Tuesday, March 24, 2015

More on Evolutionary Psychology

Some remarks by Jonathan Marks: Evolutionary Psychology is Neither.

I had a long response in the comments that I will share here. I have said much of this before, but dealing with and understanding the social emotions is one of the common themes in the solidification of our social world.

My response to Mark Sloan, which is really a response to Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind):

Your (Haidt's) stance on the social emotions is precisely the problem. The idea that “shame” stands as some given is dicey, and likewise with most social emotions. Even if there is some strong basic emotion that people feel upon some social encounter, we can imagine a cultural world that downplays or systematizes out the responses to those emotional reactions. More still, we can imagine such a world that thoroughly recognizes the manifestation of such emotions within individuals and teaches individuals, as responses but also as social programs, to turn around and shrug off such emotions, and especially not to allow such emotions to create further social programs.

So, maybe in some bare sense “shame” would still be there, but its effects and lasting cognitive and emotional effects would be far different than under most of what we encompass in our social minds when thinking about shame. But this goes to show that even things like basic emotions are wrapped up in institutions and cultural mediation to produce reactions and further emotions in ways that we often assume are just part of what “shame” has to be. The reflective and social building creatures that we are do not have to pay homage to such emotions. In many ways we have done just that where we see fit. However, I will grant that these emotions have played into the dialectical build up much of our social and personal worlds, and thus into how we feel shame while living in this society.

You run into troubles by failing to imagine such a differing society, or in claiming that such a society would not be highly productive and enjoyable to live in (moral in general terms). You may be making an argument that you would not want to live in such a society, or think that trying to achieve such a society is dangerous, but the failure in imaging such a world leads to a bad description about human beings, which is what we are doing here.

The moral of the story is that pretty much any definition or conception of “shame” will not be able to parse out contingent social factors without thoroughly defacing the concept. That is, there is a great difference in the bare mechanisms that exists in the natal brain/body and how that gets played out in any adult. Evo. Psych's problem is really psychology's problem. By taking certain “mental traits” as given human qualities, instead of understanding their mechanistic underpinnings, they believe that such mental characteristic are necessitated, when in fact there are many environmentally and culturally mediated contingencies that fold into such expression. Much of psychology, by cataloguing their own personal milieu of “traits” and those in the society around them, take the givenness of those traits as essential. They make this mistake because they stayed far away from actually understanding the mechanisms that give rise to such behavioral expression. And, thus, we end up with traits that are overly salient given the mechanistic underpinning. It is of course then a mess when we turn back to history for an explanation of a given entity that is not as robust a concept as was assumed.

One of the keys is that an emotion is a brain/body process, but you (and Haidt) then want to say that this evolutionary inspired given emotion is what is producing “phenomenally cooperative social animals” in the present day, which has to do with actions taken and events produced. In the end, all thoughts and decisions are emotionally mediated, but there is a gap between a generic emotional tendency (e.g. shame) and the behavior and outcomes manifested by such a tendency. The reason why you can conflate the emotion with the action, and think this is a good explanation of humans, is the failure to imagine the social world that tears the two apart, which may be unlike any society we have laid eyes on. Failing to do this is why psychology now has an empty concept of shame. So, you either have to explain the contingent social factors that fold into shame, or you are left with a conception of shame in some bare mechanistic structure that is a shell of our normal use.

I will add here:

Though we are highly reflective beings, ones that can change our selves in drastic ways by asking about our institutions and what kind of beings we want to be, and then making such changes, we have not thoroughly undone broad emotional categories in ways that we are capable of doing. Christian and Buddhists monks, among others, have tried to thoroughly undo some rather throughput social emotions. How much they achieved this is probably varying, but also probably far short of what humans could do. We will become even better at rearranging our selves and our social institutions (including norms, social responses to others) both as we understand exactly what we are (the mechanistic underpinnings) and as we delve into biotechnology and medicine. In the end, there will likely be human beings and societies that look far different than what we are today, and they will have far different encounters with something like "shame." Perhaps they will laugh it off as a folly that we once thought was simply part of our repertoire. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Ah, Fiction

Something from a more playful era when fiction or pseudo-fiction seemed more useful.


