So How Does the Mind Work? (RIP Jerry Fodor, and your grandmother is surely immortal because of you)

JerryfoderIt may seem mean-spirited to remember the great Jerry Fodor by posting a critique of his work so soon after his death, but I think Steven Pinker's engagement with his thought brings out some of what made Fodor great. I met Fodor as a young man in my twenties at Rutgers once and he was kind and encouraging of my plans to go to grad school in philosophy (I was working as an engineer at the time). I ended up reading a lot of Fodor in grad school and seldom agreed with him but I recognized that he certainly made all his opponents think more clearly. (In case you are wondering about the title of this post, Fodor often invoked his grandmother in his philosophical papers!) Anyhow, here's Steven Pinker, writing in 2005:

In 2000 Jerry Fodor published a book called The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way (hereafter: TMDWTW). The way that the mind doesn’t work, according to Fodor, is the way that I said the mind does work in my book How the Mind Works (HTMW).1 This essay is a response to Fodor, and one might think its title might be Yes, It Does! But for reasons that soon become clear, a more fitting title might be No One Ever Said it Did.

Fodor calls the theory in How the Mind Works the New Synthesis. It combines the key idea of the cognitive revolution of the 1950s and 1960s—that the mind is a computational system—with the key idea of the new evolutionary biology of the 1960s and 1970s—that signs of design in the natural world are products of the natural selection of replicating entities, namely genes. This synthesis, sometimes known as evolutionary psychology, often incorporates a third idea, namely that the mind is not a single entity but is composed of a number of faculties specialized for solving different adaptive problems. In sum, the mind is a system of organs of computation that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce in the physical and social worlds in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history.

Readers who are familiar with Fodor’s contributions to cognitive science but who have not read TMDWTW might be puzzled to learn that Fodor begs to differ so categorically. The first major theme of HTMW is computation, and Fodor, more than anyone, has defended what he calls the computational theory of mind: that thinking is a form of computation. The second major theme is specialization, and Fodor’s most influential book is called The Modularity of Mind, a defense of the idea that the mind is composed of distinct faculties rather than a single generalpurpose learning device or intelligent algorithm. The third theme is evolution, the source of innate biological structure, and Fodor, like many evolutionary psychologists, is willing to posit far more innate structure than is commonly accepted in contemporary philosophy and psychology. So it is surprising that Fodor insists that HTMW is wrong, wrong, wrong. Fodor and I must disagree on how the concepts of computation, faculty psychology (specialization), and innate biological organization should be applied to explaining the mind. This essay will be organized accordingly.

More here. [Especially for Morgan Meis.]

DIARY FRAGMENTS FROM ANDRÉS FELIPE SOLANO

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Andrés Felipe Solano in Literary Hub:

Today we rode in the world’s most beautiful cab. A few minutes after we’d gotten in, the driver—middle-aged, and wearing glasses—passed us a notebook. Soojeong thought for a moment it was a Christian ambush, but the man explained that the book was where his clients wrote messages. While I was adding something, my wife found a second notebook, apparently much older. The first entry was from 2010. Fifteen minutes later we left the cab in Yeouido. Soojeong, who had been reading throughout the entire journey—she never does this as she suffers from car sickness—had tears in her eyes. She had read several messages, and even a short poem about the wind written by the cabdriver. It was a simple poem, pretty, not at all sentimental, she told me. But what impressed her most was that almost every one of the messages had an intimate, confessional tone. It was as if all those people had been waiting for that particular cab to unburden themselves. “I feel alone, my wife is hardly ever home, my son hates me.” “I’ve just come out of hospital. Apparently the diagnosis is more serious than I thought, I don’t know what’s going to happen now.” “On my way to see her for the second time. Very excited. I think she’s the best girl I’ve met in a long time.” “Our mother died today.” I guess it was life in a pure state, and for that reason my eyes also misted.

More here.

