I like to dip into my humans’ research interests, so recently I’ve been reading Johann Hari’s new book, Lost Connections: Understanding the Real Causes of Depression. Hari mentions lots of points already noted by other people, arguing that depression is caused by social factors (such as poverty or forced migration) rather than biological factors (such as genes or differences in people’s brains). For example, following Richard Bentall and many others, he notes studies that suggest that for a lot of people anti-depressants are only as effective as placebos, and so probably function as placebos, and that the ‘brain chemistry imbalance’ theory of depression has not in fact been proved, and yet is still perpetuated by pharmaceutical companies, doctors and others.
Hari’s position has been put forward by quite a few people, usually towards the left of the UK and US political spectrum. And being on the left of this spectrum you might think I’d be inclined to agree with Hari. He and others are reacting to a significant problem with mental health treatments in our society: that the ‘bio-psycho-social’ model of mental illness has become, in some medical and other contexts, the ‘bio-bio-bio’ model. As a result of this, antidepressants are seen as ‘the’ solution, to the exclusion of psychological (e.g. talking) therapies, and to the detriment of addressing the social problems (e.g. poverty, breakdown of communities, casualisation of work contracts, sexist treatment of women, homophobic treatment of gay people, and so on) that play a large part in mental illnesses such as depression.
I agree wholeheartedly we need to address these social problems, and that they play a significant role in depression and other forms of mental illness. So, why am I not a fan of Hari’s? One reason is that he continues the polarisation of ‘biological’ and ‘social’ factors already present in the ‘bio-bio-bio’ model. Either mental illness is purely biological, or else it is purely social. But people aren’t like that: they’re both biological and social. One of my humans loves cheese – that’s probably a biologically-based love of salty things, and being brought up and living in a culture where cheese is regarded as delicious thing.
Another reason I’m not a fan is that people arguing for this position tend to over-state the evidence. There is evidence for a significant role of placebo in anti-depressants. But there is also evidence that the role of placebo is less than originally thought by the researchers (so there’s now evidence pointing in both directions - though it's agreed that at least some of the effects of anti-depressants are placebo) – and evidence that anti-depressants are genuinely effective for people with severe rather than only mild or moderate depression. So a ‘social-social-social’ model such as Hari’s is as dangerous as the ‘bio-bio-bio’ model it’s reacting against. While the ‘bio-bio-bio’ model deflects our attention away from social problems, the ‘social-social-social’ model overstates some evidence, and discourages people from taking tablets that, while ineffective for some, may be effective, life-transforming and even life-saving for others.
There are other problems with the ‘social-social-social’ model too. One is that it assumes that a treatment for something must correspond to the cause of the illness or problem – and so, for example, anti-depressant tablets won’t work unless the cause of depression is biological but not social. But that’s something that needs arguing for, and is not obviously the case. Perhaps someone's bad experience in their workplace causes them to have low serotonin levels, which drugs then correct.
Another is that the social-social-social model suggests that humans are social (they are!), but at the expense of their biological natures. Humans are different to dogs, say, but both are animals – they are both social and biological creatures. Denying this fact (something humans try to do quite a lot) puts people under significant stress and pressure to somehow transcend or deny both biological and social aspects of their nature.
My humans have written something on this for Labour Briefing. You can read it here.
On another note, I’m providing a link to a page to donate to Whitby Dog Rescue, who looked after me and found a home for me when I was very little and again when I was a year old. They have a lot of dogs they’re looking to rehome – including another Lola (it is the best name, after all). They’re run on a shoe-string, so if you’re able to give them anything to help them feed the dogs while they’re there, whatever you can give would be much appreciated and made good use of.
Although I'm a professor of dogic, I've not had much to say about it so far on this blog. This is partly because I've been busy helping the humans with their strike, and partly because I've been pre-occupied chasing squirrels.
Now that the leaves are returning to the trees, the squirrels are finding it easier to hide, so I have more time to think about my subject. Here I am being thoughtful:
I've been thinking about one of my favourite arguments:
But there's a problem. Imagine a sceptical cat came along (cats tend to be sceptical). The cat says to you "how do you know that it's time for your dinner?" I go through my argument using modus ponens. But the cat says, "fine: but how do you know that the conclusion is true if the premises are true?" I woof that modus ponens is valid. "But how do you know that?" I insist that if the premises are true the conclusion must be true, and that if this holds that form of argument is valid. This does hold, so the form of argument is valid.
