Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mind: We still have no explanation for why humans have minds - or thoughts

In James Randerson's "We know nothing about brain evolution" (Guardian UK, February 19, 2008) we learn that Harvard's Richrd Lewontin has pointed out the obvious:
"Why we know nothing about the evolution of cognition". He systematically dismissed every assumption about the evolution of human thought, reaching the conclusion that scientists are still completely in the dark about how natural selection prompted the massive hike in human brain size in the human line.

The main problem is the poor fossil record. Despite a handful of hominid fossils stretching back 4m years or so, we can't be sure that any of them are on the main ancestral line to us. Many or all of them could have been evolutionary side branches.

Worse, the fossils we do have are difficult to interpret. "I don't have the faintest idea what the cranial capacity [of a fossil hominid] means," Lewontin confessed. What does a particular brain size tell us about the capabilities of the animal attached to it?
Of course Lewontin is right! First, cranial capacity is not the best measure of intelligence, as brain absent humans show. While we are here, a number of studies show that some birds (notably crows) are smart - even though they do not have the brain parts we humans associate with smartness. At the time, I said,
I've long been skeptical of claims that intelligence evolved as an aid to survival. The vast majority of life forms that have survived for millions or even hundreds of millions of years did not require - or acquire - intelligence. The newer notion that intelligence is spurred by the need for complex social interactions seems a bit closer to the mark, though not entirely satisfactory. After all, many insects have achieved complex social interactions without anything like what we humans regard as intelligence.
There is no "survival of the fittest" reason why humans should be conscious! None whatever. Bacteria are way more fit than humans, but do they have thoughts? Nada. And they are probably better off without them.

So we are stuck being human and having minds, and we really can't claim that our minds give us a survival advantage. Its more the opposite. We give our minds a survival advantage.

Hat tip: Pos-Darwinista

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Neuroscience: Focus of attention and phenomenal achievement

Reviewing Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, David Brooks says,
Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.
Brooks is clearly referring to the work of non-materialist neuroscientists such as Jeffrey Schwartz, author of The Mind and the Brain. He adds,
Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.
That said, Gladwell’s overall thesis is - on the face of it - astonishing in what it misses, assuming that Brooks has got it right. Apparently, he told Jason Zengerle of New York magazine:
The book’s saying, ‘Great people aren’t so great. Their own greatness is not the salient fact about them. It’s the kind of fortunate mix of opportunities they’ve been given.’
Oh? What fortunate mix of opportunities was Mother Theresa given? She was a nobody from Albania, a nun stuck in a convent in Calcutta in the aftermath of World War II, while India struggled through independence.

Mother Theresa was removed as principal of a girls’ school because she was suspected of an improper relationship with her Father Confessor.

She was in fact seeking his confidential guidance regarding certain visions she had experienced - visions in which she was asked to start a missionary movement to help the poorest of the poor … but it seemed so unlikely to her that she could do so.

Surely, the very best person to start a worldwide movement to aid the destitute was a disgraced nun, banished to the boonies …

And yet, … and yet …

What's missing in the conflict between Brooks and Gladwell is an awareness of the critical importance of vision. Real, original achievement always requires vision, which is not best described as a “fortunate mix of opportunities.” Lots of people who had a fortunate mix of opportunities have no vision and lots of people who have vision do not have a fortunate mix of opportunities. The remarkable thing is how often the latter outstrip the former.

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Mind: We have minds whether we recognize them or not

A friend draws my attention to this video, in which Robert Wright interviews materialist psychologist Steven Pinker on consciousness and does a good job of bringing out Pinker's circular reference to materialism:
You can easily observe in this interview that Pinker can't see that his intellectual struggle with "sentience" [awareness-of-awareness, holistic awareness of self] is the result of an incompleteness in his material presuppositions.

This might apply: During meditation or deep prayer the mind shuts down sections of the brain to achieve the desired undistracted state. This argument relates to the cause-effect argument above. In this case the mind quiets the brain so that the brain is not sending distracting information to the mind ....
Also, while I am here, best wishes to Cindy Lou Bailey, who reported on Facebook: "Thanks for recommending the book, "Spiritual Brain". I got it on CD and have enjoyed it. I am now at Andrews University taking their Leadership Degree with a concentration in Neuroscience."

Hey, need any more help, we are only an e-mail address away.

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Evolutionary psychology: The scam getting nailed at last?

Can this really be happening? Or am I going to wake up from some Nutcracker Suite fantasy tomorrow morning to discover that the cat is violently sick, due to a regrettable attempt to eat the Christmas flower arrangement?

Get this: In Scientific American (December 19. 2008), a load of evolutionary psychology rubbish gets nailed. In Evolution of the Mind: 4 Fallacies of Psychology, David J. Buller notes, "Some evolutionary psychologists have made widely popularized claims about how the human mind evolved, but other scholars argue that the grand claims lack solid evidence".

Well, that is an appropriately scientifically modest way of putting it. And my best guess is that David Buller will not lose his position at Northern Illinois University over his effort to enforce some distinction between science and science fiction. Long overdue, of course.

Read the article here, and especially enjoy the fact that Scientific American will not likely be put under huge pressure to disown it. The Age of Nonsense about the Mind may be ending, and none too soon.

Thee are lots of serious questions to address, like how to fight off the debilitating effects of late life brain diseases. Foolish stories about cave men won't help. Few cave men lived to an age where late life diseases even become an issue.

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