Francis Crick—the "Crick" half of the famous "Watson and Crick" duo that discovered the structure of DNA—coined a term (and used it as the title for h...moreFrancis Crick—the "Crick" half of the famous "Watson and Crick" duo that discovered the structure of DNA—coined a term (and used it as the title for his book on the subject) called The Astonishing Hypothesis, which represents the idea that all human cognition and perception—every emotion, belief, existential crisis, perceived sight, sound, smell, etc—is essentially the product of (or equivalent to) complex clusters and pathways of neurons and the synaptic connections of neurotransmitters that bind them, encased in bone, and in flux like most things. And as Crick once said:
"There is no scientific study more vital to man than the study of his own brain. Our entire view of the universe depends on it."
And just as matter of historical perspective and novelty: Lucretius, a brilliant Roman poet and Epicurian philosopher (circa 99 BC) proposed the same basic idea that lies at the heart of The Astonishing Hypothesis:
"At this stage you must admit that whatever is seen to be sentient is nevertheless composed of atoms that are insentient. The phenomena open to our observation do not contradict this conclusion or conflict with it. Rather they lead us by the hand and compel us to believe that the animate is born, as I maintain, of the insentient."
V.S. Ramachandran has run with The Astonishing Hypothesis in ways like no other pop-science writer has—with the possible exception of Oliver Sacks (who writes a wonderful intro to this book, by the way).
Let's start with a quote from Rama (as I’ll lovingly call him for the rest of the review) that isn’t from this book but gives some sense of scale and scope to what we’re dealing with here when we pursue the implications of The Astonishing Hypothesis:
"The human brain, it has been said, is the most complexly organised structure in the universe and to appreciate this you just have to look at some numbers. The brain is made up of one hundred billion nerve cells or "neurons" which is the basic structural and functional units of the nervous system. Each neuron makes something like a thousand to ten thousand contacts with other neurons and these points of contact are called synapses where exchange of information occurs. And based on this information, someone has calculated that the number of possible permutations and combinations of brain activity, in other words the numbers of brain states, exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe."
A quick word on Rama’s overall style: He prides himself—like any good pop-science writer—on being able to make technical, complex topics comprehensible to the layperson. He accomplishes this in spades. He doesn’t condescend and he doesn’t dumb anything down, rather he’s just charismatic (you should see him speak in person), well-educated in more fields than merely his specialty (he’ll drop Shakespeare quotations, references to pop culture, sociology, history and cutting edge philosophy all in the same page), and just knows how to turn a pleasing phrase (rich metaphors and lucid prose abound). He really captures the childlike wonder and openness to evidentiary trajectories and discovery that is an ideal in science. He often compares his work to that of his boyhood hero Sherlock Holmes. He’s a brain-detective tracking down the roots of these various strangest of strange phantoms found lurking ‘round the human brain. Basically, this is the purest antidote to dry, technical writing, and it seems to sacrifice none of the scientific rigor in the process. A truly stunning feat that I’ve only seen a few other authors pull off as well (Steven Pinker and Oliver Sacks both come to mind).
This particular work of Rama’s focuses on some of the strangest, most fascinating, and philosophically rich territory that’s been eked out in the relatively young but incredibly productive and conceptually-expansive history of cognitive neuroscience. At many points I found my jaw dropping further than I thought possible as each page went by. He covers SO MANY interesting neuro-psychological/-behavioral phenomena that it’s difficult to know what to highlight and what to gloss over—there’s just too much for a GoodReads review. Plus, some should be left for you potential readers to happily find on your own (and what I summarize is extremely brief and surface-level anyway).
One of the areas Rama is most well-known for is the revolutionary work he’s done with understanding and curing phantom limb pain. Most people know what this phenomenon consists of: a person loses a body part, most often some section of their arm or leg or the whole thing (though he also mentions rarer instances of phantom penises and phantom breasts) and they begin to have very, very vivid sensations that the limb is still there. The problem often times is that they can’t control what this phantom limb does or how it feels. Commonly, people have the painful sensation that their phantom hand is clenched as tight as can be, to cite one of many examples. Rama discovered a simple and ingenious way to sooth and eventually eliminate these pains. He set up a box with a mirror in it that looks like this:
When he first tried this out on a person who was in agonizing pain they immediately felt a torrent of relief--the phantom limb sufferer described it as an instantaneous and entirely vivid sensation of being able to finally unclench his excrusiatingly painful clenched phantom fist, immediately.
