11 June 2010

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Where does behaviour stops and action begins?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Where does behaviour stops and action begins?
I proposed the topic after the dynamic discussion we had last week on
Panic. Although in my essay I do not discuss panic I think I have
clarified the background to panic to understand it in a wider context.
In the meantime I think we won't have any problems with the world cup
this Sunday.
All the best


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-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
Tertulia with Ignacio and friends: Every Thursday, from 19:30 to 21h, at
Moore's Irish Pub, c/ Barceló 1 (metro Tribunal).
Where does behaviour stops and action begins?
The problem with scientific knowledge or at the very least verifiable
knowledge is that we have to stop making the assumption we once did in
the absence of this verifiable knowledge.
For example, today we know that any discussion about philosophy and
human beings must first and foremost start from the premise that human
beings are biological systems. Biology is where philosophy starts.
The second important premise is that we interact with our environment
and we have to accommodate ourselves to our environment. And in the
setting of the natural environment we find ourselves in, it makes sense
to be able to interact and react to our changing environment as quickly
as possible.
Of course, when I say we, and human beings, I also include animals by
implications. However, it is important for our discussion to distinguish
between human beings and animals. Indeed, this is a material distinction
required for our discussion. How, I hope to make clear as I develop the
For our purpose, we need to focus first on the principle that it makes
sense for a biological system to be able to react quickly to a fast
changing environment. For example, arriving first to a pile of food in
open prairie land would give an animal or a prehistoric human being the
edge in replenishing energy; food is energy in the shape of a freshly
killed buffalo.
And if acting quickly in a changing environment makes sense,
automatically reacting to a trigger event makes even more sense. Not
only acting automatically would give us an edge in time, it also leaves
us free to consider other issues. For example, feeling hungry after not
having eaten for twelve hours is more desirable than keeping a double
entry ledger of all the energy we consumed and all the energy we spent.
That time is probably best spent hunting.
Thus, quick is a desirable trait in the setting of the environment in
its natural setting. This is behaviour, at least a basic type of
behaviour that is triggered automatically or at the very least nearly
automatically when required.
But no matter how quickly we can react to a fast changing environment,
it seems to me that the environment in its raw or natural state will
always have the better of us. We might win some battles, but I don't
think that we were ever able to win the war. We might have complex
behaviour and we might be quick but sooner or later a cheetah will
always catch up with us in straight run.
But quick and complex behaviour might take so long, what clinches the
deal is the right sort of behaviour in the right sort of time. Getting
it right will probably do more to help us survive than just being quick
or complex.
It seems to me that we have evolved a rather sophisticated behaviour
system that gives us more of the right reaction than we care to
acknowledge. I'm of course thinking of the emotions. The emotions are an
impressive and fantastic system that most time comes up with the right
reaction in the right context. Indeed the emotions are like an
impressive took kit that can generate the right sort of behaviours. A
Swiss army knife that works with hormones and testosterone plus a few
other gadgets, such as pain, that can really elicit a quick reaction.
Think how fast we react when we are afraid of something, or at the sight
of an attractive member of the opposite sex.
But there are some serious drawbacks to have this set of ready made
behaviour repertoire. One of them is that these behaviours only apply to
a dangerously small number of practically predictable changes in the
environment. A zebra can react to a lioness approaching only if the
zebra can detect the change of pattern in the environment. But if zebras
have an automatic behavioural repertoire of running away from lions and
cheetah, they wouldn't know what to do when a new type of predator
(maybe a human being) comes along. And the animal that does not usually
have a predator, it's environment can become seriously dangerous for
that creature: the dodo is an example when humans introduced such
animals as cats and dogs in the Mauritius; or the Bubonic plague in the
middle ages.
Biological systems seem to adapt quite well to repeatable changes or at
least to changes with a measurable probability. But hopeless at what
Nassim Taleb, in his book, The black Swan, describes as small
probabilities in the fat tail (the right tail of a bell curve that can
extend for ever) that cannot be measured ; how do we measure a meteorite
strike on the Earth.
So we can evolve a great behaviour repertoire to run away from a
predator, but how does one evolve a repertoire to crawl out of the
rubble of collapsed cave after an earthquake, and later on, in the
history of the world, a skyscraper? One thing for sure, experience will
not be much help.
If we accept the arguments and observations I have made above, it seems
that we have no option but to conclude that a given biological system
has precious few options to fight the rigors of the environment.
Behaviour that relies on the emotions, and quick timing is a poor option
considering the various types of damage the environment have inflict on
a helpless human being. One minor deviation from the norm and you are
out for the count, literally.
So, apart from perishing, a biological system has two options to deal
with the environment: keep the system as simple as possible, that is
limit the complexity of the system, or make the system super complex
that can challenge the environment head on.
Of course, by simple system I do not mean simplistic nor rudimentary,
just fit for purpose and that's it. And by complex I do not mean
unmanageable and unwieldy, but adaptable and with a effective punch.