"Aha", says the cat, "you've used modus ponens to justify modus ponens: if the conclusion is true when the premises are the argument is valid; the conclusion is true when the premises are, so the argument is valid. But I wanted to know whether modus ponens is an OK form of argument to use, so your justification does nothing to persuade me."
Lewis Carroll, who wrote the Alice books, once told a story about a tortoise which is quite similar to mine about the cat. You can read it here. Myself, I don't think I can answer the cat, and I don't think that I need to. Using modus ponens to reason is just part of what it is to follow the rules for using the word 'if', accepting modus ponens goes hand in hand with understanding 'if'. And as I've said before, I don't think we need to provide a philosophical account of rule-following, for cats or for anything else.
Since moving in with my humans in the Aire Valley, I’ve often been asked about my history – as a rescue dog, it’s often assumed I was taken away from abusive or neglectful owners. Sadly in many cases this is true. In my own case, the situation was a bit different. I was originally bred as a hunting dog, and then given as a present to the breeder’s girlfriend. She thought I was a bit of a
handful, and sent me to the rescue centre. All this happened before I was 5 weeks old.
Since living with my current humans and working in Leeds, they’ve become more aware of the relationship between dogs, health, and other aspects of well-being. As well as improving my humans’ wellbeing, generally and with respect to specific mental health issues such as depression, bipolar and autism, I’m training to become a therapy dog so that I can join the other University therapy dogs in offering mental health support to students and staff. My humans have also volunteered with other local rescue centres, which both look after homeless dogs and cats, and also provide food-banks for people unable to feed themselves and their pets – often humans choose to feed their pets rather than themselves, so dog food donations help both dogs and humans. And I’ve also made friends with a few people in Leeds who are homeless, who say how much they’d like a dog for companionship and safety, but who are unable to afford the adoption fee or cost of feeding and keeping a dog.
Dogs in rescue centres can be there for a number of reasons, including that their owners are ill, mentally or physically, or else can no longer afford to keep a dog. Being unable to keep your dog is also likely to contribute to mental health problems, since it removes a buffer for mental health problems, and increases alienation and loneliness. Homelessness offers one example of the way in which poverty and mental health problems can go hand-in-hand, and also of how these things both affect and are affected by things like an ability to have a dog, even though we don’t normally associate these things with dog ownership.
On 7th July, my humans and I are doing the Muddy Dog Challenge in aid of Battersea Dogs’ Home. Battersea takes in over 7,000 dogs and cats a year, and accepts all dogs and cats, even old or ill ones who are less likely to be adopted. It helps to find new homes for dogs who can't live with their original humans, and reunites dogs to humans who have got lost. If you’re able, it’d be brilliant if you can sponsor us. You can find a link here.
Last week, I was interviewed by the Beeb about the strikes. Here I am, with the TV cameras making some pretty persuasive points. When the Six O’clock News came on though, they’d cut me out, and only included one of the humans saying that she thought that if there was a pensions deficit, it should be redressed with the Vice Chancellors’ enormous salaries. Cutting me out was a missed opportunity, in my opinion.
In contrast, the Guardian got it right, and put a picture of my friend Rosie on the front page.
Who could refuse Rosie pension biscuits?
One of the things the BBC cut out from my human's interview was that the deficit only needs to be redressed in this way if we accept that there is a deficit. That this point wasn’t made is part of a wider trend for the media to represent the pensions dispute in the following way:
As Tom Stern and Luke Fenton-Glynn point out, the sensible response to this situation would be to say to the workers: “Well, of course you don’t want to lose £10,000 per year in retirement. Who does? But, if the money’s not there, the money’s not there.”
But the fact that there’s a deficit is far from obvious or certain – deficits are not just like overdrafts, where you can quickly check whether you’re overdrawn or not. Instead, that there is a deficit is based on speculation about the future, and of course the future is really hard to gauge. The alleged deficit in the pensions dispute is based on some really unlikely speculations – for example, that a number of major universities will simultaneously go bust.
