Saturday, February 12, 2011

Mindfulness: The key to a healthier society?

Via the YouTube collection.
Could slowing down and noticing more help us deal with stress, anxiety and ill-health?

Speakers: Dr Jonty Heaversedge, GP and Ed Halliwell, co-authors of "The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less and Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive in a Stressed-out World" (Hay House, September 2010) and Tim Parks, celebrated author of "Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing."

Chair: Dr Jonathan Rowson, RSA Projects

John Haldane - Philosophy Lives: Why Stephen Hawking’s attempt to banish natural theology only shows why we need it

From First Things, John Haldane critiques the recent book from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design. I posted a critique from Alva Noe the other day (who was frustrated by the lack of philosophical sophistication in the book), and there is another critique from Farzana Hassan in Arts & Opinion that is much more supportive (not worried about the philosophy aspect of their perspective).

There are more than 430 comments (as of 7:45 am, 2/12/11), so this has generated some serious discussion. It must be noted, however, that Haldane is a Catholic - so he has a definite bias.
Why Stephen Hawking’s attempt to banish natural theology only shows why we need it.

Philosophy, Étienne Gilson observed, “always buries its undertakers.” “Philosophy,” according to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, in their new book The Grand Design, “is dead.” It has “not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics, [and] scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” Not only, according to Hawking and Mlodinow, has philosophy passed away; so, too, has natural theology. At any rate, the traditional argument from the order apparent in the structure and operations of the universe to a transcendent cause of these, namely God, is wholly redundant—or so they claim: “[Just] as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit. Because there is a law of gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”

Notwithstanding their death notice for philosophy, in introducing their idea of a fundamental physical account of the universe, M-theory, the authors themselves cannot resist engaging in evident philosophizing about the nature of theories and their relationship to reality. To address the paradoxes arising from quantum physics, they use what they call “model-dependent realism,” which “is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world.”

When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. But there may be different ways in which one could model the same physical situation, with each employing different fundamental elements and concepts. If two such physical theories or models accurately predict the same events, one cannot be said to be more real than the other.
While a professional philosopher might disambiguate and refine some of these expressions and formulations, Hawking and Mlodinow are describing a position familiar within the philosophy of science and known variously as “constructive empiricism,” “pragmatism,” and “conceptual relativism.” They are not replacing philosophy with science. Indeed, their discussion shows that, at its most abstract, theoretical physics leaves ordinary empirical science behind and enters the sphere of philosophy, where it becomes vulnerable to refutation by reason.

Certainly their argument from M-theory to the redundancy of the God hypothesis, for example, is open to direct philosophical criticism. If the necessary conditions of our existence did not obtain, we would not exist, and if the necessary conditions of the necessary conditions of our existence had not obtained, then neither we nor many other aspects and elements of the present universe would have been. Any scientific theory that is incompatible with things having been as they had to have been, in order for the universe to be as it is, is thereby refuted.

None of this may be very profound or took science to establish, but it does raise a question: Is the obtaining of the necessary conditions in question explicable, and, if so, how? What we know about the observable universe, and what we can infer about what is unobservable, indicate that it is composed of a number of types of entities and forces whose members exhibit common properties and are subject to a small number of simple laws.

There is nothing obviously inevitable about this fact. The universe could have been spatially and temporally chaotic. Yet it isn’t. Chemistry tells us that elements share well-defined structural properties in virtue of which they can and do enter into systematic combinations, and physics tells us that these elements are themselves constructed out of more basic items whose properties are, if anything, purer and simpler.

Why is there order rather than chaos? One might say that, if there had been chaos, the question would not arise because we would not exist. In a sense that is true, but it leaves untouched the central question, which is that of the preconditions of the possibility of order. Cosmic regularity makes our existence possible; the underlying issue concerns the enabling conditions of this order itself.

Some “proofs” of God as existing cause and sustainer of the universe (and of the enabling conditions) argue from spatiotemporal regularity alone. They reason that, while events in nature can be explained by reference to the fundamental particles and the laws under which they operate, natural science cannot explain these factors. Natural explanations having reached their logical limit, we are forced to say that either the orderliness of the universe has no explanation or that it has an extra-natural one.

The latter course cannot plausibly take the form of embedding the facts of the universe within the laws and initial conditions of a SuperUniverse. That would amount to retracting the claim to have specified the ultimate facts of the material universe, and nature would then be regarded as a spatial and / or temporal part of SuperNature. The search for the source of order must reach a dead end if scientific explanation is the only sort there is. But it is not the only sort, for there is also explanation by reference to purpose and intention.

The universe’s otherwise inexplicable regularity will have an adequate explanation if it derives from the purposes of an agent. By definition, no natural agent could have made the universe, so the only possible explanation of its regularity is that the natural order has a transcendent cause outside of the universe, which introduces the idea of a creator God.

