Thursday, June 26, 2008

Consciousness: Belated "sublimely ridiculous" award for 2006

It's too bad I wasn't giving out a "completely ridiculous" award for comments on consciousness in 2006. This one, from theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, would be a slam dunk:

Our starting assumption as scientists ought to be that on some level consciousness has to be an illusion. The reason is obvious: If nothing in the physical world can have the features that consciousness seems to have, then consciousness cannot exist as a thing in the physical world. So while we should concede that as conscious subjects we do have a valid experience of there being something in our minds that the rules of the physical universe doesn't apply to, this has to be all it is - the experience of something in our minds."
Nicholas Humphrey, "Consciousness: The Achilles Heel of Darwinism? Thank God, Not Quite", in John Brockman (ed.),
Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement (Vintage, 2006), pp. 58-9. Original emphasis.
Actually, consciousness isn't the Achilles heel of Darwinism; it is Darwinism's grave. Here's the Humphrey paper, which appeared in this book:

Hat tip: Krauze at Telic Thoughts


When pop science TV wants to hear only one side ...

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake, who researches animals and telepathy, recalls the day Richard Dawkins Inc. descended on him:
Soon before Enemies of Reason was filmed, the production company, IWC Media, told me that Richard Dawkins wanted to visit me to discuss my research on unexplained abilities of people and animals. I was reluctant to take part, but the company’s representative assured me that “this documentary, at Channel 4’s insistence, will be an entirely more balanced affair than The Root of All Evil was.” She added, “We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry”. So I agreed and we fixed a date. I was still not sure what to expect. Was Richard Dawkins going to be dogmatic, with a mental firewall that blocked out any evidence that went against his beliefs? Or would he be open-minded, and fun to talk to?
In the event,
He produced no evidence at all, apart from generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgment. He assumed that people want to believe in “the paranormal” because of wishful thinking.

We then agreed that controlled experiments were necessary. I said that this was why I had actually been doing such experiments, including tests to find out if people really could tell who was calling them on the telephone when the caller was selected at random. The results were far above the chance level.

The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.

Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I’m don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.

The Director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic.

I said to Russell, “If you’re treating telepathy as an irrational belief, surely evidence about whether it exists or not is essential for the discussion. If telepathy occurs, it’s not irrational to believe in it. I thought that’s what we were going to talk about. I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise.”

Richard said, “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise; it’s a high grade debunking exercise.”

In that case, I replied, there had been a serious misunderstanding, because I had been led to believe that this was to be a balanced scientific discussion about evidence. Russell Barnes asked to see the emails I had received from his assistant. He read them with obvious dismay, and said the assurances she had given me were wrong. The team packed up and left.

Now, one of Sheldrake's subjects is animals and telepathy. I don't know what to make of animals and telepathy, but this much I know is true: As Mario Beauregard and I discussed in The Spiritual Brain, there is good reason to believe that the human mind is not as tightly bound to the brain as many believe. I don't know a clear reason that animal minds would differ from human ones in that regard.

Those who deny animal telepathy almost always also deny human telepathy - because they are materialists. Telepathy is a threat to materialism, not to human uniqueness. Put another way: Telepathic animals seem to be telepathic about the things they can understand as animals. As I wrote to a friend recently,
For example, a dog knows he loves his master, but he does not say to himself "Someday my master will die, and I will die too. I wonder which of us will die first?" Such a mental operation is not part of the type of intelligence that a dog has.

Now consider the dog who was videotaped "sensing" when his mistress was starting for home from a remote location, and beginning to show signs of alertness: The dog knows he is waiting for his mistress, but he has no idea what she is doing when she is away from home or why, let alone how these activities might affect the timing of her arrival.

The dog's telepathy, if demonstrated, functions around his existing canine intelligence; it does not admit him to new worlds of intelligence that would give him a human type of information.

That is how one might reasonably expect animal telepathy to function, and some of Sheldrake's papers do look quite interesting.

Labels: ,

Psychology: Compassion is an emotion, not a virtue unless disciplined, prof says

In "How an Emotion Became a Virtue – it took some help from Rousseau and Montesquieu" in In Character, University of Toronto political science prof Clifford Orwin makes the critical - and often misunderstood - point that compassion is an emotion, and not necessarily a virtue:

That compassion is natural to human beings there is no question. But does it pertain to our higher or to our lower natures? As even or precisely those who take compassion for a virtue acknowledge, it is an emotion. Can an emotion be a virtue? Yes, if the keynote of virtue is naturalness in the sense of spontaneity or authenticity. No, if what defines virtue is the perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion. For this reason the long history of thought about compassion (stretching back at least 2,500 years now) has revolved around just this issue.
As an emotion, compassion is easily preferred to simple ingrown selfishness. But - and this is part of Orwin's point in tracing the history of attitudes to compassion,

Of all peoples the Americans could most be counted on to come to the assistance of their fellows, at least in cases involving no great inconvenience to themselves (II.iii.4).

The qualification is significant. Not democracy but aristocracy is the home of heroic, self-sacrificing virtues. Democrats are good-hearted, but they’re also people in a hurry, necessarily preoccupied with their own business.
Surely, Orwin has a good point here. Just feeling "badly" for people can lead to quick fixes that do more harm than good. As he also notes, suffering is not necessarily the worst thing in the world - a sense of meaninglessness is probably worse for most people, to judge from what it leads to.

That was why the classical philosophers taught that compassion must be balanced and disciplined by other virtues. For example, the people who can really help this poor woman (with uncontrollable itching) will need to master mere terror and pity, and get down to the business of the neuroscience and neurosurgery that can help her. Late nights and boring hours, yes - but there is no other solution to difficult neurological problems.