Neuroscientist: awareness is cartoonish caricature of reality

Photo credit: Yuri Yu. Samoilov / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: Yuri Yu. Samoilov / Foter / CC BY

Neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano recommends to readers of the Sunday New York Times his attention schema theory of consciousness. Is it a good advancement over other theories? Pay attention and become aware of what transpires in his opinion piece:

In neuroscience, attention is a process of enhancing some signals at the expense of others. It’s a way of focusing resources. Attention: a real, mechanistic phenomenon that can be programmed into a computer chip. Awareness: a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.

In this theory, awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature. Something — attention — really does exist, and awareness is a distorted accounting of it.

I would like to offer a syllogism to clarify the issue:

1. If one knows for a fact that conscious experience is a cartoonish caricature of physical reality, then there must be an alternative account of what it is like to experience the world more accurately.

2. There is no alternative account of what it is like to experience the world more accurately.

3. Therefore, no one knows for a fact that conscious experience is a cartoonish caricature of physical reality.

The force of my argument lies in taking the claim of cartoonishness and caricature seriously. If the claim can’t be justified by a plausible alternative account,  then we should dismiss it as incoherent. To say that an amoeba or a computer experiences the world more accurately than we do is absurd, because they do not experience the world at all. The materialist is better off simply sticking with the claim that experiences don’t exist, rather than denigrating their accuracy. This is the law of excluded middle at work.

Notice that I am not refuting the attention schema theory of consciousness outright; I am just striking this one popular characterization of it from the realm of intelligibility.

For some good work on consciousness,  mental events, neuronal firings, and the ontology required for all of them, check out J.P. Moreland’s latest book, The Soul.

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Smuggling meaning into a Godless universe


mRio / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

This recent blog post by a science writer at NPR insists that “We Don’t Need To Be Created To Be Relevant.” Here is how author Marcelo Gleiser frames relevance:

“For many people, the thought of being the result of mere accident is a nonstarter. They think that to be relevant we must have been created in some fashion. After all, the word accident usually denotes something bad. Chance is a better (but not perfect) word: We are the product of chance.”

Who or what are we supposed to be relevant to? Gleiser simply does not say. What he does do is subsequently expound on the mystery of biological life, reasoning that if intelligence is not necessary for life to dominate the Earth, then we are special.

Along the way, he punches the God of the gaps strawman, characterizing it as “a dangerous way to believe, given that science does advance and gaps do get squeezed away.” Its inclusion strikes me as odd; intelligence is a property of minds, things that science can’t induct into its material account of the world.

Consider the thoughts your mind produces: first-person, unified, subjective experiences which you can identify as being about things. A scientist cannot access these real phenomena directly; only you enjoy the privileged position that allows you to directly know and report what your mind thinks about. Science is principally incapable of describing the content of thoughts. Methaphysics, philosophy, and human language are needed. This is not God of the gaps, but simply what is beyond science’s purview.

Likewise, relevance, if it refers at all to the classical questions of ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, is illicit to science. The fact-value split initiated by eighteenth century thinker David Hume–and continued by the twentieth century developments of verificationism, noncognitive emotivism, and eliminative materialism–establishes that in a closed, material cosmos, there is no real value to anything, not even life itself. There is no “formal relation” between facts as they are, and values pointing to how the facts ought to be. You can’t get an ought from an is. No intrinsic worth, or ultimate significance. The rareness or infinitesimally unlikelihood of intelligent life is a quantitative measure that will not translate to the quality of being special or relevant.

In this world, roses are not red, and the sweetness of a salty summer sea breeze is an illusion of consciousness. Carl Sagan’s beloved pale blue dot holds no worth. Why pretend that it does? Bertrand Russell provides logically consistent advice for us when divinity does not partake in our cosmos: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

But perhaps, this drab, desolate conception of reality is mistaken. Think about it.

Sagan’s pale blue dot: tribal confession or transcendent truth?

In a new year’s post, Adam Frank of 13.7 invites us to contemplate our place in the cosmos.  The professional stargazer asks, “What, really, is the point of it all?” He directs us foremost not to religion, or to philosophy, but to Carl Sagan.  Cue a four minute animation set to Sagan’s famous reflection on “the pale blue dot.”  Frank insists that “it will fill you with a sense of pure wonder.”  This invitation is too good to pass up.

