Tag Archives: mind

Comparing Coleridge and Orwell on the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing

Writing 128 years apart, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Orwell had similar ideas about the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing.

Here’s the closing of Coleridge’s 1818 lecture on prose style (boldface added):

“And I cannot conclude this Lecture without insisting on the importance of accuracy of style as being near akin to veracity and truthful habits of mind; he who thinks loosely will write loosely, and, perhaps, there is some moral inconvenience in the common forms of our grammars which give children so many obscure terms for material distinctions. Let me also exhort you to careful examination of what you read, if it be worth any perusal at all; such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism, the universal origin of which is in the contemplation of phenomena without investigation into their causes.”

Now here’s an excerpt from the second paragraph of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language” (which picks up with the idea of cause and effect, although not strictly in the same sense in which Coleridge closed his lecture):

“But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” (Again, boldface added.)

My boldfaced sections point out one similarity: bad thinking leads to bad writing, and bad writing causes more bad thinking, in a kind of snowball effect.

But I think there might be another similar thread in the two excerpts, one that might be subtler. Coleridge urges his listeners “to careful examination” of what they read, and says “such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism.” Could it be that Coleridge’s exhortation complements Orwell’s observation that Modern English “is full of bad habits which spread by imitation”?  In other words, could “bad habits which spread by imitation” also fuel fanaticism? Are there “contemplation[s] of phenomena without investigation[s] into their causes” built into some of those “bad habits which spread by imitation”?

I need to look for evidence of that in contemporary phrases. I call dibs on the potential academic paper.

Another similarity between the Coleridge lecture and the Orwell essay: they both believe prose should be clear, straightforward, direct. They want prose writers to say what they mean and mean what they say, in the simplest language possible.

Coleridge praises Jonathan Swift’s style as “simplicity in the true sense of the word,” while Orwell criticizes “lack of precision” and “pretentious diction.”

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Aside

The mind might be fallen, but the mind is not a result of The Fall.

‘Subliminal Perception: Just How Fast Is The Brain?’ – Neuroskeptic

Scary:

Psychologists and neuroscientists are fairly skeptical of any grand or sinister claims for the power of subliminal advertising or propaganda, but on the other hand, many of them use the technique as a research tool.

So what’s the absolute speed limit of the brain? What’s the minimum time that a stimulus needs to appear in order to trigger a measurable brain response?

In a new study, Swiss researchers Holger Sperdin and colleagues say that they’ve detected neural activity in response to images presented for just 250 microseconds – that’s 1/4 of a millisecond, or 1/4000-th of a second.

(via Subliminal Perception: Just How Fast Is The Brain? – Neuroskeptic, a Discover Magazine blog)

So your brain could respond to a stimuli even when you are not conscious of the stimuli.

Video: ‘How Art Is Crucial To Understanding The Human Mind’

Or, read the interview with Antonio Damasio, M.D., professor of neuroscience and the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.

Can you rest in skepticism? Nope. Kant.

“Skepticism is a resting place for human reason, where it can reflect on its dogmatic wanderings. But it is no dwelling place for permanent settlement. Simply to acquiesce in skepticism can never suffice to overcome the restlessness of reason.”  – Immanuel Kant  (h/t to Fide Dubitandum)

The case for an intangible mind or soul

In my previous post, I questioned the existence of the “heart” in the context of Christianity. I’m not talking about the blood-pumping organ here but rather something that is more like the central desiring and imagining aspect of a human. I questioned the existence of the “heart” by excerpting a newspaper article about the experiences of a man who suffered permanent brain damage following the removal of a tumor. The details of the man’s life, before and after surgery, seemed to leave little space for the “heart” to operate without a brain (or little space for a “heart” to exist without specific brain circuits). However, I also included a link to Alvin Plantinga’s review of Thomas Nagel’s new book, which critiques “materialistic naturalism” from an atheistic perspective.

I didn’t intend to slam the door too strongly on the possibility of an intangible element of humans, only to question to quick-and-easy assumptions of Christianspeak, which is shot through, for good or ill, with the language of Platonism and Cartesian dualism.

