Philosopher Colin McGinn makes a real hash of reviewing How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, by by Ray Kurzweil. I can’t comment on the book itself, because I’ve not read it. But there’s enough wrong with the content of McGinn’s to know that he isn’t the person who should be reviewing it. Well, not for a fair critical review. If the New York Review of Books merely wanted clueless philosopher to stir up some hyperbole, then fair enough.
But McGinn is one of those irritating philosophers that seems wilfully ignorant. So I’ll respond to some of the content of the review, which is here.
Let’s start with the obviously philosophically suspect:
“However, that claim seems obviously false.”
It doesn’t matter what the specific claim is of Kurzweil. When you hear that from a philosopher, that something is obvious, think ‘mind already made up’. Though his review may be critical, it contains little critical thinking. I always thought it was obvious that philosophers challenged the obvious. I’m obviously wrong in that assumption, and I’ve been shown to be wrong by several philosophers, thereby showing again that the obvious isn’t always so.
McGinn’s main gripe seems to rest on his misunderstanding of patterns and pattern recognition. From the computer science perspective I can see where Kurzweil might be coming from. McGinn starts off badly and never picks up.
“Pattern recognition pertains to perception specifically”
No it does not. Pattern recognition is about matching patterns, and they don’t even have to be in the same encoding. Patterns of visual perception need be nothing like the corresponding neural content; but nevertheless, similar visual patterns can stimulate similar neural firing patterns. There can be a correspondence between visual patterns as perceived and patterns in neural circuits, synaptic connections, firing. It’s not a simple one-to-one correspondence, because the brain has history and merges many sources of pattern.
The pattern of an image taken by a digital camera will be persisted in the camera in states of transistors, and they need have nothing like the geometric spatial correspondence of the original 2D representation of the 3D scene. In transmitting the image over the internet the image data may be compressed and encrypted beyond all recognition (by humans). The compressed encrypted pattern is still a pattern with a direct correspondence to the original geometric image (in lossless compression). And at the other end the data may be decrypted, decompressed and displayed in the same geometric pattern as the original. This would not be possible if there was no correspondence, no pattern, being preserved along the way.
The internal brain representations need not have the same lossless fidelity I’ve just described. It appears that brain memories and perceptions are very dynamic and not at all the high fidelity representations we subjectively feel they are. Nevertheless, patterns are what it’s about to a great extent.
The same can apply to audio signals. And vibrations from earthquake monitors. Things we humans can’t detect can be transformed into patterns we do recognise, so we see patterns in graphs of data that we couldn’t see just observing the original source. So, though stock market data comes in from all over the world to a computer system, and though there is no way humans could directly detect patterns in that data, it can be transformed into stock market graphs that we understand the meaning of very well: patterns.
Pattern recognition is so much at the heart of how we put contextual meaning to visual stimuli that we have the phenomenon of Pareidolia. We ascribe meaning where there is none when our pattern recognition is overly active.
You only have to watch this TED video to see the importance of patterns.
McGinn misses the big picture. In the above video the context of a pattern is in itself a greater pattern. What we perceive moment by moment is only a fraction of what we experience and learn over time. The momentary visual perceptual patterns are not the full extent of the patterns being recognised. In the video the different meanings of two identical geometric shapes only acquire their respective meaning in the context of the surrounding patterns.
“In what way does thinking involve processing a stimulus and categorizing it?”
Thinking isn’t limited to that. Thinking is the dynamic on-going processes in which many partly autonomous regions of the brain are doing their own thing, and we perceive that as thinking. The fact that I have to use the phrase “we perceive that as” is the unfortunate teleological language we have become accustomed to, which may even be evolved as part of our evolutionary development of language and its use to identify a self. That we have this limitation in language use is no excuse for McGinn to make naive claims as to what is obvious – claims to the obvious discredit the whole of philosophy.
“When I am thinking about London while in Miami I am not recognizing any presented stimulus as London-since I am not perceiving London with my senses.”
But McGinn is way off the mark here. The stimulus in this case is not coming from the eyes, but from the brain. When his brain starts to think of London (whether in London or not) it reconstructs in the visual cortex the patterns of neural activity that are activated when he sees London. When he thinks of London, and in particular Big Ben, say, then the various experiences of Big Ben he has had, directly, or on the TV News, or on post cards, have all contributed to his brain’s learning of what London means to his brain, so that just thinking about London conjures up these internal experiences again, some as pseudo-visual images.
“There is no perceptual recognition going on at all in thinking about an absent object.”
There is both perceptual reconstruction, and subsequent perceptual recognition.
“This point seems totally obvious and quite devastating…”
For heaven’s sake, stop with the ridiculous claims to the obvious. If all this was obvious there would be no debate! You want to witness devastation of an idea? Try Dennett’s 1991 review of McGinn – see later.
“The notion of “pattern” has lost its moorings in the geometric models of letters and faces: Are we seriously to suppose that dreams and thoughts have geometrical shape?”
No! This is dreadful. Geometric patterns (by which McGinn means spatially geometric) are only one type of pattern. There are non-spatial geometries, patterns.
“At best the word “pattern” is now being used loosely and metaphorically…”
No. It’s just that McGinn doesn’t get the actual broader meaning of ‘pattern’. It is McGinn’s limited knowledge that is holding him back in this respect.
“Why is remembering that I have to feed the cat itself some kind of pattern?”
Because it is a pattern of neural activity that has evoked conscious awareness of something that must be done, and with it are associated patterns of various kinds, only some of which may be related to visual experiences, of cat and food. When McGinn remembers again the next day many of the same neurons will fire again, in similar patterns!
“What has happened is that he has switched from patterns as stimuli in the external environment to patterns as mental entities, without acknowledging the switch”
Maybe because it is well known that patterns are everywhere in all this and the external patterns on the retina are just one of the many patterns. Without reading Kurzweil I couldn’t say what his intention was, but my guess would be that he didn’t feel the distinction would be necessary to make, or that he made it but McGinn missed it.
“… blithely proceeding as if everything mental involves perception”
Well yes and no. It’s not all visual perception; and it’s not even all conscious perception. Are we restricting the use of the term perception to only the external events on the retina? Or beyond and down the optic fibres? Or through the parts of the visual cortex? Or do we include the reconstructions and merging of immediately acquired and stimulated reconstructions? It’s all so complicated that McGinn’s use of the term perception is very limiting; so showing how little McGinn actually knows about any of this.
“When I see an apple as red, do I recognize the color as a pattern? No, because the color is not a geometric arrangement of shapes or anything analogous to that…”
What? Is he serious? Geometric? Colour is not a pattern system? Does he not know what spectra are? This is unbelievably ignorant. My guess is that his understanding here is based on ancient philosophical notions that he’s not been able to shake off. It’s as if 200 years of science have passed McGinn by.
