A possible answer to the hard problem of consciousness: subjective experience is communication

In 1995, David Chalmers coined the “hard problem of consciousness”:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

…The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect.

Chalmers was giving a label to an issue that has existed for a long time, but his labeling of it has given many a clarity on why they find many scientific explanations of how the brain and mind work to be unsatisfactory.  Bring up the scientific understanding of consciousness, and someone is going to ask why all the data processing is accompanied by experience.

My last post discussed a movement in the philosophy of mind to label this distinction as an illusion.  And to be clear, I do think the idea that experience is something separate and apart from the information processing of the brain is an illusion.  That’s not to say that I think subjective experience itself doesn’t exist in some form.

But that still leaves the question of why we have subjective experience.  In earlier posts, I’ve noted that to have any hope of answering that question, we have to be willing to ask what experience actually is, and gave my answer that it is a system building and using internal models of the environment and of itself, in essence an inner world, as a guide to action.

I still think this answer is true, but in conversation with fellow blogger Michael, I realized that there may be a better way of articulating it, one that may resonate a little better with those troubled by the hard problem, at least with those open to explanations other than substance dualism or speculative exotic physics.

I think subjective experience is communication.

Consider that every aspect of experience seems to have a communicative value.  Using the examples Chalmers gave in the quote above, the deep blue communicates information about the object being modeled such as maybe a deep lake, and the sensation  of middle C communicates something about the environment (or given the nature of music, or art in general, the illusion of something).

Other examples are the vividness of red communicating ripe fruit, pain communicating damage to the body, severe pain communicating damage serious enough to perhaps warrant hiding and healing, or the delight of a child’s laughter communicating that the next generation of our genetic legacy is happy and healthy.

Now, the question you’re probably asking is, communication from what to what?  I think the answer is communication from various functional areas of the brain to the movement planning areas.  The source areas include the sensory processing regions, which model the information coming in from the outside world, and the limbic system, which adds valences to the models, that is judgments of preference or aversion.

800px-Slide3aa

Image credit: Anatomist90 via Wikipedia

The Limbic System: Image credit: OpenStax College via Wikipedia

The Limbic System: Image credit: OpenStax College via Wikipedia

(For those familiar with neuroanatomy, by movement planning areas I mean the prefrontal cortex, by sensory processing areas I mean the middle parietal lobe, posterior cingulate cortex, and all the regions that feed into them, and by limbic system I mean the structures commonly identified with that term, such as the amgydala, anterior cingulate cortex, hypothalmus, etc.)

Of course, as I noted in the post on consciousness being predictive simulations, this is actually a two way communication, because those movement planning regions instigate simulations that require participation of all the source regions.  But what we call experience itself, may be the preparation and transmission of that information to the executive centers of the brain, executive centers whose job it is to fulfill the main evolutionary purpose of brains, to plan and initiate movement.

One quick clarification.  This isn’t an argument for a homunculus existing in those executive centers.  This isn’t the Cartesian theater.  It’s communication from the sensing and emotion subsystems of you to the action oriented subsystem of you, and consciousness involves all the interactions between them.

Now, it’s almost certainly possible to find aspects of experience that science doesn’t have a communicative explanation for yet.  But is it possible to find any for which there is no conceivable explanation?  Even if there is, even if we can find the odd part here or there that has no imaginable explanation, if we can find ones for the vast majority of qualia, doesn’t that mean that most of them are fulfilling a communicative function?  And that experience overall is generally about communication?

Indeed, if you think about it, isn’t this type of communication crucial for a brain’s evolutionary purpose?  How else can the movement planning portions of the brain fulfill their function other than by receiving information from the input processing and evaluative portions?

If so, for a philosophical zombie to exist, it would need to have an alternate mechanism for this communication.  But why wouldn’t that alternate mechanism not simply be an alternate implementation of subjective experience?  If this view is correct, zombies are impossible, at least zombies sophisticated enough to reproduce the behavior of a conscious being in a sustainable manner.

So, this seems to be a plausible explanation for what experience is, and why it exists.  It seems like a possible answer to Chalmers’ hard problem.

