Saturday, January 22, 2011

Third Annual Online Consciousness Conference, 2011

The program has been announced and the fun is set to begin. You can follow the event and get updates on Facebook. I wonder if they will have someone commenting on (i.e., rebutting, debunking, falsifying) Churchland's reductionist arguments.

The Third Annual Online Consciousness Conference is scheduled for February 18th -March 4th 2011. Papers will be available for reading one week before the conference begins.

Invited talks

  1. Kathleen Akins, Simon Fraser University

    Black and White and Color

  2. Paul Churchland, University of California San Diego

    Consciousness: On the Introspection of Apparent Qualitative Simples

  3. Stevan Harnad, University of Southampton & Universite du Quebec a Montreal

    Minds, Brains and Turing

  4. Jesse Prinz, The Graduate Center, CUNY

    Attention and the (Dis)unity of Consciousness

Special Session on Direct Realism and Perceptual Justification organized by Jacob Berger, The Graduate Center, CUNY

  1. Benj Hellie, University of Toronto

    There It Is

Contributed Sessions

  1. Nemira Gasiunas, Columbia University

    Grapheme-Color Synesthesia as Perception without Awareness

  2. Philip Goff, University of Hertfordshire

    Property Dualists Should be Panpsychists

  3. Jason Leddington, Bucknell University

    What We Hear

  4. Bence Nanay, University of Antwerp & University of Cambridge

    Perceptual Phenomenology

  5. Adam Pautz, University of Texas, Austin

    How do Sensible Properties Become Present to the Mind? Some Lessons from Neuroscience

  6. Miguel Sebastian, LOGOS University of Barcelona

    Not a Hot Dream

  7. Tom Seppalainen, Portland State University

    Hypothetical Identities and Chimerical Reductions

    • Elizabeth Schier, Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science, Macquarie University & Berlin School of Mind and Brain
    • David Harker, East Tennessee State University

Rabbi Alan Lurie - The Allure of Narcissistic Spirituality

Nice article - he works from a different definition of spirituality, but at least he defines his terms. Here is his working definition:
My acting definition is, "The experience of a transformative connection." In other words, spirituality is experienced -- it is not a concept or construct. It transforms us. It changes how we act, think and feel in all environments. And it is a connection -- a profound contact with something and someone outside of our selves.
This is close to one of Ken Wilber's four basic definitions (#4 is the closest):
I suggest that there are at least four widely used definitions of spirituality, each of which contains an important but partial truth, and all of which need to be included in any balanced account: (1) spirituality involves peak experiences or altered states, which can occur at almost any stage and any age; (2) spirituality involves the highest levels in any of the lines; (3) spirituality is a separate developmental line itself; (4) spirituality is an attitude (such as openness, trust, or love) that the self may or may not have at any stage.[20]
Anyway - spiritual narcissism has become an increasingly serious issue in many spiritual communities, including Western Buddhism. We may often see this as spiritual materialism and/or spiritual bypass.

The Allure of Narcissistic Spirituality

By Rabbi Alan Lurie (BIO)
Posted: January 6, 2011

Several months ago, my wife and I attended a prayer service at a synagogue that is well known for its spiritual, and spirited, approach. As we entered, the rabbi was leading a meditation. "Close your eyes and breathe in the peace of Shabbat [the Sabbath]." she said. "And on the out-breathe imagine that you are sending healing love to all beings." We passed a man who appeared to be deep in meditation. His eyes were closed, and through a slightly opened smile he slowly breathed in and out. As we moved to our seats, I accidentally stepped on his toe. He quickly turned toward me; his smile vanished and he angrily hissed, "Hey, watch it, buddy!"

In the irony of a person being angry at a stranger for accidentally interrupting his meditation about universal, unconditional love, this man demonstrated the disturbing, alluring and all-too common phenomenon of "spiritual narcissism."

To understand spiritual narcissism we must first understand the word "spirituality." My acting definition is, "The experience of a transformative connection." In other words, spirituality is experienced -- it is not a concept or construct. It transforms us. It changes how we act, think and feel in all environments. And it is a connection -- a profound contact with something and someone outside of our selves.

All three of these components are needed in order for spirituality to occur, but the most essential is that it be a connection -- between a person and the Divine, or between one person and another. Spiritual practices are designed to facilitate these connections, and begin with the knowledge that we have two selves: an ego-self and a true-Self. The ego-self is built on our strategy for ensuring that we are physically safe, stemming from our interpretation of the experiences of our lives (primarily our childhood) in which we determined what was required in order to survive. The ego-self may need to impress, dominate or control and sees others as either threats or tools. There is nothing inherently wrong with the ego-self; it is a necessary structure put in place so that we can survive in physical reality. But it is not who we really are, and we can not make a spiritual connection from it. Our true-Self, however, which is often referred to as our soul, contains the very purpose that we incarnated, and is in constant connection with Spirit/Consciousness/Creation/God. It sees others as fellow souls with equally needed purposes, and has compassion for the suffering that comes from the ego-self's attachment to things.

Spiritual practices help us to loosen the grip of the ego-self and to connect to the true-Self, so that we can live purposefully, be of service and participate in love. The central Biblical injunction to "Love your neighbor as yourself" is usually interpreted to mean that we must learn to love others, with the assumption that we already love ourselves. Literally translated, though, this line actually reads, "And you will [in the future tense] love your fellow in the same way that you love yourself." In other words, we will love another to the extent and in the way that we love ourselves. If you are harsh with yourself, you will be harsh with others. If you can not forgive yourself, you can not forgive others. In this way, this line is not a commandment, but is a statement of fact. The truth is that most of us do not love ourselves very well, and consequently we hurt others. This is why spiritual practices so often seek to teach us how to love ourselves, so that we can better love others. Real love naturally flows in two directions.

