Category Archives: Mind and Brain

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. Related content from Sphere

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. Related content from Sphere

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. Related content from Sphere

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 […]

Ghosts in the Machine

A few days ago we made passing mention of the Oxford philosopher of science Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument, which makes the claim that we are probably living in some sort of Matrix-like computer program. This dismal notion, which we looked at a bit more closely back in May, was also the subject of a brief […]

Gelernter on AI

Yale’s David Gelernter, the well-known computer scientist, has written an article in Technology Review on the problems that bedevil AI research. He has some interesting things to say — not only about AI, but also about consciousness itself — and it’s well worth your while to read it. Related content from Sphere

Diverse Dan

I make no secret of my admiration for the philosopher Daniel Dennett. His intellectual interests coincide nearly exactly with my own: the puzzle of consciousness, the theory of evolution, the phenomenology of religion, and the question of human freedom in a world apparently ruled by a combination of deterministic and probabilistic laws. He has tilled […]

No Jokes, Please

By way of my friend Eugene Jen comes a remarkable story: a civil servant with practically no brain. Have a look here. I’ve heard of cases like this before. What I’m curious about — and I hope someone is going to look into this — is how the various functional parts are represented, how such […]

Drosophilosophy

There’s a quirky little item in the science news today: some researchers in Germany have been studying fruit flies, and have observed that their behavior seems surprisingly flexible.

You’re Always On That Computer

One of the advantages of being a well-connected Internet sort is that people are constantly sending me interesting tidbits. From my friend Nick, who also provided yesterday’s Polka Floyd item, is one I hadn’t run across before (don’t know how I missed it, as it is right in amongst all the sorts of things I […]

Paying Attention To Attention

Here’s an interesting item. It seems that neuroscientists are getting around to a more detailed study of attention, a topic that, as I’ve previously mentioned, has been known to be central for inner work in meditative traditions for a long, long, time. (It is also a sort of universal human currency, as I argue here.) […]

Descartes Before The Horse

I’ve finally had a chance to get back to considering Titus Rivas’s paper, in which he and Hein van Dongen argue that the mind-brain model known as epiphenomenalism — which says that subjective mental phenomena are indeed ontologically real, that they are “irreducible” to physical processes, and that they exert no causal influence on the […]

Epiphenomenalism: Cause for Concern

In remarking on a recent post, commenter Titus Rivas offered a link to a paper he and Hein van Dongen wrote in 2001, in which they launch an assault on the mind-body model known as epiphenomenalism. Epiphenomenalism is the view that the subjective, conscious mind is a causally impotent byproduct of the physical activity of […]

It’s Not Just Physical

In the last three posts in this series on mind-body interaction, we looked at some of the more serious objections to what is known as “interactionist ‘substance’ dualism”. After laying out a litany of difficulties with this model, I ended the previous entry by asking why anyone would defend such a view. There are several […]

Material Objections

In the two previous posts (here, and here) in our ongoing examination of mind-body dualism, we looked at the “interaction problem” — the question of how an entirely non-physical Mind might push the necessary neural buttons and levers to get the body to do anything.

Mind: The Gap

In the previous post in this thread, we were considering the causal linkage between my observation of a falling flowerpot and my stepping out of the way, and how a dualist account of such a chain of events might differ from a materialist one. Although the immaterial Mind of the dualist is considered to be not of the physical world, and therefore outside the purview of the natural sciences, that is not necessarily the case, as we shall see.

Conscious Entities

We’ll get right back to our look at causal interactions in mind-body dualism, but meanwhile I want to call everyone’s attention to a new link on the waka waka waka sidebar. It’s a website called Conscious Entities, and is maintained by an Englishman by the name of Peter Hankins. Mr. Hankins is, like me, an amateur fascinated by the questions and problems of consciousness, and he has done an impressive job of presenting them. He writes exceptionally well, and his site is inviting, extensive, and well-designed. This appears to be an outstanding resource for those of us who are curious about the philosophy of mind, and I look forward to exploring it in detail. I invite our readers to do the same.