A Physicist’s Physicist Ponders the Nature of Reality

Natalie Wolchover in Quanta:

ScreenHunter_2913 Nov. 30 22.20Among the brilliant theorists cloistered in the quiet woodside campus of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, Edward Witten stands out as a kind of high priest. The sole physicist ever to win the Fields Medal, mathematics’ premier prize, Witten is also known for discovering M-theory, the leading candidate for a unified physical “theory of everything.” A genius’s genius, Witten is tall and rectangular, with hazy eyes and an air of being only one-quarter tuned in to reality until someone draws him back from more abstract thoughts.

During a visit this fall, I spotted Witten on the Institute’s central lawn and requested an interview; in his quick, alto voice, he said he couldn’t promise to be able to answer my questions but would try. Later, when I passed him on the stone paths, he often didn’t seem to see me.

Physics luminaries since Albert Einstein, who lived out his days in the same intellectual haven, have sought to unify gravity with the other forces of nature by finding a more fundamental quantum theory to replace Einstein’s approximate picture of gravity as curves in the geometry of space-time. M-theory, which Witten proposed in 1995, could conceivably offer this deeper description, but only some aspects of the theory are known. M-theory incorporates within a single mathematical structure all five versions of string theory, which renders the elements of nature as minuscule vibrating strings. These five string theories connect to each other through “dualities,” or mathematical equivalences. Over the past 30 years, Witten and others have learned that the string theories are also mathematically dual to quantum field theories — descriptions of particles moving through electromagnetic and other fields that serve as the language of the reigning “Standard Model” of particle physics. While he’s best known as a string theorist, Witten has discovered many new quantum field theories and explored how all these different descriptions are connected. His physical insights have led time and again to deep mathematical discoveries.

More here.

WHY IS TILDA SWINTON IN BANGLADESH? THE DHAKA LIT FEST, OF COURSE

C. P. Heiser in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

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Anis, Sadaf, & Ahsan

Launching one of the world’s most exciting literary festivals, in the middle of the world’s densest megacity, is accomplishment enough. But managing it year after year, meeting increased expectations, and handling the particular challenges of a place like Bangladesh, make the Dhaka Lit Fest one of the most remarkable literary events in the world.

I met all three founders on my first visit in 2014, and was struck not only by their commitment to the mission of the festival but by the diversity of their backgrounds. Sadaf Saaz is a poet, writer, entrepreneur and women’s rights activist. She co-founded the festival in 2011 in partnership with the Hay Festival. London-based Ahsan Akbar is a poet who also runs a media and PR agency, Zephyr: Media PR. An author and frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, K. Anis Ahmed is the founder of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh and Denver-based Teatulia, the first certified organic tea brand from Bangladesh to be sold in the US. He is also the publisher of Dhaka Tribune, a national daily newspaper.

C.P. HEISER: The Dhaka Lit Fest started seven years ago, originally sponsored by the Hay Festival. You quickly outgrew that umbrella. What made you want to strike out with your own brand, so to speak?

ANIS AHMED: I’d say what made the three of us want to re-brand the festival as Dhaka Lit Fest was basically the simple desire to give it a name that would more directly convey its mission — to showcase Bangladeshi writing and writers to the world. We always felt that despite a vibrant literary tradition, Bangladeshi literary culture had become too hidebound. Our writers were not reading outsiders enough, let alone being in touch with them. And the world too had not done enough to ask itself, Oh, let’s go see what’s happening in the world’s seventh most spoken language!

SADAF SAAZ: An interesting aside on our origins as the Hay Festival Dhaka: it’s not quite as if Hay decided to simply come here. Rather, in its first year, Hay was trying out three different locations in the Indian subcontinent — Kerala, Kolkata, and Dhaka. Kerala and Kolkata, both in India, have vastly more English speakers, and arguably more literary audiences. Yet, through the quality of our organization on ground and the level of engagement by our audience, Dhaka was chosen by Hay organizers to continue, and it ran as the Hay Festival Dhaka ran until 2014.