Before getting started, I would like to talk about creativity. . . . There are those among us who have a much greater ability to create and combine ideas, experiences, and phenomena than others; and there are those among us with less ability for doing so. But all individuals have the experience of doing so, and those who stand at the higher end of the creative and combinatory scale are only those who are best at an ability that we all have, that we all know, that we all feel.

Like any good story there are events and a plot and an overcoming that will carry you along, upon which your emotions will rise and fall; but, to see this story for what is worth, it will be a complex and psychological unraveling—and this from an individual who denies much of what you claim to be psychological. Perhaps this is where it succeeds, by explaining the inexplicable, by showing how we move from the world of spirit and transcendence to a world of matter and groundedness—in the present age this is the only acceptable movement, even though some violate it perpetually (Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin, John Searle, and many more).

I do not know where I stand as far as creativity is concerned but it is probably close to the middle. Creativity is important and its first use comes in dreaming. I do not necessarily mean the standard night dream, though that is certainly one special case. Night dreaming is special because it happens—usually—without the conscious control that we prize so highly (Lucidity in dream is rare, but important). It is in those first hours and days of dreaming, of imagining so to speak, that experiences, phenomena, feelings, etc., are combined. These things are combined by very young potentialhumans, and in this combining, causes and resemblances become dreamed, become associated. If we touch the ball, it moves. And if we touch it again and again and again, it moves multiple and different ways. Then, the key moment comes, and in a flicker at first, the idea of an individual, the possibility of a central “I” emerges. “‘I’ am moving my(?) hand, the ball, my(?) ball.” As this potentialhuman continues to dream, the recurrence of this possibility of an “I,” of a being at the center of these thoughts, recurs again and again. And quickly, this central idea (the “I”) becomes a combinatory subject with great power and constant justification in simple empirical analysis—if the “I” decides to move the arm, then the body the “I” is attached to moves its arm—yes, we are all empiricist from birth.

In time, the power of the “I” becomes so useful and corresponds so well with everything that this previous conglomeration of ideas, experiences, and phenomena continues to experience and to dream, that this “I” becomes instantiated into essentiality, and an I (a given essence not needing quotation marks) emerges, never to be quenched again. The dreaming, the power of creativity, the power of combination, these powers which first created the I, become fully entwined with the I. The I, the individual, is not separate from the dreaming or from the combining of ideas, it is simply these things. The I wields this great power and yet wields it with ferocity. It now holds the key to the power of combination. When this I/dreamer thinks, dreams, combines—at least partly conscious activities—it only senses the decision being made but does not grasp how the decision is arrived at in its totality. The I not only takes full responsibility for the direction of the dream, it forgets, and actually is forced to forget, the necessities that caused the dream that created the “I” in the first place. By forgetting the necessities of its first activity, the I easily forms the notion of a power greater than exists for it, the power to stand outside the contingent historical and natural conditions upon which it was built and which it will always occur. In the end of course, the ironic thing, is that despite the power of the I, its wielding of creativity, its long memory—most of that memory is not exact reproduction but is always re-structured through the creative and dreaming processes—the ironic thing is that that I does not have the power to dream of its own creation. To do so, is to discredit a characteristic of that I that it long held to be indubitable, and that characteristic is the eternality and essence of that I.

Having forgotten its own creation, the I is placed in a precarious position. Day in and day out, minute in and minute out, from one thought to the next, the immediate phenomenal data from our perceptual apparatuses, along with the higher-order processing and walling off of lower order structures, encourages us, or perhaps mandates us, to believe that a conscious self is somehow autonomous from this data, and, especially, to believe that the thought processes and conscious awareness of that mainstream of thought, of that I, is certainly separated from the mere functionalizing processes of brain activity. This separation necessitates our conscious self to believe that the subsequent behavior that such an I carries out is free. That is, free from determination by the past genetic and historical situations, free from the brain processes that are equal to those mental thoughts (that is those brain processes that are equal to those brain “thoughts”). With the inability to understand or feel the vast array of underlying structures, (both genetic and historical, or as such genetic and historical structures are ensconced in the actual brain structures themselves) the conscious self believes that it itself, its I, its thoughts and decisions, are what are responsible for the next thoughts, decisions, and, by theoretical conceptualization, the behavior of that being—it’s supposed freedom. And just as it was once “natural” to believe that the sun was moving, that the sun was literally setting itself, we, too, by mapping the brain, will come to accept that our prior conceptions of the freedom of our behaviors and the freedom of our thoughts—as is postulated by the commonsensical, immediate phenomenal image of our self—was misconceived—but also “natural.”