Causing Problems

Well, having got the boot for badgering dualists about their view of the world, I might as well carry on. In for a penny, in for a pound, I say. So for the next couple of posts I’ll discuss what all the fuss is about.

As I’ve said, there are some good-sized humps any dualist account has to get over, and the one that comes up most often is the problem of causal interaction. Let’s have a look.

News from All Over

There were two excellent articles in the science section of today’s New York Times, and I encourage all of you to go and read them.

Hardware and Software

As I mentioned recently, I’ve just read John Searle’s book The Mystery of Consciousness. Searle holds a sort of middle ground among philosophers of mind: he is a card-carrying physicalist, meaning that he rejects the idea that our minds are non-material entities that interact with the body in some ghostly way, but he also takes issue with functionalist philosphers who argue that consciousness is simply an emergent property of sufficiently complex information-processing systems. Searle’s best-known salvo against functionalism is his famous “Chinese Room” thought experiment, which I won’t recap here, but which has been a source of lively dispute ever since it was published in 1980.

Ghost Stories

As so often happens, there is an interesting conversation underway over at The Maverick Philosopher. In this case the topic is the recurring theme of mind-body dualism, and in particular how a non-physical mind might causally interact with a physical body. (The original post has to do with a rather arcane metaphysical system known as “hylomorphic” or “Thomistic” dualism, but a lively chat ensued.)

One World

I’ve been reading The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle. Searle is perhaps best known for his long-standing wrangle with Daniel Dennett; they have clashed often over the years, with Dennett running roughshod over Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment, and Searle excoriating Dennett (quite fairly) for his rather extreme position as regards the subjective ontology of consciousness.

A Deep Misunderstanding

Readers will probably be familiar with one Deepak Chopra, who has made a handsome pile over the years by peddling pseudo-scientific New Age pablum to legions of credulous and uncritical admirers. Now, in an item at the Huffington Post, he swivels his intellectual popguns to bear upon Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, and does about as little damage as you might expect. If you enjoy seeing intellectual justice in action, visit the website eclexys, where blogger “gordsellar” gives Chopra’s gormless review, which is a basinful of the purest hogwash, the fisking it deserves, in a post entitled Deepak Chopra: Who Is This Idiot?

Thank you Kevin Kim for linking to this post, which I might otherwise have missed.

Rings and Bridges

Yesterday’s post was about “ring species”, both as interesting natural phenomena in themselves, and as a reminder that the persistent human tendency to impose discrete categories on continuous phenomena can lead us, if not to outright error, at least to an inaccurate model of the world. Keeping in mind that we are all inclined toward this prejudice — Richard Dawkins calls it the “tyranny of the discontinuous mind” — can help us to avoid not only taxonomic pitfalls, but philosophical ones as well.

Beside Ourselves

We’ve all heard of the “out-of-body experience” (“OBE”), in which a person has the sensation of detachment from the physical self. These are often reported in situations where a subject hovers close to death; people will recount, upon returning to normal consciousness, that they were floating near the ceiling, looking down upon themselves and others in the room (who are often doctors and nurses struggling to keep the patient from dying).

Yesterday’s New York Times carried an interesting report of some new neurological observations of this phenomenon.

No Laughing Matter

In my previous post, I mentioned my alarm at seeing so many people taking antidepressant medication. My friend Jess Kaplan, in an email, points out that I have rather glibly lumped together an entire spectrum of mental disorders. He is quite right, and I should address his criticism.

Brain Teaser

An item in the news yesterday raises once again the stubborn puzzle of consciousness. A 23-year-old British woman who has been in a “vegetative state” for five months has been shown by a sophisticated scanning technique to exhibit patterns of brain activity, in response to verbal stimuli, that are indistinguishable from those occuring in normal, conscious volunteers.

Body of Ideas

In an ongoing discussion over at Maverick Philosopher, one of the interlocutors has made the assertion, in defense of dualism, that the human mind must be more than the physical activity of the brain, because the brain is a finite physical system, and the mind of Man, allegedly, is infinite. To quote from the thread over at Dr. Vallicella’s place:

Because the human mind is not bounded, it cannot be physical.