The basic idea is that the brain is tricked into believing that that missing limb is present and when the actual remaining limb moves it gives the equally vivid sensation that the phantom limb is moving in that same willful way. This exercise is done and as time goes on it becomes less and less necessary as the phantom pains become less and less frequent. He cracks a great joke about being the first person to ever amputate a phantom limb. It’s utterly brilliant and a fine humanitarian service that he’s brought to many, many people suffering from what was until his fairly recent discovery such a baffling phenomenon.
This one’s really interesting and rife with all kinds of psychological and philosophical implications. Capgras syndrome is when a person begins to think that people they know and recognize perfectly well are imposters. One main example in the chapter "The Unbearable Likeness of Being" is a young man who had a near fatal car accident which put him into a coma for three weeks. All of his normal functions like talking and walking were restored through physical therapy, but one very peculiar feature remained: he insists that his parents are not his parents. Though he acknowledges the perfect physical similarity and is otherwise perfectly rational he simply cannot be convinced that these kindly older people taking care of him are anything but doppelgangers. Fucking weird, right? Well, there are many more cases of this syndrome than this, so it’s not even quite as rare as one would first guess, and Rama gracefully travels through the cognitive neuroscientific netherworld that lies behind this phenomena with some amazing theories guiding him along the way and developing in his wake. If for no other reason, read this book because of what you’ll learn about Capgras syndrome and...
In Synecdoche, New York, the most recent film by (and directorial debut of) Charlie Kaufman, the central character’s name is (non-coincidently) Caden Cotard. While he doesn’t have the neurological syndrome he does spend large parts of the film fretting about death (it’s a wonderful film, don’t let this description fool you). Actual people with Cotard’s syndrome are either completely convinced that they are already dead or are decaying. They often swear that they can smell their own rotting flesh, etc. Before we jump to the conclusion that these people are just wrist-slitting goth kids prone to hyperbole or just crazy, we need to take the brain’s eye view with Rama as our guide.
And a note about the "just crazy" remark I just made: He stresses throughout this book that it is a profound mistake to send the patients he describes straight to the psychiatrist or the loony bin. And he’s always right to do this. There is some time spent arguing against old paradigms of psychology and psychiatry and cultural theory and sociology—even though he does give Freud credit where credit is due and shows us how Freud had seeds of wisdom, but that the seeds need to be fostered by all of the new knowledge and innovation and (most importantly) positive results brought about by the paradigm-shift of cognitive neuroscience when it comes to treating people with these strangest of mental states and behaviors.
Alright, there are so many other major points of interest I could go into but I’m calling it quits for now. A short list of other great topics:
—Phantom pregnancies —People literally laughing themselves to death —The ins and outs of the placebo effect —Mirror neurons and their relationship to empathy —Blind sight (an incredible phenomenon, look it up) —The pros and cons of evolutionary psychology —People who completely neglect one entire side of their body and do not—and cannot—realize it —The neurological underpinnings of religious revelations and ecstasies —And more!
One last word on...
I tend to approach all of neuroscience with the eyes of a philosopher—meaning, I don’t really have an aptitude for the finer, more technical details, and that there’s basically a constant running commentary in the back of my mind (at least) when I approach the brain which is pondering the ever-increasing philosophical discourse about the nature of consciousness itself. This also easily lends itself to more "existential" thoughts about the obvious which can be more or less boiled down to this: if a person’s conscious experience is the brain or is a product of the brain (the distinctions here will cause most of your eyes to glaze over, so I’ll be be silent on that for now) then its dissolution is our dissolution. In other words, this kind of stuff practically urges a person to consider the inevitability of mortality to some degree or another.
