Thursday, November 20, 2008

Neuroscience and literary criticism - grantsmanship minus achievement

Raymond Tallis destroys the "neuro-lit-crit" delusion here:
A generation of academic literary critics has now arisen who invoke “neuroscience” to assist them in their work of explication, interpretation and appreciation. Norman Bryson, once a leading exponent of Theory and a social constructivist, has described his Damascene conversion, as a result of which he now places the firing of neurons rather than signifiers at the heart of literary criticism. Evolutionary theory, sociobiology and allied forces are also recruited to the cause, since, we are reminded, the brain functions as it does to support survival. The dominant model of brain function among cognitive neuroscientists is that of a computer, and so computational theory is sometimes thrown into the mix. The kinds of things critics get up to these days are illustrated by a recent volume, Evolutionary and Neurocognitive Approaches to Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, edited by Colin Martindale and others (New York, 2007), with chapter headings such as “Literary Creativity: A Neuropsychoanalytic View”, and a call for papers for a congress this year on “Cognitive Approaches to Medieval Texts” (cognitive science, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology all welcome); and the emergence of “Darwinian literary criticism” which approaches the Iliad and Madame Bovary through the lens of theories about the evolved brain. Evolutionary explanations of why people create and enjoy literature, “neurocognitive frameworks” for aesthetics, and neural-network explanations for the perception of beauty are all linked through the notion that our experiences of art are the experiences of a brain developed to support survival. - Neuroaesthetics is wrong about our experience of literature – and it is wrong about humanity.
No doubt about that.
... neuroscience groupies reduce the reading and writing of literature to brain events that are common to every action in ordinary human life, and, in some cases, in ordinary non-human animal life. For this reason – and also because it is wrong about literature, overstates the understanding that comes from neuroscience and represents a grotesquely reductionist attitude to humanity – neuroaesthetics must be challenged. (Times Literary Supplement, April 9, 2008)
People come to writing and reading in a vast variety of mental states. Obviously, those mental states usually correlate to neural states - but so? So, one more for the neurobullshipping files.

See also:

Coffee break: Why does this "neuroscience boot camp" make me nervous?

Neurotheology: Bad neurology and bad theology?

Neuroscience: Let the machine read your mind ... we offer an installment plan!

Culture: Neuro this and neuro that and neuro go away!


Gift from a kind reader ... The Way of the Buddha!

I recently received in the mail a beautiful little art book called The Way of the Buddha: The Illustrated Dhammapada - illustrated by images from the Rubin Museum of Art, a museum dedicated to the art of the Himalayas. Some aspects of the book are very like Christianity:
"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me" - in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me" - in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love - this is an old rule.

The world does not know that we must all come to an end here; but those who know it, their quarrels cease at once.
That's a great idea, and I am familiar with this expression of it:
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:44-48, NIV)
The main reason for not harboring hatred is that we then fill our own minds with hatred. That is an additional evil for which we are accountable. And it does nothing to counter the evil that was done to us. I am delighted with the book and greatly admire the art, though I think I had better remain a Catholic!

See also:

Real Buddhism scholar to "neural Buddhists": The Buddha does not infinitely morph and would never drop two g's for "meditation gear"

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

"Neural Buddhists, Christians, and the Mud that failed"

"Neural Buddhism: Do neurons get reincarnated?" (No, actually, they get recycled.)


Coffee break: Why does this "neuroscience boot camp" make me nervous?

Here's why:

“Indeed, for any field in which it is important to understand, predict or influence human behavior, neuroscience will play an increasing role.”

“The only prerequisites are a grasp of basic statistics and at least a dim recollection of high school biology and physics.”
As it happens, someone whose "thing" definitely isn't science phoned me today about this very conference. Of course he had heard about it. Trust me, he hears about everything.

Potential participants are asked to provide a 200-word statement explaining their interest. And he wanted me to let him know if there were any spelling or grammar mistakes in his application, which I reproduce here (for your convenience, I have corrected numerous mistakes and made certain other discreet alterations):

Hi, as you know, I am a used car salesman.

I am stuck with a huge heap of gas guzzlers in an economy where everyone is watching their budget and more people than ever work at home and order goods via the Internet.

So their cars don’t wear out so fast.

My [profanity deleted] industry is in the toilet, and I don’t know if the [profanity deleted] government will fork over the money to keep it [profanity deleted] going!

I have issues with the people who say I am sleazy, and am currently suing eighteen of these liars.

Look, I WON my last case at the local automotive arbitration panel ...

It felt so good finally winning a case!

Is this 200 words? I guess I better come to the point, right?

I want to advance a really critical new field: neurobullshipping

Hey, if I make this work, I’ll cut you all in.

Why not? I will be as rich as stink.

Eddie “the lube job” Sloan

Well, Eddie, it's a bit shy of 200 words, but I really do think you have made your point, so it's best not to go on gilding the lily ...

See also:

Neurotheology: Bad neurology and bad theology?

Neuroscience: Let the machine read your mind ... we offer an installment plan!

Culture: Neuro this and neuro that and neuro go away!