AHSAN AKBAR: It should also be mentioned that in our first year as Dhaka Lit Fest, in 2015, we faced a crises after the so-called “blogger killings.” In all fairness to Hay, it’s doubtful they could have gone ahead with a festival in a place that was so far away for them. That year we faced 19 cancellations in the final 30 days leading up to the festival; still, we forged ahead and it was bigger than any year before.

More here.

The Closing of the American Mind

The_Closing_of_the_American_Mind_(first_edition)Jacob Hamburger at The Point:

Allan Bloom was an elitist. He saw himself as a champion of excellence in an age of vulgarity. While a professor at the University of Chicago between 1979 and 1992, he sought to immerse his students in only the most classic works of philosophy and literature. Someone looking to define the “Western canon” could do worse than to dig up his course syllabi. In his personal style, he embodied high culture nearly to the point of caricature. His friend Saul Bellow captured him in the novel Ravelstein as a man who wore expensive European suits, lived in a Hyde Park apartment lavishly decorated with French art, and bragged of listening to Mozart on a state-of-the-art stereo system. A lifelong Francophile, he made regular jaunts to Paris over the course of four decades. Yet Bloom insisted that for all his erudition, he was merely a product of America’s democratic promise. Well into his fifties, he often spoke of himself as a simple “Midwestern boy,” the Indiana-born son of Jewish immigrants who received the best gift a meritocratic democracy could offer: a great education. Bloom thought of himself as proof that, thanks to its universities, anyone can make it in America.

So when thirty years ago Bloom addressed a group of Harvard students and faculty as “fellow elitists,” he was not being entirely ironic. The quip came in response to controversies surrounding his 1987 best seller The Closing of the American Mind, which defended an idiosyncratic vision of higher education in the United States. Bloom saw the liberal education traditionally offered at exclusive colleges and universities as the fulfillment of democratic ideals, but condemned his fellow professors for having abandoned this crucial responsibility.

more here.

How much of Anthony Powell, and his work, now endures?

A26ebb6e-d4f7-11e7-939b-cd6b722b9d7e4A. N. Wilson at the TLS:

One of the jokes underlying The Canterbury Tales is that, while each of the miscellaneous pilgrims, in all their distinctiveness, comes before us with unforgettable clarity, the narrator himself, who first encounters them in the Tabard Inn at Southwark, is everlastingly shadowy, and when he attempts to tell a tale of his own, the innkeeper, Harry Bailey, rejects his effort with the words “Thy drasty ryming is not worth a turd”. Something comparable is going on in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a roman-fleuve which could not be further from autobiography, if that word is taken to mean self-revelation. Widmerpool, the thrusting bore who blunderingly exercises power over so many of the other characters; Mr Deacon, the unfashionable artist who seems like a wounded throwback to the 1890s; Mrs Erdleigh, the mystic fortune teller so many of whose prophecies come true; Gwatkin the Welsh bank manager, who fantasizes about being a great military leader: all live in our heads as clearly as do the Wife of Bath or Chaucer’s Miller. We learn the bare minimum, however, about Nick Jenkins, Powell’s narrator, beyond the outward sequence of his life, which, to judge from the author’s subsequent memoir To Keep the Ball Rolling (1976), appears to have been all but identical to Powell’s own trajectory – Eton, a spell as a publisher interrupted by dull war service, and then a jobbing life, reviewing books and writing the fiction in which he is the least defined character. A biographer of Powell might be expected to winkle out the secret life of the man, to make “Nick Jenkins”/Anthony Powell less opaque to us.

more here.

