Category Archives: Society


“We see in order to move; we move in order to see.” —William Gibson

Nomadic herding takes place throughout North Africa and much of Asia in areas where the climate is too extreme to support permanent settled agriculture. There are two forms of nomadism; Total nomadism, where the nomad has no permanent home, and semi-nomadism, where the nomad may have a seasonal home.

The Sahel, a semi-arid belt of tropical grassland and desert shrub land on the southern edge of the Sahara is home to 25 million people. Most of the land is used by pastoral nomadic herdsmen. The nomads live in individual tribes and raise herds of cattle, sheep, goats and camels. These herds provide them with meat, milk, skins and transport. They camp in one place until the pasture is exhausted and then migrate in search of fresh vegetation.

Good pasture depends upon rainfall. There is no clear migratory pattern but migration routes increase in size under adverse conditions. In the Sahel the drought which began in 1968, providing less and less water and grass, has meant that the animals are the source of life. In dire conditions, the nomads will not part with their animals.

As the Sahel drought got worse the nomads drifted southwards, competing for water and pasture with livestock of the farming villages. This created shortages for nomad and farmer alike. Other factors aggravating this problem are increases in the number of people and livestock due to the spread of medicine and veterinary services. The population increase created a demand for more food. The increase in livestock made water and pasture necessary. As pasture shrinks overgrazing becomes inevitable.

In northern Kenya the Rendille nomadic herders find that rainfall is too low and unreliable to support settled agriculture. The Rendille have learnt how to survive an extreme environment. They rely on their animals for everything. Once they hear there is more rain elsewhere they pack their limited possessions and move on. Camels and to a lesser extent goats can survive for the time it takes to reach this destination, however this cannot continue indefinitely.

Their way of life is changing because land is becoming overpopulated and resources over-stretched as the numbers of people and animals increase. Consequently as droughts continue, pastoralists are forced to move to small towns.

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Society


Moral Panics

“Perhaps more than any other disease before or since, syphilis in early modern Europe provoked the kind of widespread moral panic that AIDS revived when it struck America in the 1980s. ” —Peter Lewis Allen

A moral panic, according to Barrat seems to be directly related to deviance. In the form I have chosen to display it, it is also an instance of deviance, of the so called ‘youth culture’ deviance. Since the Second World War, Britain has had to face a changing youth culture. This dramatic change, from a seemingly general passiveness and conformity, to a consumer with freedom, financially and socially. Teenagers, after the war found themselves earning a wage closer to that of the generation above them which ultimately ended up in their dependence upon the older generation as less important, therefore they had more freedom and were more able to express themselves as they wanted. This change in the nature and quality of life for the younger generation consequently resulted in various other culture groups forming within society among the younger generation. I am attempting to explain the nature of society with regards to deviance in ‘youth culture’s’ as it is directly relevant to the example of a ‘moral panic’ that I am to give. I shall be using the upsurge of ‘Acid House’ parties in the late eighties, and shall try to explain this in the form of a moral panic as Stanley Cohen did with the ‘Mods and Rockers’ phenomena.

Acid house parties really came into the limelight in the late eighties, especially 1989/90, when they received much popularity and publicity due mainly to the mass media. It must be stressed that a ‘moral panic’, a social phenomena which causes a public outcry amongst ‘right thinking members of society’ due to second-hand information being passed on is directly related to the media. People’s knowledge and opinion of certain events or trends are generally influenced greatly by what they read in papers, what they see on television, and by what they hear on the news. Consequently, it is the mass media that generally creates a ‘moral panic’.

The ‘sceptical’ revolution in criminology and the socially of deviance is different from the older style which was ‘canonical’ in the sense that it saw the concepts it worked with as authoritative, standard, accepted, given, and unquestionable. Cohen describes the new tradition in his book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics”, as ‘sceptical’ because when it sees terms like ‘deviant’, it asks ‘deviant to whom?’ or ‘deviant from what?’; ‘and when certain conditions or behaviour are described as dysfunctional, embarrassing, threatening or dangerous, it asks ‘says who?’ and ‘why?’. In other words, these concepts and descriptions are not taken for granted.

One of the major problems is that of ‘labelling’. The ‘labelling theory’ states that their is a good chance of those being labelled, derogatively or otherwise, will meet the prerequisites of the status they have been assigned by others, normally a representative of the establishment, e.g. teacher’s, politicians etc. This self-fulfilling prophecy seems to be a very important part of the creation of ‘moral panics’, the mass media being the major instrument of voicing a general view of what the ‘right thinking members of society’ ‘should’ think. Thus creating a one-sided view of the situation, and with regards to the popular press, we know that information is often used in a way to help spice up a good story, whether it be placing more attention and space to it, or making it one sided by leaving out the major opposing arguments. The biggest problem can lie in what is left out of a report, as David Glover said: ‘Though it is fairly easy to recognise prejudiced or loaded phrases and questions it is harder to identify ‘incompleteness’ in a news report or a current affairs programme.’

