In Which I Argue At Length With A MacArthur Genius

Strong-ily, wrong-ily
Neurophilosophers
Tout their position:
“The self as the brain”

Finding our cause in our
Neuroanatomy—
Sadly, it’s fictional:
Lemme explain….

(tl;dr–“brain as self” models are dependent on a particular philosophical model; the conclusions are more a factor of the requirements of that model than of the evidence.)

Mano presents a clip from the Colbert Report, in which neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland tells Colbert that neuroscience shows there is no such thing as, among other things, a soul.

True enough… but damn, does she have to say the brain is responsible for consciousness? That is just plain… well, dependent on a set of philosophical assumptions that are rarely if ever questioned. Which leads to bad questions, which leads to crap answers, which leads to “deep philosophical questions” that are a pile of horseshit.

“We (some mammals) have the same neural mechanism for pair bonding” (paraphrased from Churchland’s interview) is not at all the same thing as “the brain is responsible for pair bonding”. And the difference makes all the difference in the world. And, oddly enough, the difference is philosophical.

If you think that, say, a person could be replicated at a given moment—replicated down to the quark, or smaller if such things exist—and that this replicated being would possess all the qualities of the original… then you are a mechanist. The notion that your life history is stored, is somehow represented in the structures of your body, is mechanistic. The requirement that any change in your behavior is necessarily the effect of some immediate cause, some proximal cause stored in body or mind or wherever… is mechanistic. That is, these things which make so much sense, make sense because they are framed in terms of a mechanistic world view which you (not just you , of course) have been fed since you were knee high to a jackalope.

But, you see, mechanism is not A) the only philosophy you can use in such scenarios, nor B) the way you live your life and learn the terms used back in that mechanistic scenario. See, the thing is, events in your life unfold over time. And that time need not be compressed and represented as some instantaneous thing. Mechanism’s metaphor is a clockwork, and you can stop a clock, look at its gears, and infer what happens in present, past, and future. A clockwork represents all of that information in an instantaneous slice of time/space. That’s a requirement of the model. That’s not a requirement of reality.

You see, there are other models. A contextualist model recognizes the contributions that happen across time and across situation, and does not require that they be “stored” inside you, since they actually do exist outside you, and are part of the context of your actions. Your actions can only be defined as embedded within context—the environments that promote or suppress a given range of behavior, the consequences that select for or against a range of behavior…

In other words, what you do in a given situation depends on what has tended to work in similar situations. An evolutionary model, really.

“Fitness” is not stored within an individual; fitness is defined across populations, across generations, with respect to environments. Fitness is necessarily dependent on variables that are defined across extended time and space. To place “fitness” inside an individual, as the presumed cause of their success or failure at something (sex, say, or foraging), is to misrepresent the concept. (alas, yes, I have seen it presented this way—that is precisely the problem I am writing about.)

Ah.

The same, exact misrepresentation is constantly used in human behavior. There are concepts (again, like “fitness” in biology, and “consciousness” in behavior) that are only definable in a manner extended over time, and dependent on environment. Those wonderful brains that are the “cause” of the self? They have been shaped by the environment, in (at least) two very important ways, across two very different scales of time. One, of course, is evolution—this is at least given lip service in the “brain is self” camp, though it seems all too often as if they want to think of our modern brain as the ultimate product of evolution, rather than an ongoing work. But yes, over millions and billions of years, the environment has selected this behavior over that, and the brain structures that support this behavior have thus been favored. It is not, of course, the brain itself that is being selected for or against, but the behavior (and in our case, the flexibility in behavior) it allows.

The second sort of environmental influence, I don’t think I have ever seen credited in a “brain is self” claim, although it is every bit as important as the evolutionary history. Every brain that a researcher runs through a PET scan, CAT scan, X-ray, FMRI, or EEG… is part of an actual person, a whole organism that has been interacting with an environment, including a culture, for all of its lifetime thus far. This brain is part of a person who behaves—over time, and with respect to environment (including social and cultural environment as well as physical environment)—and whose behavior can only be seen as unfolding across time.