Stern and Fenton-Glynn draw an analogy here to the possibility that there might be a ‘food deficit’ in your cupboard. If the shops maintain usual opening hours, or there are people who will deliver, there’s probably no reason to worry about your supplies. But if there’s a big emergency – say a nuclear war – then it’d turn out you had a food deficit because you didn’t have enough cans to tide you over till crops could be regrown or aid supplies sent. But you probably haven’t invested all your money in building a nuclear bunker and filling it with cans – in fact, someone who had might be considered ‘recklessly cautious’, or just plain silly.
On the subject of silliness, I like pretending there’s an imminent crisis, and burying my bones so that I’d have a good supply. But I think this is probably an example of a useful or fun fiction or pretence. Human philosophers have sometimes understood all sorts of things as a bit like this: from mathematics to religion, possibilities, talk about morality, and even dogs writing blogposts. Whether or not they're right (silly humans - as though it's not true that 2+2=4, or that I write this blog) it's an interesting position. Perhaps I’ll it about that another time.
In the meantime, you can find Stern and Fenton-Glynn’s great piece about the pensions dispute here.
The humans have been on strike. This means that I have been spending even more time with them. The more I do this, the more I realise how odd they are.
One of the ways in which they are odd is that they don't understand that I'm a highly intelligent dog. So they try to talk about me without me noticing. They say things like "shall we give the dog another biscuit?" rather than "shall we give Lola another biscuit?" They even sometimes use different names for me. Sometimes they call me 'Patch'. You can see why if you look at this photo of me as a puppy.
So I have two names: 'Lola' and 'Patch'. Now here's a puzzle. Do these two names mean the same thing?
You might think that they do. They are both names for me. Their use in human language is simply to refer to me; it's as though each of these names points at me verbally. And that is all they do. They don't give you any information about me. They just refer to me. 'Lola' is a name for me, so is 'Patch', so they mean the same thing. This is how the human philosopher John Stuart Mill thought
You might think this is silly. After all, doesn't the name 'Patch' give you some information about me, that I have beautiful patches around my eyes? It's important not to get confused here. The patches around my eyes might explain why the humans called me 'Patch' in the first place. But it doesn't seem obvious that it is part of what the name means that I have patches around my eyes. After all, somebody could call a dog with no patches 'Patch', perhaps as a joke (think about 'Little John' from the Robin Hood stories). Or perhaps I will lose my patches as I grow older; I'd still be Patch, because Patch is who I am.
So maybe 'Lola' and 'Patch' do mean the same. Now, here's the puzzle: if two words mean the same thing, I ought to be able to swap them over in a sentence without changing what that sentence says. But look at this sentence:
If you accept this line of reasoning, it would be a good idea to come up with some account of how 'Lola' and 'Patch' mean different things. Frege tried to do this with his theory of Sense and Reference. Myself, I'm not so sure. I often find myself thinking that humans just aren't very good at knowing what their words mean. Some humans just don't realise that the words 'Lola' and 'Patch' mean the same thing, just like other humans don't realise that my feeding bowl is empty.
There is nothing I like more than spending time with other dogs, playing and discussing the problems of philosophy. Here I am this morning:
Dogs are pack animals. We do not like to be alone. I don't think that humans really like to be alone either, but they sometimes give the impression that they do. I've written about this before. The sad fact that humans can so easily become fragmented and isolated from each other can be seen very clearly in the way they organise their work.
The human philosopher Marx wrote about alienated labour, about the fact that the way humans work in capitalist society separates them from things in a way that is damagaing to them. Marx thought that workers under capitalism are alienated from the objects of their work, from their human nature, from the natural environment, and crucially from each other.
Think about it like this. I am a dog philosopher - I don't really think of this as a job. It's more who I am. I philosophise with other dogs and with my humans; I pour out my thoughts on this blog, and it comes as naturally to me as woofing or chasing a ball. Philosophy, for me, is like play. If I was a human philosopher, I would do my philosophy in exchange for money for a university run - as they are these days - like a business. This would set me against other humans. I would compete with other human philosophers for scarce jobs, and however magnanimous I tried to appear, this would affect the way I interacted with them. I think this competition can make human philosophers aggressive (you should see some of the referee reports my humans get from journals) and always out to prove themselves. It would give me a strange relationship to students - unlike the excellent relationship I have with readers of this blog, I would have a kind of supervisory, sometimes even disciplinary, role towards students who, because of the fees they are paying, would be tempted to regard themselves as consumers: they would be constantly anxious about exam results, debt, their future..., I would be anxious about their feedback, the prospects of complaint... Then, of course, I would be set against my employer who, whatever the rhetoric may be, have an interest in spending as little money on me as possible. So, for example, Universities UK are plundering the pensions of the human philosophers they employ. Which is why they, along with other human academics and academic related staff are on strike tomorrow.
