Are determinists bad people? Monday, Mar 17 2008 

According to a new study, people who believe their actions are predetermined by forces outside their control (genes, environment) are more likely to cheat. A big “I told you so” to those people prattling on about how determinism doesn’t entail fatalism.

Now, I guess there is nothing entailed by the truth of determinism prima facie, but it does seem to be the practical response of the truth of determinism.


Now reading: Proust Was a Neuroscientist Monday, Mar 3 2008 

A while back I noted that Emily Dickinson had stumbled onto the problem of ‘qualia‘ well before our dear David Chalmers made such a splash in the mid-nineties with his so-called “hard problem of consciousness“:

A color stands abroad

On solitary hills

That science cannot overtake,

But human nature feels.

That is an absolutely wonderful passage that illustrates the difficulties of that feel of conscious experience. While we have only been debating this at an academic level for, I don’t know, 30 years (at least since the publication of that famous essay, What is it like to be a bat?) Ms. Dickinson had apparently stumbled upon it in a brilliant moment of philosophical clarity. It really makes you wonder how many people throughout our history have had similar insights into future discoveries and problems facing a study of the mind. After all, we all enjoy equal access to consciousness that is unparalleled with any other phenomena. Mightn’t thinkers of ages past thought things that are now receiving empirical support? If you have wondered about any of those things, then Jonah Lehrer’s new book Proust Was a Neuroscientist is a must read.

I know the year is still young, but I am going to predict right now that the chapter on Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf (the first and last chapters, respectively) are the most interesting chapters I am going to read in 2008. Whitman was an easy decision for me for the sole reason that that particular period in America’s history produced my favorite authors and America’s greatest intellectuals. But even if that wasn’t enough, there is enough history, poetry and science intertwined to keep even the most giddy readers hooked. If you haven’t picked it up yet, Jonah has done some serious homework for this book, and it shows. Something of note: I had no idea that Whitman spent time pondering the mysteries of phantom limbs. It is quite engaging to see how folks with such a limited supply of resources would react to people who claimed pain in a nerveless space. In any case, Whitman wrote extensively on the importance of the coherence of the mind and body in a time when transcendentalism was at its peak. I promptly bought a copy of Leaves of Grass after I had finished this chapter.

I don’t have the time or space to exhaust all the things I enjoyed about this book, but I can say that if you like to read non-technical books that draw from a very diverse group of fields and knit them into a diverse tapestry, this will be the best science book of the year for you.

A chilling thought Monday, Dec 3 2007 

“The process of natural selection cannot distinguish between me and my zombie twin.”

From David Chalmers “The Conscious Mind”, p. 120.

Steve Novella responds Sunday, Dec 2 2007 

This is not true in that the consciousness correlates with a certain minimal amount of cortical activity and brainstem activation. Without these there is no consciousness – they correlate 100%. What you really mean is that we do not know exactly how this brain function produces what we experience as our own consciousness. Not knowing how \does not call into question the more basic fact that the brain causes consciousness.

The brain causing consciousness is not in question. It is mind/brain identity that dualists dispute. So we can say something nebulous like “we can turn this off and the lights go dark”, but that isn’t really saying much. Heck, you can destroy the entire brain and consciousness is lost, but we certainly wouldn’t accept this as a valid proof of physicalism. But none of this comes close to filling the gap that the Hard Problem creates; this is why we still have dualists.

I am aware that there are different kinds of dualism – and mine is not a philosophy blog so I did not intend to delve into the various philosophical distinctions. It is true that emergent and property dualism allow for the fact that the brain causes mind, but hold that the mind is something more than the brain that causes it.

If you make philosophical claims you should attempt to be philosophically sound. Yes, dualists believe that mind is something above and beyond the brain, but then you cite correlation between mind functions and brain events as some kind of evidence against dualism, as if they do not believe the two are related.

While I did not address this specifically, my criticism still applies. If one argues that the brain is insufficient to explain the mind, and uses as a basis for that claim the fact that we do not understand how the brain causes mind, then that, in my opinion, is the very logical fallacy I was pointing out. With regard to emergent dualism my position is that it is simply unnecessary – it makes no predictions that would allow it to be distinguished from strict materialism.

It is not because there is missing evidence or something like that. It is because there is a conceptual gap that just won’t be crossed by throwing more physical facts at. That is almost the very definition of qualia. And even though the scientific predictions of emergent dualism and materialism may not very, emergent dualists would make the claim that the explanatory power of ED encompasses things which we would all accept and materialism is as of yet helpless to handle. We seem to possess novel causal powers. How is that possible from a materialist view? Rocks are not rational, but we are. Obviously we have something now that rocks have never had, and since we all come from the same stuff we are looking at something that looks very much like emergence.

While you unfairly challenge my skepticism, you have not supported any challenge to my position. Which one of my neuroscience premises is false? What logical fallacy have I committed?

