Wednesday, November 26, 2008

New Scientist conspiracy files: A philosophy prof responds

Recently, New Scientist magazine featured an article on non-materialist neuroscience, portraying the symposium at the UN (September 11, 2008) , sponsored by the Nour Foundation, UN-DESA, and the Université de Montréal as fronted by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

That was a surprise to me, as it would be to anyone who knows the history. Of course, Discovery wants a ticket to good seats, but so do a host of other people.

Anyway, here is Concordia University philosophy prof Angus Menuge's letter. He sent it to New Scientist, and they may or may not publish it (he is supposed to be one of the Discovery conspirators).

I am told that another letter, protesting the nonsense, from Mario Beauregard and Jeffrey Schwartz will be published in the November 29, 2008, edition of the magazine.

I wonder if it will be edited so as to remove key points ... ?

If that happens, I will publish the letter, in its entirety, here at The Mindful Hack. Anyway, here is Menuge's letter:

Amanda Gefter's article, "Creationists declare war over the brain" (22 October, 2008) misrepresents the current situation in the philosophy of mind. The article suggests that opposition to materialism arises chiefly from "creationism" and organizations such as the Discovery Institute which defend Intelligent Design. But in fact, it is widely accepted by philosophers of a wide range of religious convictions that materialism faces serious difficulties. For example, many philosophers who are secular in outlook have noticed the incompatibility of standard materialistic accounts with the nature of consciousness:

"The most striking feature is how much of mainstream [materialistic] philosophy of mind is obviously false..[I]n the philosophy of mind, obvious facts about the mental, such as that we all really do have subjective conscious mental states.are routinely denied by many.of the advanced thinkers in the subject." -- John Searle, The Rediscovery of Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 3.

"No explanation given wholly on physical terms can ever account for the emergence of conscious experience."--David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 93.

"It is not that we know what would explain consciousness but are having trouble finding the evidence to select one explanation over the others; rather, we have no idea what an explanation of consciousness would even look like."--Colin McGinn, The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 61.

"We don't know. how a brain (or anything else that is physical) could manage to be a locus of conscious experience. This last is, surely, among the ultimate metaphysical mysteries; don't bet on anyone ever solving it." --Jerry Fodor, In Critical Condition: Polemical Essays on Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 83.

Secondly, I find it very troubling, that while Amanda Gefter took the trouble of interviewing sources who advocate scientific materialism, she did not interview any critics of that position, instead relying on third-hand reports. This does not seem to reflect journalistic best practice.

Third, the choice of language in the article is emotive and betrays a fairly clear bias. In this article, The New Scientist presents itself as identifying science with the philosophical assumption of materialism, and can thus describe critics of materialism as "anti-science." If science is about pursuing the best explanation of the observable evidence, it should not prejudge its findings in favor of materialism. There are important philosophical and scientific criticisms of materialist philosophy, and it does this publication's readers no service to create the impression that all of them derive from fanatical, irrational sources.

Dr. Angus Menuge
Professor of Philosophy
Concordia University Wisconsin
12800 N. Lake Shore Drive
Mequon, WI 53097
(Note: Some links have been inserted, for reader convenience.)

I am still reading, and still enjoying Menuge's book, Agents Under Fire, about neuroscience and rationality, and strongly recommend it.

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Neuroscience: Bullies really do enjoy it, and neuroscience images the data

In "Teenage bullies are rewarded with pleasure, brain scans show", Discover Online reports,
It’s no fun being bullied, but new research supports what many teenagers have long suspected: A victim’s pain may be a bully’s gain. A new brain imaging study of aggressive teenage boys found that watching others being bullied triggered parts of their brains associated with pleasure.
In the long run, this type of research may contribute to human knowledge, as long as it is not used in a malign or misguided way. For example,
Dr. Michael Eslea, a psychology professor, commented: “A better understanding of the biological basis of these things is good to have but the danger is it causes people to leap to biological solutions - drugs - rather than other behavioural solutions”
While we are here, has anyone ever met a bully who didn't enjoy bullying? It's not the sort of thing people usually need to do, so most bullies must be getting some fun out of it:
Aggressive adolescents showed a specific and very strong activation of the amygdala and ventral striatum (an area that responds to feeling rewarded) when watching pain inflicted on others, which suggested that they enjoyed watching pain,” said [co-author] Jean Decety….
Yes, I saw that look often in my youth. Once upon a time, having been pestered repeatedly by a bully, I decided to fight back. He was following me - far, far too closely. I decided I would punch him in the face as hard as I could.

He was about twice my height.

Fortunately, I missed his face.

Unfortunately, I hit his crotch.

I was a bookish child and had no clear idea what I had done or why he was doubled over in such pain. I just ran away. Wisely, he never bothered me again.

So there is life after bullying. For both of us, I hope. I had no hard feelings then and do not now.

All I had ever said to him was, go away and leave me alone. He should have taken my advice.

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