Reborn Losers: Christian Cosmology and Worldview Are a Setup to Failure

Christian cosmology and worldview are complicated, stressful, and impossible. Trying to comply with them is a set up to failure. That failure begins with the concept of who we are as human beings living in human bodies.

I was a Christian, now I’m not. Sometimes I find it useful to write about what I believed then and compare it to what I don’t believe now. I try to express it simply, avoid religious assumptions and overtones, resist the urge to cringe at what I used to think and exalt in what I think now. Instead, I try to lay aside judgment, notice what comes up, and wonder about it. That’s the ideal, anyway — sometimes it’s more difficult than others to remain dispassionate. Today was one of those.

I wrote about cosmology (how the universe is organized) and worldview (how life works on Earth). Reading it afterward, it seemed that the Christian beliefs, institutions, and culture that dominated my life — and have dominated Western thought for two millennia — are about equal parts quaint and fantasy. I didn’t see it that way when I was immersed in them, but my last several years of study– especially neuroscience, psychology, and history — have upended my former cosmology and worldview, and taken my self concept with them.

I previously understood “reality” and my place in it by reference to a Truth outside of me. Today, I’m aware that everything I experience – including what I believe or not – is processed within my biological being.[1] My new sense of self and reality are now physical, not spiritual.

That shift has brought new clarity, simplicity, decisiveness, energy, focus, hope, joy, freedom, gratitude, and lots of other new dynamics I really like. By contrast, what struck me most about my former beliefs was how complicated they were, how stressful to maintain, and ultimately how generally impossible. Clinging to them was a setup to failure – I especially like being free of that.

The Trouble Starts With A Soul

Approaching life here by reference to a Truth out there leads us to believe in things that exist outside of us– in people, in ideas, in entities, in institutions…. That kind of thinking derives naturally from another foundational belief: that each person has an independent existence — a soul living inside their body – that sorts through available belief options and chooses this one over that.

“If you were to ask the average person in the street about their self, they would most likely describe the individual who inhabits their body. They believe they are more than just their bodies. Their bodies are something their selves control. When we look in the mirror, we regard the body as a vessel we occupy.

“This sense that we are individuals inside bodies is sometimes called the “ego theory,” although philosopher Gale Strawson captures it poetically in what he calls the ‘pearl view’ of the self. The pearl view is the common notion that our self is an essential entity at the core of our existence that holds steady throughout our life. The ego experiences life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background that defines who he or she is. This is the ‘I’ that looks back in the bathroom mirror and reflects who is the ‘me.’”[2]

My Christian worldview bought all that, and also held that the soul is our highest and best self, because it came from where Truth dwells. It also held that it’s hard on a soul to be in a human body. The doctrinal specifics vary – we deliberately chose to screw things up and our souls took the hit for it, our souls got damaged in transit or in installation, or there was a flaw in the source code that eventually moved them away from their ideal nature, etc. – but the end result is that the soul’s potential good influence is minimized or lost, leaving us in the throes of “sin” – falling short of the perfect divine plan for what our souls could have been if they hadn’t gotten fouled up. And since the soul’s waywardness is foundational, its problem isn’t just sin but “original sin” – the beginning of all our troubles. We don’t just struggle with garden-variety human nature, which is bad enough, but with “the flesh,” which is worse, in fact so dreadful that it puts our eternal destiny at jeopardy.

That’s where it all begins:  with a divine, timeless, perfect soul trapped in an imperfect human body. The result is a hapless human subject to all kinds of cosmic misfortune.

And it only gets worse from there.

The Cosmology and Worldview That Was (And Still Is)

It’s tricky to line up a flawed soul in a flawed body with an external perfect standard of Truth. As a result, we’re constantly screwing up our reality compared to Reality. Plus there’s the problem of perception and deception –-not seeing Reality clearly – and the problem of temptation – enticements plying on our fleshly nature that just aren’t going to end well. It’s hard to keep a clear head in the midst of those pressures, and for that we have experts – people we have to trust to know things about Reality that the rest of us don’t.

But sooner or later all fall down – experts along with everybody else. Birth is the soul’s doorway into its precarious life in the flesh, and death is the doorway out. It would be nice if the door had been designed to swing both ways so we could check in with Truth and get straightened out now and then, but it shuts firmly in both directions, and no peeking. Which means our attempts to live here by reference to what’s over there are always seriously handicapped.

Sometimes you hear about people who get a backstage pass to go there and come back, and then they write books about it and go on tour and tell us what’s it’s like. That makes them a special kind of expert, but their reports often are full of all sorts of universality, which makes them doctrinally suspect. Fortunately, there are superhuman beings– kind of like us, kind of not, but at least conscious like us, and able to communicate – to help us out. Sometimes they make the trip over here, sometimes they snatch someone from here and show them around over there and then send them back, sometimes they open up a clear channel to communicate with somebody over here, and sometimes — and this is the best – they can be born as one of us and not have a problem with losing their soul’s connection to Truth while they’re here. The point is, one way or another, when they really need to communicate with us, they figure out how.

The whole lot of them rank higher than we do: the human race is in charge of the Earth, but they’re in charge of us (and everything else). God out-ranks everyone, of course – He[3] created everything, including them and us, and although the whole thing sure looks like a mess to us it doesn’t look that way to Him – or to them either, I guess. God is the ultimate creator, communicator, executive, and enforcer, and He has more consciousness than all the rest of us combined.

“Across all cultures and all religions, universally, people consider God to be a conscious mind. God is aware. God consciously chooses to make things happen. In physical reality the tree fell, the storm bowled over a house, the man survived the car crash, the woman died prematurely, the earth orbits the sun, the cosmos exists. For many people these events, big and small, must have a consciousness and an intentionality behind them. God is that consciousness.”[4]

Of course, God is busy, which is why He has all these underlings. They’re arranged in a hierarchy – it just makes sense that they would be – and range from great big scary powerful cosmic superheroes who get to make great big scary visitations and announcements and cause all kinds of great big scary events, all the way down to petty bureaucrats, drones, and proles just doing their dull but necessary jobs (but even they outrank us in the grand cosmic scheme).

“When our anthropomorphism is applied to religious thought, it’s notably the mind, rather than the body, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods. In the diverse cultures of the world, gods come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they always share is a mind with the ability to think symbolically just like a human. This makes sense in light of the critical importance of theory of mind in the development of our social intelligence: if other people have minds like ours, wouldn’t that be true of other agents we perceive to act intentionally in the world?”[5]

These conscious beings from over there sometimes pick a human or a whole tribe of humans to mediate Truth to the rest of us. Those people get a special supernatural security clearance, and we give their key personnel special titles like prophet and priest.

