Monthly Archives: November 2011

Biocentrism – How life and consciousness are the keys to the universe?

[Part of a set on Consciousness]

Psychology Today continues to publish junk mixed in with some science. Biocentrism gets its turn. Robert Lanza peddles it in this article: Why Do You Exist? Don’t look to the sky and gods for answers. It lies deeper. (Not sure about deeper; more Deepak).

A few hundred years ago when they were trying to make gold from other elements many people would have wondered at the mystery of God’s creation and said it wouldn’t be possible, or even that we shouldn’t try to understand God’s creation.

But now we know you can make gold from other elements, if you have the right technology for constructing elements of gold from sub-atomic elements, because we now know how gold is composed of them.

It seems with the brain’s workings we are still in the dark.

There are two issues: ontological and epistemological.

Epistemologically it’s true we still don’t know enough about the brain to figure out how consciousness emerges within a brain to be able to say how that happens, or how to build an ‘artificial’ container of consciousness, AI.

But, ontologically, we have found nothing in addition to the basic physics that goes to construct atoms, molecules, proteins, cells, neurons, brains. Mind-body dualists have nothing to show for the mind or the soul as ontological entities. It appears to be physics all the way; but that we don’t yet understand how that works doesn’t count as evidence against that view.

Articles like this are two-a-penny. If you re-read you find that some basic statements of fact take up most of the article, while the final few paragraphs really just re-state the fact that we don’t know enough about the brain to understand consciousness. Of course it helps to wrap it all up in a bit of mystery – I gather some people like that.

“That’s why in real experiments, the properties of matter – and space and time themselves ā€” depend on the observer. Your consciousness isn’t just part of the equation ā€” the equation is you.”

But we are just properties of matter – space and time themselves. Or rather, there’s no evidence to the contrary. Your consciousness is part of the equation, as are you. Observers (you and me) are part of the system. As is any spider. As is a telescope. It’s all matter interacting – just that some matter interacts in a more complex chaotic way than others, depending on its formation. And some of that matter exists in a state of self-examination. And some of that matter imagines all sorts of mysteries to explain itself.

“The answer to life and the universe can’t be found by looking through a telescope or examining the finches of the Galapagos. It lies much deeper. Our consciousness is why they exist.”

I think we’ve found out far more about life by doing just those things than by all the mysticisms we have tried for millennia. On what scientific grounds can it be said that “our consciousness is why they exist”? Is the author descending into philosophical solipsism rather then science? (Well, yes – see later) All our senses and reasoning tell us that stuff exists, and that the tricky bit is that we don’t know how reliable our consciousness is, even with all of science at our disposal, at discerning the bedrock of reality – or even if there is such a thing.

Our biggest problems are epistemological, and that’s the route of our difficulty of establishing the ontological. The signs of the ontology of stuff are strong (a point Samuel Johnson made with “I refute it thus.”) – so strong we are convinced that we, our bodies, are actually here as containers of consciousness. As much as we might feel or want consciousness to be something special, something extra, there’s no evidence that it is.

“The answer to life and the universe…” – What pretentious nonsense. What’s the question? What does it mean, really, to suppose the you can form a specific question about life and the universe? There are many questions we may form about life, and about the universe, and about life in the universe – but the general ‘question’ of ‘life and the universe’ is incoherent. That someone’s consciousness can suppose it is coherent, and then go on to such incoherent drivel as this: “It unifies the thinking and extended worlds into a coherent experience and animates the music that creates our emotions and purposes ā€” the good and the bad, wars and love.”

What unifies the thinking? Consciousness? Well it would wouldn’t it?

It unifies the thinking and *extended worlds*? What does this mean? To unify extended worlds, or to unify consciousness with extended worlds? What extended worlds?

And animates the music that creates our emotions? I thought biological processes animated our emotions.

…and purposes? OK, our consciousness, our self reflection, on our cultural life histories and on our memories and our emotional drives, animates, creates, our purposes in life – we construct purpose for ourselves.

“It doesn’t load the dice for you to play the game of life.” – What?

“But as Will Durant pointed out…” – Very good. Basically, we need to get on with life while we’re trying to figure it out. Bear in mind that many people, if not most, just get on with life without too much of this reflection of where we come from, what we are made of, how we tick.

“In whatever form it takes, life sings because it has a song. The meaning is in the lyrics.” – I suppose it helps to maintain the mysticism if you end on a bit of poetic prose. But really, what has this contributed to our greater understanding other than to cloud it in more mystery?

