Saturday, June 02, 2012

Bookforum's Omnivore - The Epistemology of Postmodern Spirituality

A recent collection of links from Bookforum's Omnivore looks at the epistemology of spirituality in a modern and postmodern reality. Of special interest to readers of this blog is the title article from the collection, "On the epistemology of postmodern spirituality" by Dudley A. Schreiber, the abstract for which, and a couple of excerpts referencing integral theorists, is posted below.

  • Dudley A. Schreiber (South Africa): On the Epistemology of Postmodern Spirituality
  • From Anthropology of this Century, Chris Hann (Max Planck): Personhood, Christianity, Modernity; and facing religion, from anthropology: Michael Lambek on the making of distinctions between the religious and the secular. 
  • From Christianity Today, Jenell Williams Paris responds to Mark Noll: Why it's good that evangelicals have not, and likely will not, develop an "evangelical mind"; Carolyn Arends on defending Scripture — literally: Not everything the Bible has to say should be literally interpreted, but that doesn't make it less powerful; an interview with Eric J. Bargerhuff, author of The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God's Word Is Misunderstood; and an interview with Alvin Plantinga, author of Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism
  • From New Scientist, a special issue on God and the new science of religion. 
  • A review of Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief by Justin Barrett. 
  • Analytical thinking erodes belief in God: Our intuitive thought processes, which underpin supernatural beliefs, can be overcome by thinking analytically.
This is an interesting article:

Dudley A. Schreiber


At first glance, the postmodern spiritual ‘scene’ appears ‘sociologically messy, experiential, multifaceted, ecological, provisional and collective’ (Petrolle 2007) and of uncertain epistemic provenance. Here, I ask: can Roland Benedikter’s (2005) conception of postmodern dialectic and spiritual turn, help us understand postmodern spirituality and can it assist in a construction of a postmodern epistemology of spirituality? The current argument constitutes a meta-theoretical exploration of:
  • Deconstruction and neo-essentialism as representing the significant dialectic in philosophical postmodernism. Deconstruction is presented as an apophatic moment in Western thought about ‘knowing’ and ‘being’ whilst postmodern neo-essentialism, though contextualised by antirealism and ambiguity, palpably suggests itself.
  • Postmodern trends which derive from the dialectic.
  • How these epistemic trends influence methodology in the study of spirituality.
  • How a trans-traditional (anthropological) spirituality might incorporate insights about transformation from a complex of epistemologies in which, theories of ‘self’ abound.
In the conclusion an attempt is made to describe how postmodern spirituality expresses itself in society.

Schreiber, D.A. (2012). On the epistemology of postmodern spirituality. Verbum et Ecclesia, 33(1), Art. #398, 8 pages.

Full Text: PDF (423 KB) HTML EPUB XML

Here is a excerpt from the article - the author makes reference to Ken Wilber's integralism, as well as Jean Gebser. As a fan of integral theory, in general, it's nice to see it mentioned in an academic article on postmodern spirituality. 


Postmodern spiritual turn as the epistemic context for postmodern spirituality
If spirituality is at all times embedded in its time and place in the world and takes its language of meaning ascription from context (Lesniak 2005:7; Corkery 2005:26), how might postmodern insight enrich a contemporary understanding of spirituality across the ‘three worlds’ of knowledge (Mouton 2011:137), namely meta, epistemic and lay? Might postmodern philosophy be said to exhibit rational parallels to dynamics within trans-traditional spirituality? What experience of truth are we to speak of and how are we to speak of it? How might postmodern discourse on knowledge inform us about the experiential inward path of knowing characteristic of mysticism (McGinn 2005:19)? Thinking about spirituality, as do Schneiders (2005:1) and Sheldrake (2005:38), implicates us in contemporary myth, epistemology and general science. Elements of postmodern epistemic landscape suggest a sense of reality that confronts us ‘with the enigma of existence itself’(Benedikter 2007:5) and the many challenges to knowing anything. Yet how might academic spirituality, relatively newly ensconced in the Human Sciences, build theory that is truly contemporary?

Postmodern epistemic trendsAlthough no universal agreement and no monolithic Postmodern Epistemology exist, Benedikter (2005) suggests the primary dialectic lies between deconstructionism (late 1970s to about the late 1990s) and a later constructivist neo-essentialism from 2001 onwards. Deconstruction as a trend, targets both premodern notions of metaphysics and ontology, and modernist realism, in a wide range of narratives. Narratives receiving greatest attention include rationalism, logical positivism, determinism and a gamut of progressively aggressive, externalist and positivist-styled creeds and paradigms (hegemonies) of materialism and domination, which had found their expression through the three worlds of knowledge and across the Western epistemic landscape. The meteoric rise of post-structural critique in the works of the French School of Continental Philosophy up to Foucault constituted a profound attack on former confidence in how history and society work. Furthermore, with the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (cf. also Bird 2004), Modernism’s pride in Physical Science as its chosen and privileged epistemology came under devastating scrutiny. Lest we over simplify the epistemic picture, Griffiths (2007:1) suggests that not all sciences suffered to the same extent, noting a rise in interest in the philosophy of biology, which seems to have undergone some linguistic turn. The work of Bradie and Harms (2008) suggests that a contemporary epistemology of evolution posits a mitigated realism, freer from deterministic mindset. Perhaps, presumption of this less deterministic stance accounts for the way some lay conversations about spirituality indulge in naive biologism, and strange notions of evolutionary transformation? The quest for biochemical substrates remains fascinating at a popular level readily informed by science media. Perhaps too, a heightened sense of democracy in the world of lay knowledge provides an appeal to ontologise from below rather than from meta-engagement?  

Epistemic parallels? Deconstruction and apophasis Deconstruction as an epistemic trend seems to be a conscious and rational pursuit reminiscent of many traditional spiritual practices that aim to ‘dissolve’ ego-constructs in the history of Christian and Oriental spiritual practice. This in itself suggests at least a superficial parallel in the dynamics of postmodernism and spirituality. It could be argued that despite the numerous obstacles to a glib comparison, both philosophical deconstruction and spiritual dissolution of ego ultimately shadow each other by rendering purely rational knowing somewhat mute, truncated, if not counter-intuitive. Is it an over-generalisation to suggest that the postmodern revolution has brought epistemology close to apophatic crisis? What of the broader context of trans-traditional spirituality in which muteness is enhanced by the influence of Oriental meontic and antirealist thought in the Buddhist strands of Pacific philosophy?  