This traditional argument predates the physical and cosmological investigations that produced the evidence of “fine tuning” Hawking and Mlodinow discuss under the heading of “The Apparent Miracle.” They correctly observe that earlier versions of this argument, such as that favored by Newton, focused on our “strangely habitable solar system,” and they point out that this argument lost its power when it was discovered that our sun is but one of many stars orbited by countless planets. “That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions far less remarkable and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us as human beings.”

They then go on to note, however, that “it is not only the peculiar characteristics of our solar system that seem oddly conducive to the development of human life but also the characteristics of our entire Universe, and that is much more difficult to explain.” The forces of nature had to allow the production of carbon and other heavy elements, and allow them to exist stably; they had to facilitate the formation of stars and galaxies but also the periodic explosion of stars to distribute the elements needed for life more widely, permitting the formation of planets suitably composed for the evolution of life; and the strengths of the forces themselves and the masses of the fundamental particles on which they operate had to be of the correct orders of magnitude, and these lie within very small ranges.

“What,” they ask, “can we make of these coincidences? . . . Our Universe and its laws appear to have a design that both is tailor made to support us and, if we are to exist, leaves little room for alteration. That is not easily explained and raises the natural question of why it is that way.” Fortunately, however, M-theory provides a scientific answer, and it is analogous to the many-solar-systems response to Newton’s wonder at the habitability of our solar system. Hawking and Mlodinow write:

According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science. Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states at later times, that is, at times like the present, long after their creation. Most of these states will be quite unlike the Universe we observe and quite unsuitable for the existence of any form of life. Only a few would allow creatures like us to exist.
In short, and sparing the detail, ours is but one of an indefinite number of universes with different laws and forces, each universe being a spontaneous creation out of nothing: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe [that is, ours] can and will create itself from nothing.”

There are two telling objections to this: the first to the idea of spontaneous creation, the second to that of multiple universes.

What of spontaneous creation? When Aquinas and others in the Western natural-theology tradition argued from the character of the universe to the existence of its transcendent cause, they were acute enough to describe that original source of the being and character of things as an uncaused cause and not as the cause of itself. That was a matter of logical coherence, since the idea that something could create itself from nothing simply makes no sense—be that something God or the Universe. In order to create, one first has to exist.

What then of “multiverses”? How effective is this response to the argument from cosmic order? If there are infinitely many other universes, ordered either in parallel or in temporal sequence, it may seem inevitable that at least one like ours should exist, but all one can say is that, as the number of universes proceeds towards infinity, the probability of a difference between the actual distribution and the probable one diminishes almost to zero. Further, unless the theory claims that all possibilities are or must be realized, it concedes that a finely tuned universe might not have existed and thereby allows a probability argument for design.

One may query directly the coherence of the many-universe hypothesis, however. What is meant by talking about many universes? It might mean unobservable regions of the universe—the one spatio-temporal-causal continuum—or, although this is much harder to make sense of, entirely distinct cosmic setups, wholly discontinuous with the universe we inhabit. The first possibility fails to serve Hawking and Mlodinow’s purpose. Any evidence we could have for these distant regions would necessarily be evidence for situations exhibiting the same orderliness whose existence seemed to call for explanation.

The second possibility—that there are many universes, entirely distinct realities, wholly discontinuous and sharing no common elements—fails also. There can be no empirical evidence in support of the hypothesis, nor could it be derived as a necessary condition of the possible existence and character of the only universe of which we have or could have scientific knowledge.

Hawking and Mlodinow write that the “multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine tuning.” Whether or not it was invented as such, its deployment in this context appears ad hoc, introduced only to avoid the conclusion that the general regularities and particular fine-tuning are due to the agency of a creator.

The basic components of the material universe and the forces operating on them exhibit properties of stability and regularity that invite explanation—the more so given the narrow band within which they have to lie in order for there to be intelligent animals able to investigate and reflect on the conditions of their own existence. Science cannot provide an ultimate explanation of order.

As Hawking and Mlodinow occasionally seem to recognize, far from philosophy being dead, having been killed by science, the deepest arguments in this area are not scientific but philosophical. And if the philosophical reasoning runs in the direction I have suggested, it is not only philosophy but also natural theology that is alive and ready to bury its latest would-be undertakers.

John Haldane is professor of philosophy at the University of St. Andrews and author of Faithful Reason (2006), Practical Philosophy (2009), and Reasonable Faith (2010).

Simon Baron-Cohen - The Foetal Androgen Theory of Autism

Developmental psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen discusses results from three lines of investigation that support the androgen theory of autism. Specifically, he presents evidence from his laboratory that one androgen, fetal testosterone, is a key factor underlying social development, and that dysregulation in the production of this hormone may play a role in autism. Series: "M.I.N.D. Institute Lecture Series on Neurodevelopmental Disorders"

Friday, February 11, 2011

Alva Noë - An Appreciation For 'All Things Shining'

In his new post for NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture, philosopher Alva Noë talks about All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, the new book from Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly.

