believed that anticipation and prediction are the main drivers of our mind. “Every man is, in his own particular way, a scientist,”[1] said Kelly, in that he is always building up and refining theories and models about how the world works so that he can anticipate events. We start on this at birth (a child discovers, “if I cry, mother will come”) and continue refining our theories as we grow up. We build theories—often stereotypes—about other people and also try to control them or impose on others our own theories so that we are better able to predict their actions.

All these theories are built up from a system of constructs. A construct has two extreme points, such as “happy-sad” and we tend to place people at either extreme or at some point in between. Our mind, said Kelly, is filled up with these constructs, at a low level of awareness. Kelly did not use the concept unconscious; instead, he believed that some constructs are preverbal, ‘their lack of verbal labels often being because they were developed before the person had the use of words’ (Winter, 1993, p. 244). A given person or set of persons or any event or circumstance can be characterized fairly precisely by the set of constructs we apply to it and the position of the thing within the range of each construct. So Fred for instance may be just half between happy and sad (one construct) and definitively clever rather than stupid (another construct). The baby above may have a preverbal construct “Comes… doesn’t come when I cry”.

Constructs are applied to anything we put our attention to, including ourselves, and also strongly influence what we fix our attention on. We construe reality constructing constructs. Hence, determining a person’s system of constructs would go a long way towards understanding him, especially the person’s essential constructs that represent very strong and unchangeable beliefs; and also the constructs a person applies to him/herself.

Kelly believed in a non-invasive approach to psychotherapy. Rather than having the therapist interpret the person’s psyche, which would amount to imposing the doctor’s constructs on the patient, the therapist should just act as a facilitator of the patient finding his own constructs. The patient’s behavior is then mainly explained as ways to selectively observe the world, act upon it and update the construct system in such a way as to increase predictability. To help the patient find his constructs, Kelly developed the repertory grid interview technique.

To build a repertory grid (a sort of matrix) for a patient, Kelly would first ask the patient to select about seven elements whose nature might depend on whatever the patient or therapist are trying to discover. For instance, “Two specific friends, two work-mates, two people you dislike, your mother and yourself”, or something of that sort. Then, three of the elements would be selected at random, and then the therapist would ask:”In relation to… (whatever is of interest), in which way are two of these people alike but different from the third”? The answer is sure to indicate one of the extreme points of one of the patient’s constructs. He might say for instance that Fred and Sarah are very communicative whereas John isn’t. Further questioning would reveal the other end of the construct (say, introvert) and the positions of the three characters between extremes. Repeating the procedure with different sets of three elements ends up revealing several constructs the patient might not have been fully aware of.

The repertory grid itself is a matrix where the rows represent constructs found, the columns represent the elements, and cells indicate with a number the position of each element within each construct. There is software available to produce several reports and graphs from these Grids.

Narrative in Diagnosis

Is the A.D.H.D. Diagnosis Helping or Hurting Kids?

Some say the criteria for medication and disability support is too subjective.



Diagnoses of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder are up around 30 percent compared with 20 years ago. These days, if a 2-year-old…

From NPR

Narrative Power

Narrative psychology suggests that popular narratives, particularly human-interest stories, are fundamental drivers of motivation.

Narrative psychology, as in the work of the New York University psychologist Jerome Bruner, for example, suggests that popular narratives, particularly human interest stories, are fundamental drivers of motivation. Several such narratives are worth looking at more closely.


Life Review as Narrative Truth

Life review is a progressive return to consciousness of memories and unresolved past conflicts for reevaluation and resolution.

each life stage has its own chapter in the history

a life review based on the things learned and experienced.

Narrative vs Truth


psychoanalytic theories (Schafer, Kenneth Burke, Lacan, N. Abraham)

Sherwood and Spence have pointed to its central importance and have shown the ways in which the psychoanalytic dialogue seeks to uncover the analysand’s efforts to maintain a certain kind of narrative discontinuity. To remember, then is precisely not to recall events as isolated; it is to become capable of forming meaningful narrative sequences. (Connerton)

In Narrative Truth and Historical Truth, Donald Spence suggests that psychoanalytic narratives should be thought of more as construction than as reconstruction …– in short that narrative truth replace historical truth. The test of this truth is a therapeutic one, and Spence notes that Freud came to take the position that “an assured conviction of the truth of the construction … achieves the same therapeutic result as a recaptured memory . Spence compares this construction to an artistic and rhetorical product.