“When I see an apple as red …it is simply a homogeneous sensory quality”
He’s even confusing himself now. When he sees a red apple he isn’t merely seeing ‘red’, as if the old philosophical ‘redness’ is what determines colour perception. He should watch the Beau Lotto TED talk.
“Is the sweetness of sugar or the smell of a rose a pattern?”
Yes! The nose and tongue are chemical pattern recognition components. When they detect chemical patterns they fire off neural signals. The pattern of the periodic table of elements is a representation, a model, of the physical patterns of the different elements. And more complex atomic patterns, as molecules, stimulate specific receptor patterns in nose and tongue. The whole of biology is about patterns. DNA is about patterns, pattern recognition, pattern building.
“Then there are such mental phenomena as emotion, imagination, reasoning, willing, intending, calculating, silently talking to oneself, feeling pain and pleasure, itches, and moods-the full panoply of the mind.”
Emotion is very much pattern recognition. We recognise patterns in the world and they stimulate our emotions. It’s because the stimulating patterns are different that we cry at sad events and laugh at funny ones. Imagination is the construction of patterns, of worlds, images, ideas. Reasoning is the attempt to discover and build patterns of logic. Willing (don’t get me started on free will) is the causal effect of internal patterns that drive behaviour, that make motor neurons drive muscles. Talking to one’s self is the use of language patterns internally.
This is all getting to be too much ignorance. I’m beginning to suspect wilful denialism.
“In what useful sense do all these count as “pattern recognition”?”
It’s not just recognition. It’s also pattern creation and reconstruction. We learn by both experiencing the world, but also by probing it, and it is in this way we build patterns that on the whole start to have a related contextual significance; and therein lies meaning.
Eventually McGinn moves on to the teleological languages used in neuroscience.
“There is another glaring problem with Kurzweil’s book: the relentless and unapologetic use of homunculus language.”
Three points here. First, that seems to be the language we are stuck with. Maybe it’s evolved – evolving with us, so that it is a very part of our nature to think teleologically. It certainly seems very difficult to escape. Second, coming to us so easily it’s very easy to use, and therefore convenient and efficient: evolutionary biologists that think we are physical systems and that DNA has no intellect or purpose of any kind that we might associate with agency, they still use teleological language. Third, the first two points explain why people like McgGinn find it difficult to shake off the notion of teleology, particularly with regards to humans, and why when they see teleological language used as metaphor they take it to be literal. In this case McGinn thinks Kurzweil’s use of such language is literal. There is no homunculus!
“Presumably (I am not entirely sure) Kurzweil would agree that such descriptions cannot be taken literally: individual neurons don’t say things or predict things or see things-though it is perhaps as if they do.”
He’s not entirely sure? Then he really doesn’t get it at all. He is missing the whole point of the absence of teleology that physics, chemistry, biology, evolution has been hinting at.
“People say and predict and see, not little bunches of neurons, still less bits of machines.”
Well, since people are big bunches of neurons then it is the neurons doing it, but not as some thinking homunculi. It’s the whole mass of neurons and their behaviour that gives the impression of a person, a self. This is the mental illusion that hides the physicalism of what we are! The very ‘self’, ‘I’, that we feel we are is a living metaphor – we are our own homunculus.
“First, homunculus talk can give rise to the illusion that one is nearer to accounting for the mind…”
It’s a metaphor!
“But if we strip our theoretical language of psychological content, restricting ourselves to the physics and chemistry of cells, we are far from accounting for the mental phenomena we wish to explain.”
Now I agree we are far from accounting for much. But if only the likes of McGinn, and Nagel, Chalmers and Tallis, could apply their critical scepticism to their own ideas of what conscious is; or even more, apply it to their certainty of what it cannot be, then they’d be on reasonable ground. But that isn’t what this is about. For these guys it isn’t about a fair appraisal of how far science is getting on in the understanding of consciousness, because they don’t seem interested in the science. They seem more intent on maintaining the special nature of humans as non-animals, or at least animals with minds that are some way free of the very physical constraints of the brain. Oh yes, they admit the mind has something to do with the brain, and while not being able to say what the mind has to do with the brain they are very keen to say to what extent the brain is not the mind. These guys are philosophers. They don’t spend the time covering the science to appreciate how far it goes in not finding a mind and how far it sees only evidence consistent with physicalism.
“Neurons simply emit electrical impulses when caused to do so by impinging stimuli; they don’t recognize anything in the literal sense.”
They do! In a literal sense. The problem here is that McGinn is restricting ‘recognise’ to the teleological homunculus kind that has traditionally been associated with mind. When a component, be it a neuron or computer chip, responds to some patterns and not to others then there is a real and literal physical sense in which the input pattern has been recognised.
“Recognizing is a conscious mental act.”
Only if you define it as such. And here we find the limitations of McGinn. He defines recognition as something that only conscious systems can do; and surprise: only conscious system can do recognition, when so defined! He is making it so by his own definition, his own restriction of the use of the word. Now that human teleological meaning may be the source of the word, but it is now a well-used word in many sciences, and especially in computer science. Much language has been adopted and does not retain its teleological significance. I don’t suppose McGinn has much problem with the term ‘memory’ when applied to computers.
The last bit of interest is McGinn’s understanding of signal processing and information processing. He lacks understanding.
” in sober neuroscience textbooks we are routinely told that bits of the brain “process information”, “send signals”, and “receive messages” – as if this were as uncontroversial as electrical and chemical processes occurring in the brain. “
It is uncontroversial. Well, maybe it’s as controversial to McGinn as is Evolution to Young Earth Creationists.
“It is a collection of biological cells like any bodily organ, much like the liver or the heart, which are not apt to be described in informational terms.”
You’ve got to be kidding me! First, the liver. It does process signals. Mostly chemical ones. The heart? What on earth does he think drives heart beats? And neurons? Please! Neurons are all about signal processing. Even a simplistic description has them summing input signals before they decide to fire; transmitting neurochemicals in accordance with other factors in compex signalling from one neuron to another; they process signals to learn, to habituate, inhibit, etc. Please, McGinn, learn some biology.
“It can hardly be claimed that we have observed information transmission in the brain, as we have observed certain chemicals; this is a purely theoretical description of what is going on.”
Where has McGinn been this last hundred years? Try looking up Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Better still read this.
Still not convicned? Try this list. Seriously, go down this list and just look at all the indicators of signal processing, information processing. And don’t forget it is chemical too, not just electrical.
“The answer must surely be that the brain is causally connected to the mind and the mind contains and processes information.”