The papers also use ‘social experts’ and other professional people and people in authority. The good part of the public usually accepts these views without question, whether because this is what they want to believe or because society has taught them to be submissive and accept authority without question. These people in ‘authority’ also seem to be the furthest people from the particular problem and have no first hand experience of the situation. Cohen says that the information the public receive is second-hand, and it is another point to add that the papers usually receive the information second-hand themselves, therefore when the public does receive the information, a lot has been lost along the way.

In order to explain the creation of a moral panic, I am going to use the prevalence of so called ‘Acid House Parties’ in the late eighties. The term ‘Acid House Party’ comes from the appearance of many songs using the words ‘acid’ or ‘aciiiid’, the yellow smiley faces which were common on such records at the time, which became a symbol of this particular youth culture for a while. All these references refer, of course, to acid or trips, the drug which was and still is very cheap and widely available almost everywhere in the country. The mass media hooked on to the term, and consequently, almost any type of party or whether it had been officially organised or not, came to be known as ‘Acid House Parties’. The media had caught on to the present dance and drug scene, which probably wasn’t much worse than it was previously, but the prominence of the ‘smiley face – acid song’, as well as an upsurge of so called ‘raves’ at the time.

The ‘scene’ received much bad publicity from the popular press and thus led to a public outcry for the police to clamp down on illegal raves and drug dealers etc. The acid house parties were seen as deviant, and those who organised and attended the parties were condemned and regarded as deviants. The media distorted and exaggerated the facts, which led to the public concern of ‘something must be done’. The authorities are put under pressure as they are seen to be doing nothing, therefore they intervene. Obviously there were illegal occurrences taking place, selling drugs for example. This situation leads to what is called by sociologists as ‘deviancy amplification’. The hype in the paper etc. lead to the ‘scene’ becoming more popular amongst certain youths, it is seen as exciting and larger than life. The more people getting involved in the scene obviously leads to more and larger parties being thrown. ‘Dodgey’ promoters hold ‘rip off’ parties as a result of the media claiming that large profits are being made. Drug dealers are attracted to the parties as the media emphasise the drugs being taken. Thus the acid House culture becomes more popular and widespread.

This particular youth culture, like any other has its own symbols and trademarks. The Mods have their Parker jackets, scooters etc., the Rockers have their swastika’s, studs etc., skinheads with , obviously shaved heads, and bovver boots etc. The Acid House Culture also had theirs, as with other groups their are different strata’s within this group as well. However, it was easy to identify a ‘raver’, there were dungarees and surreal ‘acid’ jumpers, at the beginning there was the obvious ‘smiley face’ badges, T-shirts etc., BodyGlove, a make of clothes was very popular and very expensive, and there was the very popular bandanna which were seen everywhere at ‘raves’. Obviously not all people wearing these particular clothes were ravers or drug takers, but the scene and its members had been labelled.

To continue, this ‘amplification’ led to more news coverage, increased police activity and further public concern. The Government intervened here and passed the ‘Graham Bright Bill 1989’, which imposed heavy fines and sentences on promoters of illegal parties, and the police intensified their raids. Legislation had been passed because of the ‘moral panic’ that had arisen from the massive negative publicity that this scene received. Lots of arrests were made, action was being taken to confirm the validity of the initial reaction. This is the moral panic as illustrated through the ‘Acid House’ scene.

It seems as though these episodes of ‘moral panic’ are part fabrications and part exaggerations. David Barrat, in his book ‘Media Sociology’ tells us that moral panics not only appear on a national scale but also within local communities. He states that local media, newspapers and radio, often run campaigns on issues ranging from ‘juggernauts’ to ‘gypsies’. Most people are aware of local issues that have created a local outcry, such as new-age travellers or drug dealers in their community. These can also lead to moral panics. Barrat gives us five things in particular to look out for: 1. Distortion and exaggeration, inaccuracies in reporting and language (‘military’ and ‘animal’ analogies are common). 2. The classification of unconnected events under the umbrella of the ‘deviant’ label. 3. Evidence of ‘official’ responses (societal reaction) and policy changes. 4. The relative space given to different groups (hierarchy of access). 5. Evidence of ‘effects’ on the behaviour and self-concepts of those who are labelled.

It is this sort of activity, according to Barrat, that we should look out for to possibly identify the occurrence of a moral panic. Barrat emphasises various aspects of the factors that create a moral panic. He says that, as Cohen and Young (1981) have argued, the “‘moral panic’, unlike a rumour, is not a process everyone can join in ‘democratically’, contributing their own slant on the message like a game of Chinese whispers.” This is partly the result of mass communication, which is a ‘one-way’ process of communication. As Barrat states, there is no equal access, and the views of the powerful occupy a privileged position in the media. In the case of reports of ‘deviance’, as already mentioned, the view aired is usually that of professionals, e.g. opinions of “judges and magistrates, of members of parliament and senators, of police chiefs and senior officers, and of those public figures who claim a mandate as the ‘moral guardians’ of society.” We rarely receive a first hand account from ‘deviants’ themselves.