Strikes, I think, make humans more sensibly dog-like. They bring people together. On a picket line, students can stand alongside their lecturers. Those who teach students have to appeal to them for solidarity, engaging as equals. Strikers learn from each other. People support one another: workers, students, supporters. At events like teach outs - I'm appearing in one at Leeds - education becomes something done for its own sake, not for exams, not for money, simply for the joy of it: it becomes like philosophy done my way. The silly divisions humans make around sex, sexuality, race, and religion seem not to matter when they are all fighting together for their rights. For all the sacrifices they involve, strikes are exhilirating experiences, they show us a way of doing things differently (as a character in the film Made in Dagenham puts it, they "show us how things could be"). And, of course, they are an excellent way of standing together against injustice: in this case the plundering of pensions by those penny-pinching Vice-Chancellors.
However I worry about humans. I spend a lot of time with human academics. The way they work is isolating and individualistic, very un-doglike (and, in actual fact, very unlike how human philosophy was done classically, in academies, market places, and debating chambers). It will be all too easy for them over the coming weeks to shut themselves away and get despondent, to think they have no prospect of changing things, to convince themselves they are damaging their students (which is of course, what university managers want them to believe: students meanwhile are themselves incredibly supportive of the strike), and generally to talk themselves into defeat.
The solution to loneliness - and all of this is just a sophisticated, politicised, form of loneliness - is, as dogs have long realised, coming together. So I think that human philosophers should join in strike activities: come to picket lines, take part in teach outs, organise benefit gigs and so on. And I think other humans should support the strikers. You can find out how to do that here. In doing this, you'll not only be helping future elderly philosophers (this raises interesting questions about the metaphysics of future humans: I might write about this some time), you'll also be protesting against a society that turns everything, including education, into a commodity. Just remember, for dogs philosophy is like a game.
I've told you before about my favourite ball, which came with me from the rescue home. The other week something sad happened: I lost my favourite ball whilst I was out playing with my friend. Luckily, the humans bought me another ball, which is my new favourite ball. Here I am with it:
What I like doing most of all with my ball is play The Lola Game with my humans. I tug and pull on the ball, sometimes I make my "raaaa" noise; other times I drop the ball down the stairs and make a human fetch it for me, and then there are those occasions when we simply kick the ball around. Each move follows smoothly from the next; it makes sense to me and I wouldn't have it any other way. Even though I could never satisfactorily woof them at you, I'm quite sure I'm playing by the rules. In spite of that, I sometimes hear the humans complaining to each other that they don't get the rules of my game. "What does she want us to do?" one of them complains. "I have no idea", says the other.
Humans, it seems to me, are not in a good position to criticise me over the rules of my game. You get up to all sorts of things which involve following rules. The languages you use, lacking the noble simplicity of woofing, involve you in all kinds of grammatical and inferential rule-following. Then think about mathematics (I like mathematics: the humans use it to count out my food for the day). Suppose you're counting treats before taking a lurcher on a walk. '2, 4, 6, 8...' What comes next? I suppose you'll probably answer '10', thinking that you're applying the rule 'add 2'. But what would be different up until that point if you were following the rule 'add 2, unless the number to which you're adding it is eight, in which case multiply by a thousand?' How could an observer tell which rule you were following, so as to be able to state it explicity? You see, the things you get up to are no better off than the Lola game.
Of course, you know how to count. There is a certain human practice, adding, that helps you make sense of the world, and you all just get on with it. It's much the same with the Lola game. The human philosopher Wittgenstein raised the difficulty in the previous paragraph, not to make us sceptical about our ability to follow rules, but rather to bring us to realise that we neither need nor have available to us a certain kind of knowledge (a basis for our practices - like counting and the Lola Game - which transcends those practices themselves and the role they play in our lives).
Some human philosophers, like Kripke, have misunderstood this point. I think it's because humans worry too much. They should relax more, stop worrying, and play ball with me.