While Rama bypasses all extended musings on the meaning of life and death, he does take a mighty swing at the philosophical debates about consciousness in the final chapter. He’s quite philosophically astute for a neuroscientist with no formal philosophical education. He’s also collaborated with fellow UC-San Diego professor (of philosophy) Patricia Churchland which—for fans of philosophy and science—is basically a dream team. Patricia and her husband Paul are basically the forebearers of a subfield of study called neurophilosophy, which I see as the wave of the future and one of the only hopes for academic philosophy to remain (or become, depending on your station in life) relevant and exciting, and also as a useful clarifying tool for cognitive neuroscience and perhaps science and all the other seriously probing disciplines generally.
I'll continue to urge many people to read this book. It’s maximally eye-opening, entertaining and thought provoking.(less)
I listened to this via audio book format as read wonderfully by Dennett himself. Last night/early morning I woke up abruptly in the grip of a vague so...moreI listened to this via audio book format as read wonderfully by Dennett himself. Last night/early morning I woke up abruptly in the grip of a vague sort of existential terror and once I got my footing again, I felt a type of comfort in hearing Dennett's calm yet extremely engaged and enthusiastic voice--explaining complex things about the improbable evolution of sentient beings--emerging from the tiny speakers of my laptop.
At first, I was seized by a thought like, "I don't want to hear about this, I don't wanna die!" but then I stopped acting like a child who thinks the universe is created for them to enjoy, that their life is supposed to never end, and fell back into trying to appreciate the fact that I'm allowed to live at all, to appreciate the astounding confluence of myriad forces holding all that is beautiful and makes life worthy living together.
I see Dennett as an unknowing player in a third wave of existentialism (Owen Flanagan incisively identifies three waves of existentialism), a more proactive period in philosophy which makes real and serious attempts to overcome the "nausea" Sartre spoke of, and all the other variations of this so-called "existential despair."
This would get five stars if I wasn't already so familiar with many of the central ideas in this book from Dennett's other work and lectures. Much of this seems like a rehashing of the (great) ideas found within The Intentional Stance (the name of one of the chapters), Consciousness Explained, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Freedom Evolves and Elbow Room. Dennett's explanation of and solution to the problem of free will is brilliantly executed, albeit not terribly unique. His position on this is called "compatiblism" and it's been floating around at least since the days of David Hume, but regardless it is explained in a very uniquely understandable and morally edifying way.
Dennett is fast becoming one of my favorite philosophers of all time. I really enjoy his use of metaphor throughout all of his writing. He makes incredibly deep ideas "tangible" through this adept and dare I say "literary" or "poetic" use of language, and his immensely clear and direct wielding of concepts. His work is pretty consistently a wonderful interweaving of multiple fields of philosophy and both the "hard" and "soft" sciences and he also displays a quasi-polymathic understanding of the fine arts as well. Even when those he's pitted against philosophically describe this as an insult, I find it to be a compliment, i.e., Thomas Nagel once glibly referred to Dennett as "Gilbert Ryle meets Scientific American." But I say fuck you, Nagel, and I say three cheers for scientifically informed philosophy and philosophically informed science.(less)
"The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it,...more"The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive." —Ernest Becker
The sloppy latticework of gnarled tree branches anchors the foreground while Devlin and Geoffrey puff upon thick, stolen cigars, steathily removed from a father’s humidor, stashed in the closet of a house that was summarily purchased with blood, sweat and finely tuned 'n' directed tears. Their lanky fuzz-lined sillouettes bend and puff and laugh together within the sea of sundown hues that grant them visualization. Geoffrey digs deep into his tanned corduroy pockets and his left hand removes the distant, quiet clink of coins upon coins.
A square-jawed, stiff-limbed snake of iron and steel flows by the two teenagers. The word ‘train’ materializes within the skulls of both boys as their sleeves and trousers are shaken to a fluttering life by its newfound wind.
The pair reacts to the new calm by a continued puffing and swaggering, smirks etched step-by-step upon their faces.
"Let's do some penny dreadfuls," Devlin exhales along with a stacco waft of floating burnt tobacco.
