Sunday, January 28, 2007

Not so mere matter

There are few things that evoke a more visceral reaction of disgust from theists as the notion that their conscious experiences are the result of "mere" matter. It is the ultimate allergic reaction, almost a mental auto-immune response in which the mind treats the body as a foreign entity. I commented on this phenomenon in the first installment of my essay "Ideas and Consequences", likening it to the reaction that a diner would have on learning that the delicious delicacy he is feasting on was made from elephant testicles. "Blech!" the theist blurts as he spits out the news that his seamless experience of consciousness is "merely" an emergent phenomenon of matter and energy. I vainly asked if instead of judging the phenomenon by its components, we should judge the components by the phenomenon. If life is wonderful, then so is the matter that gives life. Not mere matter, but wonderful matter.

For those believers unable to stomach my advice, I warn you that the following article by Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, may result in symptoms of mental queasiness and nausea:


SCIENTISTS HAVE EXORCISED THE GHOST FROM THE MACHINE NOT because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain. Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people's thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe.

And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party. Chemicals that affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD, can profoundly alter how people think, feel and see. Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment for epilepsy), spawns two consciousnesses within the same skull, as if the soul could be cleaved in two with a knife.

And when the physiological activity of the brain ceases, as far as anyone can tell the person's consciousness goes out of existence. Attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks, and near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain. In September, a team of Swiss neuroscientists reported that they could turn out-of-body experiences on and off by stimulating the part of the brain in which vision and bodily sensations converge.


ANOTHER STARTLING CONCLUSION FROM the science of consciousness is that the intuitive feeling we have that there's an executive "I" that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion. Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along.

Take the famous cognitive-dissonance experiments. When an experimenter got people to endure electric shocks in a sham experiment on learning, those who were given a good rationale ("It will help scientists understand learning") rated the shocks as more painful than the ones given a feeble rationale ("We're curious.") Presumably, it's because the second group would have felt foolish to have suffered for no good reason. Yet when these people were asked why they agreed to be shocked, they offered bogus reasons of their own in all sincerity, like "I used to mess around with radios and got used to electric shocks."

It's not only decisions in sketchy circumstances that get rationalized but also the texture of our immediate experience. We all feel we are conscious of a rich and detailed world in front of our eyes. Yet outside the dead center of our gaze, vision is amazingly coarse. Just try holding your hand a few inches from your line of sight and counting your fingers. And if someone removed and reinserted an object every time you blinked (which experimenters can simulate by flashing two pictures in rapid sequence), you would be hard pressed to notice the change. Ordinarily, our eyes flit from place to place, alighting on whichever object needs our attention on a need-to-know basis. This fools us into thinking that wall-to-wall detail was there all along--an example of how we overestimate the scope and power of our own consciousness.

Our authorship of voluntary actions can also be an illusion, the result of noticing a correlation between what we decide and how our bodies move. The psychologist Dan Wegner studied the party game in which a subject is seated in front of a mirror while someone behind him extends his arms under the subject's armpits and moves his arms around, making it look as if the subject is moving his own arms. If the subject hears a tape telling the person behind him how to move (wave, touch the subject's nose and so on), he feels as if he is actually in command of the arms.

The brain's spin doctoring is displayed even more dramatically in neurological conditions in which the healthy parts of the brain explain away the foibles of the damaged parts (which are invisible to the self because they are part of the self). A patient who fails to experience a visceral click of recognition when he sees his wife but who acknowledges that she looks and acts just like her deduces that she is an amazingly well-trained impostor. A patient who believes he is at home and is shown the hospital elevator says without missing a beat, "You wouldn't believe what it cost us to have that installed."

Why does consciousness exist at all, at least in the Easy Problem sense in which some kinds of information are accessible and others hidden? One reason is information overload. Just as a person can be overwhelmed today by the gusher of data coming in from electronic media, decision circuits inside the brain would be swamped if every curlicue and muscle twitch that was registered somewhere in the brain were constantly being delivered to them. Instead, our working memory and spotlight of attention receive executive summaries of the events and states that are most relevant to updating an understanding of the world and figuring out what to do next. The cognitive psychologist Bernard Baars likens consciousness to a global blackboard on which brain processes post their results and monitor the results of the others.