George Kelly scripted characters for his patients to portray… Construct altenativeism.

Butler (1963) proposes the concept of life review. He defines it as follows:

A naturally occurring, universal mental process characterized by the progressive return to consciousness of past experience, and particularly, the resurgence of unresolved conflicts; simultaneously, and normally, these revived experiences and conflicts can be surveyed and reintegrated . . . prompted by the realization of approaching dissolution and death, and the inability to maintain one’s sense of personal invulnerability (p. 66).

The final stage of Erikson’s (1982) theory is later adulthood (age 60 years and older). The crisis represented by this last life stage is integrity versus despair. Erikson (1982) proposes that this stage begins when the individual experiences a sense of mortality. This may be in response to retirement, the death of a spouse or close friends, or may simply result from changing social roles. No matter what the cause, this sense of mortality precipitates the final life crisis. The final life crisis manifests itself as a review of the individual1s life-career.

Mysterious Matter

“We don’t see that the hard problem is not what consciousness is, it’s what matter is — what the physical is.”


Every day, it seems, some verifiably intelligent person tells us that we don’t know what consciousness is. The nature of consciousness, they say, is an awesome mystery. It’s the ultimate hard problem. The current Wikipedia entry is typical: Consciousness “is the most mysterious aspect of our lives”; philosophers “have struggled to comprehend the nature of consciousness.”

I find this odd because we know exactly what consciousness is — where by “consciousness” I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. It’s the most familiar thing there is, whether it’s experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling. It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know. It is utterly unmysterious.

(Comment: But what people mean by “experience” is quite vague and not easily subject to further analysis.)

….The nature of physical stuff is mysterious except insofar as consciousness is itself a form of physical stuff. This point, which is at first extremely startling, was well put by Bertrand Russell in the 1950s in his essay “Mind and Matter”: “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events,” he wrote, “except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” In having conscious experience, he claims, we learn something about the intrinsic nature of physical stuff, for conscious experience is itself a form of physical stuff.

I think Russell is right: Human conscious experience is wholly a matter of physical goings-on in the body and in particular the brain. But why does he say that we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events we directly experience? Isn’t he exaggerating? I don’t think so, and I’ll try to explain. First, though, I need to try to reply to those (they’re probably philosophers) who doubt that we really know what conscious experience is.

The reply is simple. We know what conscious experience is because the having is the knowing: Having conscious experience is knowing what it is. You don’t have to think about it (it’s really much better not to). You just have to have it. It’s true that people can make all sorts of mistakes about what is going on when they have experience, but none of them threaten the fundamental sense in which we know exactly what experience is just in having it.

“Yes, but what is it?” At this point philosophers like to give examples: smelling garlic, experiencing pain, orgasm. Russell mentions “feeling the coldness of a frog” (a live frog), while Locke in 1689 considers the taste of pineapple. If someone continues to ask what it is, one good reply (although Wittgenstein disapproved of it) is “you know what it is like from your own case.” Ned Block replies by adapting the response Louis Armstrong reportedly gave to someone who asked him what jazz was: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never going to know.”

So we all know what consciousness is. Once we’re clear on this we can try to go further, for consciousness does of course raise a hard problem. The problem arises from the fact that we accept that consciousness is wholly a matter of physical goings-on, but can’t see how this can be so. We examine the brain in ever greater detail, using increasingly powerful techniques like fMRI, and we observe extraordinarily complex neuroelectrochemical goings-on, but we can’t even begin to understand how these goings-on can be (or give rise to) conscious experiences.

(Stephen Hawking says  in “A Brief History of Time” calls physics:) “just a set of rules and equations.” The question is what “breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” What is the fundamental stuff of physical reality, the stuff that is structured in the way physics reveals? The answer, again, is that we don’t know — except insofar as this stuff takes the form of conscious experience.

We can say that it is energy that breathes fire into the equations, using the word “energy” as Heisenberg does when he says, for example, that “all particles are made of the same substance: energy,” but the fundamental question arises again — “What is the intrinsic nature of this energy, this energy-stuff?” And the answer, again, is that we don’t know, and that physics can’t tell us; that’s just not its business. This point about the limits on what physics can tell us is rock solid, and it arises before we begin to consider any of the deep problems of understanding that arise within physics — problems with “dark matter” or “dark energy,” for example — or with reconciling quantum mechanics and general relativity theory.

