Monday, April 02, 2007

Consciousness: The unsolved problem, revisited

A recent book on consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey has almost found th perfect reviewer in Paul Broks. He says, "Nicholas Humphrey's latest book on the mystery of consciousness travelled with me to Crete, Latvia and America. And the intellectual journey it took me on has half-persuaded me that his evolutionary approach will one day provide an answer."

Well, of course, it did. Reviewer Broks, as he introduces himself to us, would certainly be half persuaded that a materialist explanation - shipped far enough back in time that it is not really researchable - is the answer. I can only wonder what is holding up his other half.

He writes:
... how does the objective, physical activity of the brain create the private, subjective qualities of experience? For some philosophers the question is unfathomably deeper than that; not so much how does the brain produce consciousness, but how can it? How can three pounds or so of jellified fats, proteins and sugars possibly be identified with the ineffable "raw feels" of awareness: the taste of beer, the sound of cicadas, the redness of red? This is the explanatory gap. It swallows our intuitions like a black hole. Colin McGinn, a philosopher, thinks it is plain obvious that the brain is "just the wrong kind of thing" to give birth to consciousness: "You might as well assert that numbers emerge from biscuits or ethics from rhubarb." The mystery of consciousness, he says, is beyond human comprehension. Stuart Sutherland, who was a psychologist, couldn't be bothered: "Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it." But Humphrey turns the tables. Consciousness seems mysterious because it has evolved to seem mysterious. Fascination and elusiveness are its primary functions. With an evolutionary perspective, due attention to neuropsychology and a little conceptual re-engineering, the explanatory gap can be closed.

So ... it's a problem only because it has evolved to be a problem? Well, I guess, if you gotta believe in a materialist explanation, this will last out the picnic.
Check out The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary (Harper 2007).

Religion: When religion and politics are one bad mix?

Deploring the American National Council of Churches, Frank Pastore notes that
Between 2001 and 2005, revenue from member denominations dropped 40%, from $2.9 million to $1.75 million. During the same period, non-denomination revenue rose from $800,000 to $2.9 million, a jump of 362%. And in June of 2005, for the first time, outside giving ($1.76) surpassed denominational giving ($1.75), officially making the National Council of Churches financed more from non-church sources than from the people in the pews they claim to represent.

The trouble was - and I watched this over the years - the group had come to represent political positions more and more, and not spiritual ones. Membership (of member denominations) has often dropped, sometimes dramatically, with the former members turning up in storefront churches or traditional basilicas, seeking - and often finding - life change.

I should make very clear at this point that I am NOT claiming that left-wing positions, typical of the National Council of Churches, are bad (and therefore right-wing positions would have been good?).

Not at all. All political positions are an effort to make other people do something. But spiritual growth means changing oneself, not others. If others like what they see and want to change, they are free to do so, but the process is not coercive. Religion should never be politics.

Once upon a time, a clergyman friend of mine was accused of "stealing sheep" (= encouraging people to leave another church and come to his church). He shrugged and replied, "Well, sheep go where they're fed." I guess they would.
Check out The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary (Harper 2007).

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Hostile takeover of Eastern spiritual traditions?: Well, if immature Westerners can't find help in their own traditions ...?

Hey, this is for anyone who doesn't think there is enough silliness out there:

When Eastern yoga, adopted as a lark by immature people, meets degenerate Western therapy, the results can be grim. A guy can't just not follow up with a girl. And this isn't even religious fundamentalism either. It's about everything that's wrong with all traditions at once. Good advice from this article in Slate:
Hey, if Buddhism and other Eastern traditions are about compassion, why not skip the scented bath, skip making amends with the self, skip realization of "the opportunity to embrace aparigraha or non-grasping." Instead, go down to the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter and help some people who don't have the resources to send flowers to themselves, people who actually need help. Rather than continuing the endless processes of anointing yourself with overly scented candlelit self-love.

A-MEN, brother. You preach it! At any given time, there can only be one human being who is worse off than every other human being in the world, so almost any one of us can find a person who needs our help. And that's vastly more useful than ruminating on unhappiness.

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Medicine: Alternative medicine is just bunk?

In a paper in Nature, University College London Professor David Colquhoun urged British watchdogs to act against alternative medicine because it is "not based on scientific evidence." He particularly cited homeopathy.

Trouble is, homeopathy is number 4 of 13 things that don't make sense, according to a recent article in New Scientist, because there is at least some evidence that it does work, though according to current theory it shouldn't.

