Thursday, August 28, 2008

Consciousness: Half an oaf is better than none?

My chief difficulty with materialist theories of consciousness is the apparent fact that human consciousness got started rather suddenly, and was not really the result of a long slow series of primate steps.

We do not go from the fruit-throwing ape to the cave paintings in a long, slow series of steps.

Therefore, this is NOT the sequence:

not just an oaf
not quite an oaf
somewhat less oafish

[ ... ]

a bit less oafish than when last noticed
many oafish characteristics have been lost
not nearly the oaf he used to be

[ ... ... ... ] (and finally!)

if we have him over for dinner, we can seat him at the table instead of tying him in the yard with a bowl of water and a biscuit
The quest: Given that this story never happened, what did?

Other Mindful Hack stories on consciousness:

The difference between thinking and consciousness

Consciousness: So familiar and yet so puzzling?

The Spiritual Brain: Vindicating Alfred Russel Wallace?

Belated sublimely ridiculous award for 2006

Materialists start to come to grips with global failure but materialism dies hard

Mind vs. meat vs. computers: The differences

Consciousness: Recent public squabble between philosophers of mind rates better than most sitcoms

Interview with Spiritual Brain authors Mario and Denyse at campus Web site

Books: New physics takes on the human mind

Is consciousness a trick to ensure survival?

The Spiritual Brain reviewed in Jesuit thinkmag America


How is The Spiritual Brain doing?

Mario, who is travelling, writes to say,

Denyse: I learned a few days ago that the first print run (4000 copies) of the Dutch version of our book is already sold (in only a few weeks!) and the publisher is reprinting.

Hopefully, it will be the same thing with the French version (which will appear in September in France and other francophone countries).
The francophone version of the Introduction is here.

Mario has also told me that he thinks that The Spiritual Brain will be controversial in France. We will see.


Spirituality: If there is no life after death, does it matter whether you are Hitler or Mother Teresa?

In "If there is no God, Dennis Praeger notes,

We are constantly reminded about the destructive consequences of religion -- intolerance, hatred, division, inquisitions, persecutions of "heretics," holy wars. Though far from the whole story, they are, nevertheless, true. There have been many awful consequences of religion.

What one almost never hears described are the deleterious consequences of secularism -- the terrible developments that have accompanied the breakdown of traditional religion and belief in God. For every thousand students who learn about the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials, maybe two learn to associate Gulag, Auschwitz, The Cultural Revolution and the Cambodian genocide with secular regimes and ideologies.

For all the problems associated with belief in God, the death of God leads to far more of them.

So, while it is not possible to prove (or disprove) God's existence, what is provable is what happens when people stop believing in God.
The number one reason, he says, is
Without God there is no good and evil; there are only subjective opinions that we then label "good" and "evil." This does not mean that an atheist cannot be a good person. Nor does it mean that all those who believe in God are good; there are good atheists and there are bad believers in God. It simply means that unless there is a moral authority that transcends humans from which emanates an objective right and wrong, "right" and "wrong" no more objectively exist than do "beautiful" and "ugly."
and second,
Without God, there is no objective meaning to life. We are all merely random creations of natural selection whose existence has no more intrinsic purpose or meaning than that of a pebble equally randomly produced.
He also writes, however,
If there is no God, the kindest and most innocent victims of torture and murder have no better a fate after death than do the most cruel torturers and mass murderers. Only if there is a good God do Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler have different fates.
... and that set me thinking. Is that true?

As a traditional Christian, I believe that people begin to experience in this life the ultimate destiny that their personal choices hint at. Hitler, for example, became progressively madder and more murderous and finally committed suicide in a bunker, ending World War II in Europe. Mother Teresa lived to be 87 and fell asleep quietly after dinner, with the knowledge that many thousands of people had been helped by her Sisters of Charity.

True, she had many spiritual struggles, and I have written and spoken them. These struggles originated in the difference she experienced between the visions that first inspired her to reach out to the streets of Calcutta and the practical difficulties of making it happen. But even in this world, she was surely more blessed in poverty than Hitler was in power.

On that view, what happens after death is the maturing of a process that has already begun beforehand.

Mario and I were on Dennis Praeger's show recently.