Those who make the Very Large Mistake (of thinking they know enough about the nature of the physical to know that consciousness can’t be physical) tend to split into two groups. Members of the first group remain unshaken in their belief that consciousness exists, and conclude that there must be some sort of nonphysical stuff: They tend to become “dualists.” Members of the second group, passionately committed to the idea that everything is physical, make the most extraordinary move that has ever been made in the history of human thought. They deny the existence of consciousness: They become “eliminativists.”
….All they have to do is grasp the fundamental respect in which we don’t know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff in spite of all that physics tells us. In particular, we don’t know anything about the physical that gives us good reason to think that consciousness can’t be wholly physical.

…So the hard problem is the problem of matter (physical stuff in general). If physics made any claim that couldn’t be squared with the fact that our conscious experience is brain activity, then I believe that claim would be false. But physics doesn’t do any such thing. It’s not the physics picture of matter that’s the problem; it’s the ordinary everyday picture of matter. It’s ironic that the people who are most likely to doubt or deny the existence of consciousness (on the ground that everything is physical, and that consciousness can’t possibly be physical) are also those who are most insistent on the primacy of science, because it is precisely science that makes the key point shine most brightly: the point that there is a fundamental respect in which ultimate intrinsic nature of the stuff of the universe is unknown to us — except insofar as it is consciousness.

Galen Strawson is a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author, most recently, of “Locke on Personal Identity: Consciousness and Concernment.”


Based on NYTimes article

Mind Transfer

Based on what article?

Call it mind transfer, uploading, brain backup, whatever—the idea of copying the human brain to a computer so it can live on without the body has a strong hold on futurists, neuroscientists, and folks that just want to live forever.

Also Stephen Hawking. At screening of a new film about his life this week, the cosmologist said he believes it’s possible to retain a digital version of the brain after the body dies—though it probably won’t happen in his lifetime.

“I think the brain is like a program in the mind, which is like a computer, so it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain onto a computer and so provide a form of life after death,” he told a crowd in Cambridge, reported the Guardian. “However, this is way beyond our present capabilities.”

The quest for immortality has been enjoying a moment in the limelight this month, not least because of Google’s new moonshot project, Calico, which will focus on studying the science of aging—namely, how we can stop it from happening.

Larry Page is just one of a crop of influential wealthy businesspeople that have poured millions into immortality research lately. But while Calico tackles how to slow down our physical decay, many futurists believe that the key to extending human life isn’t the body, it’s the brain.

These thought leaders in cybernetics gathered this summer in New York City for the Global Future 2045 International Congress, organized by Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov. Itskov grabbed headlines for claiming humans will download digital copies of themselves into android avatars by 2045—just how aCylon downloads its consciousness into the next copy when it “dies.”

Futurist and transhumanist Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, suggested at the event that we’ll be able to transfer the entire human mind to a computer within four decades. “Based on conservative estimates of the amount of computation you need to functionally simulate a human brain, we’ll be able to expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold,” Kurzweil said at the conference.

Indeed, for all its sci-fi fanfare, technical singularity is rooted in science. And there are continuous advances in cybernetics lending credence to the claim that mind transfer holds the key to a post-mortal human race. Massive supercomputers are getting better at simulating the human brain. Artificial intelligence experts are developingincreasingly smart machines that can reason, think, and learn by mimicking the brain’s cerebral cortex. And brain-computer interfaces—machines that can effectively read your mind—are advancing fast.

Still, the concept of digitally preserving the human mind is based on what’s theoretically possible, not a step-by-step roadmap. One of the biggest holes in the theory (and there are many to poke) is more philosophical than scientific: the notion of whether consciousness would survive the digital switchover in tact. Or even beyond that, what about the soul? Or whatever it is that makes you you, beyond the biological puzzle pieces.

For the Battlestar Galactica fans among us, it’s the mystery of what made Boomer No. 1 still love the Chief after Boomer No. 2 fell for that other guy, even though No. 2’s consciousness was directly uploaded from the first. Can a virtual brain in a robotic avatar experience love? Can emotions be uploaded? And if not, is a digital immortality even worth it?