Constructive ontologising In contra-distinction to deconstruction, Benedikter (2005) claims that post-structural neo-essentialism is evident in a ‘broad church’ of thinkers and writers. These, he claims, suggest an ontological realism arising from a boundary of cognitive resistance to deconstructive finality. In paradoxical continuation of deconstructionism, constructive trend exhibits an epistemological project towards a proto-ontology, proto-realism and a proto-spirituality inspired by both oriental and postmodern antirealism. In contrast to essentialist fixity in premodern metaphysics, post-structural neo-essentialism perceives humanity’s vital consciousness as dynamic, evolving and transforming. Cognitive turn seems to provide a shared locus of interest for traditionally divergent, unengaged epistemologies. Interdisciplinary inspiration in Wilber’s (1995) Integral Theory, for instance, shows a multistrand, multihemisphere epistemology at play in trans-traditional spirituality. 

There are a couple other references to Wilber, which are more current (from a 2006 article at Integral Life). And then this passage where he makes reference to Jean Gebser:
Toward neo-essentialism? So, where does consciousness travel, once it has deconstructed ego-attachment in the things of illusion? Benedikter’s argument for a neo-essentialist movement in mature postmodernism rests on a number of literary and philosophical references. These differ in their levels and anthropological concerns. A detailed discussion of these differences is omitted in Benedikter and here, for reasons of brevity. The strand that seems common in his reading focuses on the dynamic nature of attention. Benedikter paraphrases Gebser’s (1986) answer to the aforementioned question, thus: ‘Quite plainly, we are still aware that the stream of consciousness continues, as act and activity, pure and active attention’ (Gebser 1986; cf. also Benedikter 2005:iii, 2). What is this dynamic nothingness and borderline something-ness, which is prior to normal ego and suggests the primordial basis of consciousness? Here Benedikter cites numerous authors: Bhaskar (2002) refers to it as ‘pure substance of mankind’ [sic]; Derrida (1995) speaks of ‘the absolute secret’; Foucault (1977) called it the ‘productive void’; Heidegger (1927), ‘ontological occurrence’; and Rand(1947), ‘the fountainhead’. It is quite clear that in the writing of thinkers of the mature 20th century, a new essentialism suggests itself. Postmodernism perhaps, reaches its neo-religious peak in Gebser’s (1986) ‘permanent origin in itself’ and Bhaskar’s (2002) ‘meta-conscious basis of postmodern emancipation and everyday life’.

After deconstructing realism and inner ego-objects, we recognise something behind the eyes (Hay 2006), which although it deconstructs, is itself resilient to deconstruction.

The affirmative phenomenology of meta-consciousness, false-self and true-self Consciousness behind the ego suggests an inner realm of two ‘I’s. We are profoundly paradoxical, fragmented and schizoid, according to Benedikter (2005:iii, 4): ‘If you take deconstruction seriously, you will, sooner or later, encounter the other’. Traditional mystical epistemology speaks often of a conscious, transformative embrace of the Other. Embrace of otherness that is conceivably also nothingness, seems a perennially recurrent mystical experience. In postmodern spiritual epistemology primacy is given to a rationally derived cognitive participation in deconstruction. Psychologically, unconscious expression of ‘non-being’symptomatically gives rise to schizophrenia1 and narcissism in pseudo-spiritualities. Is not the unconscious pseudo-spirituality of modernism materialism? The implicit spiritual injunction to authenticity and wholeness, in various traditions would have us hold and dissolve attachment to selfish realisms, staying in the moment of terror after deconstructive process, to encounter being in a metaphorical post-annihilation. These are of course, terms used in many mystical traditions and referred to often in the writings of Merton (Cunningham 1999), Johnston (2000), Krishnamurti (1954) and Nishida Kitarô (cf. Maraldo 2005). 

In his mature work (2003:5–69) published posthumously, Merton refers to the false, collective, alienated exterior and authentic, hidden, real, dark, inner, interior, inmost, awakening selves. Epistemologically speaking it is only in mature postmodernism that we have taken the rational experience of many-selves seriously: grounding real-self by un-grounding false-self. Western true-self and Oriental non-self seem parallel meta-conscious realms arrived at, in deconstructing false-selves.

It's an interesting read (HTML version).

Origins Of Us (3-Part BBC Documentary)

This is a cool three-documentary on the origins of homo sapiens (Origins of Us, 2011) told in terms of bones, guts, and brains, brought to us by Dr. Alice Roberts and the BBC.
Origins of Us tells the story of our species, homo sapiens. In every one of our bodies is the evidence of how we evolved away from our ape cousins to become the adaptable, successful species we are today.

Anatomist and physical anthropologist Dr Alice Roberts reveals the key adaptations in our body that has contributed to our extra-ordinary success. Far from being inevitable, the evolution of our species is a product of pure chance. And with each anatomical advantage comes a cost, which many of us are still paying today. Bad backs, painful childbirth, impacted wisdom teeth are all a by-product of our evolutionary success.

This is a journey through your own body, 6 million years and 300 000 generations of our family, from a tree dwelling ape in the forests of Africa, to you and the six billion other humans on Earth today.

Part 1 - Origins Of Us: Bones

Part 2 - Origins Of Us: Guts

Part 3 - Origins Of Us: Brains

Dr. Stuart Eisendrath - Applying Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to Treatment

There has been a trend over the past decade or two to add mindfulness to nearly every form of psychotherapy one can think of - but especially cognitive models, as in the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy discussed in this video. This trend probably began in part as a result of the apparent clinical success of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) in treating borderline personality disorder (more accurately known as complex PTSD), which was created by Marsha Linehan (her model is essentially cognitive behavioral therapy with an added mindfulness component).