What Lurks Behind Rabid Sports Fandom? Hooliganism comes down to a fear of death

Mary Pilon in Nautilus:

SportThe soccer match hadn’t even started when the cops showed up. On the streets of Marseille, France, the officers—helmeted, shields in hands, batons on belts—charged through a crowd to break up a thicket of English and Russian fans who were hurling bottles, threats, and insults at each other. Some fans were bare-chested, caked with dried blood, screaming at the top of their lungs. Others clutched plastic cups of beer while trying to avoid the clouds of tear gas. The scene broke up when a knot of fans left for the hospital to have injuries treated, or in handcuffs with a cop at their side. The brawl happened in June at the beginning of the Euro 2016 soccer tournament. But the annals of extreme fan behavior are Biblical in scope. Fans in Constantinople in A.D. 532 spent a week violently rioting after a chariot race in what historians today call the “Nika riots.” It’s estimated that thousands died. In the Sydney Riot of 1879, an umpire decision at a cricket match led to 2,000 spectators storming the pitch and “a scene of confusion ensued, and blows were received and returned,” according to a local newspaper. Unruly fan behavior at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, home of the Eagles, got so bad over the decades that in 1997 it had its own in-stadium courtroom to deal with fans urinating in sinks, smuggling alcohol, and fighting in the stands. In 2011, Pennsylvania State University students clashed with cops as they protested the termination of football coach Joe Paterno in the wake of a pedophilia scandal. Two years later, 17 people were killed in post-boxing match riots in Indonesia. What is it about sports that drives us to the psychological fringe? For eons, sports have been a cesspool of metaphors: sports are war, sports are religion, sports are business, sports are love, sports are hate. Sports are life. But according to a branch of social psychology called terror-management theory, the answer is not found in the bleachers, it’s found in the graveyard. Sports are not about life. They’re about death.

An outgrowth of Ernest Becker’s 1974 Pulitzer-Prize winning tome, The Denial of Death, terror-management theory posits that human beings experience a psychological conflict between wanting to live and realizing death’s inevitability. In Becker’s view, the world is terrifying and human behavior is motivated by a biological need to cope with anxiety. “This is the terror,” Becker writes. “To have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die.” In an uncertain world, death is the only thing that is a given. The “main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death,” Becker writes. So we adopt a hero system that permits us to believe that death is transcended when we participate in something immortal, something that will last beyond us: an empire, a religion, a sports team.

More here.

Philippa Foot was one of a group of brilliant women philosophers who swam against the tide of 20th-century moral thought

Nakul Krishna in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_2911 Nov. 29 11.06"In moral philosophy it is useful, I believe, to think about plants." The words were spoken to an audience of American philosophers in 1989. The speaker was trying to provoke a reaction, but this might have gone unnoticed. After all, Philippa Foot – nearly 70 by then – didn’t look like a heretic.

There is a clue in her reference to moral philosophy. For at least the past 200 years, people who have thought about these things have suspected – or hoped – that morality is the one thing that sets human beings apart from nature (or should one say, the rest of nature?). Nature is the realm of laws, stern and unbreakable, and morality that of freedom. Nature is how things are, morality how they ought to be. If there’s anything to these points of contrast, then what seems at first a mere platitude sounds more like an absurdity. We are not, in the relevant sense, part of nature – not even of that part of nature that consists in our fellow animals, and, still less, plants.

Have we anything to learn about morality from plants? This might well depend on that bigger question: are we, or aren’t we, part of nature? One of the many things that set Foot and her allies in philosophy apart from others of their generation was their refusal to make an either/or of it.

More here.

Researchers work to make phage therapy less of a long shot

Eric Boodman in Stat:

MalloryCroppedThe researcher couldn’t get Mallory Smith’s story out of her mind. Smith was a 25-year-old cystic fibrosis patient, and she was near death at a Pittsburgh hospital, her lungs overwhelmed by bacteria. All antibiotics had failed. As a last resort, her father suggested an experimental treatment known as phage therapy.

That meant giving her viruses known as bacteriophages — phages for short — which naturally parasitize bacteria. But not any phage would do. Smith needed one perfectly evolved to kill the microbes in her lungs. Urgent messages were beamed around the world, over email and Twitter, from one phage researcher to another. Was there someone, somewhere, who had the right virus tucked away in a fridge at the back of a lab?

