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Man As "Meaty Robot," A Capitalist Fairy Tale
February 8, 2014 12:04 PM   Subscribe

As an antidote to the "economic calculator" view of behavior, OWS's Graeber offers a counter principle: "The free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities tends to become an end in itself."
posted by blankdawn (18 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
In case it wasn't clear the article references animal play and uses that to build up bigger arguments about human nature and even the universe.
posted by blankdawn at 12:11 PM on February 8


I like the critique of the simple self-interest "rationality" model in animal and human psychology models a lot. But the later part of the essay is completely gonzo, and I'm honestly amazed that the Baffler published it, considering how far afield and into what muddy terrain the argument wanders. This piece's conclusion is a long way from their accustomed kind of cultural critique and I wonder if they're just giving Graeber a lot of slack because they like him (as do I, to be clear).

But all I can do is gape agog at the strangeness of the non-sequiturs here, finally leading to an argument for full-bore panpsychism under the name of "materialism" (!). It seems like the philosophy of mind is becoming a wedge issue, in which left thinkers are driven to adopt increasingly bizarre forms of unacknowledged idealist mystification because they recoil at the stupidity of their New Atheist mechanical-materialist bedfellows. The cultural politics of this move are really weird and I can't help wondering how much of it is tongue in cheek, or just meant as a gesture rather than a serious argument.
posted by RogerB at 12:24 PM on February 8 [6 favorites]


Oh, also, don't miss Barbara Ehrenreich's companion piece.
posted by RogerB at 12:26 PM on February 8 [4 favorites]


yeah he lost me a little on the "electrons at play" tangent, but I felt the rest of it was strong enough and original enough that it is worth the read and consideration.
posted by blankdawn at 12:42 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]


For ease and clarity, I'm going to try to summarize.

He begins the essay by observing that while apparently profit-agnostic activity like play is found throughout the animal universe (he doesn't say kingdom, I assume, because he's staunchly anti-Monarchist wants to avoid reifying the metaphor), scientists generally don't know how to account for this; he goes on to say that the inability to explain things like play reveals a lack of understanding about the mind itself, and turns his attention to the question of how the mind can arise from the brain, basically.

He identifies two types of answer to this question, emergentism and panpsychism. The former is the idea that with sufficient material complexity, such as is exemplified in the brain, a qualitative leap occurs which distinguishes the mere interaction of cells from consciousness. Then he says this:

Those who hold the second position, usually called panpsychism or panexperientialism, agree that all this [the emergentist explanation] may be true but argue that emergence is not enough. As British philosopher Galen Strawson recently put it, to imagine that one can travel from insensate matter to a being capable of discussing the existence of insensate matter in a mere two jumps is simply to make emergence do too much work. Something has to be there already, on every level of material existence, even that of subatomic particles—something, however minimal and embryonic, that does some of the things we are used to thinking of life (and even mind) as doing—in order for that something to be organized on more and more complex levels to eventually produce self-conscious beings. That “something” might be very minimal indeed: some very rudimentary sense of responsiveness to one’s environment, something like anticipation, something like memory. However rudimentary, it would have to exist for self-organizing systems like atoms or molecules to self-organize in the first place.

This is the part I got stuck on. I'm not convinced by Strawson's intuition that this is "too much" for emergentism to explain, or that something "has to be there already," and I'm especially unconvinced that whatever has to be there already is there "on every level of material experience...[and it might be] something like anticipation, something like memory." I mean, that could be true, but it seems like the kind of claim that you'd find convincing if you already agreed with it and unconvincing if you didn't, as opposed to the emergentist explanation, which (as it strikes me, anyway) seems almost more like an observation than a theory and makes far fewer untestable assumptions.

However, I did very much enjoy this brief digression on lobsters:

It’s unpleasant to throw a struggling creature in a pot of boiling water; one needs to be able to tell oneself that the lobster isn’t really feeling it. (The only exception to this pattern appears to be, for some reason, France, where Gérard de Nerval used to walk a pet lobster on a leash and where Jean-Paul Sartre at one point became erotically obsessed with lobsters after taking too much mescaline.)

I like how Graeber soberly notes that this resulted from "too much" mescaline. Clearly, that was just slightly too much. Just by a hair.
posted by clockzero at 1:27 PM on February 8 [18 favorites]


"Something has to be there" sounds an awful lot like many theistic arguments to me.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:02 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]


To exercise one’s capacities to their fullest extent...It is simply what life is. We don’t have to explain why creatures desire to be alive. Life is an end in itself. And if what being alive actually consists of is having powers—to run, jump, fight, fly through the air—then surely the exercise of such powers as an end in itself does not have to be explained either.

