Sunday, April 22, 2007

Emotion machines?: So THAT'S what we are!

From William S. Kowinski's San Francisco Chronicle
review of Marvin Minsky's The Emotion Machine, yet another materialist attempt to explain the human mind:
Minsky gets right to the heart of the self-help reader with his first chapter, "Falling in Love," in which he enters "The Sea of Mental Mysteries." His conclusions aren't apt to inspire many romances, however, because he views emotion as one of many "Ways to Think," and "infatuation" as "a condition in which we suppress some resources that we might otherwise use to recognize faults in somebody else." So statements about positive feelings can conceal negative statements. My favorite pair is: "She has a flawless character. (I've abandoned my critical faculties.)"

Despite Minsky's championing of complexity, his agenda is still reductionism, though he is reducing mental phenomena not by means of a few principles or laws but into many small processes, or small machines within the larger one. He announces this almost immediately: "Once we split each old mystery into parts, we will have replaced each old, big problem with several new and smaller ones -- each of which may still be hard but no longer will seem unsolvable."

It used to be that materialist reductionists were all the buzz, but now, form what I can tell, they are summer reruns - and not the good ones.

Once it became clear that the human mind was nothing like a computer, the idea was, in principle, finished. But you can expect plenty more books anyway, because catchy phrases along those lines, like "meat puppet" and "bunch of chemicals running around in a bag" are easier to generate than accurate explanations of human behaviour.
Next book! The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, Harper August 2007).

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Spirituality: Speaking in tongues

Here's a mostly reasonable article on Andrew Newberg's work. Newberg, author of The Biology of Belief: Why God Won't Go Away , has studied Franciscan nuns and tibetan monks during meditation. Here's another of his interesting studies:
In one study, Newberg and colleagues used imaging technology to look at the brains of Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues _ known scientifically as glossolalia _ then looked at their brains when they were singing gospel music. They found that those practicing glossolalia showed decreased activity in the brain's language center, compared with the singing group.

The imaging results are suggestive of people's description that they do not have control of their own speech when speaking in tongues. Newberg said scientists believe that speech is taken over by another part of the brain during glossolalia, but did not find it during the study.

Now, I have observed speaking in tongues (glossolalia) at revival meetings, and have not noticed that the people who can do it are (necessarily) unusual or mentally troubled or under the control of a cult. Advice for those who are looking for a really simple explanation: Keep looking and be very, very patient, and do not let disappointment cause you to reevaluate your thesis unless an open mind is important to you.
(Note: My lack of experience with unusual spiritual phenomena is despite the fact that a recent Toronto Star article referred to me as a fundamentalist author. As a matter of fact, I am a Roman Catholic (since 2005) and was formerly an Anglican (Episcopalian), not what most people would think of as a fundamentalist. The article has since been corrected on line but the detritus of the dead trees continues to show this error, as do some materialist atheist Web sites.

When I discovered the error, I joked to the reporter that "Fr. Martin and Fr. Jonathan [at my RC church in Toronto] will undoubtedly think it a great joke," and remarked to friends that "Given that they have seen fit to correct the error, I can now send those blasted hooded pit vipers back to Petco, and quit trying to learn fundamentalist snake handling." None too soon, I am sure.
Next book! The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, Harper August 2007).

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Free will and neuroscience: Why free will must be a foundation

Jonathan Kay's wrote a decidedly unenthusiastic column (January 23, 2007) about the recent anti-God crusade, spearheaded by arch-Darwinist Richard Dawkins. Kay, an agnostic, noted,
It's something to think about, even if you're not sitting in prison or mourning a loved one. Life finds a way to break most of us long before death arrives. People get divorced; they watch relatives die; they lose their health, their friends, their money. According to my (admittedly casual) observation, the people who snicker loudest about God are either young or lucky -- usually, both. And so they still labour under the conceit that mere cleverness will be enough to see them through life.
The atheists may be right about God. Who knows? But God or no God, it's clear that something in the human soul requires a belief that life has a purpose that transcends the material plane. One would think that a more-rational-than-thou empiricist such as Dawkins would recognize this unchanging aspect of human nature. Our Western faiths provide that spiritual nourishment -- and in their modern form, do so without inquisitions, holy wars or, for that matter, suicide belts. For all his smirking dinner-party arguments against God, does Dawkins really think this world would be a more humane place if we all looked to The God Delusion instead of The Bible for truth and comfort?

A Nathan Pila wrote in response, disagreeing. (For some reason, I cannot find any reference to the post online, but if I ever do, I will link to it.)

Which prompted a response in turn from a colleague of mine, Don Waller, who said:
Re: The Problem With Atheism, letter to the editor, Jan. 24.

