Colin McGinn – Hopeless

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.

Empiricism, Materialism, Physicalism avoiding Solipsism

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 (an 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.

What’s Up Doc? Heaven, Apparently

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. 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), so 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 is perceived to exist as if it is 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, than it does about any actuality.

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.

Psychology – The Hard Science

An LA Times article reports on Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson’s complaint that psychologists are badly done to by members of the ‘hard’ sciences.

Ironically it’s psychology that’s the ‘hard’ science, in the sense of most difficult do, because of the complexity of the subjects.

Physicists have been in a tizz for a century just because particles can’t make their minds up whether they are particles or not, or because particles can’t make their minds up whether they are coming or going at the same time as making their minds up about the speed at which they are coming or going.

Psychology subjects not only don’t know what they really are, or whether they are coming or going, they’ll also lie to you about it, and often do not know they’re lying to you. I’d like to see a physicist deal with that degree of contrariness and uncertainty.

Because of this and other difficulties expressed in the above article and the original it does raise another problem that compounds matters: it’s easy for cooks and crooks to make up false and misleading crap and to hide behind the smoke screen thrown up by the genuine difficulties the discipline faces.

An example being Robert Lanza. You’d be better listening to Mario Lanza than this cook.

Supernatural v Natural

The notion that the Supernatural itself ‘exists’ is unsupported – equally unsupported no matter what the Supernatural metaphysics may be: gods, ghosts, fairies, wizards, …. But let’s go with the fantasy.

The question of the interaction between the Supernatural and the Natural raises its head occasionally, and it has been doing the rounds again, and specifically the question of whether the Supernatural is beyond the reach of science. So, supposing for now that there is a Supernatural, what can we know about it?

If the supernatural (S) is distinct from the natural (N), and they do not overlap at all, then what are all the religious claims based on? By this definition of non-interaction Natural human religious entities (theists) cannot experience the Supernatural; and since there are no interactions from S to N we don’t get any miracles to reveal the Supernatural either.

The only way the Natural human religious entities could experience the Supernatural is if there is some interaction between S and N.

So, one interaction might be that the human Natural entities have some Supernatural component that interacts with (witnesses) the Supernatural (e.g. the soul).

Another interaction is one whereby the Supernatural entities (e.g. God) have the capacity to act on the natural world. This is presumed to be the case, since He is supposed to have created the Natural in the first place.

But all interactions we know of in the Natural world are two-way. Cause and effect are mutually connected. So, for the soul to witness Supernatural experiences and transmit them to the conscious mind it must alter the conscious mind. It is the conscious mind of the theist that is making the claim of having an experience.

Both types of interaction are open to investigation by science.

Theists having religious experiences, being ‘in-touch’ with the divine, must be able to be tested. And the results of those tests must rule out (to some reasonable degree) any alternative natural cause for those experiences. All known religious experiences can be explained in terms of known psychological effects that are, at the very least, as feasible as a Supernatural explanation. Given how many alternative Supernatural or otherwise mystical explanations are offered by a multitude of cranks and variations on the religious you’d think the religious, wanting to be certain they are right, would be very concerned by these competing claims – but that’s where faith is required: belief’s cocoon of denial.

Theists claiming Supernatural effects on the Natural also clearly have some explaining to do. All modern claims are testable, and many have been tested and found wanting: faith healing, intercessionary prayer. Nothing. And any historical claims to miracles are sufficiently suspect by virtue of the period of ignorance in which they were made. Any theist who gives credibility to the resurrection must give equal credibility to fairies, imps, goblins, demi-gods, dog-head people, sea monsters (the least incredible), vampires, … Theists have no more grounds for believing in miracles than they do in any other crazy story. But, then again, faith (in one’s own beliefs) comes to the rescue of the reality deniers: no number of suspect mystical entities is sufficient to cause one to suspect one’s own.

So, either S and N interact, and those interactions are testable. Or they don’t, and all theism is just made up crap by Natural entities that have no access to the Supernatural in either direction. I mean to say, if the Supernatural is inaccessible to science, then it’s damned well inaccessible to a few fruit cakes who like to recite chants to their Supernatural Superheroes. So, theists, take your pick. Heads I win, Tails you lose.


Just to throw a spanner into the works, have a closer look at the Venn diagrams above. What’s all that empty space around the Supernatural and the Natural? Should the diagram be more like this?

