Pitbull trouble

Red Lodge, 9th May

It’s been a month since we’d met up. Easter has passed, and now it is nearly summer. We’re glad to welcome new people to the group, including one very friendly newcomer with a lot of fur, who was the subject of a lot of discussion this week.  At the same time, some of our members are ill, so we weren’t quite a full team. We hoped that everyone got better quickly.

We went round and got people’s news. Ben was forced to go first, because usually he just sits back and puts other people on the spot — and how do you like that? So he talked about his grandfather who was a spy in Turkey after the First World War, and how he was doing some research on him, to find out what might have really been going with the missions he carried out. Another member of the group said that their grandfather had been an alcoholic, and their main memory of him was standing outside the ward where he was suffering from delirium tremens (hallucinations from severe alcoholism).

A rather cute looking pitbull, in factWe shared some other news: one of us had been attacked by a pitbull in the park (this person had to have his tail related by someone else, since he couldn’t speak, because he was a dog). Pitbulls are banned in the UK because they are bred for violence. This particular dog, the one which attacked our group member, was apparently only part pitbull, so it’s not been banned but it has been served with an ASBO and cannot come out after certain hours.

We wondered whether a pitbull’s violence was inherent in it, or whether it was possible for a pitbull to be brought up a softy. Members of the group said that this did know of pitbulls which were softies, and that it depended on their upbringing. But what they do have is jaws that lock and can’t be prised open once they get a grip. And that’s what happened to our dog member of the group. (In fact, it seems that pitbulls are not banned in the UK — in fact, it is dogs that look like pitbulls which are banned, since there is no legal definition of a pitbull. See here for some back story.)

This led us back to the question of whether any animals were truly cruel. We recalled the A dealdy feline beastcats, and the sharks, who play with their food before eating it. But we thought that perhaps there was a reason why they were doing this — maybe to make the food taste better — and that would perhaps mean that it was not cruel for a cat to play with a mouse (or shark with seal). So we were thinking that part of meaning of cruelty is that it is inflicting pain without a reason for it. But then another idea came up, whch is that the animals are not inflicting pain for a reason, but that they are just doing it by instinct. A cat plays with a shadow in the same way as it plays with a mouse. And if they are doing it by instinct, then there is no reason for it, and so it does not count as cruel. But what is this? We just said that there has to be no reason for causing suffering if it is to count as cruel. But then we said that there is no reason why an animal causes suffering when it plays with prey, and so that doesn’t count as cruel. But if there is no reason for the animal’s action, isn’t that the definition of cruelty?

We will have to come back to this.

Then Ben got out his stimulus material: a book by Mary Wollstonecroft called A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and an article called ‘All Animals are Equal’ by Peter Singer. More of this later.

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Cruelty to animals, cruelty by animals

This week we began with our news roundup (which included a review of some of the language things we’d talked about last time; the question of how we might cope without our car: yet at the same time, this dependence on oil and machines is dangerous for the world; and questions about whether young people these days are work-shy); and then we moved on to an intense discussion about the Grand National, and the deaths of the two horses at the Becher’s Brook jump. Is the race too dangerous? Are the horses explioted, or are they pushed too hard?

One member of the group had worked a lot with horses and insisted that you cannot get a horse to jump if it doesn’t want to. The horses get excited about winning the race; they know when they’ve done well, and sometimes you can see that the winning horse knows that it has won. The way it walks and the angle of the ears show its pride. Horses who lose their riders still continue the race (though skipping the dangerous jumps). Not everyone agreed with this, though, and some of us thought that it was more because of their training that they run the race, not because they wanted to.

Still, even if the horses want to run the race, it could still be cruel to put them into such danger. And it might also be cruel to persuade them to run the race in the first place (if it is right to say that they have to be persuaded to run it). What might stand in the way of the race being made safer? Perhaps the danger of the race is part of its appeal. It could be that the danger of the race is what makes it bankable. Or maybe it is something deeper, and perhaps more sadistic in human nature: maybe it would not be such a thrill to watch if it were not dangerous. Do humans get a thrill out of cruelty? Are they intrinsically cruel? And are they the only animal that is cruel? For a moment we thought that they might be; we thought that in fact the very idea of ‘cruelty’ only applies to humans, since they are the only ones that can make choices. But then examples of cruel animals came thick and fast; dogs playing with their prey; cats toying with mice (to make them taste better?); sharks playing with seals. (This video doesn’t show the bit where the shark plays with the seal before eating it, but it’s pretty amazing anyway.)

Ben now got out his stimulus material for this session, even though we hardly needed to be stimulated. This was an extract from a philosophy essay called ‘The Land Ethic’ by Aldo Leopold (1887–1948). (You can see part of the text here.) This is an amazing piece of writing: the wolf’s howl came out through the lines and chilled us as we read it.