First thing in the morning, I like to do some stretches. Two of these stretches are known by my yoga-practising human as ‘upward dog’ and ‘downward dog’. Sometimes she does them too, so I do them back to mirror her, as it seems polite.
She wants me to end up doing this with her. But that’s not happening any time soon. Humans!
Using dog stretches in yoga seems like a kind of appropriation – humans are using dog stretches and adapting or appropriating them to their own human ends, such as getting a particular kind of exercise. I’m totally fine with that, and glad that the humans do at least give us credit for the stretches by giving them such good names.
Having lots of friends who’re either Religious Studies scholars or religious practitoners, I’m aware that not all appropriation is that uncontroversial. In fact, yoga is one of the appropriated practices that’s most debated. That’s to do with the difference between historical yoga in the East, and how yoga is represented and used today. Yoga has its origins in very diverse ancient Hindu practices, much of those unrecognisable as what we call yoga today, which were aimed at the reshaping of human consciousness towards some higher goal. But what we now know as 'yoga' in the West came out of nineteenth century attempts to adapt Indian practices to American and European healing movements. So the postural yoga we know today took ancient practices and continued the idea that humans can control and train the mind-body complex, but gave these practices a new purpose: health, beauty and wellbeing.
Today, postural yoga is practised in the West as a health and fitness routine independent of any religious worldview – in fact many people are keen to emphasise that, for them, it’s a physical exercise rather than related to spirituality. That said, other yoga practitioners do see it as spiritual – for example, by regarding it as a universal, eastern-inspired form of spirituality. Some people even adapt it to their own religious tradition, as in the case of Christian yoga, where the yoga is adapted to include exercises designed to strengthen the person’s relationship with Jesus. So people in the West relate yoga to religion and spirituality in different ways: by severing its link to religion or spirituality altogether; by seeing it as a form of spirituality but not religion; by adapting it to a religion other than the one it developed in.
Why would anyone be upset about any of this?
Part of the issue is simply the fact that yoga is misrepresented when people point to common practices in the West and attribute them to ancient India, as though the repurposing for health and fitness and other alterations hadn’t taken place or aren’t important. Much the same is true of other appropriated practices: Native American spirituality, mindfulness, Shamanism, reiki and so on. This misrepresentation seems particularly problematic when the leaders from the cultures doing the appropriating and the misrepresenting are the ones who in the past have harmed the people who are being appropriated – for example, through colonialism – and who continue to hold a dominant position over them. A related problem concerns the fact that these appropriated practices bring in big bucks – and it’s the appropriators, rather than the appropriated, who are getting the lion’s share. Seen in this light, we can begin to see why a Hindu or a Native American might be less than thrilled when presented with a barely-recognisable form of yoga repurposed for fitness and sold at an expensive gym by Europeans, or Native American dreamcatchers sold on high street markets by and to the white people whose society has systematically disadvantaged Native Americans. A final point of contention is that these misrepresentations are often infused with ‘noble savage’ racism: the idea that people in India or Native Americans are set apart from civilisation and so impart particular spiritual insight. This of course is a kind of racism it’s particularly hard to see, because it *looks* like one’s saying something nice about the people – that they’re especially spiritual and uncorrupted or whatever.
Is there a good way to do yoga in the West?
It’s worth saying at this point that there are lots of positive things about contemporary Western yoga. It undoubtedly contributes to many peoples' wellbeing. Many of the people who teach it do so because they want to pass something that’s helped them onto others. Many people are also motivated by ideas that, whether authentically ancient Indian or not, are reacting against unsatisfactory aspects of dominant Western thought. For example, the emphasis on being ‘holistic’ provides an alternative to the ideas that people are purely physical and mechanistic, or else that they can be carved into ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ components. So I don’t think we should lose yoga altogether. But we might want to think about how we can practice it in a more humble, respectful, and religiously or culturally informed way.
The human thinker Edward Said has had good things to say about the social and political issues surrounding how people in the West relate to 'Eastern' culture. You can read him here: Said.
One of my humans works as an equality and inclusion co-ordinator. She says that my blog is neither equal nor inclusive because I don't say much about non-humans. I think this is unfair. I say a lot about squirrels, ducks, and human philosophers. She says yes, but I talk about them, I don't allow them to speak for themselves. The male human is a bit of a lefty and says that I have a typical liberal colonialist attitude. I don't know what this is, but I don't think that I can eat it.