The profound messages and meanings in great literature are why I switched majors from psychology to English when I was in college the first time (way back in the last century). I found more understanding of - and compassion for - human suffering and human striving in Isabelle Allende, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, Faulkner, Woolf, Dostoevsky, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Homer, and Sappho than I ever found in Freud, Aaron Beck, or CBT.

Aphrodite, an embodiment of erotic love's untrammeled power.
Aphrodite, an embodiment of erotic love's untrammeled power.

In Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner, discussed here not long ago, Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is a blade runner, a cop charged with capturing rebel androids (replicants). To find out whether a suspected replicant is a replicant, he deploys a sort of lie-detector test: He poses emotionally loaded questions to would-be replicants and uses a device to measure a tell-tale physiological response.

Deckard's hard-cop detachment is deeply incompatible with the kinds of relationships — even romantic ones — that he himself carries on with replicants. This brings us to the argument of the movie: in treating others as if a physiological response is called for to decide if they count or not — in taking up a detached attitude that is willing to call their very humanity into question — Deckard convincingly puts his own humanity in jeopardy. This is driven home when we learn that Deckard himself, unbeknownst to him, is probably a replicant. (I discuss this in Out of Our Heads. My understanding of the film is indebted to Stephen Mulhall's marvelous writings on the subject. See his On Film, and here.)

Although Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly don't discuss Blade Runner in their important new book All Things Shining, they might have. Deckard's is just the sort of perversion they investigate.

Physicists Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, in their book The Grand Design, suggest that the Greek gods, like all gods, were posits of ignorant people to explain phenomena they didn't understand. All Things Shining offer a very different picture. Homer's Gods stand for meanings in the world around us, and also for the moods or moments when we are most drawn to or sensitive to those meanings. Aphrodite, for example, marks the untrammeled power of erotic love, a force that can be overwhelming when one is in the right mood.

Homer doesn't suggest that the goddess actually causes lust! The point rather is that erotic love is not something we decide to find compelling. It confronts us with the full force. And then there's this: it isn't easy to be open to the full force of things, not erotic love, not anything else. This is why Helen, who abandons her husband and infant baby to run off with Paris, eventuating in the Trojan War and terrible suffering, is celebrated in Homer as no less a hero than Odysseus himself. She allows herself to be open to one of life's unstoppable forces.

We can find this sort of openness to the living values in the world around us everywhere, in the large and in the small. Think of the way a soldier is drawn to perform a great deed. He may not decide to be brave. He just acts. Or think of the way a skilled craftsperson handles tools and materials. In cases such as this, skillful atunement to what a situation requires takes over. No need for contemplation. It is as if a god carries us along.

Neither Homer, nor Dreyfus and Kelly, are recommending that we abandon our families to chase sexual satisfaction. Nor do Dreyfus and Kelly naively suppose that all Ancient Greeks led meaningful and intense lives. A successful openness to what calls, after all, is not something any of us get for free. It is a blessing of the gods, available to slave and free person alike.

Unless we actively resist it. Which, in a way, is the besetting sin of the modern age. Our nihilism comes before skepticism about God (or gods). It arises from the fact that we position ourselves before the world as if we were new arrivals who are in charge of our own agendas. We stand back and apart and we try to figure out what we should believe, what we should value, what kind of people we should be. In our earnest, hyper-intellectualized thoughtfulness, we are like Deckard in Blade Runner, so alienated from what really matters that we think we need a test to find out who (or what) is real.

Indeed, this has been a central commitment of main swathes of modern philosophy. To be a human being, is to be a legislator; or perhaps it is to be a fact-finder and policy wonk.

Suppose two ships are sinking and you can only save one. Sound reason dictates that you save the ship with the most people in it.

But when this question was put by her hard-headed teacher to Sissy Jupe, the young girl in Charles Dickens' Hard Times, she could only burst into tears and run away. Sissy was unable to take up the standpoint from which this question could even be asked. For to take up this standpoint is already to have become blind — as Deckard is blind — to life shining, to its sacredness.

Dreyfus and Kelly don't argue that we return to Homeric values; critics who have suggested otherwise haven't read the book. But they warn us not only of the dangers of our hubris, but of its basic incoherence. We cannot decide what moves us.

I have a criticism of All Things Shining. Stay tuned!

RSAnimate - Language as a Window into Human Nature (Steven Pinker)

An awesome new RSAnimate - Language as a Window into Human Nature (Steven Pinker). The full lecture, from Pinker's book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, is embedded below.
In this new RSAnimate Steven Pinker shows us how the mind turns the finite building blocks of language into infinite meanings. Taken from the RSA's free public events programme

Full RSA lecture: The Stuff of Thought:

Guy Dove - On the need for embodied and dis-embodied cognition

This article comes from Frontiers in Cognition, one of the many open source "Frontiers in" journals available online. He is making what appears to me to be a subtle argument for en embodied cognition that includes semantic representations that are both perception and motor based and language based.