You cannot slice open a person’s leg to see where they have walked. A person’s accent is not stored in their vocal cords while they are not speaking. Where they have walked, and how they talk, are dependent on where, and with whom, they lived. We speak of stored abilities, or traits, or habits, but these things are only seen unfolding across time, and their “storage” is not observed but inferred under the assumptions of that clockwork model. The inference comes as a requirement of the model, not as an obvious part of the behavior—where is my walk stored, when I sit down?

Consciousness does not arise in the brain. It is a property of our interactive behavior, unfolding over time. Everything about what it means to be conscious, what it means to be aware, takes place across time and in interaction with an environment; to say it is caused by some brain part is to neglect the history of the environment shaping the brain. “Brain as self” is, functionally, as dualistic (and as wrong) as Descartes’s substance dualism. The brain does not control the body; the brain is part of the body. If there is metaphorical puppetry going on, it is not the brain as puppet master—rather, the environment (across genetic time as well as individual learning) is the puppet master, and the brain acts as the strings.

Ah… Memories…

I remember it so clearly
It’s as if it just occurred
I remember every image,
Every moment, every word;
I remember every instant,
Every story, brief or long,
I remember it forever…
But I just remember wrong.

I can tell you all that happened
On a day ten years ago—
I can tell you, I remember,
All my memories, I know—
I can summarize my knowledge,
All the lovely things I feel
All these things are in my memory
But it isn’t really real

It’s a perfect reproduction
It’s the best you’ll ever find
Every detail, trapped forever,
In the amber of my mind
All the flowing stream of consciousness
Is trapped in memory’s cup…
It’s astonishing to realize
Just how much of it’s made up

If your memory’s often fuzzy
Then you might have thought it best
To believe it, when they told you
Half your recollection’s guessed—
But for those with minds of crystal
Those whose memories are clear—
Why, the thought they might be faulty
Is a foreign thing to hear

But the truth, or so they tell us,
Isn’t difficult to see—
We will manufacture memories
And believe them, you and me
And our confidence is faulty,
Though so strongly we believe…
We build worlds upon our memories,
But our memories… deceive.

So, yeah, TIME (remember when they were a magazine?) has a neat (though incomplete, necessarily, given the scope of the subject and limitations of space) piece on false memories–even among those with “highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM)” (in other words: not me). Seems the evidence shows (color me unsurprised) that even those with incredibly good memories are likely to misremember, and to systematically show biases that distort our memories. (Seriously, worth reading, and with a frankly stunning video which I cannot embed here.)

Even the best are flawed. Sounds very human. And it is. (Not that other species don’t display such flaws, but rather that it seems a characteristic of humanity that we do, despite our opinion of ourselves.) The evidence we send people to execution for… is flawed. As certain as we are, it ain’t necessarily so.

I remember being ready to testify in court as to a person’s guilt… only to find that I was looking at the wrong man. I remember being the person another thought was guilty (they were also wrong, I hasten to inform you). Memory is a nasty and crude tool, but we have been told that there are some among us who claim to have mastered it.

Seems likely they are wrong.

If Obama’s An Atheist, He’s Sure Got A Funny Way Of Showing It

I’m certain Obama’s an atheist
The clues are all there, if you search—
Like the way he supports public praying
And the way he has long gone to church
His support for the faith-based initiatives
And his scripture reflections each day
Yes, I’m certain Obama’s an atheist
Cos the clues are all there on display.

You’ve likely heard by now–Richard Dawkins, on Bill Maher’s show, expressed his confidence that President Obama is actually an atheist… which, in the context of the show, put him in the company of other good atheists… like Pope Francis.

It all makes sense now. The Obama administration’s support of town council prayers in Greece, NY, is part of an elaborate scheme to disguise Obama’s atheism so that he can be elected for a third term…

When Oprah denied Diana Nyad’s atheism, the godless movers and shakers didn’t much like it. You don’t get to simultaneously deny and appropriate someone else’s beliefs when you can’t wrap your head around the fact that someone you admire holds views you disagree with. This goes for Oprah, and it goes for Dawkins and Maher, too.

For my thinking, I really don’t care what Obama (or Diana Nyad) believes; I care what he (or she) does. When they do admirable things, I admire those accomplishments; when they do deplorable things, I deplore them. People are complex; few, if any, are all good or all bad. Looking at actions, rather than pinning a label on the actors, allows us to recognize the good and the bad, and hopefully support the former and not the latter–in those we admire and in those we… not so much.