Spiritual practices becomes narcissistic, though, when the ego-self hijacks the process and assumes that it is the object of self love, becoming enamored of looking in the mirror and claiming that its reflection is the true-Self. Then we loose our way, forgetting that the purpose of learning to love ourselves is to become more open, kind and effective in interactions with others, and instead of opening our hearts with humility and compassion, we assume a position of superiority -- exactly what the ego desires for its safety. Spiritual narcissism sees self-love as the end goal. Spirituality to the ego-self is an object of attainment, much like fame, wealth, an expensive car and a sexy body.

Spiritual narcissism creates the pretense of holiness as an ego strategy to mask insecurity, receive approval, or avoid struggle and growth. "I'm a spiritual person" it proclaims proudly. "I travel to alternate realities, see auras, heal chakras, predict the future, talk to spirits, commune with angels, manipulate energies, meditate for three hours a day, harness the powers of the Universe to attract success. ... The truth is that I'm more evolved than you!" Deep spirituality makes us more sensitive to the feeling of others, encouraging an open stance of courage where we can drop our protective shields and accept the vulnerability to be seen as we are. Narcissistic sensitivity, however, is focused solely on the subtle nuances one's own internality, and resists looking at hard, uncomfortable truths that may upset the self image. One who is narcissistically sensitive is easily offended by the "coarseness" of others, seeks to make his environment change to align with the contours of his needs, and gets angry or offended when this does not happen.

At a seven-day spiritual silent meditation retreat that I recently attended, devoted to nourishing equanimity, attendees routinely wrote messages to the retreat leaders with complaints about others: one attendee complained that two days of progress was "ruined" by another attendee, who sent a note with the words "I love you," and another complained about someone who was walking too loudly on the leaves outdoors. And the leaders publicly scolded an individual who broke the rules by reading a book in public (in Jewish tradition, embarrassing someone in public is considered a very destructive and violent act, and is strictly forbidden). While complaining about others and shaming a rule-breaker at an event intended to teach equanimity is -- like the story in the beginning of this blog -- ironic, it teaches an important warning: The desire to control others in order to create a "perfect" environment that nurtures our sensitivities is a calling card of spiritual narcissism. It is not a spiritual feat to feel equanimity only when everything is going exactly as one would like. True spirituality takes place in the holy messiness of the world, in open-hearted relationship with others, and in a kind smile to one who accidentally stepped on your foot. In that moment of connection, one can clearly see that the annoyances and upsets are actually wake up calls pulling us out of our self-involvement and in to relationship.

The holiest prayer in the Jewish prayer book is the Amidah -- the "standing" prayer -- in which we are in soul connection to God, so that we can praise our Creator for the beauty and bounty of the world, ask for peace, health and understanding and express gratitude for our lives. What is surprising to many is that most of these prayers are in the plural form; we do not pray alone and for ourselves, but for everyone. In this prayer are words that are, for me, the summation of an antidote to the lure of narcissism: "Purify our hearts to be of service in truth." With this one powerful sentence we yearn to move beyond our ego-selves, and to know our true-Selves so that we can be a blessing to others. This is why Judaism teaches us to focus on acts of kindness: inviting someone to your house for lunch, treating a stranger with kindness and giving money to charity are the highest levels of spirituality.

Spiritual narcissism can be very appealing. I know because I also feel the tug, and too often succumb. But once we see how we are tempted to use the guise of spirituality to shield us from criticism, impress others and make us feel wise, its appeal begins to loosen, and we even find the humor in this upside-down dynamic. Then, we slowly see this as an all-too-human inclination, and as we forgive it in ourselves we can forgive it in others, knowing that we are fellow suffering, struggling, holy beings. As Martin Buber, author of I and Thou wrote, "When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them."

Mystery of the Mind - A Neuroscience/Philosophy Round Table Discussion

A 2-hour round-table conversation from 2007 featuring Ned Block, Richard Haier, Joseph LeDoux, Patrick McGrath, Craig Piers, and Gianfranco Basti. I found this at Senmes.

Unfortunately, Basti is a little challenging to understand - but do try, he adds an important perspective that is totally opposite of Block's reductionist view. He argues that consciousness is not in the body (or brain) - that is exists between two interacting people (“the brain is in the mind”). His perspective is partial (because it is more than simply interpersonal), but he is closer to the more current understanding of consciousness as a verb, not a noun.

The Dalai Lama - The Bodhisattva Volumtarily Remains in Cyclic Samsara

Lectures on the Buddhist Path to Peace

by H.H. the Dalai Lama of Tibet,
Tenzin Gyatso
translated and edited
by Jeffrey Hopkins


Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

Question: I have the strong wish to be reborn in any of the realms in a position to truly help other sentient beings in that realm. Is it wrong for me in these circumstances not to have the strong wish to leave the wheel of cyclic existence?

Answer: Your wish to stay in order to help is certainly right. One of Shantideva's prayers, roughly translated is, "As long as there is space, I will remain with sentient beings, to serve and help them." Therefore, I also am trying to practice this. Helping others is the real purpose of life; it will bring the most satisfaction. The one action of helping others out of a sincere motivation brings two results--satisfaction for yourself and benefit to others. It is most beautiful.

One might ask whether there is a contradiction between a Bodhisattva's developing a determination to leave cyclic existence by viewing it as faulty and a Bodhisattva's wishing to remain in cyclic existence in order to help others. An answer to this is given in Bhavaviveka's Heart of the Middle Way: ...because of being under the influence of love and compassion, one is not captivated by the idea of retreating into solitary peace and, with an attitude of seeking to bring about the welfare of other sentient beings, remains in cyclic existence. This attitude is really marvelous. Though you are really fed up with cyclic existence, still because of a willingness and a determination to serve others, you voluntarily accept to remain.