In my estimation (and I am a rank amateur), much of our language (semantic representations) is abstract and disembodied. The exceptions, of which George Lakoff has provide many in his various books, are metaphors that are based in body awareness (actions, locations, movements, and so on).

Just my two, likely irrelevant cents.

On the need for embodied and dis-embodied cognition

  • Department of Philosophy, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, USA

This essay proposes and defends a pluralistic theory of conceptual embodiment. Our concepts are represented in at least two ways: (i) through sensorimotor simulations of our interactions with objects and events and (ii) through sensorimotor simulations of natural language processing. Linguistic representations are “dis-embodied” in the sense that they are dynamic and multimodal but, in contrast to other forms of embodied cognition, do not inherit semantic content from this embodiment. The capacity to store information in the associations and inferential relationships among linguistic representations extends our cognitive reach and provides an explanation of our ability to abstract and generalize. This theory is supported by a number of empirical considerations, including the large body of evidence from cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology supporting a multiple semantic code explanation of imageability effects.


In this essay, I propose and defend a new take on a familiar idea. The familiar idea is that our concepts are encoded in at least two general types of semantic representations: one type that is perception and motor based and another that is language based (Paivio, 1971, 1986). Although most concepts employ both types of representations, abstract concepts tend to depend more on linguistic representations than concrete concepts do. What separates my version of this idea from most previous ones is that I develop it within an embodied approach to cognition (although see Barsalou et al., 2008; Louwerse and Jeuniaux, 2008 for related yet distinct views).

My defense of this new take has three parts. The first part outlines and motivates an embodied approach to concepts based on simulation. The second part examines a challenge that faces any form of embodied cognition: the problem of abstraction. After making the observation that the symbolic structure of language is well suited to solving this problem, I propose that language should be seen as a form of what I refer to as “dis-embodied” cognition. What I mean by this is that linguistic representations are embodied in the neurophysiological sense that they rely on sensorimotor simulation but, unlike other embodied forms of cognition, they do not inherit semantic content from this fact. They do, however, accrue semantic content through their associations and inferential relationships with other linguistic representations. The third part surveys empirical evidence that supports the existence of separate semantic codes.

Embodied Concepts

Historically, cognitive scientists have presumed that higher cognitive processes are carried out by computations involving amodal mental representations (i.e., representations that are not located within a sensorimotor modality). The precise nature of these representations was a matter of some debate. For instance, a great deal of controversy has surrounded the issue of how language-like they might be (Fodor, 1975). The presumption of amodality, however, went largely unquestioned. The strength of this presumption was clearly demonstrated by the heated nature of the debate concerning the possibility that analog perceptual representations might be employed in mental imagery tasks (Pylyshyn, 1973, 1981; Kosslyn and Shwartz, 1977). Now, there is general agreement that behavioral and neural evidence suggests that mental imagery (Kosslyn, 1994) and motor imagery (Jeannerod, 1995; Grèzes and Decety, 2001) depend on sensory and motor representations respectively.

Within the last two decades, a growing number of researchers and philosophers have argued that cognitive science needs to reorient itself with respect to its fundamental assumptions about the nature of mind and cognition. These researchers and philosophers contend that cognitive processes need to be viewed as fundamentally based in our bodily interactions with the world. Clark (1998, p. 506) expresses this view clearly in his economical assertion that, “Biological brains are first and foremost the control systems for biological bodies.” The idea is that we cannot hope to understand the functioning of the brain without appreciating the central role it plays in guiding perception and action. This view has lead to a robust and diverse research program in which investigators examine the possible ways in which thinking, remembering, and understanding language are shaped by the fact that we dynamically interact with our complex physical and social environment by means of perceptual and motor capacities (Wilson, 2002). Embodied theories of cognition often suggest that concepts are understood via sensorimotor simulations. Neural systems that are involved in understanding real objects, actions, and events in the world are used to internally simulate those objects, actions, and events at later points in time.

Read the whole, very long article.

Jesse Bering - Theory of Mind and the Belief in God

Excellent article from Slate. To set the stage, "theory of mind" is how psychologists and philosophers refer to our awareness that other people have an interior experience that may not be the same as our own. Children begin to develop this skill around 3 years of age (give or take).

This article is from Bering's new book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life, published last week. It's been added to my wish list.

Are You There God? It's Me, Brain.

How our innate theory of mind gives rise to the divine creator.

The following is an edited excerpt from The Belief Instinct, which will be published Feb. 7.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The scientific jury is still out on whether our species is unique among social mammals in being able to conceptualize mental states—other species, such as chimps, dogs, scrub jays and dolphins, may have some modest capacity in this regard. But there's absolutely no question that we're much better at it than the rest of the animal kingdom. We are natural psychologists, exquisitely attuned to the unseen psychological world. Reasoning about abstract mental states is as much a trademark of our species as walking upright on two legs, learning a language, and raising our offspring into their teens.