Unless of course, I’m missing something?  In particular, what aspects of subjective experience might not fit this conception of it?  Are they significant enough to discount the answer?  Or are there other problems I’m not seeing?

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The illusion of phenomenal consciousness?

Keith Frankish

Keith Frankish, the main proponent of illusionism in the JCS issue.

Philosopher Peter Hankins at Conscious Entities has a write-up on the November 12 issue of the JCS (Journal of Consciousness Studies) in which philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists such as Keith Frankish, Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, and Michael Graziano, debate whether it makes sense to refer to phenomenal consciousness as an illusion.  Unfortunately the full text of the journal articles are paywalled, although if you are on a university network, or have the ability to access the site through one, you might find you can reach them.

Saying that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion is often met with derision.  The phrase “is an illusion” is meant to state that consciousness isn’t what it appears to be, but many people read it as “does not exist”, which seems self evidently ludicrous.  Which is why, while I generally agree with the illusionists ontologically, that is with their actual conclusions about reality, I’ve resisted using the “illusion” label for the last few years.  As one of the JCS authors (Nicholas Humphrey) stated, it’s bad politics.  People have a tendency to stop listening when they perceive you’re saying consciousness isn’t there.

And it can be argued that, whatever phenomenal experience is, we most definitely have it.  And that the perception of a subjective experience is the experience, such that questioning it is incoherent.  I have some sympathy with that position.

But as I commented on Peter’s post, after perusing many of the papers, I’m starting to come back around to the position I held when I first started this blog.  Conscious experience isn’t what it seems to be.  That’s not really a controversial statement to most neuroscientists or other cognitive scientists.  Maybe “illusion” is the right description.

The hard problem of consciousness is based largely on the observation that conscious experience is not subjectively reducible.  Because of that, from the subjective point of view, it seems inconceivable that physical matter could give rise to that subjective experience.  I’ve noted before that I think the answer is to ask what experience actually is.  But that inherently implies that it is not the irreducible fundamental aspect of reality it appears to be.

Saying that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion is provocative, edgy, and forceful.  As a statement, it requires further explanation.  But it also clearly communicates the basic point, that conscious experience, phenomenal experience, qualia, are not what they seem to be.  That introspection is not a reliable source of information.

It also changes the hard problem from the question of why we have irreducible  experience as we perceive it, to why we think we have it.  To be sure, this new problem is far from easy to solve, but it doesn’t seem to have the intractability of the original one, and I’ve already given potential answers to it in previous posts.

Just to be clear, no one really doubts the information processing aspects of consciousness, sometimes called access consciousness.  The question is whether there is really a distinction between access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness, the raw feeling of experience, the painfulness of pain, the redness of red, etc.  Subjectively there certainly feels like a distinction.

But we have no good reason to think that raw feelings are themselves anything other than information.  Pain is a signal that electrochemically traverses neurons and synapses from the effected body part to the brain, where key regions such as the anterior cingulate cortex interpret it as pain.  These are the information processing aspects of it.  The idea that this is separate from the feeling aspect is part of the illusion.

This isn’t to say that the illusion is a mistake we somehow make.   On the contrary, it appears to be an important evolutionary adaptation.  There’s no particular survival advantage to our introspective models giving us a rigorously accurate picture of the internals of our mind.  Instead, it gives us a simplified picture that is effective for survival.

Nor is it to deny the breadth, richness, and depth of human experience, or its intensity, or any of the things that come with it.  All that’s being stated is that the experience, for purposes of understanding the workings of the mind, shouldn’t be taken at face value.

So, by calling phenomenal consciousness an illusion, we quickly communicate that subjective experience is not what it appears to be, that introspection is not to be trusted, that the hard problem is itself an illusion, and perhaps focus scientific efforts more productively.  What’s not to like?

Yep.  Something tells me that this issue of the JCS will generate a lot of responses throughout the philosophy of mind and perhaps other cognitive fields, and that this is a question that will be revisited a lot in the future.

What do you think?  Is the illusion label going too far?  Does it, as Philip Goff, one of the critics in the JCS issue, simply show that people like me are “in the grip of scientism”?  Or are there other downsides that I’m missing?