Much of the problem with regards to ‘moral panics’ seems to be the lack of communication between members of different groups of society. Most post-war youth cultures seem to have been ostracised by the mass media, and consequently, those ‘right thinking members of society’ who seem to believe everything they are told by the establishment, even when hyped up and exaggerated.

These ‘youth cultures’, according to Cohen (Folk Devils and Moral Panics), find a solution to what they see as a problem. For example, the Mods were bored and disillusioned and wanted to be free to do what they wanted, therefore they hit the road. They went to Clacton, Brighton etc. and were ostracised and condemned without total justification. Obviously there was trouble, but a lot of this seemed to happen after they had already been labelled as ‘a bad group’, and they were consequently turned away from cafes etc. They found a solution to their problem but were condemned for it. It does seem that moral panics will continue, and it is unlikely that they will ever disappear, therefore Cohen’s ‘folk devils’ will continue to be created: “This is not because such developments have an inexorable inner logic, but because our society as present structured will continue to generate problems for some of its members – like working-class adolescents – and then condemn whatever solutions these groups find.”


All quotes and information regarding Stanley Cohen from – Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Chaucer Press, 1972.

All quotes and information regarding David Barrat from – Media Sociology-(Society now), Tavistock Publications, 1986.

The Sociology of the Mass Media, David Glover, Causeway Press, 1984.

Policing the Crisis-Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, Stuart Hall et al, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1979. (background)

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Society


Liberty in the Post-Industrial Society

“We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than that only freedom can make security secure.” —Karl Popper

Do the ideas of 19th century philosophers on ‘liberty’ have any relevance to society following the advent of the ‘technological revolution.’

“Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”(1) So speaks Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

The character Gradgrind expresses the Utilitarian view held by ‘philosophical radicals’ of the nineteenth century such as Jeremy Bentham, a friend and close political associate of one James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill.

What is particularly interesting about this admittedly loose connection is that Theodore Roszak in Cult of Information (1986) begins the chapter entitled ‘The Politics of Information'(2) with this same quote and lends weight to my argument that the ideas of 19th century philosophers, and John Stuart Mill in particular, have a direct relevance in today’s society and the society that we may find ourselves in tomorrow.

Allow me to elucidate. Roszak’s work, subtitled ‘The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking’ deals with the rise in the status of ‘information’ through three decades of rapid technological advancement and puts forward the view that “like the unfortunate emperor in the parable, the computer has been overdressed with false claims by those with something to gain by it-elements in our society who are making some of the most morally questionable uses of computer power”.

The abuse of technological power is rife in today’s society and there are many examples of computers being used as a tool to control the masses rather than as an aid to the advancement of society and the benefit of the individual. It is particularly sad that those who have set out to subvert the development of technology in an effort to bring it to the people have generally failed.

In 1984 with its Orwellian overtones a company started by two college ‘kids’ in a garage launched a new computer; “Apple announced the Macintosh’s arrival with the most famous advertisement in the history of the high tech industry. Into a dismal workhouse full of inmates with shaven heads, being harangued by the magnified face of Big Brother on an oversized screen, runs a brave young woman athelete who hurls a sledgehammer at the screen, shattering the image of Big Brother. The symbolism may seem overblown now but at the time it represented the way Jobs [Steve -, then head of Apple] fel about himself, Apple, and the Macintosh. IBM then seemed to be an unstoppable force, and Jobs saw himself and his computer as instruments of liberation and democracy”(3)

The two ‘kids’ were Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak. The computer was the Apple, it was built out of surplus chips from the aviation industry and along with the Altair was one of the first ‘personal computers’. But, I hear you cry, where is the argument concerning liberty? Liberty, in at leat one form at any rate, is concerned with freedom, and Jobs and Wozniak brought a stake in the computer revolution to the man on the street.

There is always the possibility for corruption unless society ceases to exist. Therefore, perhaps Jobs’ view that he was bringing ‘liberation and democracy’ to people was founed on the belief that the big corporations were treating their users as if they belonged to them and were under obligation to support them. This is typical of IBM’s attitude to business in the 1970s.

Generally speaking, most major technological developments are related to the military, usually through research grants etc. This means that a situation occurs that Marx would have attacted as strongly as he did capitalism. Technology is power. In capitalism the means of production are held by the few and the proletariate are shackled to the system. In a society where the military has all the computers it is not difficult to envisage a police state.

In Singapore today computers pervade every part of daily life. Any transaction that takes place, all the work of government and its services, including the police and military, is monitored and controlled by computer. Every citizen carries an electronic identification card. The possibilities are terrifying. The British government wants to introduce a similar identity card scheme. It has said it will not force people to carry them but once retailers start asking for them, then the police, they will become a requirement.

