Friday, November 14, 2008

First Impressions of the ASC Conference

The Human and the Humanities. It is the center focus of this conference that is part of a three year initiative that has brought together numerous of the world's brightest scholars to discuss the ever changing view of the human and creativity. Advancements in Science continually are changing the world's view of what the human is, from whence he came and what human creativity really means. I, myself, am attending the conference this year as an undergrad student from NC State University where I am studying Spanish Education and International Studies. Though I am clearly not in the sciences and many of the topics discussed by neuroscientists like Oliver Sacks are beyond me, the humanities focus is something that I can relate to from my background. My main focus during this conference is to observe the different views and ideas of the speakers, especially those concerning the concept of creativity, in order to report back to my fellow University Honors students about the conference and its relation to our one seminar class that focuses on creativity in the Sciences. I hope to offer a different perspective to the conference that will probably be easily differentiated from those of my fellow contributors to the blog as I am simply a student observing the ideas of great and distinguished minds around me.

Now for the conference. In Durham, nestled in the woods is the National Humanities Center. Its location is unique as it is close to the highway, yet when actually at the center all one can see through the glass paneling on some of the walls and the ceiling is trees and forest. The view of the forest from the offices is quite lovely and enviable by anyone who is used to seeing traffic from their office window. Inside the building itself the most striking thing I have noticed is the artwork. Each piece is done by a local man and combines elements of animals and humans in an abstract way with vibrant colors. One piece looks almost like two cats with human eyes and white mustaches, with one wearing glasses. Other pieces which are equally intriguing include horned human-like creatures and animals that can be distinctly identified, yet they have one or more human characteristics to add to them. The fact that surprised me is that the artwork is continually changing and being replaced by other collections. Apparently artwork is on a rotation, with these pieces being replaced by new artwork probably in December. When I inquired about it, I was told that it is refreshing for new artwork to continually be presented in the center. The center definitely seems like a place that is designed to promote creativity and collaboration with one's peers.

The conference should be starting soon, it is a few minutes until 9am, and people are steadily arriving and finding seats. On the two tv screens set up on either side of the stage there are questions that are being presented in a continual cycle. Each of the questions relates to the theme of the conference and is thought provoking. I hope that each of the speakers today will answer these questions from their own experience and drawing from their personal expertise.

And now it officially begins...

Anthony Appiah finished his discussion and I am getting a chance to write during the break before Oliver Sacks will present again. The discussion was titled "The Psychology of Ethics" and explored the theories and questions offered by our behavior in given situations and how they can relate to our personal ethics. He started out with the example of the classic trolley car example and then went further as he stated that the difference between this philosophical example and a real life situation is that in real life the multiple options are not given to the individual. This is where the ethical issues arise from. because now the individual must decide if certain actions are appropriate options on whether they are ethical or not. Appiah went further to say that differences in behavior can stem from differences in circumstances. Just because a person acts dishonestly one time under certain circumstances, this does not mean that that person is necessarily prone to be dishonest in all situations. This can segway into the field of virtue ethics in that people do not always act out of personal virtue and innate kindness. Sometimes they are displaying this behavior due to the circumstance that they have been presented with. Possibly, a seminary student is running late for a meeting so he is less likely to help someone in need even though he would know from his seminary training that helping the person is the right thing to do in that circumstance. Sometimes a person will help another just because they are in a good mood - they might have just had a satisfying meal at their favorite restaurant. Therefore, should credit be given to this person who is acting out of being in a good mood?

Certainly not. For that would encourage only acting in the kind manner when in a good mood. Appiah noted that truly compassionate people are hard to find, and it would be an interesting study to see how the people who actually help those in need, especially when running late to a meeting, differ from those who do not. His closing statement stuck with me the most, where he stated, "unless you know all the questions, you do not know which questions are truly worth asking." One question was asked at the end of this lecture that drew a relationship between Appiah and Sacks' comments made last night. It was stated that might it be possible to assume that the person who is willing to help another is simply acting out of a feeling of security. Sacks had made the comment last night that people who feel secure are able to be more creative. Therefore, it should be assumed that the smell of food from some one's favorite restaurant should be enough to make someone feel secure and comfortable and thus extend that good mood to another person. I found this an interesting correlation that definitely has some merit.

