Friday, May 16, 2008

Twins who literally share a body have different selves, personalities

Do we have individual selves, or is individuality just an illusion? Consider the case of two girls who share one body, Abigail and Brittany Hensel - conjoined twins who, at 18 years of age, are clearly different people even though from the neck down they have only one body. They wanted to make the documentary offered by The Learning Channel so that people would not just stare at them and take pictures. Also here. Here they are as young children.

Most conjoined twins don't live anywhere near as long as Abigail and Brittany. Vital organs may not function properly in a semi-twinned state, and efforts to separate twins may kill one or both. But these girls are consistently separate above the navel and united below.

As their mother says, when she greets them - it is two kisses and one hug. And the future will be most interesting.

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Does neuroscience leave room for God?

A friend, Angus Menuge, of Concordia University, Wisconsin, offers a PowerPoint called "Does Neuroscience Leave Room for God? And he obviously thinks it does.

Menuge showed this PowerPoint when he was debating PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota (Morris), a frequent critic of non-materialist viewpoints. Menuge comments,
Moving closer to the central issue of the debate, I argued that there is considerable evidence against the materialist contention that the brain reduces to the mind. There is the “hard problem” of consciousness, that subjective awareness is not explained or predicted by impersonally described states of the brain. Then there is the evidence from neuroscientists such as Jeff Schwartz and Mario Beauregard that, in addition to the bottom-up influence of the brain on the mind, the mind has a top-down influence on the brain (cognitive therapies that exploit neuroplasticity) and on health (psychoneuroimmunology). I focused on how these approaches gave hope to patients by showing that their own conscious choices could play a role in their recovery and health. I also mentioned the remarkable studies of Near Death Experiences by Pim van Lommel. I held up and recommended Jeff Schwartz and Sharon Begley’s The Mind and the Brain, and Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’ Leary’s The Spiritual Brain, and said that if someone is a true skeptic, they should be skeptical of materialism as well as of non-materialistic claims.
Dr. Myers held up a large standard volume on neuroscience, and asserted that it was better than Schwartz’s and Beauregard’s books, apparently because it was bigger! He then showed some interesting slides detailing the standard “homunculus” model of the brain, mapping various sensations and bodily functions to parts of the brain. He acknowledged the reality of neuroplasticity, but claimed that this could all be understood in terms of chemical processes in the brain, without appeal to consciousness. Yet, interestingly, he admitted that no-one could explain consciousness. Dr. Myers also mentioned a recent scientific experiment showing that in advance of conscious awareness of decision, there is already a 60% probability of action. (He did not, however, claim that this showed there was no free will*, and since the result was so recent and under-analyzed, I chose not to take the bait.)
Dr. Menuge says he is greatly indebted to Mario Bearegard and me for The Spiritual Brain , which shows how gracious he is. We only pull together what everyone should know, in a way that makes it easy to understand.

*This experiment probably does not have much to do with free will. I will post more on it later, but consider the following example: A woman vows to give up coffee for a week, and donate the proceeds to charity. Around noon on Monday, she finds herself "automatically" heading for the coffee urn at work. Does that mean she has no free will? Of course not. She had free will when she decided to forego coffee for a week, but force of habit suggests habitual routines. Perhaps it was 100% probable that she would start for the coffee urn at noon on the first day. But that doesn't mean she is forced to carry through with her usual habit.


Human mental abilities: The result of "cultural cross-fertilisation"?

Hot on the heels of BoBos author David Brooks acknowledging that materialist neuroscience is failing (!), New Scientist's Andy Coghlan argues, in "How Culture Made Your Modern Mind,"

IT IS one of the hottest questions of our time: how did our cognitive abilities explode, leaving other animals for dust intellectually?

Now a new explanation is emerging. Controversially, it challenges the idea that biology alone is what drove the evolution of intellectual skills. What if we acquired abilities such as the capacity to invent, converse or work in unison as a result of a continual process of cultural cross-fertilisation with the world we inhabit, and through the way we interact with other people and material things?
Well, Andy, I don't doubt that your current idea is way closer to the mark than the crass materialism for which New Scientist is legendary.

You replace what we know can't be true with something that at least begins to resemble reality.

Humans, of course, influence each other. Most important skills require a definite knowledge base. For example, historically, everyone wanted harder, sharper tools, but skills in forging iron and smelting steel must be developed, taught, and learned.