A SECOND REASON THAT INFORMATION MAY BE SEALED OFF FROM consciousness is strategic. Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has noted that people have a motive to sell themselves as beneficent, rational, competent agents. The best propagandist is the one who believes his own lies, ensuring that he can't leak his deceit through nervous twitches or self-contradictions. So the brain might have been shaped to keep compromising data away from the conscious processes that govern our interaction with other people. At the same time, it keeps the data around in unconscious processes to prevent the person from getting too far out of touch with reality.

What about the brain itself? You might wonder how scientists could even begin to find the seat of awareness in the cacophony of a hundred billion jabbering neurons. The trick is to see what parts of the brain change when a person's consciousness flips from one experience to another. In one technique, called binocular rivalry, vertical stripes are presented to the left eye, horizontal stripes to the right. The eyes compete for consciousness, and the person sees vertical stripes for a few seconds, then horizontal stripes, and so on.

A low-tech way to experience the effect yourself is to look through a paper tube at a white wall with your right eye and hold your left hand in front of your left eye. After a few seconds, a white hole in your hand should appear, then disappear, then reappear.

Monkeys experience binocular rivalry. They can learn to press a button every time their perception flips, while their brains are impaled with electrodes that record any change in activity. Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis found that the earliest way stations for visual input in the back of the brain barely budged as the monkeys' consciousness flipped from one state to another. Instead, it was a region that sits further down the information stream and that registers coherent shapes and objects that tracks the monkeys' awareness. Now this doesn't mean that this place on the underside of the brain is the TV screen of consciousness. What it means, according to a theory by Crick and his collaborator Christof Koch, is that consciousness resides only in the "higher" parts of the brain that are connected to circuits for emotion and decision making, just what one would expect from the blackboard metaphor.

To stimulate the discussion, I ask my readers to answer the following questions:

1. Does the realization that consciousness is a byproduct of matter argue against the possibility of an afterlife?

2. If the answer to #1 is yes, is that the sole objection to this idea from a religious standpoint?

3. What are the implications for morality from this realization?


Blogger Oroborous said...

Do you mean, if religionist only argue against "meat consciousness" because they think that it'll negate the concept of other planes of existence, wouldn't it also mean that there's no God-given morality ?


January 28, 2007 10:17 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Never mind morality and the afterlife, what about knowledge itself? How can you possibly square "Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has noted that people have a motive to sell themselves as beneficent, rational, competent agents." (which is very questionable) and Pinker's absolute determinism with giving Pinker any credence.

This argument is always made from the perspective of an observer ungoverned by the iron laws that rule the observed. I realize it is an old objection, but it is still with us for a reason.

January 28, 2007 12:10 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

It might well be that of all science's branches, neuroscience could be the one most destructive to religion. By which I mean all religion.

Evolution is only destructive to certain elements and creation myths. But the idea that consciousness and the 'I' necessarily dies with the brain - no afterlife, no reincarnation, no nothing - is serious stuff.

Makes you wonder why they waste so much time and effort in Quixotic charges at Darwin.

January 29, 2007 6:20 AM  
Blogger Lekatt said...

Twenty years ago I had a near death experience. Your article ignores all the research done on NDEs showing that consciousness continues to live after the death of the brain and body. I have no doubt I will live in spiritual form after my physical death. Scientists are not measuring consciousness, they are measuring the effects of consciousness. The brain is only an interface between the spiritual "you" and the body. This has been shown by thousands of near death experiences where information is gathered while the person is brain dead. There are many universities doing research as we speak that disproves we are only "meat." I am not religious, nor do I belong to any religious organization, but I can, and do, keep informed about what scientists say about consciousness, and they are off the mark. They have no physical proof of any kind that memory, thoughts, emotions, etc. are produced by the brain. It is like watching television and thinking there are people inside of it performing the shows. Brain waves are going to the brain from the unseen spiritual self, not coming from it. Someday this will be understood by those who have not had near death experiences.

January 29, 2007 6:21 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


1. Since no one knows anything about the afterlife, eschatology completely notwithstanding, then nothing can effect its perceived possibility.

2. The much stronger objection to this from a religious standpoint is its destruction of free will. (Not my view, theirs). Your link in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is a perfect example.