However, as is indicated by the frequently cited example of a lotus that is produced from mud but not polluted by it, a Bodhisattva stays in cyclic existence but is not affected by its faults. It would indeed be hypocritical to claim from one's mouth that one had taken up the practice of a Bodhisattva but actually to be happily stuck in cyclic existence with great attachment. (p. 91)

--from The Dalai Lama at Harvard: Lectures on the Buddhist Path to Peace by H.H. the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, published by Snow Lion Publications

The Dalai Lama at Harvard • Now at 5O% off
(Good through January 28th).

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Galen Strawson vs. Nicholas Humphrey in The Guardian UK

It seems a little odd (perhaps only to me) that within days of my posting an old interview with Galen Strawson on his rather rigid views of free will that he goes and gets into a very public feud with Nicholas Humphrey after essentially trashing Humphrey's new book in The Guardian UK.

By the way, the book is Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey (due out February 21, 2011 in the US).

I'm going to post Strawson's review, then I will include the comments from each in the comments section following the post - to say Humphrey is pissed would be an understatement.

Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey – review

Nicholas Humphrey's study of consciousness is let down by some hopeless central contentions

Galen Strawson

MRI scan

An MRI scan of a human brain – debate has long raged about how consciousness works.
Photograph: David Job/Getty Images

Once upon a time, not so long ago, no one thought that there was a mind-body problem. No one thought consciousness was a special mystery and they were right. The sense of difficulty arose only about 400 years ago and for a very specific reason: people began to think they knew what matter was. They thought (very briefly) that matter consisted entirely of grainy particles with various shapes bumping into one another. This was classical contact mechanics, "the corpuscularian philosophy", and it gave rise to a conundrum. If this is all that matter is, how can it be the basis of or give rise to mind or consciousness? It seemed clear, as Shakespeare observed, that "when the brains were out, the man would die". But how could the wholly material brain be the seat of consciousness?

Leibniz put it well in 1686, in his famous image of the mill: consciousness, he said, "cannot be explained on mechanical principles, ie by shapes and movements…. imagine that there is a machine [eg a brain] whose structure makes it think, sense and have perception. Then we can conceive it enlarged, so that we can go inside it, as into a mill. Suppose that we do: then if we inspect the interior we shall find there nothing but parts which push one another, and never anything which could explain a conscious experience."

Conclusion: consciousness can't be physical, so we must have immaterial souls. Descartes went that way (albeit with secret doubts). So did many others. The mind-body problem came into existence.

Hobbes wasn't bothered, though, in 1651. He didn't see why consciousness couldn't be entirely physical. And that, presumably, is because he didn't make the Great Mistake: he didn't think that the corpuscularian philosophy told us the whole truth about the nature of matter. And he was right. Matter is "much odder than we thought", as Auden said in 1939, and it's got even odder since.

There is no mystery of consciousness as standardly presented, although book after book tells us that there is, including, now, Nick Humphrey's Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness. We know exactly what consciousness is; we know it in seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, in hunger, fever, nausea, joy, boredom, the shower, childbirth, walking down the road. If someone denies this or demands a definition of consciousness, there are two very good responses. The first is Louis Armstrong's, when he was asked what jazz is: "If you got to ask, you ain't never goin' to know." The second is gentler: "You know what it is from your own case." You know what consciousness is in general, you know the intrinsic nature of consciousness, just in being conscious at all.

"Yes, yes," say the proponents of magic, "but there's still a mystery: how can all this vivid conscious experience be physical, merely and wholly physical?" (I'm assuming, with them, that we're wholly physical beings.) This, though, is the 400-year-old mistake. In speaking of the "magical mystery show", Humphrey and many others make a colossal and crucial assumption: the assumption that we know something about the intrinsic nature of matter that gives us reason to think that it's surprising that it involves consciousness. We don't. Nor is this news. Locke knew it in 1689, as did Hume in 1739. Philosopher-chemist Joseph Priestley was extremely clear about it in the 1770s. So were Eddington, Russell and Whitehead in the 1920s.

One thing we do know about matter is that when you put some very common-or-garden elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, potassium, etc) together in the way in which they're put together in brains, you get consciousness like ours – a wholly physical phenomenon. (It's happening to you right now.) And this means that we do, after all, know something about the intrinsic nature of matter, over and above everything we know in knowing the equations of physics. Why? Because we know the intrinsic nature of consciousness and consciousness is a form of matter.

This is still a difficult idea, in the present climate of thought. It takes hard thought to see it. The fact remains that we know what consciousness is; any mystery lies in the nature of matter in so far as it's not conscious. We can know for sure that we're quite hopelessly wrong about the nature of matter so long as our positive account of it creates any problem about how consciousness can be physical. Some philosophers, including Humphrey's long-time collaborator, Daniel Dennett, seem to think that the only way out of this problem is to deny the existence of consciousness, ie to make just about the craziest claim that has ever been made in the history of human thought. They do this by changing the meaning of the word "consciousness", so that their claim that it exists amounts to the claim that it doesn't. Dennett, for example, defines consciousness as "fame in the brain", where this means a certain kind of salience and connectedness that doesn't actually involve any subjective experience at all.

In Soul Dust, Humphrey seems to agree with Dennett, at least in general terms, for he begins by introducing a fictional protagonist, a consciousness-lacking alien scientist from Andromeda who arrives on Earth and finds that she needs to postulate consciousness in us to explain our behaviour. The trouble is that she's impossible, even as a fiction, if Humphrey means real consciousness. This is because she won't be able to have any conception of what consciousness is, let alone postulate it, if she's never experienced it, any more than someone who's never had visual experience can have any idea what colour experience is like (Humphrey says she'll need luck, but luck won't be enough).