This Voyager 1 photo of Earth as a pale blue dot, suspended in a sunbeam, captured the world’s imagination in the 1990s.   |   Wikimedia

But after watching it, I fail to feel wonder at the late Dr. Sagan’s deprecation of the human race.  Sagan insists of humanity, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”  In virtue of what principle does the pale blue dot challenge human importance and privilege?

Further, by what authority does Dr. Sagan diminish his fellow man as deluded?  John writes in his first epistle, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  Is Sagan’s brand of collective anthropic humility more palatable to some because it issues from a 20th century modernist tribe rather than a first century religious one?  A defender of Sagan’s myth would have to ironically claim some sort of epistemic privilege as well as self-importance.

The four minute animation–at one point summing the human condition via battling tanks with “H8” painted on their sides–concludes with these words:

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Now I wholeheartedly agree that we have an imperative to be kinder and preserve our home, the Earth.  If one wants to hold a sense of wonder from passing judgment on fellow human beings and thinking that reality consists chiefly in void, empty space, and is merely the curious fractional remnant of a clash between matter and antimatter, he or she is entitled.  But moral responsibilities and good feelings do not automatically follow from such a vision; it may as well be just another unreasoned affectation, a tribal confession.

In light of entropy, mortality, and the heat death of the Universe, Bertrand Russell provides a logically consistent outlook: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Possibly, Sagan’s pale blue dot really is the vaunted God’s eye view.  But if there were anyone who could speak to humanity depravity and conceit with logical consistency, we should not be surprised when he self-importantly declares, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

Faith and reason: on predication, rationality, and charity

Predication can be bruising at venues like Parliamentary Question Time. | UK Parliament / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Last month, I posted a critique of Dr. Tania Lombrozo’s interlinked think pieces at Boston Review and 13.7.  I was gratified but slightly apprehensive when she linked back with a post titled, Science Vs. Religion: A Heated Debate Fueled By Disrespect.  To boot, a photo of a South Asian firebreather accompanied the text!  Granted, editors sometimes make decisions not always in accord with the writer’s wishes.  Still, I wondered, what kind of splash did I make on the inner life of this cognitive scientist?  From what Dr. Lombrozo wrote of my critique, I think I acquitted myself well.

Before I comment further on this interaction, I must congratulate Dr. Lombrozo for undertaking a couple of posts on charitable discourse.  In her aforementioned post, I got to serve as a counterweight to biologist Jerry Coyne, one of the staunchest defenders of evolution.  A comment on his blog accused her of being an “accomodationalist,” a scientific Nevil Chamberlain, an appeaser.  Needless to say, her post generated hundreds more heated comments by the clamorous content consumers at 13.7.

But then with her subsequent blog entry, Dr. Lombrozo came back with a real shocker.  She shared an academic paper authored by Lara Buchak, a Berkeley philosopher of religion.  Buchak asked, “Can it be rational to have faith?”  I particularly enjoyed the explication, because Buchak’s theory of decision making is based on a general assumption that human persons are more or less rational.  Quite possibly, that could even apply to nomadic Iron Age sheep herders!  I can see religious epistemologists–philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Paul Moser, and Richard Swinburne–having fun engaging with Buchak’s work.

The assumption that humans are innately, even unconsciously and unwittingly, reasonable is a counter-intuitive antidote to the popular belief that today, we’re somehow automatically smarter than our ancestors.  It also matches the underlying premises of my college two majors, international relations and economics.  If you want to know what a rational actor or a utility-maximizing agent is, crack open the textbooks of those disciplines.  As I received them at UC Davis a decade ago, the operative principles of those fields were still firmly rooted in mid- to late Enlightenment thought.  No special taint of phenomenologies, Higher Criticisms, or other products of Teutonic intellectual degeneracy.

That being said, my interest in Continental philosophy, the brainchild of Kant, Hegel, Marx, et al. has grown over the years.  Perhaps the best place for common, “charitable ground” as Lombrozo tagged it, is to be found there.  Recently, I discovered that Dallas Willard, a widely admired evangelical teacher and popular author, cut his philosophical teeth on the work of logician Edmund Husserl.  Dr. Willard even drew upon him when contributing to a collection of essays on Derrida!  There, he critiqued Derrida’s conception of “Predication as Originary Violence.” Are you totally lost yet?

