One Long Argument by a Pompous Git

The Git outside the UTas cafeteria colloquially known as Lazy Ben's A Sturm's Eye View, Guaranteed Free of Harmful, or Potentially Harmful Chemicals -- but Watch Out for the Ideas! Some of them are Contagious! 

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Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Git has a number of confessions to make:

  1. He spends more time involved with objects and physical systems than with people;
  2. He communicates less than others do;
  3. He tends to follow his own desires and beliefs rather than paying attention to, or being easily influenced by, others' desires and beliefs;
  4. He shows relatively little interest in what the social group is doing, or being a part of it;
  5. He has strong, persistent interests;
  6. He is very accurate at perceiving the details of information;
  7. He notices and recalls things other people do not;
  8. His view of what is relevant and important in a situation often fails to coincide with others;
  9. He is fascinated by patterns and systems in the world -- visual, numeric, alphanumeric,  etc;
  10. He collects things: books and records (music) mainly, but also certain types of information;
  11. He has a strong preference for experiences that are controllable rather than unpredictable;
  12. He has an IQ that places him in the top 2% of the population;
  13. He's happier in his own company than with crowds;
  14. He is naive;
  15. He has a strong sense of justice;
  16. He takes what people say literally; that is, he's relatively impervious to irony, double-meaning, subtext etc.

Stated in this fashion (after Simon Baron-Cohen), it might seem a little ho-hum! However, most experts in the field of psychological disorders refer to The Git's behavioural features as Asperger Disorder. You will find his maladaptations listed in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10), and in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).

The cause of The Git's "problems" appears to be a physiological brain difference. Rita Carter, in her book Mapping the Mind, notes that "Asperger's subjects" (Aspies) work out what's happening in other people's heads using a brain module that NeuroTypicals use only for for logic processing. NeuroTypical subjects instinctively interpret subtleties of expression that Asperger's mostly either do not notice at all, or have to deduce by sheer intellectual processing power. The latter is hard work! Worse, it doesn't always pay much in the way of dividends.

The Git has a friend, Mike, who is colour blind; he can't perceive the difference between red and green. This doesn't stop him from processing the information provided by traffic lights; he just has to arrive at the correct conclusion (stop, or go) by a different process. Similarly, Aspies are blind (or short-sighted) when it comes to "seventy percent of interpersonal communication". We have no difficulty with the basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, curiosity/interest, surprise and acceptance, just the more subtle variations. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to develop strategies to at least partially overcome our social ineptitude.

We also have a problem with empathy, though this is often as not overstated. The Git can imagine himself in hypothetical situations and use his imagined responses as a guide to how someone else might be feeling. What he cannot do is imagine someone else's actual responses to a given situation. Note that this is can't, not won't. Usually, this substitute for "genuine" empathy works quite well. Conversely, the "genuine" empathy of NeuroTypicals doesn't always work out for the best either.

One of the consistently exasperating aspects of seeing the world through Aspie eyes is being told that "all you have to do [to solve your problems] is get in touch with your emotions". Aspies do have emotions and are in touch with them. The emotions we aren't in touch with are yours and we have only your word for their existence. Not to put too fine a point on this, there is no empirical evidence that they exist! The Git isn't saying they don't exist, just that they are like the difference between red and green for my friend Mike. Or the existence of God for that matter.

Would The Git enjoy being NeuroTypical instead of Aspie? That would appear to entail answering in the affirmative to the following questions. Would The Git prefer:

  1.  Hypocrisy to honesty?
  2. That justice be arbitrary?
  3. A large number of fair-weather friends to the rather small number of genuine friends?
  4. Having difficulty staying focussed?
  5. Adopting other people's opinions instead of developing his own?
  6. Talking instead of thinking?
  7. Being irrational rather than rational?
  8. Being certain instead of uncertain?
  9. Prefer opinions to rational argument?

