Category Archives: Mind and Brain

Daniel Dennett on Sam Harris on Free Will

I used to spill a lot of ink here about the question of free will. In the most recent of a series of thirteen related posts on the topic, I mentioned a disagreement on this topic between two writers whose names are often linked: the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the neuroscientist Sam Harris. Both are, […]

Know Your Limitations

The computer scientist David Gelernter has just posted an essay about the aggressiveness and overreach of contemporary scientism and transhumanism. In particular, he focuses on what he perceives to be an assault on the essence of our humanity — our subjectivity, which so far remains an impenetrable mystery. We read: Today science and the “philosophy […]

Step Right Up

Sam Harris has issued a $20,000 challenge to anyone who can refute his claim to have placed morality on a thoroughly scientific, Utilitarianist footing. (Not a merely descriptive footing, that is: a normative one: a beneficent blend of biology and Bentham.) I might have to take a go at this myself. See also Harris’s initial […]

Difficult Thoughts

Here’s yet another interesting item from Edge.org, this time an interview with a young psychologist named Adam Alter, whom I hadn’t heard of before now. The article’s accompanying biographical note says this about him: ADAM ALTER is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Stern School of Business, NYU. He is the author of Drunk Tank […]

Jews, Genes And Intelligence

I haven’t much time for writing today, so for now, here’s Steven Pinker on the genetic basis of the high IQ of Ashkenazi Jews. Pinker is one academic who, despite being a fairly high-echelon member of the Cathedral staff, apparently has an office with a window, and flirts openly with apostasy. Among the apostatic asseverations […]

Chuck Brown, 1936-2012

As if the news out of Washington D.C. weren’t already depressing enough, here’s an especially sad item: Chuck Brown, the “Godfather of Go-Go”, has died at age 75. As noted here, I was lucky enough to do a record with Chuck long ago, and the lovely Nina and I saw him play just last summer […]

Kim On Vallicella On Dennett

Our friend Kevin Kim has written a meaty response to Bill Vallicella’s latest remarks on Dennettian theoskepsis. (The study of religion is Kevin’s academic specialty; and in passing I’ll recommend his book Water From a Skull for those with an interest in the field of comparative religion.) A quibble: in this post Kevin discusses Bill’s […]

Does Size Matter?

Following on our recent post about race and intelligence: one question that often comes up is where brain size fits in. Brain size does seem to vary among human populations in the same way that the distribution of intelligence does — with East Asians, for example, having bigger brains on average than whites — so […]

No Question

In an exchange of emails with an old friend just now about the Conrad Murray verdict, I wrote “I really can’t comment much about the trial because I paid it no attention at all, and don’t know any of the details.” But when I looked at the note before sending it, I saw that I […]

Sam Harris On Consciousness, Cont’d

Sam Harris has just published a follow-up post about the mystery of consciousness. He is frankly pessimistic that any conceivable advances in neuroscience — and he is a neuroscientist — can ever lead us to the bridge we seek between our ever-richer model of the physical world and an understanding of subjective awareness: It is […]

Sam Harris: Consciousness Is Puzzling

In his latest blog post, Sam Harris comments on the mystery of consciousness, and vaguely stakes out a position. One thing he does make quite clear is that he cannot accept what his friend Daniel Dennett seems to be saying, which is that consciousness is just some sort of illusion. In this he’s in good […]

Baby Talk

A friend sent us a link to this video clip of twin pre-verbal toddlers having what appears to be a lively conversation: Fabulous. Look at them! Gesturing, listening attentively while the other is “speaking”, with rising and falling inflections and cadences — all the attributes of spoken communication. But what’s their subjective experience? Are they […]

Birth Of A Notion

It was Richard Dawkins who gave us, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, the idea of the “meme”. The concept, by replicating itself into millions of human minds, has turned out to be a robustly successful meme in its own right — and Professor Dawkins is rightly credited with setting it loose in the […]

Well, Blow Me Down

In the past day or so Dennis Mangan and others have mentioned this important new study confirming the heritability of intelligence. The results will hardly be a shock to denizens of the HBD blogosphere, or for that matter anyone who has been following the actual science of psychometrics, but are bound to raise a hackle […]

Works For Me

When it comes to thinking about human consciousness and reason, people divide, broadly speaking, into two camps: those who see consciousness and reason as primary features of reality, and those who see them as emerging from the activity of suitably configured physical systems (in particular, human brains). For those in the first camp, consciousness is […]