So far so good, but even Truth – also known as Heaven – has its internal power struggles. There’s a war over there between good and evil, God and Satan, angels and demons, and other kinds of beings in the high places, and some of it spills over into reality on our side of the divide. We therefore need to be careful about which of our experts are authentic and which aren’t, who they’re really serving and who they aren’t. The stakes are high, and if we’re wrong we’re going to pay with a lot of pain and suffering, both in this life and forever when we go through death’s one-way door.

And just to make things more complicated, these other-worldly beings sometimes use human experts as their agents, and they can be undercover. Plus, to make things impossibly, incomprehensibly complicated for our by now totally overtaxed souls, God and the other good guys sometimes take a turn at being deceptive themselves. The Cosmic Screenwriter apparently thought of everything in a bid to make our predicament as over-the-top bad as possible. In fact, some of what’s going on behind the scenes, taken right out of the Bible, would make a modern fantasy series blush with inadequacy – for example the part about the war in high places[6]:

“Ask, for instance, the average American Christian – say, some genial Presbyterian who attends church regularly and owns a New International Version of the Bible – what gospel the Apostle Paul preached. The reply will fall along predictable lines: human beings, bearing the guilt of original sin and destined for eternal hell, cannot save themselves through good deeds, or make themselves acceptable to God; yet God, in his mercy, sent the eternal Son to offer himself up for our sins, and the righteousness of Christ has been graciously imputed or imparted to all who have faith…. Some details might vary, but not the basic story.

“Paul’s actual teachings, however, as taken directly from the Greek of his letters, emphasise neither original guilt nor imputed righteousness (he believed in neither), but rather the overthrow of bad angels…

“The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. .. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph.

“For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God.

“In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession. All that now remains is the final consummation of the present age, when Christ will appear in his full glory as cosmic conqueror, having ‘subordinated’ (hypetaxen) all the cosmic powers to himself – literally, having properly ‘ordered’ them ‘under’ himself – and will then return this whole reclaimed empire to his Father. God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

Okay then.

But despite all this vast, elaborate cosmic tangle, over there mostly keeps its own counsel about it all, while still not letting us off the hook. And, although it’s tempting, I won’t even get into all the subterfuge and confusion and (over here, at least) just plain stupidity about when the whole mess is going to resolve into that final day when “God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

And On It Goes (And it went on way too long already, but I wanted to make a point.)

Western culture has been living with all that for over two millennia. A couple hundred years ago, in a time we call “The Great Enlightenment,” some thinkers started trying to convince us that enough is enough, maybe we ought to try out a different cosmology and worldview, based on rational thought and not just fantasy and belief. There’ve been some takers, but overall the Great Endarkenment has rolled on. I’m not as old as Yoda, but I’ve personally seen, heard, and lived all of it. A whole bunch people in the States still do, and not all of them live in Texas.

The cosmology and worldview I just reviewed are complicated, fanciful, stressful, and impose impossible demands on that impaired soul seeing it all through a glass darkly. No wonder belief systems – both secular and religious – devolve into take-it-or-leave-it fundamentalism, where questioning is punished by both God and man, and you can delegate your cosmic responsibilities to the demigods in charge. Fundamentalism dispatches our impossible obligations and blinds us to what the Bible itself says is the final outcome of all our believing: The Big Fail.

The Big Fail

We really should have seen it coming – the Bible lays out the ultimate terms of what it means to believe all of this in brutally unmistakable terms. At the end of a much-quoted and much-beloved recitation of faith heroes, the Epistle to the Hebrews provides this summary of what it means to be your highest and best self:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,”[7]

That’s how it ends: total failure — all promises broken, all expectations dashed, all frauds revealed … after it’s way too late for any remedy.

Can We Find a Better Way?

Yes, I am aware that there’s one last phrase in that passage:

“…since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”[8]

What precisely is that “something better”? I’m clueless, but all the obvious difficulties don’t stop at least one thinker[9] from trying to preserve the value of the soul as our highest and best self, even if modern neuroscience has finally ended its sufferings. The key, he says, is to reinvent the soul to make it relevant to modernity:

“What is the point of gaining the whole world if you lose your soul? Today, far fewer people are likely to catch the scriptural echoes of this question than would have been the case 50 years ago. But the question retains its urgency. We might not quite know what we mean by the soul any more, but intuitively we grasp what is meant by the loss in question – the kind of moral disorientation and collapse where what is true and good slips from sight, and we find we have wasted our lives on some specious gain that is ultimately worthless.

“It used to be thought that science and technology would gain us the world. But it now looks as though they are allowing us to destroy it. The fault lies not with scientific knowledge itself, which is among humanity’s finest achievements, but with our greed and short-sightedness in exploiting that knowledge. There’s a real danger we might end up with the worst of all possible scenarios – we’ve lost the world, and lost our souls as well.

“But what is the soul? The modern scientific impulse is to dispense with supposedly occult or ‘spooky’ notions such as souls and spirits, and to understand ourselves instead as wholly and completely part of the natural world, existing and operating through the same physical, chemical and biological processes that we find anywhere else in the environment.

“We need not deny the value of the scientific perspective. But there are many aspects of human experience that cannot adequately be captured in the impersonal, quantitatively based terminology of scientific enquiry. The concept of the soul might not be part of the language of science; but we immediately recognise and respond to what is meant in poetry, novels and ordinary speech, when the term ‘soul’ is used in that it alerts us to certain powerful and transformative experiences that give meaning to our lives.

“Such precious experiences depend on certain characteristic human sensibilities that we would not wish to lose at any price. In using the term ‘soul’ to refer to them, we don’t have to think of ourselves as ghostly immaterial substances. We can think of ‘soul’ as referring, instead, to a set of attributes of cognition, feeling and reflective awareness – that might depend on the biological processes that underpin them, and yet enable us to enter a world of meaning and value that transcends our biological nature.

“Entering this world requires distinctively human qualities of thought and rationality. But we’re not abstract intellects, detached from the physical world, contemplating it and manipulating it from a distance. To realise what makes us most fully human, we need to pay attention to the richness and depth of the emotional responses that connect us to the world. Bringing our emotional lives into harmony with our rationally chosen goals and projects is a vital part of the healing and integration of the human soul.”