There is a scientific term for this way of thinking—"theory of mind." It's perhaps easiest to grasp the concept when considering how we struggle to make sense of someone else's bizarre or unexpected behavior. If you've ever seen an unfortunate woman at the grocery store wearing a midriff-revealing top and packed into a pair of lavender tights like meat in a sausage wrapper, or a follicularly challenged man with a hairpiece two shades off and three centimeters adrift, and asked yourself what on Earth those people were thinking when they looked in the mirror before leaving the house, this is a good sign that your theory of mind (not to mention your fashion sense) is in working order. When others violate our expectations for normalcy or stump us with surprising behaviors, our tendency to mind-read goes into overdrive. We literally "theorize" about the minds that are causing ostensible behavior.

The evolutionary significance of this mind-reading system hinges on one gigantic question: Is this psychological capacity—this theory of mind, this seeing souls glimmering beneath the skin, spirits twinkling behind orbiting eyes, thoughts in the flurry of movement—is this the "one big thing" that could help us finally understand what it means to be human? Could it tell us something about how we find meaning in the universe?

As a human being, you're prone to overextending your theory of mind to categories for which it doesn't properly belong. Many people remember fondly the classic film Le Ballon Rouge ("The Red Balloon," 1956) by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse, in which a sensitive schoolboy—in reality Lamorisse's own 5-year-old son, Pascal—is befriended by a good-natured, cherry-red helium balloon. Absent dialogue, the camera follows the joyful two, boy and balloon, through the somber, working-class streets of the Ménilmontant neighborhood of Paris, the glossy red balloon contrasting sharply with the bleak old-Europe atmosphere while adults, oblivious to the presence of an inanimate object that has apparently been ensouled by an intelligent gas, are largely indifferent, even hostile, to the pair. Eventually, a mob of cruel children corners the boy and begins pelting the "kindhearted" balloon with stones, ultimately popping it.

The plot of Le Ballon Rouge exemplifies how our evolved brains have become hypersocial filters, such that our theory of mind is applied not only to the mental innards of other people and animals, but also, in error, to categories that haven't any mental innards at all, such as ebullient skins of elastic stretched by an inert gas. If it weren't for our theory of mind, we couldn't follow the premise of the movie, let alone enjoy Lamorisse's particular oeuvre of magical realism. When the balloon hovers outside Pascal's flat after his grandmother tries to get rid of it, we perceive a charismatic personality that "wants" to be with the boy and is "trying" to leverage itself against the window panes; it "sees" Pascal and "knows" he's inside. Our theory of mind is so effortlessly applied under such conditions that it's impossible to see the scene any other way. In fact, part of what makes the movie so effective is that the young boy in the lead role genuinely believed that the balloon was alive. "The Red Balloon was my friend," recalled a much older Pascal Lamorisse in a 2007 interview. "When you were filming it, did you really feel that way?" asked the reporter. "Yes, yes, he was a real character with a spirit of his own."

As a direct consequence of the evolution of the human social brain, and owing to the importance of our theory-of-mind skills in that process, we sometimes can't help but see intentions, desires, and beliefs in things that haven't even a smidgeon of a neural system. In particular, when inanimate objects do unexpected things, we sometimes reason about them just as we do for oddly behaving—or misbehaving—people. More than a few of us have kicked our broken-down vehicles in the sides and verbally abused our incompetent computers. Most of us stop short of actually believing these objects possess mental states—indeed, we would likely be hauled away to an asylum if we genuinely believed that they held malicious intent—but our emotions and behaviors toward such objects seem to betray our primitive, unconscious thinking: we act as though they're morally culpable for their actions.

Some developmental psychologists even believe that this cognitive bias to see intentions in inanimate objects—and thus formulate a very basic theory of mind—can be found in babies just a few months out of the womb. For example, Hungarian psychologists György Gergely and Gergely Csibra from the Central European University in Budapest have shown that babies, on the basis of their staring response, act surprised when a dot on a computer screen continues to butt up against an empty space on the screen after a computerized barrier blocking its path has been deleted. It's as if the baby is trying to figure out why the dot is acting as though it "thinks" the barrier is still there. By contrast, the infants are not especially interested—that is, they don't stare in surprise—when the dot stops in front of the block, or when the dot continues along its path in the absence of the barrier.

The most famous example of this cognitive phenomenon of seeing minds in nonliving objects, however, is a 1944 American Journal of Psychology study by Austrian researchers Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel. The scientists put together a simplistic animated film depicting three moving, black-and-white figures: a large triangle, a small triangle, and a small circle. Participants watched the figures moving about on the screen for a while and then were asked to describe what they had just seen. Most fell back on a human social behavioral narrative—for example, seeing the large triangle as "bullying" the "timid" smaller triangle, both of "whom" were "seeking" the "affections" of the "female" circle.

So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people's behaviors that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God's mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that's just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe.