Humphrey also talks in Dennettian style of "the consciousness illusion" and this triggers a familiar response: "You say that there seems to be consciousness, but that there isn't really any. But what can this experience of seeming to be conscious be, if not a conscious experience? How can one have a genuine illusion of having red-experience without genuinely having red-experience in having the supposed illusion?"

Later, Humphrey seems to be a realist about consciousness. When he comes to the question of how human consciousness evolved, his remarkable suggestion is that it is adaptive and has survival value principally because it allows for "self-esteem, coupled with self-entrancement". "Your Ego… this awesome treasure island… never ceases to amaze and fascinate you." And since this is tremendously pleasurable, you very much want to go on living. The gloomier among us may doubt this, finding Hamlet nearer the mark. The deeper problem with the self-entrancement theory is that natural selection can select implacably for an intense instinct of self-preservation without using consciousness at all.

It seems to me, then, that Humphrey's central contentions are hopeless. One doesn't solve the problem of consciousness (such as it is) by saying that consciousness is really a kind of illusion. Whatever difficulties there are in explaining the survival value of consciousness, it doesn't lie in the fact that it makes self-entrancement possible. There is initially something disarming about the rapturous self-confidence of Soul Dust, but it comes in time to seem mere vanity.

Galen Strawson is professor of philosophy at the University of Reading

For what it's worth, I tend to agree with Strawson's critique of Dennett - and if Humphrey holds to the same nonsense about consciousness as Dennett (i.e., that consciousness is at best an illusion, a kind of self-induced trance state - hey, wait, doesn't that imply consciousness?), then I am on board with his critique.

Anyway - here are the respective comments thus far (this was originally posted a while back), with a few others thrown in for context. Oh yeah, Humphrey comes off looking childish - irrespective of whether or not Strawson is wrong.


9 January 2011 4:18PM

In his bizarre review Strawson raises several “obvious” objections to my ideas about the evolution of consciousness. But it’s precisely because these objections will occur to most readers that I raise them myself in the book, before going on to answer them in detail. I have written to Strawson suggesting he should now send a letter to the Observer, saying he would like to retract his review because unfortunately he only had time to skim the book before letting fly.

* * * * *


9 January 2011 5:48PM

It's true, as Chomsky has pointed out, that we have "no coherent notion of the physical" - less and less so, in fact, over recent decades. But, like Pelforth, I'm confused about how Strawson conceives of the relationship between matter and consciousness. I suppose he would say that the very word "relationship" smuggles in Cartesian dualism by the back door. But he seems to be invoking something other than the idea of "emergence" which is usually deployed here.

If consciousness is somehow a fundamental property of what we think of as the material world, rather than something that only "emerges" in very particular conditions, as is commonly assumed, then don't we have something that ultimately resolves into a sort of panpsychism? In which case, shouldn't it be defended in those terms? Strawson is right, surely, to imply that the idea of emergence - which implies, or attempts to resolve, the apparent paradox that consciousness is fundamentally, in some sense, other than matter - is essentially an empty one, not least in the positivistic sense: it's almost impossible to conceive of an experiment that could establish such a claim to be false. But until we have some sort of coherent account of how matter and consciousness are in fact two aspects of the same unitary, self-consistent reality, despite all of our everyday intuitions to the contrary (ok - historically and geographically particular prejudices, if you like; it makes no difference), then surely Strawson's position (let's call it "weak panpsychism", though I'd be happy for him or anyone else to substitute another term) is just as as much of an epistemological dead end?

* * * * *


9 January 2011 6:53PM

prettyprettygood is pretty good. One problem is that we may be wildly wrong about the nature of space and time or spacetime. I think we probably are. There are two papers where I try to make some progress with this. One is called 'Real materialism'. It was originally in a book of papers written for Chomsky. The other is called 'Realistic monism'. It's in a book called Consciousness and its Place in Nature, and talks about emergence and panpsychism. I think I will try to put these papers up on the web.

pelforth: panpsychism is often misrepresented, and often mocked. It certainly doesn't imply that a computer or a table is a conscious subject. It might be that the particles of which the computer or table is composed, or some of them, are loci of conscious experience; it might be that the energy of which they are forms is itself a kind of consciousness. It wouldn't follow that the computer or table is itself a subject of conscious experience. Eddington, Whitehead and Russell are very interesting. Russell writes: ‘we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events that we directly experience’ (1956), or that ‘as regards the world in general, both physical and mental, everything that we know of its intrinsic character is derived from the mental side’ (1927).

* * * * *


9 January 2011 6:56PM

My first impression of this review is of a mixture of category mistake and outright dogmatism. Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind is a very persuasive demolition of the idea of the ‘ghost in the machine’ which he achieves by a careful unravelling of the puzzlement engendered when one ‘language game’ is taken as paradigmatic for another with a very different grammar. Strawson appears to be immune to the puzzlement. Such that other people have he would solve dogmatically. ‘Because we know the intrinsic nature of consciousness and consciousness is a form of matter’ he writes. He admits this is a difficult thought to grasp, but it appears more of a statement of faith than a sound philosophical proposition.

* * * * *


9 January 2011 8:18PM

Strawson has not so far responded to my invitation to retract his review of my book. But it's clear from messages I've received from colleagues in philosophy that they see him as an embarrassment to their profession: not only an intellectual ass but unscholarly and lazy too. His ideas about panspsychism have made him a laughing stock. His attacks on attempts to resolve the problem of consciousness as a scientific issue -- such as mine -- consign him to the nursery.

