Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Interdisciplinary Woes

I'm a pretty interdisciplinary person. I've always been the type who would rather know a little bit about a lot of topics than a lot about a few topics--jack of all trades and master of none, if you will. Obviously I've had to focus somewhat as I've gotten more involved in academia, but philosophy is still an incredibly interdisciplinary field of study. It always has been--'philosophers,' traditionally, have played the roles of scientist, literary critic, playwright, mathematician, and a whole host of others--and though recently (i.e. within the last 200 or so years) our province has shrunk a bit, philosophers still commonly call on knowledge from several different areas of academia in the course of their work. This is particularly true in philosophy of mind, I think, which is increasingly overlapping with cognitive neuroscience, a rather new interdisciplinary program at many universities. Still, even if you're working in Medieval philosophy, the ability to synthesize across disciplines is vital. There are, however, some pretty troubling issues in various interdisciplinary programs, as an email I got today from a friend of mine pointed out.

When I was at Berkeley, I double-majored in philosophy and Peace & Conflict Studies (PACS). I've always been pretty interested in human rights, social justice, nonviolence, and similar issues, and this relatively unique program at Berkeley seemed to be a perfect fit when I enrolled as a Freshman. I quickly discovered, though, that the department was fraught with problems--the most severe of which, I think, was a general resistance to critical examinations of foundational assumptions (e.g. that violence is wrong), and an almost religious fervor in defending those assumptions. I'm not saying that everyone in the program was like this--I met some really great people in the PACS program, and was greatly impressed with at least some of the professors--but it was enough of a problem that I noticed, and apparently I'm not alone. I got an email today from a friend in the program saying that one of the more popular courses ended in "crying and a shouting match," as two contingents of the course (one of whom apparently thought that the professor was acting as a western apologist) clashed over how the material was being presented.

I definitely have my suspicions as to whom this altercation involved--I suspect it was the same group I repeatedly clashed with while I was there--but that's not really my point here. I think these kinds of clashes are going to become increasingly common in interdisciplinary programs like PACS, and I think that they're necessary growing pains that departments like this are going to have to go through before they'll be taken seriously by other academics.

The last twenty years or so have seen the emergence of a plethora of "new" academic programs, most of which end in the word 'studies.' Peace & Conflict Studies, Gender Studies, and African-American Studies (to name a few), have all arisen and/or started to become more popular in the last two or three decades. In the beginning, programs of this sort were occupied primarily by "true believers"--that is, people who had a strong (and often orthodox) view on the discipline--and were often pretty homogeneous as a result. PACS-style programs, for instance, have been traditionally attended by far-left leaning individuals interested primarily in activism and working for social justice.

This homogeneity, I think, is one of the reasons that other academics have a hard time taking (for example) PACS seriously. I was talking to John Searle once during his office hours, and mentioned offhand that I was double-majoring in PACS along with philosophy; he was agast. I can't remember his exact words, but they were something like "I always thought majors ending in the word 'studies' did anything but that." He was willing to listen to what I had to say, and I think he accepted some of the points I made about the legitimacy of studying war and violence specifically, but that kind of perception is very wide-spread in academia--as I said, I think that the traditional homogeneity of these disciplines is at least partially to blame. Academia is based, at least in large part, self-criticism and peer review--physics, philosophy, and other "traditionally" academic disciplines have advanced primarily through reasoned criticism from within: the fact that astrophysics has come as far as it has is directly related to the fact that not everyone accepted the belief that the Sun revolved around the Earth as dogma. Similarly, the fact that philosophers, on the whole, no longer accept Logical Behaviorism is related to the sustained and reasoned criticism of the doctrine that other philosophers made throughout the 60s and 70s. In short, a diversity of opinions within a single department is a good thing.

