Monday, September 03, 2007

Mind is not merely brain, Spiked reviewer insists

In a review of Chris Frith's Making Up the Mind in Spiked, British pain management expert Stuart Derbyshire defends free will:
The fundamental mistake that Frith makes – and this is a common error – is to believe that agency or free will are products only of the human brain. The brain is necessary but it is not sufficient, and chasing agency into the brain will only yield disappointment or, in this case, a sense that agency is illusory. If agency is not merely a product of ordinary brains, then it follows that abnormal brains might not be the whole or only answer when there are psychiatric problems and delusions of agency such as in schizophrenia.

To his tremendous credit, Frith is ready to push neuroscience past the hype that can be generated by a pretty picture and into a deeper understanding of what makes mental function. For that alone, Making up the Mind should be read by anyone interested in understanding contemporary neuroscience. The idea, however, that the brain constructs the mind is incomplete, and the quicker we realise that, the quicker we will make progress in understanding both normal and abnormal minds.

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Atheism features incoherent accounts of religion, spirituality, lawyer argues

Lawyer David Opderbeck comments on the claim that babies are born 100% atheists: Apart from the fact that babies don't really either believe or disbelieve anything,
... this statement seems to contradict what many contemporary atheists believe about religious experience. Contemporary atheists such as Dawkins tell us that people have in some ways been hard wired by evolution to be predisposed to religious belief. This observation, the notion of religion as a meme, allows them to suggest that the God of religious belief isn't "real," but rather is a false belief that at one time enhanced survival value but that does not correspond to reality. They of course suggest that this belief can and should be elided now that they have supposedly explained its provenance. But then, if this account of religion is even partly correct, it cannot follow that "all babies are born 100% atheists." It would be more accurate, under the hard-wired / meme view, to suggest that "all babies are born with varying degress of predisposition towards receptivity to religion memes."

But he also notes that the atheist position tends to become incoherent at this point:
On the one hand, religion is like a malicious virus, that takes advantage of its host without benefitting the host; on the other, it is rooted in social behaviour that conferred survival advantages and became hard-wired in the hominid biochemistry; on yet another hand (yes, three hands,) it is a "meme," a mysterious, unobservable, immaterial entity that was originally incorporated into a human memeplex -- another mysterious, unobservable, immaterial entity -- because of some survival value. ... )

Of course, he means materialist atheism. Non-materialist atheism is a different matter altogether.

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Mathematics is more than just climbing "the greasy pole of life"

Mathematician David Berlinski muses gracefully on the nature of mathematical genius, while reviewing David Ruelle's new book, The Mathematician's Brain. Taking issue with the claim that"the structure of human science is largely dependent on the special nature and organization of the human brain," he writes,
We do not know how the brain generates its thoughts. If the brain is simply a physical organ, there is no reason to suppose that it has access to any form of certainty beyond the calculations needed to climb the greasy pole of life. If the brain does have such access, then the structure of human science cannot be largely dependent on its physical organization.
Indeed not, for there is the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.

He goes on,
If "The Mathematician's Brain" does not answer the questions it poses, this is because no other book has answered these questions either. The book's value lies in Mr. Ruelle's description of the curious inner life of mathematicians. Their subject is very difficult. It requires unusual gifts. Physicists may disguise the triviality of their results by bustling about in large research groups. Mathematicians work alone. They are professionally naked.

Berlinski is always fun, and here is much more.

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Why stories get hyped in the pop science media

An interesting blog called Neurofuture provides many examples of pop science media discovering the gene or nervous tic or wahtever that does it all for you, always with the refrain, "Perhaps a return to reasonable arguments based on solid evidence would be a wiser course for the future."

Yes, but in popular media, that's not the way to get one's story to the head of the queue. When the editor is setting up her ever diminishing science section for Valentine's Day, which story does she pick:

"Weak correlation between certain blood groups and divorce, study finds"
"Infidelity gene discovered!"

Hey, they're the same story actually, it's just that .... the one bleeds and the other leads. And the starving freelancer heeds .. And the wise reader keeps a dish of salt handy.

Hat tip to Stephanie West at Brains on Purpose.


Service note

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.