Full Acceptance

It seems honorable that someone would attempt this kind of synthesis, but I personally don’t see anything worth salvaging. Instead, I think this might be a good time to acknowledge something that Christianity’s troublesome cosmology and worldview have dismissed all along: human nature. In that regard, I find the following thoughts from a writer I particularly admire[10] to be bracingly clarifying, and in that, hopeful

“Our collective and personal histories — the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others — are used to avoid facing the incoherence and fragmentation of our lives. Chaos, chance and irrational urges, often locked in our unconscious, propel, inform and direct us. Our self is elusive. It is not fixed. It is subject to forces often beyond our control. To be human is to be captive to these forces, forces we cannot always name or understand. We mutate and change. We are not who we were. We are not who we will become. The familiarity of habit and ritual, as well as the narratives we invent to give structure and meaning to our life, helps hide this fragmentation. But human life is fluid and inconsistent. Those who place their faith in a purely rational existence begin from the premise that human beings can have fixed and determined selves governed by reason and knowledge. This is itself an act of faith.

“We can veto a response or check an impulse, reason can direct our actions, but we are just as often hostage to the pulls of the instinctual, the irrational, and the unconscious. We can rationalize our actions later, but this does not make them rational. The social and individual virtues we promote as universal values that must be attained by the rest of the human species are more often narrow, socially conditioned responses hardwired into us for our collective and personal survival and advancements. These values are rarely disinterested. They nearly always justify our right to dominance and power.

“We do not digest every sensation and piece of information we encounter. To do so would leave us paralyzed. The bandwidth of consciousness – our ability to transmit information measured in bits per second — is too narrow to register the enormous mass of external information we receive and act upon. .. We have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we use to function in life. Much of the information we receive and our subsequent responses do not take place on the level of conscientiousness. As the philosopher John Gray points out, irrational and subconscious forces, however unacknowledged, are as potent within us as in others. [citing Gray, Straw Dogs]

“To accept the intractable and irrational forces that drive us, to admit that these forces are as entrenched in us as in all human beings, is to relinquish the fantasy that the human species can have total, rational control over human destiny. It is to accept our limitations, to live within the confines of human nature. Ethical, moral, religious, and political systems that do not concede these stark assumptions have nothing to say to us.”

We are not going to “conquer our humanness” by continuing our fundamentalist allegiance to a complicated, stressful, and self-negating cosmology and worldview. How about if instead we try full acceptance of our conflicted and flawed humanity, where we find not grandiose visions but simple hope for our small todays?

[1] I also believe there is an independent reality that is more than my brain’s construction of it. Not everyone thinks so. Maybe more on that another time.

[2] Hood, Bruce, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (2012)

[3] We get that theoretically God, as a spiritual being, probably wouldn’t have a gender, but we’re generally more comfortable giving him the male pronouns.

[4] Graziano, Michael S. A., Consciousness and the Social Brain (2013)

[5] Lent, Jeremy, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Jeremy Lent (2017)

[6] Hart, David Bentley, Everything You Know About The Gospel Of Paul Is Likely Wrong, Aeon (Jan. 8, 2018). David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a philosopher, writer and cultural commentator, who recently published a translation of The New Testament (2017).

[7] Hebrews 11: 35-39.

[8] Hebrews 11: 40.

[9] Cottingham, John, What is the soul if not a better version of ourselves? Aeon (Mar. 11, 2020). John Cottingham is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Reading, professor of philosophy of religion at the University of Roehampton, London, and an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Oxford University.

[10] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

 

Belief in Belief

ya gotta believe

New York Mets fans at the 1973 World Series
(they lost)

The quest to resolve the consciousness hard problem needs a boost from quantum mechanics to get any further. Either that, or there needs to be a better way to state the issue. As things stand, neuroscience’s inability to locate subjectivity in our brain matter gives pro-subjectivity the right to cite quantum mechanics as its go-to scientific justification.

The $12 Billion self-help industry and its coaches, speakers, and authors love quantum mechanics:  if subjectivity works on a sub-atomic level, the argument goes, then why not apply it on a macro, conscious level? Meanwhile, quantum scientists seem to have resigned themselves to the notion that, if their theories don’t have to be grounded in traditional objective standards like empirical testing and falsifiability, then why not hypothesize about multiverses and call that science?

Thus scientific rationalism continues to be on the wane — in science and as a way of life — especially in the USA, where belief in belief has been an ever-expanding feature of the American Way since we got started. To get the full perspective on America’s belief in belief, you need to read Kurt Andersen’s book, Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017), which I quoted at length last time. (Or for the short version, see this Atlantic article.)  The book provides a lot of history we never learned, but also reveals that the roots of our belief in belief go back even further than our own founding, and beyond our own shores. Although we weren’t founded as a Christian nation[1] (in the same way, for example, that Pakistan was expressly founded as a Muslim nation), Andersen traces this aspect of our ideological foundations to the Protestant Reformation:

“[Luther] insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for himself or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

“Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people — that is, critically expanding individual liberty — Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a Christian. You couldn’t earn your way into Heaven by performing virtuous deeds. Having a particular set of beliefs was all that mattered.

“However, out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast.”

But even the Protestant Reformation isn’t back far enough. Luther’s insistence that anybody can get all the truth they need from the Bible is the Christian doctrine of sola scirptura, which holds that the Bible is the ultimate source of truth. And the Bible is where we find the original endorsement of the primacy of belief, in the teachings of none other than Jesus himself:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart,  but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Mark 11:23 (ESV)

Thus, the Christian rationale for belief in belief goes something like this:

  • “We believe the Bible tells the truth;
  • “The Bible says Jesus was God incarnate;
  • “God knows what’s true;
  • “Jesus, as God, spoke truth;
  • “Therefore, what Jesus said about belief is true.”

The rationale begins and ends in belief. Belief is a closed loop — you either buy it by believing, or you don’t. And if you believe, you don’t doubt or question, because if you do, belief won’t work for you, and it will be your own fault — you’ll be guilty of doubting in your heart or some other kind of sabotage. For example,

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

James 1:5-8 (ESV)

Thus belief disposes of every criticism against it. You’re either in or out, either with us or against us. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” And if your doubts persist, there are consequences. When I expressed some of mine back in college, the same friend handed me a Bible and said, “Read Luke 6: 62.”

“Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Luke 9: 62  (ESV)

End of discussion.

But not here, not in this blog. Here, our mission is to challenge cherished beliefs and institutions. Here, we’ll to look more into what it means to believe in belief, and consider other options. In the meantime, we’ll set aside the hard problem of consciousness while we wait for further developments,

For more on today’s topic, you might take a look at Should We Believe In Belief? (The Guardian, July 17, 2009), and be sure to click the links at the end and read those pieces, too. All the articles are short and instructive.

[1] For a detailed consideration (and ultimate refutation) of the claim that American was founded as a Christian nation , see The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019).

How Impossible Becomes Possible

active nerve cell in human neural system

network

Scientific materialism explains a lot about how the brain creates consciousness, but hasn’t yet fully accounted for subjective awareness. As a result, the “hard problem” of consciousness remains unsolved, and we’re alternately urged to either concede that the human brain just isn’t ready to figure itself out, or conclude that reality is ultimately determined subjectively.

Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor Michael S. A. Graziano isn’t ready to do either. He thinks the “hard problem” label is itself the problem, because it cuts off further inquiry:

“Many thinkers are pessimistic about ever finding an explanation of consciousness. The philosopher Chalmers in 1995, put it in a way that has become particularly popular. He suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems. One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What it meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable. Again, calling it the hard problem is a euphemism, it is the impossible problem.

“The hard-problem view has a pinch of defeatism in it. I suspect that for some people it also has a pinch of religiosity. It is a keep-your-scientific-hands-off-my-mystery perspective. In the hard problem view, rather than try to explain consciousness, we should marvel at its insolubility. We have no choice but to accept it as a mystery.

“One conceptual difficulty with the hard-problem view is that it argues against any explanation of consciousness without knowing what explanations might arise. It is difficult to make a cogent argument against the unknown. Perhaps an explanation exists such that, once we see what it is, once we understand it, we will find that it makes sense and accounts for consciousness.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. by Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

I.e., if science is going to explain consciousness, it needs to reframe its inquiry, so that what is now an “impossible,” “scientifically unapproachable” problem becomes a “technically possible problem” that can be solved “given a lot of scientific work.”

Technology and innovation writer Steven Johnson describes how he thinks the impossible becomes possible in Where Good Ideas Come From — available as a TED talk. book, and animated whiteboard drawing piece on YouTube. In his TED talk, he contrasted popular subjective notions with what neuroscience has discovered about how the brain actually works:

“[We] have to do away with a lot of the way in which our conventional metaphors and language steer us towards certain concepts of idea-creation. We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration. We have … the flash of insight, the stroke of insight, we have epiphanies, we have ‘eureka!’ moments, we have the lightbulb moments… All of these concepts, as kind of rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing, it’s something that happens often in a wonderful illuminating moment.

“But in fact, what I would argue is … that an idea is a network on the most elemental level. I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea — a new idea — is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is, how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form?”

Johnson expands on the work of biologist and complex systems researcher Stuart Kauffman, who dubbed this idea the “adjacent possibility.” Adjacent possibility is where the brain’s neural networks (top picture above) meet data networks (the bottom picture):  neither is a static, closed environment; both are dynamic, constantly shifting and re-organizing, with each node representing a new point from which the network can expand. Thus the shift from unknown to known is always a next step away:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

Vittorio Loreto and his colleagues at Sapienza University of Rome turned adjacent possibility into a mathematical model which they then submitted to objective, empirical, real world testing. As he said in his TED talk:

“Experiencing the new means exploring a very peculiar space, the space of what could be, the space of the possible, the space of possibilities.

“We conceived our mathematical formulation for the adjacent possible, 20 years after the original Kauffman proposals.

“We had to work out this theory, and we came up with a certain number of predictions to be tested in real life.”

Their test results suggest that adjacent possibility is good science — that impossible doesn’t step out of the ether, it waits at the edge of expanding neural networks, ready to become possible.[1] As Steven Johnson said above, that’s a far cry from our popular romantic notions of revelations, big ideas, and flashes of brilliance. We look more at those next time.

[1] For a nerdier version, see this Wired piece: The ‘Adjacent Possible’ of Big Data: What Evolution Teaches About Insights Generation.

So Consciousness Has a Hard Problem… Now What?

god helmet

We’ve been looking at the “hard problem” of consciousness:

  • Neuroscience can identify the brain circuits that create the elements of consciousness and otherwise parse out how “the meat thinks,” but it can’t quite get its discoveries all the way around the mysteries of subjective experience.
  • That’s a problem because we’re used to thinking along Descartes’ dualistic distinction between scientific knowledge, which is objective, empirical, and invites disproving, and belief-based conviction, which is subjective, can’t be tested and doesn’t want to be.
  • What’s worse, science’s recent work in quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning has blurred those dualistic lines by exposing the primacy of subjectivity even in scientific inquiry.
  • All of which frustrates our evolutionary survival need to know how the world really works.[1]

Some people are ready to declare that subjective belief wins, and science will just have to get over it. That’s what happened with the “God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article), Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the helmet for use in neuro-religious research:

“This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. ‘If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,’ [says Dr. Persinger].” [3]

The God Helmet creates subjective experiences shared among various religions, such as sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. Since all of these states have been either measured or induced in the laboratory, you’d think that might dampen allegiance to the belief that they are God-given, but not so. Instead, when the God Helmet was tested on a group of meditating nuns, their conclusion was, how wonderful that God equipped the brain in that way, so he could communicate with us. Similarly,

 “Some years ago, I discussed this issue with Father George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer who was then Director of the Vatican Observatory. I asked him what he thought of the notion that when the 12th‑century Hildegard of Bingen was having her visions of God, perhaps she was having epileptic fits. He had no problem with the fits. Indeed, he thought that when something so powerful was going on in a mind, there would necessarily be neurological correlates. Hildegard might well have been an epileptic, Father Coyne opined; that didn’t mean God wasn’t also talking to her.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science. Aeon Magazine (Oct. 9, 2013)

If we’re not willing to concede the primacy of subjectivity, then what? Well, we could give up on the idea that the human race is equipped to figure out everything it would really like to know.

 “It would be poetic – albeit deeply frustrating – were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself. An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more – since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Yet there’s no reason to assume that our brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer. Nor that, were we to stumble on a solution to the Hard Problem, on some distant shore where neuroscience meets philosophy, we would even recognise that we’d found it.”