In the past there have been many views of liberty but there are two that arise on a regular basis; the negative and positive ideas. The positive holds that a man is unfree to do something when is prevented by his passions. However, in today’s society this is seldom the case. Governments have legislated against most known drugs with no other function than to induce good feelings and they the British government have made it clear that were alcohol introduced for the first time tomorrow they would ban it. This may sound like a good idea but then you are unfree to do as you wish, to ‘shoot up’ on heroin, ‘drop’ ecstasy, smoke ‘dope’ or just get plain old drunk.

It then becomes clear that we live in a society where the negative view of liberty becomes prevalent. This states that a man is unfree to do something if another preventing him from doing so. The government is preventing you from being free by introducing legislation. If freedom then is the specific liberty to ‘do as you please’ (Plato) then the government would probably rather stamp it out so that everything you do would be covered by some legislation. With the introduction of technology they now have the means to do this.

Did you know, for instance, that many of the automatic teller (cashpoint) machines that you use on a regular basis have hidden video cameras behind them? They are there to catch fraudulent card users but in a society that already has a declining level of freedom, some would argue, how far down the line is it until the government is using these cameras to monitor suspected dissidents etc.?

After the Hegelian period of thought follow Marx, Mill and Bakunin and others. Mill argues for absolute freedom of action. The freedom to do what you want, but with the proviso that no one else must come to harm because of your actions.

. Marx argues that liberty does not come from being free to do as you wish but from society.

In his lecture on Individual liberty J.P.Day points to the generally accepted view of liberty. Day is only concerned with individual liberty and he defines this by what it is not, i.e. collective liberty of religious organisations, individual liberties (as separate entities) etc. Individual liberty then is the freedom of the individual and it is this ‘moral right’ that he argues must be safeguarded. It may only be restrained, he argues, “if the moral obligation to respect the right is overborne by some stronger moral obligation”. By this he means that for example C1 is free to do X where X does not impinge on C2 and should C1 attempt to do X if it does then R has a moral obligation to prevent C1 from doing so (where C1 and C2 are subsets (individuals) of the group C (citizens), X is an act causing harm to any C (e.g.. murder) and R (Rex) is the government). Thus if I am free to do as I please I may choose to kill you but this would cause you harm and so the government has a moral obligation to restrict my freedom to prevent your harm.

Day starts out by defining two concepts of liberty, 1) the intrapersonal concept (A is unfree to do X because he is a slave to his passions), and 2) the negative or interpersonal concept (A is unfree to do X because A is restrained by X from doing B; as in the previous example). Day selects the latter definition as the more accurate and goes on at some length to explain it.

He argues for the right of liberty of tastes and pursuits pointing out “R injures each individual C if R deters or prevents him from his pursuit of happiness”. He carries on by essentially summing up the U.N. declaration of HUMAN RIGHTS;
liberty of association (to belong or not to any group of your choice) etc.

Finally he mentions the differences between moralistic, ‘good Samaritan’, and paternalistic legislation. For instance you can legislate to ensure a person’s right to live (moral) and this is acceptable to all, it is negative in that it prevents an ill action from taking place. Also you can legislate to ensure a person’s right to shelter (‘good Samaritan’) however where the person receiving is CN, the group that must support this right with their income is all C. Finally (this time I mean it) You may make paternalistic legislation designed to prevent C from self injury by doing activity X (Day gives the example of taking heroin). Through paternalistic instincts R can seek to protect C from himself based on a ‘moral’ right to do so. However where do you draw the line at self abuse – drinking is bad for you so therefore is not morally right to ban it and set up punishments for those doing so?

Quote from Alduos Huxley, “But if you want to be free, you’ve got to be a prisoner. It’s the condition of freedom – true freedom”. He also discusses ‘Freedom and Liberation’ by Benjamin Gibbs whose main conviction lies in the belief that a free society is “one that makes its people do what is right and good…[while also] making them desire to do it understanding it is right and good”. Again we get the subjective moral judgement of the majority over the minority (see other lectures).

Flew claims Gibbs is quite critical of Mill’s theories of liberty, almost a ‘mirror image’, but Gibbs responds to this claim in the following lecture. Flew criticises Gibbs’ terms of liberty but he does not give the whole picture. The main argument is over whether a person who sells himself into slavery is free because he has chosen to do so. Flew argues he is not, Gibbs that he is.

Gibbs states that Flew has made a ‘grotesque misrepresentation’ of ‘Freedom and Liberation’ and that he was misguided to couple his views of freedom with the phrase from ‘1984’.

Gibbs notes that freedom has different meanings and tries to correct the ‘damage done’. Gibbs’ work is concerned with the rights and wrongs of slavery (see above). He also argues that liberty is not necessarily violated when people are coerced to conform to a given set of moral standards, he raises the examples of life style , alcohol abuse etc.