What mind?!! Where is it? What is this mind he is so stuck on? He dismisses all evidence of the pattern recognition features of brains, and of their signal processing operations, but with no evidence whatsoever insists there is a mind?
“That is, a conscious subject has knowledge, memory, perception, and the power of reason – I have various kinds of information at my disposal. No doubt I have this information because of activity in my brain, but it doesn’t follow that my brain also has such information”
What is this I, this conscious subject? He looks for it but never demonstrates it.
“To create a mind one needs at a minimum to create consciousness, but Kurzweil doesn’t even attempt to describe a way for doing that.”
Well, first, that’s not true. It appears the minimum we think is necessary is a brain. We have not yet seen consciousness outside a brain that we know of. It’s quite possible that we don’t understand what consciousness is; so that it may turn out to be nothing at all but behaviour of a complex brain. There is nothing else on offer. So, it’s quite respectable to suppose that as we come to understand more about the brain we will be able to figure out how consciousness comes about, and then build non-wet conscious systems. We already attribute consciousness to many non-human animals that aren’t even close to having some of the capabilities McGinn points out in humans. The trouble for McGinn is that he doesn’t understand or cannot define consciousness either, and so is in no position to decide how close scientists have come to it. This next statement demonstrates his ignorance:
“Clearly, unconscious processes of so-called “pattern recognition” in the neocortex will not suffice for consciousness, being precisely unconscious.”
I could write another whole post on why McGinn is wrong in his assessment of physical laws and the technological limits computing power. But I’ve had enough.
Is McGinn truly a philosopher? Has he no critical skills at all? Is he so poorly out of date, still sticking to the same thinking he had way back when? Here’s Dan Dennett on McGinn back in 1991:
“I find his thesis not just incredible and ludicrous. As a fellow philosopher, I find it embarrassing. It is not that I disagree with McGinn about the possibility in principle that there are phenomena that will forever defy human understanding, but just that I find him arriving at his pessimistic verdict about consciousness after such a paltry canvassing of the opportunities.”
What was Dennett disappointed in? McGinn’s claim that human brains were never meant to understand consciousness. Well, they were never meant to understand chemistry, maths of any kind, or for that matter, philosophy. The intellectual capabilities of our brains seem to go way beyond what they were ‘meant’ to do (as if they were ‘meant’ to do anything – be as wary of ID language as of teleological language).
McGinn thinks we do not have the capacity to understand consciousness? Well then how does McGinn assure himself that he knows enough about consciousness, or human brains, to be able to make that claim. It’s a self-refuting claim. Not, note, that this makes the opposite affirmed, that we will understand consciousness. Just because McGinn’s brain is not wired for understanding consciousness, or some basic principles of critical thinking, does not mean that the subject cannot be understood.
Really, you should read the rest of Dennett’s review. I’ll give up on McGinn as a lost cause.
BBC had a reporter in a gun store somewhere in the US. One gun happy customer or staff member said this latest shooting wasn’t a gun issue but a mental health issue.
OK, so keeping automatic rifles out of the hands of a person with issues wouldn’t have prevented the deaths?
And would that same commenter be happy to pay the taxes to solve all the mental health problems in the US, so honest decent sane folk can have their guns? As if that would be possible.
But he may have a point. It might be a mental health issue really. An issue of the mental health of these people that see their particular right to bear arms and their right not to pay taxes (that might help to improve the health of the nation) as being so essential.
The American Dream turned nightmare (again). Automatic firearms in the hands of a people steeped in religious ire, enabled by conservative greed, and libertarian I’m OK so sort yourself out because I couldn’t give a fuck and I’m not paying taxes to help you fix your shit. What could go wrong, so often?
Just in case you think the right to bear arms and religious nut-jobbery are independent carzinesses, try this: What Does the Bible Say About Gun Control?
Maybe all this lunacy is hard to avoid in a place like the US. Diversity doesn’t guarantee sanity. The UK is smaller and it’s easier to manage the craziness. Our total population is only about twice that of California; about 20% of the US as a whole. There are fewer backwaters where craziness can unfold unseen in plain sight, though we’ve had our share.
In Hungerford UK in 1987 Michale Ryan killed 16 people. How did he manage to kill so many? Semi-automatic rifles and a hand gun. Surprise. In 2010 Derek Bird killed 12. His weapons: a double-barrelled shotgun and a .22-calibre rifle with a scope and silencer. But part of the problem in this case was that he was on the move. The death toll could have been less had he tried a single location spree. Without automatic weapons there’s the opportunity to fight back at some point, or to evade the shooter. Without any firearms the nut case is even more limited in the damage he can do.
This is the armoury of James Eagan Holmes, suspect killer of 58, as reported on wiki:
On May 22, 2012, Holmes purchased a Glock 22 pistol at a Gander Mountain shop in Aurora, and six days later bought a Remington Model 870 shotgun at a Bass Pro Shops in Denver. On June 7, just hours after failing his oral exam at the university, he purchased a Smith & Wesson M&P15 semi-automatic rifle, with a second Glock 22 pistol following on July 6. All the weapons were bought legally. In the four months prior to the shooting, Holmes also bought 3000 rounds of ammunition for the pistols, 3000 rounds for the M&P15, and 350 shells for the shotgun over the Internet. On July 2, he placed an order for a Blackhawk Urban Assault Vest, two magazine holders and a knife at an online retailer.
His defence at the moment is based on his mental state. But would his mental state have enabled him to kill so many without all the firepower?
Obviously not. Surely that is obvious, right? But I’ve got it all wrong it seems. Gun control isn’t the answer!
Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, believes we should arm the teachers. This, from the New Yorker:
“Following the Newtown shooting, Larry Pratt, the Executive Director of Gun Owners for America, suggested that these massacres might be avoided in the future, if only more teachers were armed.”
Be prepared, for your next job interview:
Yes, you have a PhD in your subject, have taught at several prestigious schools and come with glowing references. But I see that you are only expert in small arms. Is there some reason why you never trained with semi-automatics? You’re not a God-damned Darwinian Evolutionary pacifist sun of a bitch are you?
The New Yorker again:
“As Pratt’s sentiment should make clear, the United States has slipped its moorings and drifted into a realm of profound national lunacy.”
Slipped? Drifted? As in dived headlong?
Anticipated teacher training:
Great post on Reductionism over at Emil’s blog.
I wanted to respond to comments there by Peter and Brendan, and give my perspective on their points about solipsism, materialism, science, and how it all fits together for me. Turned out to be a long comment, so I thought I’d better post it here rather than intrude too much and go too far off-topic on Emil’s post. I’ve covered most of this before – links included below.
Peter asks, “How can anyone be sure that what they are experiencing, … In other words, what reason is there for me to refrain from becoming a committed solipsist?”