Geoffrey nods affirmatively and re-digs into his corduroy for the fullest answer. He hands Devlin a metallic rustle of currency and steps over the first track in order to hover over the second. Geoffrey clinks his purchase down upon the iron and walks back towards Devlin doing the mirror-same.
They lie in wait for the next bulldozing carrier. A great silence envelopes them as they inhale and exhale, stare and unstare at nothing, anything and everything.
"Don't you ever worry about dying?" Devlin mews with unnerving sincerity.
"Of course. But at this millisecond I’m pretty much ready to go."
"Really. I keep thinking about an old friend who—even when his was merely eight years old—once told me—and told me with great certitude and sincerity—that he wouldn't care at all if his father hurled him off a cliff. This was a week before he was going to visit the Grand Canyon on a family vacation."
". . ."
"Death only really frightens me if I have the time to really, really think about it. When it's just an immediate thought, well, I usually just think about it as an either an inevitably or a blessing. Which is sad, I know, but that's just how I feel most of the time. I mean, I don't want to die—I really, really don't—but more often than not, I just don't care enough either way. Darkness forever doesn't always seem like 'Darkness Forever.' Sometimes I stupidly think of it as a vacation—a vacation of blank peace—rather than the traditionally, plausibly understood, deep dark destination—the Big Sleep, the eternal dirt nap, etc—you know?"
"Wow. Yeah, I do know what you mean. But most of the time it mostly scares the living shit out of me and seems like the worst thing in the whole wide world."
"Well, it is! Of course! It's the worst! The worst reality there can every possibly be, I guess. But it's so inescapable that eventually I feel beaten into submission by the fact that it's so goddamn certain and ever-present."
". . ."
Devlin passes a pint of bourbon towards his closest friend who accepts it with a smile, a limp grip and then a simultaneously pleased and pained grimace.
"There's no real comfort to be found here, my friend. I’m sorry to say. I wish it was otherwise, but it just isn't. Sure, there's some distant "hope" to be found within the deep, deep, unanswerable mystery of it all, but all that's really real is this. This. Here. Right now. Us standing together, having a deep thought or two, sharing our thoughts—whatever those are, really—ya know?"
"Yeah, I think so, too. It's just so damn depressing—no matter what, ya know? It's so fucking hard for me to think about it all with any real seriousness. Just imagining the death of my mother makes me feel like, like, like…like, I dunno, the whole world is coming to an end. It's just the most awful feeling ever."
"Believe me, I know exactly what you mean. It really is the worst. If there's supposed to be a silver lining that's better than all the ol' cliché silver linings—which fail us left and right—well, I don’t know what that is. We—we human beings stuck in this predicament—we're simply forced to deal with it. It's horrific and unfair. Period. So let's just finish that bottle, smoke these cigars, and keep moving and talking and thinking until we can't."
The train announces its arrival in the distance. Devlin's head hangs low. Geoffrey's eyes well with fluid and his gaze cranes upward to the murky, bloody cloudiness of the slit vein of the sky, booming its melancholy echo around the world exclusively to those who can perceive it. The distance collapses at a brisk pace. The distance disappears and a single penny is ground down into a new shape for an audience of two. (less)
Very thought-provoking and led to some of the better discussions I had in my first year of college, but I reject many of the premises Gilligan launche...moreVery thought-provoking and led to some of the better discussions I had in my first year of college, but I reject many of the premises Gilligan launches from, namely, that there's some essential nature to female psychology and male psychology--or at least the type of highly specified nature she ends up positing. I think human psychology is a much more fractured and varied set of phenomena than this and that the landscape of large-scale generalizations about gender traits (though sometimes useful if done carefully and based on solid empirical findings) is an area to tread very cautiously through.
Gilligan does not tread so cautiously. Big, big, big methodological problems with her research. She basically drew gigantic conclusions from extremely small samples of psychological questionnaires. She also never submitted her research and subsequent interpretations for pre-publishing peer-review, which even back when this was written raises a bright red flag and goes against a very important standard of scientific protocol, even for the so-called "soft-science" of psychology. Peer-review is one of the things that separates the rigor and integrity of science from the wild guessing games of other styles of inquiry.