In Liberty & Compulsory Education, P. Gardner presents the argument that we treat children as having fewer rights than adults and that this is the reason we treat them the way we do. He refers to Mill’s ‘Subjection of Women’ and likens it to our treatment of children. He also points out that it is not usual for unruly adults to be sent to corrective schools (while they remain inside the law), or for illiterate, inummerate and otherwise socially handicaped grown-ups to be sent to institutions to correst their problems. Why then, he asks, do we force our children to go to school.

He continues to argue that children have as many rights as any other group of individuals and it is only because society as a whole refuses to think in this way that the process of ‘subjecting’ children is legitimated. In other words the ‘moral’ majority has control over the minority (children) and while the intentions may be good the result is a restriction of freedom. This refers back to arguments for individual liberty (see previous lectures).

Shelly’s ‘Prometheus’ shows another idea of freedom, the stoic, as the man enchained by the ruler of the rulers and discusses the idea of ‘Promethean Freedom’ which I cannot claim to fully understand. He goes on to show that the true spirit of freedom that cannot be shackled (as in the quote) is that of inner sanctum. You still remain free to some degree until they take away your life.

He refers to Marx’s view that materialism reduces freedom. He also mentions Thomas Mann’s ‘Dr Faustus’, “Law, every law, has a chilling effect, and music has so much warmth anyhow, stable warmth, cow-warmth…that she can stand all sorts of regulated cooling off–she has even asked for it”

D. A. Lloyd Thomas discusses the relationship between property and liberty and Mill’s arguments about property rights and freedom. The simplest way to sum up Mill is to say ‘Do what you like’-Plato, ‘but don’t harm anyone’. First part fine, last part subjected to moral judgements (if you kill yourself do you harm your family?). One argument runs you are only free if you have the means to do what you want to do. I’m free to travel to Mars. No-one is stopping me from going. The problem is I am earthbound because space travel costs money. However, it could be argued that money itself is a restriction on freedom quid pro quo ‘all property is theft’-trad.

1) page 1 Hard Times by Charles Dickens (Oxford University Press 1989)

2) page 180 The Cult of Information by Theodore Roszak (Paladin Books 1988)

3) ‘The Computer Wars’ – James Fallows, published in the New York Review of Books, Volume XLI, Number 6, March 24, 1994

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Politics, Society


British Costal Erosion

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.” —Ansel Adams

In the 1980s, costal erosion was a major problem along the coast from Overstrand to Trimingham. What this erosion does is to destroy land. For instance from 1885 to 1970 this coastline has receeded a quater of a kilometer inland. The sea causes erosion in three main ways:

First longshore drift, this is when the sea washes beach material down the coast and away from the cliff, leaving the cliff exposed to the full force of the sea.

Secondly hydraulic action, this occurs when powerful waves lash the cliff face, forcing air into tiny cracks. The pressure that builds up enlarges the cracks and weakens the cliff.

Finaly corrasion, or abrasion, occurs when the sea churns pebbles and sand against the base of the cliff.

All of these processes are attacking the cliff and in addition the cliff is weakened by cliff face erosion. People are affected directly by the cost of replacing what is lost. The land that is lost is covered by trees, vegitation, forests, roads, housing, farmland, soils, heritage, churches, castles, sites of antiquity, industry etc. Replacing buildings and relocating communications is very expensive. It is impossible to renew our heritage. Farm land is very expensive, but there is an even worse problem when an industry loses land. Even if the factory is not destroyed, the company will in all likelyhood look for a new site elsewhere. This causes unemployment and stretches people to the limits of their budget.

In the previous example of costal erosion between 1885 and 1970 mostly farmland was lost but also St. Michaels Church. One road had to have a major diversion built in it because part of the old route had fallen away. As mentioned the coastline has receeded inland. This has happened along roughly three kilometers of coastline.

In a hundred years time, without improvement in defences, the coastline will have receeeded a further square kilometer. This will take more land, most notably Manor Farm, and buildings, especialy historicaly important St. John the Baptists Church. Not only that, a substantial amount of housing will be lost along with road links and of course all the pipes and wires that run under the roads, i.e. phone lines, water, gas etc.

It is important to take steps to prevent this now which will cost far less than allowing further disruption. The coastline from Overstrand to Trimingham is roughly three kilometers in length. The options and the costs are as follows:

Sea walls £2,000 every 1m
Groynes £6,000 every 2m
Revetments £1,000 every 1m
Gabions £0,350 every 1m

The most effective sea defence is sea walls used in conjunction with groynes. However this costs £15m budget (£10m over budget). Although it must be considered that this will last the longest. Because there is not this money I recommend that revetments be used, which cost half as much as sea walls, along the entire coast affected. This will cost £3m and a further £90K for groynes along the same coast with groynes to prevent long shore drift.