Mind Detector

I’m swamped again at work, with no time to write. So for this evening, just a provocative little tid-bit. I had coffee very briefly today with my friend Salim Ismail, a remarkable fellow who was most recently the director of the Singularity University. I don’t get to see Salim very often, because he is always […]

Hankins On Chalmers

I haven’t written much about philosophy of mind lately, which used to be a frequent topic around here. The reason, mostly, is that the subject is so intractable, and progress so difficult, that I just got tired of writing about it. But these ancient questions still fascinate me, and I still return to them now […]

Stumbling Block

Have you read Julian Jaynes’s provocative 1977 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? In it the author, a Princeton psychologist, argued that human self-consciousness — the real McCoy, the “I am, and I am aware that I am” reflective consciousness that is, for us, the essence of being human, […]

King Of The Hill

Readers will know that we genuflect to a pantheon of drum gods here at waka waka waka. I’ve mentioned my current fave, Gavin Harrison, on several occasions, and readers have also sent along, from time to time, video clips of some formidable subordinate deities. But judging by what I’ve just seen, Olympus may soon be […]

Do True Scotsmen Have Free Will?

Here’s a clarifying passage from Daniel Dennett on the idea that the findings of neuroscience prove that “free will” is a fiction: Recall the myth of Cupid, who flutters about on his cherubic wings making people fall in love by shooting them with his little bow and arrow. This is such a lame cartoonists’ convention […]

It’s All In Your Head

In Tuesday’s post about the puzzle of consciousness (I was off duty last night, celebrating my 54th at an Argentine steakhouse on the Lower East Side), I mentioned having seen an item in the paper that day that I thought seemed timely. It was a piece in the Times about growing interest in the use […]

Two Views Of A Secret

A correspondent (and occasional commenter) and I have been exchanging emails over the past few days about the mystery of consciousness — a topic that used to occupy a fair amount of space around here, but which has been bumped off the page lately by political rants and screeds. My friend and I make fundamentally […]

Face Facts

It’s been a busy weekend, and I’ve had no time for writing. For tonight, then, a curiosity: the effect of visual contrast on gender recognition. Here.

Meating Of The Minds

An item in today’s Physorg newsletter describes some remarkable neurological research: scientists at CalTech, by showing pictures to test subjects while monitoring brain activity, have managed to associate individual neurons in the medial temporal lobe with specific perceptions. We read: Dr. Moran Cerf of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and colleagues conducted their […]

Scatterbrains

The model of the modern mind, it seems, is one that can attend to many things at once, effortlessly picking up new tasks as completed ones are dropped. This new-and-improved kind of mind features an agile attention that is almost entirely without inertia, dancing nimbly upon flickering streams of incoming data without fatigue or failure. […]

Nothing To See Here

We are still on vacation, but I did find some time for the blogosphere this evening. I spent it, though, reading and commenting on a fascinating thread about free will over at Bill Vallicella’s place. Here.

The Right Stuff

At CNN this morning we find Oprah Winfrey interviewing a Dr. Daniel Pink, who, in his book A Whole New Mind, suggests that linear, rational, “left-brain” thinking is hopelessly passé, and that those who wish to prosper in the brave new world of the 21st century had better get their right brains off the couch. […]

Shell Game

An item at the CNN website reports that a study from Queen’s University, Belfast suggests that crabs “feel” pain. The study, by researchers Bob Elwood and Mirjam Appel, examined the behavior of hermit crabs subjected to electric shocks. Hermit crabs, as I am sure you know, live in the abandoned shells of other animals, and […]

How Noble In Reason

The “Monty Hall problem”, which we looked at in a recent post, is a revealing example of the ways in which, despite our vaunted intelligence, our cognitive intuitions are often misleading, or simply wrong. This is worrisome: just how extensive is the problem? If we can’t trust our intuitions about simple probabilities, then what else […]

Let’s Make A Mistake

We humans perform a great many hard cognitive tasks with astounding ease. We form sentences, recognize faces, detect patterns, read body language, and accomplish without effort an astonishing variety of complex feats that turn out to be very, very difficult to program computers to do. This is because our brains have evolved a powerful collection […]

Word Processors

I’ve just read an interesting item over at Bill Vallicella’s website, The Maverick Philosopher. It was a guest post (actually a “promoted” comment) by philosopher Peter Lupu, who has joined us over here on occasion as well. The post by Peter was about Objectivism; it was a fairly technical examination of the Objectivist position that […]

Hive Minds

We’ve all heard of spelling bees. Now it turns out they can count, too.