Well, why should it? If theists can lay claim to the Supernatural without evidence, then I think I’ll go for the Hypernatural (H). You know, home of Hypernatural Thingymabob, that all encompassing thing that created all Supernatural creators of universes, the Thing that created God and gave Him the power to create the Natural.

How far does this stuff go on? Does the Hypernatural interact with the Natural, or just the Supernatural? Is there a Superhypernatural?

Is this getting silly? It already got silly, a few thousand years ago. And as we become more rational and sceptical, and are able to see the Emperor’s clothes for what they are, the whole religious show becomes an obvious invention of imaginative minds.

It’s one thing to hypothesise about the metaphysics of the origins of the universe, or maybe to make guesses about what is required to form an intelligent entity, and whether some such thing caused specific universes to come and go. But that’s all it is, guess work.

Far easier to let everything lie under one roof. It’s Natural all the way. Even the stuff that seems mysterious now will either one day be explained by Natural means, or will remain mysterious – but only in the sense of remaining unknown. Whatever the origins of our universe and any other, when or if they become known to us, they will be investigated, theorised about, and will take their place in our expanding field of Natural knowledge.

The strong nuclear force is something we discovered, or invented, or modelled, however you want to put it. It is now used to explain the interaction between particles in the nucleus of atoms. It was not once Supernatural and then suddenly Natural. Rather, it was once an unknown Natural phenomenon and is now a known Natural phenomenon.

Deleted Comment On Robert Lanza Nonsense

Posted the following on Psychology Today’s Robert Lanza article. The comment seems to have been accepted, in that another comment appeared that said something critical too, and acknowledged my comment. Both comments have been deleted. A favourable comment has been left on.

I commented on another Robert Lanza post earlier in the week (see my post). That vanished too, although at first I wondered if I’d actually posted the comment, or if, you know, the captcha bit had screwed up or something. I’m used to seeing unfavourable comments being deleted from the blogs of crazies. Does Psychology Today have any credibility? Who’s doing the deleting? I wouldn’t want to think it was Robert Lanza himself – unless of course it is.

I’ve not been following Psychology Today for long. My current impression of it is it’s a woo site geared very specifically to looking credible so that it can sell its crazier stuff to unsuspecting readers. Anyone else got any views on Psychology Today?

Anyway, this is what I wrote…


What incoherent nonsense. And such a misleading title. No evidence is offered.

“A string of new scientific experiments helps answer this ancient spiritual question.”…”As I sit here in my office surrounded by piles of scientific books, I can’t find a single reference to the soul”

Which experiments? Not any that are explained in science books, apparently. Certainly not any that are mentioned in this article (two-slit experiment).

“Recently, biocentrism and other scientific theories have also started to challenge the old physical-chemical paradigm…”

Which other scientific theories?

“This [two-slit experiment] and other experiments [which other, I ask again?] tell us that unobserved particles exist only as ‘waves of probability’…” – Okay, some experiments tell us this much. But that’s not really telling us the soul exists. Failed.

“They’re statistical predictions – nothing but a likely outcome. Until observed, they have no real existence; only when the mind sets the scaffolding in place, can they be thought of as having duration or a position in space.”

Depends what you mean by ‘observe’. It doesn’t require human consciousness, just any interaction. Human consciousness observes, after all, only after intermediate events have occurred: light emitted from observed object, reaction on the retina, transmission of chemical-electrical impulses along neurons,…

“Experiments make it increasingly clear that even mere knowledge in the experimenter’s mind is sufficient to convert possibility to reality.”

Which experiments?

“…showed that quantum weirdness also occurs in the human-scale world. They studied huge compounds composed of up to 430 atoms, and confirmed that this strange quantum behavior extends into the larger world we live in.”

Yes. But nothing to do with consciousness.

“Importantly, this has a direct bearing on the question of whether humans and other living creatures have souls.”

Really? well then it also has a bearing on whether a rock has a soul, because the quantum nature of matter applies to all matter, not just conscious humans.

Consider this. If consciousness is related to quantum nature of matter, then my consciousness has bits of consciousness of every living creature in the past that has shared the atoms that make up my conscious brain. And when I die and I’m buried, I will decay and contribute my atoms to bacteria, and then to plants, and then to insects, to mammals, to other humans, throughout the food chain – from my death to the end of human civilization. If I’m cremated and I go up in smoke the feedback of my consciousness will be breathed in pretty quickly and shared among many plants and animals and no doubt some humans.