This is old philosophy. It's Aristotle, straight out of book one of the Nicomachean ethics.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:45 PM on February 8 [4 favorites]


It seems like the philosophy of mind is becoming a wedge issue, in which left thinkers are driven to adopt increasingly bizarre forms of unacknowledged idealist mystification because they recoil at the stupidity of their New Atheist mechanical-materialist bedfellows.

Stupidity as they perceive it, I reckon. I think the deal here is that materialistic atheism is easily reconciled with old-school socialism and communism, and also with the so called New Right, but is much harder to square with the modern left emphasis on personal dignity and empowerment. If the rules of debate are such that the effect of my actions or speech upon you are more important than my intent, it's not likely that either an evo-psych explanation of your response or an ontological reduction of 'you' to a bunch of interacting processes will be taken in good cheer.
posted by topynate at 5:19 PM on February 8


Which is rather ironic, actually, because my 'intent' is not to be trusted under the materialistic view either: it's just another misinformed claim about opaque internal mental processes.
posted by topynate at 5:22 PM on February 8


Play is not an agnostic behavior. Young humans play to practice and develop social skills; a very important survival trait for humans. Young cats play by pouncing on things and sticking their nose into everything, a very important survival trait for cats.

All complex behavior in higher animals is driven by brain chemistry. Things that 'feel good' encourage the release of neuro transmitters that over time reinforce those behaviors. Eating, socializing, having sex... those are all reinforced behaviors. Some animals have more complex buttons and switches to make the release of neurotransmitters happen, but it's there.

The idea that all material, down to the atom contains some basic element of free will or behavior that is somehow reflected in the whole is just another way to say that there is an immortal soul, even by another name, and as it is unfalsifiable is not really a scientific approach...anybody who has watched songbirds at a feeder for even a short amount of time can tell that the joyful songs are usually territory displays and threats.
posted by kzin602 at 8:16 PM on February 8


Can someone explain where the ancient Greek concept of hylozoism fits into these kinds of discussions?
posted by CincyBlues at 8:51 PM on February 8


Play is not an agnostic behavior. Young humans play to practice and develop social skills [...]

It doesn't even have to be about practicing specific behavior (alone). What if it is simply that introducing random or experimental actions into a system without necessarily experiencing all the repercussions (e.g. "play") is beneficial to simple and complex organisms alike? In other words, play is simply the same as random mutation in the micro evolutionary sense writ large(r) in the macro sense?
posted by smidgen at 11:17 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]


Play is not an agnostic behavior. Young humans play to practice and develop social skills; a very important survival trait for humans. Young cats play by pouncing on things and sticking their nose into everything, a very important survival trait for cats.

Tell me again why play is connected to survival in any way? You seem to be making the argument that everything we do ("we," here, somewhat broadly construed to include cats and humans) we do because it's instrumental to not dying. This seems on the face of it absurd. Do you have an argument, or are you just asserting stuff?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:08 AM on February 9


Because Survival Tip #2: Keep a deck of cards in your pack. If you get lost, sit down and play a bit of solitaire. This will keep you from getting freaked while you think about what to do next. What to do will involve shelter, food and water, not necessarily in that order.
posted by sneebler at 8:28 AM on February 9


Why does saying something is a behavior that helps with survival/is a product of evolution cheapen the activity? What is wrong with joy and play being a feeling and an action, respectively that enhance a species prospects for survival? One of the premises of the article is (at least to my reading) that agnostic (to use the term as kzin602 does) behavior is superior to non-agnostic behavior. If play is useful from an evolutionary point of view, does that not argue, in a way, that we should be celebrating it and engaging in more of it, not less?
posted by Hactar at 10:22 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Swell essay. I find Graeber's speculations more reasonable to engage with than, say, S. Harris or S. Pinker putting on the serious face and pressing their speculations as facts.
posted by ovvl at 4:31 PM on February 9


Tell me again why play is connected to survival in any way? You seem to be making the argument that everything we do ("we," here, somewhat broadly construed to include cats and humans) we do because it's instrumental to not dying. This seems on the face of it absurd. Do you have an argument, or are you just asserting stuff?


I thought this was generally accepted as true. Kzin and Smidgen also indicated that play is the basis for developing social skills, which should directly answer your question.

Play
posted by GrapeApiary at 7:02 AM on February 10


Philip Pilkington responds, also in The Baffler, and put a longer version on his blog: But why on earth won’t they let us play?
The problem is better viewed from the point-of-view of the rationalising tendency itself. This tendency does not arise due to any particular form of social organisation, rather it is deeply embedded in what might be termed the ‘Enlightenment project’ and ultimately stems from what many will find a rather unusual source: namely, anatomy. Before we dig down to the roots, however, let us first examine the branches.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:36 AM on February 19


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