This complex and simple terminology is my terminology and I am not aware
of some other writer using the same terminology to describe the same idea.
Thus an example of a simple system would be birds, elephants, bees,
fungi, dodos, and so on. As we know birds are indeed a complex system,
but not in my sense I explained above, but only in the lay person's
meaning of complexity of something doing marvellous thing employing
different parts of machinery. The reason why birds are a simple system
is that birds only do bird things. Indeed they might fly across
continents year in and year out, or seek prey hundreds of miles away,
but they did not invent the steam ship to cross oceans nor the high
speed trains to cross continents.
However, human beings have evolved into a rather super complex systems
that we know have successfully developed steam ships, high speed trains,
air planes, and a million other gadgets and toys to keep most people
busy or happy. Other systems also show a degree of complexity, primates,
ants, viruses, especially viruses that have developed a really complex
system to invade biological systems that make Eisenhower and Montgomery
look rather naive.
Human beings, not only have tried to manage the ravages of the
environment, but also went the proverbial step further and tried to
change the environment to meet human needs, purposes and desires. Thus
instead of trying to cross a stretch of water from a shallow spot,
humans have built bridges; instead of crawling from the rubble of a high
building, humans can construct buildings that at the very least can
withstand an earthquake long enough to enable the occupants to escape.
Not only do we try to cope with the changing environment, but actually
redesign it for our purposes. High speed trains don't go around
mountains, but through them! In other words we have substantially
redesigned a substantial part of our environment that we do not need to
react to changes but to pro-act with the environment. Of course, there
is still more work to do, but we have also achieved a great deal.
However, whist we react to the environment we need to be quick and we
need to be right if we want to survive to see the sunrise the following
day. But a proactive system requires first and foremost intentional
actions. We want to build a bridge here, we want to construct a theatre
there to entertain ourselves, we want warm houses, we must get rid of
this high temperature that is making me feel weak, we need... we want..
we must have.. we require and so on and so forth.
But if we want and desire something we must also accept that things
might not be quick and things might not be right the first time. Indeed,
it is accepted today that actions require an intention and some, such as
the philosopher Donald Davidson, would go further to require desire plus
In our context, therefore, running away would be an instinctive
behaviour, and arming ourselves with a gun is an intentional act. The
reactive behaviour works very well when we see a cheetah in the open
savannahs, but running away is completely fatal in the confines of a
burning cinema. A dozen people can safely run away in open air, but in
the artificial environment of a burning cinema, a hundred people trying
to run to the door would spell a disaster.
What I have just called an artificial environment is precisely the
product of being proactive with our changing environment. Thus, it seems
to me that there are two necessary conditions for a behaviour to turn
into an action. First, the action is done in a human created
environment, and secondly it requires an intention.
I think that I have explained my idea well enough to enable you to
decide what a human created environment involves. But there is a test
that even a lay person can use, although for us the test has more
serious implications.
Basically if we want to know whether the environment we are operating in
is an artificial environment or a natural one we can ask this question
in one of two forms: does it grow on tress, or do the birds and the bees
do it? Of course, the answer does not imply that it a clear cut, it just
means highly probably.
Earlier I said that if we run away from a cheetah this would be
behaviour but if we arm ourselves with a gun and shot it this would be
an act (action). Now we all know that guns do not grow on trees, and if
you think that a bee sting is like having a gun think again.
Conceptually a bee sting and a gun are two different implements and the
bee does not usually live long enough to brag about it.
What matters is not what motivated me to do one thing and not another
(e.g. fear) not the end result (safe from the predator). What matters is
that by using a gun we have created an artificial system that requires a
complex type of solution. It is not good enough in this artificial
environment to just take a gun and shoot the cheetah. Gun permits have
to be issued, safety precautions followed, and most probably, in our
artificial environment we should probably never be near enough near a
cheetah with a gun because cheetah are or can easily become an
endangered species.
Of course, knowing what is a behaviour and what is an action and what
turns the latter into the former is not just a semantic exercise. Nor my
ridiculously sound test to make you laugh. There serious implications
involved to our discussion.
In the same way that in the natural state of the environment we get to
develop certain instinctive behaviours, an environment that has been
changed to meet human needs, must also be able to elicit the right
intentional act. For example if we are going to build theatres with a
confined space, we also have to provide enough exits to help every one
escape in an emergency. After all in our artificial environment of the
cinema running is not good enough, we need to find another solution.
But this is where the migration from a natural environment to a human
changed environment has not kept up to date with the situation. In the
setting of a natural environment we feel and probably succeed in
clubbing the cinema owner to death if they did not provide enough
emergency exists in the case of a fire.
In the setting of an artificial environment there ought not be a
situation where a cinema does not have enough emergency exists, or exits
that do not work. The way things are today in some situations we feel we
are unable to behave as we feel we should in a natural environment (it
would be a crime to club the owner to death), but in our artificial