When the I comes before an open situation, which actually is all the time—since, like Hegel, we can posit open possibilities in even the most closed off sort of space—the conscious self has no choice, given our limited understanding, to posit that it is only the I (or the “I,” the former is only an illusion) that will carry it in the direction that it does. That great entity that is our conscious self, arising out of the capacities of the brain, posits constantly the open counterfactuals of the situation before us. I mean by this only that it sees that it is capable of taking its body in this way or that way or that way—usually an endless array. It posits that nothing externally is preventing the self from opening door number 1 or door number 2, and that it has the power to choose one or the other. Even if we understand our inner thought processes or the determined chain of reasoning why we would always open one door over the other (think gun-wielding psychopath behind door 1 and answer to all of life’s riddles behind door 2), there is in the end a gap between understanding our main incentives and the actual carrying out of the action which we believe, given the endless reinforcement of such an idea by our immediate phenomenology, is always open to the self to haven chosen otherwise. But, again, if we were able to understand all our historical structures—the Behaviorist’s dream (see B.F. Skinner), and all of our genetic structures—the Evolutionary Psychologist’s dream (see Steven Pinker), or if we understood all the mechanisms and structures of the brain and we had the full layout of the current individual’s brain—the materialist’s dream (see Patricia and Paul Churchland): then we would not be so foolish to think our actions so free.

These ideas and structures are what scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers of mind face today—their theories and discoveries point to the idea that this I, our agency, is a fully determined entity. But the natural condition of human kind, the transparency of innate and environmental conditions and the transparency of brain structure and processes, says that this I exists and exists with the “soul” like quality that humans have almost always granted it. Some of the reinforcement of this I comes from western traditions of radical individualism and of monotheistic creations of the autonomous soul that make it even harder to overcome, but even without these reinforcers the I is still incapable of accepting its historical creation by the random dreaming of an animal of increasing experiential content. This is the natural condition of human kind and it is destined to haunt us. Once “Man” only disease can make animal again—that is, make us see through the blinding and contingent categorizations that obscure our best understanding of the world around. To sum this up, two working concepts:

The Natural Condition of Humans
The Natural Condition of Humans is not that we are forced to be free, as Sartre would so elegantly put it. It is that we are forced to believe that we are acting freely. In other words, we are forced to think that we are “forced to be free.” The Natural Condition of Humans is that the transparency of most brain processes and of “our” history, including, especially, the forgetting of the original creation of each of our own consciousnesses, is why we are forced to think ourselves as free. But we are not free. Despite all we thought, we had yet to leave the garden, the apple had not yet been eaten. The first sin had yet to be cast. And I will take the apple now.

On Original Sin
Or the accepting of the death of the soul and the mere functionalism of consciousness, along with its historical creation in time; and, by seeing through the (false) “openness” of our consciousness, the acceptance of the Natural Condition of Humans. Only now do we take the fruit—only now does our knowledge of good and evil come to full swing, and we can thank Nietzsche for first reaching for that apple, among others, and encouraging us to do likewise. And, of course, so many others saw what that apple meant and ran the other way, back into Eden, back into the loving arms of God, back into the loving arms of freedom, radical individualism, and naivety of Capitalist and Culturalist closure. They said to themselves that if this is what science and philosophy is telling us, I would rather not read; I would rather banish academia to a self-imposed circulation of hermeneutic procedures. They took up the chant: “I will not think about free will, I will not think of the importance of education and socialization on determining who I am. I deserve praise for my good deeds; they deserve admonition and punishment for their evil deeds, including even death. Morality is real—and thoroughly objective.”