I’d say nothing is stopping you. I agree with Emil’s take on solipsism and other rationalist philosophies. But my personal perspective is that it boils down to a rational choice. Considering just solipsism v materialism, to some extent the choice is arbitrary. You could ask what the consequences would be in each case, comparing what is the case with what you think is the case:
1) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in solipsism. I’m not sure what I learn from this. It seems that I imagine the world, including you and this conversation. I acknowledge that it might be you that’s imagining me as part of your solipsistic experience, so that I’m a figment of your imagination. What I feel is me thinking is actually you thinking the thoughts in some subset of your solipsist consciousness. How do we tell which is which? Do we have any control over this? Instead of being a mind that imagines being a material life form on an imagined material earth, can I choose to switch arbitrarily to become a life form on the surface of the sun? I seem to be limited to imagine only the earthly being I appear to be. What if I walk in front of a bus. It’s only imagined, so will I simply continue as if I hadn’t? Our (mine or yours) solipsist experience seems to be limited by what seems like a material reality.
2) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in materialism. I can’t distinguish what actually happens here from (1), except perhaps I suffer less anguish over whether I am a constrained mind. Though I am a solipsist mind, I go along with the material illusion. Consequences?
3) Materialism holds, I believe in solipsism. Again, I’m not sure what the outcome might be. I could conceivably die trying to test my solipsist existence by attempting to defy gravity; or maybe I pick a fight in a dark alley somewhere. I’m not sure how I’d distinguish my mental experience here from being absorbed in a gaming system as some avatar. The physical reality might soon make itself known to my mental experience.
4) Materialism holds, I believe in materialism. No problem. Business as usual trying to figure out how all this works.
In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if you choose solipsism. You have to do an awful lot of work to get anywhere it seems with solipsism other rationalisms, idealism, transcendence or theism. Lots of inner contemplation, meditation and maybe praying. But it seems you still need to eat. It is sometimes claimed by theists that there are no atheists in foxholes. This is clearly untrue. I’m much more convinced that there are no solipsists at lunch time.
I don’t know any committed solipsists. If I did it might be worth a charge of assault to punch one on the nose. Dr Johnson’s “I refute it thus”, while not an actual logical refutation, I do find his kicking a rock is still pretty convincing. Peter, if you’re visiting this post, do you actually know any committed solipsists yourself? Are you personally persuaded? Your answers might in part answer your own original question.
My route from Cartesian doubt to empiricism, avoiding solipsism, is here and here. The material world is so persistently in-your-face. It seems more productive to try to understand it rather than persist too much with deep scepticism about it. If it turns out that I’m wrong and that I am a solipsist mind then I just hope it comes out in the wash. In the meantime I’ll enjoy that lunch.
Once you choose to accept materialism a lot of consequences follow.
Science (evolution, biology, etc.) tells us we are physical systems no different from the rest of the material world. We are just made up of stuff in some complex way, as Emil describes well as reductionism. From evolution and biology we learn we evolved from animals with much less capable brains, and even from animals with no brain at all.
Our ancestors were very clearly interacting with the rest of the world, of which they were simply components. This interaction was physical, chemical, electromagnetic: when microbes touch there is a greater or lesser degree of chemical interaction as their outer cells come into contact, with electromagnetic interaction of the individual atoms and molecules (the machinary of chemistry). This in turn caused physical and chemical reactions within the bodies, to greater or lesser extent: the touching body is an obstacle, food, or predator.
Neurons and simple nervous systems that don’t fit our loose definition of consciousness are owned by animals that interact with the environment with a greater degree of autonomous control. Memory becomes possible. See Kandel on Aplesia and other sources. More complex brains do more complex stuff, have more complex memories, can predict more about the environment, even if not consciously: a cheetah tracking prey that is trying to evade it.
Sadly we don’t have access to our ancestors in the process of becoming conscious as we are. But it’s not too much of a stretch to infer the following.
The lighting up of human consciousness may have been quick or slow, in terms of evolution, and in terms of generations – we don’t have the details. The species distinction doesn’t really matter here: in the trail back through our ancestors there is no point, we think, where a daughter is not of the same species as the mother; and yet, if these various ancestors could be brought together, they would be classed as one or more species different from us and each other.
As an analogy for the onset of human consciousness and self-awareness take an infant. It’s not clear that a new born has much of a conscious cognitive life. It can certainly respond with basic consciousness, as much as some animals can, but less than some adult animals. Do you remember your early infancy, your birth? Conscious self-awareness seems to creep up on us; and more advanced cognition comes from the physical experiencing development of the brain: learning. It’s hard to look back as an individual, and as a species, to see and acknowledge how conscious self-awareness emerged. There is a gap, and we have had the tendency to fill it with a soul of one sort or another. I feel this gap contributes to our special respect for our conscious mind, and our deification of it – at least to the extent that we think it a spark provided by a deity.
Then there is the physical sensibility of the brain, or lack of it. Though the brain can sense the outside world and something of the inner body, through sight, hearing, touch and the other senses, the brain can’t actually feel itself in the same way. There is no sense in which the brain ‘feels’ its neurons working away, as it can feel an arm moving or touching something. Introspection seems to stop at the mushy level of concepts, thoughts, internal images and sounds – but it can’t locate them. Do you feel neurons flashing in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s as you form and interpret speech? Can you feel in your brain where the concept, the thought, the conjured image of your grandmother is located? No, but neuroscientists can detect at least some of the neurons that are associated with that sort of perception (a summary article, a particular article, recent paper from Quiroga himself).
Our working brain, our conscious selves that are self-aware are only remotely self-aware. Our introspective brains build a vague concept of self the way they build vague concepts of anything else. Our brains even build a concept of mind. And it’s a detached mind, it appears, because of these limitations on our introspective capabilities. This is the nature of the illusion of consciousness. Yes we have consciousness, we experience it. The illusion is that the conscious self is a mind detached from the physical brain: dualism.
Emil said, “Dualism may represent the majority of the population, but certainly not the majority among scientists or philosophers.” I would be more inclined to say the among scientists or philosophers most are non-dualists, intellectually, but, as with visual illusions, none of us can overcome the mental illusion as we go about our daily lives – we feel like free-thinking minds somehow embodied yet not quite part of the furniture. We feel like dualists.
On top of this there is a massive cultural history from philosophy and theology that has constructed quite a different story; one in which the mind does exist as a separate special non-material entity, a soul in some stories. These are excusable stories from an excusably ignorant past. The excuse is wearing thin.