* * * * *


10 January 2011 6:04PM

Nicholas Humphrey showing that even an well educated philosopher can commit a logical fallacy - ad hominem in this case.

Congratulations Nick, you are an exemplar to all aspiring philosophy students, for although they may only get a low 2.1 for their essay on the knowledge argument, at least they can live in the epistemic luxury of knowing that they will never make the same argumentative mistake as you.

* * * * *


10 January 2011 7:34PM

Lee, I think you should read my book before commenting on my response to Strawson. In the book I present a radically new theory of what consciousness is and why it evolved. Strawson is so blinkered by his prejudices that he can't see when his own "mysterian" game is up. True, I don't think he's worth much as a philosopher. But if he writes reviews like his, he's putting himself on the line. For the opinions of others see:

* * * * *


11 January 2011 5:27AM


So I understand, if someone gives a bad review, then I can say they're an embarrassment to their profession, and that will count as a legitimate rebuttal? If someone gives a bad review, I can simply respond that the fact that they adhere to panpsychism makes their opinions suspect? This is not an ad hominem? Saying your interlocutor's ideas are laughable to lend credence to the view that their review is bad, this is not a fallacy of relevance?

I'm just lookin' for loopholes; maybe you've found some.

* * * *


11 January 2011 12:41PM

LeeJohn - aspiring philosophy students are also unlikely to make another of Nick Humphrey's errors, which I didn't mention in the review. Humphrey writes:

I feel, therefore I am … The logical corollary of this is If I do not feel, I am not’.

This is perhaps the most famous error in logic. Here is another example of the move: from ‘This is a ripe tomato, therefore it’s red’ to ‘This is not a ripe tomato, therefore it’s not red.’

I'd also like to defend Descartes. Humphrey is wrong to say that ‘I feel, therefore I am’ is an improvement on Descartes’s ‘I think, therefore I am’, for Descartes expressly used the words ‘cogito’ and ‘penser’ (‘think’) very broadly to cover all conscious mental activity including all feelings and sensations.

* * * * *


11 January 2011 12:48PM

PS the exact parallel is the move from ‘This is a ripe tomato, therefore it’s red’ to ‘If this is not a ripe tomato, it’s not red.’

* * * * *


11 January 2011 1:06PM

Glad to see that Strawson would actually like to discuss some philosophy. But in case anyone should think he is making a fair point about my lack of logic, let me quote what I wrote in the book:

[In Aristotle's words] “If someone senses himself or something else in a continuous time, then it is impossible for him not to notice he exists. . . . In all sensation, simple or complex, sharp or dull, the animal . . . feels that it lives.”

Aristotle realized that it is impossible not to notice that I am when I feel - Sentio ergo sum. Descartes, fifteen hundred years later, claimed that it is impossible to doubt that I am when I think --Cogito ergo sum. Yet, as several modern writers have observed, Aristotle’s “Sentio” is much truer to lived experience than Descartes’ “Cogito.” “Sometimes I think and other times I am,” wrote the poet Paul ValĂ©ry. For novelist Milan Kundera, “I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel, therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid, and it applies to everything that's alive.”

The logical corollary of this, and indeed the obvious psychological fact, is that if I do not feel, I am not. Your core self comes into being only as and when you have sensations. And to suggest, as some theorists have, that there could already be the shell of a self --an empty self, waiting in the wings -- ready to lay claim to sensations if and when they arise, is to get things back to front. The philosopher Gottlob Frege misleadingly argued that “an experience is impossible without an experiencer. The inner world presupposes the person whose inner world it is.” But in truth an experiencer is impossible without experience; the existence of the person presupposes the inner world that makes him who he is. Johann Fichte said it better: “What was I before I came to self-consciousness? The natural answer to this question is: I did not exist at all, for I was not an I.”

It should be obvious I'm not using "logical corollary" in the sense of tight logical deduction, but rather in the more colloquial sense (as defined in the dictionary) of "easy inference". As to what Strawson says about Descartes' broad use of cogito, I take his point. But as you'll see, I quote other authors as having made the distinction between cogito and sentio against Descartes

Read on - there's more, including an apology from Humphrey for losing his temper - and then some more attack, as well as some cool and geeky philosophy talk.

Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn interviews Ethan Watters, author of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche

Way too short of an interview - Ethan Watters' Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche is an important book - I would love to have heard a lot more. Watters' assertion that we need more human connection and less pills exactly right in my opinion.

American Hyper-Introspection

Exporting Our (Mental) Illnesses

Photo by Michael Krebber, Respekt Frischlinge

Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn interviews Ethan Watters, author of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche.

KL: There seems to be a massive increase in anxieties, mood disorders and depression. Are we in the middle of an epidemic of mental illness?

EW: Absolutely.

KL: So what is the root cause of this epidemic?

EW: If I had to put my money on one idea then it would be the American notion of the egocentric mind – the idea that you are the captain of your own destiny and that you should be able to chart your own path and find your own happiness and control your own destiny fundamentally without the need for others. I think that this idea in the West – and in America in particular – has led to a great deal of insecurity and a general loading of our psychopathology. I think that the human animal is much more of a group animal than the American idea of the mind suggests it to be.

And of course the ever expanding mental health profession is willing to take that insecurity in our lives and give it any number of different labels. It was anxiety in the 1960s and ‘70s, in the ‘80s and ‘90s it was depression, and who knows what it’s going to be in the next generation. I do think that especially for women, the quickly changing roles have caused a lot of stress. Modernization, breakdowns of kinship and community ties have all led to an increase in the general loading of our psychopathology.