If your nerves are firing and fear is encroaching, if you see an existentialist malaise on the future, that is okay. It is wrong. This story is not about the despair of the natural human condition, though I may not have the power to eliminate that if you have already traveled down that road. This is a story of hope. It is not tragic, not in the least, though for some there may be tragic elements. If you buy into the character then you should not feel tragedy for any moment in the story, he would not wish it. In fact, he would find such emotions utterly wrong. He does care for your emotions, but only in a cold, utilitarian way. He sees in those emotions created necessities from your natural structure and your environmental history. If society is to succeed, from his viewpoint, it will succeed by reading the discourse of those emotions and the thoughts that lie behind them and in front of them; and by giving you the appropriate knowledge so you can see through your natural human condition, even if emotions try to persuade you from doing so. Of course, it would be easier on him if you would simply set emotion aside for the time being as best that humans can accomplish. He will not blame you for your inabilities to do so, whether because of natural or social causes—he knows it is not that simple. He accepts that to get rid of all emotions is impossible and he does not suggest that, but only of removing the impact of those emotions that prevent us from asking the most daunting and basic questions of human beings. He recognizes this, but believes to face these questions and bear such emotional unease is best, and if we are capable of doing this then great hopes for the betterment of society and us as individuals will be the reward. . . .

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Consciousness, Moving Towards Eliminativism

A few things seen over the last few months. And then an updated old take from me. These are old but they have hints at things that I think are the better way forward, on this idiotic problem.

Though I see usefulness in describing my self as eliminativist or talking about the illusion of qualia, some of the wrangling over this gets into semantic squabbles and into how to phrase things in the most useful language. For example, there is a reason people experience something the way they experience it. Just as there is a reason you will experience an optical color illusion. Importantly, most of the time, we will claim that you experience a color illusion, such as in the shadow checkerboard illusion. Our understanding of what we call consciousness should fully explain why an individual makes the claim on experience that they do. Illusions are often about a better model of reality than what we are believing or seeing, and usually not an illusion about our experiencing, even if we are great fabricators. Discussions truly get idiotic when we claim the experiencing itself is illusion, so says Descartes.

On that note, I will also recommend Stanislas Dehaene's book Consciousness and the Brain (2014). And I buy his argument (and Dennett's, I think) for the usefulness of heterophenomenology. This is the idea that as cognitive scientists and others explore the brain and consciousness, that they will take seriously the individual's account of what they experience. And they will use these accounts, by themselves and in comparison with others, to help form our best theories about the brain.

However, such a stance does not entirely tell you about what I am going to discuss a bit here, which is more asking about what exactly is the property of that which we have called consciousness, what kind of thing is it.

First off. Here is Susan Blackmore's take on the illusion of consciousness in a paper from 2002. She has expressed this eloquently elsewhere as well.

Her main thrust:

If consciousness seems to be a continuous stream of rich and detailed sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts, then I suggest this is the illusion . . . First we must be clear what is meant by the term “illusion”. To say that consciousness is an illusion is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but that it is not what it seems to be―more like a mirage or a visual illusion. And if consciousness is not what it seems, no wonder it’s proving such a mystery.”

I would add that if we decide their is illusion-like quality to our experiences, we can also see the ways that this has recursively played upon itself as we developed language and as we developed theories. These theories then get eaten by our brains as they are thinking about themselves (and their selves), adding more confusion to the seemings of our experiences. 

And here is Nicholas Humphrey in a Youtube video giving some of his main talking points on consciousness.

His book Soul Dust (2012) also goes through some of these ideas. There were things that I remember irking me a bit in his analysis in the book, and also at the end of the video. For instance, souls . . . however much he naturalizes them.

Following above, I am going to try my hand at denying “consciousness,” at least as some fundamentally new property or object. I am going to try to reduce it to something simpler and say that it is nothing above that analysis. For more on ontology and reduction see my previous post on John Heil, who lays out similar key ideas.

