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The Science Fictions series at your fingertips: the human mind


Bio_Symposium_033.jpg Is there a good reason to believe that the human mind is and must be a fully natural object? Note: The Science Fictions – human evolution series is here.The cosmology series is here, and the origin of life series here.    


Darwin’s “horrid doubt”: The mind: Late in life, Darwin wrote,

But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

Ironically, while Darwin may have doubted the fully naturalized mind and felt horrid about it, most of his latter-day supporters believe and feel good. And, on its own terms, their faith cannot be disconfirmed. They propose a variety of fully natural (material) explanations of the mind, that most immaterial of entities, the mind; for example:

  • The brain randomly generates illusions that self-organize as a “mind.” Behavior is thus better accounted for by the study of neurons (neuroscience) than the study of the illusory “mind.”
  • Our hominoid ancestors passed on hypothetical genes via natural selection acting on random mutation. These claimed (not demonstrated) genes result in our attitudes, values, beliefs, and behavior — mistakenly seen as the outcome of thought processes (evolutionary psychology).

While their explanations can rarely be disconfirmed when using the naturalists’ own rules,  as we shall see, they can, of course, be dissected, falsified, and sometimes just plain sent up on the basis of evidence and reason, as here and throughout the series this fall.

Neuroscience tried wholly embracing naturalism, but then the brain got away

Both the United States and the European Union are throwing billions of dollars at new projects to map the human brain. Yet many neuroscientists worry that more is promised than can be performed. For one thing, fMRI (brain imaging) shows which brain areas have high oxygen levels when a person is thinking something. It simply cannot tell us what people are thinking, because many brain centers are active and those that are active may be activated for many reasons. Each brain is unique so data from studies must be averaged. But thoughts are not averaged; they belong to the individual.

Two hundred and fifty scientists are protesting the European Human Brain Project on the grounds that a proposed computer simulation isn’t realistic for understanding brain function. Indeed, the main practical effect of more and better neuroscience has been — not to cement — but to blow up conventional neuroscience assumptions and pop legends: More.

Would we give up naturalism to solve the hard problem of consciousness?

Today, irrespective of the state of the evidence, actual or perceived naturalism distinguishes the genius from the fool.

The fact that this stuff [foregoing nonsense] sounds unserious shouldn’t blind us to a key cultural outcome of its dominance: Alternative medicine proponent Deepak Chopra was ridiculed at Forbes for saying “Consciousness may exist in photons, which seem to be the carrier of all information in the universe.” Yet great physicists have said similar things. Max Planck said “I regard matter as a derivative of consciousness.” And Koch, remember, thinks the Internet may be conscious. But are he or Max Tegmark (“perceptronium”) so easily ridiculed in the same places?

The standard is probably this: Koch and Tegmark are assumed to be naturalists and Chopra certainly doesn’t sound like one. Irrespective of the state of the evidence, actual or perceived naturalism distinguishes the genius from the fool. More.

Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness:

… On the other hand, there are no “primitive” languages, in the way that we can speak of “primitive” technology (knapped stone vs. high grade steel). It is possible to translate the Bible into any language, despite its ancient origin and the complexity of its tangled multi-kingdom histories and abstruse theological arguments.

Yet there is something natural about language — natural to humans, that is. It is has proven very difficult to get a foothold for a simple made-up language like Esperanto because, as a missionary who spent his life translating the Bible into dying languages pointed out to me, Esperanto was devised purely for convenience. It is no one’s “heart language.”

Some say the world looks different to speakers of different languages; others ridicule the idea. It’s hard to say. The people who use a language will tend to put their own stamp on the ideas it conveys. The world may indeed look different to them, but that’s not the word stock or the grammar so much as what they habitually use these tools to mean.

Yet one hears little of these subtle questions when one turns to naturalist accounts of language. More.

 The evolutionary psychologist knows why you vote — and shop, and tip at restaurants

Ever since Darwin’s The Descent of Man, in which he proposed the theory of sexual selection (how some are selected to pass on their traits), his followers have extended his thoughts to encompass just about all aspects of human nature.

First there was social Darwinism, which fell into disfavor after World War II because its theories justified colonialism, exploitation of labor, and eugenics. These policies were developed much earlier and for reasons unrelated to Darwinian theory, but the theory was easily co-opted to justify them. Later, in the 1970s, sociobiology blossomed. Sociobiologists, using insect colonies as their model, explained human behavior that seemed a puzzle — such as kindness to strangers — as originating in the way that our genes get passed on because genes are shared, in large part, with relatives. Sociobiology became controversial, however, when it attracted allegations of racism.