Religion: Why "evolutionary" explanations don't really work

Once again recently, I found myself explaining to a friend why I do not have much use for the attempt to explain religion according to the alleged evolutionary psychology that we have inherited from our Pleistocene ancestors through our genes and replicate robot-style in our neurons. Rather, I wrote,

I take the view that the origin of religion is bound up with the origin of consciousness. Religion attempts to answer the obvious questions that occur to a conscious being – for example:

How did the world come to be the way it is?

Why do I do things I shouldn’t do, and don’t even really want to? Will anyone punish me for this?

What happened to my father when he died?

It is not, in my view, necessary to look for an explanation for why people have these questions - as if the explanation were some sort of mechanism.

The questions are a function of conscious awareness of our environment. We may benefit from thinking about these things - or may not. But we think about them because we have minds.
So my lack of esteem for evolutionary psychologists' explanations of religion arises from two sources:

(1) They look for mechanisms, benefits, or byproducts that don’t necessarily exist and certainly don’t need to exist.

(2) They often neglect inconvenient facts that we DO know – for example, that human consciousness appears to have arisen swiftly. If the cave paintings are any guide, assigning a strictly pragmatic value to human activities becomes very risky after that.

Also the answers proposed by religions take people in very different directions: Procreating a large tribe, celibacy, and acquiring a necklace of shrunken heads are very different answers to the question "How should I live?"

That is an unpromising beginning to a search for a general mechanism or byproduct.

Another example is this: The conviction that our minds/souls somehow survive bodily death is probably as old as humanity. Both extinct Neanderthal man and our own family, homo sapiens commonly buried the dead in ways that implied that they would live again.

Were early humans more "fit for survival" because they believed that? There is no way to know because the belief itself changed what fitness for survival meant to them. Fitness often came to mean devotion to one's ancestors as well as one's children, and dying to protect one's ancestors' graves would be rewarded by favours from beyond.

A further problem with trying to understand religion in an "evolutionary" way is that every type of religious conviction imaginable is probably still present today somewhere. That is because, unlike life forms, extinct religions can simply be reinvented (e.g. the spread of Wicca).

Ethical monotheism is gaining ground worldwide against local cults that offer no systematic teachings. But that seems more the result of a trend toward education and mass communications than an evolution based on fitness. Education teaches logical reasoning, and monotheism is more logically satisfying than polytheism. I predict that if this trend reverses itself, local cults will become more important again.

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The difference between thinking and consciousness

The Mindful Hack has often featured stories about the difference between the brain as an organ and the mind as your immaterial self. But there is also a distinction worth making between thinking and consciousness.

A recent post "Neuroscience: Yes, we do think while we are asleep. And we solve problems too" indirectly helps us understand that distinction. Let's look at one of the experimenets again:
In a 2004 study Ullrich Wagner and others in Jan Born's laboratory at the University of Lübeck in Germany elegantly demonstrated just how powerful sleep's processing of memories can be. They taught subjects how to solve a particular type of mathematical problem by using a long and tedious procedure and had them practice it about 100 times. The subjects were then sent away and told to come back 12 hours later, when they were instructed to try it another 200 times.

What the researchers had not told their subjects was that there is a much simpler way to solve these problems. The researchers could tell if and when subjects gained insight into this shortcut, because their speed would suddenly increase. Many of the subjects did, in fact, discover the trick during the second session. But when they got a night's worth of sleep between the two sessions, they were more than two and a half times more likely to figure it out-59 percent of the subjects who slept found the trick, compared with only 23 percent of those who stayed awake between the sessions. Somehow the sleeping brain was solving this problem, without even knowing that there was a problem to solve.
Notice that those people were thinking when they were not conscious. In fact, they couldn't solve the problem when they were conscious, but they solved it after they had become unconscious for a while.

Thinking is the use of mental patterns to assemble information and maybe solve problems. Clearly, we need not be conscious in order to think - although it is necessary to recognize a subject to think about, like the tedious math problem in the experiment.

Consciousness is our state of self-awareness. We may or may not be thinking when we are conscious, though we usually are. Many meditation traditions encourage the meditator to reduce thinking to a minimum in order to reach a profound meditative state.

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