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve The Mystery Of Consciousness? The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2015)

“Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking. We cannot hold ten thousand words in short-term memory. We cannot see in ultraviolet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.”

How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker (1997)

Evolutionary biologist David Barash attributes our inability to the vastly different pace of biological evolution (what the operative biology of our brains can process) vs. cultural evolution (what we keep learning and inventing and hypothesizing about). Trouble is, the latter moves way too fast for the former to keep up.

“On the one hand, there is our biological evolution, a relatively slow-moving organic process that can never proceed more rapidly than one generation at a time, and that nearly always requires an enormous number of generations for any appreciable effect to arise.

“On the other hand is cultural evolution, a process that is, by contrast, extraordinary in its speed.

“Whereas biological evolution is Darwinian, moving by the gradual substitution and accumulation of genes, cultural evolution is … powered by a nongenetic ‘inheritance” of acquired characteristics. During a single generation, people have selectively picked up, discarded, manipulated, and transmitted cultural, social, and technological innovations that have become almost entirely independent of any biological moorings.

“We are, via our cultural evolution, in over our biological heads.”

Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, David P. Barash (2018)

Give in to subjectivity, or just give up…. We’ll look at another option next time.

[1] The study of how we know things is Epistemology.

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

Subjective Science

quantum mechanics formula

What happened to spark all the recent scientific interest in looking for consciousness in the brains of humans and animals, in insects, and … well, everywhere? (Including not just the universe, but also the theoretical biocentric universe and quantum multiverses.)

“It has been said that, if the 20th century was the age of physics, the 21st will be the age of the brain. Among scientists today, consciousness is being hailed as one of the prime intellectual challenges. My interest in the subject is not in any particular solution to the origin of consciousness – I believe we’ll be arguing about that for millennia to come – but rather in the question: why is consciousness perceived as a ‘problem’? How exactly did it become a problem? And given that it was off the table of science for so long, why is it now becoming such a hot research subject?”

I Feel Therefore I Am — How Exactly Did Consciousness Become A Problem? And why, after years off the table, is it a hot research subject now?  Aeon Magazine (Dec. 1, 2015)

From what I can tell, two key sparks started the research fire:  (1) the full implications of quantum mechanics finally set in, and (2) machines learned how to learn.

(1)  Quantum Mechanics:  Science Goes Subjective. Ever since Descartes set up his dualistic reality a few hundred years ago, we’ve been able to trust that science could give us an objective, detached, rational, factual view of the observable universe, while philosophy and religion could explore the invisible universe where subjectivity reigns. But then the handy boundary between the two was torn in the early 20th Century when quantum mechanics found that subjectivity reigns on a sub-atomic level, where reality depends on what researchers decide ahead of time what they’re looking for. Scientists tried for the rest of the 20th Century to restore objectivity to their subatomic lab work, but eventually had to concede.

 “Physicists began to realise that consciousness might after all be critical to their own descriptions of the world. With the advent of quantum mechanics they found that, in order to make sense of what their theories were saying about the subatomic world, they had to posit that the scientist-observer was actively involved in constructing reality.

“At the subatomic level, reality appeared to be a subjective flow in which objects sometimes behave like particles and other times like waves. Which facet is manifest depends on how the human observer is looking at the situation.

“Such a view apalled many physicists, who fought desperately to find a way out, and for much of the 20th century it still seemed possible to imagine that, somehow, subjectivity could be squeezed out of the frame, leaving a purely objective description of the world.

“In other words, human subjectivity is drawing forth the world.”

I Feel Therefore I Am

(2)  Machines Learned to Learn. Remember “garbage in, garbage out”? It used to be that computers had to be supervised — they only did what we told them to do, and could only use the information we gave them. But not anymore. Now their “minds” are free to sort through the garbage on their own and make up their own rules about what to keep or throw out. Because of this kind of machine learning, we now have computers practicing law and medicine, handling customer service, writing the news, composing music, writing novels and screenplays, creating art…. all those things we used to think needed human judgment and feelings. Google wizard and overall overachiever Sebastian Thrun[1] explains the new machine learning in this conversation with TED Curator Chris Anderson:

 “Artificial intelligence and machine learning is about 60 years old and has not had a great day in its past until recently. And the reason is that today, we have reached a scale of computing and datasets that was necessary to make machines smart. The new thing now is that computers can find their own rules. So instead of an expert deciphering, step by step, a rule for every contingency, what you do now is you give the computer examples and have it infer its own rules.

 “20 years ago the computers were as big as a cockroach brain. Now they are powerful enough to really emulate specialized human thinking. And then the computers take advantage of the fact that they can look at much more data than people can.

No wonder science got rattled. Like the rest of us, it was comfortable with all the Cartesian dualisms that kept the world neatly sorted out:  science vs. religion,[2] objective vs. subjective, knowledge vs. belief, humanity vs. technology…. But now all these opposites are blurring together in a subjective vortex while non-human intelligence looks on and comments about it.

Brave New World, indeed. How shall we respond to it?

More next time.

[1] Sebastian Thrun’s TED bio describes him as “an educator, entrepreneur and troublemaker. After a long life as a professor at Stanford University, Thrun resigned from tenure to join Google. At Google, he founded Google X, home to self-driving cars and many other moonshot technologies. Thrun also founded Udacity, an online university with worldwide reach, and Kitty Hawk, a ‘flying car’ company. He has authored 11 books, 400 papers, holds 3 doctorates and has won numerous awards.”

[2] For an alternative to the science-religion dualism, see Science + Religion:  The science-versus-religion opposition is a barrier to thought. Each one is a gift, rather than a threat, to the other, Aeon Magazine (Nov. 21, 2019)

 

Zombies and the Consciousness Hard Problem

              night of the living dead                   Walking Dead

                      Poster from the 1968 movie     https://comicbook.com/thewalkingdead

Philosophers and psychologists call human traits like feelings, conscience, and self- awareness “qualia,” and believe that, if zombies can lack them but still look and act like us (on a really bad day), then locating consciousness entirely in human biology (“physicalism”) can’t be right.

“Physicalism allows us to imagine a world without consciousness, a ‘Zombie world’ that looks exactly like our own, peopled with beings who act exactly like us but aren’t conscious. Such Zombies have no feelings, emotions or subjective experience; they live lives without qualia. As [philosopher David Chalmers][1] has noted, there is literally nothing it is like to be Zombie. And if Zombies can exist in the physicalist account of the world, then, according to Chalmers, that account can’t be a complete description of our world, where feelings do  exist: something more is needed, beyond the laws of nature, to account for conscious subjective experience.”