That’s how Jessica Sacher heard about Smith. As a grad student experimenting on phages at the University of Georgia, she’d stumbled across a STAT article about the desperate virus hunt. She mentioned it to a friend she’d met through swing dancing, a tech consultant and developer named Jan Zheng. He knew there had to be a more efficient way to find the right virus when a patient’s life depended on it. “Using Twitter for this kind of stuff is ridiculous,” said Zheng. “It won’t scale to more than one or two patients.”

Over breakfast on Nov. 13, the two hatched a plan to create a Phage Directory to accelerate the search for a perfect match. That same day, scientists found a phage that could kill Smith’s bacteria, but she died two days later at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The website was launched just two days after that.

More here.

Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Our World

Thomas Jones in the London Review of Books:

41gsabhQ9AL._SX320_BO1 204 203 200_In August, a man with a sword was arrested near Buckingham Palace on suspicion of preparing to commit an act of terrorism. Westminster Magistrates Court heard that the man, an Uber driver from Luton, had intended to go to Windsor Castle but his satnav directed him to a pub called The Windsor Castle instead. Without stopping for a drink, he drove on to Buckingham Palace. It isn’t clear if he was still relying on the satnav for the final stage of his journey, or whether rage at the mistake was a motivating factor in his alleged offence. Three police officers were said to have received minor injuries; presumably he hadn’t stopped to ask them for directions.

Greg Milner includes a few stories about satnav fails in Pinpoint, his lively history of satellite navigation technology – his central chapter is called ‘Death by GPS’ – but one of the eye-opening things about his book is quite how far-reaching the tech is. As well as guiding missiles and encouraging motorists not to pay attention to road signs or even to the road ahead of them, GPS is used in crop management, high frequency trading, weather forecasting, earthquake measurement, nuclear-detonation detection and space exploration, as well as the smooth running of countless infrastructure networks, from electricity grids to the internet.

GPS, which stands for Global Positioning System, was developed by the American military. The US Department of Defence currently spends more than a billion dollars a year maintaining it. There are 31 GPS satellites orbiting the earth, all monitored, along with hundreds of other military satellites, from Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado. For the system to work, a receiver on the ground – your mobile phone, for example – needs to have a ‘line of sight’ to at least four of the satellites (there are very few places on earth where it wouldn’t). Each satellite continously broadcasts its position, along with the time the signal left the satellite. The time it takes for the signal to reach you (measured in milliseconds) will tell you exactly how far away it is. Three of these signals provide enough information to pinpoint your position; the fourth confirms the time used in the calculations. GPS satellites, unlike mobile phones, carry super-accurate atomic clocks, which are continually synchronised with one another. This is necessary for the precision of the positioning system, but many of the applications of GPS make use of it primarily as a timekeeping device.

More here.

Björk’s Visions of an Enchanted Future

171204_r31045Hua Hsu at The New Yorker:

One day, I realized, to my surprise, that Björk was a normal person who did everyday things. Few pop musicians have seemed so futuristic and so weird for as long as she has. Since the early nineteen-nineties, the Icelandic artist has charted extremes—of ecstasy and intimacy, creativity and destruction—always attuned to the possibilities emerging from dance music’s experimental communities. Everything she does feels powered by an intense, full-bodied commitment, as though animated by forces greater than anything the rest of us will ever encounter. So it was shocking when, once, I saw her quietly shopping for CDs. We know that stars are just like us. But Björk has always seemed like her own solar system.

Part of the reason Björk has stood apart is that she projects complete confidence in her own vision, whether it lights on music, politics, performance, or fashion. (Her outfits—think of the swan dress she wore, at the 2001 Academy Awards—were Internet memes before such things existed.) But the most avant-garde aspect of her work has always been her willingness to defy the conventional structures of song. Starting in the early nineties, Björk’s solo albums had a way of translating the all-night euphoria of dance music into short, riotous bursts of sound.

more here.