KL: So, in a sense you are saying that instead of pills we need more connection.

EW: Yes. Absolutely. I think that human beings cannot feel at ease mentally if they are disconnected from their sense of a role within a group. I think that the human mind is deeply permeable to the goals and expectations of the people around us, and if we don’t pay attention to that, if we think of ourselves as the captains of our own destiny, always able to pick ourselves up by our own individual bootstraps, then we are likely to experience that sort of postmodern insecurity that leads us to a certain form of American hyper-introspection – always looking inward.

Jeff Mason - Thinking of Nothing (Is Harder than It Seems)

Cool article from Talking Philosophy. Philosophy and neuroscience are beginning to take seriously some Buddhist meditation practices - finally. So here Mason asks if we can think of nothing and stay awake. If only it were that simple - thinking of nothing is very hard, an advanced practice for many people.

On the other hand, Mason does not actually get to clear mind awareness - and there is a reason why this is more challenging than one might wish - see below.

Thinking of Nothing

By Jeff Mason January 17, 2011

Is it possible to think of nothing and remain awake? Is thinking of nothing the same as not thinking at all? Is being conscious of something the same as thinking? Do all thoughts take objects? Where do ‘objects of thought’ come from? Perhaps these are odd questions. Usually there is no need to ask. Thinking is about something or other.

We spend a lot of time thinking about the future. This includes all the mundane things we have to plan for and carry out. It includes thinking about what is coming up for our health, education and job prospects, relationships, the state of the economy, politics, retirement, taxes, death; in short, all the things that people care about that point to the future.

We spend most of the rest of the time thinking about the past. I think of the good times and the bad times, the people I have known. Sometimes an old landscape comes before my imagination, now covered with houses and roads, sometimes a flower I have seen, or the smell of orange blossoms in spring. I think of old loves and passions, the turmoil of youth, the work of middle age, and the reflections of later life. Looking back, we can try to see the meaning hidden in events that were too close and involving to be understood clearly at the time.

Can objects of thought come from the present? I do not see why not. Bringing your attention to sensations or perceptions of objects brings you directly to the present. This is because the living body is rooted in the present in a way that thinking is not. For example, to become conscious of the feeling in your left foot is to come into the present of your body at a particular moment. Similarly, becoming aware of the specific perceptual qualities of an object also brings you to your senses. So if you were to see a rare bird and remember to pay attention to its color, and the flash of its wings, this, too, brings you into the present of your body as perceptual system. All too often one is ‘elsewhere’ when the bird passes by. In addition, there are contemplative practices that fill the present meaning, as in Plato’s intellectual contemplation of the Forms or religious contemplation of sacred symbols. However, such objects are not temporal in the same way as sensations or objects of perception.

Yet more objects of thought come from subjects like logic, mathematics and geometry. The objects of these studies are universal necessary truths that do not depend upon contingent facts for their validation. I can intuit some simple truths like this. For example, I can see a circle is round and a square is rectangular. So, if I take up a position, as Spinoza suggested, “under the aspect of eternity”, I am thinking about something that does not change over time. Every time I look at a circle, I can be sure to see its circular shape. Some objects of thought are timeless.

Have I left anything out? What about “Mindfulness?” Does mindfulness count as thinking about something or nothing? By “mindfulness” I am thinking of a dedicated or “single-minded” mindfulness. Roughly speaking, this form of mindfulness brings one into the present moment without comment or judgment. One is simply in watchfulness over what transpires within one’s field of bodily/mental experience. Mindfulness is word free, a simple awareness of a present actuality that cannot be named, but can be encountered in stillness. Chattering to oneself destroys it. The words that make up our descriptions and explanations distract us from the moment.

One can be mindful in different ways. I am mindful of the pavement so that I do not trip, or mindful of the feelings of others. I am mindful of putting the silverware away, conscious of putting each fork or knife into it proper place. Here, we are still thinking of things, albeit in a mindful way that brings us more fully into the present moment. Nevertheless, discursive or calculative thinking is incompatible with ’single-minded’ mindfulness.

So, can one think of nothing and remain awake? The answer is ‘yes’ in the case of ’single-minded’ mindfulness. It is thinking of nothing in the sense of not categorizing things or making calculations about them. It is neither having abstract truths before one’s imagination, contemplating symbols or images, nor attending to sensations. ‘Single-minded’ mindfulness is neither engaged in the world, nor apart from it. It does not tell itself stories, valuing or negating, wishing or hoping, but receives and accepts whatever is going on as long as it continues; allowing thoughts and feelings, words and images, to exist as soon as they arise and to let them go as soon as they are ready to leave.

It turns out that the brain uses a LOT of energy to push things out of awareness (hmmm . . . I can see it now, a new weight loss strategy based on repression). This article from last fall looks at the metabolic cost of NOT thinking about something.

Why Thinking of Nothing Can Be So Tiring: Brain Wolfs Energy to Stop Thinking

ScienceDaily (Sep. 21, 2010) — Ever wonder why it's such an effort to forget about work while on vacation or to silence that annoying song that's playing over and over in your head?

Mathematicians at Case Western Reserve University may have part of the answer.

They've found that just as thinking burns energy, stopping a thought burns energy -- like stopping a truck on a downhill slope.

"Maybe this explains why it is so tiring to relax and think about nothing," said Daniela Calvetti, professor of mathematics, and one of the authors of a new brain study. Their work is published in an advanced online publication of Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism.

Opening up the brain for detailed monitoring isn't practical. So, to understand energy usage, Calvetti teamed with Erkki Somersalo, professor of mathematics, and Rossana Occhipinti, who used this work to help earn a PhD in math last year and is now a postdoctoral researcher in the department of physiology and biophysics at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine. They developed equations and statistics and built a computer model of brain metabolism.