I Feel Therefore I Am, Aeon Magazine Dec. 1, 2015

To physicalists, says the article, “those are fighting words, and some scientists are fighting back”:

“In the frontline are the neuroscientists who, with increasing frequency, are proposing theories for how subjective experience might emerge from a matrix of neurons and brain chemistry. A slew of books over the past two decades have proffered solutions to the ‘problem’ of consciousness. Among the best known are Christof Koch’s The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (2004); Giulio Tononi and Gerald Edelman’s A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (2000); Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999); and the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s bluntly titled Consciousness Explained (1991).”

Of particular interest in that battery of academic firepower is Daniel Dennett, who has a unique take on Zombies and the consciousness “hard problem”:

“Not everybody agrees there is a Hard Problem to begin with – making the whole debate kickstarted by Chalmers an exercise in pointlessness. Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness.

“Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat. Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on.

“To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with.

“This is the point at which the debate tends to collapse into incredulous laughter and head-shaking: neither camp can quite believe what the other is saying. To Dennett’s opponents, he is simply denying the existence of something everyone knows for certain: their inner experience of sights, smells, emotions and the rest. (Chalmers has speculated, largely in jest, that Dennett himself might be a Zombie.)

“More than one critic of Dennett’s most famous book, Consciousness Explained, has joked that its title ought to be Consciousness Explained Away  Dennett’s reply is characteristically breezy: explaining things away, he insists, is exactly what scientists do… However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do.”

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve The Mystery Of Consciousness? The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2015)

Zombies also appear in another current scientific inquiry:  whether artificially intelligent machines can be conscious. “Who’s to say machines don’t already have minds?” asks this article.[2] If they do, then “we need a better way to define and test for consciousness,” but formulating one means you “still face what you might call the Zombie problem.” (Oh great — so a machine could be a Zombie, too, as if there weren’t already enough of them already.)

Suppose you create a test to detect human qualia in machines, and weed out the Zombies, but who’s going to believe it if it comes back positive?

“Suppose a test finds that a thermostat is conscious. If you’re inclined to think a thermostat is conscious, you will feel vindicated. If sentient thermostats strike you as silly, you will reject the verdict. In that case, why bother conducting the test at all?”

Consciousness Creep

And if conscious thermostats aren’t enough to make you “collapse into incredulous laughter and head-shaking,” then how about finding consciousness in … insects? Turns out, they, too, have a Zombie problem, according to this article, co-written by a biologist and a philosopher.[3]

What happened to science that it’s tackling these issues, and with a straight face? I promised last time we’d look into that. We’ll do that next.

[1] As we saw last time, David Chalmers defined the “easy” and “hard” problems of consciousness.

[2] Consciousness Creep:  Our machines could become self-aware without our knowing it. Aeon Magazine, February 25, 2016

[3] Bee-Brained;  Are Insects ‘Philosophical Zombies’ With No Inner Life? Close attention to their behaviours and moods suggests otherwise, Aeon Magazine (Sept. 27, 2018)

The Greatest Unsolved Mystery

sherlock holmes

Academic disciplines take turns being more or less in the public eye — although, as we saw a couple posts back, metaphysicians think their discipline ought to be the perennial front runner. After all, it’s about figuring out the real nature of things”[1] and what could be more important than that?

Figuring out the human mind that’s doing the figuring, that’s what![2] Thus neuroscience’s quest to understand human consciousness finds itself at the front of the line as the greatest unsolved scientific mystery of our time.

“Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Daniel Dennett wrote that: ‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery.’ A few years later, [David] Chalmers added: ‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’ They were right then and, despite the tremendous scientific advances since, they are still right today.

“I think it is possible that, compared with the hard problem [of consciousness], the rest of science is a sideshow. Until we get a grip on our own minds, our grip on anything else could be suspect. The hard problem is still the toughest kid on the block.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science, Aeon Magazine Oct. 9, 2013

“Hard problem” is a term of art in the consciousness quest:

“The philosopher [David] Chalmers … suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems.

“One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What is meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

Solving the “easy” problem requires objective, empirical inquiry into how our brains are organized and wired, what brain areas and neural circuits process which kinds of experience, how they all share relevant information, etc. Armed with MRIs and other technologies, neuroscience has made great progress on all that. What it can’t seem to get its instruments around is the personal and  private subjection interpretation of the brain’s objective processing of experience.

“First coined in 1995 by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, this ‘hard problem’ of consciousness highlights the distinction between registering and actually feeling a phenomenon. Such feelings are what philosophers refer to as qualia: roughly speaking, the properties by which we classify experiences according to ‘what they are like’. In 2008, the French thinker Michel Bitbol nicely parsed the distinction between feeling and registering by pointing to the difference between the subjective statement ‘I feel hot’, and the objective assertion that ‘The temperature of this room is higher than the boiling point of alcohol’ – a statement that is amenable to test by thermometer.”

I Feel Therefore I Am  Aeon Magazine Dec. 1, 2015

Neuroscience does objective just fine, but meets its match with subjective.

“The question of how the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience, the so-called ‘hard problem’, is a conundrum so intractable that one scientist I know refuses even to discuss it at the dinner table. Another, the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland, declared in 1989 that ‘nothing worth reading has been written on it’.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

Recently though, neuroscience has unleashed new urgency on the hard problem:

“For long periods, it is as if science gives up on the subject in disgust. But the hard problem is back in the news, and a growing number of scientists believe that they have consciousness, if not licked, then at least in their sights.

“A triple barrage of neuroscientific, computational and evolutionary artillery promises to reduce the hard problem to a pile of rubble. Today’s consciousness jockeys talk of p‑zombies and Global Workspace Theory, mirror neurons, ego tunnels, and attention schemata. They bow before that deus ex machina of brain science, the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

Impressive, but are they making progress? Not so much.

“Their work is frequently very impressive and it explains a lot. All the same, it is reasonable to doubt whether it can ever hope to land a blow on the hard problem.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

The quest to map and measure the “personalized feeling level” of consciousness has taken researchers to some odd places indeed — as we saw in the video featured last time. Zombies also feature prominently:

“All those tests still face what you might call the zombie problem. How do you know your uncle, let alone your computer, isn’t a pod person – a zombie in the philosophical sense, going through the motions but lacking an internal life? He could look, act, and talk like your uncle, but have no experience of being your uncle. None of us can ever enter another mind, so we can never really know whether anyone’s home.”