From Wikipedia, a little bit on DBT (this entry is a good introduction for those interested in the model):
DBT combines standard cognitive-behavioral techniques for emotion regulation and reality-testing with concepts of distress tolerance, acceptance, and mindful awareness largely derived from Buddhist meditative practice. DBT may be the first therapy that has been experimentally demonstrated to be generally effective in treating BPD.

DBT strives to have the patient view the therapist as an ally rather than an adversary in the treatment of psychological issues. Accordingly, the therapist aims to accept and validate the client’s feelings at any given time, while, nonetheless, informing the client that some feelings and behaviors are maladaptive, and showing them better alternatives.[2]

Linehan and others combined a commitment to the core conditions of acceptance and change through the Hegelian principle of dialectical progress (in which thesis + antithesis → synthesis) and assembled an array of skills for emotional self-regulation drawn from Western psychological traditions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and an interpersonal variant, "assertiveness training", and Eastern meditative traditions, such as Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Arguably her most significant contribution was to alter the adversarial nature of the therapist-client relationship in favor of an alliance based on intersubjective tough love.
Since this model appeared to be useful in other populations as well, other therapists began introducing mindfulness-based approaches with cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) foundations, including the following:

Dr. Stuart Eisendrath - Applying Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to Treatment

Dr. Stuart Eisendrath, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Director of the UCSF Depression Center, explores alternatives to treating depression that include cognitive therapy and cognitive mindfulness-based therapy, a new technique that blends mindfulness meditation and cognitive therapy techniques to lessen depression, particularly in individuals with recurrent episodes. Series: "UCSF Osher Mini Medical School for the Public" (Visit:

Dr. Eisendrath began his career as a consultation-liaison psychiatrist developing extensive experience at the mind-body interface areas of chronic pain, somatoform disorders, and factitious disorders. In more recent years, as director of The UCSF Depression Center, he has shifted his attention to investigating depression treatment and relapse prevention. He has been studying mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a new technique for treatment and prevention of major depression.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Culture-Gene Interactions in Human Origins - 3 Talks

From the University of California at San Diego and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, this is another installment in the CARTA (the Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny) series of talks that have been held for the past few years. I could be biased, but this sounds like another take on E.O. Wilson's sociobiology.
The Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny* (CARTA) was established in a collaboration between faculty at UC San Diego and at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, along with interested scientists at other institutions. CARTA became a UC San Diego recognized Organized Research Unit (ORU) in January 2008.

As the word anthropogeny implies, the primary goal of CARTA is to “explore and explain the origins of the human phenomenon.” In other words, finding the answers to the two age-old questions regarding humans:
  • Where did we come from?
  • How did we get here?
CARTA is a virtual organization formed in order to promote transdisciplinary research into human origins, drawing on methods from a number of traditional disciplines spanning the humanities, social, biomedical, biological, computational & engineering and physical & chemical sciences.

*Anthropogeny: The investigation of the origin of man (humans); Oxford English Dictionary, 2006. (1839 HOOPER Med. Dict., Anthropogeny, the study of the generation of man.)

CARTA Brochure
Interested in learning more about CARTA? We invite you to download the CARTA brochure, which provides a concise overview of CARTA's mission and activities.

This series of short lectures looks at how cultural traditions have shaped, and continue to shape, our genomes with the following presentations:
  • Origins of Modern Human Behavior (Alison Brooks)
  • Culture-led Gene-culture Coevolution (Peter Richerson)
  • Human Adaptations to Diverse Environments (Anna Di Rienzo) 
(Visit: for more video)

An Evening with Jeanette Winterson

At the Sydney Opera House for the Sydney Writers' Festival, Jeanette Winterson reads from her new memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and talks about books, life, love, death, madness and creativity.

Jeanette Winterson is the author of 10 novels including Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, The Passion, and Sexing The Cherry; a book of short stories, The World And Other Places; a collection of essays, Art Objects, as well as many other works including children’s books, screenplays and journalism.

I was especially fond of her collection of meditations on art, literature, and identity, Art and Lies. The novel that launched her from a relatively unknown postmodern academic author to critical and public acclaim was Written on the Body, a fascinating novel with a nameless, genderless narrator.

Presented by Sydney Writers' Festival, May 2012. Duration: 01:00:42

Buddhist Geeks 256: Will the Real Buddha Please Stand Up? (with John Peacock)

Frequent Buddhist Geeks guest Hokai Sobol interviews Buddhist scholar John Peacock (Associate Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Center) in this episode of the Buddhist Geeks podcast. Their topic is one I have long been fascinated by - who was the Buddha, the man, the human being who was born a prince in wealth and opulence and who died a wandering teacher and enlightened being?

His background:

JOHN PEACOCK is both an academic and a Buddhist practitioner of nearly forty years. He was initially trained in the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition in India and subsequently spent time in Sri Lanka studying Theravada. He has lectured in Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol, and at present he is Associate Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and teaches on the Master of Studies programme in MBCT at Oxford University. He has been teaching meditation for over twenty five years and is a Gaia House guiding teacher.
Peacock has a lot of talks/lectures available (for purchase and free, I believe) at the Buddhist Publishing Group site.

Buddhist Geeks 256: Will the Real Buddha Please Stand Up?

 BG 256: Will the Real Buddha Please Stand Up?

by John Peacock


Episode Description:

John Peacock is a scholar and Associate Director of The Oxford Mindfulness Centre. His studies of the earliest Buddhist writings have revealed to him a very human Buddha and a very different Buddhism than we know today.

In a conversation with Hokai Sobol, Peacock describes the historical Buddha as a very practical teacher and a radical social reformer. He cites passages of the earliest writings that describe a very human and emotional Buddha that enjoyed satire. He calls the Buddha the “First Psychologist” and relates to him as a teacher who was more interested in practical psychology than philosophy.

This is Part 1 of a 2 part series.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Shrink Rap Radio #302 Exploring Mindful Dreaming with Rubin Naiman PhD

Dr. David Van Nuys of Shrink Rap Radio interviewed Dr. Rubin Naiman on his work with mindful dreaming back in April. He has been the sleep and dream specialist at Canyon Ranch and Miraval Resorts (two Tucson area psycho-spiritual resorts for the worried wealthy), as well as the sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, directed by Dr. Andrew Weil (also Tucson based).