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Society


Minds, Brains and Science

“It’s a lot easier to see, at least in some cases, what the long-term limits of the possible will be, because they depend on natural law. But it’s much harder to see just what path we will follow in heading toward those limits.” —K. Eric Drexler

“As computers become more and more complicated, it becomes harder and harder to understand what goes on inside them. With gigabytes of RAM and access to databases comprising almost the whole of human knowledge, it isn’t inconceivable that a research project could go berserk… a virus could blossom beyond its creator’s wildest imagination… a program designed to unify information might begin to learn from the information that it has compiled”

This view of machine intelligence has gained wide appeal in an audience unaware of the realities of technology, fed on cyberpunk science fiction and paranoid about computers taking over the world. In Minds, Brains & Science Searle is primarily concerned with disproving this notion of thinking digital computers (as apart from other types of computers, possibly yet to be invented). Part of the problem of deciding whether or not computers are capable of thought lies in our lack of understanding of what thought actually is. Thus his first theme is “how little we know of the functioning of the brain, and how much the pretension of certain theories depends on this ignorance.”

In a round about way Searle does in fact include other types of computers. He has asserted that a perfect copy of the brain that looks and works the same way is only a simulation. Searle admits that the minds of the title cannot very well be defined, that it is still not completely clear how brains work, and that any discipline with the word science in the name probably isn’t one. Notably one that to all intents and purposes is, is Computer Science.

Searle begins by defining the mind-body problem. Penrose defines it thus, “In discussions of the mind-body problem, there are two separate issues on which attention is commonly focused: ‘How is it that a material object (a brain) can actually evoke consciousness?’; and conversely; ‘How is it that a consciousness, by the action of its will, can actually influence the (apparently physically determined) motion of material objects?’” Searle adds the question, “How should we interpret recent work in computer science and artificial intelligence – work aimed at making intelligent machines? Specifically, does the digital computer give us the right picture of the human mind?”.

Searle rejects the dualist view of the physical world, governed by the laws of nature, being separate from the mental world, being governed by free will. He defines four mental phenomena that make up the processes of the brain as consciousness, intentionality, subjectivity, and causation. He says, “All mental phenomena… are caused by processes going on in the brain,” adding, “Pains and other mental phenomena are just features of the brain”. By this he means that all experience takes place in the mind as distinct from the external, physical message. He gives the example of a patient who undergoes an operation. He is under anaesthetic and hence in his view of reality he suffers no pain from the surgeon’s knife. The physical action is there but the mental consequence is suppressed.

Searle deals with the four requirements for an analysis of the mind in turn. He explains that consciousness involves “certain specific electro-chemical activities going on among neurons or neuron -modules” . He explains that intentionality, drives and desires, can to a degree be proven to exist (in the case of thirst for example). He shows that subjective mental states exist “because I am now in one and so are you”. And he shows that in mental causation thoughts give rise to actions. This brings us back to Penrose’s second question.

If the mind is software to the body’s hardware then it is not so difficult to see how mental causality works. Neither the mind nor computer software have a tangible presence. The mind is held in the matrix of the brain as software is held in the ‘memory’ of a computer. Yet, a thought can result in an action, such as raising an arm because physical signals are sent as software would send physical signals through a computer to raise the arm of a robot. An extension of this thinking gives rise to the notion of the possibility of computer intelligence.

The running theme of the book is Searle’s attempt to counter the claims of proponents of Strong Artificial Intelligence (AI) that computers can be taught to think. Strong AI can be easily refuted if you accept that humans are not taught to think, but advocates of machine intelligence say they are teaching computers to learn. AI is seen by them as the next step in the evolution of the computer towards the ultimate goal of consciousness. Searle says that the digital computer as we know it will never be able to think no matter how fast they get or how much ‘memory’ they have.

In the summer of 1956, a group of academics met at Dartmouth College to explore the conjecture that “every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.” The conjecture was formulated by John McCarthy and the field of enquiry it engendered came to be known as artificial intelligence. The problem as Searle sees it is that the features of intelligence cannot be precisely defined by computer experts in the AI field who end up ignoring at least one of the four mental states in order to get their programs to work. These programs then gain credibility by psychology’s use of them to describe the behaviour as the human mind. Searle points out that when the telegraph was the latest technology it was thought that the brain worked like that.

“There are two ways of thinking about how a machine might approximate human intelligence. In the first model, the goal is to achieve the same result as a human would, although the process followed by a machine and man need not be the similar. (This model of shared result but distinct process describes how computers do arithmetic computation.) In the second model, the goal is not only for the computer to achieve the same result as a person but to do it following the same procedure.”

Advocates of Strong AI believe that given the same information as a human, a computer, following a set process, could derive the same meaning. However, Searle argues there is no distinct process in the human mind for a computer to simulate, and therefore a computer cannot have meaning, one of the five components of human language. “In the case of human beings, whenever we follow a rule we are being guided by the actual content or the meaning of the rule.”