If there’s an easily understandable counterpoint to materialistic naturalism, it appeared yesterday on the Huffington Post site, written by Kelly Bulkeley, who has a PhD in psychology and is tagged as a “psychologist of religion” and a “dream researcher.”

Bulkeley focuses part of his post on the book A Portrait of the Brain by Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology. The otherwise excellent book, in Bulkeley’s opinion, falls apart in the final chapter, when Zeman opts against mind in favor of brain. Bulkeley writes,

In the preceding paragraphs, Zeman acknowledges that philosophers like Thomas Nagel, Colin McGinn and David Chalmers have raised devastating critical questions about physicalism that he cannot refute.  Yet he decides to accept physicalism anyway, based on what he calls a “hunch,” a strong “intuition,” and something he “suspect(s)” about the crypto-religious beliefs of those who do not accept physicalism. 

Bulkeley makes some interesting points. Read his entire article here.

Where’s the ‘heart’? The brain’s role in belief, feeling, and decision-making

I remember Bishop Lawrence saying something like this: the heart desires and the will justifies. Or, maybe it was, the heart desires, the mind rationalizes, the will actualizes. Something along those lines. Desire for something comes first, rationalization/justification second, and then actualization.  

This thing called the “heart” in Christian circles — it is not the organ that pumps blood but rather an inner orientation toward something or some things. In Christianspeak, the “heart” is the most crucial part of the person, the desiring element of us, the ultimate guide underneath the surface of belief and behavior.

But that point of view seems less and less of an adequate explanation of reality. Consider the following true story from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Elliot had a small tumour cut from his cortex near the brain’s frontal lobe.  He had been a model father and husband, holding down an important management job  in a large corporation and was active in his church. But the operation changed  everything.

Elliot’s IQ stayed the same – testing in the smartest 3 per cent – but, after  surgery, he was incapable of  decision. Normal life became impossible. Routine  tasks that should take 10 minutes now took hours. Elliot endlessly deliberated  over irrelevant details: whether to use a blue or black pen, what radio station  to listen to and where to park his car. When contemplating lunch, he carefully  considered each restaurant’s menu, seating and lighting, and then drove to each  place to see how busy it was. But  Elliot still couldn’t decide where to eat.  His indecision was pathological.

Elliot was soon sacked. A series of new businesses failed and a con man  forced him into bankruptcy. His wife divorced him. The tax office began  investigating him. He moved back with his parents. As neurologist Antonio  Damasio put it: “Elliot emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable  to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social  matters.”

But why was Elliot suddenly incapable of making good decisions? What had  happened to his brain? Damasio’s first insight occurred while talking to Elliot  about the tragic turn his life had taken. “He was always controlled,” Damasio  remembers, “always describing scenes as a dispassionate, uninvolved spectator.  Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the  protagonist …  I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation  with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.” Elliot’s friends and  family confirmed Damasio’s observations: ever since his surgery, he had seemed  strangely devoid of emotion, numb to the tragic turn his own life had taken.

Now consider the above: Elliot cannot make decisions because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.” His emotions have been neutralized because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.”

To make proactively good or bad moral decisions, to have good or bad feelings toward God, to decide any number of things related to expressing or living one’s faith — all of these critical elements of spirituality are no longer available to him as a result of a problem with his brain.

These observations should give any believer pause. What do you mean when you say “heart”? Could it be there’s no “ghost in the machine,” no intangible presence attached to our biological organism? Could it be our “spiritual experiences” are tricks of the brain?

If nothing else, Elliot’s story should change the language of devotional life and church communal life. “Heart” should no longer be treated as an intangible part of reality but rather as a metaphor for brain functions.

Furthermore, why are apologetics still grounded in abstract arguments rather than critical assessments of facts? Can we really look at new research without considering its implications? Can we really just make broad-brush statements about “chronological snobbery” and “materialistic naturalism” when Western Christians constantly benefit from medical and technological advances from research based in the naturalist point of view? (Even when there are reasonable, contemporary critiques of that point of view.)

Read the rest of the story about Elliot and comment below.