Consciousness CreepAeon Magazine, February 25, 2016

More about Zombies and other consciousness conundrums coming up, along with a look at what made consciousness shoot to the top of the unsolved scientific mysteries pile.

[1] Encyclopedia Briitanica

[2] We’ll see later in this series what made illuminating the human mind so critical to science in general, not just neuroscience in particular.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [9]:  Reckoning With Mystery

pontius pilate

“What is truth?”
Pontius Pilate
John 18:38 (NIV)

On the science side of Cartesian dualism, truth must be falsifiable — we have to be able to prove it’s untrue. On the religious side, to falsify is to doubt, doubt becomes heresy, and heresy meets the bad end it deserves.

Neither side likes mystery, because both are trying to satisfy a more primal need:  to know, explain, and be right. It’s a survival skill:  we need to be right about a lot of things to stay alive, and there’s nothing more primal to a mortal being than staying alive. Mystery is nice if you’ve got the time, but at some point it won’t help you eat and avoid being eaten.

Science tackles mysteries with experiments and theories, religion with doctrine and ritual. Both try to nail their truth down to every “jot and tittle,” while mystery bides its time, aloof and unimpressed.

I once heard a street preacher offer his rationale for the existence of God. “Think about how big the universe is,” he said, “It’s too big for me to understand. There has to be a God behind it.” That’s God explained on a street corner:  “I don’t get it, so there has be a higher up who does. His name is God.” The preacher’s God has the expansive consciousness we lack, and if we don’t always understand, that’s part of the deal:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)

Compare that to a cognitive neuroscientist’s take on our ability to perceive reality, as explained in this video.

“Many scientists believe that natural selection brought our perception of reality into clearer and deeper focus, reasoning that growing more attuned to the outside world gave our ancestors an evolutionary edge. Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, thinks that just the opposite is true. Because evolution selects for survival, not accuracy, he proposes that our conscious experience masks reality behind millennia of adaptions for ‘fitness payoffs’ – an argument supported by his work running evolutionary game-theory simulations. In this interview recorded at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival from the Institute of Arts and Ideas in 2019, Hoffman explains why he believes that perception must necessarily hide reality for conscious agents to survive and reproduce. With that view serving as a springboard, the wide-ranging discussion also touches on Hoffman’s consciousness-centric framework for reality, and its potential implications for our everyday lives.”

The video is 40 minutes long, but a few minutes will suffice to make today/s point. Prof. Hoffman admits his theory is counterintuitive and bizarre, but promises he’s still working on it (moving it toward falsifiability). I personally favor scientific materialism’s explanation of consciousness, and I actually get the theory behind Prof. Hoffman’s ideas, but when I watch this I can’t help but think its’s amazing how far science and religion will go to define their versions of how things work. That’s why I quit trying to read philosophy:  all that meticulous logic trying to block all exits and close all loopholes, but sooner or later some mystery leaks out a seam, and when it does the whole thing seems overwrought and silly.

The street preacher thinks reality is out there, and we’re given enough brain to both get by and know when to quit trying and trust a higher intelligence that has it all figured out. The scientist starts in here, with the brain (“the meat that thinks”), then tries to describe how it creates a useful enough version of reality to help us get by in the external world.

The preacher likes the eternal human soul; the scientist goes for the bio-neuro-cultural construction we call the self. Positions established, each side takes and receives metaphysical potshots from the other. For example, when science clamors after the non-falsifiable multiverse theory of quantum physics, the intelligent designers gleefully point out that the so-called scientists are leapers of faith just like them:

“Unsurprisingly, the folks at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think-tank for creationism and intelligent design, have been following the unfolding developments in theoretical physics with great interest. The Catholic evangelist Denyse O’Leary, writing for the Institute’s Evolution News blog in 2017, suggests that: ‘Advocates [of the multiverse] do not merely propose that we accept faulty evidence. They want us to abandon evidence as a key criterion for acceptance of their theory.’ The creationists are saying, with some justification: look, you accuse us of pseudoscience, but how is what you’re doing in the name of science any different? They seek to undermine the authority of science as the last word on the rational search for truth.

“And, no matter how much we might want to believe that God designed all life on Earth, we must accept that intelligent design makes no testable predictions of its own. It is simply a conceptual alternative to evolution as the cause of life’s incredible complexity. Intelligent design cannot be falsified, just as nobody can prove the existence or non-existence of a philosopher’s metaphysical God, or a God of religion that ‘moves in mysterious ways’. Intelligent design is not science: as a theory, it is simply overwhelmed by its metaphysical content.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

And so it goes. But what would be so wrong with letting mystery stay… well, um… mysterious?

We’ll look at that next time.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [8]: Science and Snake Oil

snake oil salesman 2

Science requires that its findings be falsifiable:  you have to be able to prove them wrong. That they might be right isn’t enough; if they can’t be wrong, they’re not science.

Belief in the supernatural isn’t falsifiable, therefore it’s not science:

“Most supernatural religious beliefs aren’t falsifiable. The existence of a God who created and manages the world according to a fixed eternal plan, Jesus’s miracles and resurrection, Heaven, Hell, Satan’s presence on Earth — these can never be disproved.”

Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History,by Kurt Andersen (2017)

“We should never believe a claim to be true simply because no one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense.

“We often see what we already believe is there, not what is actually in front of us. Perhaps the greatest of all examples of this are religious experiences. People with religious experiences always see in their visions what they have been taught all their lives. For example, a Muslim will never see a vision of Jesus in his religious experience and a Christian will never see Mohammed.

“All scientists know that the methods we use to prove or disprove theories are the only dependable methods of understanding our universe. All other methodologies of learning, while appropriate to employ in situations when science cannot guide us, are inherently flawed. Reasoning alone — even the reasoning of great intellects — is not enough. It must be combined with the scientific method if it is to yield genuine knowledge about the universe.”

The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self, Paul Singh (2016)

Consider falsifiability’s take on homeopathic medicine:

“Homeopathy, its fake medicines prescribed to cure every disease, is a product of magical thinking in the extreme.”

