Saturday, February 15, 2014

Julian Baggini - The Social Animal

Julian Baggini is the author of The Virtues of the Table (coming in 2014) and the more well-known, The Ego Trick (2012), among many other books. In this review article for The Financial Times, he looks at three different books on the common theme of our human need to social structure.

The Social Animal

By Julian Baggini

Whether in education, ethics or politics, we ignore our social natures at our peril

©Alex Prager - ‘Crowd #2 (Emma)’, 2012. The exhibition ‘Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd’ runs until March 9 2014 at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC

Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, by Matthew Lieberman, OUP, RRP£18.99/Crown, RRP$26, 384 pages

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua Greene, Atlantic Books, RRP£22/Penguin Press, RRP$29.95, 432 pages

Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, by Martha Nussbaum, Belknap Press, RRP£25/$35, 480 pages

Human beings are born social. Evolution has forced women to give birth before their babies could possibly survive by themselves, since our big brains mean any more time in the womb and our heads couldn’t get out.

As life goes on, our social connections continue to be vital. We live in families, tribes and nations, and increasingly as part of an interconnected global community. The problem is that these groups make different and often competing demands on us. We may well be social animals but our habitats are changing, and we haven’t yet adapted to them.

That is the central problem dealt with in three very different books about being with others. Matthew Lieberman approaches the issue from the perspective of his pioneering field of social cognitive neuroscience, the study of how the brain responds to the social world; Joshua Greene looks at it through the lens of moral philosophy and psychology; and Martha Nussbaum brings political philosophy to the party, infusing her discussion with her trademark blend of aesthetic and historical analysis.

Lieberman’s task is in some ways the most straightforward. His aim in Social is to impress upon us just how much we have learnt in recent years about the wiring of our brains. Social thinking is so fundamental that it fills our consciousness whenever we switch off from any pressing task. This “default mode network” activity “precedes any conscious interest in the social world”, having been detected in babies as young as two days.

Most neuroscientists believe we have a dedicated system for social reasoning, quite different to the one that is used for non-social thinking. What’s more, when one system is on, the other turns off. Lieberman explains how the social system fulfils three core tasks. First, it must make connections with others, which involves feeling social pains and pleasures, such as those of rejection or belonging. Second, it must develop mind-reading skills, in order to know what others are thinking, so as to predict their behaviour and act appropriately. Finally, it must use these abilities to harmonise with others, so as to thrive safely in the social world.

Peering into the skull leads to some intriguing observations. For example, Lieberman says that brains “experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain”, and that some brain scans of social and physical pain are indistinguishable. Most surprisingly, taking paracetamol appears to lessen both. The visceral nature of emotional hurt might well explain why one survey found that more people feared public speaking than death, or why languages around the world use metaphors such as a broken heart, a punch in the gut or a slap in the face.

This isn’t just fascinating for its own sake. Lieberman has a social and political purpose. The contemporary western world just doesn’t take enough account of our fundamentally social nature. “We are square (social) pegs being forced into round (nonsocial) holes,” he says. Part of the blame for this lands on the enlightenment idea of the autonomous rational agent. This individualism is so ingrained in the west that what eastern cultures and Lieberman call “harmonising” is more often thought of as “conforming”, with all the negative connotations that entails.

“Some day we will look back and wonder how we ever had lives, work and schools that weren’t guided by the principles of the social brain,” he says. In the book’s last chapters he makes some suggestions for how we might reach this truly enlightened age, some more credible than others. In education, he says we must find a way to “stop making the social brain the enemy during class time”. That makes sense but I’m not sure I like the sound of “communication classes” replacing English. Some employers might welcome the study that found reminding people of how their work helped others improved performance more than cash incentives – but only if there is such a fact to be reminded of. As for his idea that apartment blocks should have social organisers and more communal space, I’m sure I’m not the only one who shudders at the prospect of living in a grown-up version of a student hall of residence.

While Lieberman presents a sunny picture of the potential of unlocking the social brain, in Moral Tribes Joshua Greene exposes a serious problem with its wiring. Our moral brains were designed to solve the problem of “Me versus Us”. It does this by creating emotions such as guilt, shame and loyalty, all of which are necessary to keep our narrow selfishness in check, so that we can reap the benefits of co-operation.

Evolution has thus made us tribal. On our crowded planet today, however, our biggest problem is that of “Us versus Them”, and tribalism just makes it worse. “Our moral brains evolved for co-operation within groups”, he says, but they “did not evolve for co-operation between groups”. This is what Greene calls “The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality”: what our intuition tells us is morally right is often very wrong, if we want to live peacefully with those who hold different values.

The good news is that “being wired for tribalism does not mean being hardwired for tribalism”, a vital distinction that is often missed when people write about how the brain determines all that we do. “Morality can do things it did not evolve (biologically) to do,” says Greene. How can it do this? By switching from the intuitive “automatic mode” that underpins our gut reactions to the calculating, rational “manual mode”. This, for Greene, means embracing utilitarianism, “the native philosophy of the manual mode”. Utilitarianism takes the idea that “happiness is what matters, and everyone’s happiness counts the same”, generating the simple three-word maxim, “maximise happiness impartially”.