This ancient perspective, which still exists, mainly with theologians, but also with philosophers, particularly those that don’t follow neuroscience, biology generally, or evolution, is what I refer to as the problem of The Primacy of Thought – where they feel that our primary source of knowledge is our conscious mind. I agree that we perceive the world through our minds, but the evolutionary evidence is that we are primarily experiential animals with a brain upgrade that enables us to reason (and interesting process in itself). We and our world are physical, and even though our mental experience of that world goes on in the mind, that mind itself is actually the busy active dynamic brain.
We can infer all this empirically from what we know from science. We can’t prove it logically to the satisfaction of pernickety philosophers, but it’s a more fitting explanation that any fanciful philosophical ideas. All the evidence is not in yet. The hard problem of consciousness remains in the mind (brains) of many philosophers, and particularly theologians who desperately want there to be a soul. It’s not a complete story by any means.
It’s even a bit of a just-so story, though one that is consistent with all existing evidence. I’m sure philosophers that don’t like it would be quick to point that out. But it’s a damned site better than any other on offer, better than any theology or any of the non-materialist philosophies.
And of course, being an empirical perspective on materialism it not only all holds together, it is also open to adaptation in the face of new evidence. Even while waiting for more concrete evidence of physicalist accounts of consciousness all we would need to drop the idea would be some counter evidence. I don’t see any. Not a bit.
Personally I think the evidence is overwhelming already. As Emil puts it, “If you pay attention to the history of neuroscience, you would understand why physicalism has conclusively won the argument … “. Really, start looking at the evidence. Look at all the examples of how changes to the brain, drug induced or physical, including intercranial (open skull) probe sensing, and stimulation, show a direct cause and effect relationship between the physical brain and conscious experience.
In a comment on a previous post Neil wonders if empiricism, defined as the use of the senses and reason, is a dualistic notion. It isn’t. The identification of sense and reason is merely a convention in discussions about empiricism. Humans have customarily come to talk in terms of reason and senses because they appear as distinct experiences to us, subjectively. But they are both physical experiences, according to the following.
You will think dualistically if you start with ‘perception’ and confine yourself to human ‘mental’ experiences without considering more science. But even so I think it’s worth emphasising that this dualistic nature that is being referred to here isn’t the same thing as the dualism of mind/body, Cartesian Dualism.
My route to physicalist monism is straight forward, and covered here, here, here. In summary it’s as listed below – and here I’ll start with perception in order to pick up Neil’s starting point. Now obviously this isn’t the actual detailed route we take personally, but I’ll get to that eventually. And nor are these distinct steps. This breakdown is used just to emphasise specific points.
1) We perceive, and wonder what our perceptions involve. I’d normally assume that all this is understood and go right to point 2.
2) We follow Descartes back to the Cogito and observe that I think therefore I am a thinking thing, at least. This need not be an absolute certainty. Certainties are not necessary.
3) If at this point we accept everything as being in the mind then we can reflect on what the mind observes, and go on from there.
4) This mind perspective, this pure Rationalism, can concoct any story it likes: panpsychism, solipsism, various combinations of the physical and supernatural – pretty much anything. And we have no means of checking which is true. Any imagined possibility is an actual possibility, according to the mind. At this point we could branch off anywhere, but I think that if we continue to analyse all the possibilities we can always get back to some form of solipsism – all Rationalisms lead to Solipsism. But even then we have no means of distinguishing some specific detail: are you a figment of my imagination, or am I a figment of yours, for example; or, if we are part of some grand consciousness, why do we disagree?
5) But, the mind observes one particular set of perceptions that are strikingly persuasive: the ‘physical’ world – using the particular term ‘physical’ from convention, because at this point there is no knowledge about what this actually means. It is only a persistent perception. Later, ‘physical’ becomes a mere label, but the perceptions are so persuasive we start to think the ‘physical’ is at least one aspect of reality. It appears we have various ‘senses’, in that these perceptions consistently come to us through what we perceive as various sensory modes. All this is still possibly only a mental perceptual phenomenon. There is no guarantee that these perceptions of the physical world relate to any actual physical world – it just feels that way, so much so that it feels more real and persistent than most if not all other mental phenomena.
6) Now, we seem to be stuck at (4), but (5) is very persuasive. It seems impossible for a human to switch off these ‘physical’ perceptions, or to mentally influence many of the physical experiences we perceive – I can imagine that I can make my car rise off the ground under mind control, but the physical perception is that this is not possible, no matter how much I try with my mind. All human attempts at telekinesis seem to fail. Now, it could be that there are some unknown limitations to our mental capacity to control our mental experiences, so that it may still be that the ‘physical’ is nothing more than a solipsist perception. But, instead of fighting this why not take the tentative step of accepting that there is something to this ‘physical’ reality. Will that help?
7) As it happens it does seem to help. The more seriously we take these physical perceptions the more consistent our overall perceptions become. It really does seem like there are other entities out there, just like me, that are reporting similar internal mental perceptions, of mind and of externally existing other entities and physical objects. They report that they observe me just as I observe them. Furthermore, as we cooperate, using science, we discover so much specific and extremely persistent detail about a whole external universe (external to our minds) that we can’t help but be persuaded that this is at least a very useful and satisfying interpretation of our perceptions. It is far more consistent than any of our Rationalisms; with the exception of the very unsatisfying solipsism. The significant point is that if we treat this perceived physical reality as if it is real and not just a mental phenomenon we seem to be able to make progress with it that we can’t if we assume it is a mental figment, because the latter leaves forever imagining details that we can only verify by imagining more stuff about the imagined physical reality. It’s as if the maintenance of the solipsist view takes more effort than just accepting the physical perceptions as being somewhat representative of a real physical world. There’s no need to assume our perceptions are perfect – and in fact if we ever do that we seem to get into more trouble: if we take seriously the perception of an inner voice instructing us to kill people, it seems to cause a lot of pain in the world. There are lots of good reasons to accept the physical world, in spite of the difficulties involved in accessing it reliably. At this point we can accept we have a rather erratic inner mental life that has a slightly misty window on some physical reality.
8) Taking the real world seriously, and appreciating our fallible access to it, and the fallibility of our mental capacities, we develop science in order to overcome some of these inadequacies. We come then to perceive the results of Evolution. If we continue to take all this science seriously Evolution tells us that our ancestors did not have brains and did not have minds. Evolution demonstrates a very clear link between brain and mind, where the capacity of mental phenomena seems to match physical characteristics of the brain quite consistently. Then, we also have Neuroscience. This shows us even more specifically the link between physical changes to the brain and corresponding mental changes. It also shows us that there is no sensory faculty in the brain whereby it can sense itself in a way that corresponds to touch or pain. The brain cannot ‘feel’ itself in the same way as it can ‘feel’ one’s finger touching one’s nose. We cannot detect our own brain physically, we cannot feel its processes in action. All of science, but Evolution and Neuroscience specifically, leads us to think that the brain and its mental faculties are an evolutionary development, and that the specific lack of internal sensory perception of one’s own brain makes it feel like the mind is separate. Add to this all we know about infant development and it appears also that the mind seems to awaken at some point in our individual young lives. For all these reasons dualism seems to be the natural first perceptual experience; but all the science then explains why this is, and why this is an illusion. We are physical beings, individually, and as an evolved species, long before we have a brain that starts to think.