But, back to the top of the page:

“Biocentrism – How life and consciousness are the keys to the universe.”

OK, I could see how solipsism could be used to suppose everything we think is real is instead constructed by a mind. But then we wouldn’t be able to tell if there was one mind, or many. Is it my mind, my consciousness that’s constructing you, or are you constructing me? Is there just me, or just you? Or, are we really multiple consciousnesses? How does all that work?

But, how *life* and consciousness… this seems to presuppose life in order to create a universe that then creates life? What’s this all about.

Not surprisingly not everyone is impressed by biocentrism.

“Lanza believes experiments already in progress or recently completed could validate his idea”

Specifics would be helpful.

Don’t get me wrong, Robert Lanza may be a great cell biologist – that’s for his peers to evaluate. But he joins a bunch of other scientists who have gone off on flights of fancy supposing that they have the answer to life the universe and everything (which we all know is 42 – job done, he’s wasting his time).

Be warned, his book, Biocentrism, has this from Deepak Chopra on the cover: “Original and exciting”.

I will read the book. But I’ll wait for a cheap second hand copy. It’s always a problem trying to weigh up the pros and cons of buying these books. If you’re going to criticise the ideas it’s at least fair to give them a full read. On the other hand finding that it’s junk after you’ve increased the royalties and contributed to the promotion of pretentious tosh is a bit irksome.

The Depth of Empiricism

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

In the previous post on empiricism I looked at how philosopher Stephen Law missed a few tricks when he debated chemist Peter Atkins.

In this post I pick up on Jerry Coyne’s post making similar points: Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?

I think the problem for philosophers is two-fold.

One is their commitment to their profession.

I see this as similar to the position of some priests who in many respects seem to accept all the intellectual criticisms of religion and faith, but can’t quite bring themselves to go the whole hog – there’s too much to give up, too much cognitive dissonance to contend with. So they fall back on faith – the only excuse left to maintain belief.

In the case of philosophers it seems to be their indebtedness to the history of the subject. This too is similar to theology – where the ideas of the ancients seem to retain some philosophical sacredness. Philosophers seem to need their ancients more than any other discipline with the exception of history. That “there’s nothing new in history” might well be applied to how some philosophers see their field.

And this brings me to the other problem. It doesn’t matter how much philosophy they claim to do, how much critical thinking they perform, how much evidence they consider, they still seem to retain a conviction to the primacy of thought and reason. It doesn’t matter how much pure reason is criticised, they still indulge in it.

I wonder if this stems from Descartes Cogito. This is a pretty good starting point, and one I use myself, in particular here. But many philosophers, even non-dualists, seem to be stuck with the idea that because we start out by discovering that we think, that this is our natural and primary mode of understanding. I don’t think they get how deep empiricism goes, how much we are empirical creatures before thinking entities.

Okay, so that’s where we start, with thinking about stuff. But before long, when we follow the trail and side-step Solipsism, we are left with a few clues to the fact that we are not primarily thinking entities.

Evolution is the big clue. You have to throw out evolution to avoid inferring the following from it.

We are evolved from creatures that didn’t have brains. Our ancestors were various in nature, ranging from the simple single cellular, through multiple cellular, to entities with multiple organs. Back then we were primarily experiential sensory creatures – and by sensory I mean in the simplest sense: physical and chemical interactions at our surfaces. And where there were neuronal nervous systems they might not be central nervous systems but distributed neural nets. An advantage of electrical communication over purely physical and chemical is the speed and the targeted nature of the connections. As early as neurons might have evolved they weren’t forming what we would call brains – though, given a physicalist perspective, that begs the question of what a brain is anyway. Nevertheless, through physical contact, chemical interaction, neuron transmission, our ancestors were empirical creatures.

This is what we still are, of course. I guess our sensing using light and sound removes us as whole entities from direct contact with much of our environment. Our actual contact with the wider environment, through touch, is often more difficult, and often undesirable: there are many things for which it’s safe to look at but not to touch; and if you can touch you may well be too close. Vision and hearing give us some protection against dangers, but they also isolate us from our environment to some extent.

This gives us the illusion that we stand alone in the world, so that we acquire (once we have thinking brains) the feeling that we are subjective individuals independent of the rest of the world.

We seem to be enclosed minds, when really we are empirical creatures that have brains connected to the outside world by remote sensing.