No, not really. The only real regret is that I cannot give my lovely wife what she so clearly wants and needs. She is the best friend I ever had, but that's obviously not enough. Fortunately, SWMBO is clever enough to understand this and manages, somehow, to put up with being married to The Pompous Git.


Maxine Aston, Aspergers in Love, Jessica Kingsley 2003

SWMBO has an uncanny knack for borrowing a book for me to read from the library just at the precise time that The Git is ready for the ideas it contains. Aspergers in Love is the most recent.

"I remember a few years ago talking to a clinical psychologist who was working with adults with Asperger syndrome. He was quite convinced that he could teach his patients how to feel and empathize and this was his main focus in his treatment with them. He told me how he had been working with a young man who was quite severely affected by Asperger syndrome and seriously felt that this young man was learning to show emotions and understand the emotions of others. I questioned this and suggested that maybe the patient had learned what was required of him and was play-acting the role to achieve what the clinical psychologist wanted. The reply was in the negative -'No', he said, 'he really is developing the ability to empathize.' I did not question this psychologist any more as I realized that it would be pointless, as he wanted to believe that his patient was getting better.

My argument is that if someone can get better and recover from Asperger syndrome, then they never had it in the first place. Asperger syndrome is a life-long disorder. The individual can learn strategies, ways of adapting and coping with the situations that living and working with other people present him, but he cannot learn to do something he does not possess the capacity for. No amount of therapy can give him the ability to use insight and naturally empathize with people close to him. The man who likened himself to someone who was colour-blind was quite accurate in his description and he showed a great awareness of himself and the disabilities that having Asperger syndrome presents."


Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind, Weidenfeld Nicolson 1999

The brain has been the last "terra incognita" of the body for medical exploration, largely because its matter is so different from that of the rest of the body. In 1986 the eminent evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith identified the problem of how the brain works as one of the two outstanding problems in biology (along with how a simple egg develops into a complex adult organism). Most of us have experienced some apparently inexplicable quirk of the mind, such as selective memory loss. Without obvious "hard wiring", anatomical "labels" or other guiding features, medical scientists have struggled to identify its parts, their functions and connections to the mind. Not that this has stopped curiosity; there is anthropological evidence dating back some thousands of years for crude but sometimes successful attempts to open the skull and get at the brain.

Rita Carter is an award-winning medical writer. (Medical Journalists' Association prize for outstanding contribution). In Mapping the Mind she explores the landscape of the brain and its connections with the mind. We should all be enthralled by this adventure for "it is giving us greater understanding about one of the oldest and most fundamental of mysteries--the relationship between the brain and mind". Carter introduces the subject with the historical background of anatomical discoveries and emerging theories of brain/mind connections. The famous tragic story of the19th-century American railway worker, Phineas Gage, is here. An iron rod blasted through poor Phineas's skull. It entered below his left eye and exited through his skull roof, removing a large chunk of his forebrain. Amazingly, Phineas survived but his personality was radically changed, as was reported by his doctor, John Harlow.

In this fascinating and well-illustrated book, Rita Carter shows just how far we have travelled in our understanding since the mid-19th-century world of Dr Harlow and gives a sense of how far we still have to travel. As she says: "The world within our heads is more marvellous than anything we can dream up." The last few decades have seen a revolution in non-invasive brain mapping thanks to the scientific miracles of Magnetic Resonance Imaging and associated technologies. It is now possible to see which part of the brain responds to specific stimulation in real time. As Rita Carter says: "The challenge of mapping this world is currently engaging some of the finest scientists in the world." Excellent design and imagery, plus vignettes from famous scientists such as Francis Crick, a bibliography and an index make this very useful book as well as a good read. -- Douglas Palmer

Professor Stinkjet Redux

The Git made an email rule to kill email from Professor Stinkjet, so Stinkjet created a hotmail account. The Git couldn't resist opening one before creating a rule to delete them. Here's a sample from one of Stinkjet's scientific colleagues:

Philosophers want to solve all the problems of the universe with (1) logic and (2) natural language.