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Daniel Wolpert: The real reason for brains

I came across this old TED talk today and decided to share it because it’s relevant to the previous post on consciousness and simulations.  Daniel Wolpert’s talk doesn’t address consciousness specifically, only the overall role of the simulations, but it’s still a fascinating exploration of what we’re doing when our attention is focused on a task.

The key is understanding that the evolutionary purpose of brains is to make movement decisions, and then execute on those decisions.

Of course, my speculation in the previous post was that consciousness is the simulation mechanism Wolpert discusses.

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Is consciousness a simulation engine, a prediction machine?

Back in September (which now seems like a million years ago), I did a series of posts on consciousness inspired by Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallatt’s recent book, ‘The Ancient Origins of Consciousness: How the Brain Created Experience‘.  In that series, I explored consciousness as a system modeling its environment and itself as a guide to action.  My enthusiastic run of five posts reflected how much F&M’s excellent book had shaken me out of my anthropocentric views.

But that series had a glaring omission, and some of the people I’ve referred to it have called me on it.  F&M’s book was focused on animal consciousness and its evolution.  As I noted in the first post, while that broad approach had a lot of benefits, it had one big drawback.  Animals can’t describe their conscious experience, most notably what behavior they do consciously versus unconsciously.  As a result, this particular boundary wasn’t addressed in F&M’s book, and I only briefly alluded to it in the series.

This post on that boundary is admittedly my own speculation, informed by F&M’s book, but also by an outstanding article at Aeon by Anil K. Seth.  My long time readers will know that I’ve historically put a good deal of stock in metacognitive theories such as Michael Graziano’s attention schema or Michael Gazzaniga’s interpreter, where consciousness is a model of some aspects of the internal processing of the brain.  I still think these metacognitive models exist (it seems we use them anytime we have these discussions) but I’m less sure that they’re the sole crucial ingredient, although they could still be one of those ingredients.

Okay, so consider an early pre-Cambian animal.  This animal doesn’t have a brain or even a spinal cord, but it does have a nerve net, with sensory neurons connecting directly to motor neurons.  If the animal receives a sensory stimulus (such as touch or maybe a chemical gradient), it triggers a signal to the motor neurons resulting in movement.  In this nervous system, stimulus A results in action A, stimulus B results in action B, etc.  While some conditioning can modify the processing, there’s no consciousness here, just reflex actions.

Later species such as chordates developed a spinal cord.  This centralized cord allowed for a combination of sensory inputs to lead to combinations of actions.  So events A and B resulted in actions A and B.  Again, these actions, while modifiable by conditioning (a primitive form of learning), were still basically reflex actions.  Very few people (aside from panpsychists) think we’re at consciousness yet.

As animals began to develop distance senses (eyesight, hearing, smell), the amount of information available to the reflexes began to increase dramatically.  This led to the spinal cord enlarging near those distance senses so the information from them could be quickly processed.  The distance senses led to the creation of image maps, exteroceptive models of the environment.  The mental reflexes described above now reacted to information in the models rather than directly to sensory inputs.

These exteroceptive models of the environment, along with the interoceptive models of the animal’s body state, formed an inner world.  They provided the foundation of conscious experience.  But I’m not sure they are what we would call consciousness.  Another ingredient was necessary.

The large amount of information caused a problem.  The models resulted in situations where the quantity of action reflexes triggered by a particular set of circumstances could be large, with some of those triggered actions perhaps being incompatible with other triggered actions.  For example, an early Cambrian fish might see food off in the distance, which triggers a desire to approach and eat it, but not much further beyond the food is a predator, which triggers a desire to flee.

Our fish can’t do both actions.  It could follow the stronger impulse.  If it’s eaten recently, perhaps the urge to flee is stronger and that’s what it does.  But maybe it’s desperately hungry, so it does attempt to get the food and risk getting close to the predator.

But given the life and death circumstances, our fish needs a new ability.  It needs to be able to simulate what might happen if it takes certain actions.  Having the ability to be aware of its own primal reflexive desires, in other words to do affect modeling, and then do trade-off decision processing on which desire to listen to, would have provided a survival advantage.  This trade-off processing would involve running simulations: if action A is taken, it will result in consequence A, if action B, consequence B, etc.