3. As it happens, I was going to do a post on this, until you stole it, for which I will have to kill you.

Now, what do I think the effect on morality will be? Maybe my conclusion to the post -- which, thankfully, is the only thing I had gotten to -- will sum it up (it was still in the planning stage):

Concept of Free Will like Religion: objectively false, but subjectively true? That is, the alternative to treating Free Will as if it does not, in fact, exist -- while largely or completely true -- is far worse than accepting the lie?

Which could lead to the conclusion some knowledge should be, in the Platonic sense, forbidden. Assuming, for the moment, rational inquiry establishes beyond doubt that the room for free will's maneuver is vanishingly small, the space for morality becomes equally small. Where there are no options, there is no morality.

Even the most ardent advocate of knowledge, though, would quickly concede that the conceit of free will is essential to civilization. And would be just as quickly stumped in trying to square the circle between essential conceits and their relentless undermining by the very process such an advocate pursues.

January 29, 2007 6:25 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I would like to see somebody who agrees with what Pinker is saying defend democracy.

January 29, 2007 11:30 AM  
Blogger David said...

What a lousy article. Not only does it suffer from the meta problem that Peter points out
(which is simply another version of the "false consciousness" schtick that has been the hallmark of every lousy idea for more than a century), but it is so busy whacking the straw out of straw men that it never gets around to dealing with the real problems it raises.

Plus, you guys just really don't understand creation at all.

If, however, it were all true, then the preservation of civilization would require that this research be savagely repressed and all of the researchers killed. Lucky, then, that it's not true.

January 29, 2007 2:54 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I don't see that it is such a major objection. You as a lawyer should know that eyewitness testimony is unreliable. There are many other ways that one can observe where the mind plays "tricks", such as with optical illusions. Does that mean that you have to mistrust all of your subjective mental states?

Not at all, it just means that you need to be aware of biases within your own brain. Do you deny that you posess any internal biases? Are you one of the very few people whose eyewitness testimony is always accurate and objective?

And what is the problem with agreeing with Pinker and defending democracy? That's a connection that you'll have to diagram.

I guess my warning wasn't strong enough. David didn't just get queasy, he's experiencing projectile vomiting. What exactly are the strawmen, and why must this knowledge be supressed for the good of society? Not being a neuroscientist, how exactly are you sure that what Pinker says is bogus?

January 29, 2007 5:13 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck, if you think all he is saying is that our thoughts are affected by physical or cultural factors and our brains play perception tricks on us (something no one in history has ever denied, so please don't throw red herrings), I don't think you've understood his thesis. Which subjective mental states do you think Pinker says you can trust?

January 29, 2007 5:33 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Trust is not a binary switch that is either 100% on or 100% off. I think you're taking some of the language in the article a little too literally, especially the part about self-deception.

I've learned from my own life experiences that my judgments about things, especially of myself, have proven to be suspect on many occasions. I could have saved myself a lot of grief by understanding my motives for getting married better. We can all recognize self-deception in others, why is it so hard to accept it about yourself. It's the human condition, Pinker is just providing the scientific proof for things we've suspected all along.

So what is Pinker saying, if not that? What is the big surprise here?

January 29, 2007 6:17 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Your article ignores all the research done on NDEs showing that consciousness continues to live after the death of the brain and body.

Clearly, many people have had NDEs that are remarkably similar. It is obviously valid to consider those as data pointing to consciousness continuing after the brain's death.

It is just as valid to consider those experiences as a consequence the brain shutting down over some period of time in the face of widespread body system failures. Just as the experiences are common, so are the circumstances surrounding them. (It is also worth noting that general anesthesia, which basically shuts the brain down, never produces NDEs. Why is that?)

Consequently, it appears to me the question is very much open.

They have no physical proof of any kind that memory, thoughts, emotions, etc. are produced by the brain..

That is wrong.

Mr. Pinker's article, focussed as it is on advances in neuroscience, made almost no mention of what has long been the source of greatest insight into the brain's functions: localized brain damage.

Such damage can eliminate the ability to recognize faces, losing the ability to speak, but not write (and vice versa), the complete loss of short term memory, while long term memory remains intact, spontaneously curing addiction, etc (the list is very long).

All in response to localized damage; what's more the same locale damaged in one person will produce the same effects when damaged in another.

Additionally, schizophrenia drastically effects memory, thoughts and emotions.

And can also be controlled to a great extent by various drugs, all of which, so far as anyone can tell, work exclusively in the brain.