“Language isn’t so much a thing as it is a relationship. It makes no sense to talk about words or sentences unless the words and sentences mean something, For sentences to mean something, their components must be linked together in an orderly way. A linguistic expression must be encoded in some medium—such as speech or writing—for us to know it is there. And there must be people involved in all this too produce and receive linguistic messages.

Thus there are five interrelated components that go to make up human language: meaning (or semantics), linkage (or syntax), medium, expression, and participants.” Searle argues that there can be no meaning in a computer’s understanding of language since it relies on some form of judgement or opinion. It could further be argued that what the computer receives is not in fact a linguistic message but an instruction on how to react.

To some degree you can play around with syntax: ‘Grammar rules break you can; understood still be will you.’ The ‘meaning’ is conveyed and perhaps a computer that looks at individual words could still derive the ‘meaning’. However if we change the sentence to: ‘Can you break grammar rules; will you still be understood?’ then the ‘meaning’ has changed. The words are the same but he order, and meaning, is different. The first is a statement, and there are languages which have this grammatical form such as Tuvan, while the second is clearly a question. How can a computer derive the ‘meaning’ if we do not include the ‘question mark’.

Searle has previously put this idea forward in his Chinese room argument. Chinese characters are passed into a room where an non Chinese speaker follows a set of rules and comes up with a response that is passed out. Searle argues there is no mind in the room. Advocates of strong AI claim the mind works like the room. This does not seem to be the case if we stick to Searle’s four mental states. If this were the case then Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine (a mechanical computer) would, if constructed, have been capable of thought. The argument about the digital computer is that technology doesn’t matter, as in a car, you can change the engine, but it still works the same way.

This can be seen in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine where the computer age arrives a century ahead of time. In this version of history Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine and the steam driven computers of the industrial revolution include “calculating-cannons, steam dreadnoughts, machine guns and information technology”.

As Searle points out, computers follow rules. We don’t have any rules that we follow. If we did then every human being would look and function the same. One brain would be a carbon copy of another. As all brains are unique (especially in the case of identical twins) it is clear that there is no hard and fast rule for building them. They grow. How can you grow a digital computer?

John McCarthy believes that his thermometer has feelings. If you look at the human body as a machine and the mind as part of that machine then it seems clear that machines cannot have feelings as they have no ‘sense receptors’. They may have input devices including audio, video, heat-spectrum or whatever. The point being that the data is converted into something usable at the point it is taken in. In the human brain input comes directly to the brain and is interpreted there. As Searle points out, if someone punches you in the eye then you ‘see stars’ it’s information processed in a visual way. No machine is rigged like us. Nor does Searle believe it ever will be. And, even if it was, he still believes it would be a simulation not a true consciousness. After all, someone has to tell the computer that if it bumps into a wall it hurts because actually when it bumps into a wall it doesn’t hurt it at all. However, you could conceivably build a mobile computer that would feel a ‘pain’ response if it suffered damage. We already have self analysing and repairing computers. This could logically be extended but self-awareness is only one aspect of consciousness.

Self-described postmodernist feminist author Kathy Acker says: “When reality—the meanings associated with reality—is up for grabs, which is certainly Wittgenstein’s main theme and one of the central problems in philosophy and art ever since the end of the nineteenth century, then the body itself becomes the only thing you can return to. You can talk about any intellectual concept and it is up for grabs, because anything can mean anything, any thought can lead into another thought and thus be completely perverted. But when you get to the actual physical act of sexuality, or of bodily disease, there’s an undeniable materiality which isn’t up for grabs. So it’s the body which finally can’t be touched by all our scepticism and ambiguous systems of belief. The body is the only place where any basis for real values exists anymore.”

Perhaps this is the summation of the mind-as-a-computer/body problem. In Japan a great deal of work has been done to achieve a fifth generation of computers with natural languages and heuristic learning capabilities. However, in the main they have been unsuccessful. “Japan has no advantage in software, and nothing short of a total change of national character on their part is going to change that significantly. One really remarkable thing about Japan is the achievement of its craftsmen, who are really artists, trying to produce perfect goods without concern for time or expense. This effect shows, too, in many large-scale Japanese computer programming projects, like their work on fifth-generation knowledge processing. The team becomes so involved in the grandeur of their concept that they never finish the program.”

This is not just the problem of Japan but of computer scientist in general who are approaching the problem from the wrong direction. You cannot craft a brain, children learn to walk and talk without being taught so any computer that computer scientists hope to bestow with intelligence must have a natural learning program. Unfortunately it is still not clear how the concepts of speech are learned and so the future of machine intelligence looks unpromising.

People often ascribe an ‘intelligence’ to (mostly) inanimate objects. The car is a classic example but ships have been called ‘she’ for years. It is easy to see why when writing this essay, for instance, and suffering a ‘crash’ resulting in losing two pages, and many hours of work one is likely to consider the machine ‘evil’ or ‘out to get one’. This is clearly not the case. However, because people generally do not understand what happens inside the ‘box of tricks’ as with the Chinese Room, it is possible for them to ascribe an intelligence when there is not one there. It is also because mankind has become so dependent on technology that paranoia of machines taking over the world has come about.