But why did this happen for human beings, and not for rats, mice, moles, and voles? And how? The answers may not fit into a materialist scheme.

On the other hand, maybe New Scientist will come up with a study next month "demonstrating" that the rudiments of human cognition are latent in the rat holes, mouse nests, and molehills that surround us after all.

As if.

Note: When I was working on my share of The Spiritual Brain, New Scientist was one of my favourite venues for materialist theories about the human mind that do not really work. During that entire, exhausting project, New Scientist never failed me. If NS starts to smarten up, I will need to either find another source of materialist silliness, or write about something else.


Language: No current theory of its origin is worth much

Further to the question of the origin of language, in "Selective scenarios for the emergence of natural language"* Szabolcs Számadó and Eörs Szathmáry opine,
Explaining the evolution of human language is likely to remain a challenge for the coming decade. As we have discussed, there is no single theory that could sufficiently answer all the questions about honesty and groundedness, power of generalisation, and uniqueness. Table 1 summarises these criteria. As one can see, most of the theories fail to answer most of the questions. Perhaps the easiest criterion to fulfil is shared interest, as there are several social situations that assume shared interest between communicating parties (such as hunting or contact calls). There are only two theories, 'tool making' and 'hunting' 22 and 26, that do significantly better than the others as they can answer three out of the four questions asked of them (Table 1). Thus, it might be tempting to say that some combination of the two could provide a series of selective scenarios that would fit all of our criteria. The most notable conclusion, however, is that all the theories fail to explain the uniqueness of human language. Thus, even though indirect evidence strongly suggests that the evolution of human language was selection limited, it remains difficult to envisage a scenario that would show why.
Theirs is, on the whole, a glum look:
The recent blossoming of evolutionary linguistics has resulted in a variety of theories that attempt to provide a selective scenario for the evolution of early language. However, their overabundance makes many researchers sceptical of such theorising. Here, we suggest that a more rigorous approach is needed towards their construction although, despite justified scepticism, there is no agreement as to the criteria that should be used to determine the validity of the various competing theories. We attempt to fill this gap by providing criteria upon which the various historical narratives can be judged. Although individually none of these criteria are highly constraining, taken together they could provide a useful evolutionary framework for thinking about the evolution of human language.
They go on to hope that Darwin's natural selection will answer the question, but it is hard to see how. Natural selection eliminates life forms that express genes that do not help them survive. It is not known to produce ideas that must be expressed in language.

*(Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 21, Issue 10 , October 2006, Pages 555-561)


Language: NOT a sopisticated version of primal screams

Explaining language, Elizabeth Svoboda writes,

Lots of animals make noise; much of it even conveys information. But for sheer complexity, for developed syntax and grammar, and for the ability to articulate abstract concepts, you can’t beat human speech.

No you can't beat human speech, but if you are a human, you won't even be trying to beat it. Maybe Vulcan speech is actually better for some abstract concepts, but only Vulcans would care, right?

And that is the fundamental problem with materialist efforts to explain human language. The tomcat, for example, doesn't speak a human-like language because he has nothing to say that requires it. He can get by with yowls, snarls, and purrs.

Humans need a language that expresses ideas because we need to communicate ideas. The ideas come first. The complexities of our languages are structures chosen to express ideas and feelings the tomcat does not have.

The materialist needs to explain language as a sophisticated version of primal screams, but that project is bankrupt and pointless because that isn't really what human language is.

If your math teachers wants to explain to you why dividing by zero is not an acceptable operation in mathematics or your civics teacher wants to explain the advantages and disadvantages of proportional representation, they want to explain to you things that are irrelevant to primal screams.

On the same topic, Sver Eldoy, among others, commented recently,

[ ... ] Any human from any part of the planet are capable of learning any language; this fact lends credit to the assumption that languages are indeed something living in systems within the brain. The sheer complexity of human language is way too high to be a bi-product of the other mental faculties; if it were not we would have made talking computer programs already and "artificial intelligence" would be a "walk in the park".

But are languages really "living in the systems of the brain"? How about this: The idea to be communicated, along with the desire to communicate, is living in the systems of the brain.

Spoken language is the most obvious method that we adopt, because we have the equipment and we are encouraged to use it. But people deprived of hearing and/or speech have developed sign languages that function in the same way as vocal languages. And non-verbal people often express themselves in a sophisticated way in art or music.

So the desire to communicate exists independently of the usual equipment, and the ideas to be communicated are a necessary condition and justification of human language.