But soon after, a much broader movement burst on the scene — evolutionary psychology (evo psych). Almost all human ideas can be explained, we are told, as the functional products of natural selection in our remote ancestors.

We may not know why we do things, but the evolutionary psychologist does. He knows, by the methods of science, the “truth” about shopping, voting, or tipping at restaurants. More.

  There’s a gene for that… or is there?

The Human Genome Project spiked widespread awareness of genes. In recent years, many claim to have identified specific genes or groups of genes that govern human behavior of interest, much in the way a light switch controls a circuit.

Thus we have heard about not only a “bad driver” gene, but a fat gene, “friends” gene, generosity gene, happiness gene, infidelity gene, liberal gene, pedophilia gene, psychopath gene, religion gene, “smother mother” gene, suicide gene, and violent media consumption gene, for starters.

One researcher offers a model for a “religiosity” gene, warning that if such people reproduce, “the religiosity gene will eventually predominate despite a high rate of defection.” And in 2011, the New York Times electrified the corpse of the “crime gene” — even while admitting the weakness of the idea: “Many people with the same genetic tendency for aggressiveness will never throw a punch, while others without it could be career criminals.” So the thesis is true except when it is not? And this is science?

A related outcome is personalized genetics, where people get their genome mapped to learn more about themselves, 23andMe-style. But, quite apart from recent troubles with the FDA, one’s personal Gattaca will likely be in reality, when critically analyzed, an uninformative bust.

Why? Because, in the real world of careful analysis, scientists are just not finding the “genes” that the headline writers need. More.

  Matching Darwin’s “Tree of life,” the “Tree of intelligence” comes crashing down

Freed from the constraints of naturalism (nature is all there is), the animal mind is a fascinating topic. Great writers have reflected on the way their cats think. The cat is a convenient subject for two reasons. One is this, no one advertises a common inheritance of humans and cats. We meet on equal terms.

That said, the most farflung outcome of the current effort to naturalize the mind, despite Darwin’s horrid doubt, is the quest to map our own minds onto those of primate apes and other mammals. We constantly hear the false news that we share 98 percent or 99 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, and therefore we must greatly resemble them.

False news? Yes. If that claim were taken seriously, it would spell the end of genetics as a source of useful information. (Is there anyone who cannot tell the difference between a human and a chimpanzee?) No, such claims belong rather on a philosophical continuum with evolutionary psychology. If evo psych’s claims were sound, they would merely demonstrate that no evolution has been observed in the human species for two million years. But the value of all such claims is precisely that they are not taken seriously. They serve rather to undermine the idea that humans are unique, with little regard for the logical consequences of any specific assertion.

It is the same with claims about animal minds. Scientists and science reporters routinely claim that apes and humans behave similarly. Apes are said to, among other things, mourn their dead, suffer self-doubt, make dolls, have police, go to war, and use “innovative, foresighted methods.” The point of such claims isn’t that apes really think like people, but that we really don’t.

Strangely, it’s been crazier. In the Seventies, Nim Chimpsky (Pan troglodytes) was raised from infancy as a human baby and even breastfed by a woman. (The daughter of the surrogate mother explained in retrospect, “It was the Seventies.”) More.

  Branding popular arts and culture for Darwin

However that may be, Darwinian evolution thinking has certainly affected the rhetoric of pop business writing. Consider Sally Hogshead, a self-described Darwinian brand marketing specialist and author of Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation (Harper Business, 2010). She argues from studies of neuroscience and ape behavior that seven evolutionary triggers can get us to pay more than we need to for goods and services. She begins (following a convention of evolutionary psychology) by undermining the idea that we understand what we think:

Whatever you’re drawn to — from watching reruns of Family Guy to spending time with your family — you have the triggers to thank for it. (p. 17)

She is quite happy to market lust (it “conquers the rational evaluation process, freeing us to stop thinking and start feeling,” p. 73) and vice (“a little goes a long way, so customize your message by using it in combination with other triggers,” p. 151). And she markets snobbery fearlessly. Keeping products unavailable to lower income people is, in her view, a key to commercial success:

Not so long ago, the height of epicurean indulgence was a gold box filled with Godiva chocolates. … Then, in an effort to expand, in 1999 Godiva made a fateful decision to distribute in mass retailers such as Barnes & Noble. The chocolates, which for the first time now included preservatives, were no longer a treat to be craved and desired. Now you could buy the gold box in strip malls. (Strip malls!) (p. 79)

Who decided that poorer people didn’t deserve a treat now and then? The most successful retailers in North America are proud to put luxury chocolates in lower income shopping carts. That, not creating scarcity, is the classic American model of business. In a world traditionally governed by class-conscious aristocracies who restricted access to luxuries or even benefits (often by law as well as custom), the American model revolutionized living standards. Hogshead competently (but unintentionally) demonstrates how Darwinism, if applied to economics or business, might create scarcity instead by restricting benefits to life’s winners — who can pay more. More.