In other words, the fish needs the ability to do predictive modeling on various possible courses of action, courses of action that would result from following each of its triggered action impulses.   The consequences revealed by each simulation are evaluated in turn by the limbic system (or fish equivalent), each resulting in its own negative or positive affect, in other words, an evaluation of whether the consequence is desirable or undesirable, “good” or “bad” for the organism.

It’s this trade-off processing, this ability to simulate different courses of action, to do predictive modeling, that I’m suspecting is at the heart of what consciousness is.  This modeling would have been very simple in the earliest conscious creatures, but increased steadily over hundreds of millions of years in sophistication and capacity.  But at all times, it would have been the same basic functionality, simulations of possible courses of action as a guide to movement decisions.

Some of the predictive modeling would have involved simulating past sensory experiences, in other words, episodic memory.  It’s important to understand that episodic memory isn’t a recording, but a reconstruction of past sensory events, a simulation.  That’s why memory is so unreliable.  But it’s effective as an aid to the trade off processing I’m talking about.

Consider what requires our own conscious awareness and what doesn’t.  I can often drive to work without being conscious of what I’m doing.  I’ve driven to work a great many times so that I can now do it in a habitual slumber.  More precisely, the non-conscious aspects of my mind have been conditioned so that they will supply the right movement decisions when presented with each specific stimuli of the driving to work experience.  Most of the time, this frees my mind to think about other things, to do simulations on other situations, like maybe what I’m going to do when I get to work, or maybe to mull that show I watched last night.

But then I suddenly run into severe traffic.  Now I “wake up” and have to think about what I’m going to do.  Can I get off the main highway and find an alternate route to get around the traffic?  I now need to simulate various courses of action.  I am “aware” and “thinking” about the drive now.  I am conscious of it now.

Or perhaps the drive is going normally, but I’m doing it in a borrowed car, perhaps a type and model I’ve never driven before that handles differently than what I’m used to.  Now my simulation engine is engaged in the minutia of the driving mechanics, and will be until handling the new vehicle becomes “natural”, that is, until it can be done without the need for constant simulations, without the need for conscious control.

On the other hand, I might be driving to work in my habitual slumber, and suddenly there is wreck happening and split second decisions are necessary.  There is no time for conscious deliberation, no time for simulations, I have to just use whichever unconscious impulses are strongest.  Although later simulations of the event will almost certainly be done.

The Limbic System Image credit: OpenStax College via Wikipedia

The Limbic System Image credit: OpenStax College via Wikipedia

If this view is right, then consciousness is a simulation engine, a prediction mechanism designed to serve as a guide to action, allowing an animal to subjectively travel backward or forward in time as it ponders movement decisions.  In humans, the simulations would likely be initiated by the prefrontal cortex but heavily involve the modeling aspects of the sensory processing regions, with the limbic system providing the evaluative aspects.

I stated at the beginning of this post that it was speculative, and it is.  But the predictive modeling, the simulations, certainly take place in some form or fashion.  The speculative aspect is that the simulations are consciousness, that what is outside of them is in what we call the sub-conscious or unconscious, and what is in them are the contents of consciousness.

Given this speculation. I’d be very interested in any critiques, in particular in any examples that demonstrably violate this proposition.  In other words, what have I overlooked?

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Lessons from the election of 1824 and Silvio Berlusconi

Understandably, a lot of people continue to be upset about the results of this election.  One thing that keeps coming up in my feeds are people advocating for the electoral college to change that result.  The idea is that if 37 Republican electors can be convinced to change their vote, Trump can be prevented from getting into the Oval Office.  While I can understand the sentiment, I think focusing on this is a mistake.

First, the chance of success is vanishingly small.  Convincing 37 hyper-partisan Republican electors not to vote for the official Republican candidate is the longest of long shots.  You might succeed in pulling a few, maybe, but 37 is pretty hard to imagine.  And even if you did, it’s highly unlikely they’d vote for Clinton.  At best, they’d go for other Republicans, which would just throw the election into the Republican dominated House of Representatives.