This book essentially trades some negative over-generalizations about women for flattering ones--and visa-versa for males. Much of it sounds really great at first, but then you leave your thinking cap on a little longer and much of it unravels in your hands, right before your eyes. An important work, no doubt, but I think it's incredibly dated and ultimately unhelpful as a piece of the gender equality puzzle.
(It should also be said that I should read this again, though I suspect it might result in an even more negative review than this one. My memory of the book on the whole is still a little fuzzy, but I certainly recall enough of it to write this much.)(less)
I think this a great way of addressing a widespread misunderstanding about genetics, biological evolution and human thought & behavior.
Slight back...moreI think this a great way of addressing a widespread misunderstanding about genetics, biological evolution and human thought & behavior.
Slight background story: I was having a discussion with a guy on goodreads.com within his comments on his review of Why I Am Not A Muslim and eventually it came to this:
Myself: "It’s a categorical mistake to think this about biological evolution. To put it bluntly: our genes are selfish, but we are not (not necessarily, unconditionally so at least)."
Him: "One last question, so how are we different than our genes?"
And my reply and the whole point of this post:
This may sound mean, but it’s simple. You are not a gene, nor am I. We’re animals, unique and beautiful and ugly and all qualities in between, both as a species and as individuals.
Here’s an explanation though:
"But almost everyone misunderstands this theory. Contrary to popular belief, the gene-centered theory of evolution does not imply that the point of all human striving is to spread our genes. With the exception of the fertility doctor who artificially inseminated patients with his own semen, the donor to the sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners, and other kooks, no human being (or animal) strives to spread his or her genes. Dawkins explained the theory in a book called The Selfish Gene, and the metaphor was chosen carefully. People don’t selfishly spread their genes, genes selfishly spread themselves. They do it by the way they build our brains. By making us enjoy life, health, sex, friends, and children, the gene buys a lottery ticket for representation in the next generation, with odds that were favorable in the environment in which we evolved. Our goals are subgoals of the ultimate goal of the genes, replicating themselves. But the two are different. As far as we are concerned, our goals, conscious or unconscious, are not about genes at all, but about health and lovers and children and friends."
That seems to be enough to get the point across, but I think this is such a good point that I’ll type the next paragraph up as well:
"The confusion between our goals and genes’ goals has spawned one muddle after another. A reviewer of a book about the evolution of sexuality protests that human adultery, unlike the animal equivalent, cannot be a strategy to spread genes because adulteres take steps to prevent pregancy. But whose strategy are we talking about? Sexual desire is not people’s strategy to progagate their genes. It’s people’s strategy to attain the pleasures of sex, and the pleasures of sex are the genes strategy to propagate themselves. If the genes don’t get propagated, it’s because we are smarter than they are. A book on the emotional life of animals complains that if altruism according to biologists is just helping kin or exchanging favors, both of which serve the interests of one’s genes, it would not really be altruism after all, but some kind of hypocrisy. This too is a mix up. Just as blueprints don’t necessarily specify blue buildings, selfish genes don’t necessarily specify selfish organisms. As we shall see, sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is build a selfless brain. Genes are a play with in a play, not the interior monologue of the players."
-Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works, pp. 43-44
Also, for anyone interested in listening to the audiobook version:
"Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever yo...more"Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, "You please me, happiness! Abide moment!" then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored--oh then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants--eternity."
— Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None)
This is the best overall take on Nietzsche I've seen yet. It focuses on the aspect of his work that I was most drawn to when first really getting into it and would continue to exalt above all else to this day: a deep affirmation of existence.
This book is very carefully laid out, well-argued, insightful, evenhanded and corrects many extremely common mischaracterizations of Nietzsche's central themes.
I wouldn't recommend this to newcomers, unless they have a penchant for reading serious scholarly analysis generally and have at least some primer on Nietzsche under their belt already. This isn't to say this book is dry or overly technical, rather it's just extremely thorough in its argumentative rigor and references nearly all of the work which comprises Nietzsche's corpus, including rarely published notes and correspondence.