I am essentially going to reduce consciousness to a rapid process of (self-)monitoring, (self-)representing, and action (of the self). But all of those states in a non-conscious, non-unified way. Some of those processes are self reflective. Consciousness here is the “what-it-is-like” conception. It is feels and redness. It is the presentation of sensation “as it pops up before one's self.” (That last part is tricky because there is no adequate way to say “it presents itself to itself,” or simply “it is,” neither which is quite right). I aim to deny that it is actually a property, actually a thing.

First, let us accept something. The book on the table is not actually a book. The book-qua-book has created no new properties in the world, I assume. If it does something to some person/brain/being, other than what physical objects usually do, that will be because of that person’s representation of the symbols. But if there is a new, emergent property in that representation of the book, that property is in the brain (which is the question we are asking about), and is not at all in the unique structure of atoms as regards the book and the properties that book manifests.

One aside here is that there is information in all things. I use the example that any rock has as much information as a door key does. It is just that society finds the information in a door key to often be more useful for social purposes, or to be manifested for social purposes, than we find our ability to use the superficial information of a given rock. We can search all non-intelligent-life planets [bracket intelligence concerns for the time being], and I doubt you will find letters scribbled across a flat sheet, or some other similarly marked structure. That is, I can see an argument for the structure of the book to hold properties, say the possibilities of directed information put into manipulable units, that is not found in non-intelligent-nature, even if humans are trying to describe nature in mathematical or theoretical terms. There may be information condensation (?) in a book that makes it a significantly different object with possible worldly effects than any other object found in a non-intelligent-world. And hence, if such is the case, we could say the book is some new property created by humans. This is also to forgo the entropy-like discussions on information.

Back to representation and to consciousness. The chess computer or Watson can represent and create "intentional" structures in the world without the arising of consciousness or of new emergent and non-reducible properties (see previous post on Deflating Consciousness). An amoeba can “represent” and create self-beneficial action as it regards the sun or saltwater, again without consciousness or seemingly emergent properties. The idea being here that evolution put, say, early bacteria into a structure that sensed (perhaps represented) external environments, and did things because of those perceivings. Biology is chemistry is physics. If something emergent has happened in the universe at that time, it is no more usefully emergent than the first creation of hydrogen atoms. The structures of the behavior readily falls from the structures of the world. 

Carrying on, animals got more complicated in sensing and representing their world. Again, this is what evolution does. Animals with more complex sensory systems and informational parsing structures increased in number because those modifications were useful in their environment. In humans, our representations reach a point where we had enough internal representations of our selves at the center of a modeled world, that we also modeled that we exist, that "I" experience.  

My thesis here is that such representing in higher animals, such that represents and organizes behaviors and even “thoughts” around external and internal events, is doing so in what we are calling a conscious way. But this “consciousness” is actually nothing. The rapid presentation of representational structures, as arising from sensory information along with emotional effects, presents and circles around a representation of the animal, including tons of representations of the self, of an I at the center of the world, aided by linguistic explosion. But this is not actually a different process than the particular makeup of the rapid representational structures. It simply is that very fast run-through of those countless representations. There is not some central unified vision or property within that representation. If an animal represents that a predator is near, those representations are mixed with (really inseparable from) chemically induced sensations and feelings. A new property or object has not emerged of a non-reducible quality, of consciousness. This probably parallels Antonio Damasio a bit (see the Self Comes to Mind and The Feeling of What Happens), except I am more dismissive of consciousness as a robust phenomenon. 

Likewise, human consciousness has a greatly expanded self-awareness. That is, it has representations and a model (and occasional representation of that model) of "I," my self, at this computer, at this date in time, at this place in the universe. But this is merely a representational sequence, and there is no "qualitative feeling" to it.

However, the “what-it-is-like” is special. Any complex representation (or maybe series of representations) is a singular representation unlike anything else in the world. But that does not mean it is an emergent property, unless we want to say that the unique atomic structure of "that rock" is emergent. Nor is it non-reducible. The representation is cashed out in its micro-structures which have been ordered that way by evolution and the history of this individual. If a representational schema plays cool functions in the world, allows you to do badass things with that trombone over there, it is because that is what evolution does. It puts material together in cool ways that can further manipulate the world for their own benefit. But this is always reducible to the physical level which was put in its cool situation by historical accident. So nothing emergent or new was created (except in some banal sense).