A lot of people advocating for this seem to hope that the Republicans in the House would vote for whichever Republican alternate came in third in the electoral vote, but how likely is that really?  Republican leaders know that any person elected that way would be extremely damaged goods.  And I suspect any such candidate with any sense would quickly withdraw themselves from consideration.  The House would almost certainly confirm Trump.  (It might be worth it if the Republicans realized how undemocratic the electoral college is and this scenario motivated them to help abolish it, but that seems like a big ‘if’.)

495px-andrew_jacksonBut let’s say it did work and someone other than Trump was elected.  The thing to think about is, what happens next?  For an idea, I invite you to read about the election of 1824.  In that election, there was a combative populist candidate that many educated people feared, Andrew Jackson, and a more establishment candidate, John Quincy Adams.  Jackson got a plurality of the electoral college but not a majority, so the election went to the House, which elected Adams.

It’s not really possible to know exactly how much support Jackson had in 1824 since there weren’t opinion polls in those days, and only a fraction of the population was able to actually vote in the 1824 presidential election.  What we can say though, is that people were outraged, and  Jackson immediately started running for the 1828 election.

That next election would be one where the number of people who could vote for the president (or more precisely, the electors) would increase dramatically.  And after four years of relentlessly attacking the Adams administration, particularly pushing a narrative of aristocrats having stolen the election in 1824 in a “corrupt bargain”, Jackson won the 1828 election in a landslide, this time with a definite mandate, and went on to serve two terms.

Jackson is a sobering historical comparison to Trump, because backed by the working class of his day, he did some pretty awful stuff.  He got the Indian Removal Act passed, which led to the infamous Trail of Tears.  When the Supreme Court made a ruling against the way native Americans were being treated, Jackson brazenly ignored it.  Trump’s attitudes toward immigrants resonates a little too close for comfort with Jackson’s attitudes toward native Americans.

Jackson instituted the spoils system of federal job patronage.  Today we’re used to top administrative jobs being political appointees, but Jackson made pretty much every civilian federal employee a political appointee.  The result was a federal workforce brimming with people who weren’t competent in whatever job they had received.   This state of affairs wouldn’t get corrected until the creation of the federal civil service several decades later.

Jackson also got into a feud with the head of the Second Bank of the United States (who was admittedly, if I recall correctly, something of a jerk) and ended up vetoing the renewal of that bank, leaving the United States without any central banking authority until 1912, and even then that authority wasn’t effective until the 1930s.  In other words, Jackson arguably damaged the economy of the country for a century.  To be fair, Americans’ inherent distrust of banks stopped that mistake from being rectified for generations, but Jackson’s treatment of central banking probably added a weight to that fear it might not have otherwise had.

In his ongoing feud with the then dying Second Bank, Jackson withdrew all federal deposits from it, and then issued the Species Circular, an executive order requiring that all payment from the government to be in gold or silver.  The resulting monetary shock led to the Panic of 1837 and an economic depression that his chosen successor, Martin Van Buren, had to contend with.

Jackson’s policies led to the creation of the Democratic Party to support him, and in reaction, the creation of an opposition party, the Whigs.  One of those in opposition was a young Whig named Abraham Lincoln.

Anyway, the point is that denying Jackson the Presidency in 1824 turned him into a victim of the establishment and arguably made him much stronger.  Would the same thing happen if Trump were denied the Presidency by similar machinations?  It’s hard to say, but right now Trump can’t claim too much of a mandate since he lost the popular vote.  Making him a victim might metastasize his support for 2020 into something far more powerful.

In other words, be careful what you ask for.

Another tactic being advocated for Democratic electors is for them to vote for someone other than Clinton.  The idea is that this might outrage people enough to generate a will to do something about the electoral college.  This strikes me as the loser of the game punching themselves in the face in a bid to change the rules.  It doesn’t seem like something the winner, the Republicans, will care about.  Being twice now the beneficiary of an electoral college / popular vote mismatch in the last twenty years, the Republicans have little incentive to change things.

I think people on the left have to deal with the reality of a President Trump and Republican domination of the federal government for at least the next two years.  But as Ezra Klein pointed out, Democrats should remember that they’re not in the minority in this country.  As of this post, Clinton is ahead in the popular vote by over two million votes, and more people voted for Democratic Senators than Republican ones.  (Although admittedly the Republicans did get more votes in the House races.)