If you want to detach the soul from this material quantum connection and insist it is something separate from matter, something spiritual, then all this quantum nonsense is totally irrelevant.

Get a grip man. Get a life. It would be generous to call this pseudo-science. But there’s no science whatsoever that applies to biocentrism. What there is is the massaging of current science that is still on the edge of human understanding to cherry pick the bits that are little understood but that sound spooky enough.

Where’s the science? Where’s the evidence?

Limitations of Self-Awareness, Self-Knowledge

Why can’t we use inner reflection to identify our real nature, sense every impulse of our working brains, and explain from a first person perspective the inner workings of our minds, or spot the owner of our free-will? How far can meditation take us in our discovery of ourselves? What can we learn about life the universe and everything by just thinking?

This is my current view on these issues.

Information

There are some fundamental problems that we don’t appear to be able to overcome. Any system, no matter how simple or complex, cannot contain a complete description of itself.

When you reduce information to its basic level, the lowest common denominator, the lowest level of representation that allows a distinction between one state and another, it is a binary representation. And in a binary representation the lowest level of physical distinction, the substrate on which the information can be held, is the presence and absence of sub-atomic particles or their states. How far physics takes us down this road is a technical detail. The limits of distinction between states of matter, or perhaps states of space itself, are details for physicists to investigate. But ultimately, information is contained in states of systems.

A corollary of this is that with the heat death of the universe comes the loss of all information, because there is nothing left on which to record the information, there is nothing left from which distinguishable states can form – and of course no one around to read and add meaning to any information there might have been.

Until that time comes we can flip back into our macro current world and consider, for example, a memory device that contains one bit of information – 0 or 1 – and in taking on one of those values it has a state. What would it require for that system to be self aware? At the very least it would need another bit to record the state of the first bit. But to be useful to any degree it would need to be self aware over time. If it was to record the last three states, to have a ‘memory’ of itself, it would need four bits in total – one for the current actual state, and three to record successive prior states. And this is before it starts to process, to think about, itself in any significant way – so far the system is only memorising a finite number of its own states. But already it’s self-awareness is incomplete – it knows now about the state of its main bit over three time periods, but knows nothing about the states of its three other bits.

Expand this to any system: it can contain only limited information about itself. The massive redundancy in some systems allows them to contain information about crucial parts of themselves, parts worth monitoring. Computer systems can be self-checking. But only to a degree – what checks the checkers? Even if we allowed each sub-system to check the other sub-systems in a mutually complete checking system then there would be nothing left, no remaining capacity, to do any actual work. There are limits to how much a system can be self-aware. It is a compromise between doing useful work and being self aware.

Regarding animal brains in this way would mean that any animal in principle could have some degree of self-awareness. If it is able to sense itself, sense it’s internal workings (its ‘thoughts’, which amounts to information about a small part of it’s own processing capabilities), as well as its body and environment, and if it has a memory in which to record data, and a system that can examine that memory and make inferences about the past, the present, and the future, and use those inferences to drive further behaviour, then it is self-aware. But any such animal system is restricted, in the limit, by the basic physics that limits the means of containing information. Information, after all, is nothing more than states of systems.

That’s not to say the brains of humans or any other animal are anything like restricted in this sense to any practical degree. There may well be masses of capacity left in a human brain for self-monitoring. But that’s not to say that capacity can be used, or in fact has evolved to be used.

Low Fidelity Introspection

There is a problem with the fidelity of the information that our brains process – the brain isn’t that good at examining itself, despite our otherwise useful self-awareness. Our best evolutionary inferences suggests the brain is self-aware to the extent that it offers some adaptive advantage in dealing with our environment. It isn’t clear that there is any particular advantage to being more acutely aware of our inner selves. So it doesn’t look like our brains are built for self-awareness to any greater degree than we currently experience.

We can exercise our physical bodies to some extent, and the same is clearly true of our brains – we learn stuff. But just as our physical bodies are limited, so we can’t learn to fly unaided, for example, so then we should expect similar limitations for our brains. Where is the evidence that we can in fact exercise our brains to perform ESP, true transcendentalism, out of body experiences, and so on. There appear to be limits to what the brain can achieve, and without contrary evidence there would appear to be a practical limits on what we can do with self-awareness.