Letter writer Nathan Pila's response to Jonathan Kay's column (Thy Rod and Thy Staff, Jan 23) is essentially an assertion of a worldview commonly known as physical naturalism. Specifically, in this case, that there is no mind or soul independent of the brain; all thought and behaviour is purely the result of neurochemical synapses in the brain.

It is true that some biologists have proposed this view, however, it is by no means a commonly held view. There are serious scientific and philosophical reasons why physical naturalism cannot be tenable. One philosophical argument is based on the idea of free will.
Human beings are known to exhibit what is known as libertarian freedom, that is, they can literally choose between bona fide options... A or B.

If all thought and behaviour are indeed only the result of the biochemistry of the brain, then free will cannot exist, and all we have left is pure determinism.

Furthermore, any concept of moral obligation and responsibility is also nonsensical if determinism is true. But we do not live this way because we do not believe this way.
Mr. Pila concludes by asserting that God's existence is irrelevant. If neurochemical determinism is true then one could also argue that indeed nothing truly exists including Mr. Pila -- he and his letter are just a fabrication of my biochemical synapses. Such a position is indefensible. God's existence is therefore a possibility, and if so, that existence is not irrelevant.
- Don D. Wallar, M.Sc. (Neurochemistry), Newmarket, Ont.

Also, here's an article by Andrew Higgins, originally in the Wall Street Journal, on the European version of the atheist crusade.

My next book! The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, Harper August 2007).

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Psychology news: Undeserved praise related to narcissism?

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Jeffrey Zaslow addressed the interesting problem of offering too much praise. The corporate and academic fad of praising people - even for showing up on time (like, clocks are a rare and illegal substance these days?) Has, some fear, resulted in a spate of people who need constant praise just to function. That sounds to me like an addiction, but read the article for yourself and decide. Zaslow quotes Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me:
Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable than Ever Before.. She would like to put a stop to meaningless praise, as just another undesirable urban noise - if it did not contribute to narcissism:
Certainly, there are benefits to building confidence and showing attention. But some researchers suggest that inappropriate kudos are turning too many adults into narcissistic praise-junkies. The upshot: A lot of today's young adults feel insecure if they're not regularly complimented.
America's praise fixation has economic, labor and social ramifications. Adults who were overpraised as children are apt to be narcissistic at work and in personal relationships, says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. Narcissists aren't good at basking in other people's glory, which makes for problematic marriages and work relationships, she says.
Her research suggests that young adults today are more self-centered than previous generations. For a multiuniversity study released this year, 16,475 college students took the standardized narcissistic personality inventory, responding to such statements as "I think I am a special person." Students' scores have risen steadily since the test was first offered in 1982. The average college student in 2006 was 30% more narcissistic than the average student in 1982.

Well, I am with Twenge on that one. The whole thing is really kind of simple and predictable. Most of us discount expected noise. So we don't count "good job!" if we hear it all the time. We have to hear "great job!" to think we are being praised. But what if we always hear "great job!"? Trust me:

So it is time to put this "praise" fad out of its misery, while we still have usable dictionaries.

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Heroism: How do people become heroes?

From the Virginia Tech horror emerges the story of a 76 year old engineering professor, Jewish holocaust survivor
Liviu Librescu, who blocked the doorway, enabling his students to escape to safety through the window, while he himself was killed.

A colleague recalls
"It wouldn’t amaze me he would do such a thing," fellow engineering professor Muhammad Hajj said. "He’s that kind of person, willing to take care of others, protect others."

His body is to be buried in Israel.
Much ink is spilled over the question of what one would do oneself in similar circumstances. For what it is worth, people do not typically have time to learn new skills for confronting serious danger or dying. Most of us face danger the way we face other circumstances and die the way we live. That is one reason why the major religious traditions teach the importance of cultivating a good everyday character.

Here's Graeme Hamilton's National Post essay on courage, with some interesting comments from law prof William L. Miller, whose book The Mystery of Courage looks into such questions:
His research into courage led him to study soldiers' memoirs, particularly from the U.S. Civil War, and what he found is that it is difficult to predict who will behave courageously under fire. "One of the things that features very prominently in these memoirs is that people are always sizing up everyone else in the unit: 'Who's the courageous guy, and who's the coward?' There are some tendencies but they can never quite predict. The little nerdy accountant turns out to be a great soldier and the barroom brawler turns out to just crack when he hears gunfire."

Of course, it might have taken a signal act of courage for the little nerdy accountant to go have a beer when he knew the barroom brawler was around. We cannot judge only by outward appearance.
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).

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