Fantasyland

“We can find many ways to criticise the premises of homeopathy and dismiss this as pseudoscience, as it has little or no foundation in our current understanding of Western, evidence-based medicine… Even if we take it at face value, we should admit that it fails all the tests: there is no evidence from clinical trials for the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies beyond a placebo effect. Those who … continue to argue for its efficacy are not doing science. They are doing wishful-thinking or, like a snake-oil salesman, they’re engaged in deliberate deception.

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

“Homeopathy was the original ‘alternative medicine,’” Kurt Andersen writes. He describes how it was soon joined by mesmerism, phrenology, séances, and traveling snake oil salesmen, brought to us by illustrious champions such as Methodist John Wesley, Presbyterian Sylvester Graham (as in graham crackers), John Kellogg (of cereal fame), and “Dr. William A. Rockefeller, Celebrated Cancer Specialist” (father of John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil), Along the way, it helped to spawn “New Thought” religion — e.g., Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science churches and today’s New Age movement.

Alternative medicine works because of the placebo effect:

“Many nostrums were the products of knowing charlatans, but many of the most successful inventors and promoters were undoubtedly sincere believers themselves. If the patients who had faith in the miraculous treatments, they could even seem to work. The term placebo had just come into use as a medical term.

“The upside was that homeopathy inherently fulfills the Hippocratic Oath:    . Homeopathic medicines contain negligible active ingredients. If thousands of homeopaths and millions of patients, as Mark Twain said, wanted to ‘bribe death with a sugar pill to stay away,’ that was their problem.”

Fantasyland

In her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, Lissa Rankin M.D. tells how she switched from conventional to alternative medicine after realizing that lots of people in placebo control groups actually do get better taking those sugar pills. They may be in the minority, but still…. I once heard a medical researcher tell a group of MS patients to “Find your placebo — if you think it will help you, it probably will.”

But placebos aren’t science, and the “Scientific Proof” in Dr. Rankin’s book title is off target. Last time we heard about the science behind your GPS. You don’t want it to “probably” work, or work just some of the time, or so rarely it’s a “miracle” when it does. You want it to work every time, everywhere. If it doesn’t, then the science behind it has been falsified (proven wrong), and it’s back to the drawing board.

Eventually science and investigative journalism teamed up to put the snake oil peddlers out of business:

“[At the start of the Twentieth Century,] medical science advanced, and the American Establishment decided to put an end to large-scale quackery. The new mass-market magazine Ladies’ Home Journal stopped accepting ads for patent medicines, and Collier’s published a game-changing eleven-part  investigative series on the ‘tonics,’ ‘blood purifiers,’ and ‘cures’ racket — and a year later the Pure Food and Drug Act became federal law, putting most of that industry out of business.”

Fantasyland

We’ve been digressing a bit. Next time, we’ll get back to what this has to do with consciousness and the self.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [6]: “The Meat Thinks”

they're made out of meat 2

“The brain does the thinking — the meat.”

Last time, we looked at neuroscience’s idea that consciousness — and therefore the conscious self — is a conglomerate of various neural networks that process experience. In other words, the internal voice that narrates your life, that you’ve been hearing for as long as you can remember, isn’t the voice of a transcendent soul commenting about your Earthly experience, it’s the result of the biological functioning of your brain. Your brain matter — the meat, as sci-fi writer Terry Bisson called it in an Omni Magazine story back in 1991 — does the thinking.

Bisson’s sci-fi piece anticipated neuroscientific materialism by nearly two decades (not an unusual thing for sci-fi to do — sometimes it’s even intentional[1]). Here’s the full text of the short story, which consists entirely of a conversation between an undercover extra-terrestrial and his superior, as the agent reports on his investigation of the human race. The story was made into a six-minute film, which you can watch here. Here’s an excerpt:

They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat…. They’re born meat and they die meat … They’re meat all the way through.”

“No brain?”

“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“So what does the thinking?”

“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”

“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”

“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?”

“Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.”

“Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat.”

Conscious meat — the idea is preposterous to the aliens and to us. True, “meat” is an indelicate way to put it, which of course is intentional, but knowing that the term is a clever literary device doesn’t help us accept the idea, any more than we’re willing to accept the formal neuroscientific version we looked at last time:

 “In the present theory, the content of consciousness, the stuff in the conscious mind, is distributed over a large set of brain areas, areas that encode vision, emotion, language, action plans, and so on. The full set of information that is present in consciousness at any one time has been called the “global workspace.” In the present theory, the global workspace spans many diverse areas of the brain. But the specific property of awareness, the essence of awareness added to the global workspace, is constructed by an expert system in a limited part of the brain…. The computed property of awareness can be bound to the larger whole… One could think of awareness as information.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013)

Sci-fi version or neuroscience version — either way, the message is preposterous:  “Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”

Yes, as a matter of fact. And also as a matter of fact, that “preposterous!”  judgment is at least in some measure a case of “refusing to deal with what I’m telling you.” Revolutionary scientific paradigm shifts don’t easily become mainstream. The idea that the Earth isn’t flat has been around way longer than Columbus, but some brains still don’t believe it. The concept of an eternal, transcendent soul has been around even longer; it’s been thoroughly wired into individual and cultural consciousness; we’re convinced that’s the way it is. But now along comes neuroscience, saying that it knows something different. Our well-worn neural pathways tilt at the suggestion. The best we can do is relegate the idea to fiction, where things don’t have to be true — at least not now, although they might become so in the future.

Besides, there’s another, deeper, more pervasive belief at work here — about what it means for science to know something is true.

“But isn’t science in any case about what is right and true? Surely nobody wants to be wrong and false? Except that it isn’t, and we seriously limit our ability to lift the veils of ignorance and change antiscientific beliefs if we persist in peddling this absurdly simplistic view of what science is.

“Despite appearances, science offers no certainty. Decades of progress in the philosophy of science have led us to accept that our prevailing scientific understanding is a limited-time offer, valid only until a new observation or experiment proves that it’s not.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

Scientific knowledge is throwaway truth — only useable until something better comes along. Conviction, on the other hand, casts its truth in adamantine. Scientific knowledge demands correction, while personal and cultural conviction punishes it.

More next time.

[1] See this article for a look at how science fiction sometimes informs science non-fiction.  Here’s a sample:  “Fictionalising the future can be an effective way of realising it and making it familiar…. As the science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow put it in 2014: ‘There is nothing weird about a company … commissioning a story about people using a technology to decide if the technology is worth following through on. It’s like an architect creating a virtual fly-through of a building.’”