Our bodies and brains have evolved mainly to enable us to survive in our environment. And bodies evolved before brains became significantly complex. So we are mainly physical empirical beings that sense and manipulate our environment; and self-awareness is a late addition, and is restricted to very few species, the most prominent users being, it seems, we humans. Why would we continue to think that it is capable of some of the magic attributed to it by ancient mysticisms.

We don’t have specific sensors, like our eyes or ears, that can look into our brains to examine its state. Though the brain is a system of neurons, it doesn’t actually have any nerves dedicated to sensing itself, in the way we have touch sensors around the body – that’s why some brain operations can be conducted with a conscious patient.

What we appear to have is some rudimentary conscious sub-system that allows us to monitor and manipulate the system as a whole. But as an instrument it’s quite flaky and prone to error. So much so that’s it’s difficult to isolate individual thoughts, to really understand what our concepts are. We have quite a history of philosophy that’s been trying to figure this stuff out; and more recently a psychology that’s been concentrated for the most part on a guessing game about what’s going on inside our brains by reflecting on the meaning of behaviours observed on the outside. The history of the attempts by psychology to second guess what’s happening in the brain is reminiscent of a cold war spy novel – we know something fishy is going on inside the wall, but we don’t quite know what.

Don’t get me wrong, our brains are equipped to perform some pretty amazing conceptual generalisations. We can go far and wide in our imaginations. But one of the complaints often made about neuroscience is that its tools, such as fMRI scans, are nowhere near precise enough or informative enough to tell us anything useful about consciousness. But when did you last use your own introspective mind to scan itself for tumors, potential aneurysms, or which part of your brain is being used during speech?

Our introspection is limited to a very cursory examination of our ongoing experiences, the vague recollections of some of our memories, and creating generalised plans for the future. When we think we are achieving something really clever with our minds you can bet we are using external enhancements to aid us – making notes, recording thoughts as audible messages, sketching diagrams. And when we want to create some complex plan we figure it out over time, recording steps, manipulating and fine tuning the plan, and finally executing it step by step by referring to our documentation. We can’t hold a detailed complex plan in our heads.

Nor can we claim any truth to expansive imagined entities, like God, since all our ideas about God are concocted inside limited human minds. The fact that a finite human brain can conceive of some supposed infinite being, as some Muslims like to portrait God, is not evidence that such an entity exists or could exist. Thhis conception is only a fuzzy idea inside a human brain and has no correspondence in reality – unless of course there is independent empirical evidence that such a being exists. So some of the proofs of God’s existence we often come across are bogus from this point of view alone.

Illusions of Personal Experience

Our brains are concept mashup machines. Thoughts whirl around our brains, often with little directed control. Some of us are more spontaneous than others (read ‘erratic minds’), but even the most well practiced meditating monk can’t control their thought processes so easily, and that’s after years of practice. You might get a few control freaks who think they are in total control of their own minds, but what is more likely is that their straight jacketed minds are in control of them.

Some people are fooled by concepts like ‘the infinite’, and think that because we can hold these vague concepts in our heads they actually give us access to the content of those concepts in some way, as if we really can grasp the infinite. But we need to acknowledge that the human brain is a limited capacity physical system. It has many constraints on what information it can hold. Everything it knows about the external world is an approximation.

Personal experiences, like sunsets, are internal experiences. The total experience of a sunset is still occurring inside a human head, still within the limits of the information that the brain can contain and process. The awe inspiring feelings of wonder, of being at one with the universe, are still contained within that physical head. The feelings of pain that humans suffer is still the internal representation of the action of the nervous system and its effect on the body – and even then the effect on the body is only meaningful in that the body’s response is also, in turn, detected by the sensory system. All brain activity, including massive seizures and other overwhelming mental phenomena are still constrained by the physics of the brain in action. Out of body experiences are contained imaginary experiences inside a human head. There is no evidence that they represent or correspond to any actual mechanism for viewing ones own body from a location, other than from within, looking out. Transcendental experiences are fuzzy events in the brain. There is no evidence that any transcending of any other kind is actually occurring.

Prospects for Self-Awareness

It may be possible for animals, in principle, to be far more self aware than humans are now. Despite the fundamental limitations of self-aware systems I wouldn’t think even human have reached full capacity to know ourselves. Perhaps the introspection of meditation is a small step in that direction. But though it does give access to first person data, it doesn’t have the fidelity of scientific instruments, such as those of neuroscience. Meditation is pretty vague in what it tells us about ourselves, though it does seem to gives us greater autonomous control, to a limited degree.