9) The thinking faculty seems to be an add-on, an upgrade. All the mental phenomena (1) to (4) can now be explained in terms of the physical universe. We even have a reasonable understanding of concepts like the second law of thermodynamics as well as all the other physics and chemistry that explain how such complex physical systems can become chemical, biological, organ, organism. As contingent as all this is upon our accepting the physical experiences it all fits together very well. Currently we seem to have some difficulty sewing up some loose ends. We haven’t yet been able to come up with a detailed theory of how we connect the subjective conscious experience to the physical neurons upon which we think it is based. But the simple and consistent hypothesis is that there is such a connection, particularly since there is no evidence of the alternative: a separate mind.
10) The pure Rationalism now seems misplaced. At the very least this should give Rationalists a far greater problem than any Rationalist argument does for science, for physicalism. It is often said that there are no true outright solipsists. Even the most strident Rationalists don’t live by their own philosophy: they still eat drink and sleep. Or, those that don’t soon find they succumb to the very physical world they deny, and die. All experiences that supposedly transcend the physical world are only ever transitory, and the mental experiences reported can still be explained as physical events in the brain. Or at least that’s how it appears to those of us that embrace the physical world. As much as it is philosophically unsound, the comment by Dr Johnson, “I refute it thus!”, is sufficiently persuasive that the pedantry of any counter Rationalist philosophy is not the least bit convincing. Once you go down this route there’s actually a lot of philosophy that then seems to be nothing but fatuous nonsense.
Of course some of the more pragmatic of our fellow humans don’t bother with this arduous route to an empirical epistemology and physical monist ontology. They don’t need Descartes to tell them that they think and so exist, they just accept the physical world as the primary one and assume the mental world is a behavioural artefact of the brain. And they treat many of the more bizarre philosophies, such as the theologies, as utter tripe. There’s a lot to be said for this pragmatic approach. Of course others do think there are separate realms, because that’s what it feels like. Without some form of investigation it just becomes a shouting match.
Those that do like to check out other possibilities tend not to come by our physicalist persuasion by this route either. It’s very much a post hoc rationalisation of what we pick up along the way. But then all philosophy and science is. We do hear the Rationalist arguments, and superficially they sound as though there might be something to them. I cannot refute solipsism. But nor can any Rationalist refute physicalism. They can only offer alternative possibilities. The distinction is that empiricism and the consequential physical monism are very pragmatic and produce a lot of results. Take a Rationalist living in any century prior to the 19th and sit him beside a Rationalist in the 21st, and ask them to compare their lives and thoughts. You’ll find their Rationalist thoughts have barely changed, but their view of the physical world will be utterly different, to the extent that our older Rationalist may well be convinced that he is experiencing a lot of magic no matter how it is explained (Rationalism can cause its own blind persistence).
In this analysis, where uncertainty rules, physicalist monism is the tentative conclusion, and mental phenomena, rather than representing some dualistic alternative, are just part of this physical world. Senses and reason are not really a dualism, they are both different aspects of a human physical experience. All mental phenomena, including reason, are physical processes: processes that result in behavioural experiences that because of the apparent physical sensory disconnect seem to be something additional.
One problem for many Rationalists, particularly the theists, is that they are looking for certainties. But whether they take their particular Rationalism as being reality, or the physical world as an additional reality, there are no certainties anywhere. Claims to certainty are bogus and are easily shown to be so. Asserting some particular point does not make it so. No amount of logical argument will be convincing because it will always rely on asserted premises, and so are easily countered by some counter assertion. All logical arguments are contingent; they are conditionals. If the premises are true then …
And this is where many Rationalists are quite disingenuous in their approach. They want certainty and some even claim they have it, in their own view of reality. But whether they claim it or not, whether they embrace uncertainty or fear it, they will be very quick to point out the uncertainties of science and quite abysmally assert (with some certainty) that the empiricist science proponent is the one claiming certainty. They demand a greater certainty from science than they do of their ideas, glossing over the vague and nebulous nature of their own. But read any modern book written by a scientist. I can’t think of one I’ve read that has been written since the 1990′s that hasn’t had to counter this objectionable misrepresentation and state very clearly, usually in the introduction and with reminders throughout, the very specific uncertainties, limitations, and openness of science.
The good news is that the science of the physical world embraces uncertainty – to the point now that it looks like uncertainty is the greatest certainty we have. Though of course we have no way of being certain, even about that. There is no sign of dualism. There is no sign of any of the Rationalisms providing a fruitful route to knowledge. As uncertain as this empiricism and physicalist monism is, as contingent as it is, it’s the best show in town. And science is the best way of dealing with it, for the purpose of acquiring knowledge.
That there are ‘other ways of knowing’ seems to be doing the rounds again, often along with the charge of ‘scientism’. A specific charge made against many scientists is that there are wrong in claiming that science is the only way of knowing. History and Art are often offered as contrasting ways of knowing, but without any real explanation as to why we should think they are different in kind, rather than the one way of knowing approached in different ways for different purposes.
It’s also curious that the ones making bold claims for other ways of knowing often also assert that scientists claim science knows everything, and at the same time also claim, very specifically, that science will never be able to ‘know’ certain things. It’s hard to fathom out how some minds work.
I feel the correct view, and one I’ve seen many scientists portray, including Dawkins and Coyne as examples (they are often picked out as culprits of scientism), is that humans have only one way of knowing (a single epistemology of varying reliability) and that is modern empiricism: the view that we have only the senses and reason, where reason is a process of the physical brain, and the senses are physical systems that are part of the physical world that interact with other parts of it. Science then is merely a subset of all variations on the use of empiricism, a subset developed by humans as a means of compensating for the natural limitations and fallibilities of the senses and reason. Science is merely a more rigorous approach to our one way of knowing.
One of the key features of science is the application of its developed methods (its methodologies) to build as consistent and reliable an understanding of the world that is thought to be ‘out there’ (outside our minds), and subsequently, thanks to evolution, neuroscience, psychology, a more reliable understanding of how human brains work in this very act of developing an epistemology.
History, art, religion are also variations on this one way of knowing, varying in the degree to which they require and are able to develop the same consistency of understanding, and varying in the extent to which they apply various methodologies (and here I include using free wheeling intuition as a methodology for sparking new ideas).