Simple

There is beauty in simplicity
When simple things are true;
But solving complex mysteries—
There’s beauty in that, too

There are simple things, and complex things,
And mysteries and more…
Sure, sometimes you have favorites,
But it isn’t either/or

Ok, so I saw this commercial, and it really bothered me:

Do you want to hear about the chemical composition of the sun? Or simply feel it on your face? Do you want to talk about all the muscles it takes for two hands to connect? Or just enjoy that they can? Do you want to debate why an apple a day keeps the doctor away? Or just take a bite? Do you want to talk about what it takes to make a miracle happen? Or just look at one?

To have a kid’s voice say these lines is, to my ears, just horrible! Kids want to know the chemical composition of the sun, and are fascinated by how muscles, sinews, bones and skin combine to make hands work. The ad writers have the kid certain that apples work, and that babies are “miracles”. Kids are naturally curious–why on earth would you base a “simplify” commercial around someone who probably makes Rube Goldberg machines out of kitchen appliances, clothes hangers, and tape. Kids see the beauty in complexity–in stuff that takes a lot of work to understand. That’s one of the best things about kids.

I can see why a healthcare plan might want to simplify. But damn, this commercial just grates at me whenever I see it.

Piecing Together The Fragments Of The Past

From fragments sifted from the dirt
We piece together what was here
An image forms, a poor mosaic;
Some details never will be shown.
The evidence of daily life—
A broken lamp, a shattered vase,
A stairway worn with countless steps,
The profile of a woman’s face—
These buried pieces, lost to time
We may discover, quite by chance
While off in search of something else—
An accident of circumstance.
So, too, it seems, with memories;
Forgotten, lost, for decades hidden
But then, while on another search
They spring to present mind, unbidden.
They feel complete, in every way,
As if no more than hours old
But how much is illusory?
It could be quite a lot, I’m told.
We reconstruct our precious past
And fill in gaps, the experts say,
To fit our present narrative
And lead to what we feel today

I found this verse—well, half of it—
I’d written several years ago;
I’ve reconstructed what I meant…
Or maybe not. We’ll never know.

Frieze fragment

Frieze fragment – image: Cuttlefish

So, yeah, I literally found the first half of this verse, in the back of a notebook I was using in Greece. I must have written it after visiting one of the many archaeological museums or digs we went to (the above image is, I believe, from Pella). The verse stopped after the word “Forgotten”, which (as you can see) is immediately after the shift from literal to metaphor, and a bit of an ironic place to have to reconstruct from. Some of the museums had pots that were considerably more filled-in than original shards; some were nearly complete. Sometimes you knew, or believed you did, exactly what the artist or crafter had in mind; other times, the effect was equal parts their imagination and your own.

Did I complete the thought I had started over 5 years ago? Probably not. Maybe. I’m a different cuttlefish than I was then.

Nike of Paeonius

Nike of Paeonius – image: Cuttlefish

Heh… if I were cruel, I’d link Schubert’s “unfinished symphony” as the autoplay music for this post.

Unintended Consequences; or, Get Off Of My Lawn!

My parents worked through poverty,
Through hardship and through strife,
In part so we, their children, had
A better chance at life

And we, their sons and daughters,
With our parents’ words well heeded
Have worked so that our children, too
Have better lives than we did.

To make the world a better place
Each generation’s toiled…
And when it worked, our folks complained
That kids these days are spoiled.

So I’ve been helping, these past few days, my niece move into her new apartment, preparing for grad school. My parents were also visiting at the time, and helping as well.

And so it is that we know how much bigger this apartment is than the one they started out in, and how they got by with just two cooking pans, cracked plates, mismatched cutlery, and let’s not even get started on things like a TV. “The one thing we couldn’t give you is the one thing that did the most for us, and that’s poverty.”

I’m calling bullshit. This is the same romanticizing of the past that leads people to vaccine denialism–people were stronger back when they had to struggle with measles, polio, and whooping cough. Kids these days have it too easy, with their vaccines, their child labor laws, their health care, and an infrastructure that puts the accumulated knowledge of the world at their fingertips. We didn’t have computers back then, and we are better for it.