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Leopold describes shooting a wolf and standing over it as it dies, watching the life go out from it.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. […] I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Leopold is not just lamenting the cruelty and disrespect that humans have for nature: he says something deeper — that we cannot value nature while we look at it from the perspective of humanity. To understand the true meaning of the wolf’s howl, we have to listen to it from the perspective of the mountains themselves.

In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

This generated a lot of questions:

How does nature, red in tooth and claw, make city-people feel?

Are humans just as savage?

Which is the cruellist animal of them all?

Does the mountain have thoughts?

What lies behind cruelty?

We decided to look at the last question next time.

But there’s one thing to add: the extract we read made us focus on the cruelty of the hunter, Leopold, shooting the wolf for sport. But the extract itself does not mention anything about cruelty. In fact it is quite dispassionate about the relationships between humans, other animals, and nature. A fallen deer will be replaced in a year or two, but a lost forest will take decades. The extract is not about cruelty, but about seeking a way to understand nature which is not limited by the concepts that humans use, which are drawn from a language designed to suit our needs and desires. To understand nature we cannot depend on our thoughts.

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Question of the week #3

Today’s Red Lodge session had two new potential members joining, plus the possibility of a canine perspective in a fortnight. It suits us fine. as we were wondering about the thoughts of horses and wolves and we’d like to know what a dog thinks. More in a moment. For now, our question of the week is:

What is BEHIND cruelty?

Let us know what you think. And if you’re in the New Earswick area, get in touch!

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Could the universe be a brain?

The amazing picture in the New York Times shows, side-by-side, a picture of the cells in a mouse’s brain, and a snap-shot of the intergalactic structure of the Universe. Both pictures come from the very latest discoveries and technologies: and the two pictures are very similar.


In both pictures we see big blobs, connected to each other by long strands. In the brain picture, the blobs are the heads of neurons, the cells which make up the brain. The long strands are the axons, the necks of the brain cells which connect them with other cells. The brain cells connect up into a net, and thought happens (somehow) when electrical messages are sent along the strands of this net. How thought can come out this net plus electrical signals is a total mystery.

In the Universe picture, the blobs are clusters of galaxies, held together by the gravitational force of the mysterious Dark Matter. The strands between the blobs are strands of galaxies, more thinly spaced, and perhaps held in place by more strands of Dark Matter. 90% of the Universe is hidden from us. When we add up the weight of all the things we see in the sky, it turns out to be 1/10 of the weight that the Universe must be according to other calculations (I don’t know what calculations).

In the brain and in the sky: two huge mysteries. But the way the brain and the Universe are laid out look so similar it’s hard not to wonder whether hidden meaning has been revealed. What if the Universe is also thinking? What if we have a universe inside our heads, and are part of a giant brain?

Could the whole Universe be thinking? Perhaps this is a glimpse of the brain of god; perhaps our world is just a tiny dot in one of the galactic cells which make up that brain. What thought is God thinking? And what can God see? Whatever it is, it lies beyond the limit of what I can imagine.

I don’t think it’s definitely too far-fetched to think that the Universe could be a brain. Although it is a deep mystery how the mind is related to the brain, it must be something about the way the cells of the brain are shaped and laid out which explains what thought is. And if it is the structure of the brain which makes thought happen, then it seems possible that anything which has the same structure would also be thinking.

It is a common in our culture to describe the brain as a computer, and to think of the mind as something like the software of that computer. This is an idea that can lead us to think that the Universe is thinking. It is the structure of a computer that makes it do the calculations it does. It is the shape of the parts, and in particular the way that they connect to each other, that makes it compute. A computer could be made of any material, but so long as those connections are the same, it would be doing the same computations. One of the first computers, the Z-1, is in the Berlin science museum. It works on rods and switches. It’s not electronic, it’s mechanical. You could build a computer that worked on steam or water. Microchips make it possible to build computers smaller and faster — the Z-1, which is the size of a big room, can do much much less than the smallest microchip — but the sorts of computations they do are no different.

If thought arises from the structure of the brain like computation arises from the structure of a computer, then anything with the same structure as the brain would be thinking. Whether signals travel along the axons of neurons in a microsecond, or along Dark Matter strands between galactic clusters over millions of years, makes no difference. If the patterns that these signals make are similar, then the Universe is thinking. The similar patterns between the mouse brain and the Universe really could mean that the Universe is thinking. (If you want to know more about this, see this essay about the idea of ‘functionalism’ in the understanding of consciousness. The thinking Universe would be a giant version of what is called the ‘China Brain‘ or the ‘Blockhead’, in that essay.)

On the other hand, though, the similarity between the mouse brain and the Universe might not be as close as we think. Looking at the two pictures, it’s clear that the Universe network is more subtle and complicated: there are fine thin strands emanating from the big clusters (thanks to Terri for pointing this out). The similarity isn’t as deep as it first appears. Both pictures have been chosen to pick out the best similarity they can. The Universe snap shot is a zoom-in on a particular structure. Zoomed out, that structure disappears, and in fact the universe looks like a rather monotonous bubble structure, with no major differences between the different areas.