And Trump remains a deeply unpopular figure.  Democratic opposition to his more loathsome policies needs to conducted with that in mind.  As Luigi Zingales points out in his New York Times piece, using lessons from the long running but inept opposition to Italian populist Silvio Berlusconi, opposing Trump by focusing on his personality is a losing strategy.  The opposition to Trump should be based on where he’s weakest, on his policies and how they affect people.

Trump really doesn’t have a mandate.  The opposition should be careful not to deliver one to him.

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Why Trump won, and a calmer assessment of the situation

The filmmaker Michael Moore, who had predicted a Trump win several months ago, went on Morning Joe on Friday and discussed why Trump won.  It was painful to watch, but the main point that struck home was when Moore pointed out that many Trump voters were previously Obama voters.  What this tells me is that we on the left need to stop calling all of Trump’s voters racists or otherwise attempting to shame them.  Some definitely are racists and bigots, but many aren’t.

So why did many who don’t share Trump’s values vote for him?  Because they perceived that their economic situation was getting worse.  This is borne out by the exit poll data, which show that, of the 27% of the country who feel they are financially worse off than they were four year ago, 78% voted for Trump.

As I said a few posts back, universal democratic suffrage works because people know when their own situation is getting better or worse.  When your situation is getting worse, you often vote for change any way you can get it, all other details be damned.

It’s easy for those of us who are relatively comfortable economically to bemoan Trump’s values, but if my personal financial situation had been in decline, I have to admit that I would have been sorely tempted to vote for change, any change.  And if I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the change candidate, I might have stayed home, which is what a lot of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters did this election.

It’s incredibly painful that this led to someone like Trump winning, with all the damage he’s liable to do, particularly given that the economic problems of this group were largely a result of Republican caused gridlock.  But painting all of Trump’s voters with the same brush is a mistake.  Many of those voters will be the ones who might be convinced to vote for someone else in the future.  Attacking them now will only harden their attitudes.

So that’s how we got here, but what now?  Anyone who thinks they know what’s going to happen in a Trump administration is delusional.  At this point, I suspect Trump himself is still figuring that out.  But based on his campaign positions (such as they were) and his moves this week, I think we can take a shot at a tentative assessment of what will happen.

First, I’m not as sure today as I was on the morning after the election that the economy is doomed to suffer.  I’m sure Trump and the Republicans will pass a huge tax cut.  This will blow a hole in the deficit, but it will also stimulate the economy.  I’ve been saying for years that our economy needed more deficit spending to spur activity, and we’re about to get the Republican version of that.  I’d have preferred the Democratic version, but an economic stimulus is still an economic stimulus.

Of course, if Trump starts trade wars, any benefit from the stimulus might be more than offset by economic contractions from reduced exports and higher prices on consumer goods.  Still, a large enough stimulus, while it won’t bring back legacy manufacturing jobs, might still provide more opportunities for those who were effected by the decline of those jobs.

I’m also a bit less pessimistic about the social safety net.  Trump, in his populace positions, actually rejected orthodox Republican ideas of cutting social security.  The big exception was his position on Obamacare, but he now appears to be walking back that stance somewhat.  In truth, I always thought the Republican promise to repeal and replace Obamacare was rhetoric.  Given how conservative Obamacare actually is, I’m more expecting them to pass a “repeal” bill that mostly shuffles its components around and renames it, with probably some additional conservative tweaks.  Not that some of the changes won’t be painful.

I still can’t see any reason to be optimistic about climate change.  Trump naming a climate change denialist to head the environmental transition team is a bad sign.  So, I don’t expect any progress on this in the coming years.  Many are acting as though this will doom the Earth.  In truth, the Earth was going to get warmer with or without the US participation in international climate change initiatives, but now it’s going to get warmer than it otherwise would have.

I also still fear that science overall is going to take a hit in this administration.  The more natural sciences might not be compromised too much, but look for anything related to climate science, or to the social sciences, to see declines in funding.  I hope I’m wrong about this.

