Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Parliament, the brain’s synthetic concepts and negative ideals

In my book Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, I wrote about the brain’s synthetic concepts and equated these with ideals.

To summarize, I hypothesized that our ideal of, for example a house, is a synthesis of all the houses that we have seen. The ideal house cannot be easily matched in reality because the individual house commonly does not satisfy the brain’s synthetic concept, synthesized from many houses. In other words, the individual house commonly departs from the “ideal” house.

I equated the brain’s synthetic concepts to the Platonic Ideals, which also can rarely be experienced and can only be accessed through a thought process.

Plato seems to have hesitated over whether we make ideals of common objects such as houses. His preoccupation was more with things like justice, honour, and love. I believe, by contrast, that the brain forms synthetic concepts of all its experiences, from common objects to lofty characteristics such as justice and honour.

When we speak of ideals, we commonly have something positive and desirable in mind. With synthetic concepts, it is different. If synthetic concepts are built up from many experiences, then it stands to reason to suppose that negative experiences also go into their making.

This latter point, about negative experiences being incorporated into the synthetic concepts, is one that I did not make in my book. It is worth doing so here, giving as an example my experience of Parliament.

When I was young, I had a certain admiration for Parliament and parliamentarians had my respect. To have been invited to the House of Commons (which I have not) would have been a certain privilege for me. I conceived of it as the Mother of Parliaments, whose members were largely concerned with the welfare of the country. They would, I imagined, put country before party and way above personal profit.

Like everyone else, I have of course witnessed the reality which has now become etched into my synthetic concept of parliament and parliamentarians: a body consisting of many members sitting more in a gravy train, unable to assess critically because both hands are in the till. A body consisting of members – assuming the reports to be true – whose spouses buy pornographic movies, others who adorn their homes, and yet others their gardens, while passing the bill to the taxpayer as expenses. Some have apparently made false statements to obtain money for dubious ‘second homes’. A few, I gather, have even been charged.

Most of these members have protested that they have done nothing illegal. Perhaps not. Perhaps their actions were legal because the rules were framed by Parliament itself. But wrong doing does not fall only within jurisdiction of the law. There is also a moral question, of whether it is right for those sent to represent them should behave in this way.

I have heard recently that some parliamentarians have even offered themselves for rent, to influence policy, reputedly at rates of between £3000-£5000 per day, presumably depending upon the type of service provided. Not that long ago, a famous businessman reportedly boasted that he could “rent” any member of Parliament. Sadly, this may yet be true, at least in some cases.

It is inevitable that such experiences, though indirect, should now have become part of my brain’s synthetic concept of Parliament. And in this instance, it is the negative component that dominates.

Hence, I much prefer the synthetic concept to the ideal, because the synthetic concept handles both negative and positive experiences.

Just as “positive” synthetic concepts become ones that we strive for (perhaps because they strongly stimulate the brain’s reward system), so “negative” synthetic concepts are ones which we prefer not to experience further. It is instructive to learn that a record number, 146, of present Members of Parliament will not seek re-election. Some of these may have reached retirement age, some may have been exposed. But there still must be quite a few in whom a positive synthetic concept has been gradually transformed into a negative one.

This sad little story has, of course, much grander implications when we come to think of brain concepts and the experiences that shape them and the relationship between Ideals and brain concepts.

As for me, it would now mean nothing to me to be invited to, or visit, the Houses of Parliament; every time I walk by its buildings in Westminster, an institution which I once admired seems like a shabby den of somewhat pathetic characters for whom I have little respect, a shabbiness that is accentuated by the apparent, and seemingly deceptive, grandeur of its appearance. This is a sentiment that, I suppose, is shared by many – perhaps even a majority – in the country.

So would I consider it a privilege to be invited into such a chamber now?

Of course not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello Prof Zeki..why,for the most part,do you think that we remain unaware of the continual synthetic creation of 'reality' in consciousness?Whats the evoulutionary advantage in not knowing that whats experienced is the minds synthetic creation , a version?Would there be an advantage in realising this all the time?.....Mark