Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Neuroscience: Materialist neuroscience leads to controlling politics?

In "Can a machine change your mind?" at Open Democracy, Jane O'Grady argues that "The mind is not the brain. Confusing the two, as much neuro-social-science does, leads to a dehumanised world and a controlling politics" (25 - 05 - 2009)
The most irritating (to us lay people) aspect of philosophical and scientific attempts to reduce the mental to the neural, and to squash down human beings into being on all fours with other physical things, is that their proponents nearly always say that actually they are just putting the truth about consciousness more clearly and taking nothing away from our experience. Like politicians deviously withdrawing privileges, they expect us to be quite happy about this. Some developments of identity theory, however, are more upfront. They force consciousness into equivalence with lightning and water by impugning the ignorance of us ordinary people. The way we talk about sensations, memories and beliefs is, say eliminative materialists, hopelessly antiquated, a form of ‘folk psychology’ as hidebound and superstition-laden as talk about witches, or about epileptics being possessed by devils. ‘Folk psychology’ is a theory about how humans function, they say, that is pathetically inadequate in both describing and predicting. In time, a more scientifically sophisticated vocabulary will replace it.
Well, she is certainly right about the controlling politics!

Almost all totalitarian political systems in the last two hundred years have begun with an account of the human mind that assumes that it is completely understandable in terms of the latest theory (whether of race, blood, genes, neurons, molecules ... oh, who knows?).

Free societies, by contrast, simply state what you are not allowed to do if you live here.

How you came to be what you are and what - if anything - you plan to do about it is, within reason, your own business, really, not the government's.

That is part of what makes a free society.

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Neuroscience: "Neuroengineering" as latest craze

In "Rewiring the Brain: Inside the New Science of Neuroengineering", Quinn Norton reports for Wired (03 02 09))
Most of what we think of as our ability to learn and change comes from the pattern of those synapses. In a way, history is the story of trying to manipulate those patterns through learning, faith, love, drugs, food, exercise — in short, anything and everything. We have spent thousands of years working out indirect ways of changing the contours of our brains to change the shape of our minds.

Neuroengineers, on the other hand, take a pragmatic and direct approach. They are trying to change brains by going in and just changing them.

[ ... ]

"How surprising [it is], clearly we did not evolve to do calculus. Nothing in our evolution involved calculus and yet we can do it. Why is that? It just shows the fundamental versatility of our brain. That it's set up to do unanticipated things gives me hope," he says.

Deisseroth started as a regular engineering undergrad at Harvard. But his path took a twist when he took a class on neural networks. He was enchanted, decided he wanted to spend his life focused on the real neural network, and became a psychiatrist. Eventually, frustrated with the paucity of tools for working directly with the brain, he started building his own.
In my experience, these things always end badly, principally because the idea that there is no underlying order - that it is all just a big accident - leads people to take chances with other people's lives that they should not.


Psychology: Hard times make you gullible about religion?

Here's a classic in New Scientist-style codswallop about spirituality:
WHILE many institutions collapsed during the Great Depression that began in 1929, one kind did rather well. During this leanest of times, the strictest, most authoritarian churches saw a surge in attendance.

This anomaly was documented in the early 1970s, but only now is science beginning to tell us why. It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.
You can guess where the article goes from there.*

Anyway, the reality is that in hard times, some believe more and others less. It depends on how the individual chooses to interpret hard times: Forced awareness of opportunity? Character discipline? Testing? Punishment? Mere accident? Proof no one "Out There" cares?

All these attitudes and many others are quite possible. Which attitudes dominate? ... that depends on temperament and culture.

*I notice New Scientist is still using Michelangelo's graphic of God bringing Adam to life ... they don't update much, do they?


Nature vs. nurture: Intriguing new research

In "Nature v nurture? Please don't ask", Mark Henderson believes we have an answer to the question of whether you are born bad or grow that way through experiences (The Times March 28, 2009):
Even more striking evidence has come from a recent series of studies led by Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt. These scientists have been following up a cohort of children born in 1972-73 in Dunedin, New Zealand, recording details of their life experiences and testing their DNA. The results have demolished the nature- nurture dichotomy.

First, Moffitt and Caspi studied a gene called MAOA, which has two variants or alleles. Boys with one allele are more likely to behave antisocially and get into trouble with the law - but only if they were also maltreated as children. When raised in well-adjusted families, those with the “risky” allele are fine. It is not a gene “for” criminality, and no determinism - genetic or environmental - is involved. A genetic variant must be activated by an environmental influence to do any potential harm.

The serotonin transporter gene, 5HTT, also has two alleles, and is known to be involved in mood. Moffitt and Caspi found that people with one allele were 2.5 times more likely to develop clinical depression than those with the other - but, again, only under particular circumstances. The risk applies only to people who also experience stressful life events such as unemployment, divorce or bereavement. When their environments are happy, their genotypes made no difference.
Well, that at least begins to make some sense, whether or not it is correct.

The way a child is raised is critical because it tells the child what he should think is a reasonable way to behave. Children are not a blank slate, but whatever we write on the slate, early on, matters.

Consider the difference between "Most people in this community are decent people who work hard and want the same things we want" vs. "You can't trust anyone who isn't a close blood relative".

Which will produce a more socially useful individual in a technologically advanced democracy?

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Psychology: What short attention spans cost us

Columnist John Hawkin makes an important point here in my view (in a summary of what he thinks is wrong in the United States today):
2) Short Attention Spans: Perhaps because of the internet, the stunning variety of news sources, or the complexity of modern society, we've become much less able as a people to follow logical arguments and deal with complex messages.

This has bled over into Congress where they write legislation dealing with issues they don't truly understand. That legislation is voted on by legislators who admit that they haven't read it and it affects the lives of millions of people who were unaware that such legislation was even being contemplated.

The problem with this is that there are many issues in life that are too knotty to be broken down into a soundbite or a 30 second commercial. Those affairs require more extensive knowledge and deeper thought and consideration than can be placed on a bumper sticker or weaved into a music video. When we lose sight of that fact, utter disasters that have been in plain sight all along for anyone with an attention span longer than five minutes can blindside much of the population.
Yes, and short attention spans can also lead people to fail to see long term benefits from comparatively simple programs.

I have long been an advocate of school breakfast and lunch programs. For children, good nutrition is an important support for learning. Provision of food, as such, is not a problem in a technologically advanced democracy. Quite the contrary, farmers destroy tonnes of perfectly good food every year that they just cannot sell at market rates.

Pregnant cows and sows go to slaughter, when their offspring could be raised - and consumed by people who need the nutrition.

Also, breakfast and lunch programs provide respectable work in the community for cooks, servers, and cleanup crew - they do not need any special training apart from instruction in using the equipment, sanitation procedures, and common sense dealings with clients.

But what happens? A big uproar starts around who is "qualified" to enter the program. How about "whoever is enrolled in the school who wants to show up for breakfast"? The bureaucracy around entitlement then costs way more than just providing the breakfast.

(A parent or guardian should, of course, be required to sign a waiver in advance regarding allergies, when the child enrols for school that year.)

But so what if someone's Filipina nanny is also eating a breakfast (because her stingy mistress only gives her a piece of toast in the morning)? I think that, in that case, the program is more of a solution than a problem, at least for now.

Short attention spans mean that people fail to see the big picture and the long term. We are not short of food in North America, but we are plagued by rampant bureaucracy, and we must get free of it in order to help people do and be their best.

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