We probably will see some form of that idiotic wall get built on the Mexican border.  But I seriously doubt we’ll see mass deportations.  In truth, despite surrounding it with a lot of angry rhetoric, Trump walked back the mass deportation threats once the primaries were over.  Not that the situation isn’t likely to be more dangerous for many undocumented immigrants.

Trump was also not hostile to the LGBT community, and took some flack from other Republican candidates for it.  So while I doubt we’ll see any progress on LGBT issues in his administration, Republicans who want to reverse the recent gains may find themselves frustrated.

Race relations, unfortunately, may be a different matter.  Trump’s attitudes in the campaign and overall history are worrying here, and they are largely in sync with overall Republican attitudes.  I fear that people of color may see their position erode in the next few years.  Again, I hope I’m wrong.

On international relations, I really have no idea what’s going to happen.  Trump’s comments about NATO, his advocating for war crimes, and a lot of other bombastic nonsense he sprouted in the campaign, is pretty scary. We can only hope actually being in power and being responsible for the consequences makes him more cautious in his approach.

On the supreme court, again I’m not sure what’s going to happen.  Trump promised to appoint conservatives, but many of his own positions aren’t really conservative, particularly not on social matters.  Still, he’ll need his nominees approved by a Republican Senate, so it’s probably safe to assume they will be at least conservative leaning.  This may be the most lamentable result of this election, a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives for another generation.

All of this, of course, assumes that Trump is able to maintain a somewhat rational and coherent path in his administration.  Given how erratic he often was during the campaign, this seems like a big if.  It’s still quite conceivable that he ends up doing something wantonly illegal and gets impeached.

It’s painful to note this, but if he does manage some form of minimal administrative competence and manages to accelerate the economy, I see him getting re-elected in 2020.  The only way Democrats have a chance in 2020 is if he tanks the economy, which he may do if he’s not careful with his trade changes.

But regardless, Democrats have a reasonable chance of making gains in 2018, both in the House of Representatives and in state houses across the country, and again in 2020, which may put them in a crucial position to reverse some of the gerrymandering that has given Republicans such a lock on the House.  Given where the party is right now, in minority status across all levels of government, it’s a rebuilding they desperately need to do.  It will be a long slog.  Those of us on the left should prepare ourselves for a marathon, not a sprint.

So that’s where I see us being right now.  I may have very different views depending on what happens in the coming weeks and months.  What do  you think?

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Well, we went and did it

Obviously I see the results of this election as a tragic mistake, one that we’ll be feeling for a long time.  It’s hard not to see this as a victory for fear, hatred, and bigotry.  The man who came to political prominence by calling into question the citizenship and legitimacy of the first black president will be the one to succeed that president.  (That he may do so while actually losing the popular vote will be salt in the wound.)

There’s obviously going to be a lot of soul searching on the left, but one thing I’m pretty sure of is that the inevitable articles touting Trump as some kind of political genius and Clinton as an incompetent campaigner will be utter and contemptible bullshit.  Whatever happened here was seismic and far larger than either of them.

Many people this morning are talking about the economic anxieties of the working class whites who voted for Trump.  I do think there’s something to that, but I think it would be a mistake to think that those economic anxieties were the only factor.

The much more difficult issue is the strong streak of nativism and racism that exists in this group, and the overall angst about the cultural and demographic changes that are happening in the country.  I’m not sure what anyone can necessarily do about that.  (Not that I think anything should be done about it.)  As this graph from a Pew Research article shows, the changes are happening and aren’t something amenable to being addressed by government policy, at least other than (hopefully) unthinkably draconian ones.

One thing that is glaringly obvious is that the polling industry has some serious issues.  That their methodologies didn’t see any significant whiff of this coming means they’ll have to thoroughly reassess those methodologies.  It’s one thing to talk about results within the margin of error, but when every poll was wrong in the same direction, something’s definitely broken.

For better or worse, the Republicans now hold all the keys to government.  Whatever happens in the next couple of years, they own it.  We can only hope they can find the wisdom not to run the country into the ground.  I wish I could say I was optimistic, but I desperately fear that the coming years will not be good ones for the economy, science, climate change, or for anyone who isn’t white, Christian, and male (and it’s not even at all clear to me it will be good for that group).

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , | 21 Comments