So the execution is skillful and thorough beyond a doubt, but the really satisfying element of this book for me is the overarching programme of its focus on Nietzsche's emotionally resonant struggle with and promotion of a clear-eyed, intrepid affirmation ("Yes-saying") of the mere fact that one is permitted to exist--finding a way to embrace the humdrum miracle (a phrase of my own that I like) of life as much as possible, in the face of pain and under the ubiquitous threat of its loss. (less)
"If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deep...more"If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things." — Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell
"Is this Tree of Life* a God one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not. But it did make the ivy twine and the sky so blue, so perhaps the song I love tells a truth after all. The Tree of Life is neither perfect nor infinite in space or time, but it is actual, and if it is not Anselm's "Being greater than which nothing can be conceived," it is surely a being that is greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred." — Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea
I read this in college. It was interesting and dryly written. It draws connections between variables and confounds like class status, religious tradit...moreI read this in college. It was interesting and dryly written. It draws connections between variables and confounds like class status, religious tradition, and literacy and the rate with which people in various cross-sections of these things decide that life is not worth living. Turns out that money and god and reading aren't enough to keep people protected from themselves.
A groundbreaking work of social science.
Here's what happens when you try to kill yourself with Google:
"Suicide is another thing that's so frowned upon in this society, but honestly, life isn't for everybody. It really isn't. It's sad when kids kill themselves 'cause they didn't really give it a chance, but life is like a movie: if you've sat through more than half of it and it sucked every second so far, it probably isn't gonna get great right at the very end for you and make it all worthwhile. No one should blame you for walking out early." —Doug Stanhope(less)
The neurologist Oliver Sacks has a great book called Musicophilia (and a series of talks available on YouTube) which goes into some really interesting...moreThe neurologist Oliver Sacks has a great book called Musicophilia (and a series of talks available on YouTube) which goes into some really interesting descriptions of the brain's relationship to music. One story involves a man getting hit by lightning and afterward having a newly acquired and deeply profound love of music (almost any music, too), profound to the point that he would feel a euphoria akin to religio-mystical rapture or an extremely pleasurable drug experience in all situations if music began to play. And then the depressing opposite of this, a woman who hated all music because it all literally sounded like pots and pans clanking around. Her brain simply couldn't sort out the frequencies properly.
Here's video footage of a pretty good discussion of a great, frequently glossed over, and far too often underappreciated philosopher who is one of my...moreHere's video footage of a pretty good discussion of a great, frequently glossed over, and far too often underappreciated philosopher who is one of my favorite philosophers of all time:
Steven Nadler is an excellent authority on Spinoza and has written a few books on him. I really like Catherine Wilson as well from this and now have several of her books and articles on my to-read list.
The other guys are sort of annoying and make some rather disagreeable points in my opinion. Especially Mr. Blue Shirt and the guy who keeps going on about Freud because he doesn't seem to know about much else. But Nadler is solid and so is Catherine Wilson.
There are links to the entire work as published online here:
Listened to this on audiobook last night/this morning after having just returned from seeing Pinker speak at UW-Madison last evening, which was excell...moreListened to this on audiobook last night/this morning after having just returned from seeing Pinker speak at UW-Madison last evening, which was excellent and a real treat for this cognitive science and evolutionary psychology nerd and huge fan of Steven Pinker. Books like this are too rich and complex to give a half-assed review of, or one where I just write clever anecdotes about my life and vaguely tie them to some idea in the book, like a blog entry beneath a book, awaiting your votes. Not that anyone actually does this around here...(less)
UPDATE (via something I wrote in a discussion forum a few weeks ago about the relationship between science and philosophy):
A major problem I have with...moreUPDATE (via something I wrote in a discussion forum a few weeks ago about the relationship between science and philosophy):
A major problem I have with science generally is the idea that science can only be in the business of descriptive ethics (explaining WHAT people deem to be morally right and wrong) and cannot (somehow) be in the business of making normative ethical claims (what SHOULD be considered morally right and wrong in any given area of ethical examination). I understand where the hesitation comes from especially considering that ethics has been dominated by religious dogma for the majority of our history on the planet AND because science strives to be objective and approach things dispassionately in order to avoid intermingling certain biases into the collection of data and the formation of theories. However, I think this is ultimately a mistake and think that science has just as much right to explore and weigh in on ethics (ideally in collaboration with philosophers) and has perfectly fine tools to do this with, e.g., the scientific method, statistics, medical science generally, etc, etc, etc. This notion that we should look toward religion and gurus and Deepak Chopra self-help drivel for answers regarding issues of morality and how to lead "the good life" and just leave everything else (as if "everything else" has no connection to ethics) to science is just outrageous. And many scientists, thoroughgoing atheists included, have been lulled into this position. I think they need an extremely loud Clarion Call to rouse them from this.
