May 30, 2016

Crisis+Psy: Poverty in USA; Sanders on Trump; The Empty Brain
Sections                                                                     crisis index

Lock Up the Men, Evict the Women and Children
2. Bernie Sanders Is 'Scared to Death' Hillary Clinton Will
     Lose to Donald Trump

3. The empty brain

This is a Nederlog of Monday, May 30, 2016.

This is a crisis log. It is not a quite normal one, because I found just two articles on the crisis that I want to review, which are the first two items, and I found a third that I review because I am a philosopher and a psychologist, and this is by a psychologist of roughly my age, who claims brains simply are not computers: Item 1 is about an article by Chris Hedges on poverty in the USA, that also shows it is more serious than it is in (Western) Europe (so far, to be sure); item 2 is about Sanders' fears that Trump will beat Clinton if Clinton is the Democrats' presidential candidate (he is mostly quite right); and item 3 is a non-crisis item about the human brain and computers.

1. Lock Up the Men, Evict the Women and Children

The first item is by Chris Hedges on Truthdig:
This starts as follows:
Matthew Desmond’s book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” like Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” is a heartbreaking snapshot of the rapacious exploitation and misery we inflict on the most vulnerable, especially children. It is a picture of a world where industries have been created to fleece the poor, and destroy neighborhoods and ultimately lives. It portrays a judicial system that has broken down, a dysfunctional social service system and the license in neoliberal America to carry out unchecked greed, no matter what the cost.
And I think that is correct. So far, it is less bad in Europe, where I live and where I never have had an income as large as the legal minimum, in spite of being an M.A. with one of the best diplomas ever awarded [1], but it is difficult there as well to survive on a minimal income (and it helps if you don't drink and don't smoke).

Then again, the USA seems considerably worse than Western Europe:
Being poor in America is one long emergency. You teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, homelessness and hunger. You endure cataclysmic levels of stress, harassment and anxiety and long bouts of depression. Rent strips you of half your income—one in four families spend 70 percent of their income on rent—until you and your children are evicted, often into homeless shelters or abandoned buildings, when you fall behind on payments. A financial crisis—a medical emergency, a reduction in hours at work or the loss of a job, funeral expenses or car repairs—can lead inexorably to an eviction. Creditors, payday lenders and collection agencies hound you. You are often forced to declare bankruptcy. You cope with endemic violence, gangs, drugs and a judicial system that permits brutal police abuse and ships you to jail, or slaps you with huge fines, for minor offenses. You live for weeks or months with no heat, water or electricity because you cannot pay the utility bills, especially since fuel and utility rates have risen by more than 50 percent since 2000. Single mothers and their children usually endure this hell alone, because the men in these communities are locked up. Millions of families are tossed into the street every year.
This is considerably worse than in Europe (so far, to be sure: The TTIP will probably make it a lot worse soon after it is accepted). I have teetered "on the edge of bankruptcy" and "homelessness" but I never starved and I also never paid half or more of my income on rent (though if I add energy and health insurance I pay over half of my monthly income to these items + rent).

Here is some background information:
We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prison population. More than 60 percent of the 2.2 million incarcerated are people of color.
And here is some more:
The working poor, now half of the country, have fallen to levels of misery unseen since the Great Depression. One in eight renting families in the United States was unable to meet rent payments in 2013, Desmond writes.
Note that "one in eight" = "12.5%" - which is ridiculously high. As to the "levels of misery": To the best of my knowledge, the misery was greater (so far, to be sure) in the Great Depression, but with president Trump, if that is what he is going to be, these levels may be very soon reached.

Also, the quotations were taken from the first of three pages, which are all recommended reading: I think Chris Hedges does tell the truth, and while I agree the truths about poverty are bitter, they need to be known.

2.  Bernie Sanders Is 'Scared to Death' Hillary Clinton Will Lose to Donald Trump

The second item is by Alexandra Rosenmann on AlterNet:
This starts as follows:

Bernie Sanders joined Host Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks late Friday to discuss the real threat of Donald Trump winning the presidency—and why staying in the race helps the Democrats more than people are giving him credit for. 

"Are you worried that Hillary Clinton is going to lose to Donald Trump?" Uygur asked. 

It's a question concerning all Democrats since Trump has begun to beat Clinton in the polls.

“Why do you think I’m running all over the state of California doing three rallies a day?" Sanders asked. "We’re going to have a letter going out to superdelegates today or tomorrow... making that point. Am I worried? I’m scared to death," he added.

Incidentally, there is a video at this point in the original that shows this is correct. And I think Sanders is right. He also has the following point:

Sanders' rallies are bringing out hundreds and thousands of new voters to the Democratic Party. And Sanders beats Trump easily in a general election match-up, which is why he believes superdelegates should switch their vote.

“The goal here is to look at the political reality of the moment, and the political reality of the moment is that it is most important to defeat Donald Trump, and you want the candidate leaving that convention who is going to be strongest to defeat Trump," Sanders told Uygur.

Yes, I agree, but I don't think that the Democratic Party will put the interests of the country before those of Hillary Clinton (although she is already very rich).

