Brooks on "Neural Buddhism"

Friday, May 16, 2008

New York Times columnist David Brooks comments on a trend that hardly surprises me, given today's near-universal intellectual sloppiness and confusion: The embrace of mysticism by scientists. Indeed, although he fails to integrate the progression correctly (or particularly well), he does outline it in the way it unfolded.

Let's follow his outline, but in the vein of understanding how this progression follows from some of the philosophical errors common among today's intellectuals.

In the following, Brooks' comments are in plain text, and mine are in bold.

  • To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. So far, so good.

  • Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are "hard-wired" to do this or that. Religion is an accident. Most scientists are determinists and, to my knowledge, regard the idea of free will as inherently mystical. Determinism flies in the face of the evidence that man has volition, but to my knowledge, only Objectivists have entertained the idea of volition as being a form of causation inherent to intelligent beings, and arising from their material nature. On top of that, few understand that it is philosophy that sets the terms of the debate about epistemology, the nature of the mind, and indeed, what constitutes science. So they study the mind philosophically half-cocked and end up attempting to make pronouncements of a philosophic nature based on their evidence, when what they desperately need is a correct understanding of the nature of the mind in order to interpret this evidence properly.

  • In this materialist view, people perceive God's existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. That does follow from materialism, if you mistake the widespread existence of religious belief for evidence that it confers an evolutionary advantage.

  • If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God. Religion is a tangled knot of horrible philosophical premises and legitimate aspirations -- and the emotions that go with them. Imagine the insights we could have if scientists better understood what religion and emotions were when they were studying them! Instead, we have determinists ignorant about both looking at this. Brooks' hero, Tom Wolfe saw where this would go.

  • The two sides have argued about whether it is reasonable to conceive of a soul that survives the death of the body and about whether understanding the brain explains away or merely adds to our appreciation of the entity that created it. The scientists are wasting their time here. Like I said, science does not set the terms of philosophical debates. It can eliminate some of the "gaps" in "god of the gaps" types of arguments, but this just proves my point.

  • And yet my guess is that the atheism debate is going to be a sideshow. The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going to end up challenging faith in the Bible. This follows from the nature of faith and the beginning of that slippery slope was the original concession: to "debate" the faithful at all.

  • Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development. The false reason-emotion dichotomy pays off in spades for the religionists as scientists, disarmed in the face of (1) evidence that emotions might (gasp!) have a survival role for human beings, (2) their own ignorance of the nature of emotions, and (3) their own implicit acceptance of the reason-emotion dichotomy, find "evidence" of the supernatural.

  • Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment. If altruism is everywhere, and a material being cannot have free will, widespread philosophical errors and their consequences must be instinctual!

  • Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real. What did I say a while ago about having a grasp of the nature of emotions and of religion before attempting to study what goes on in the brain during religious-types of experiences?

  • This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism. See Sam Harris.

  • If you survey the literature (and I'd recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion. Yeah. The beliefs that already saturate our culture like a sponge left to soak in a sewer.

  • The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It's going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

  • In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. Unexpected -- only to the philosophical victims of Immanuel Kant....
Many of these scientists see philosophy as impotent, and themselves as coming to the rescue of humanity by offering hard facts and evidence on the "big questions". And yet it is their own ignorance of philosophy that is causing them to bolster the very enemies of reason who might ultimately undo the scientific revolution.

This scientist disagrees.

-- CAV

Updates

Today
: Corrected a typo from a quote. Evidently, I managed to change "hard-wired" to "hard-wire" after a cut-and-paste without realizing it. You can't sic 'em for being right!

6 comments:

Adrian Hester said...

Yo, Gus, finally had time to respond to some of this. There's nothing important missing from your comments, near as I can see. I'll just add a few comments to the following paragraph of yours, which really does sum up perfectly the frustrations I get in dealing with some scientists. (Especially experimentalists, and even more than them, engineers.)

"Most scientists are determinists and, to my knowledge, regard the idea of free will as inherently mystical."