This issue was one of the major issues being discussed at the last two Beyond Belief symposiums. Go to thesciencenetwork.org and click on "Programs" to find the complete video footage of all three annual symposiums. Sam Harris focuses on this issue and I think makes excellent points about it in both the second and third symposiums (and to a lesser extent it is touched upon generally in the first as well).
Also, I just finished reading a book by the philosopher Owen Flanagan who also advocates the scientific study of ethics as well called The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World in which he lays out the basic ideas behind what he calls "Eudaimonics" which is basically a collaborative study of ethics through the joint efforts of philosophy and science.
I just finished this and the final chapter is what I think moved my rating from 4 to 5 stars. A very strong finale. I thought that it both began and ended very strongly and the "middle" (very loosely speaking) was ever so slightly weighed down with large clusters of empirical facts/end notes (which were almost all 100% necessary).
As I wrote while having just cracked the book: It features pretty much all of my favorite subjects of late: philosophy of mind, philosophy of science/psychology, ethics, good historical overviews of some great philosophical and scientific players and eras, epistemology, neuroscience, religion, and more. (less)
This is an often times difficult but deeply rewarding read so far. I enjoy the essays that are co-written by the husband and wife duo a little more th...moreThis is an often times difficult but deeply rewarding read so far. I enjoy the essays that are co-written by the husband and wife duo a little more than the first couple written by Paul, e.g., "Intertheoretic Reduction: A Neuroscientist's Field Guide" which is an excellent summary of the Churchland's general approach towards neurophilosophy and greatly cleared up some perplexing issues that've been rattling around in my mind for the last couple of years about "reductionism", a concept many nod their heads solemnly at as if it's well understood but often times really is not.
Paul's criticisms of John Searle's work with philosophy of mind are surprising (to me) but extremely well-placed and pointed. I just finished the second Searle-criticism-based essay of the collection hilariously entitled "Betty Crocker's Theory of Consciousness."
There's also a joint effort taken up by Patricia Churchland and the great neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran which as far as I can tell from skipping ahead and reading the first couple of paragraphs (before it dropped off into complex neural maps, which at the time I was not prepared to pore over while riding the bus to work at 7 AM) is a criticism of something Daniel Dennett has said about the neurological aspects of the visual system and more specifically blind spots. This is straightforwardly entitled "Filling In: Why Dennett is Wrong."
The essays are broken up into three Parts. Part One is "Folk Psychology and Eliminative Materialism", Part Two is "Meaning, Qualia and Emotion: Several Dimensions of Consciousness", and Part Three is "The Philosophy of Science" which is completely dominated by Paul's essays, many of them seeming to address the work of the controversial (and apparently influential on Paul) philosopher Paul Feyerabend--a figure I'm interested in learning more about since a friend of mine who's taste in philosophy I respect told me that he's his favorite philosopher of science and upon reading some summaries of his ideas, namely one I strenuously object to (and can't imagine Paul Churchland endorsing in any way) called "epistemological anarchism" which essentially places the methods of science on the same epistemic ground as Tarot card reading, dream premonitions, prayer, etc.
I'm still reading this and will update my review accordingly.