If there is a way to take that information and arrive at the conclusion that the brain does not produce memory, thoughts, emotions, etc, I haven't yet heard it.


Plus, you guys just really don't understand creation at all.

Hard to understand what doesn't, in your sense of the word "creation", exist.

If, however, it were all true, then the preservation of civilization would require that this research be savagely repressed and all of the researchers killed. Lucky, then, that it's not true.

You don't ordinarily commit that many logical fallacies in a month, never mind one sentence.

The consequent does not follow from the antecedent. You are taking as true what is far from proven. Plus, cause and effect are a non-sequitor.

This is the same set of mistakes Orrin makes with regard to Evolution.

January 29, 2007 7:49 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Right, so deciding whether to get married and subjective experiences of religion or morality are determined/conditioned by biology--soothing tricks our brains play on us to get us through the day-- but deciding whether to vote Republican or Democrat is free will on the march?

I could have saved myself a lot of grief by understanding my motives for getting married better.

Yes, it's called the bittersweet wisdom of experience, a.k.a growing up. But only a mind imprisoned in modern rationalist voodoo would think we needed Pinker to prove it. Not to get personal here, but I've noticed that many people tend to think that way about their marriages, but never about their divorces. But what are you saying, Duck? If only you had understood back then how your decisions were affected by nature and nurture, you could have made ones unaffected by nature and nurture? The mind boggles.

I wonder if Pinker has ever pondered the scams his brain pulled on him to get him into neuroscience.

January 30, 2007 2:50 AM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: The entire basis of human civilization is that adults are autonomous actors morally responsible for their actions. We cannot relax those beliefs and still maintain civilization. Thus, if what Pinker proposes were true, we would have to kill him and repress his findings. Luckily for him, he's wrong.

I don't see anything illogical there, although obviously cock-eyed optimists can disagree with my premise.

January 30, 2007 7:20 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Nothing he says contradicts free will or autonomy. He's talking about how the brain manages the process of producing consciousness in people. However your mind produces what results in your will, it's still your will and you are responsible for it. Whether your will is the result of meat or soul is really irrelevant.

January 30, 2007 8:40 AM  
Blogger David said...

Not according to Skipper, who says that it is immoral to hold someone responsible for actions that he or she has a meat proclivity towards.

January 30, 2007 12:15 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


The entire basis of human civilization is that adults are autonomous actors morally responsible for their actions. We cannot relax those beliefs and still maintain civilization.

That is simply not true. We hold people morally accountable for their actions to the degree they are responsible for them. You neglect insanity and diminished capacity defenses, which, although abused, are often valid and partially or completely vitiate moral responsibility.

That doesn't mean we let John Hinckley out of a box, only that the box he is put in, for our protection, is different than had he been judged morally culpable for his crime.

Similarly, a link I pointed to above has pretty conclusively proven that cigarette addiction (at least) can be instantly eliminated by a stroke limited to a very specific part of the brain. That further substantiates the already strongly supported hypothesis that addiction is a disease, not a moral choice.

Does that push civilization any closer to the lee shore?

Further, you (and the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind I pointed to) make a fundamental mistake: that knowing the brains processes, and even confirming all of them are materialistic is tantamount to determinism.

That could not possibly be more wrong, as even a little knowledge of chaos theory, quantum mechanics, and the uncertainty principle will quickly show.

There is absolutely no contradiction between materialistic consciousness and being an autonomous actor. You might feel we have to kill Pinker, but it would be under false pretenses.

Not according to Skipper, who says that it is immoral to hold someone responsible for actions that he or she has a meat proclivity towards.

I assert I have never said such a thing.

What I have said is that where there is no choice, there is no question of moral agency.

That means, as I have stated many times pre, that the effects of many, if not nearly all, acts are bound completely in context, and it is the effects upon which we make judgments.

Someone may have a compulsion -- that is, no capacity to choose -- towards molesting children.

The effects are such that there is no question we must put this person in a box, perhaps for a very long time.

But there is a real question as to whether we can consider the offender, if the compulsion in fact derives from some brain arrangement making it irresistible, morally responsible.

He's still in a box, though.

January 30, 2007 6:59 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

1. Yes

2. Couldn't care less

3. Nothing

January 30, 2007 7:47 PM  

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