Shrink Rap Radio #302: Exploring Mindful Dreaming with Rubin Naiman PhD

Rubin Naiman, PhD is a psychologist, clinical assistant professor of medicine and the sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, directed by Dr. Andrew Weil. He is also director of Circadian Health Associates, an organization that offers sleep related services, training and consultation internationally. For more than a decade, he served as the sleep and dream specialist at Canyon Ranch and Miraval Resorts. Dr. Naiman is a leader in the development of integrative medicine approaches to sleep and dreams, integrating conventional sleep science with depth psychological and spiritual approaches. He is the author of a number of groundbreaking works on sleep, including Healing Night: The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming, and Awakening, and Healing Sleep: Discover the Restorative Power of Sleep, Dreams, and Awakening as well as professional book chapters.

Check out the following Psychology CE Courses based on listening to Shrink Rap Radio interviews:
A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

Tim Parks - The Mind Outside My Head

Novelist Tim Parks, after attending a 10-day Vipassana retreat (where he had no intention of taking in any Buddhist ideas, he went under the assurance that it would help with chronic pain), began to ponder ideas presented in the retreat, such as conditioned arising and the nature of consciousness.

While attending a conference on art and neuroscience, he heard a talk by Riccardo Manzotti and eventually spoke with him about his version of extended consciousness:
Manzotti is what they call a radical externalist: for him consciousness is not safely confined within a brain whose neurons select and store information received from a separate world, appropriating, segmenting, and manipulating various forms of input. Instead, he offers a model he calls Spread Mind: consciousness is a process shared between various otherwise distinct processes which, for convenience’s sake we have separated out and stabilized in the words subject and object. Language, or at least our modern language, thus encourages a false account of experience.  

For more on his theory, there is a new interview on the Spread Mind, in three parts: Spread Mind A, Spread Mind B, Spread Mind C. And this from the article:
Everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, Manzotti argues, involves the same creation of a physical unity—the moment of consciousness—sustained by processes within and without the head. The room, or part of a room, that you see now, including the screen on which you’re reading this blog, becomes, in combination with your faculties, a whole; this is consciousness. It happens in time, and it takes time (consciousness of visual phenomena seems to require at least 100 milliseconds to occur), and it changes constantly.  
But Manzotti is a scientist and for him this is all physical and objectively measured - he has no interest in Buddhist ideas or any form of idealism. Even the philosophical versions of extended mind would probably be too "soft" for him. However, he is introducing into materialist consciousness studies the notion that mind is not confined to the skull and, further, that believing it is allows for all kinds of additional beliefs, such as immortality, a concrete unchanging self, and very strict forms of moral responsibility.

This is a great article - I am now compelled to find out more about Manzotti.

From the New York Review of Books, back in April.

The Mind Outside My Head

Tim Parks

Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos - Lighthouse at Dungeness, coast of Kent, Great Britain, 2006

“There are no images.” This was the first time I noticed Riccardo Manzotti. It was a conference on art and neuroscience. Someone had spoken about the images we keep in our minds. Manzotti seemed agitated. The girl sitting next to me explained that he built robots, was a genius. “There are no images and no representations in our minds,” he insisted. “Our visual experience of the world is a continuum between see-er and seen united in a shared process of seeing.”

I was curious, if only because, as a novelist I’d always supposed I was dealing in images, imagery. This stuff might have implications. So we had a beer together.

Manzotti has a degree in engineering and another in philosophy. He teaches in the psychology department at IULM University, Milan. The move from engineering to philosophy was prompted by conceptual problems he’d run into when first seeking to build robots. What does it mean that a subject sees an object? “People say the robot stores images of the world through its video camera. It doesn’t, it stores digital data. It has no images.”

Manzotti is what they call a radical externalist: for him consciousness is not safely confined within a brain whose neurons select and store information received from a separate world, appropriating, segmenting, and manipulating various forms of input. Instead, he offers a model he calls Spread Mind: consciousness is a process shared between various otherwise distinct processes which, for convenience’s sake we have separated out and stabilized in the words subject and object. Language, or at least our modern language, thus encourages a false account of experience.

His favorite example is the rainbow. For the rainbow experience to happen we need sunshine, raindrops, and a spectator. It is not that the sun and the raindrops cease to exist if there is no one there to see them. Manzotti is not a Bishop Berkeley. But unless someone is present at a particular point no colored arch can appear. The rainbow is hence a process requiring various elements, one of which happens to be an instrument of sense perception. It doesn’t exist whole and separate in the world nor does it exist as an acquired image in the head separated from what is perceived (the view held by the “internalists” who account for the majority of neuroscientists); rather, consciousness is spread between sunlight, raindrops, and visual cortex, creating a unique, transitory new whole, the rainbow experience. Or again: the viewer doesn’t see the world; he is part of a world process.

Everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, Manzotti argues, involves the same creation of a physical unity—the moment of consciousness—sustained by processes within and without the head. The room, or part of a room, that you see now, including the screen on which you’re reading this blog, becomes, in combination with your faculties, a whole; this is consciousness. It happens in time, and it takes time (consciousness of visual phenomena seems to require at least 100 milliseconds to occur), and it changes constantly.

This minimal time lapse (some claim it is as much as 500 milliseconds) required for brain and world to generate consciousness allows Manzotti to deal with what would seem to be the obvious objection to the externalist theory. Do we not have consciousness when the eyes are shut and the mind lies in silence? And what about dreams? Isn’t the brain evidently sufficient to sustain consciousness without support from outside?

We do indeed have consciousness in these moments, Manzotti replies, but it is still spread out between mind and world. It may take only a fraction of a second for you to become conscious of the face appearing at your window, and then three more years before the same face surfaces in a dream, perhaps mingled with all kinds of other stimuli from elsewhere. But this doesn’t change the fact that consciousness is a coming together of brain and world: the physical process begun at the window is continuing in memory and dream. The congenitally blind, Manzotti points out, don’t dream colors because they have never encountered them. Consciousness is the mingling of mind process with the processes we call objects that are all in a state of flux, however fast or slow.

