Monday, January 10, 2011

Mind: I'm with the goldfish - but only for this universe

Professional skeptic Michael Shermer takes issue with Stephen Hawking's "radical philosophy of science", asking, "Is Hawking right to claim that reality is dependent on the model used to describe it?" (Big Questions On Line, November 23, 2010):
In his new book, The Grand Design, co-authored with the Caltech mathematician Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking presents a philosophy of science he calls “model-dependent realism,” which is based on the assumption that our brains form models of the world from sensory input, that we use the model most successful at explaining events and assume that the models match reality (even if they do not), and that when more than one model makes accurate predictions “we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.” Employing this method, Hawking and Mlodinow claim that “it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation.”

[ ... ]

“If there are two models that both agree with observation, like the goldfish’s picture and ours, then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration.”
Shermer thinks he has a better idea - science:
The tools and methods of science were designed to test whether or not a particular model or belief about reality matches observations made not just by ourselves but by others as well. When one scientific lab corroborates the findings of another lab, and those findings support of a tested model, then it strengthens our confidence that the model (or hypothesis, or theory) more closely corresponds to reality, even if we can never know with 100 percent certainty the true nature of that reality.
Perhaps, but scandals emerge all the time about science-based nonsense or fraud.

Actually, in this life, we are condemned never to know for sure if we are right, and not even science is magic. That is why the truly wise put such a strong emphasis on acting prudently, justly and charitably. If that does nothing else, it probably minimizes the damage we may do by being wrong.

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Consciousness: Are dreams not a form of consciousness?

Antonio Damasio, Wikimedia Commons
Reviewing Antonio Damasio's Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain ("What Was I Thinking", New York Times November 26, 2010), philosopher Ned Block is left with questions about the author's materialist perspective, as opposed to heartily endorsing it:
Damasio also stumbles over dreaming. In dreams, phenomenal consciousness can be very vivid even when the rational processes of self-consciousness are much diminished. Damasio describes dreams as “mind processes unassisted by consciousness.” Recognizing that the reader will be puzzled by this claim, he describes dreaming as “paradoxical” since the mental processes in dreaming are “not guided by a regular, properly functioning self of the kind we deploy when we reflect and deliberate.” But dreaming is paradoxical only if one has a model of phenomenal consciousness based on self-consciousness — on knowledge, rationality, reflection and wakefulness.
Many people find that dreams represent their emotional experiences in stories and pictures, so it is unclear why they do not represent a form of consciousness, except that that would interfere with Dr. Damasio's theory. Block notes,
Damasio’s refusal to regard phenomenal consciousness (without the involvement of the inflated self) as real consciousness could be used to justify the brutalization of cows and chickens on the grounds that they are not self-conscious and therefore not conscious. Damasio, in response to those who have raised such criticisms in the past, declares that in fact he thinks it “highly likely” that animals do have consciousness. But this doesn’t square with the demanding theory he advances in his book, on the basis of which he denies consciousness in dreams and in “vegetative state” patients who can answer questions. He owes us an explanation of why he thinks chickens are conscious even though dreamers and the question-answering patients are not.
Yes, I'd say so. There's lots of evidence that some types of animals exercise some types of consciousness. It's good to see reviewers raising these questions about materialist works. Too often all we've heard from ompliant reviewers is predictable social noise: "Wow! Astonishing! Right on! Preach it, brother!" on behalf of a highly conventional materialist tract.