After all, once we scrub away all the theological bric-a-brac and pluck the exotic cross-cultural plumage of religious beliefs from all over the world, once we get under God's skin, isn't He really just another mind—one with emotions, beliefs, knowledge, understanding, and, perhaps above all else, intentions? Aren't theologians really just playing the role of God's translators, and isn't every holy book ever written a detailed psychoanalysis of God? That strangely sticky sense that God "willfully" created us as individuals, "wants" us to behave in particular ways, "observes" and "knows" about our otherwise private actions, "communicates" messages to us in code through natural events, and "intends" to meet us after we die would have also been felt, in some form, by our Pleistocene ancestors.

Consider, briefly, the implications of seeing God this way, as a sort of scratch on our psychological lenses rather than the enigmatic figure out there in the heavenly world that most people believe Him to be. Subjectively, God would still be present in our lives. (For some people, rather annoyingly so.) He would continue to suffuse our experiences with an elusive meaning and give the sense that the universe is communicating with us in various ways. But this notion of God as an illusion is a radical and, some would say, even dangerous idea because it raises important questions about whether God is an autonomous, independent agent that lives outside human brain cells, or instead a phantom cast out upon the world by our species' own peculiarly evolved theory of mind. Since the human brain, like any physical organ, is a product of evolution, and since natural selection works without recourse to intelligent forethought, this mental apparatus of ours evolved to think about God quite without need of the latter's consultation, let alone His being real.

Then again, one can never rule out the possibility that God microengineered the evolution of the human brain so that we've come to see Him more clearly, a sort of divine LASIK procedure, or scraping off the bestial glare that clouds the minds of other animals.

Either way, this cognitive capacity, this theory of mind, has baked itself into our heads when it comes to our pondering of life's big questions. Unlike any science-literate generation that has come before, we now possess the intellectual tools to observe our own minds at work and to understand how God came to be there. And we alone are poised to ask, "Has our species' unique cognitive evolution duped us into believing in this, the grandest mind of all?"

TEDxAlbany - Jeff Gaines - Why Is Everyone So Fat, Broke and Busy?

Excellent TED Talk.

Speaker and consultant Jeff Gaines will combine neuroscience, emotional intelligence and humor to help us understand why our physical, financial and scheduled lives have gone so wrong, and offers some solutions.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche - Engaging in the three-stage process of study, contemplation, and meditation frees us to be ourselves

by the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Dharma Quote of the Week

The bardo* of this life does not last forever. We know that, like a guest in a hotel, our mind is only temporarily sheltered in this body. As we face the challenges of this life and the impending challenges of the bardos to come, how does engaging in the three-stage process of study, contemplation and meditation help us? By applying ourselves to these three, we acquire the skills to stabilize our mind and we develop actual insight into how our mind functions. First we gain an understanding of the nature of mind; then, we experience that nature; and finally, we arrive at the ultimate benefit, which is fully realizing that nature.

When we practice these stages of the path, it is like accumulating the exact things we will need to take with us on our trip. When we are ready to pack our suitcase, we will have what we need without looking further. We will not have to go out at the last minute and buy a map or a guidebook. We will not have to worry about whether we are forgetting something crucial.

We have knowledge and experience that has blossomed into realization; therefore we can handle any situation. We have confidence in ourselves, in the teachings, and the guidance of our lineage teachers. At this point, we can let go of all our doubt and hesitation. We can simply relax and be who we are, wherever we are. (p.58)

* in-between state, interval

--from Mind Beyond Death by the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, published by Snow Lion Publications

Mind Beyond Death • Now at 5O% off
(Good through February 18th).

Remembrance and Gratitude

E. Gene Smith (Aug. 10, 1936-Dec. 16, 2010)

A pioneer in Tibetan Studies, E. Gene Smith dedicated his life to finding, preserving and disseminating the rich literary heritage of Tibet.

A Public Memorial Service for E. Gene Smith

February 12, 2011 2:00 pm
The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
1047 Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street
New York City

Celebration of the extraordinary life of E. Gene Smith, eminent scholar and friend to so many, with special tributes by long-time colleagues, family and friends.

Brief musical interludes by Jon Gibson, Philip Glass, Yungchen Lhamo and Ning Tien will accompany the service.

"I am at a loss for words to describe my gratitude for the immense effort he displayed in preserving the sacred texts of Tibet at a time of such chaos and uncertainty."--Lama Chime Rinpoche

"And now we stand back and marvel at what he created, word by word, day by day, year by year. He has left a legacy that will last, and that will continue to grow. Because he was the one–the one E. Gene Smith."--Andrea E. Soros

Memorial Fund

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Michael Lind - America = The Regressives vs. The Modernists

Interesting take on the "culture wars," and it seems from my place on the couch a very astute one. Based on Lind's dichotomy, the postmodernists have totally failed to achieve any traction here politically - sorry Denis Kucinich.

So our choices are mid-20th century liberalism or 19th century religious and fiscal fundamentalism (revivalist Christianity and robber-baron capitalism). Hmmmm . . . how does one go about dropping out of the system entirely?