Riccardo Manzotti

Let’s leave aside the gospel truth or otherwise of all this. I tend to be skeptical of people with big ideas and Manzotti, like Einstein I suppose, has the long unkempt hair and animated manner of the possibly crazy scientist or visionary. All the same, you can see at once that taking his externalist ideas on board would radically change our approach to the notion of what an individual or a self is. Which in turn, for a novelist—and that’s my job—means a different way of thinking about narrative, about description, about character. The fact is that I met Manzotti shortly after attending a ten-day retreat where, in strict silence, people were trying to develop a Buddhist meditation technique called Vipassana. I had gone originally for health reasons, assured that the technique was useful for chronic pain and with no intention at all (for heaven’s sake) of taking on board any ideas that might be in the air. But the experience was so fascinating it was impossible not to be curious.

“Are you aware,” I asked Manzotti, “of the Buddhist principle of ‘conditioned arising,’ which seems remarkably similar to your insistence that there are neither objects nor subjects nor images, but only processes in a state of flux?”

Manzotti is irritated by this digression. He isn’t aware of Buddhist ideas. Just as he worries that people will confuse his determinedly “physical” view of consciousness with Berkeley’s idealism, so he wants to avoid like the plague being mixed up with anything that smells New Age.

“The Buddha,” I rib him, “argued that the world was made up of infinitesimally small particles in a constant cause-and-effect flux, and in Vipassana the meditator is invited to contemplate that flux in his own mind and body and to accept his oneness with it. Do it for ten days in a row in complete silence and you begin to understand why Buddhists don’t accept the existence of the self as a separate entity, or, if you like, why Buddhist priests don’t write novels.”

Manzotti reflects. He is a man who publishes academic papers constructed, as is appropriate, with the most careful reasoning in the most respectable journals and, to boot, designs charming comic-strip essays that introduce non-professionals to his view of the world by analyzing such things as what it means when we see a face, or hear a tune, or call a thing an object.
Over a drink, however, he’ll go a little further:
If, as I believe, the orthodox, internalist vision of consciousness is false and even naive, then we have to ask why so many intelligent people hold it. It’s not hard to understand. By locating consciousness exclusively within the brain we can imagine that the subject, me, at some very deep level, is not subject to the same law of constant change that evidently governs the phenomena around me. The subject accrues and sheds attributes, but remains in essence him or herself. This allows for the notion of someone’s being responsible, even for actions carried out years ago, and hence gives rise to a particular moral universe; it also creates the comforting illusion that perhaps the self could survive separate from the world. Behind it all there is the desire to deny change in ourselves, perhaps to survive death. Anyway, to be an entity outside the world.
I laugh: “If we’re going to claim that society holds the vision it does because it’s comforting and convenient, then why do you hold a different one?”

Manzotti doesn’t answer the question directly. It’s time to order another beer. “Notions of convenience might not be the same for everyone,” he eventually ponders. “For example, a guy obsessed by building a robot that simulates human behavior would have special reasons for wanting to get the model of consciousness right.”

The Reasoner - A panel from A process oriented externalist solution to the hard problem by Riccardo Manzotti

For some time I walk the streets of Milan trying to accept that consciousness is not locked in my head but spread out across the revving traffic, the rustling leaves, the dog shit, the blue sky, the gritty cobbles, the solemn facades, the soft breeze, the unseasonal temperatures, the screaming children, the air, the women. After a while it begins to make sense. There are small shifts of mood passing from street to park, from outside to inside, from red to blue, male to female, night to day, tram to metro, center to suburb. There are varying tensions between focus of vision and field of vision, between conversation and background noise. In general there is more: the intrusion of smells, the slap of a passing truck, a persistent touching of heat and breeze. Oddly, the critical faculty is somewhat attenuated; one distinguishes a little less urgently between the beautiful and the ugly, the slow line and the fast in bank and supermarket. Sometimes it’s a tiny bit like reading a passage from Joyce, who was never a favorite author of mine.

Not of course that Manzotti would ever suggest that people should do this. He’s a scientist. Consciousness is consciousness whatever your ideas about it. You don’t decide whether the mind is spread, if spread it is. All the same, once you accept that this might be a more accurate model of how things are, then oddly enough things do begin to feel different. I guess we’re just that kind of creature: within or without, consciousness can be profoundly altered by a voice declaring, “There are no images.”

April 10, 2012, 9:50 a.m.

Richard Dawkins on E.O. Wilson's New Book: "Impossible to Recommend"

Dawkins was not content to merely not recommend E.O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth, he went further: "To borrow from Dorothy Parker, this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force." For me, this is likely the best endorsement of the book I have so far read. Makes me glad I bought a copy.

Here is the publisher's blurb from Amazon:
Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while “overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” (Discover magazine). Refashioning the story of human evolution in a work that is certain to generate headlines, Wilson draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. He proves that history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology. Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion, and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, Wilson presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth’s biosphere.
 Here are snippets from some reviews - these were also posted at Amazon:

“E. O. Wilson’s passionate curiosity—the hallmark of his remarkable career—has led him to these urgent reflections on the human condition. At the core of The Social Conquest of Earth is the unresolved, unresolvable tension in our species between selfishness and altruism. Wilson brilliantly analyzes the force, at once creative and destructive, of our biological inheritance and daringly advances a grand theory of the origins of human culture. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in the intersection of science and the humanities.” (Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern)

“Wilson’s examples of insect eusociality are dazzling… There are obvious parallels with human practices like war and agriculture, but Wilson is also sensitive to the differences… This book offers a detailed reconstruction of what we know about the evolutionary histories of these two very different conquerors. Wilson’s careful and clear analysis reminds us that scientific accounts of our origins aren’t just more accurate than religious stories; they are also a lot more interesting.” (Paul Bloom - New York Times Book Review)

“...a sweeping argument about the biological origins of complex human culture. It is full of both virtuosity and raw, abrupt assertions that are nonetheless well-crafted and captivating... it is fascinating to see such a distinguished scientist optimistic about the future.” (Michael Gazzaniga - Wall Street Journal)