It does not help the situation when it is fuelled by cyberpunk fiction. The classic text is Gibson’s Neuromancer where a network of computers achieves a single intelligence. This idea is purely fictional but the other public image is more interesting. It derives from the film Blade Runner, and it is of course based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? One of the themes of the book not wholly represented in the film is the idea of the importance of owning an animal. However, since it is a post apocalyptic society most of the animals are dead. While there is a prize on owning a real animal, most people make do with artificial ones. They happily simulate the actions of sheep, cats, frogs or whatever but that is all. They do not think.

An interesting question is raised by the film. At the end when the replicant Batty is dying he says, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe; attack ships on fire off the shores of Orion. I’ve watched sea beams glitter in the darkness at the ten house gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” This raises a philosophical question, “If an android with a computer brain can have ‘experiences’ that he can relate to others and yet is mortal then does he not have inalienable human rights?’

One area where computer simulations of intelligence consistently fail is in producing new creative data. In the area of humour for instance. It is probably impossible to program a computer to make random connections. This is, in part, because there is no such thing as randomness. Einstein’s theory of relativity can be seen to apply to every thought in the human brain as having derived in some way from a previous thought or external stimulus. Let us take an example where a computer would have difficulty; the sick joke. Computers do not know what is in poor taste because they do not have ‘taste’. A computer may be told that a joke about ethnic minorities is in poor taste but it would not be able to come up with a new joke of its own in similar poor taste. Socially this is a ‘good’ thing but in terms of simulating the human mind it is very ‘bad.’

Finally we return to Wittgenstein who sums up Searle’s overall argument when he says: “Meaning is not a process which accompanies a word. For no process could have the consequences of meaning.”

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Society, Technology



“In Hungary acting is a profession. In America it is a decision.” —Bela Lugosi

The Martians. John von Neumann, Edward Teller, Eugene Paul Wigner, Leó Szilárd, Theodore von Kármán, John George Kemeny.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman.

I’m convinced there is a Feynman quote about an early meeting of scientists working on the Manhattan Project where they realized they were all Hungarian speakers and switched to their native language. However, I can’t find it. If you can find it, please post a comment.

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Society


The Rights of Man

“All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.” —Edmund Burke

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was written for a number of reasons but one main one was as a reply to a speech that Edmund Burke made in Parliament against the French Revolution. This speech denounced the Revolution and at the same time praised the existing English system of government.

As Eric Foner says in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Rights of Man, “The Burke-Paine debate was the classic confrontation between tradition and innovation, hierarchy and equality, order and revolution.”

Paine and Burke had been acquaintances for some time before their divergence of ways. Burke had been an advocate of the American revolution and is acknowledged by Paine in his preface to the English edition of Rights of Man; “From the part Mr Burke took…it was natural that I should consider him a friend to mankind.”

It is over the French Revolution and the English government that the great divide came. Burke’s view was that change should come gradually and it should be carried out by the system. Paine saw that in some cases, most of Europe in fact, the system would not accommodate change and must thus be overthrown for the benefit of the ‘nation’ as a whole.

Here they differed again. Paine defined the ‘nation’ as the people who made up the country but Burke saw it in terms of its rulers – the monarchy. While Pained argued for the rights of a ‘nation’ to choose its own form of government, Burke saw government as an inheritance from the past; the right of Monarchs to govern the people, choose their ministers etc. Burke also saw all that which was written on the statute books as binding to all ‘citizens’ of the ‘nation’.

Paine attacks this argument, noting that laws are only valid as long as they are observed and that they may be repealed. While Burke talks at length of the importance of Authority and Religion, Paine uses the religious argument to say that as God created man there was no precedent for him to rule over his kin.

Paine continues this argument to ‘prove’ that democracy is the natural order of man. It is interesting to note how Burke and Paine often use similar arguments but draw very different conclusions. While Burke condemns the revolutionaries as murderous, immoral without respect for the law, Paine speaks of ‘natural law’. He says that when the old order is stagnant it is just to replace it by reasonable means. He points out that the violence was very limited considering its potential reach and where Burke would condemn he praises restraint.

The main difference in the two men’s thinking appears to be based on their view of the ‘masses’. As I have mentioned, Paine saw the nation and its people as one and the same. Burke on the other side of the argument once describes them as “the swinish multitude”. Burke lacks Paine’s compassion for the poor. He would disagree fervently with Paine’s proposals for social welfare through changes in tax, mentioned in Part 2 of Rights of Man.

The main element of disagreement remains the heredity principal and the class structure. As Paine illustrates, the French no longer have use for the titles of Duke and Duchess. In Burke’s mind these class structures in society are the very fabric of society itself, remove them and society will fall. Paine can see that it is man himself who makes society.

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Politics, Society