So what of that tangle between Lombrozo and myself?  In “Science Vs. Religion,” she observes that my reading of her piece as “‘a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism’ . . . suggests an antecedent assumption of hostility.”  I would agree with this!  But only in a limited sense.  I think “hostility” is best understood as a state of affairs between persons proper.  But a close reading of both my critique and her response will show careful wording that produces not interpersonal hostility, but sets up an adversarial contest between ideas.  William Lane Craig observed recently at Reasonable Faith (Are Debates too Polarizing?) that in academia, the relationship between two different theses apprehending the same object is inherently “agonistic,” or competitive.

If predication is an assignment or affirmation about an antecedent object–the possible intent behind a person’s words–then it is only the mind of the reader that can predicate hostility.  Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.  To practice charity in discussion, then, is to refrain, if possible, from assigning malevolence to the author’s intent.

I suspect that awareness of the nature of intent is something Dr. Willard took away from his reading of the Biblical Jesus.  In the gospel of John, again and again Jesus masterfully avoids the snares of his questioners, whether his disciples, the Pharisees, or Pontius Pilate.  The question is answered with another question; inquiry is turned back on itself.  Is there a more radical skepticism than that?  “Who do you say that I am?”  On Christianity, the divine nature–perhaps the goodness of freedom of the will–is of such weight that the answer to Jesus’ question is only found in one’s own predication.

And so it might be for us.  To avoid violence against the other as she actually is, we judge the merit of the idea, not the motive of the person.  Is there any better way to collaborate in reconciling our disparate ideas to objective reality?

A crisis for popular science

Photo credit: tk-link / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Tania Lombrozo, cognitive scientist and regular contributor to NPR’s 13.7 science blog, recently asked a thought provoking question: “Is There Existential Meaning Beyond Religion?”   It turns out her post asks readers to click through and comment on another article of her’s in the Boston Review, which the editors captioned, “Can Science Deliver the Benefits of Religion?”  The way this discourse is set up seems to be a prime example of the serious, self-inflicted challenge that contemporary science popularizers and educators face.

Dr. Lombrozo’s piece in the Review is perfectly intelligble but structurally incoherent.  In the first half, she presents various explanations as to why 43 percent of Americans surveyed reject human evolution in favor of a “creationist” account.  Then, in the second half, she examines whether affirmations of faith in science can be as psychologically beneficial as affirmations of religious faith.  The two tasks the author undertakes aren’t necessarily related.  From a literary stand point, we have to ask, what is meaning of the piece as a unified whole?

If we to try identify the intent behind the first half of Lombrozo’s piece, we could choose to consider it as a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism.  Alternately, it is simply an account from her own experience as a scientist who explains how people arrive at explanations.  Here’s how she sums her explanations in one sentence:

It may be that assorted mental dispositions and shortcomings—a preference for teleology, hyperactive agency detection, anxiety concerning death, psychological essentialism, a preference for order and control, an unhealthy fascination with human uniqueness, and the naturalistic fallacy all wed to what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”—are enough to explain people’s rejection of human evolution in favor of some form of creationism.

Taking the author’s collection of explanations as evidence for the falsity of creationism would beget one giant genetic fallacy.  Offering six, seven, or a million explanations for how someone came to hold a belief does not falsify the belief itself.  Further, with a little tweaking, these same explanations could be applied to the explainer!  I am not defending the type of creationist belief Lombrozo wants to explain away.  Rather, I’m asking what those explanations have to do with the latter part of her article, which explores where existential satisfaction comes from.

In the privately published Boston Review, which caters to a specific political leaning and cultural outlook, it would make sense for Lombrozo to attribute mental shortcomings to those she disagrees with.  But Lombrozo has shared her musings on 13.7, a blog hosted by publicly sponsored NPR.  Why would she submit what amounts to a naturalistic pep rally, or a scientistic preaching to the choir, to this broader forum?