A lot of academics, I think, see the traditional insularity of departments like PACS and think to themselves "They all think more or less the same thing, so why should I listen to them;" philosophers in particular tend to eschew dogmatism. Because of this, I think we should welcome the current trend of breaking up the monotony of "-studies" programs. Even in my four years in PACS at Berkeley, I saw a truly enormous influx of students to the major, which naturally meant a huge influx of opinions. A lot of the people in my classes disliked me because I was unwilling to take assumptions as unquestioned axioms, but toward the end there was a small (but growing) minority of people who shared my desire to make the PACS major a bit more rigorous.

As this trend continues--and as "true believers" are replaced by people who are interested in but critical of the subject--I think we can expect majors like "Peace Studies" to begin to gain respectability, but not without growing pains. The incident my friend alluded to in his email is a manifestation of these growing pains, it seems to me--people who are in the program only to hear their own opinions repeated back to them are naturally going to resent those who seek to bring serious discourse into the classroom; dogmatic people don't like to question their dogma. Still, though, I think in the end the rewards will be worth it: interdisciplinary departments will, at last, begin to have the same recognition and respect shown to them that philosophy, English, biology, and physics do. All we need to do is keep arguing with ourselves.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Quicklink: More Evidence That Everything is Connected

A recent study apparently demonstrates that the perceived flavor of a glass of wine can be significantly impacted by ambient music playing while drinking. Snip:

Four types of music were played - Carmina Burana by Orff ("powerful and heavy"), Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky ("subtle and refined"), Just Can't Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague ("zingy and refreshing") and Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook ("mellow and soft")

The white wine was rated 40% more zingy and refreshing when that music was played, but only 26% more mellow and soft when music in that category was heard.

The red was altered 25% by mellow and fresh music, yet 60% by powerful and heavy music.

The results were put down to "cognitive priming theory", where the music sets up the brain to respond to the wine in a certain way.

Priming, the phenomenon whereby antecedent mental states affect perception, recall, or other cognitive functions, could indeed be responsible for this effect. Still, I think there's a deeper message here: namely, that we need to stop considering brain functions in isolation from one another and start looking at the big picture; let's get holistic!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

On Pain

I got into a discussion on SoapBoxxer this morning about whether or not one can have rape fantasies. I've actually gotten a lot of flack on this subject before, as I got into a similar argument during my Philosophy of Social Science course at Berkeley--I was (in both instances) one of the few who argued that you can't desire to be raped. For some reason, this seems to be kind of a hot button topic--I suppose that's rape for you, though.

In any case, the discussion on SB this morning got me thinking about something that (I think) is a bit more philosophically interesting--whether or not anyone can truly be said to "enjoy pain." My initial position was similar to that on "desiring rape"--that is, that it's a contradiction in terms. 'Pain,' it seems to me, refers to an unpleasant sensation; if someone is enjoying a particular sensation, that seems to necessarily imply that what he is experiencing is not pain, but something else. I've discussed this with a few people throughout the day today, and my System Idle Process has been working on it as well; a few people have given me some pretty compelling arguments that I think need to be addressed--I haven't changed my position, but I have added some more nuance.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, counterexample to the claim "no one can enjoy pain" is the masochist case. Some people (I haven't been able to find a reliable estimate as to how many; if anyone knows, please comment!) claim to "enjoy" pain in the context of sexual activity. The medical term for this is algolagnia. This can take a variety of forms and occur in a variety of severities ranging from liking spankings to being unable to get sexually aroused without a bed of nails to lie on. People who suffer (no pun intended) from this condition claim to legitimately "enjoy" the painful sensations in the context of sexuality. It seems to me that there's something deeply incorrect about that claim, but in order to see what it is, we need to define pain a bit more clearly, I think.

There's a temptation, I think, to define pain causally--e.g. "pain is the sort of sensation that happens when you hit your thumb with a hammer"--a temptation that needs to be resisted, it seems, if we're going to give a coherent account of what pain is. We know that different neurobiological structures can cause individuals to qualitatively experience the same stimulus differently: differences in the structure of the eyes and/or brain can cause one individual to have the same sensation when presented with grass and when presented with a ripe tomato, and I learned today that my own mother is unable to qualitatively tell the difference between sweet and sour tastes. Pain, it seems, works much the same way--differences in neurological structure can cause an individual to develop algolagnia and begin to "enjoy" stimuli that he previously regarded as painful. A causal definition, then, won't work--we can't name any one stimulus that will reliably produce any single sensation in all individuals.