It's quite common to find their mental picture of "free will" to consist of the utter freedom to choose Christ or not regardless of background, or else the quasi-existentialist view that free will is the choice of a goal, however irrational, because only such a choice shows true freedom. They then point to psychological studies that take such a free choice as the essence of free will and then show that most people's choices are rationally determined--therefore, they conclude, free will does not exist because people's choices are determined by rational considerations. (This is a standard response among evolutionary psychologists and their ilk.) Philosophically this is debased to the point of stupidity, but since their view of philosophy is of a field inherently debased to the point of stupidity by anti-scientific vestiges of medieval superstition, that doesn't really bother them that much.

"Determinism flies in the face of the evidence that man has volition, but to my knowledge, only Objectivists have entertained the idea of volition as being a form of causation inherent to intelligent beings, and arising from their material nature."

Even among the cognitoscienti (as I like to call people who work in cognitive science), some thinkers do argue for some sort of free will that's rationally defensible--a free choice among the given alternatives, for example; Pinker is one, I think Dawkins another, and of course Daniel Dennett, who is a professional philosopher, has written entire books on the subject. (They are worth reading, for he has some valuable insights, but they are only fairly successful and satisfying on the lower levels of thought, especially his discussion of the nature of information being such as to sever the mind from the iron determinism of chemistry and electricity [so that the very introduction of the concept of information at any point automatically introduces a non-deterministic element there, though that's not a point he explicitly made], up to matters of symbolic reference, after which his treatment of concepts is inadequate and too many gaps in his arguments get papered over. That book, Freedom Evolves, is nicely complemented by Terence Deacon's The Symbolic Species, which is a bit sketchy up to symbolic reference but solid afterwards.) But they have been severely criticized for that by many of the congnitoscienti, who are strongly opposed to any view of psychology that admits minds of any sort--they call that "folk psychology," which they liken to the quasi-Aristotelian physical views of the scholastics.

"On top of that, few understand that it is philosophy that sets the terms of the debate about epistemology, the nature of the mind, and indeed, what constitutes science."

Quite so. The implicit philosophy of many scientists is heavily influenced by positivism, especially the thought of Carnap, Tarski, and their circle, and added to that in the Anglo-American world many of the special assertions of our brand of analytic philosophy (especially in the views they accept for meaning and language). But this brand of philosophy, while well-suited to the study of the physical sciences, has many presuppositions that stake out an eminently philosophical bundle of claims with many rivals (and in my view not constituting a fully true system of philosophy either); taking it as a given, as the natural world-view of any practicing scientist, leaves its practitioners vulnerable to any philosophically astute opponent. (That puts me in mind of a book I've seen but never read, Althusser's Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists. I suspect I'd dislike it intensely for very good reason--French Marxists of Althusser's stripe are several hundred tangent-travels off the right path--but the title is evocative.)

I should add that in addition to it many are influenced by the thought of Karl Popper, who was a genuine philosopher I benefited a good deal from reading; he was often accepted as a logical positivist by logical positivists, though he himself was strongly opposed to much of their thought. (Bertrand Russell seems to have suffered the same fate among many scientists.) The usual view is that Popper set up the criterion of falsification to distinguish between science and pseudo-science, and thus between meaningful and meaningless sentences (in this respect it's a complete absorption to the logical positivists' distinction between the scientific and the metaphysical and their banishment of the latter). Only the first of those equations is true, science versus pseudo-science; and his view of science as setting up hypotheses and rigorously testing them but never accepting any of them as certain (in the non-Objectivist sense) but always provisional, never mind where any of the hypotheses come from, was taken as the essence of and model for the scientific method. To some extent this accurately describes his views, but it's better viewed in this respect as just an important distinguishing feature between science and metaphysics. (And Popper himself argued often that metaphysics is a valid human pursuit and often the source of important scientific hypotheses.)

But in fact, though Popper himself made no great noise about it (I gather he thought anyone who knew anything about philosophy would have seen it right off), it was a response to Kant, and in something like a right direction: Kant had taken Newtonian physics as an eternally true statement of the nature of the material world, so one of his basic concerns was, how could humans possessed only of the rational faculties assumed by the British empiricists (Locke and especially Hume), with only sensory knowledge, discover eternal truths? Popper noted that the theory of relativity had replaced Newtonian mechanics, so the basic assumption driving that view was wrong--humans had only discovered an approximation to the truth; and if Einstein had surpassed Newton, then surely one could entertain the thought that Einstein himself might someday be surpassed.