“Once again, Ed Wilson has written a book combining the qualities that have brought his previous books Pulitzer Prizes and millions of readers: a big but simple question, powerful explanations, magisterial knowledge of the sciences and humanities, and beautiful writing understandable to a wide public.” (Jared Diamond, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel)

“Wilson’s newest theory...could transform our understanding of human nature—and provide hope for our stewardship of the planet.... [His] new book is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities.... Its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers.” (Howard W. French - The Atlantic)

“A monumental exploration of the biological origins of the Human Condition!” (James D. Watson)

The Social Conquest of Earth is a huge, deep, thrilling work, presenting a radically new but cautiously hopeful view of human evolution, human nature, and human society. No one but E. O. Wilson could bring together such a brilliant synthesis of biology and the humanities, to shed light on the origins of language, religion, art, and all of human culture.” (Oliver Sacks)

The Social Conquest of the Earth has set off a scientific furor... The controversy is fueled by a larger debate about the evolution of altruism. Can true altruism even exist? Is generosity a sustainable trait? Or are living things inherently selfish, our kindness nothing but a mask? This is science with existential stakes.” (Jonah Lehrer - New Yorker)

“The Harvard University naturalist and Pulitzer Prize winner angered many colleagues two years ago, when he repudiated a concept within evolutionary theory that he had brought to prominence. Known as kin selection or inclusive fitness, the half-century-old idea helped to explain the puzzling existence of altruism among animals. Why, for instance, do some birds help their parents raise chicks instead of having chicks of their own? Why are worker ants sterile? The answer, according to kin selection theory, has been that aiding your relatives can sometimes spread your common genes faster than bearing offspring of your own.

In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson offers a full explanation of his latest thinking on evolution. Group dynamics, not selfish genes, drive altruism, he argues: “Colonies of cheaters lose to colonies of cooperators.” As the cooperative colonies dominate and multiply, so do their alleged ”altruism” genes. Wilson uses what he calls “multilevel selection”—group and individual selection combined—to discuss the emergence of the creative arts and humanities, morality, religion, language and the very nature of humans. Along the way, he pauses to reject religion, decry the way humans have despoiled the environment and, in something of a non sequitur, dismiss the need for manned space exploration. The book is bound to stir controversy on these and other subjects for years to come.” (Sandra Upson and Anna Kuchment - Scientific American )

“Pretty much anything Wilson writes is well worth reading, and his latest, The Social Conquest of Earth, is no exception… Read the master biologist himself in this marvelous book...” (Michael Shermer - The Daily )

“Biologist E. O. Wilson’s brilliant new volume, The Social Conquest of Earth, could more aptly be entitled ‘Biology’s Conquest of Science’. Drawing on his deep understanding of entomology and his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the natural and social sciences, Wilson makes a strong case for the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. Understanding the biological origin of what makes us human can help us to build better theories of social and psychological interaction; in turn, understanding how other social species have evolved may help us to better understand the origin of our own. But the main reason that Wilson’s book is successful is that he also brings into biology the best of what social science has to offer.” (James H. Fowler - Nature Magazine )
In his highly critical and sometimes petty review, Dawkins mentions the 2010 paper (The evolution of eusociality - $35 fee to read) from Nature (co-authored with two mathematicians) that generated a letter of dissent signed by 140 evolutionary biologists, including Jerry Coyne, Richard Michod, Eric Charnov, Nick Barton, Alex Kacelnik, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Geoffrey Parker, Steven Pinker, Paul Sherman, and Paul Harvey, among all the rest.

So I 'll see that list of biologists and raise you, Mr. Dawkins, the following interdisciplinary thinkers: Stephen Greenblatt, Paul Bloom, Michael Gazzaniga, Jonah Lehrer, Oliver Sacks, James D. Watson, Jared Diamond, and James Fowler, among many others who have given this book a positive review.

The real issue, in my opinion, is that while Wilson affirms the power of biology in evolution, which Dawkins would claim is the only real driver of evolution (selfish genes), he also acknowledges that when humans moved from kinship groups to cooperative groups not wholly based on kinship, we actually did better and increased our odds of survival. This is a basic aspect of integral evolution - it's not only objective biology, it's also the development of psyche, of cultural groups, and eventually of societies.

Dawkins is not ready for that view yet.

The descent of Edward Wilson


A new book on evolution by a great biologist makes a slew of mistakes

The Social Conquest of Earth
By Edward O Wilson
(WW Norton, £18.99, May)

When he received the manuscript of The Origin of Species, John Murray, the publisher, sent it to a referee who suggested that Darwin should jettison all that evolution stuff and concentrate on pigeons. It’s funny in the same way as the spoof review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which praised its interesting “passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways of controlling vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper” but added:

“Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book can not take the place of JR Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.”

I am not being funny when I say of Edward Wilson’s latest book that there are interesting and informative chapters on human evolution, and on the ways of social insects (which he knows better than any man alive), and it was a good idea to write a book comparing these two pinnacles of social evolution, but unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. In particular, Wilson now rejects “kin selection” (I shall explain this below) and replaces it with a revival of “group selection”—the poorly defined and incoherent view that evolution is driven by the differential survival of whole groups of organisms.

Nobody doubts that some groups survive better than others. What is controversial is the idea that differential group survival drives evolution, as differential individual survival does. The American grey squirrel is driving our native red squirrel to extinction, no doubt because it happens to have certain advantages. That’s differential group survival. But you’d never say of any part of a squirrel that it evolved to promote the welfare of the grey squirrel over the red. Wilson wouldn’t say anything so silly about squirrels. He doesn’t realise that what he does say, if you examine it carefully, is as implausible and as unsupported by evidence.