Update, April 11th, 2009:
Patricia Churchland's essay "Feeling Reasons" was tremendous and bumped my rating of the collection from four to five stars. It was the final essay of Part Two. She basically lays out a neurophilosophical argument for "agency" in the compatiblist sense of Hume, Dennett, et al. It's quite obvious to me that libertarian free will is false on its face and this is not bad news. We still make choices, we still must hold one another responsible, etc.
Paul's essay "Rediscovery of Light" was also top notch. He continues exploring the analogy of consciousness being explained in purely physical terms (via intertheoretic reduction targeted at the brain) and light being exhaustively explained in terms of electromagnetic waves or heat being exhaustively explained in terms of kinetic energy. He applies these analogies (and a few others) to the opposing arguments made by Frank Jackson, David Chalmers, John Searle and Thomas Nagel. To my mind, he convincingly defends the logical possibility of a reductive physicalist account of consciousness (which importantly avoids what Daniel Dennett has coined as greedy reductionism) and disables a series of antireductionist arguments.
I'm now onto the daunting but exciting "Philosophy of Science" section the first essay of which I started reading but had to set down when I arrived at work on the bus yesterday. This is not leisurely reading. I'd just finished "Feeling Reasons" and needed to clear my head before moving onto an essay called "A Deeper Unity: Some Feyerabendian Themes in Neurocomputational Form" filled with frighteningly complicated looking diagrams of neural vectors and whatnot.
Sort of dry at times, but very thorough regardless of its overall brevity. I think Kim makes a convincing case for the overall aims of physicalism thr...moreSort of dry at times, but very thorough regardless of its overall brevity. I think Kim makes a convincing case for the overall aims of physicalism throughout the book but his conclusion ("...or something near enough") really isn't much different from that of anti-reductionists like Chalmers, though he reaches it in about a 1/3 of the pages of Chalmers book The Conscious Mind. He provides a solid refutation of substance dualism but this was something I'd already seen done many times before, so it felt a little more like watching a cool but familiar parlor trick rather than riding along on an exciting philosophical journey. He also has an very cogent and important section on the nature of reductionism generally.
On the whole this makes for an excellent addition to the ever-growing body of work on what many philosophers and scientists are referring to as the greatest mystery left to tackle (at the present): the ins and outs of why and how we have any conscious experience at all.(less)
Yes, the title is audacious. Yes, it's not a perfect book. Yes, the subject is extremely complex and really smart people fight about it in prestigious...moreYes, the title is audacious. Yes, it's not a perfect book. Yes, the subject is extremely complex and really smart people fight about it in prestigious journals, etc.
But Dennett has some fine ideas nonetheless. I go through periods of swinging in one direction and back again when it comes to what I'll just call the "consciousness wars." But lately Dennett's ideas are striking me as more and more correct (and I've always leaned in his and the Churchland's direction since I first began looking into these issues, maybe about two years ago).
For some extremely brief, but exciting (probably more so to people already immersed in the field and the debate) overviews of his position(s) check these short videos out:
Objective: The difference between believing and disbelieving a proposition is one of the most potent regulators of human behavior and emotion...moreABSTRACT:
Objective: The difference between believing and disbelieving a proposition is one of the most potent regulators of human behavior and emotion. When we accept a statement as true, it becomes the basis for further thought and action; rejected as false, it remains a string of words. The purpose of this study was to differentiate belief, disbelief, and uncertainty at the level of the brain.
Methods: We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of 14 adults while they judged written statements to be “true” (belief), “false” (disbelief), or “undecidable” (uncertainty). To characterize belief, disbelief, and uncertainty in a content-independent manner, we included statements from a wide range of categories: autobiographical, mathematical, geographical, religious, ethical, semantic, and factual.
Results: The states of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty differentially activated distinct regions of the prefrontal and parietal cortices, as well as the basal ganglia.
Interpretation: Belief and disbelief differ from uncertainty in that both provide information that can subsequently inform behavior and emotion. The mechanism underlying this difference appears to involve the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the caudate. While many areas of higher cognition are likely involved in assessing the truth-value of linguistic propositions, the final acceptance of a statement as “true,” or its rejection as “false,” seems to rely on more primitive, hedonic processing in the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula. Truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense, and false propositions might actually disgust us.