Similarly, we can't define pain behaviorally (i.e. in terms of what actions or dispositions to action it is likely to elicit), for reasons best outlined in Hilary Putnam's discussion of "super-Spartans" in his article "Brains and Behavior." Briefly, the argument goes something like this. Let's suppose that pain is defined behaviorally--that is, a sensation counts as a pain if and only if it disposes the person experiencing it to say ouch, wince, try to get away, etc. Now, let's imagine a community of people who value stoicism above all else; they consider it a terrible display of character weakness to give any sign that one is in pain, even if one is in excruciating agony. Let's call them "super-Spartans." They've disciplined themselves to the point that, though they still experience pain normally, they no longer have even the impulse to act in any of the ways that we would generally consider "pain-behavior" when they feel pain, no matter how great it is. If you were to ask a super-Spartan how it feels to (say) have his arm chopped off with a rusty axe, he would readily admit that it feels absolutely awful, and that the pain is tremendous; however, he would do so with the same nonchalance that he would show when discussing the weather or the price of tomatoes. Behaviorism, it seems, would make this sort of society impossible, but we can clearly conceive of it as a real possibility; behaviorism thus seems to be false. This is a rather quick treatment of a very nuanced issue, so I encourage you to read Putnam's original article.

What's left, then? One obvious choice, I think, is to define pain both qualitatively and indexically (i.e. in the same way that words like 'mine' or 'above' are defined)--in other words, to define it in an observer relative and epistemically subjective way. On this sort of definition, what counts as causing pain (as well as how one behaves when subjected to pain) will vary from person to person (that's the indexical part), but the essential character of the experience remains unchanged. In short, while experience x might be painful to you and not me (and vice-versa with experience y), both experiences share a common (and unpleasant) qualitative character; it is that common qualitative character that we're really referring to when we say 'pain.'

So what does this mean for people who claim to enjoy pain? Why is it the case that my muscle pain after a satisfying workout has an element of pleasure, whereas the same muscle pain, unprecipitated by exercise, would be experienced as significantly more painful? Why can some people claim to enjoy being whipped during sex, while others find the thought horrifying? My view here is akin to my view on color perception--that is, the environment (broadly construed) counts for a lot more in determining the character of an experience than we give it credit for. Apropos, then, a color analogy:

Suppose you cannot stand the color blue, and that your favorite color is green. If I were to ask you "What is your favorite color?" you certainly wouldn't respond with "Well, I really hate blue unless you mix it with yellow, and then I really enjoy it; my favorite color, then, is blue when mixed with yellow." Instead, you'd say "My favorite color is green." When the pigments for blue and yellow (each of which causes a specific qualitative experience in you) are combined, the result is an entirely new substance, which causes an entirely new qualitative experience--that of green. I think something similar is going on in the case of "enjoyed pain."

Obviously the analogy is not perfect--instead of mixing pigments that react with the environment to produce particular sensations in various individuals, we're directly mixing sensations (e.g. pain and sexual arousal). Still, I think the analogy makes an important point: two different things can be less than enjoyable separately, but can be combined to produce a third product that is itself more enjoyable. While it's true that both the pain and the sexual pleasure may be present still in themselves, it seems likely to me that--given the fact that for many people pain is enjoyed only in certain contexts--they combine to produce a third "metaqualia"--or second order qualia--that is itself enjoyable.

So can pain be enjoyable? The simple answer is 'no,' but the complex answer is a bit longer: in certain environments ('environments,' again, construed broadly so as to include facts about individual neurobiology), pain can contribute to pleasurable sensations, but pain itself is still not pleasurable.