I would not venture such strong criticism of a great scientist were I not in good company. The Wilson thesis is based on a 2010 paper that he published jointly with two mathematicians, Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita. When this paper appeared in Nature it provoked very strong criticism from more than 140 evolutionary biologists, including a majority of the most distinguished workers in the field. They include Alan Grafen, David Queller, Jerry Coyne, Richard Michod, Eric Charnov, Nick Barton, Alex Kacelnik, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Geoffrey Parker, Steven Pinker, Paul Sherman, Tim Clutton-Brock, Paul Harvey, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Stephen Emlen, Malte Andersson, Stuart West, Richard Wrangham, Bernard Crespi, Robert Trivers and many others. These may not all be household names but let me assure you they know what they are talking about in the relevant fields.
I’m reminded of the old Punch cartoon where a mother beams down on a military parade and proudly exclaims, “There’s my boy, he’s the only one in step.” Is Wilson the only evolutionary biologist in step? Scientists dislike arguing from authority, so perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned the 140 dissenting authorities. But one can make a good case that the 2010 paper would never have been published in Nature had it been submitted anonymously and subjected to ordinary peer-review, bereft of the massively authoritative name of Edward O Wilson. If it was authority that got the paper published, there is poetic justice in deploying authority in reply.

Then there’s the patrician hauteur with which Wilson ignores the very serious drubbing his Nature paper received. He doesn’t even mention those many critics: not a single, solitary sentence. Does he think his authority justifies going over the heads of experts and appealing directly to a popular audience, as if the professional controversy didn’t exist—as if acceptance of his (tiny) minority view were a done deal?
 Read the whole review.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Alva Noë - The Zombie Within

Philosopher Alva Noë wrote an interesting article last week for NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog on the zombie within, a metaphor for all of the "can't-help-yourself" books that have come out in the last year, many of which I have noted here many times (Daniel Kahneman's Thinking: Fast and Slow, David Eagleman's Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Michael Gazzaniga's Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, Leonard Mlodinow's Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, and Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, among others) - and it was inspired by James Atlas's recent New York Times article, The Amygdala Made Me Do It.

Noë has generally been a supporter of agency and free will, and he remains so here:
Skillful, fluent action is not slavery to the neural zombie within; it is liberation from the rote and the regulated. It is flexible attunement to where we find ourselves.
I would like to read another 50 pages or so on this topic, by him.

The Zombie Within

May 20, 2012
The inner, neural zombie exposed?
Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images
The inner, neural zombie exposed?

The zombie within: the idea that we don't know what we are doing, or where we are going, when we think we best know, is an old one. (The words I've just paraphrased are Emerson's.)

James Atlas, in a recent New York Times article, is probably on to something when he notices that there has been an explosion recently of what he wittily calls Can't-Help-Yourself Books. These are books that take as their starting point something like the idea that science now teaches us the "choices we make in day-to-day life are prompted by impulses lodged deep within the nervous system" and that, therefore, in some sense, we are not really the authors of our own actions, responses, choices.

Today I want to come at the question of whether we are really controlled by a neural zombie deep within by considering one route that might lead to that conclusion. This has to do with how we think about thinking, action and the intellect.

Consider that a novice basketball player needs to think about the mechanics of how to dribble; doing so — concentrating, paying attention to hand, wrist, ball, etc. improves performance. But not so for the experienced player. It isn't just that that he or she doesn't need to pay attention to ball handling to play well; it's that fluent and skillful performance will be disrupted if she does. This is a general fact about expertise. Pick your favorite example. A chess beginner needs to think about the rules governing how the pieces move in order to play. That layer of thinking recedes into the background for the advanced player, freeing him up to pay attention to the things that matter for winning, such as tactics and strategy.

It's tempting to say that the contrast here is between thinking and not thinking, or being conscious and being a zombie. The expert leaves the plodding, deliberative mind behind and enters "the zone," captures "the flow," lets the zombie within guide the fingers as they race over the neck of guitar, or the hands and feet as they (not "you"!) work the pedals and gear shift as you accelerate to overtake on the high way.

But this gets what interests us wrong.

Yes, athletes, musicians, drivers and chess players, when they are in the flow, can act fast without needing to make decisions about what to do. But this is not because they aren't thinking. Nor is it because they are thinking really fast. It's because they are thinking about what matters, such as the musical ideas or the traffic or the potential vulnerability of the King to attack. Mastery consists precisely in shifting attention from the mechanics of a task to, if you like, the task's point.

Nothing illustrates this better than the case of language itself. We learn to decline and conjugate so that we can talk. The learner of a second language needs to give painstaking attention to grammatical choices and rules. But conversation — thoughtful participation in the parry and thrust, the give and take — requires that we stop focusing on the grammar and start focusing on what we are doing. What is required is not that we become automata, or forget the grammar; what is required is that we become masters of it.

Historically, we have tended to think of "intelligence" as a matter of deliberate judgment; we celebrate rationality. Agency consists of doing things for reasons: see, think, decide, plan, execute. This is the structure of human agency. If it should turn out to be the case that much of our action passes over the thinking/deciding/planing stage, then it would seem to follow that, at least much of the time, we are not the agents we think we are. If it should turn out that we act without deliberating, then, it would seem, we're a lot less smart and in control than we think we are.

But this conclusion isn't mandatory. We can and should reject the conception of intelligence and agency it presupposes. An expert is not simply someone who has learned to do what the beginner does but fast. The expert has an entirely different relation to the task. The expert's intelligence and thoughtfulness shines not despite the lack of deliberation, but thanks to the freedom not needing to deliberate affords.

Sometimes not deliberating is the mark of our intellectual fitness, as when I answer your question without needing to ponder your grammar or my own.

When it comes to the activities of daily life — talking, thinking, shopping, driving, reading, looking, learning — we are all experts.

It is expertise that lets us get out of our heads, to the things that matter. Skillful, fluent action is not slavery to the neural zombie within; it is liberation from the rote and the regulated. It is flexible attunement to where we find ourselves. (Echoes of Emerson again.) It is intelligent life.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and Twitter.

Big Think - Welcome to Your Future Brain: Inside David Eagleman's Neuro Lab

Cool post about a rising star in the neuroscience world, David Eagleman of Baylor University, who along with Virginia Tech’s Stephen LaConte, a neuroimaging expert, hope to use fMRI scanners to help addicts understand their cravings and learn how to fight them (among other things - read the interview in Slate).

