Monday, July 09, 2007

Material mind:Biology of imagination?

Here's an interesting article by Simon Baron Cohen that tries to find a biological basis for imagination. He focuses on the ways in which small children readily learn to "make-believe."

But when it comes to biology, he doesn't get far beyond noting that autistic children don't have much imagination. For example, they don't attempt to determine and react to what others are probably thinking. Therefore, he concludes, imagination must be a "special piece of hardware":
Since the disability that comprises classic autism is biological in origin, then children with autism are offering us a big clue about the biological basis of the imagination. Of course, when the meta-representational hardware develops normally, biology has done its job. From then on, the content of our imagination, whether we imagine an angry god or a school of wizardry, a mermaid or a devil, owes more to our specific culture than to biology. But the capacity to imagine depends on genes that build brains with a very specific kind of mechanism - one that we take for granted whenever we form relationships or fantasize.

Make-believe is certainly intriguing. I have told stories to children for over forty years, and have never encountered a child over three years of age who had any difficulty whatever distinguishing "story reality" (e.g., talking cat fools dim-witted dinosaur) from "real reality" (dinosaurs are extinct and cats do not talk). It is indeed remarkable how quickly children can learn, for the purpose of amusement, the "rules" of the storyteller's alternative world and distinguish them without effort from the rules of the common world we live in.

But, given that the brain is a tossing sea of interacting neurons, I find the quest for "hardware" that enables imagination remarkable - but doubtless entirely suited to materialism.

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Religious freedom: A key to other freedoms?

A friend writes to say that Paul Marshall, with whom I worked years ago, has published a book surveying religious freedom issues (Religious Freedom in the World, Rowman and Littlefield, 2007). I can't seem to find the book online, but here is an article summarizingmarshall's findings:
Religious freedom also correlates highly with other human rights, such as Freedom House’s civil-liberty index (.862) and political-liberties index (.822), and with Reporters without Borders press-freedom index (.804). Countries with good religious records also have comparatively little social conflict, remain democratic, and are unlikely to become failed states.

That, of course, make sense, because countries that discriminate on the basis of religion are likely to face high levels of unproductive conflict. And - as Marshall would be the first to say - freedom of religion always means freedom to disbelieve as well.


Consciousness: I think, therefore I hallucinate?

In recent years, many books have attempted to explain the "hard problem" of consciousness. There is an interesting review of Douglas Hofstadter's recent I am a Strange Loop (Basic Books, 2007) by David Deutsch, in Physics Today. Hofstadter tries to understand consciousness as somehow generated by feedback loops in the brain.
I Am a Strange Loop is supposed to restate and explain his solution: in short, that a mind is a near-infinitely extendable, self-referential loop of symbols that suffers – or rather, benefits – from the hallucination of being an "I". Furthermore (Hofstadter says paradoxically), that hallucination is itself an "I". Hofstadter's "strange loop" is a bit like an ordinary feedback loop, such as the images in a pair of parallel mirrors facing each other, but instead of merely depicting itself physically, it symbolically refers to itself. And unlike ordinary self-referential statements, like this one, the symbol inside a brain that refers to itself as "I" is not used by anyone else: it is someone.

Deutsch finds the book unconvincing in part:
Strangely, Hofstadter's half of this theory of consciousness (the loopy half), is quite convincing. The unconvincing half is essentially philosopher Daniel Dennett's theory from his book Consciousness Explained (which critics have justly renamed Consciousness Denied) – namely that our opinion that we are conscious is simply mistaken. Hofstadter calls it the "I myth". We can, of course, be mistaken about anything, so here Dennett laid down a valuable marker: the true explanation of consciousness will have to refute his position.

Personally, I don't agree. The idea that consciousness is an illusion (in Dennett's sense) is a new one and the burden is on him to establish, not on others to disprove.

I suspect, and time will tell, that the computer analogy will fail in the long run to provide much insight into consciousness. Consciousness is precisely what computers do not have or evolve, or even need, it seems. Perhaps the attraction of the computer analogy lies in the possibility it offers of finding a mechanism of consciousness.

Materialists must always search for blind mechanisms and must always believe that they exist. Beyond that, in their view, there is only hallucination.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview 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).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

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