But consciousness is something. Sure, just as this book is something . . . because we represent it “as something.” But we are humble about what that book is: an interesting structure of material. We do not claim it is emergent or non-reducible. Mental properties are the same. Yes, they are processes. Yes, consciousness is a state of the world (a structure of atoms in the brain organized in an interesting way). Consciousness is no more an object or a process than water going from complete solid to complete gas is a process. Or better, than the computer going from the 1st move in a chess game (with an external “opponent” occasionally moving a piece) to the last. Consciousness is not different than that computer process, except that we have a great many more representations of our selves at the center of a modeled world, representing our selves as the feeler of emotions and pains, and so on.

In humans, the rapid presentation of images and concepts and ideas creates an additional representation of a being at the center experiencing such, but that representational process does not literally create (me or I). The postulated central representation does not experience anything any more than the computer experiences a chess move. Consciousness as property or non-reducible conception does not exist, except again in the unique sense of individuality (there is nothing exactly like that set of atoms or that exact process of representations). Only you are representing the room you are in, a few body cues, a few memory insertions, and this exact sentence at this exact time. That representation is unique, and in certain ways non-reducible. In order to get all the exact processes that are you and your immediate environment, we would have to reproduce just that entire environment. 

According to this naive representer. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Multiple Intelligences

The idea of multiple intelligences is for the most part nonsensical. The idea that almost all individuals could not read a wikipedia page and glean the most important points, or listen to a podcast and pick up on some key points, has to be deemed a bad idea. All individuals, without significant brain problems or perceptual problems, should be able to do such. More pointedly, they should be adept at doing such after 12 or 16 years of a good education. Now, if all you do for ten years of an education is have teachers encouraging you to develop your musical talents, perhaps the reading medium is more difficult. In a self-reinforcing manner, perhaps you will turn consistently to musical talents or physical talents, and make instantiation of verbal skills even more difficult.

The processes of learning do not come readily to anyone. Solving quadratic equations is difficult, and requires a great deal of given background knowledge, such as more basic addition and subtraction. The importance of that is that all individuals have to be beat over the head of how to solve such problems. They have to be inculcated or disciplined (in the Foucaultian-sense) into educational structures. Such a process of learning how to solve a problem is not greatly present in some people as opposed to others. It is something that takes many hours of fitting pieces together. It is also beneficial if the student accepts the process itself. That is, they are willing learners.

One of the more absurd angles on multiple intelligences is the idea of the emotional learner and the physical activity learner. We are creatures and brains that are primed on emotion and physical activity. The evolutionary story there even makes a great deal of sense. We likely do not have architecture that makes it easy for us to sit down and rummage through math problems for 12 hours a day. Adding in interpersonal engagement, stronger emotional engagements, and physical activity here and there is useful for all learners. It may even keep the brain/body primed to continue learning. Even when learners manage long bouts of heavy academic engagement, we are usually tapping into emotional desires. Students often engage education materials because of fear of failure or pleasure of praise. They are not learning because the math problem in front of them is self-rewarding (though the solving of any and all problems may require emotional feedback as we recognize the right answer, and is thus self-rewarding in some minimal way).

If a student does not seem as willing or as able as their peers to take in information, say from 30 minutes of lecture or 30 minutes of reading, it is likely not because they have some intrinsic genetic characteristic that has made them unable to do so. It may be that they do not have as much practice or motivation concentrating in the appropriate way. Or they may not have the background structure (and hence we could say an identity characteristic) to readily take in the material within such a format. Both texts and lectures (say any communication medium) often takes certain informational givens to then convey further information. Obviously, subjects who are lacking some of the background knowledge will struggle with comprehending the target information, and will probably also quickly lose attentional and emotional focus on the activity.