Big Think recently ran a feature on Eagleman, who is the author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and Why the Net Matters, or Six Easy Ways to Avert the Collapse of Civilization (a Kindle only book), as well as other books.

Welcome to Your Future Brain: Inside David Eagleman's Neuro Lab


What's the Big Idea?

David Eagleman's Laboratory for Perception is located on the ground floor of Baylor College of Medicine, but the vibe is more creative think tank than clinical academic enclave. The walls are enamelled in dry-erase paint and marked up with impromptu sketches, arrows, and words like SYNESTHESIA spelled out in childish block letters. Coffee mugs are covered with to-do lists. There's not a single white coat on display.

Watch the video:

As director of the lab, Eagleman hopes to gain insight into how the brain creates reality, and his methods are as unconventional as the space in which he and his team work.

To conduct the first ever systematic study of synaesthesia, they created an online test for the neurological condition (which causes people to perceive numbers, letters, and sometimes pieces of music as inherently colored, i.e. "one is green, two is pink, three is a purplish-blue"). The test went viral and gave them instant access to a global pool of synesthetes. To determine whether time slows down during life-threatening events or only seems to, Eagleman and his research assistant strapped themselves into harnesses and jumped off the roofs of tall buildings.

What's the Significance?

If Descartes had built a theme park, it would probably look a lot like this. But the presiding philosophy of the Laboratory for Perception is ultimately more informed by the possibilities of the future than by the past. Eagleman is fascinated by the idea that we could import the technology into human biology to enhance our sensory perception of the world, broadening and deepening our reality.

"As it stands now, as biological creatures, we only see a very small strip of what's going on," he said in a recent interview with Big Think. "Take electromagnetic radiation: there's a little strip of that that we can see... [but] the rest of the spectrum -- radio waves, television, cell phone, gamma rays, x-rays is invisible to us because we don't have biological receptors for it. CNN is passing through your body right now and you don't know it because you don't have the right receptors for it."

Eagleman and his team are currently at work on a vibratory vest that feeds sensory information into the skin rather than through other channels (for example, the eyes or ears). The technology would enable deaf people to hear by picking up on the auditory stream via a microphone. The stream becomes a matrix of vibrations on the skin, sending electrical signals to the brain that represent auditory information.

"If it sounds crazy that you would ever be able to understand all these signals through your skin, remember that all the auditory system is doing is taking signals and turning them into electrical signals in your brain," he says. "It doesn't matter how you get those data streams there." In the future, other data streams could be streamed into the vest, meaning that people could walk around unconsciously perceiving the weather report.

There's no limit to the possibilities, and nature provides neuroscientists with a constant source of inspiration: "Snakes see in the infrared range and honey bees see in the ultravnstantiolet range. There's no reason why we can't start building devices to see that and feed it directly into our brains."

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Secular Buddhist Podcast - Episode 119 :: Shinzen Young :: Meditation, Pain, and Science

Excellent - one of the very cool teachers of Buddhism is Shinzen Young, and he is the guest this week on the Secular Buddhist Podcast, hosted by Ted Meissner. The post includes links to several of Shizen's books and audio books, so check them out at the podcast site.

Secular Buddhist Podcast Episode 119 :: Shinzen Young :: Meditation, Pain, and Science

May 27, 2012

Shinzen Young

Shinzen Young joins us to speak about meditation, pain relief, and science.

We encounter this practice in so many ways. Often through suffering. Sometimes through disciplines like the martial arts, or from an interest in fixing some issues we’re having with concentration. And sometimes, we come to it through a fascination with a culture that holds more interest to us than the one into which we’ve been born.

However we get here, it’s what we do with this teaching that allows it to truly come to fruition. That path may be particularly religious, or not. It may even be a fairly secular approach, but taking new expression within the context of a traditional framework. Things are not always as they seem; we should continue to question, and we should consider that our first impressions may not always prove to be quite as constrained as our minds may be.

Shinzen Young became fascinated with Asian culture while a teenager in Los Angeles. Later he enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Buddhist Studies at the University of Wisconsin. Eventually, he went to Asia and did extensive training in each of the three major Buddhist traditions: Vajrayana, Zen and Vipassana. Upon returning to the United States, his academic interests shifted to the burgeoning dialogue between Eastern meditation and Western science. Shinzen is known for his innovative “interactive, algorithmic approach” to mindfulness, a system specifically designed for use in pain management, recovery support, and as an adjunct to psychotherapy. He leads meditation retreats throughout North America and has helped establish numerous mindfulness centers and programs. He also consults widely on meditation-related research, in both the clinical and the basic science domains. Special thanks to Emily Barrett from the Home Practice Program for her help in coordinating today’s interview.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice vanilla frappuccino.

:: Discuss this episode ::


“If you can’t be disciplined, be clever.” — Shinzen Young

Web Links

Music for This Episode


Chikuzen Shakuhachi Series

The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from the Chikuzen Shakuhachi Series, Volume 1, courtesy of Tai Hei Shakuhachi. The tracks used in this episode are:
  • Track 6 :: Esashi Oiwake

Diane Rehm - Stuart Firestein: "Ignorance: How It Drives Science"

This segment aired last week or so on NPR's the Diane Rehm Show - it's a look at how "beginner's mind" is essential to progress in science. Firestein calls it ignorance, but that is simply another form of not knowing. Firestein's new book, the topic of the show, is Ignorance: How It Drives Science.

Stuart Firestein: "Ignorance: How It Drives Science"

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 
 - (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger...and it is more interesting.” These are the words of neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, the chair of Columbia University’s biology department. Firestein claims that exploring the unknown is the true engine of science, and says ignorance helps scientists concentrate their research. He compares science to searching for a black cat in a dark room, even though the cat may or may not be in there. Firestein's laboratory investigates the mysteries of the sense of smell and its relation to other brain functions. A discussion of the scientific benefits of ignorance.


Stuart Firestein: Chairman of the Department of Biology at Columbia University, professor of neuroscience.

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Read An Excerpt

Reprinted from IGNORANCE: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Stuart Firestein.