The computer simulations for this study were obtained by using Metabolica, a software package that Calvetti and Somersalo have designed to study complex metabolic systems. The software produces a numeric rendering of the pathways linking excitatory neurons that transmit thought or inhibitory neurons that put on the brakes with star-like brain cells called astrocytes. Astrocytes cater essential chemicals and functions to both kinds of neurons.

To stop a thought, the brain uses inhibitory neurons to prevent excitatory neurons from passing information from one to another.

"The inhibitory neurons are like a priest saying, 'Don't do it,'" Calvetti said. The "priest neurons" block information by releasing gamma aminobutyric acid, commonly called GABA, which counteracts the effect of the neurotransmitter glutamate by excitatory neurons.

Glutamate opens the synaptic gates. GABA holds the gates closed.

"The astrocytes, which are the Cinderellas of the brain, consume large amounts of oxygen mopping up and recycling the GABA and the glutamate, which is a neurotoxin," Somersalo said.

More oxygen requires more blood flow, although the connection between cerebral metabolism and hemodynamics is not fully understood yet.

All together, "It's a surprising expense to keep inhibition on," he said.

The group plans to more closely compare energy use of excitatory and inhibitory neurons by running simultaneous simulations of both processes.

The researchers are plumbing basic science but their goal is to help solve human problems.

Brain disease or damaging conditions are often difficult to diagnose until advanced stages. Most brain maladies, however, are linked to energy metabolism and understanding what is the norm may enable doctors to detect problems earlier.

The toll inhibition takes may, in particular, be relevant to neurodegenerative diseases. "And that is truly exciting" Calvetti said.

Rossana Occhipinti, Erkki Somersalo, Daniela Calvetti. Energetics of inhibition: insights with a computational model of the human GABAergic neuron–astrocyte cellular complex. Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism, 2010; DOI: 10.1038/jcbfm.2010.107

B Alan Wallace - Look for the Part of Each Person You can Love

Practices to Open the Heart
by B. Alan Wallace,
edited by Zara Houshmand


Dharma Quote of the Week

In his closing discussion on loving-kindness, Buddhaghosa asks: "What is the proximate cause of loving-kindness?" The answer is the observation of lovableness in the person to whom you are attending.

Bring to mind right now someone whom you find lovable. It could be a person you have a romance with, or a child, or a dear friend, or a great teacher--someone to whom your heart would leap like a deer in the forest if this person were to walk through the door, someone whose presence is so lovable that a gladness arises on seeing him or her. If you can sense that in a dear friend, then try to seek out the lovableness of a neutral person. Then, finally, when you break down all the barriers, see it in a person who has done you injury.

It's a great key if you can seek out something to love, even in the enemy. Bear clearly in mind that this does not endorse or embrace evil. The crucial point here is to be able to slice through like a very skilled surgeon, recognizing vicious behavior that we would love to see annihilated as separate from the person who is participating in it. The doctor can be optimistic. A cure is possible: the person is not equivalent to the action or the disposition. Moreover there is something there that we can hold in affection, with warmth. That really seems to be a master key that can break down the final barrier and complete the practice.

One way of approaching this is to look at the person you hold in contempt, and try to find any quality he might share with someone you deeply admire and respect. Is there anything at all noble to be seen, anything that would be akin to what a truly great spiritual being would display? Focus on that: There is something there that you can love. The rest is chaff, that hopefully will be blown away quickly, to everyone's benefit. It is as if you could see a little ray of light from within, knowing that its source is much deeper than the despicable qualities on the outside. That light is what you attend to. (p. 112)

--from The Four Immeasurables: Practices to Open the Heart by B. Alan Wallace, edited by Zara Houshmand, published by Snow Lion Publications

The Four Immeasurables • Now at 5O% off
(Good through January 28th).

TEDxBrussels - Stuart Hameroff - Do we have a quantum Soul?

I used to respect Stuart Hameroff, mostly based on his work with Roger Penrose on a quantum theory of consciousness (the Orch OR model). But also for his annual work (bi-annual here in Tucson) on the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference.

Then he showed up prominently in What the Bleep Do We Know?!

Seriously? A respected consciousness theorist in a film inspired by a greedy woman who channels a "god" from outer space? WTF?!

Anyway, this is interesting, sort of, if you buy into this kind of thing.

TEDxBrussels - Stuart Hameroff - Do we have a quantum Soul?
Dr. Hameroff's research for 35 years has involved consciousness - how the pinkish gray meat between our ears produces the richness of experiential awareness. A clinical anesthesiologist, Hameroff has studied how anesthetic gas molecules selectively erase consciousness via delicate quantum effects on protein dynamics. Following a longstanding interest in the computational capacity of microtubules inside neurons, Hameroff teamed with the eminent British physicist Sir Roger Penrose to develop a controversial quantum theory of consciousness called orchestrated objective reduction (Orch OR) which connects brain processes to fundamental spacetime geometry. Recently Hameroff has explored the theoretical implications of Orch OR for consciousness to exist independent of the body, distributed in deeper, lower, faster scales in non-local, holographic spacetime, raising possible scientific approaches to the soul and spirituality.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dr. Ben Goldacre Talks About the Placebo Effect *NSFW*

Video thumbnail

Funny . . . science-based humor. The NSFW is based on language.
The Guardian newspaper's Bad Science columnist Dr. Ben Goldacre does a stand-up routine about medicine, the placebo effect, and the mysteries of the human body at Nerdstock.

AN Wilson Reviews Karen Armstrong's "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life"

In the Financial Times, AN Wilson reviews Karen Armstrong's Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, 224 pages, ($13.73 in hardcover on Amazon).