If the contributors at 13.7 are civic-minded proponents who advocate greater public understanding and acceptance of science–as at least one of them seems to be–they would do better not to assume their readers share their metaphysical prejudices.  As a thoughtful Christian and curious human being, I peruse 13.7 to see how the scientific community engages robust concepts and challenges from the humanities, philosophy, and culture.  In the many posts I’ve read now, I find the writers ardent in their defense of scientific integrity, but fairly sloppy or else standoffish as they steer around any logically plausible indicators of supernatural reality.  The dead zone where Lombrozo and her colleagues fear to tread inclines me to believe that these freethinkers operate a sort of faith-based church for mystical naturalists.

If a cohort of elite academics is going to muse on “Cosmos and Culture,” wouldn’t we all be better served by more frequent and  deeper interactions with rational, if non-naturalistic epistemologies and bodies of knowledge?  I know of a couple good places (here and here) where they could start.

Ball State incinerates academic freedom

At first glance, this recent headline from Inside Higher Ed looks like a piece of good news: “Taking a Stand for Science.” Or, consider the alternate title, “Scientists Applaud Ball State President’s Position on Intelligent Design.” Fighting for truth, and earning accolades are good, right?  To the contrary, the university’s mandate is of grave concern for those who value critical inquiry and academic freedom.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The story is that, after an inquest by an appointed faculty panel, Ball State physics professor Eric Hedin will take remedial measures to ensure that his course, The Boundaries of Science, will be in line with Ball State’s “view that science instruction should be about science and not religion.”  This scrutiny results from a complaint and threat of legal action by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

On Wednesday, University President Jo Ann Gora released a statement reading, in part:

Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory. Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses. The gravity of this issue and the level of concern among scientists are demonstrated by more than 80 national and state scientific societies’ independent statements that intelligent design and creation science do not qualify as science. The list includes societies such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, theAmerican Astronomical Society, and the American Physical Society.

What’s striking about the Inside Higher Ed article is it’s uncritical coverage of the university’s decision.  To the author’s credit, she inserts virtually zero commentary; the piece is straight reporting.  But, the bias lies in her decision to cite President Gora, and two supportive partisans, while only featuring one voice of opposition.

Sadly, the author does not provide comments from informed outsiders on the issue proper.  What do philosophers of science and religion think of President Gora’s ruling?  What about Constitutional scholars and experts in academic freedom issues?  We’re left with a “she said, he said,” tilted three to one.

In terms of information, the article leaves much to be desired.  What does the Ball State administration mean by “teach,” “science,” and “religion?” Do Neo-Darwinian mechanisms credibly explain the origin of phyla, or might they be the same kind of “speculation” that Gora alleges intelligent design to be?  Why does religion “have its place” in the social sciences and humanities, but the scientific establishment gets to determine not just what is science, but what is “religion” as well?  While the report remains under wraps, it looks as if scientism is bullying the ivory tower.  Thanks to the ever-handy threat of litigation.

As for intelligent design itself, I don’t see what’s religious about the theory, or how it’s not a hypothesis that’s at least a valid candidate for becoming a scientific theory.  Stephen Meyer advances a case for ID as science in Darwin’s Doubt.  In making the radio interview rounds, I’ve heard him repeatedly describe the theory as an inference to the best explanation, drawn from uniform and repeated experience.  These same inference principles are used in evolutionary anthropology, forensic science, and the increasingly popular study of animal cognition.  Maybe these are just speculations that have their place too.

Given that ID draws from the same fossil record used to support the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, it certainly seems that its proponents will be able to make predictions with respect to future discoveries.

If we are to take the thesis of Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies seriously, a case could be made that some retrenched Neo-Darwinian defenders are propagating a religion of metaphysical naturalism.  This is an unnecessary step beyond the epistemic naturalism that has been a cornerstone of modern science.

If Ball State is in danger of transgressing upon the First Amendment, it is for establishing a church of atheism, consistent with the beliefs and dogma of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.  As John West at the Discovery Institute points out, FFRF initiated this scrutiny to squelch critical inquiry–essential to academic freedom–in the name of Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy.  He finds the move is simply Orwellian.

Meanwhile, Wintery Knight characterizes Ball State’s clamp down as an inquisition.  This is sufficient, but to describe Ball State’s retrograde policy as McCarthyism or a witch hunt would be just as apt.

 

 

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