But the brain works because as well as the fine network of the brain cells, there is also a big division into different areas which deal with different parts of thought such as emotions, logic, vision, and movement. Those parts communicate too.

So although on at least one theory of the mind, it is not impossible that the Universe is thinking if it has the same structure as the brain, another look at the evidence of the pictures suggests that in fact there is not such a similarity of structure after all.

We are surrounded by mysteries, and for all that we concentrate on our daily tasks and don’t give ourselves time to think about them, the mysteries remain, as if waiting for us to return to them. My instinct is that saying that the Universe is a brain is too easy a solution. It collapses two mysteries into one. Truths about the history and future of the Universe, and where consciousness comes from, are so mysterious that I doubt we will even be able to understand the answers with the minds that we have today.

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The mouse brains and the universe

This discussion was sandwiched between our main discussion about what is invisible (see three posts back) and whether everything has a colour.

We started with this picture (from the last post):

(Actually, our printout was a bit bluer than this.)

What is it?

The first things we thought of were: a closeup photo of atoms; an exploded star; a view into the sky; the view you get at the opticians when they shine a light into your eye.

So that basically ended the whole ‘guess what this picture is’ bit, as these judgements were just about spot-on. But Ben refused to admit this, and kept on asking what the little dots might be in the picture. Earth? We thought? An atom, maybe? We talked about some other things, and then went to the next picture.

By now we knew it was supposed to be a picture of the universe. We had a discussion of whether it really was a true picture of the universe, since we figured that sometimes ideas get passed around among scientists and because they are so complicated and hard to check, they might be untrue but get established before anyone has time to realise that they really need to be checked. We thought of whether there were other examples like this. We also asked where all this information had come from. Maybe the Hubble Space Telescope. So much more knowledge about the universe has be discovered in the last 20 years, it’s mind-boggling. Though these universe pictures are not all based on that information. They’re part-simulation, and part based on the telescopes.

And then finally we came to the main picture: from a newspaper, the mouse brain and the universe.

One picture shows a few cells from inside a mouse’s brain; the other an area of the universe, where each blob of light is a galaxy. We wondered about this for a while. Pretty cool to think that we might have a universe inside our heads. Pretty cool to think that we might be living inside a giant brain. But also one of us pointed out that there are differences between the two pictures. The universe one is more detailed and complicated. There are many more thin strands in it. We ended up thinking that although the pictures are similar, there is not as much similarity as first meets the eye.

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Fly through the universe

Our question for this week (see post on Mouse Brains and the Universe). As you fly through the universe (below), we recommend you think about the picture of the cells inside a mouse brain (next post), and ask: Could the Universe be a giant (really giant!) brain?

Let us know what you think!

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28th March session, Red Lodge

I never got around to posting up something about the 28th March session in Red Lodge, which was quite an amazing discussion. Ten of us were there, after a long pre-Easter break. Ben had planned to use as a stimulus something that he had been given on one of the massive demonstrations in London, but we never got around to that. We stimulate ourselves these days, so to speak.

We went around and picked up the news that people wanted to share. There was so much of it. You can hardly turn off the tellie for fear of missing something important. Or, to put it another way, you can hardly bear to turn it on, for fear of finding out more than you wanted to know. Time seems to be passing quickly — it does, we observed, especially if you’re doing something you like. But the person who had said that time was passing quickly, turned out not to be so keen on the thing she was concentrating on — college work which was not as stimulating as she would have liked.

More things cropped up: the census; the nuclear accidents in Japan, after the tsunami. And then we came to the main feature of this session. Arnold had brough books and poems published by the Yorkshire Dialect Society; including the winner of the 1930 competition for the best pieces written in dialect (three one-act plays), and a poetry book in dialect which was beautifully printed and had the most amazing woodcuts.

We took turns to read out one of the plays, and one of the poems (‘The Dipper and the Wagtail’, because it’s spring). They were brilliant. And then we talked about language and dialect.

Who decides how you’re going to speak? What is the history of accents and dialects? Is the Yorkshire the original dialect of the British Isles? Some people in the group had had bad experiences in their youth, as theor school had insisted on their using the King’s English, rather than Scots language, say. Who invented this King’s English? Why should everyone be required to learn it? How long ago did this tradition come about?

We had many questions, these as well as others, and we chewed them over for a while.Finally, we decided to start a new tradition of posting up a question for the week on the notice board, and in the Folk Hall, and online in several places. We chewed over some more questions: How did language start? Why was I forbidden to speak my own language? Where did accents come from? Where did we all come from? Why were people required to speak the King’s/Queen’s English? We went for ‘How did language start?’

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