History tries to apply more of the thorough scientific methods where it can (e.g. dating artefacts), but has to rely heavily on inference from limited patterns of data seen in the collection of information it has available. The problem for history, and for many of the ‘soft’ sciences, is that it is difficult to draw solid conclusions, and many theories can be constructed to model the same data. For example, it’s easy for the social sciences to be lead astray to Never Never Land, as pointed out by Sokal and Bricmont in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. To be fair, it’s not all hot air (as Sokal and Bricmont point out in their book, they aren’t attacking the soft sciences generally, just the bullshit); the stuff being examined (human brains and human behaviour) is a really tough nut to crack.
Art has a far freer requirement for matching the senses and reason, in that it values imaginative representations of what we sense, or imagines things we cannot sense. Artists may talk of ‘truth’ and other such ideas, but in the context of art this really is more representative of the emotional content and the extent to which a piece might trigger emotions. The more spiritual artists may of course want to believe that this ‘truth’ has something of the sense of being real in the actual world that science discovers, but as with all spiritual imaginings there is never any evidence of such a connection. Any connection that does exist between artistic flights of fancy and the real world are likely to exist as physical states of the brain of the artist. Various transcendentalist ideas, and related ideas such as out of body experiences have never been shown to correspond to any reality other than the activity in the brains of those experiencing the phenomena.
Then we have religion. This is the wildest and least constrained of all applications of our ‘one way of knowing’ in that it is almost entirely Rationalist imagination at work. As with any pure Rationalism that doesn’t require consistency with sensed data, the religious can make up pretty much any damned story they like and claim it to be ‘true’. The use of faith is in direct opposition to science in this respect. Faith is the process by which the desired ‘truth’ comes first, and then any amount of rationalisation, as necessary, to account for all and every reasoned logical argument that refutes the religious case, and to account for any counter evidence or lack of evidence that might challenge the religious case. So certain is the application of faith in the hands of many theists they see it as total justification for the control of others.
All this of course is an epistemological problem – how can we be sure that what we know is ‘true’. I find much epistemology to be hopeless. The Justified True Belief model, along with its objections and counter models, are all stuck in a Rationalist mind set. It’s the Primacy of Thought problem that I’ve covered before. Ultimately, if you follow Rationalist thinking where it leads you can’t really escape Solipsism. It’s the only rational conclusion, and is in itself a dead end.
Thankfully our senses seem to be so persistently nagging at our inner mental lives that we feel sure that they represent something real, that there is a real physical world out there. The metaphysics, the detailed ontology of that world, is a separate debate. But whatever the ‘ultimate’ reality turns out to be there is never a shortage of adherents to the empiricism that we all live by. Even most religions don’t deny the senses and the existence of the natural world to any serious degree, and some rely on it, as a house of sin and as departure lounge to some other promised realm. For all that we are currently enclosed in our own heads, our own ‘minds’, we don’t generally limit ourselves to the dead end of pure Rationalism, but try balance our sense and reason experiences.
But really, we have nothing better than empiricism; and science is the best of our empiricism. So much so that as the human sciences improve and we discover more and more we can look on with incredulous scepticism at claims for ‘other ways of knowing’, such as sensus divinitatis of Alvin Plantinga. Without evidence to the contrary we can only put this mysticism of other ways of knowing down to mistaken beliefs, fantasy, faith. That the religious ‘value’ there beliefs is not in question. That the religious believe in the content of their beliefs is not in question. What is in question is the actual content of those beliefs.
We have only one way of knowing, as far as we can tell. Claims to ‘other ways of knowing’ amount to red herrings, which are no more than variations on our one way of knowing, or are claims to something else for which no one has ever provided any evidence.
So when scientists make statements such as ‘science is the only way of knowing’ they are really expressing their understanding that it is the best of our one way of knowing. Scientism is simply a pejorative label used by those that don’t get this. The charge of scientism is often made as an objection to a false perception that scientists believe they can acquire certain knowledge.
No one (least of all scientists) is claiming science has access to all knowledge, or expecting that it should have it. But I do think that we cannot say that some things are beyond science, which is quite a different point. This is because a claim that something is beyond science is already a claim to the knowledge that it is beyond science, so is in itself a specific claim to knowledge. We cannot know what we cannot know, for to know what we cannot know is to know something of what we cannot know. I can’t even claim that I am certain in thinking this, because it too would be a claim to knowledge that I can’t be certain of.
The contingency of human knowledge seems inescapable, and it seems to be contingent on how we come by it. So far there is only the one way that seems remotely reliable: comparing sense and experience, empiricism, performed as rigorously as we fallible humans are capable of, through science.
This seems to be the basis upon which various forms of Rationalism succeed in being so convincing to their proponents. By acting ‘as if’ what you think is true is actually true you can start to behave is if it is actually true, even if there is no basis in reality, other that the reality that is one’s own imagination.
Praxis – the religious behaviour of performing rituals and acting as if your spiritual beliefs are actually representing a reality can make the beliefs seem even more true; so much so that to the proponent they ‘become’ true.
Though Richard presents some positive uses of praxis, as a means of overcoming procrastination, for example, it seems to be a dangerous tool if used indiscriminately. It seems to lie behind the success of political propaganda and prejudice. Act as if others are different and to you their difference becomes real; and if those supposed differences are a threat to you then those others become the embodiment of a real threat. In the 1930′s how did a nation come to believe that a particular religious sect where the embodiment of evil and the cause of the nation’s problems? How do similar beliefs sustain themselves across populations today? To what extent does acting out a belief make it seem true, even if the evidence is counter to it?
We can see the benefit and the lack of harm to the individual in using ‘as if’ to overcome procrastination. This seems to be a benign method of changing one reality into another: he who was once a procrastinator overcomes that fault (assuming he considered it a fault) and changes, in time, into a different person in this respect.
The same is true in the less benign cases, in that the person does indeed change into another: the unbeliever can become a true believer. The person changes. But the reality of what they come to believe does not. We can make ourselves, our personalities, change because they are fluid. But we cannot change the laws of nature we discover into ones we would prefer. Our false beliefs in reality come unstuck by evidence, or the lack of it: eugenics, geocentrism, astrology.
Even whole societies may change, from a capitalist to a communist state, for example. But it is still the people that have changed their beliefs and their personalities. The realities that underlie their existence does not change. The communist ideal sounded like a good idea, but it required ideal citizens to pull it off. But the citizens could not escape their stronger natural behaviour – they could only change so far.
