Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mind: Questioning "may haves" and "might haves" officially labelled "science"TM

In "A One Hundred Year-Old Challenge", Michael Flannery, author of a just-published biography of Alfred Russel Wallace, comments on Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker's latest attempt to explain away the human mind, taking the non-materialist Wallace as a starting point:
Now, after more than a century, Pinker pledges to address once and for all the "profound puzzle" Wallace posed with "the cognitive niche." Let's see if Pinker's argument matches his bravado.

The cognitive niche is not new; it was first proposed by Tooby and DeVore in 1987. But Pinker believes it has special significance in explaining the evolvability of the human mind by means of natural selection, precisely what Wallace denied. The cognitive niche rests upon two hypotheses: 1) "a mode of survival characterized by manipulating the environment through causal reasoning and social cooperation"; and 2) "the psychological faculties that evolved to prosper in the cognitive niche can be coopted to abstract domains of processes of metaphorical abstraction and productive combination, both vividly manifested in human language."

It all sounds impressive until Pinker tries to actually make a case for any of this. The narrative quickly degenerates into a trivial recounting of what humans currently do and then into a collection of speculative scenarios about how certain primordial hominids "might have" done this or "perhaps" did that. Festooned with hedges like "may have been," "may serve as," "perhaps," "may connect" -- twenty-one in a seven-page paper! -- Pinker promises to "dissolve" the Wallace paradox. If it were all mere speculation it might simply be chalked up to the desperate wishful thinking so common among evolutionary psychologists. But Pinker goes on to try and explain "how cognitive mechanisms that were selected for physical and social reasoning could have enabled H. sapiens to engage in the highly abstract reasoning required in modern science, philosophy, government, commerce, and law." His answer: most humans don't do that! Only a few humans were able to do what "all are capable of learning." Examples? Instead of Newtonian mechanical physics most human "physics" has consisted of intuitions more akin to "the medieval theory of impetus," most have believed in an "intuitive biology" like "creationism," most have reasoned towards "vitalism" over "mechanistic physiology," and with regard to the mind most people have adhered to mind/body dualism over "neurobiological reductionism." Only "some humans," he insists, were "able to invent the different components of modern knowledge." The mechanism for how the apparent "few" were able to achieve this comes from what Pinker calls the "psycholinguistic phenomenon" called "metaphorical abstraction."

Now this most surely isn't science; it's rank presentism and wishful thinking. It privileges those things Pinker values as "progressive" and "modern" and relegates all the rest to a self-fulfilling ignorance.
Find out why Pinker is surely mistaken:


Animal ESP researcher gives University College science and technology lecture

I see where Rupert Sheldrake, who studies awareness at a distance in animals and has produced some interesting results, gave the Annual iBSc Lecture to the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London: "The Extended Mind: Recent Experimental Evidence."

"Awareness at a distance", sometimes called ESP, is trashed by Richard Dawkins as a threat to materialism. At one point, Sheldrake had to ask Dawkins and TV entourage to leave his lab, when they made their intentions clear.

Oddly enough, ESP isn't particularly a threat to materialism except insofar as it challenges the idea that resolutely denying the possibility of action at a distance (as in gravity, for example) is in itself some kind of a science. Anyway, here's the abstract:
We have been brought up to believe that the mind is located inside the head. But Dr. Sheldrake argues that there are good reasons for thinking that this view is much too limited. His recent experimental results suggest that people can influence others at a distance just by looking at them, even if they look from behind and if all sensory clues are eliminated. Animals can be affected by human looks, and vice versa.

People's intentions can also seem to be detectable telepathically by animals from miles away. Hundreds of recent tests have also shown that some people can tell who is calling them before they pick up the phone. Our minds seem to extend out beyond our brains both through attention
and intention. Rupert Sheldrake will show how his hypothesis of morphic fields could help provide an explanation.

(Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D. is a biologist and author of more than 80 scientific papers and several books, including "A New Science of Life" and "Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home". He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and Research Fellow of the Royal Society. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, a visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut and lives in London. His web site is
Sheldrake's idea of a morphic field reminded me of something, and then I suddenly realized what it was: Moving around a three million-person city. The guy whose face is parked an inch from mine on the Toronto subway at rush hour is not invading my space. But if I were just walking down a typical street ... it would be a confrontation. One is constantly adjusting one's idea of one's own space based on social assessments. It is not a rigid thing at all.

In any event, the idea that the mind is not wholly inside the brain does not seem unreasonable. The mind apprehends mathematics, yet it cannot really be said that the laws that govern mathematics are "inside the brain."

Note: Some people get really upset by what they hear. Or (?) Sheldrake was stabbed at a 2008 lecture in New Mexico ...