environment where we ponder context no one has done what has to be done
(someone is cheating).
Thus knowing what we do as behaviour and what we do as an act would tell
us whether the environment we have changed is adequate for human beings
to act with intention as opposed from instinct. This is not to say that
accidents do not happen, nor that we can account for the smallest
probable event, but it does mean that certain things are obvious.
Let us take an example from the birds now, to show why I consider the
test important. One thing all birds do is to teach (to various degrees
of involvement) their young how to survive in their environment. Some
teach them how to fly, others how to fish, others how avoid prey and so
on. We can conclude from this that in the natural environment some
biological systems go to great lengths to teach their offsprings on how
to survive. They teach them relevant skills and supervise them long
enough to have a relatively good start on their journey of life.
Of course, not all fledglings make it to their first flight, but no bird
is left behind simply because they did not reach some magical threshold
of competence set by their parents. In the rational environment, if you
are a bird you either fly or you die. Of course, in bird world some
parents might even have to decide which fledgling they will feed or look
after and the test seems to be very simple, are they strong enough to
survive until the morrow.
But what is important for us is that, if we are going to replace this
natural form of parents training the young by some artificial system
that would require training and knowledge beyond what parents can offer,
than we know for certain two things: the young must be though skills to
survive in life, and anyone who is going to see the morrow (which is
practically every new born today) has to be taught skills that meet the
needs and requirements of that individual.
From this follows the belief that, education must be available to
everyone when and how they need it. And secondly, skills must be taught
to meet the needs of the individual and not the individual adapting to
some made up system.
Birds don't build cinemas so if we do, our cinemas must have enough
emergency exits to escape (lets not get into the quality of films, the
comfort of seats and the pop corn poisoned with salt!). If the birds
teach their young than we have to make sure that all our young are
taught the right skills.
Of course, not everything the birds and the bees do is nice and rosy. As
I have just said some birds abandon weak fledglings. One way or another
we accept that we cannot just go around killing new-borns simply because
they are weak. We accept that every parent has a responsibility to seek
medical help should a new born be weak or sick. In fact we go further
and we accept that we cannot go about killing people because we think
they are weak.
But by developing a complex moral and medical system to help the weak we
implicitly assume, as in the case of the cinema, that everyone must have
a reasonable access to medical care. In the same way that everyone must
have a reasonable access to an emergency exit should the need arise. And
guess what, we don't have to pay to use the emergency exit in a cinema
so why is it that some people have to pay for medical help. Being locked
inside with no emergency exits, or not being cared for because we cannot
afford the medical bills is not conceptually different from a weak
fledgling being tossed out of a nest.
Whether it is behaviour or whether it is action what matters is that we
interact with the environment we find ourselves. I have argued that we
have evolved into a super complex system and by definition our
intentional actions have to be complex, certainly more complex than
behaviours. A consequence of our complexity is that we now have a means
to identify what our natural rights and our duties are.
Our actions have to be the result of a more elaborate intentional
process. Whether, that is carrying a gun, buying a house, reading a book
and so on. In the state of a natural environment we probably are better
off interacting with our environment through behavioural instinct. But
this presented us with a problem when we migrated from a natural
environment to an artificial environment. Our brain and bodies evolved
to deal with the natural environment, first and foremost.
But if we loose, for a second, our state of contemplative intentions in
our artificial environment we end up with instinctive behaviours with
disasters such as what happen in Cumbria, England, recently when a taxi
driver went on a shooting rampage.
What these rampage tell us is that instinctive behaviours are extremely
dangerous when employed in the artificial environment of an idyllic
village in Cumbria. Of course the same is true when we act irresponsibly
in a natural environment, as BP and the US government have amply
demonstrated these past few weeks in the Gulf of Mexico.
An unintended consequence of being able to tell between an action and a
behaviour is that we can tell when something goes seriously wrong with
either the person or the environment. But not wrong in the sense of
things not going our way, but wrong in the sense that there is some
structurally awry with the environment or system. If we can tell whether
someone should have acted in a certain way we can also tell that
something is probably wrong somewhere.
Incidentally is philosophy an instinctive behaviour or an intentional act?
After all, someone in the mist of pre history in the middle of a natural
environment., must have expressed the belief, "this environment sucks."
And someone must have replied, "what can we do about it?" So when did
humans stop behaving and started acting?
Imagine this situation in the caves of Altamira, Cantabria, some 19,000
years ago before they became the splendour of pre history:
Ms Cavewoman and Mr Caveman shivering in the cold and damp air of the
Altamira cave. (behaviour)
Ms Cavewoman: "this cave sucks." (belief; the first empiricist philosopher)
Mr Caveman: "what can I do about it?" (contemplating a possible action;
the first politician delaying the inevitable.)
Ms Cavewoman: "get it decorated." (action; the first philosopher to make
a career move into management.)

Take care.

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Where does
behaviour stops and action begins?

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