Sounds good. We all have the feeling that we can accommodate any new concept that comes before us (though, on reflection, a peek at contemporary political discourse might be sufficient rebuttal), and adjust our behavior with limitless flexibility. But why do we think so? What makes us so sure?

Groupthink

One of the topics in which there is keen interest around these parts is the infinitely perplexing question of consciousness – what it is, whence it arises, and just where it fits into the Big Picture.

The hallmark of consciousness is subjectivity; the existence of an awareness that experiences are happening to. Many belive that this subjectivity is ontologically irreducible; that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the objective phenomenological world we all share and our individual conscious experiences of it. The only consciousness we can know confidently to exist is our own; we assume that others are conscious as well (if nothing else, it seems unsociable not to), but we have no way to be sure. Is there, in fact, any objective way to detect consciousness? At Princeton University there is a group who are investigating this question from a new angle.

Slow Learners

The rate at which we learn is such a limitation. People are generally at least moderately intelligent, and if we were all able to comprehend the various things that everyone else is working on, I’m sure that so many helpful suggestions would be offered that the rate of progress in almost all fields of endeavor would increase exponentially. But it is simply impossible to get people “up to speed” as it were, with any reasonable investment of time or effort.

If You Don’t Mind

Dr. William Vallicella’s website, The Maverick Philosopher, will of course be familiar to readers of these pages (in fact many of you will have come here in the first place as a result of our occasional cross-linking). Bill is a professional philosopher – the real McCoy, as opposed to the loquacious amatuers who drive taxis and cut hair here in Gotham – and his site is a fascinating forum for discussion of philosophical topics. He attracts interested laypeople like me as well as his academic colleagues, and the discussions are always at a high level both of erudition and civility. I have learned a great deal by reading and participating, and have been persuaded to rethink many of my own opinions as a result.

Just Cause

Those who prefer a dualist account of mind sometimes raise the objection that if our mental acts are simply the result of material chains of events in our brains, then there is no room for creativity, for our apparent ability to think original thoughts. But what does “creativity” mean?

On Our Minds

Well, as it happens, the featured article on the front page of Wikipedia today is Philosophy of Mind. In the article we find the question:

“How can the subjective qualities and the intentionality (aboutness) of mental states and properties be explained in naturalistic terms?”

Small world.

Intentional Grounding

One of the knottier topics in philosophy of mind is intentionality. The term refers to the way our thoughts are about their objects, and intentionality is often considered to be an exclusive hallmark of the mental. A thought can be “about” Paris, but a stone, or a lampshade, cannot be.

Natural Curiosity

My lovely wife Nina was just reading to me some excerpts from an article about one Allison DuBois, who is the real-life sibyl behind television’s popular series Medium. The magazine article described example after example of Ms. DuBois’ abilitites. For example, DuBois told a woman that she saw her recently deceased father sitting nearby, wearing a clown nose, when as it happens a box of clown noses had been purchased for the father’s wake. What are we to make of this sort of thing?

Unnatural Acts

In a previous post about C.S. Lewis’s book Miracles we began to look at his treatment of the Natural vs. the Supernatural. In Chapter 3 Lewis rolls out the argument that serves as the necessary underpinning for the rest of the book; he calls it The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism.

Man of Action

In the mail yesterday came an envelope from my good friend Jess Kaplan, who is, due to his sharp and perpetually curious mind, a constant source of fascinating material. Inside was a printout of a lengthy essay, by one Arthur M. Young, on the subject of science and consciousness. I am embarrassed to say that I had not heard of the man, because when I looked him up I discovered him to be, quite obviously, one of the brighter lights of the twentieth century, a restless and productive polymath who, among other accomplishments, invented the magnificent Bell helicopter – a task he apparently set himself simply as an exercise for the training of his mind and the growth of his wisdom.

Bright Idea

I’m sure we have all, at one time or another, had the experience of being dazzled by a bright light. The other day it happened to me, and I noticed something quite surprising about it.