Neuroscience, as far as I know, has no premises. Materialism has several, however. Take for example the Causal Closure Thesis: Any event at time t has a physical cause at t.
If that is true, then we simply are stuck with naturally occurring phenomena that are inexplicable. Why reason? Why consciousness? A zombie could stand in for us and natural selection would be none the wiser.
In effect, you are not committing a logical fallacy per se, in that I cannot find any formal flaws in your nonexisting syllogism. However, informally it is simply misrepresenting the dualists; they DO believe in mind/brain correlation, just not mind/brain identity.

You state the common dualist premise that the mind does not display any physical properties – but this is a non sequitur. This in no way requires that mind as a phenomenon cannot be entirely created by the physical functioning of the brain (qualia not withstanding).

No, the mind does display properties that are physical properties, it just appears that there are some properties that are non-physical. Whatever experience is, that seems to be one of them.

Why I am beginning to think I am the only skeptic Sunday, Dec 2 2007 

I was reading the blog of a so-called “skeptic” today on the subject of consciousness. He obviously commands attention in this field, being an MD and having quite a bit of experience in neuroscience.

(Read the article here)

After about 20 minutes of taking what he was saying in, the look on my face most assuredly could be described as “sour”. How dare this man call himself a skeptic? If anything, he is selectively skeptical, touting the oft-overused phrase “science has established” as some kind of end-all for the discussion. Unfortunately, he is severely wrong.

The thesis of the article in question is as follows:

Dualists, those who believe that consciousness and the mind are something more than the material biological functioning of the brain, are, in my estimation, neuroscience deniers. They deny the current model of biological neuroscience in order to manufacture a gap, and then try to slip their dualism – their “ghost in the machine” – into that gap.

Is that really what happens? What gap did they manufacture to earn the unwieldy title of “neuroscience deniers”? Of course, they don’t deny that there is a such thing as neuroscience, but maybe they think that particular neuroscientists are confused about something. Nah, I don’ think that’s what they mean either. the explanatory gap is not something that was instigated by creationists, or IDers, or dualists- the explanatory gap is simply a fact of modern science and philosophy. Let’s take a look at the facts, shall we?

We know that we are conscious.
We know physical facts about the brain.
We don’t know which physical facts about the brain produce consciousness.

Do you see a gap there? Is it somehow contrived by religion peddlers?

Let’s continue to the heart of this:

Returning to consciousness and the brain – all the evidence we have suggests that the mind is a product of the brain. There is no mind without the brain (despite the unsubstantiated claims of paranormalists). If the brain is not biologically active, there is no consciousness. If the brain is damaged, the mind is altered. As brain function changes through drugs, lack of sleep, fever, or some metabolic derangement – so changes the mind. No reliable observation or experiment has been able to separate the mind as a phenomenon from the brain.

Every single one of those “facts” (note the non-skeptical tune of his post) is consistent with different varieties of dualism, from the soft- Chalmer’s property dualism- to the hard- William Hasker’s emergent dualism. And whether he believes it or not, there have been a host of arguments that argue for the non-identity of the mind and brain.

Dualists have therefore adopted the strategy of creationists by requiring that neuroscientists explain, in detail, exactly how the brain creates the subjective experience of mind. There are preliminary answers to this question. The mind is an emergent property of the brain and cannot be reduced to any single component of brain function. This is, admittedly, just a partial answer – merely describing the type of phenomenon we are dealing with, and not really explaining it.

Simply put, he does not understand the dualist’s position. The dualist usually begins with an assumption- the mind exists. Now, this mind displays properties that are unlike physical entities- rationality, volition, awareness. Furthermore, science has not found a neural correlate for consciousness, and it is very possible that they never will. And it is the dualists that are being unskeptical? The following is one trashy piece of thinking:

Likewise, the materialist paradigm of mind and consciousness – the notion that the brain is the cause of mind – has been and continues to be a very successful model. One manifestation of this is that neuroscience, as a discipline, has grown and progressed. As new tools come online our ability to explore the brain, and to explain the phenomenon of mind, has increased. The dualist paradigm, by contrast, has not produced anything tangible or reliable. It is still chasing its tail and pointing at the current gaps in neuroscience, without looking at the big picture.

Oh dear. For one, the so-called “materialist paradigm” is the exact same for the dualisms I mentioned. For them, it makes absolutely perfect sense that functions of the mind can be identified with the brain. It is things like experience itself that poses the big problem for physicalism. He simply makes philosophical blunders galore by equating the success of the physical study of the brain and physicalism. This does not appear to be a singular thing, either. I did a bit of digging through some of this guy’s stuff, and he does not touch on the “hard problem of consciousness” at all. I dare you to run a search on qualia on his blog. A big fat zero will stare at you in the face and hopefully lead you to the conclusion, as it did I, that some people are just not familiar with the range of topics they think they are qualified to speak on.

The Magic of Consciousness Saturday, Dec 1 2007 

This is Dan Dennet’s lecture on consciousness-


I don’t particularly care for his functionalism, but the man knows how to put on a show. I can’t believe that I missed that.

Note: I cannot figure out why the video won’t embed. What the hell?

Emily Dickinson on qualia Sunday, Nov 11 2007 

Sorry Chalmers, she has a leg up on you here:

A color stands abroad

On solitary hills

That science cannot overtake,

But human nature feels.

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