This praxis can be oppressive and self-affirming. Take Turkey, for example, despite otherwise democratic capitalist changes are subsumed beneath extreme Islamic forces. Listen here. Though some supporters of AKP stress the pragmatism (but then Islam has never been opposed to commerce), other voices express the concerns about the direction Turkey is taking. They tell us about how the oppressive nature of Islam forces people to act ‘as if’ they are more Islamic than they are – shutting store shutters ‘as if’ the owner is attending to his prayers, whether he is or not, or the attack on individuals who break rules of Ramadan, or the increased wearing of head scarfs by women, whether they want to or not.
Note that religious praxis can have subtle political effects. Read this from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Where are the comments on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey? Ignored? Well, an international faith foundation can hardly be expected to be too critical of faith can it.
While it is true that if they are lucky enough (lucky for the rest of us that is) many religious people can become better people, toward themselves and others by believing in something for which there is no evidential support whatsoever, it is also true that many can end up interpreting their belief system in all sorts of unhealthy ways (unhealthy for them, perhaps, but certainly unhealthy for the rest of us). Praxis, acting ‘as if’, has its dangers. It’s a consensual change to one’s mental outlook; and it need not reflect any known reality but the reality it constructs for itself.
Update: From WEIT: Oliver Sacks debunks near-death and out-of-body experiences, as well as religious “revelations”. Interesting post that includes some good sources.
In this piece, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, Neurosurgeon Eban Alexander gives his account of a brain event that made him see the light. (h/t @SkepticViews)
This is the dumbest piece of God promotion I’ve seen for some time. I wouldn’t have this neuroscientist anywhere near my brain. He says how much he wants to believe, has a specific brain experience that matches reports of experiences by other people, and that’s it – job done, God exists.
1) Auditory hallucinations can be auto-generated in the brain without sound input through the ears, so it’s possible for someone with a brain to ‘hear voices’; and some people who ‘hear voices’ attribute them to God or Jesus. He should know this. Humans hallucinate.
2) The brain perceptions experienced (bright light, vast space, God, etc.), and the reality of the things supposedly conceived (heaven, God), are quite distinct. The experience of the perceptions is no guide to the reality of the thing perceived. That’s why we call them hallucinations. That near-death is a rare experience for a human brain (except for those with a one way ticket, but then they don’t come back to report), that it is difficult to say what we would expect to experience. Novel brain experiences are not a sufficient guide to reality.
3) People will have similar experiences because, duh, they have brains too. We should expect that experiences of near death will be similar, so the similarity of the reports should not be taken as mounting evidence for the thing claimed of the experience.
4) As others have pointed out in the article’s comment stream, similar experiences can be achieved by using drugs. And by stimulation of the brain in the lab or operating theatre. There is no reason to suppose that the perceptions contained during these experiences represent a reality, and plenty of evidence that they don’t.
5) On what grounds does Alexander suppose that his perceived experiences occurred in real-time while he was unconscious? He has no way of knowing, because he was unconscious! Only later, when his consciousness returns, is he able to report on his experiences. For all he knows his brain might be constructing a completely false memory, as if it had occurred, as part of the process of recovering consciousness. Perhaps this is what it’s like when a brain is ‘turned on’ again. Being a neuroscientist he should know of this and many other rational possibilities.
There’s a problem here that theologians, many philosophers, and it appears some scientists, have with the nature of the brain and its relation to our inner thoughts and experiences. Lurking behind views expressed by those like Alexander is a presupposition that the mind is distinct from the brain and that what we experience in the mind has some distinct reality. I call this the primacy of thought problem, where we suppose that the mind and our thoughts, through our Rationalism, is the primary source of knowledge. To some extent this is understandable, since as physical animals we have to wait until our brains achieve a certain degree of complexity and experience before they become self-aware enough to do any reasoned thinking. It’s then as if our ‘mind’ has been switched on, and then exists as something independent of the brain. Contributing to this feeling is the fact that our self-awareness, our introspection, can only go so deep. We cannot, for example, perceive the individual neurons firing away as we think. We only perceive the thoughts, not the cause of the thoughts. We have no physical sensation in the brain, like touch or pain, that tells us what is actually going on inside our heads as we think. So, we feel detached, as free-floating consciousness.
In the context of this post Alexander is in no position to say what caused his experience. All he ends up with is a perception of an experience – a brain experience.
What a dumb-ass. He was lost to religion before he started on his unconscious journey; he wanted it; he says as much. Confirmation bias?
Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma…
Is this guy really a neuroscientist? It’s difficult to say to what extent a brain is ‘inactive’ during a coma, or other states where external appearances imply unconsciousness. It’s not even fully understood to what extent there is a real barrier between consciousness and un-conscious activity.
What happened to me demands explanation.
There are plenty answers to choose from. You can go with the simple functioning of a brain under stress and bad health that is capable of inducing perceptual experiences that are not associated with any reality; or you can go for your God explanation, because you want to.
Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also-I now know-defined by love.
Of course this statement tells us more about Alexander’s understanding of ‘knowing’, his views on epistemology and what it is for an animal brain to ‘know’ something, his commitment to Rationalism.
The universe as I experienced it in my coma is – I have come to see with both shock and joy – the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.
It’s hard for this statement to be wrong, because of course it is a fatuous profundity – a deepity, as Dennett would say. Quite meaningless in that it could be taken to mean anything. A straight forward physical interpretations is that yes, the physical brain has physical behaviours that under some conditions give the impression of a spiritual experience while at the same time the very same brain is governed entirely by the natural laws of science as we discover them.
But that belief, that theory [of the brain], now lies broken at our feet.
No, just at his feet, as he perceives it to be broken; as perceived by his broken brain that has had a perceptual experience that has left him with the impression that the imagined content of that experience is real.
When the castle of an old scientific theory begins to show fault lines…
The fault lines are as imagined as the content of his dreams.
… no one wants to pay attention at first … The looks of polite disbelief, especially among my medical friends, soon made me realize what a task I would have getting people to understand the enormity of what I had seen …
Oh dear. The plight of the unbelieved prophet. Everyone else is blind. Why can’t they see?
One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.
No fucking kidding!
I’m still a doctor, and still a man of science every bit as much as I was before I had my experience.
Well, I’d say not. Unless we take this to mean that he was already lost to science in his desire to believe.
I only hope he doesn’t turn into one of these evangelical doctors that you get from time to time. My mother is a believer in God of sorts, but she decided that enough was enough when at her local GP practice (an evangelical husband and wife team) her doctor suggested at the end of a consultation that they should hold hands and pray together for her recovery and well being. Preying on the sick by praying for them. But you can see this coming with Alexander.
Update: Sam Harris has chipped in: This Must Be Heaven covers more detail, including comment by Mark Cohen. As well as going to town on Alexander, he also dishes it out to Newsweek. Harris is as eloquent as usual, so it really is worth a read. Pleas do.