Perhaps transhumanism can enhance human brains to allow us to do better. We already enhance ourselves, directly, with spectacles, walking sticks, crutches, artificial limbs. With a stethoscope I can listen to my own heart beat with greater fidelity than relying on feeling my pulse. Some blind people can be given rudimentary sight by having a camera system stimulate the tongue with electrical impulses (which causes adaptations in the brain to interpret the sensory signals as vision). There’s plenty of scope for enhancing human physical and mental capabilities for the purpose of increasing our self-awareness abilities.

We already enhance our brains externally. The collective fields of science allow us to combine millions of tiny increments in knowledge into vast repositories of data and engineering capability. Could humans ever have designed and built a 747 without the repository that has accumulated over the last few centuries? Could a single brain ever do it even given all those resources? Team work, in the present and over generations, is how we currently play out a limited transhumanism – we already ‘transcend’ (here in a very practical sense) the basic biological humans that we once were. What we haven’t achieved yet is the enhancement of our self-awareness by enhancing our brains. Though there are chemical means of achieving some improvement now, through psychotropic drugs, it’s not a permanent enhancement, as might be a biological or genetic change.

Maybe there’s hope for us to become more usefully self-aware and even more self-controlled, and hence even more autonomous. But that autonomy is not the traditional free-will we often feel it is.

God Speaks

In the previous post, Psychology of Belief, perhaps the most interesting of the videos is this one: Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Hallucinations.

One of the believers in the video said, “God speaks in a whole bunch of different ways”, and there’s the rub. For the believer who avoids inflicting some of the psychological influences on others, do they check to see if they’ve been influenced that way? I think this particular psychological effect is probably the trick that holds it all together, the self-affirmation, the self-reassurance, that all the other psyche effects are in fact valid, because we’ve experienced God speaking to us. But have we?

Being told to listen and God will speak can lead us to interpret that in any way that seems to fit – confirmation bias – and so maybe our own intense feelings are interpreted as God speaking. When we think of how our brains work, using what little we yet know, we have a mechanism that consists of neurons, chemicals and electrical impulses, and out of that come feelings, sub-conscious events, and conscious awareness and thoughts. The latest thinking is that the conscious thoughts we have are the outcome, the awareness that comes to the fore, of other events in the brain; so that conscious thoughts are post-event stories that we use to monitor what the brain is doing and to plan and feedback down to the sub-conscious and the motor areas. This is a mechanism that builds from birth and is something we take from granted as much as speaking – when in the full flow of free conversation we have no idea how the vague notions that we want to express are formed into grammatical words and syntactic sentences, it just happens.

Using this model it seems plausible that we could mistake rising awareness of feelings and sub-conscious thoughts as being from elsewhere. We have so many instances where thoughts just pop into our heads, and if we have the time to consider we sometimes wonder, where did that come from. We notice it most when we’re with someone and we’ve been trying to remember a name but can’t quite get it, so we forget the search, and sometime later up it pops, and we wonder, where did that come from? This particular type of event is so noticeable that we even comment to each other – if I suddenly say the name, ‘out of the blue’, the other person will ask, where did that come from?

Some pop ups have an obvious cause. If I’m thinking about a topic in full concentrations and something comes into my field of vision, or the phone rings, it’s clear that the interruption, the pop up, has an external source. If I suddenly get an itch, or a stomach ache, I know the noticeable has come from my body. But how do we judge were subconscious thoughts and feelings come from. The sudden intense rush of inspiration or insight or overwhelming awe or a divine intervention such as words from God, I think, are all events that occur in the brain through the stimulation of intense thought, the power of stress, or any number neurological stimulations.

That the brain is capable of intense feelings from neurological events is indisputable – that is how the brain works after all. But to put it in context we can think of the images of brain seizures, such as epilepsy, as an extreme case of brain event that is out of control. I’m not say that clinically these inspirational events are the same in any way – I don’t know the neurophysiology of what’s happening – but as an extreme model it seems plausible. The fact that epilepsy has been speculated to be the cause of many recorded events in history is an indication of the similarity, whether it be possession by demons, appearances of visions or words from God.

This video is one in a series on epilepsy. Though this series is focusing on the clinical condition of epilepsy it does give some insight into how the brain can have extreme events; and it’s something like this I’m speculation could be the mode of operation of inspiring brain events – as opposed to real words from God or possession by demons. Which seems more likely? Video #1 is also of interest in this context.