  An evolutionary challenge: explaining away compassion, philanthropy, and self-sacrifice

Animals do show empathy. But that’s part of the puzzle. Consider the monkey who rescued his electrocuted buddy. But then tortoises have been captured on film laboriously turning other upended tortoises back onto their feet.

The nature of the difficulty is apparent when we ask ourselves, what is the tortoise thinking? It is a reptile who cannot right itself, so how does it know enough to right another tortoise? When considering empathy in chimpanzees, we assume, with some justification, that the chimp who helps or shares has mental experiences analogous to those of humans. But if the famously slow-witted tortoise has such experiences as well, then there is not only no “Tree of Intelligence,” there seems to be no Tree of Empathy either. Genetic closeness to humans may not have explanatory value for humans, any more than the supposed “selfish gene” does.

For human nature, evolution appears to be an endless well from which any lesson whatever can be drawn. And “evolutionary” explanations need not be informative; they need only be fully naturalist.

 How can we believe in naturalism if we have no choice?

There is no shortage of arguments against free will. So many thinkers say they could improve human nature if they could just force enough people to co-operate with their various programs.

Some go so far as to think that we are now less likely to believe that there is even a me left (that is, a mere “ghost in the machine,” as English philosopher Gilbert Ryle put it).

But whose ghost? And whose machine?

Even some New Atheists like Daniel Dennett dissent from such a breezy dismissal of what so many have given their lives for. He points out that such a view “is blind to the chilling lessons of the not so distant past.”

As a matter of fact, the big news is that free will is becoming a respectable concept again, in part for science-based reasons. More.

  If naturalism can explain religion, why does it get so many basic facts wrong?

Here at Evolution News & Views:

Another claim we hear, from celebrity skeptic Michael Shermer for example, is that science — and he of course includes Darwinian mechanisms for evolution in that category — is objective knowledge that will save us from superstition. But in the United States, a 2007-2008 Baylor University survey reported that

… traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead and astrology (Ch. 15, “Credulity: Who Believes in Bigfoot”).

They found that self-identified theological liberals and irreligious people were far more likely to believe in such things than other Americans. More.

  Evolutionary conundrum: is religion a useful, useless, or harmful adaptation?

If religion is (as monotheists insist), a revelation, it is not necessarily an adaptation at all. Or not in the sense that Darwin’s followers mean.

As an adaptation, if it is even that, here:

But, some theorists argue, religion is actually a bad adaptation. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne attributes Americans’ doubt about Darwinian evolution theories to religious faith, which, he claims, correlates highly with social dysfunction. He goes on to claim that the United States is “one of the most socially dysfunctional First World countries.” That’s a tough contest to judge, considering the cutbacks riots and secularist-Islamist clashes that are increasingly common in secular post-modern Europe. And it is, in any event, difficult to discuss social dysfunction if societies do not even share basic values.

These theories about religion (useful, useless, harmful) have two things in common: First, they typically spill forth with no real engagement with religion. For example, one recent study claimed that believers subconsciously endow God with their own beliefs on controversial issues. That would be news to the many people whose religion urges them to do things they quite sincerely don’t want to do (fast) or give up things they really like (smoking). Another claimed that people reject evolution (Darwinism) and support ID because they are afraid to die.

If one’s research is in a hole that deep, why not stop digging? Well, in the case of evolutionary naturalists, it’s because the hole is the enterprise. They just didn’t think it would go down so far as to bury them too. More.

If religion is (as monotheists insist), a revelation, it is not necessarily an adaptation at all. Or not in the sense that Darwin’s followers mean.

  Imagine a world of religions that naturalism might indeed be able to explain:

Although they were not materialists, our ancestors do appear to have been naturalists. They believed in gods, but gods were merely beings with considerable powers over nature. They were usually placated. But they could be promoted or demoted, flogged or booted from the community, if they failed to bring rain, for example. The same fate could befall rulers, who were often thought to have semi-divine powers.

No necessary distinction existed between gods, ghosts, rulers, magicians, plain folks, animals, plants, and inanimate objects. Gods could die like anyone else. A sense of a transcendent God who created and sympathizes with man and nature — but is not a creature like them — came later, perhaps much later. More.

Note: The Science Fictions – human evolution series is here.The cosmology series is here, and the origin of life series here. O’Leary for News


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