Continuing on after the correlation between Appiah and Sacks there was the second discussion following Appiah, a conversation between Oliver Sacks and Jesse Prinz. I had high expectations for this discussion after Sacks’ opening remarks last night. I was not disappointed in the least. The first statement made by Sacks was in response to the question about how he defined himself. He described himself as a doctor, kind of a country doctor, and not a writer. Though in describing his writing style that is more descriptive rather than explanatory, Sacks gave insight by saying that he seeks to know what it is like to be the person he is talking to. He wants to know how they are affected by what is going on, as in how they will respond to it, adapt to it and eventually survive it. He wants to hear people's stories, saying that everyone has a story in them and that medicine consists of stories. One interesting statement that was said as the questioning continued from this base, is that a deaf person will ascribe a difference between "deaf" and Deaf." Deaf will mean being a part of a greater community and having the benefits of that. It is definitely something to think about.

There has been a focus in the field lately of whether reductionism, describing psychology in terms of nerve function, is wrong. Sacks finds himself to be strongly reductionist, not believing in things that are not in body due to his background in chemistry. This led into a discussion about the future of the sciences and medicine. Before the 1980's most of the work in understanding the brain was done by talking to the person being studied. Yet this has shifted since imaging technology has come into play. This shift is not necessarily a good thing though, since it leaves something out. A statement that Sacks made last night seems to relate to this idea, where he said that we "are in danger of technology turning the doctor into a technician and the patient into an object. We must humanize technology before it dehumanizes us." Continuing on, there is hope for technological intervention that can give us the abilities that we do not have or need improvement on. Oliver sacks made the point that though there is hope for it, it may be at a cost we will not like. He said that at a younger age we all had the abilities of a savant but that these have been shooed out from that early age with the development of language skills. This causes worry as to whether a person would have to give up verbal skills in order to gain the "lesser" skills back, but maybe we could have both. There is evidence of people with frontal temporal dementia, I believe that is what it was called, where the people affected during the early stages had an onset of creative abilities. people who had never touched a paintbrush in their lives were creating these amazing works of art. Though at the same time, people with damage to the frontal lobe can sometimes begin to lack in moral ability and exhibit more criminal activity. Prinz joked that, "There may be some costs to being a good artist." Sacks commented that we sometimes do need "a little holiday from our temporal lobe," though this is within reason.

1 comment:

Gary Comstock said...

Kathryn, thanks for your thoughts about the conference. I was interested in many of the same issues you have flagged.

Appiah's point out about the trolley is that the thought experiment seems artificially to constrain our choices. The case invites us to ask ourselves what we should do if faced with a runaway trolley on course to kill 5 people. If we do nothing, that will be the result. But we have in your hands a switch to divert the car onto a different track, where it will kill 1 person. The case is set up so that we have these two choices. But only these two.

And that is what students reject. As Appiah reported, his students' first response is always to ask what other options are available. That is not uncommon, is not an unreasonable response, and probably is what we all should do if faced with that situation. However, the experiment stipulates that no other options exist. This way of describing the case seems unrealistic to many of us, and may indicate a general limitation with all thought experiments.

That said, there have been real cases in which, for example, survivors of shipwrecks marooned on life rafts with no food or water had to face similar decisions. In such cases, stark choices would impel us to defer the life-or-death decision for as long as possible. But it's certainly possible that the moment would come when we had to decide whether to save his or her life.

So trolley, like other thought experiments, is designed not to predict or explain our behavior but to assist us along the path of figuring out one's moral intuitions; intuitions about the value of saving 5 lives at the expense of killing one, or about the relative morality of doing nothing and watching 5 die or doing something that will actively kill one.

For these limited purposes, thought experiments seem to have proven useful. And this one in particular has stimulated a great deal of discussion, hypothesis-formation, and experimental testing.