Back when my parents actually were poor (and even then, I suspect their own parents had a different view of it–my dad’s father built their house by hand, even digging the basement himself, so quit your complaining about a small apartment someone had already built)… where was I? Oh, yeah, back when my parents actually were poor, poverty was not a character builder, it was something to be escaped, or better yet, avoided. Any decent human being would work so that their children would not have to experience the poverty they did.

And it worked. Well, it worked for some, my privileged self included. My parents gave me a start that their parents could not give them. I tried, and mostly succeeded, to do the same thing for my children. As did my siblings. As did countless other parents, generations of people doing their best to change the world for the better. Our power grid is better (well, at present it is aging); our water and waste systems are better; our telecommunication structure, our food distribution, our information superstructure, all better (again, for the privileged, including my parents and my family).

It worked. Now, my kids and nieces and nephews, and their generation, can answer questions in seconds, that we had to find a library and look for appropriate sources and hope they were available and yadda yadda yadda… and which my parents’ generation might not have even attempted to answer, or asked in the first place. The world is different; it always is. It was not better to have to work for those particular answers, it was just more difficult. Now that the answers can be found easily, the newer generation can spend that effort pushing the envelope. Look at the astounding progress of science in recent decades; in part, that is possible because technology has made the difficult tasks easier, so that the hard work can be devoted to the hard tasks.

We should not romanticize poverty. If we do, it is too tempting to choose not to fight it. And just as childhood illnesses could have long-reaching consequences that last decades, poverty has long-reaching consequences, that can span decades and cultures. Vaccines can spare us much of the cost of these diseases. Education and health care are a good start at sparing us the costs of poverty.

And when it works, we should appreciate that success, not belittle it. It makes no sense at all to promote doing easy things the hard way, when we have enough hard problems to go around.

So, yes, my niece has a nice apartment. Congratulations, Grandma and Grandpa–you have succeeded in making the world a better place for your kids and theirs. Thank you, sincerely and from the bottom of my hearts. We couldn’t have done it without you. And think–if she were starting out as you started out, all your hard work would have been for nothing.

So hush now, and be proud–of her, and of yourselves. And watch, cos it’s her turn now to work on the hard problems. And because we have some real hard problems, aren’t you glad you gave her a running start?

Oh, Nothing, Really….

When philosophers talk about “nothing”
Why, their nothing has nothing at all
No time, and no space, and no matter,
Not even the quantumly small

When philosophers talk about “nothing”
It’s a special and magical word
But it isn’t the “nothing” that physicists see,
Cos the thing is, it must be inferred

Now, this doesn’t much bother philosophers
As a rule, they are rarely unnerved
But you see, this philosopher’s nothing?
It has never—not once—been observed

When philosophers argue religion
And their “nothing” implies a first cause…
If you get to assume your conclusions,
You’re not looking for natural laws

If the universe started from nothing
Which it can’t, the philosophers say
Either “nothing”, or “nothing”, is faulty
So… why swing the philosophers’ way?

There are two different versions of “nothing”
Which the sides have us choosing between
One version says God isn’t needed…
And the other has never been seen

So it’s “nothing” to fret about, really
(and “nothing” seems overly broad)
And there’s nothing that needs a creator…
But it works… if you presuppose God.

Y’know, I would swear I’ve already responded to this… but my aggregator says no. Lemme show you a video by Peter Kreeft, explaining that belief in god is more rational than atheism…

Yes, Kreeft starts with Aquinas, because the 1200’s are so modern.

Ok… I was going to go through the whole video, but I think maybe I’ll save that for later. I want to mention one other thing first.

Now… what was that?

Oh, yeah… nothing. Nothing at all.

Now, Krauss has a book out about nothing. And he’s pretty damned good at talking about it, I hear. But there are those who say he’s talking about an entirely different nothing than the philosophers are.

Which is the point of my little verse. See… Krauss’s “nothing” has the decided disadvantage of being observable. Philosophers need not restrict their nothings with such trivial matters. There is “nothing”, and then, there is “nothing”. One is easy to understand… but has never been observed. The other does not match our expectations, but does match the evidence.