This is also backed up by a short video, as is the last quote I am going to give:

“What we’re saying is, it is absurd to my mind that Clinton has 400 superdelegate votes before the first ballot is cast and that we have to compete in a situation in which we’re up against closed primaries where a significant part of the population can’t vote.”

On the other hand, Sanders believes that Clinton's establishment ties will continue to hurt her moving into a general election.

“The American people are sick and tired of establishment politics. That’s what it is. Do people really agree with Donald Trump’s absurd views? No. ... And he’s a phony, of course... they perceive him to be ... ‘anti-establishment.' And anybody who is anti-establishment is better than the establishment... Hillary Clinton is the establishment," Sanders pointed out.

Yes, it is completely anti-democratic. I also think Sanders is right about "Clinton's establishment ties" and about Trump's being seen (quite falsely) as being "anti-establishment". Then again, I think he is giving "the American people" too much credit: I think the main problem in the USA is that there
are far too many voters who are both stupid and quite ignorant. It is true Trump thrives on them, but it is also true Trump would not be presidential candidate if there were considerably fewer stupid and ignorant voters.

And as I said yesterday (and see note [2]):
As to Sanders' running as an independent: I think he would be justified in doing so, especially given the machinations of the Democrats in terms of super- delegates. (If Sanders comes to lose, it is probably because of superdelegates, who were never elected.) And I think if he does so, he makes a good chance of winning.

Whether he will do so remains to be seen, and will be decided in the next month.
I do think this is an interesting possibility.

3. The empty brain

The third and last item today is by Robert Epstein (<-Wikipedia) on Aeon:
This is not a crisis item. I review it because I am a philosopher and a psychologist of roughly the same age as Epstein, and because it illustrates several difficulties with studying psychology.

This starts as follows:
No matter how hard they try, brain scientists and cognitive psychologists will never find a copy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the brain – or copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli. The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.

Our shoddy thinking about the brain has deep historical roots, but the invention of computers in the 1940s got us especially confused. For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.

This start already shows the problems I have with Epstein's prose and theories:

First, evidently I do have memories, though I grant that the theories about what they are inside my brain are quite inconclusive. But I do remember things, and what I remember (correctly or incorrectly, and also quite apart from what they really are) are correctly called my memories, in English. (Once again, this is simply correct English, and doesn't imply anything about what memories are.)

Second, there is the quite difficult word "like" in the phrase "the human brain works like a computer". It so happens that I never thought that I am a computer (neither physically nor theoretically) but then I always granted that in some sense and in some ways
"the human brain works like a computer".

Perhaps I should step back, and explain why I started studying psychology in the autumn of 1978.

First, there were basically two reasons: (1) I had read most of William James's "Principles of Psychology" and "The Varieties of Religious Experience" and was quite impressed by his theories and his style of writing, and (2) I had a girlfriend I lived with, who was a psychologists' assistant, but who wanted to know what was the basis for the IQ-tests she had to take on patients of psychologists - and so we both decided to study psychology.

Meanwhile I was already studying philosophy, which was my first academic interest, but I had also decided I did want to study some real science as well - and at that time did not think psychology was not much of a real science (like physics or biochemistry) as I do think now.

Second, besides William James I had some more knowledge, that I do not know Epstein had in the 1970ies and early 1980ies: (1) I knew how to program (in Fortran since 1973, and in Applebasic since 1979), which was quite rare at
that time (and later - since 1987 - also in Pascal, Prolog, Smalltalk and Assembly); (2) I had already in 1972 bought a booklet "Computer Models of Personality" (by John C. Loehlin (<- Wikipedia), who is still alive), that I thought thorougly ridiculous; and (3) for the study of psychology I had to buy (in September 1978) "Human Information Processing" by Peter Lindsay and Donald Norman (<- Wikipedia), that was much influenced by the idea that
"the human brain works like a computer".

The brief summary was that by 1980 (when I was two years into "the academic study of psychology") I was mostly convinced that nearly all I had gotten from the science of psychology were metaphors for experiences and the study of experiences, and that - in fact - there wasn't much of a factual basis, in terms of knowledge of definite brain structures, with definite activities, responses and capacities, that could explain the observable facts: There simply was not enough knowledge of the brain and how it works.

And in fact I still think so. There is considerably more knowledge of how the brain works than there was around 1980, and there are also considerably better ways to study the brain,
but most of the riddles there were in the 1980ies still
are riddles: Nobody knows how the brain generates our experiences; nobody knows why we are conscious (experience our experiencing); and most of the real functioning of real brains is still not known.

I could say a lot more, but turn instead to Epstein, who writes:

A healthy newborn is also equipped with more than a dozen reflexes – ready-made reactions to certain stimuli that are important for its survival. It turns its head in the direction of something that brushes its cheek and then sucks whatever enters its mouth. It holds its breath when submerged in water. It grasps things placed in its hands so strongly it can nearly support its own weight. Perhaps most important, newborns come equipped with powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to change rapidly so they can interact increasingly effectively with their world, even if that world is unlike the one their distant ancestors faced.

Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

That is correct for two paragraphs, but misleading in the third, and the reason seems to be that Epstein doesn't see that most of these terms are metaphors
rather than facts.

But we are born with some information (in some sense), and also with some rules (in some sense); we do represent (in some sense) some of the experiences we did have; we clearly use (in some sense) algorithms; we do make (in some sense) models of our environments and ourselves (that may well be mostly false); and we do have memories and images (I certainly do: I am a very good visualizer, and remember how faces looked 40 or 50 years or more years ago, how houses looked etc. etc.).

And again this seems to me mostly a matter of speaking English, rather than
having a definite theory of "the human mind" - and indeed the things I just said were said by philosophers and psychologists long before there were computers.

What is more true in the last paragraph of Epstein's prose that I quoted is that the senses in which we (our brains) use subroutines, encoders, decoders and buffers is more doubtful, though it is worthwile to point out these are "natural" bits of programs that may be written to explain something about how the brain might work (which indeed work on computers, that are not by far the same as brains).

Then again, he also wrote this:

We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.

Again, consider "storing words or rules", "creating representations of visual stimuli" and "retrieving information from memory": Clearly - however they
are explained - we do these things somehow, indeed not precisely as these
are done in computers with programs, but we remember things (namely those that were - somehow - stored) if we can get them (retrieve them) from where they were stored; and clearly what we remember from past visual experiences is not the pattern of lights that hit our eyeballs, but something that was (somehow) built from that (represented, somehow, somewhere in our brains).

I agree all these terms are metaphors if they are applied to the working human or animal brain, but then most of our knowledge is metaphorical or is based on metaphors.

And Epstein wrote this:

Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?

Most philosophers I read (a great lot) deny that computers use symbols (like human beings use), and I think they are correct: First, there is Searle's Chinese Room (<- Wikipedia) argument, while secondly primitively computers do not work with symbols (which are terms which generally stand for something else) but with ons and offs (represented by 1s and 0s), that by
themselves represent nothing (and are not symbols).

Also, I don't think that "computers really do operate on symbolic represent- ations of the world": The symbolic representations of the world are in the heads of their programmers, who try to make a machine do something that
humans may interpret as being somewhat similar to things that happen outside the machines.

Finally, to answer Epstein's last question: Because (1) computers are (also) powerful metaphors for things they are programmed to represent; because (2) they can do a whole lot of things non-computers (and non-animals) cannot do; and because (3) they can be experimented with (by reprogramming etc.)

So while I agree with Epstein that human beings are not computers, and neither are animals (there certainly is no computer - and this example I thought up in 1977 or 1978 - that can do all (or most of) the things a simple small spider can do, to this very day), my reasons for thinking so are quite different from his.

Also, while this is an interesting article, the Wikipedia entry on the Chinese Room experiment seems better.


[1] The basic reason why I never earned as much as the legal minimum is that I am ill since 1.1.1979.

Then again, two additional reasons are that [1] I have been much discriminated by both the University of Amsterdam (that removed - briefly before taking my M.A. in philosophy - my right to do an M.A. in philosophy simply because I had honestly and truly said that I believed in truth and in science (both of which were very impopular at the UvA from 1971-1995) and indeed also that I had met only 1 competent philosopher in the UvA, and also [2] was much discriminated by the City of Amsterdam, that in 1987 decided that it could illegally allow illegal drugsdealers to deal in illegal soft drugs from the bottom floor in the house where I lived, apparently because the City of Amsterdam shared - illegally - in the illegal enormous profits these illegal dealers (and other illegal dealers) made from selling illegal soft drugs.

These illegal measures to enrich the dealers and - I think - the officials of the City of Amsterdam (and other Dutch towns) are now illegally in force since 1986, which is now 30 years, but it seems that I am only in a very small minority who protests this illegal state of affairs.

It is illegal; it always was illegal; and it is protected by mayors and aldermen everywhere in Holland because - I think - they also profit financially from it.

I have no proof, other than 4 years of refusing to do anything for me while I was ill, kept out of sleep by the drugs dealers and their customers, and was threatened with murder "if you do anything we don't like", followed by 15 years of illegal pestering by mayors and aldermen of the City of Amsterdam, but 20 years of continuous discriminations of my rights against those of the illegal and murderous drugsdealers, plus the knowledge - from the only Parliamentary Report on drugs - that yearly in Holland at least 10 billion euroos are turned over only in - illegal!! - soft drugs (3 times more with other drugs, like amphetamine and cocaine) are sufficient proof for me.

Finally, as to my never getting as much money as the legal minimum: I worked parttime since I was 19; then lived in Norway; then studied on a grant that was less than the dole; then got dole that was less than the minimal income (and of course I was never declared ill by any bureaucrat or politician); and finally got a pension that again was less than the minimum pension because I have lived two years in Norway.

There are very few Dutchmen, possibly none of my age (66), who earned as little in their lives as I did. Why? Because my opinions were not approved by those who had the power in the City of Amsterdam and the University of Amsterdam, and who sorely abused it to further their own private interests and incomes.

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