According to the BBC,
The Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health, a group set up by Prince Charles to promote complementary therapy, said there was increasing evidence alternative therapies worked and where there was no proof it did not necessarily mean that there would never be.

Foundation chief executive Kim Lavely added: "The enormous demand from the public for complementary treatments means that we need more research into why and how patients are benefiting.

"Scientists should want to explore this rather than make sweeping, absolutist generalisations arising from deeply held prejudice as David Colquhoun does in this article."

One problem is that the placebo effect is such a powerful effect in patients that many alternative therapies would doubtless work simply because the patient believes in them. That suggests a vast, uncharted territory that cannot be spanned simply by dismissal.

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Social psychology: The Stanford Prison Experiment revisited

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a classic in demonstrating how nice (as opposed to good) people can act in evil ways in a situation where social sanctions encourage them.

Lead experimenter Zimbardo explains how it came to be stopped, when it was getting far out of control, by - his girlfriend - a complete outsider:
It is terrible what YOU are doing to those boys!" she yelled at me. Christina made evident in that one statement that human beings were suffering, not prisoners, not experimental subjects, not paid volunteers. And further, I was the one who was personally responsible for the horrors she had witnessed (and which she assumed were even worse when no outsider was looking). She also made clear that if this person I had become — the heartless superintendent of the Stanford prison — was the real me, not the caring, generous person she had come to like, she wanted nothing more to do with me.

That powerful jolt of reality snapped me back to my senses. I agreed that we had gone too far, that whatever was to be learned about situational power was already indelibly etched on our videos, data logs, and minds; there was no need to continue. I too had been transformed by my role in that situation to become a person that under any other circumstances I detest — an uncaring, authoritarian boss man. In retrospect, I believe that the main reason I did not end the study sooner resulted from the conflict created in me by my dual roles as principal investigator, and thus guardian of the research ethics of the experiment, and as the prison superintendent, eager to maintain the stability of my prison at all costs. I now realize that there should have been someone with authority above mine, someone in charge of oversight of the experiment, who surely would have blown the whistle earlier.

Experiments like Zimbardo's no longer conform to ethics guidelines, of course. Zimbardo, understandably, sees the solution as recognizing the extent to which people are creatures of their environment, but - while that is true to some extent - it ignores Solzhenitsyn's hard-won insight that the line between good and evil passes through the human heart. Most people are simply not as good as they think, and that fact is a very traditional spiritual insight.

The whole Zimbardo thing reminds me of something that happened in, I think, 1970, in Canada, in the university town where I was studying English literature. A psychology professor was running a sleep deprivation experiment at a shopping plaza (there was a fundraising component, I think). One of my roomies volunteered for it. I was a bit worried, but what can you tell a fellow college kid?

Anyway, four days into it, I had a severe migraine, but was seized with the sudden conviction that I ought to go see what was happening to my roomie anyway.

How I found my way to the shopping plaza, I don't remember. The truth is, I could hardly see. So there were the two of us: she was up on the platform, obviously far gone from sleep deprivation with badly swollen eyelids, and I was resting on the sill, staring up at her through mere slits of eyes, one of the walking migraine dead.

But I turned and stared hard - despite the pain! - at the psychologist. I really wanted to know. To me, the woman seemed like a sort of fish, alert, with yellow eyes. I couldn't understand why she couldn't see the suffering she was inflicting on the students, but perhaps a fish would not.

I stayed a while, but sensed I was doing no good, so I wandered, somehow, back to our student squat and awaited the outcome.

A short whole later, psychiatrists at a local mental health centre phoned the psychologist and told her to end the experiment or else. (Perhaps one of them had come to visit and seen what I had seen?)

Anyway, I came away with the view that research ethics committees are, in general, a good thing.
Check out The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary (Harper 2007).

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Feeling robots?: Well, as long as you believe they feel something, it's true for you, right?

Many of us would consider "feeling" and "robot" contradictory terms, but to address the growing void in the lives of many people, the Feelix (acronym for FEEL, Interact, eXpress), a robot that simulates bonding and emotional display is being developed at the University of Hertfordshire.
One of the first machines - a box on wheels - is already showing imprinted behaviour, the Engineer magazine reported. Like a human baby, it has become attached to its "mother" and follows her around.

Dr Lola Canamero, who is co-ordinating the project, said: "The goal is to build machines that can develop social, functional skills to interact with humans."

Some of the robots will also be given artificial heads capable of producing facial expressions.

There are similar projects under way in Japan. Here's an interesting attempt to explain the Japanese cultural fascination with these toys.

It's amazing what human beings will do in order to avoid interdependence with other human beings.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).