There’s nothing, and then there is nothing. The philosophers’ “nothing” is an assumption, not an observation.

Really…. It’s nothing.

Woof!

Thinkingly, winkingly,
Internet videos
Promise us puppies who
Patently plan;

Claim that it isn’t just
Anthropomorphism—
Clearly, these canines are
Thinking like Man

Over at NPR’s 13.7:Cosmos And Culture blog, Barbara J. King has another of her pieces on animal cognition. I very much enjoy these, even when I fundamentally disagree…like today.

The post is “Do Dogs Think?” (don’t jump too quickly–she explains her title very early on, and it is justified)–clearly, King is on the side of Yea. Which is fine–I also think dogs think… but I suspect that King and I differ on our conceptions of “thinking”. (I did comment at the article–I won’t reproduce those here.)

The trick is, the videos she uses to exemplify complex thought in dogs (at the link) are far too easily explained more “simply” in terms of conditioning (operant, in this case). Which gets me thinking, myself. First (as I say in my first comment, though not in these words), the videos necessarily narrow our focus onto an artificially brief segment of time; we cannot see the history of learning behind each performance. The segments end when the photographer wants them to, so we cannot see what happens next. Any editing of a segment of film may cut out important information; in this case, any trial and error, any shaping and differential reinforcement, that preceded the filmed incident.

(As an aside, the dear departed Cuttledog very cleverly put her paw on a plate to hold it still while she licked it clean. Very cleverly… until you realize that it took her 7 years to stumble on that little trick.)

King welcomed my skepticism, and asked whether it might be hypocritical (not her words!) to explain non-human behavior through conditioning, but not human. And she’d be right, except that a) I fully accept that human behavior (including thinking) is the product of our environmental histories, in a selectionist process many call “conditioning”, and b) I further assert that much of what our current view of human thought is, is utter balderdash. We are not able to feel ourselves thinking (no sensory neurons in the brain), so our introspective accounts are not a measure of our actual thinking, but rather a measure of the influence of our verbal community. For centuries, we have used a dualistic, mentalistic vocabulary (how often do you find the words “mind” or “mental” or “mentally” creeping into your sentences?), which does not correspond to what we know of the nervous system, let alone the interaction of our behavior with a dynamic environment.

So… Do animals think the way we think? I suspect that, very probably, they do. Do animals think the way that we think that we think? Almost certainly not. Do we think the way we think that we think? Again, almost certainly not. How do we think? Ah… an excellent question.

On Monsters

He’s a monster; he’s not human—
He’s the devil in disguise!
The embodiment of evil;
You can see it in his eyes!
No iota of morality
No evidence of soul
Where a man should have a human heart
This demon has a hole.

His behavior was horrific—
Inexcusable, in fact;
No real human could have done it
It’s a horrid, beastly act
If he’d had the slightest conscience
He’d be overcome with shame…
So let’s sentence him to torture;
We can treat him just the same!

Let’s imprison him with Bubba
Where he never will escape
Take his time, to learn the lesson
On the other side of rape
We can chain him; we can whip him,
We can break a rib or two…
Cos he has to learn, these things are not
What moral people do.

Wow. Now that God finally saved those three women in Cleveland, it’s become downright unpleasant to read through the comment sections on news sites. The argument seems to be “nobody should ever treat another human being like this man treated those women, therefore we should treat this man like he treated those women.” Or “he’s a depraved monster for doing what he did; we should do the same to him.” Or “what kind of sick fuck is capable of such behavior, he ought to be flayed alive in the town square, suspended by his testicles over a hornet nest and beaten with hot pokers.” Because we are more moral than he is.

I have seen a handful of people calling out the would-be official torturers and those calling for prison rape as a reasonable sentence. They are accused of taking the rapist’s side, of course–because if you don’t want the skin peeled off of his face with a garden trowel, you are soft on crime and a liberal communist.

No sentence we could give him could ever pay back what he took from those women. That would be impossible. That cannot, and should not, be the standard we hold ourselves to. But we should not allow him to take our humanity from us as well. If what he did is detestable (and it is), it should be detestable for anyone to do it (and it is). The internet commenters calling for such treatment should take a good hard look at who they are choosing as their role model.