The Metaphor of the Deep Diver

whale deep v1For me, there are two great guiding metaphors. The first is Plato’s “allegory of the cave“, the notion that phenomena that humans perceive through their senses are weak, distorted shadows of reality. The allegory of the cave describes, accurately, the problem of human science in deciphering underlying truths of the natural world. The second myth is my reading of the central metaphor in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I’ll call it the metaphor of the deep diver. Continue reading

Components of Personal Identity

fingerprintPersonal identity — the conscious awareness of self — originates in the cleavage of a nebulous universe into “self” and “world”. As the brain develops and diverse capabilities emerge, many of which are entwined with “self”, personal identity becomes more complex. Its functions and features transform. John Locke made an initial contribution, the notion that personal identity depends on a continuous autobiographical memory. The list below starts with autobiographical memory, and adds five additional components. Continue reading

My Brain Made Me Do It

Judicial Punishment in a Neuroscientific World

We’ve witnessed a steady stream of books and articles about the relationship between a Neuroscience and judicial philosophy. Although I am far from an expert, I’ll describe what I believe are the rationales for legal punishment.  This will be followed by personal reflects the legal system, Neuroscience and Psychology1. Continue reading

The Humanities: Leon Wieseltier wants to protect his turf

A science versus humanities war is brewing. Triggered by Steven Pinker’s excellent article in the New Republic (Science is not the Enemy), Leon Weiseltier, a “Humanist” and literary editor of the New Republic, retorted “Science is the Enemy” (rough translation; Crimes Against Humanities: Science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let that happen). I am not the first to complain about Weiseltier’s screed. Daniel Dennett does an excellent job in the Edge (Dennett on Wieseltier v. Pinker in the New Republic. Lets Start With A Respect For Truth).

But I want to make one simple point. Weiseltier is not making an argument, he is making an assertion.

For example, Wieseltier states,

… the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final.

Huh? who said so?

For all his complex words, Wieseltier is a dualist.

Pinker rejects the momentous distinction between the study of the natural world and the study of the human world

It is fine for Wieseltier to be a dualist. Dualism is a respectable framework. But one cannot assert that it is true, just as one cannot assert that materialism is true. Assertions are not arguments, they are articles of faith.

The advantage of the scientific/materialist framework is that it can expand. Gradually, it can explain more of the natural world. With the rise of Neuroscience, materialism is beginning to explain and understand aspects of the mental (human) world. As truth-seekers we should rejoice in this. But Neuroscience is not alone. I interpret much of the work in the liberal arts as a search for truth that is not a conflict with materialism.

Will there be convergence? Will we understand the mind — the “hard problem”? I don’t know. But simply to assert the impossibility of the task — and to attack those who attempt to bridge the divide — is turf protection and the opposite of scholarship.

Personal Identity and Agency

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“I act therefore I am” — anonymous

In previous blog posts I’ve supported John Locke’s account of Personal identity. Briefly, identity is the awareness of a continuous conscious experience extending from birth to the present and extending into the future (links: here, here, here).  Locke’s conception is old, but is, I believe, consistent with modern mind-based views of identity.

Although I believe this conception is powerful, and an essential component of identity, it doesn’t seem complete. Perhaps an additional critical component is a person’s concept of his or her agency. Continue reading

Both Torture and Morality require Theory of Mind

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Being “Broken on the Wheel”. Europe, 14th century.

In reading Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and I’ve been shocked at the cruelty in earlier centuries. Particularly striking are the broad range of torture techniques and the widespread use of torture (chapter 4).

What is torture? What is cruelty? I’ll propose definitions:

  • Torture: a technique designed to inflict pain and suffering on a subject
  • Cruelty: Intentional induction of pain and suffering on a subject.

Continue reading

Consciousness Wars: Tononi-Koch versus Searle

kochGuilio Tononi has proposed a theory of consciousness he calls “Integrated Information Theory” (IIT)*. Very roughly, the theory is based on Shannon’s concept of information, but extends this by adding a property refers to as “Integrated Information”. Consciousness Information will exist in an entity when it has information and is connected. This property is called “Phi” (rhymes with “by”, written φ) and can be computed. The higher the Phi, the more conscious the entity.

Although theories of consciousness are not new, this one is special: it has high-profile converts, perhaps the most noteable being Christof Koch. Koch, Cal Tech professor and chief scientific officer of the Allen Brain Institute, is best known for his book, The Quest for Consciousness: a Neurobiological Approach. A new Koch book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist is largely a description of and paean to IIT. It’s fair to view Tononi and Koch as collaborators.

Continue reading