On top of that, this brain that we each have awakens and becomes aware of itself. This happens to each of us as individuals as we develop from an infant into a fully interactive child, teen, adult. And collectively it has come about culturally, historically, as our collective recorded awareness of our consciousness has dawned on us as a species (and maybe our ancestor species had some of this awareness too).

The dawn of recorded history and the emergent self-awareness of the infant are mutual metaphors, both beginning, or at least becoming sufficiently complex, with the acquisition of written language for the species and language generally for the infant.

The problem has been that our philosophical view has been dominated by this awakening of the mind, as if it is the primary source of knowledge, when in fact it’s our experiential empirical nature that has primacy. Our mind is merely looking at, analysing, speculating, on what we experience – and mostly with very poor access to most of our experiences.

Not only are we not directly aware of most of what our bodies or even our brains are experiencing, but we don’t have access directly to our deep past experiences – those that we have accumulated in our DNA.

I think most people accept now that we are the combination of nature and nurture – to the extent that this dichotomy is considered a very simplistic notion. We are each of us a developing complex system of our inherited biology responding to its environment, and in turn altering that environment through the decision processes that go on in our biological brains, which in turn effects how our biology responds further. We might be inclined, biologically, to be a couch potato or an athlete, but we can generally still become either, and even both – who hasn’t seen a once keen athlete turn to flab after they retire.

Though not specifically part of evolution, abiogenesis seems the only real source of what we call life. And, though there is no direct evidence to support abiogenesis, there is no good alternative hypothesis on the table. It seems that we come from inanimate matter, and we are inanimate matter – just inanimate matter that has become pretty dynamic.

So, there is nothing to suggest there is anything else going on in our heads. There is no evidence for any other source of thinking than it being matter in action. We are ultimately empirical beings, even in our reasoning in our heads. The processes going on in there are real material experiences in their own right; but it is we who categories experiences into externally sensed, or internally reasoned, as if the reason was pure and unsullied by real nasty experience.

In this respect there isn’t a significant difference between the peripheral neurons and the neurons in our brains. Neurons are communication mechanisms, whether in our arms or in our heads. While peripheral neurons connect other tissue to the brain, brain neuron connections are mostly with other brain neurons. So in a very real sense the brain neurons are sensing each other: they are empirical. We are empirical first and foremost. Thinking is an evolutionary add-on.

That some philosophers don’t get how deep empiricism goes is exemplified by the philosopher Steven Law in his discussion with Peter Atkins.

So, some philosophers seem to think that reasoning, while our primary tool of analysis, is actually our primary tool of discovery. They are mistaken. Unless one rejects evolution we can only conclude that we are experiential, empirical beings who acquired reasoning late in the day. It may be true that our reasoning provides us with far more than our sensory bumbling through life alone ever could. But it’s an even greater mistake to think that reasoning alone could do anything – especially since without sensory experience there would be no stimulus for neurons to evolve with which we could do any thinking. Some philosophers have it arse about face.


Update…

Jerry Coyne reviews a portrait of E O Wilson.

This bit strikes me as a good assessment of philosophy:

Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of manā€™s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain”.


This is part of a set of posts on Thinking.

Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

As much as I like what Philosopher Stephen Law does to debunk theism I still don’t think he gets science and empiricism.

Here is his page where he links to a video set in which he debates with Peter Atkins: Peter Atkins vs myself on limits of science.

What I found astonishing is that in an earlier post Stephen said this, “Anyway, Atkins is not the sharpest philosophical pencil in the box, I think (though he’s obviously good at chemistry). Strong on assertion but remarkably weak on argument.”

On watching the video I found it to be that Stephen wasn’t being that sharp, with regard to science or philosophy.

Stephen’s statement that looking up Peter’s shirt to establish if Peter’s claim he has a cat up there is a simple observation and not empiricism makes me wonder what he thinks empricism is.
Continue reading Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science

Theologian Censors Debate?

Jerry Coyne debated theologian John Haught.

Both paties agreed to the debate being taped, but it seems Haught didn’t like the outcome and now doesn’t want it to be shown. Further more, some people have emailed Dr. Robert Rabel, head of the Gaines Center for the Humanities, because he had agreed to Haught’s turnaround, and Rabel didn’t like that. So he’s now threatening to take legal action against Coyne, accoding to Coyne.

Theologians can be really dumb sometimes.

Other coverage:

Butterflies and Wheels