The Bright Side

I’ve finally taken up Daniel Dennett’s latest effort, Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The book is an attempt to apply the methods of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology to a critical examination of the possible reasons for our fondness for religion. It has unsurprisingly ruffled a few feathers, something Dennett seems to relish.

De Gustibus

One difficulty in developing a coherent philosophical account of consciousness is that the foundation upon which it rests – our subjective experience itself – is not as solid as we take it to be. We tend to think that the features of our inner life – our representation of the world, and the qualia that compose it – are stable and beyond dispute, and that our conscious “now” is a definite, pointlike event – as if there is an inner screen upon which consciouness plays, with Us as the viewer, and that whatever goes up on that screen is a matter of unambiguous fact.

Of Two Minds

My good friend Jess Kaplan has just sent me a link to a transcript of a 1985 lecture by the late Julian Jaynes. I’ve been meaning for a while to mention his bookThe Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and now seems as good a time as any.

I first came upon this book many years ago, in early days of my own interest in the question of consciousness, and was drawn in by its lengthy and mysterious-sounding title. I thought it would be a summary of mainstream research, but it it turned out to be quite the opposite. It is, instead, a detailed and closely-argued brief for a radical theory of human history and development.

Jaynes, who died in 1997 at the age of 77, was a professor of psychology at Princeton University. But he is best remembered now for his claim, fantastic at first hearing, that our consciousness – the ordinary self-awareness that we are accustomed to – is in fact a very recent acquisition, and that within historical times humans were quite unconscious.

OK, That Was Fun

All right, maybe pondering arcane numerical sequences, even the really unusual and interesting ones, isn’t everybody’s idea of a rollicking good time. If you would like an explanation of the one I offered in the previous post, click here.

And for a final – I promise! – note on this topic, here is a really nifty website, where such sequences are studied, catalogued, and explained, and where you can enter a sequence andlook up the underlying rule.

You’re Not Trying

I few days back I inked a post about Douglas Hofstadter’s fascinating book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in which I showed a little item from the chapter Figure and Ground, which is about recursively enumerable systems. The tidbit I offered was a most unusual number series. Here it is again, for those of you who didn’t see it the first time around, or who just passed it by without really thinking about it:

1   3   7   12   18   26   35   45   56   69 …

I admit it takes a minute or two to make sense of it, but it is worth the effort. It is wonderfully strange, and is typical of the little jewels that are everywhere in that amazing book.

Mind Over Matter, Part II

A recurring theme in here, and in some of the blogs I’m fond of visiting, is the mystery of consciousness. How is it that “mere” matter can become self-aware? Canmatter be the engine of consciousness at all, or does it merely serve as a temporary and intermittent host?

There seem to be three avenues by which people approach this mystery – philosophy, science, and mysticism. I have the intuitive conviction that they will, ultimately, give consistent answers – in other words they are all three digging toward the same hidden truth, though from different directions, and with different tools. My wish is to try to follow the progress on all three fronts, and to participate actively where I can.

Figure and Ground

One of my favorite books is the astonishingly imaginative Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas R. Hofstadter. This Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, published in 1979, is an extended meditation upon the underlying connections between the work of the three men mentioned in the title – Johann Sebastian Bach (who needs no introduction), the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, and mathematician Kurt Gödel. It is hard to describe the tone and content of the book – it is at times witty and playful, at times dense and didactic, but always unflaggingly, utterly brilliant. Really, and I mean this, GEB is so startlingly clever and original that at times it quite literally – and I do not ever misuse the word “literally” – took my breath away.

Pentimento

Educational and psychological theories of the mid-20th century saw the human brain as an infinitely flexible learning machine, with no “factory presets”. But the picture that is now emerging of our mental apparatus is of a suite of prewired cognitive modules, located in various areas of the brain, each of which has been shaped by natural selection for some useful task. These modules provide us with a common a priori framework for organizing our model of the world, and each module contributes an intuitive description of some aspect of our environment.

Arms and the Mind

“Just as a monkey roaming through the forest grabs hold of one branch, lets that go and grabs another, then lets that go and grabs still another, so too that which is called ‘mind’ and ‘mentality’ and ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another by day and by night.”

(Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 595)