Anyway, they want me to put things right by hosting a guest post by some cats. Cats! This post is by Fritz and Erwin and has been sent across by Rachel.
We are Erwin and Fritz. We are a bonded feline pair, which is not quite the same as an entangled pair, but does mean that we’re not always sure where one of us ends and the other begins. Our humans reckon Erwin does most of the thinking, but it’s possible that they don’t understand how the connection between us works. Like one of our humans, we know a lot about quantum physics – in fact, we have two famous physicists named after us (Erwin and Fritz) – but that’s off topic for this blog.
Anyway, our physicist human doesn’t appreciate feline company while he works, so we spend more time with a theologian. We appreciate her company, and she seems to appreciate ours. She chases the things that she’s interested in (which appear to include footnotes, meanings and arguments); and we chase the things we’re interested in. There’s an old poem about this kind of feline-human working relationship, called ‘Pangur Ban’.
We like this poem because it points out something humans often seem to forget: that not every problem, or prey, matters equally to everybody. And it’s often interesting to ask why this particular problem (or prey) matters now, and to whom it matters.
It’s obvious to us that it’s really important to find, catch and destroy our toy mice. And real mice too, of course. Our humans seem to think our pursuit of toy mice (as well as moths, leaves, shadows, curtains, etc) is a silly game, and our pursuit of real mice is a very bad idea. But our theologian human also seems to think that some of the arguments other theologians pursue are like silly games (to be fair to her, she doesn’t say that much herself, because she gets tired of people making jokes about angels on pinheads) – and some are very bad ideas (you should hear her on the subject of premillennial dispensationalism, or dispensational premillenialism, whichever way round the pair goes).
Cats don’t find the variety of different human pursuits surprising, because we are creatures of habit and place. We suspect that habit and place – call it “context”, if you like – make a big difference to what problems matter to which humans. But humans tend not to notice this. Perhaps they should lift their heads from their own pursuits more often and take time to understand what other people, or even other species, are bothered about, and why. We cats stop and do this frequently – usually after the prey has got away, and while washing our faces.
We even have some thoughts about the “problem of evil”, which some humans are fond of pursuing, and which looks to us like a silly game. We’ve heard that at least one of Lola’s humans agrees with us.
Earlier this week I was talking to my friend Christoph on my Facebook group. We agreed that there was a need for more dogs in human philosophy.
I don't believe in grumbling without doing something about it, so this week I went to the Leeds Centre for Philosophy of Religion seminar. Both of my humans came along too. In fact one of them gave a talk about the human philosopher and theologian Herbert McCabe. Apparently it was based on this paper. (I've encountered a copy of this paper before. It tasted nice).
I was in the slides:
This was the best bit of the talk.
The reason I was in the slides is that McCabe explains his approach to the question whether God exists by talking about a dog called Fido. Many philosophers think that the question whether God exists is a bit like asking whether squirrels exist. You weigh up bits of evidence in favour (you can smell squirrels in the woods) and against (if there were squirrels, I would have caught them), and you make up your mind one way or another.
McCabe thinks that asking whether God exists is different to this. He thinks the question is best understood as being about whether it is sensible to ask why there is something rather than nothing at all. The word 'God' picks out whatever answers this question (assuming it is a good question to ask) and, according to McCabe, we cannot know what that is. The nature of God is hidden from us in this life. I like hiding too.
Whatever you make of this, I expect you'll like the way he introduces the idea:
Supposing you ask 'How come Fido?' You may be asking whether his father is Rover or whether it was that promiscuous mongrel down the lane. In such a case the answer is satisfactorily given by naming Fido's parents. At this level no more need be said; the question is fully answered at this level....
And we can go on from the level of biochemistry, to that of physics and all the time we are asking more penetrating questions concerning Fido and each time we go further in our questioning we are seeing Fido in a wider and wider context...
Now our ultimate radical question is not how come Fido exists as this dog instead of that, or how come Fido exists as a dog rather than a giraffe, or exists as living instead of inanimate, but how come Fido exists instead of nothing" (God Matters, pp. 3-5)
I think I'd like to meet this Fido. But I'd prefer to meet some squirrels even more.
Mental walkies with Lola,