Might As Well Be Drinking

We’ve been hearing for years how dangerous it is to talk on cell phones while driving, and many states have made doing so illegal. While I can easily see how distracting it can be to fumble with the device itself behind the wheel, I’ve always thought that merely talking on a cell phone, particularly a […]

Sui Generis

You may have heard of a man by the name of Christopher Langan. I first learned of him a few years back, when he was profiled on some television show or other. He has, apparently, one of the highest IQs ever measured; it is said to be somewhere in the vicinity of 200. He has […]

The River Lethe

Any one who has paid any attention to neuroscience in the past few decades knew of the sad, strange case of “H.M.”, who, as a young man in 1953, underwent brain surgery to control persistent seizures. The operation did indeed quiet the storm inside his skull, but a terrible cost: the surgeon had removed part […]

Brain Wars

We haven’t spilled much ink in here lately on the subject of the mind, but it is never far from my own. This evening I stumbled across the website of a marvelous organization: the Neukom Institute at Dartmouth, whose mission is “to foster collaborative research between computational science and other disciplines; educate future generations of […]

I Am, Therefore I Think

In today’s New York Times is an account of some fine experimental neuroscience, and another revealing glimpse of the “merely” physical substrate of conscious experience. The story describes work done by an American/Israeli team of researchers into the neurological underpinnings of memory. By examining the activation patterns of individual neurons, the team found that they […]

Rats In Vats

According to today’s Physorg.com newsletter, fascinating things are afoot at the University of Reading. Researchers are growing little biological brains made of rat neurons, and training them to control robots by way of a Bluetooth connection. The scientists have in fact created several of these wee brains, which even seem to have their own personalities. […]

The Meaning of Life, Continued

A couple of weeks ago I posted an essay in response to a post of Bill Vallicella’s on whether life might have an objective meaning. In his piece Bill argued that any attempt to offer a purely subjective interpretation must lead to an infinite regress, and therefore must be false. I responded, drawing on work […]

Eye Of The Beholder

I’ve long been puzzled by ambiguous figures, ever since I saw the famous Necker cube as a boy. What changes in the brain when the perception “flips”? (There had better be something.)

That Reminds Me…

Before I forget, here is another item on the subject of improving the memory: it’s just one of those breezy little magazine-style top-ten lists, but some of the items merit a closer look.

Matter of Choice

An awful lot of people attach tremendous importance to the notion that our decisions are somehow the uncaused product of our consciousness: that they happen not amongst the deterministic web of brain tissue, but impose themselves on that tissue, somehow, from without. I’m not one of them.

A Mind Unraveled

Last Tuesday’s New York Times carried a tragic and fascinating story. It was about Anne Adams, a scientist who was sticken by a degenerative and ultimately lethal brain disease called FTD, which is an acronym for frontotemporal dementia. The disease attacks particular portions of the brain only, with the effect that as the damaged parts […]

Back To Basics

I’ll be on the road this evening, so won’t have any time for writing. Meanwhile, though, reader Andrew Staroscik has brought to our attention an interesting discussion about consciousness over at Sandwalk. We’ll take a closer look here when we are back in harness.

Which Side Are You On?

My lovely wife Nina has alerted me to a TED-conference video I might otherwise have missed: a talk by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor on the astonishing effects of a debilitating stroke: her own. This is an extraordinary presentation, with profound implications. Have a look here. I have a few things to say about it all, […]

Heads-up

We’ve added a new link to our sidebar: the website Brains, which describes itself as “a forum for discussing the philosophy of: mind, neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science.” We’ve neglected the subject a bit lately in favor of political and cultural topics, but as you know this is right up one of our alleys. Do […]

Tiebreaker

In a recent post we linked to a paper by William Lycan that argues that both dualist and materialist mind-body philosophies are equally unsupported by evidence. As I mentioned, this is surely heartening to Cartesians, who must weary of having their views dismissed as so much nonsense. But is it right to conclude from Lycan’s […]

Stuff And Nonsense

In a recent post Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, called our attention to a 2006 paper entitled Giving Dualism Its Due, in which philosopher William Lycan acknowledges that there is really no compelling evidence either for or against mind-body dualism.

Pinker, Pinker, Literary Star

It’s “all Pinker, all the time” in our little corner of the blogosphere at the moment. Kevin Kim, who has among his many interests the puzzle of consciousness, directs our attention to a sally by Pinker against the dualists. Here.

Nota Bene

I have been busy this weekend with a two-day Iron Wire seminar (which is turning out to be one of the most interesting and esoteric experiences I’ve had in 32 years of kung-fu training), so for tonight I’ll just leave you with an engaging little diversion. It’s an online test of your ability to perceive […]