[1] Logic: inquiry which has for its object the principles of correct reasoning.

[2] Natural language: language actually used by a community. It differs from artificial and formal languages, in which the vocabulary and well-formed expressions are defined stipulatively.

Does this mean that non-philosophers (scientists) want to solve none of the problems of the universe using incorrect reasoning and artificial, or formal languages? Here are some of the questions The Git would ask of this scientist had they the guts to front The Git, rather than hide behind Stinkjet's skirts:

[1] What does he/she [delete whichever is inapplicable] mean by "Philosophers want to solve all the problems of the universe"? Does he/she mean to say that that the universe is depressed and lonely, and in need of some sort of counselling? Or that he/she is abysmally ignorant of what philosophers do?

[2] What, if anything, is wrong with using correct reasoning? Is there some special virtue in using incorrect reasoning?

[3] It seems to The Git that most problem-solving is done in natural language. English speakers do it in English, Russians in Russian, the French in French and so on. There is nothing in the least remarkable about this. It's... er... natural. Why does this make you uncomfortable? <aside> Some problems are intractable when expressed in natural language, which is why mathematicians invented mathematics and philosophers invented formal logics. </aside> Is it the case that having invented formal logics, philosophers then avoid using them in preference for natural languages?

The Git thinks we can safely conclude that this evolutionary psychologist is labouring under a number of delusions. Why evolutionary psychologists believe that inflicting their bizarre delusions on The Git is necessary is a mystery. Are they trying to tell us that this is how evolutionary psychologists think?

The whole purpose of logic is to evaluate the outcome of reasoning. Once a single contradiction is affirmed, the enterprise collapses. From any explicitly self-contradictory premise, you can derive any conclusion you want in four steps. If you accept, as Professor Stinkjet does, that an electron both is a particle and is not a particle, you can prove that God exists:

1. An electron is a particle and an electron is not a particle. (Premise)
2. An electron is a particle. (Simplification of a Conjunction, 1)
3. Either an electron is a particle, or God exists (Disjunctive Addition, 2)
4. An electron is not a particle. (Simplification of a Conjunction, 1)
5. God exists (Disjunctive syllogism, 3 & 4)

Unless the Law of Non-Contradiction is assumed, the whole enterprise of meaningful communication goes out the window. Suppose you are having a heart-attack, and you asked Professor Stinkjet for directions to the nearest hospital. Since he doesn't believe in the Law of Non-Contradiction, he might tell you, "It is 120 metres down this street on the right hand side, and it is 120 metres up this street on the right hand side." Exactly how useful is the information he has given you? What he gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. The whole conjunction simply cannot be true.

Email Notification

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Thoughts for the week year:

The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance -- the fact that our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must be infinite. -- Sir Karl Popper


Unless the mind is capable of coming into contact with reality, then all thought is equally worthy and equally worthless. It doesnít matter what you believe as long as youíre sincere. No normal person honestly believes that. For one thing itís unhealthy. If you split your mind into two halves, a discursive half and a practical half, and give them radically incompatible things to believe the outcome is going to be stress and inner conflict. Itís also illogical. Is the thought that no thoughts are true, itself true? Is the statement that no statement is unbiased, itself unbiased? If we answer Yes, we contradict ourselves. For if all thoughts are untrue, then this thought is untrue. If all statements are biased, then this statement is biased. Thereís no question therefore of a total scepticism about human thought because it can only be formulated by making a tacit exception in favour of the thought we are thinking at the moment.

Authority may be a hint as to what the truth is, but is not the source of information. As long as it's possible, we should disregard authority whenever the observations disagree with it. -- Richard P. Feynman


The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduces them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim. -- Gustave Le Bon


Men will always be mad and those who think they can cure them are the maddest of all. -- Voltaire

Current Listening:

Kevin Coyne -- Knocking On Your Brain

Henry Cow -- In Praise of Learning

King Crimson -- Starless and Bible Black

Madness -- One Step Beyond


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