As was hinted above, this does not mean that varying lessons and souping-up lessons is not beneficial to all learners. Given a variety of individuals and backgrounds, some lessons will be more readily attained in some formats as opposed to others by different individuals at that time. In the end though, but fairly early on in education, almost all individuals are capable of visual and audio learning, of taking in information from such mediums. And if individuals are not capable of doing such or resist such, that is because of other failures in building up the skills and education of these individuals, as opposed to thinking that these individuals have some kind of learning style or intelligence specialty that is simply inherent in their identity. 

If a child ends up in a teacher's classroom, say a fourth grader, who is deemed far behind their peers in taking in the appropriate information from a short spoken lecture, the answer is almost certainly not that this individual just happens to have more of a kinesthetic or musical capacity than logical or linguistic capacity. It may be a lack of background knowledge or of bad study skills, or a lack of practice of note taking and attentional focus (we will side-step that for now). But it is going to be important that such a teacher either bring a student up to speed on such a skill, or find the actual physical limitation that prevents such. And not to buy into the nonsense that such a student has a different learning style or has a different propensity for other kinds of skills and knowledge, other than semantic or logic.

For people who actually propose that individuals have such radically different qualities, they better bring more evidence than what has been brought in the past. If not, then they are making as empty statements as parents who misinterpret that their babies just always loved pink or blue. The idea that multiple intelligences should be informing teacher preparation (and it is a common theme in the teaching world) is deeply troubling. But if we cannot form grounded and useful psychology, cognitive science, and general philosophical ideas, it is little wonder that our teaching programs are so scattered, and that teachers and school districts continuously walk off cliffs. In other words, it is not exactly the teaching profession's fault that Howard Gardner has as much credibility as he has. (Though, like “girls like pink” kind of psychology, given that these kind of multiple intelligence theories fit nicely into the identity and social world that seems so obvious around us, it is easily bought by the public, and even by other academics who do not turn such a critical eye to the development of self and society.)

The first lesson, and it rebuts some of the miscues of these multiple intelligence beliefs, is that we cannot separate socialization from education. That is, educational thought has to accept the totality of why individuals have the skills and knowledge they have, why they are the individuals they are. They have to turn to the whole package of socialization/education, the entire process of genes and environment that makes the individual before them what they are. The idea that genetically any child has some special propensity to be a musical learner as opposed to a visual learner (in such a disparate and species differing manner) is absurd. Likewise, the idea that any child cannot be a successful chemist, philosopher, doctor, or math professor is absurd. It may require creating a significantly different world around most individuals. That is, it may require building different selves than the ones that we casually allow parents, communities, and societies to build out of the genetic material that makes up any one individual.

Update: I was confusing multiple intelligences and learning styles here (according to Gardner). Learning styles has to do more with things like an audio learner versus a visual learner. This is what the New York Times article is about. Multiple intelligences is the idea that we can split cognitive abilities into different groups (e.g. musical, spatial, verbal, logical, kinesthetic). The overlay of these ideas is prevalent. And neither of them has significant grounding or are likely to be useful. What I wrote about above was focused more on multiple intelligences. The New York Times article gave a good enough counter to the idea of learning styles.

The multiple intelligences perhaps has some meaning if we want to say musical skills are using different brain processes than verbal, and those are different than skilled bodily movements. As I have stated elsewhere, however, almost all individuals are going to be capable of being excellent at all of these skills. Everyone can learn to play a musical instrument expertly. Everyone can do logic good enough to be a philosophy professor. The idea that individuals have some extraordinary ability in one of these areas or are very deficient in one of these areas is likely not to hold up (except as a trained in phenomena). At the least, it will not hold up in the way that musical, athletic, and mathematical talents are often expressed or denied, that is, the way they often are perceived within the identities of individuals.

One can argue for a ballooning effect, such that slight differences in capacities become noticed by others or are inculcated into selves, and this process leads to some students taking in more math or science, while others go other routes. If such a theory somehow has merits, then I again will strongly argue that in our highly productive, high longevity age that we first provide a well-rounded, fully-baked skill and knowledge set to all individuals, regardless of what slight propensities or abilities eventually balloon out. And this of course is already the goal behind much of our thinking on universal education, and for good reason.