The Damascus Journals

TramwayRoua Horanieh at The Millions:

It’s July 2011 and I’m walking the streets of Damascus, my streets; nowhere else in the world have I taken ownership of the streets. The pavement and the dirt, it’s all mine and no one can take it. The air smells of orange blossom and jasmine. It smells of onions and garlic frying up for lunch in every single house along my way. The air is so dry you can hear yourself breathe.

I decide to go up the mountain of Qasioun. I hail a taxi, a yellow car with a driver wearing a printed shirt, polyester trousers, worn flip flops and a towel around his neck. He has a plastic bottle of water at arm’s reach. All sorts of furry things are dangling in the interior of his car. Flashing “i love you” signs with little red lights, teddy bears, miniature triplet dogs sitting on the dashboard whose heads wiggle with the car’s movement; fuchsia feathers, heart-shaped pillows, a small Quran and prayer beads hanging from the rearview mirror. By the steering whel is a picture of a belly dancer with a lot of make up and glamorous oriental clothing, and a picture of the driver’s children. The radio is on; it’s the woman with the sensual voice.

It’s a city of contrasts.

I remember walking into a kinky lingerie shop in the old market. It was run by an old pious man. He was selling women’s underwear with zippers and feathers and bright coloured flashing lights. You could clap and one pair of underwear would fall off, top and bottom. A friend of mine bought that one. It actually works. It falls off if you clap. It falls of if you whistle, too.

more here.

The Art and Life of Louise Bourgeois

Salle_1-120717David Salle at the New York Review of Books:

In her long life, Louise Bourgeois experienced both extremes of the female artist story—marginalization, even invisibility early on, and decades later a fierce and passionate following by younger artists and curators. Her status was based on an independence from fashion, and on calling attention to emotions that most people prefer to keep hidden: shame, disgust, fear of abandonment, jealousy, anger. Occasionally, joy or wonder would surface, like a break in the clouds. But Bourgeois was an artist, not a therapist. Her imagination was tied to forms, and how to make them expressive. Her gift was to represent inchoate and hard-to-grasp feelings in ways that seem direct and unfiltered.

Deborah Wye, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator emerita of prints and illustrated books, has put together an elegant and revealing exhibition of Bourgeois’s graphic work, prints, and printed books—some 265 images, made with a wide variety of techniques, all from the museum’s extensive holdings, along with related drawings, early paintings, and a small selection of sculptures that show their reciprocity with the drawn forms. Wye, who organized the first Bourgeois retrospective at MoMA in 1982, as well as a survey of Bourgeois’s drawings in 1994, has devoted much of her professional life to the artist and knew her well, and this show must be something of a victory lap for her.

more here.

Fatty liver disease

Herb Brody in Nature:

LiversA healthy adult liver is a thing of beauty — a 1.5-kilogram, reddish-brown biochemical processing plant of extraordinary versatility and efficiency. From inside the abdomen, it performs an array of tasks: manufacturing proteins, metabolizing drugs, detoxifying the blood and secreting the bile that is needed for digestion. And especially high on the liver’s to-do list is regulating the amounts of sugar, protein and fat that enter the bloodstream.

Unfortunately, the increasing prevalence of obesity in the past few decades has led to a surge in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), in which liver cells become bloated with droplets of fat. Although NAFLD can often be reversed through exercise and weight loss, for many people it is the start of a more serious condition called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). From there, the liver can deteriorate further to fibrosis and cirrhosis (scarring), which can lead to serious illness or even death. Diagnosing NAFLD early is essential to halting the progression. That calls for better and less-invasive methods of detection than liver biopsy — and ultrasound and magnetic-resonance-imaging tools are beginning to fulfil this need. Researchers have found a strong connection between NAFLD and the bacteria that inhabit the intestines. And worryingly, the condition is starting to be seen in children, probably owing to a combination of genetic susceptibility and a high-fat diet (S96). Fortunately, recognition of the increasing prevalence of NAFLD and NASH is spurring the drug industry to get into gear.

More here.