America in the age of primitivism

Forget Democrats and Republicans. What America needs is two new parties: The Regressives and the Modernists

Gregory Berns & Sara E. Moore - A Neural Predictor of Cultural Popularity

Weird - how did anyone think up this study. And who would have guessed there would be a neural correlate (only a correlation, nothing more) of cultural popularity? How the brain responds to novel music (in this example) is correlated with future purchases and may predict cultural popularity of that artist.

So I can see music execs getting a couple of hundred people into neuroimaging machines to see who the Next Big Thing will be.

Full citation:
Berns, G. & Moore, S.E. (2010, Dec. 17). A neural predictor of cultural popularity. Available at SSRN:

Gregory Berns
Emory University

Sara E. Moore
Emory University

December 17, 2010

How can we predict popularity? Although superficially a trivial question, the desire for popularity consumes a great portion of the lives of many youths and adults. Being popular is a marker for social status, and consequently, would seem to confer a reproductive advantage in the evolution of the human species, thus explaining the importance of popularity to humans. Such importance extends to economic success as well because goods and services that are popular command higher prices. Here, we are interested in predicting cultural popularity – something that is popular in the broadest sense and appeals to a large number of individuals.Neuroeconomic research suggests that activity in reward-related regions of the brain, notably the orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum 1-4, is predictive of future purchasing decisions, but it is unknown whether the neural signals of a small group of individuals are predictive of the purchasing decisions of the population at large. For neuroimaging to be useful as a measure of widespread popularity, these neural responses would have to generalize to a much larger population that is not the direct subject of the brain imaging itself. Moreover, to be useful as a predictor, such a test would need to be done prospectively. Here, we test the possibility of using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to predict the relative popularity of a common good: music. We used fMRI to measure the brain responses of a focus group of adolescents while listening to songs of relatively unknown artists 5. As a measure of popularity, the sales of these songs were totaled for the three years following scanning, and brain responses were then correlated with these “future” earnings. Although subjective likability of the songs was not predictive of sales, activity within the ventral striatum was significantly correlated with the number of units sold. These results suggest that the neural responses to goods are not only predictive of purchase decisions for those individuals actually scanned, but such responses generalize to the population at large and may be used to predict cultural popularity.
Download the PDF.

Mind-Body Healing Through the Arts - The New School

Cool presentation and discussion on an interesting and useful topic. I am a fan of creative arts therapy, and I actually once taught the occasional workshop in poetry as a creative therapy.
THE NEW SCHOOL | Mind-Body Healing Through the Arts

Creative arts therapy is rapidly gaining recognition as an essential part of health care in the United States. By tapping into expressive aspects of body, mind, and spirit through modalities such as music, sound, imagery, role, and movement, creative art therapists facilitate self-actualization and healing. In Mind-Body Healing Through the Arts, a lecture/demonstration series presented at The New School, prominent creative arts therapists discuss principles and practice.

The first lecture/panel discussion introduces the Healing Empowerment Center, a final thesis project by the late Sam Hanser, a graduate of Parsons' Architecture and Design program. The center offers a new model for mind-body healing in which the clinical environment is an integral part of the healing prescription. The presentation touches on sustainable design, an East/West mind-body healing approach, somatic therapy, and spirituality as crucial elements in healing.

The panel features world-renowned experts including Sam Hanser's mother, Suzanne Hanser, EdD, MT-BC, director of the Music Therapy Program at Berklee College of Music; Jean Gardner, PhD, an art historian, author, consultant on sustainable design, and professor in Parsons' School of Constructed Environments; Robert Norwood, senior associate and designer at NBBJ architecture firm; and Louise Montello, DA, LCAT, LP, MT-BC, director of Performance Wellness, Inc., and of the Creative Arts Therapy program at The New School.

THE NEW SCHOOL FOR GENERAL STUDIES | Creative Arts Therapy | School of Constructed Environments at Parsons | The series continues on February 9, 16, and 23, 2011. Sponsored by the Creative Arts Therapy program at The New School.

The Death and Rebirth of the Self

Let's start the day with a little personal growth piece from the Daily Om - a meditation on life transitions as a kind of personal rebirth. Change is the only constant in life, so we are always in this state of rebirth, whether we are aware of it or not. It's easier when we surrender to the process.
Life Transitions
The Death And Rebirth Of Self

Sometimes a part of us must die before another part can come to life.

Sometimes a part of us must die before another part can come to life. Even though this is a natural and necessary part of our growth, it is often painful or, if we don’t realize what’s happening, confusing and disorienting. In fact, confusion and disorientation are often the messengers that tell us a shift is taking place within us. These shifts happen throughout the lives of all humans, as we move from infancy to childhood to adolescence and beyond. With each transition from one phase to another, we find ourselves saying good-bye to an old friend, the identity that we formed in order to move through that particular time.

Sometimes we form these identities in relationships or jobs, and when we shift those areas of our life become unsettled. Usually, if we take the time to look into the changing surface of things, we will find that a shift is taking place within us. For example, we may go through one whole chapter of our lives creating a protective shell around ourselves because we need it in order to heal from some early trauma. One day, though, we may find ourselves feeling confined and restless, wanting to move outside the shelter we needed for so long; the new part of ourselves cannot be born within the confines of the shell our old self needed to survive.