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Review by AN Wilson

Published: January 7 2011

An interfaith rally in Manila

Representatives of the Catholic, Buddhist and Muslim faiths at a prayer rally, Manila University, October 2007

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong, The Bodley Head, RRP£12.99, 224 pages

The religious slanging match that divides the media of the western world – Dawkins v Creation, Allah v Hitchens, however you like to define it – disguises the actual state of play in the world at large. Many regular attenders at synagogue or church are agnostic in belief. And many non-practisers of a faith recognise the truth and sagacity of the greatest religious texts of the world.

Karen Armstrong, who has been a Roman Catholic nun, and then a non-believer, and then a sort of theist, is now an ambassador for all that is best in the great religions of the world. She is a guide for those who want to be more compassionate without subscribing to some of the more arcane doctrines and propositions of organised religion. She quotes with approval the Dalai Lama’s saying: “Whether a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.”

Lately, Karen Armstrong won a prize from TED, the lecture and conference organisation committed to “ideas worth spreading” (the letters stand for technology, entertainment and design). Now, with the help of those who could be called, in a benign sense, the usual suspects – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Julia Neuberger et al – Armstrong has launched her Charter for Compassion. This book is a distillation of 12 steps that readers can follow to become more compassionate persons and hence, it is to be hoped, the moulders of a more compassionate world.

Read the whole review.

NPR - New Language Discovered: Prairiedogese

Just listened to this a little while ago - very cool. However, I'm sensing a little more anthropomorphism that I am comfortable with in this type of research. Prairie dogs are highly social animals, so it makes sense that they communicate - I'm just not sure we are not imposing our own perspectives on their communication.

If you learn a second language, there's usually a moment where things click — you overhear some snippet of conversation and suddenly, you just get it, effortlessly.

Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University has spent the past 30 years studying a foreign tongue. But there are no instructional podcasts or evening classes to help him: Slobodchikoff is trying to learn prairie dog.


Credit: 1 Trick Pony

Prairie dogs, a species of rodent native to North America, live together in little villages of underground burrows. They are very social creatures, and when a predator enters their village — most often a dog or a coyote or a hawk — they call out to warn their neighbors. "It sounds kind of like 'chee chee chee chee,' " says Slobodchikoff, kind of like a dog's squeak toy.

When Slobodchikoff first started studying the prairie dogs, he couldn't really tell the difference between the calls for, say, a coyote or a hawk. But the prairie dogs responded to the different calls with specific behaviors, like dropping into their burrows or standing up to get a better view. Slobodchikoff started to think there might be something in those "chees" that he wasn't hearing. So he decided to investigate.

A chirping Gunnison's prairie dog

Sound Analysis

Slobodchikoff and his students went out into the prairie dog villages, hid behind bushes, and stuck out their microphones whenever a human, or a dog, or a coyote, or a hawk passed through. They recorded calls that the prairie dogs made in response to different predators. Then he took his recordings to a lab and used a computer program to analyze the sounds. Any given sound is actually made up of different frequencies and overtone layers on top of one another. Slobodchikoff's computer measured those frequencies and separated out all the component tones and overtones.

What Slobodchikoff discovered was that the calls clustered into different groups, and each cluster had its own signature set of frequencies and tones. Prairie dogs, in other words, don't just have a call for "danger" — they have one call for "human," another for "hawk" and a third for "coyote." They can even differentiate between coyotes and domesticated dogs.

Slobodchikoff can now tell the difference between these different calls using just his ears, no computer needed. But the sophistication of prairie dog "chees" goes even deeper than he initially suspected.

Green Shirt, Blue Shirt

During his analysis, Slobodchikoff noticed something: Even though the human call was consistently different from the other calls, there was still significant variation between the individual human calls. He began to wonder whether the little rodents could possibly be describing their predators — not just differentiating hawk from human, but actually saying something about the particular human or coyote or hawk that was approaching.

So he devised a test. He had four (human) volunteers walk through a prairie dog village, and he dressed all the humans exactly the same — except for their shirts. Each volunteer walked through the community four times: once in a blue shirt, once in a yellow, once in green and once in gray.

He found, to his delight, that the calls broke down into groups based on the color of the volunteer's shirt. "I was astounded," says Slobodchikoff. But what astounded him even more, was that further analysis revealed that the calls also clustered based on other characteristics, like the height of the human. "Essentially they were saying, 'Here comes the tall human in the blue,' versus, 'Here comes the short human in the yellow,' " says Slobodchikoff.

Amazingly, it doesn't stop there. Slobodchikoff's next move was to see if prairie dogs could differentiate between abstract shapes. So he and his students built two wooden towers on each side of a prairie dog village. They then made cardboard cutouts of circles, squares and triangles and ran them out along a wire strung between the two towers, so the shapes sort of floated through the village about three feet from the ground. And the prairie dogs, Slobodchikoff found, were able to tell the difference between the triangle and the circle, but, alas, they made no mention of the difference between the square and the circle.

Putting It In Context

While Slobodchikoff's experiments have been repeated with other groups of prairie dogs, some researchers question whether the prairie dogs are really "describing" the predators they see. But Slobodchikoff continues to believe that communication among prairie dogs and other highly social animals is much more sophisticated than we think.

In fact, he says, the big problem is finding reliable ways to study animal communication. Prairie dogs chatter at each other all day long, just in the course of normal social interaction. "But what does it mean?" Slobodchikoff wonders. "We have no way of getting at it." Until there's an instructional podcast for prairie dog prater, we'll just have to wonder.

Produced by Radiolab's Soren Wheeler and NPR's Jessica Goldstein