Methodological naturalism: If that's the way forward, ... let's go sideways

Having connected the dots of the vast conspiracy run by the Discovery Institute so as to include non-materialist neuroscience, Steven Novella goes on to cheerlead, for methodological naturalism - about which I will say only this:

Methodological naturalism is usually described as meaning that science can consider only natural causes. But by itself that doesn't mean anything because we don't know everything that is in nature. For example, if - as Rupert Sheldrake thinks - some animals can demonstrate telepathy, then telepathy is a natural cause. And so?

And so Richard Dawkins goes to a great deal of trouble to attempt to discredit Sheldrake because the hidden assumption is that nature mustn't include telepathy.

In practice, methodological naturalism frequently becomes a method of defending bad - and often ridiculously bad- ideas in order to save naturalism. Think of the persistent efforts to "prove" that humans don't "really" behave altruistically. In fact, we sometimes do. Here's a recent story, for example, about a Texas woman named Marilyn Mock who went to an auction of foreclosed homes, ran into Tracey Orr - an unemployed woman she had never met - who had come to endure the sale of her home, and ...
Orr couldn't hold it in. The tears flowed. She pointed to the auction brochure at a home that didn't have a picture. "That's my house," she said.

Within moments, the four-bedroom, two-bath home in Pottsboro, Texas, went up for sale. People up front began casting their bids. The home that Orr purchased in September 2004 was slipping away.

She stood and moved toward the crowd. Behind her, Mock got into the action.

"She didn't know I was doing it," Mock says. "I just kept asking her if [her home] was worth it, and she just kept crying. She probably thought I was crazy, 'Why does this woman keep asking me that?' "

Mock says she bought the home for about $30,000. That's when Mock did what most bidders at a foreclosure auction never do.

"She said, 'I did this for you. I'm doing this for you,' " Orr says. "When it was all done, I was just in shock."
But it was true. Mock bought the house for her and said she would accept as repayment only what Orr can afford. Why?
"If it was you, you'd want somebody to stop and help you."
Now, a "methodological naturalist" would

(1) try to find a chimpanzee who does something similar and make up a story that explains how that behaviour was naturally selected for in primates

or (since that might take a while)

(2) assign a selfish motive for Mock that is consistent with survival of the fittest.

One might at first be tempted to conclude that methodological naturalism is methodological idiocy. But no, let's look a bit more carefully. Notice what is not a permitted assumption: We can't assume that some people just think they should help others - even at considerable cost. In other words, the plain evidence of human behavior cannot be accepted at face value.

Now, there is nothing especially scientific about that belief. "Scientific" means "dealing with the evidence from nature," which includes a fair sprinkling of unselfish or not-very-selfish humans (as well as of the other type). Indeed, superior human intelligence probably explains the tendency to imagine another's feelings (= "If it was you, you'd want somebody to stop and help you"). So we can account scientifically for why humans can behave as Mock did.

The problem is that such an account, while useful, fails to support a key false belief underlying methodological naturalism: That humans are really the 98% chimpanzee and cannot in principle have motives absent in chimpanzees. Apart from that false belief, no one would bother trying to find an exotic explanation for Mock's behaviour.

The principle role that methodological naturalism plays right now is to enable false beliefs to pose as science and to prevent them being discredited by evidence.


Vast conspiracy files: Connecting the dots to include non-materialist neuroscience

Over at Neurologica blog, Steve Novella speculates about non-materialist neuroscience, about which he seems to have learned from New Scientist and the Discovery Institute's News and Views blog.

My favourite lines:
I also think the New Scientist is correct in pointing out that the ID movement may be shifting their emphasis to neuroscience. I think it is fair to say that the ID attack on evolution has been largely a failure. They failed in Dover (where a conservative judge ruled that ID was warmed-over creationism and could not be taught in public school science classes), and the movie Expelled turned out to be a huge boondoggle. They are getting some traction with their “academic freedom” deception, but not much, and I think that effort will ultimately fail as well.
A man capable of thinking that a bid for academic freedom is a "deception" in a society where academic freedom is widely* under attack is himself the best argument for Ben Stein's academic freedom drive.

*widely under attack: On its membership page, the National Association of Scholars offers
Is It dangerous to join?

It can be. We recognize that graduate students and untenured faculty members run a risk if they join an organization that is famous for challenging campus orthodoxies. So we won't tell your colleagues -- or your dean, and we’ll mail Academic Questions to your home if you wish.

Is joining NAS worth the risk? That’s a decision you must make for yourself -- and something you should consider the next time you bite your tongue in a department meeting for fear of the consequences of expressing what you really think.
They add
today, the pressure on faculty members to conform to ascendant political ideologies is at an all-time high and encompasses college life from freshman orientation to the selection of commencement speakers.

If this type of experience sounds familiar, NAS may be the organization for you. We offer the chance to meet and work with other scholars who have had similar experiences and who have found ways to resist the petty -- and sometimes not so petty -- tyranny of the PC campus. We are not of one mold. Our members include mainstream liberals and conservatives, secularists and the religiously committed, senior scholars and graduate students, women and men, citizens and international visitors --united by a concern that the tradition of academic freedom in the United States is imperiled by the abuses of some and the complacency of many.
Sounds like a good organization.

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