If so, how would (and could) that come about? Through the same scientific method both of them used, and Popper then went on to draw out the essential aspects of scientific method that permitted a very good theory to be overturned by an even better one. Getting back to Kant, that meant that the philosopher cannot assume that scientific laws are eternal truths of nature, but rather assertions of what most explained the known facts in the simplest or most esthetically pleasing or philosophically acceptable manner. The basic observation is quite sound--human knowledge is finite and proposed physical laws are in a certain sense simply asserted against the universe and then tested.

But there are many serious shortcomings to Popper's views. The one most recognized by philosophers of science is that if you take Popper at his word, there's no reason at any given time to choose a well-tested and never-defeated physical theory and a never-tested but never-defeated mishmash of occult forces summoned by magical ceremonies--Popper devoted a great deal of effort to arguing that regardless of how much testing a theory had survived, it did not become more probably true in any real sense thereby. He was arguing for something much more subtle, but I think subtle only because it was an illusion--if testing does not get us any closer to the Truth with a capital T, then that robs science of much of its drive. But that follows in large part from Popper's insistence on the mathematical sense of perfect certainty and anything else being simply uncertain, which is of course not the Objectivist view.

Another drawback that physical scientists are much less sympathetic to having pointed out is that his view of science really is heavily skewed by an emphasis on the physical sciences, especially physics. It instills a strong case of physics envy in any scientist who works in a less deterministic field. (Stereotypical physicists would generally reply that the proper word is "developed," not deterministic, but that reverses cause and effect. Scientific method as practiced in the physical sciences assumes determinism, but there's not a well-developed method for non-deterministic fields.) But as I've said here before, there are two basic goals of science, generalization and explanation, and philosophy of science in the Popperian vein focuses exclusively on the former; explanation, the task of the historical sciences, is viewed as unimportant or not even scientific, but at least Popper recognized it as a valid pursuit; his epigones don't even recognize it as that.

"So they study the mind philosophically half-cocked and end up attempting to make pronouncements of a philosophic nature based on their evidence, when what they desperately need is a correct understanding of the nature of the mind in order to interpret this evidence properly."

But then again, it's not like the great majority of philosophers would have anything to offer them in that task.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful comments!

As late as I come to this, and as much as I want to crack wise about how much your last sentence has the quality of a punchline, I do have a question:

"[Dennett]s discussion of the nature of information [is] such as to sever the mind from the iron determinism of chemistry and electricity [so that the very introduction of the concept of information at any point automatically introduces a non-deterministic element there...."

This sounds almost to me like indeterminism (i.e., redefining of free will as randomness, which certainly isn't self-regulation) . Is this impression correct?

Adrian Hester said...

Yo, Gus, you ask, "This sounds almost to me like indeterminism (i.e., redefining of free will as randomness, which certainly isn't self-regulation) . Is this impression correct?"

Good question; it's a very interesting point worth some thinking about, but I knew I'd be running long as it was and figured if it interested anyone I could expandon it. No, not indeterminism; that's because I was trying to be very compact in my own wording. (And in fact throughout I tend to use "determinism" in the Newtonianish sense of a simple connection of cause and effect holding for all entities with the given physical qualities, which is much narrower than causation, the particular connection of cause and effect that each entity shows, which I mean to be taken in the full Objectivist sense here).

That's why I phrased it as "iron determinism," which was meant to be short-hand for the mathematically statable association of cause with effect in the traditional Newtonian view, including only a very small set of purely physical qualities of every thing as simple factors in those equations. Information is not just the whole body of data brought to the mind through the sense in this view, but rather a selection of the pertinent data (on the most basic level that necessary for finding food and for evading predators, though in Dennett's book recast in terms of John Horton Conway's Game of Life and similar cellular automata). Some data are highlighted and integrated into unitary mental entities, the rest is ignored, and the mind reacts to those mental entities, not to the raw data; this act of selection is what severs the mind from the simple constraints of basic behaviorism (and in my view, behaviorism is a drastically simplistic extension of physicalist determinism to psychology that I don't think works without demur even on its own terms).

If a mind reacts to information and builds categories of phenomena in the world around it on the basis of information, then things that are similar in certain respects (similar shapes, similar odors, never mind much more abstract similarities) but in a broader view entirely distinct entities will have causal impacts on the mind that have very little to do with their "essential character," to take the broader view that investigation and time will provide.