Having a feeling that we are in touch with God, or that we experience God does have a possible neurobiological explanation. There’s the notion of the ‘God module’ in the brain. I missed this Horizon programme. I don’t know to what extent Dr Daniel Giang, neurologist and member of the church, is right in his medical opinion, or to what extent he has confirmation bias. The important point is not that is a module that is specifically for seeing or hearing or experiencing God, but that it is one area of the brain that has several functions, and one apparent effect, possibly a side effect, is that it causes or interprets brain effects as divinely inspired and generally cause the subject to believe in the divine.

The brain has the ability to convince itself of something, even when on another level the subject knows intellectually that his own brain is mistaken. This is a well know example of a woman experiencing a man behind her. Other direct brain stimulations have been recorded as causing familiar songs to be hear in the brain, even though the subject knows there is no music playing. And in another case it has been possible to cause out of body experiences. Out of body experiences can also be induced with VR.

Also, to figure out whether a divine event is real, consider: are you measuring the misses as well as the hits? Or is a cognitive bias persuading you you’re hearing God speak, when it’s your own internal experiences, of yourself. Watch for the auditory illusion towards the end – “You can’t miss it when I tell you what’s there.” To what extent are interpretations of inner messages influenced by religious priming, so that just a ‘feeling’ can be interepreted as divine?

Hearing God speak, either as an auditory signal in the audio cortex, or as a deep emotional experience, doesn’t seem to need divine intervention – the brain can do this all by itself, and convince the subject that it is a divine intervention. If the subject is primed for this it might even be inevitable that the subject is convinced.

Psychology of Belief

I’ve been discussing the relative merits of a scientific world view versus faith, with Lesley over on her blog. To clarify my view, basically how I get to my world view, I’ve added a couple of posts on this blog:

Contingency of Knowledge – How I get started, about what I can know.

Human Fallibility – Why we have to be careful about what we conclude.

Lesley has responded today with this post on Human Fallibility.

The distinction I would make, between our two positions, is as follows.

What Lesley is describing are the effects of actually believing, some of which are good, but others bad. The problem is that choosing to believe on faith leaves people open to persuasion or even indoctrination, and the way that goes, good or bad, seems to be the luck of the draw. If it goes the wrong way then faith can be used to justify awful behaviours.

The other side of the distinction between religion and a scientific approach is that the critical thinking that is promoted on the science side encourages self-analysis to an extent that faith doesn’t – some Christians being exceptions rather than the rule.

As a result of this, another bad effect of faith is that it provides justification for avoiding the effort to think too much. This can be carried over to other areas of human interaction, where it’s easy to let a view on marriage, sex, law, education, or politics, be so guided by one’s religion that it’s natural to just decide on the basis of what your own religion or you local or personal spiritual leader says. But this is often disguised by the fact that some critical thinking does go on, but only within the framework of the faith – the faith trumps reason.

Further, though each religion may recognise the existence of other religions it tends not to scrutinise them too publicly, too critically, particularly in a multi-cultural society like ours, because, I think, that there is genuine apprehension about exposing it’s own inconsistencies. This leads to an odd form of cultural relativism within religions that is somewhat like the left wing secular cultural relativism – where for the latter, you say anything goes, and for the former, you keep quiet about uncomfortable differences because of the uncomfortable similarities. We end up with daft compromises, like Rowan Williams on Sharia, in order to maintains one’s own privilege.

Here is a guide that demonstrates potential problems with thinking processes, with particular reference to belief in God. It’s a little bit geeky, but if you can get through it, it should shed light on what I think is wrong with religious thinking.

Psychology of Belief, Part 1: Informational Influence

Psychology of Belief, Part 2: Insufficient Justification

Psychology of Belief, Part 3: Confirmation Bias

Psychology of Belief, Part 4: Misinformation Effect

Psychology of Belief, Part 5: Compliance Techniques

Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Hallucinations

And, here’s another quick guide.

Top 25 Creationist Fallacies

Like all theories based on psychological research there are often controversies and new research results, but generally these modes of influence on thinking are well recognised, and identifiable in much religious discourse. Some of the above are also associated with logical fallacies in reasoning.

Of course this requirement for critical thinking applies to our side of the debate too. We too are human and not immune to error, and have to listen to criticism fairly.