We may feel a strange mixture of exhilaration and sadness as we say good-bye to a part of ourselves that is dying and make way for a whole new identity to emerge in its place. We may find inspiration in working with the image of an animal who molts or sheds in order to make way for new skin, fur, or feathers to emerge. For example, keeping a duck feather, or some other symbol of transformation, can remind us that death and rebirth are simply nature’s way of evolving. We can surrender to this process, letting go of our past self with great love and gratitude, and welcoming the new with an open mind and heart, ready for our next phase of life.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Alva Noë - A Little Philosophy Is A Dangerous Thing

Another great article from Alva Noë - A Little Philosophy Is A Dangerous Thing - at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog. Noe essentially dismantles the recent book from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow - The Grand Design.

A Little Philosophy Is A Dangerous Thing

by Alva Noë, February 4, 2011

How real is real?

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow do not succeed in murdering philosophy in their recent book The Grand Design. Nor do they even try. Perhaps this is because they believe, as they blandly announce on the first page, that philosophy is already dead.

But the joke's on them. If philosophy were a big burlap bag, then these writers seem to have delivered us their book higgledy-piggledy from somewhere in the dark within.

Other commentators, on this blog (here and here), and elsewhere, have focused on what Hawking and Mlodinow have to say about physics, about God and about the relation between them. I begin, where the authors' themselves begin, with a different issue: the apparent conflict between appearance and reality. (John Haldane anticipates my criticisms in his review.)

"The naive view of reality," Hawking and Mlodinow assert, "is not compatible with modern physics."

That seems about right. Take the table in front of you. It's brown, rectangular, and solid.

Well, is it really?

Since the time of Newton, we have been told that actually the table, like all matter, is a colorless cloud of particles moving in empty space. There is no table, really, and there is no color; color is produced by the action of particles on your nervous system. Of course there isn't really a nervous system either. There isn't really a you. We are non-things in a world devoid of any of the properties "we" seem to experience it as having.

Notice that this problem — how to reconcile what physics teaches us about how things are with our ordinary conception of ourselves and the world we live in — is a problem that arises out of the practice of physics itself. In this sense it arises in physics. (Indeed, it was in the writings of natural philosophers, aka physicists, such as Galileo and Newton, that the problem finds its finest articulation.)

But notice, too, that it is not a problem that physics can solve by simply doing more physics. It's a problem about physics, after all.

And this is the hallmark of philosophical problems, which usually take the form of a distinctive and urgent puzzlement about what we take for granted. Philosophical problems arise when we are not sure how to go on, or not sure what we've been doing all along, and they arise in any domain whatsoever (neuroscience, biology, religion, politics, morality, and, of course, physics).

Can breakthroughs in physics solve the philosophical problem of making sense of the meaning of physics itself? Do the "recent discoveries" and "theoretical advances" of the last few decades enable us to frame new approaches to the question of the apparent incompatibility of common sense and modern physics, as Hawking and Mlodinow seem to suggest?

They offer us "model-dependent realism." As they explain:
"According to model-dependent realism it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation … then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is convenient in the situation under consideration."
And they assert, not very persuasively, that model-dependent realism "short-circuits" debates about the nature of reality.

But what is observation, anyway? It's what we learn by looking, inspecting, measuring. In this sense, observations are themselves a kind of judgment. And judgments of this sort are usually the answers to the questions we ask, given what interests us, what we are curious about, and what we expect to be the case, that is, given our theoretical framework.

I can find out whether there are brick houses on Elm Street by looking. In a different context, I can test whether my eyes are working by checking whether I see the brick houses. We don't have any grip on the idea of what we can see (or measure, or detect) apart from our prior understanding of what there is.

It may be that Hawking and Mlodinow, like the Viennese positivists in the 1930s who first developed the ideas that Hawking and Mlodinow seem to have rediscovered, take for granted that neuroscience, or perhaps the language of pure experience, does provide a theory-neutral way of describing our observations. As they write:
"Model-dependent realism applies not only to scientific models but also to the conscious and subconscious mental models we all create in order to interpret and understand the everyday world."
Like Carnap then, and like Hume before him, Hawking and Mlodinow seem to think that the world of common sense is a kind of theoretical construct that is developed in each of us, in the brain, or in the mind, on the basis of the data in the sensory stimulation that bombards us.

They are in good company, to be sure. But to judge from the text, Hawking and Mlodinow don't seem to have any sense of the history, the pre-history, or indeed the lively present of the ideas they are tossing around. Model-dependent realism is not an up-to-date physics solution to a problem once relegated to philosophy; it's a rehash of philosophical ideas whose real interest seems to elude the authors.

Hard problems sometimes have simple solutions. But no service is rendered when smart people pretend that hard problems are simple.