Mind you, in a narrow view that just puts off deterministic cause and effect in a mind to a different level or category of cause, but the very fact of calling all such vastly different types of causal factors "information" either smuggles in concepts through the back door or else is a package deal to obliterate all but a small subset of informational types especially easy to analyze in behaviorist fashion.

The best way of viewing it is that with information rather than pure sensory data, the world appears quite different to a mind, since it is provided with categories of stimuli to which the mind can respond rather than input-like data automatically triggering specific outputs through electrochemical reactions. In other words, simply introducing the categories of information, stimulus, and response in order to properly describe coherent classes of phenomena takes you to a distinct level of discussion that transcends physicalist determinism. Conceivably the categories of information, stimulus, and response could be reduced to epiphenomenal churnings of simple physicalist connections of cause and effect, but that has to be shown rigorously and in full mathematical detail, else it's just a dodge for introducing categories and concepts through the back door while spitting in mentalists' faces.

In my view, if the problem of free will growing out of a physical system is ever solved, it will involve the fact that "information" is a valid category nonetheless covering an physicalistically incommensurable variety of situations that have to be described the same way; from that categorization follows, and from being able to treat categories themselves as mental entities, conceptualization. But the whole issue is I think too unready for detiled discussion--we have a lot of models of information-processing systems that cognitive scientists can adduce, but no general theory of them nor any useful view at all of minds.

Gus Van Horn said...

"If a mind reacts to information and builds categories of phenomena in the world around it on the basis of information, then things that are similar in certain respects (similar shapes, similar odors, never mind much more abstract similarities) but in a broader view entirely distinct entities will have causal impacts on the mind that have very little to do with their 'essential character,' to take the broader view that investigation and time will provide."

It sounds like this could either be (or easily lead to) a "conceptual manifold" kind of idea (a smuggling-in of the idea that because the mind conceptualizes, it doesn't really "see" reality or be an attempt to explain how the mind generates its own self-regulation, if I read you correctly.

It remains one thing to say on the one hand that a mind is (passively) affected by the world differently due to the way it forms categories, and on the other that it is able to self-regulate based (for some reason) on this method of processing.

Adrian Hester said...

Yo, Gus, you write (and I've added punctuation in italics below where I think it makes your question clearer): "It sounds like this could either be (or easily lead to) a "conceptual manifold" kind of idea (a smuggling-in of the idea that because the mind conceptualizes, it doesn't really "see" reality ); or be an attempt to explain how the mind generates its own self-regulation, if I read you correctly."

It's not either, from what I remember. In fact, I stopped by a bookstore earlier and skimmed the second and third chapters to remind myself of what he actually wrote (since it's possible I was assimilating his arguments there to parts of his book Consciousness Explained). Now, the first thing to keep in mind is that Dennett is arguing for a compatibilist position reconciling determinism and some form of free will; in these terms he doesn't succeed, but he makes interesting points along the way, and the book is worth reading for that, especially if you read it critically. Freedom Evolves is devoted to the following points: First, the issues around determinism, free will, inevitability, and so on are very muddled; he tries to tease out important differences among what are usually taken as equivalent positions. Second, even on a determinist view a "design level" and an "intensional level" are natural tools for analyzing things on the human scale; these follow naturally from the process of evolution. Third, he argues that contrary to what determinists tacitly assume, a whole can be freer than its parts. Does he succeed in showing how free will can evolve in a deterministic universe? Not really, no. Does he cast an interesting light on the issues and give you interesting thinks? Yes.

As to the particular matter of categorization, his purpose was essentially to show that if you introduce the concept of information, it relies in turn on categorization of sensory data, which has much the effect of acting on a coin toss--on a certain level of analysis (a level he argues is valid) it cuts the physicalist chains of cause and effect, at least on a local level. He accepts that when the mind categorizes sensory data, the categories reflect real phenomena; they simply select something that is actually there (and he sees evolution as assuring that the selection is vital, not just accurate). As for self-regulation, I don't remember him making much of it at all at that point in his book (probably later in the book he did, where the inadequacies of his arguments loomed larger).

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the clarification.

It does sound like an interesting read thinks Gus, even as he must contemplate (gasp!) thinning out his books before moving to Boston.