Greene is not the first to think that he has found “a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share” and that those who disagree are simply not being rational enough. Many a philosopher will raise an eyebrow at his claim that “the only truly compelling objection to utilitarianism is that it gets the intuitively wrong answers in certain cases”.

At least one strong objection is suggested by what Greene himself says. He knows full well that the kind of absolutely impartial perspective demanded by utilitarianism – in which the interests of your own child, partner or friends count for no more than any others – “is simply incompatible with the life for which our brains were designed”. Greene takes this as a flaw of human beings, not his preferred moral theory. But when someone, for example, dedicates a book to his wife, as Greene does, this does not reflect a failure to be appropriately objective. A world in which people showed no such preferences would be an inhuman, not an ideal, one. A morality that values human flourishing, as Greene thinks it should, should put our particular attachments at its core, not view them as “species-typical moral limitations” to be overcome.

If Greene overreaches, he achieves a great deal in the attempt. This is an important synthesising work of great depth and breadth. Time and again he nails what is centrally important, such as in his observation that “The problem is that we’ve been looking for universal moral principles that feel right, and there may be no such thing.” He also makes it clear how people can pursue their own interests while being genuinely motivated by justice. “Groups can have selfish reasons for favouring some moral values over others,” he says, naming this phenomenon “biased fairness”.

Having long argued for the importance of emotion in ethics, Martha Nussbaum must be pleased to see these distinguished peers rallying to the cause. In Political Emotions, she argues more specifically for the importance of love in politics. She is well aware that many liberal-minded intellectuals are wary about bringing too much emotion into the public square but she argues persuasively that “ceding the terrain of emotion-shaping to antiliberal forces gives them a huge advantage in the people’s hearts and risks making people think of liberal values as tepid and boring”. The political cultivation of emotions is needed “to engender and sustain strong commitment to worthy projects that require effort and sacrifice”.

Nussbaum makes the general point eloquently and persuasively but her lengthy, at times repetitive, elaboration of it is not usually as compelling. She advocates an inclusive patriotism, for example, arguing that the nation is “a necessary intermediary between the ego and the whole of humanity”. As evidence of the possibility of such a benign belonging she examines in detail not only the speeches but also sometimes the dress and demeanour of Washington, Lincoln, King, Gandhi and Nehru, all of whom “understood the need to touch citizens’ hearts and to inspire, deliberately, strong emotions”. But these were exceptional people talking at exceptional times in their countries’ histories, and such cherry-picking is also evident elsewhere. She acknowledges, for instance, that “patriotic emotion continually needs critical examination” but doesn’t take seriously enough the problem that flag-waving tends to make this more difficult, with dissenters dismissed as unpatriotic.

Some other sections are not so much overlong as largely redundant. She doesn’t need contentious psychoanalytic ideas about the role of narcissism in child development to make her point about its pernicious influence in adult life, and nor does there seem to be any real insight into human affairs from a discussion of compassion among animals. As is often the case with Nussbaum, the reader is left with the sense of a good, insightful thin book trapped in the body of a fat and verbose, albeit impressively erudite, one.

Taken together, these books show how the personal is political in ways that have not been fully appreciated. None comes up with entirely convincing solutions to problems of social co-operation, within and between nations, but all help us to understand more clearly how we must take account of our affective as well as rational natures if we are to deal with them. Emotion is not the spanner in the works of a more rational society. It is the engine that powers it, which reason must understand in order to steer it wisely.


Julian Baggini is author of ‘The Ego Trick’. His latest book, ‘The Virtues of the Table’, is published this month by Granta

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014.

Free Will - Sam Harris vs. Dan Dennett

Back in 2012, Sam Harris published a monograph on free will, a complete rejection of the notion of free will based on out-dated research that has been broadly misinterpreted. Free Will was popular among those who associate notions of free will with religious doctrine, but many other people - including some leading neuroscientists - reject the absolutist position Harris presents.

Here is a brief synopsis of the book from its Amazon page:
A BELIEF IN FREE WILL touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an illusion.

In this enlightening book, Sam Harris argues that this truth about the human mind does not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom, but it can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life.
Among those who reject this position is Michael Gazziniga, author of Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (2011). Here is the synopsis of his book:
The father of cognitive neuroscience and author of Human offers a provocative argument against the common belief that our lives are wholly determined by physical processes and we are therefore not responsible for our actions.

A powerful orthodoxy in the study of the brain has taken hold in recent years: Since physical laws govern the physical world and our own brains are part of that world, physical laws therefore govern our behavior and even our conscious selves. Free will is meaningless, goes the mantra; we live in a “determined” world. 

Not so, argues the renowned neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga in this thoughtful, provocative book based on his Gifford Lectures——one of the foremost lecture series in the world dealing with religion, science, and philosophy. Who’s in Charge? proposes that the mind, which is somehow generated by the physical processes of the brain, “constrains” the brain just as cars are constrained by the traffic they create. Writing with what Steven Pinker has called “his trademark wit and lack of pretension,” Gazzaniga shows how determinism immeasurably weakens our views of human responsibility; it allows a murderer to argue, in effect, “It wasn’t me who did it——it was my brain.” Gazzaniga convincingly argues that even given the latest insights into the physical mechanisms of the mind, there is an undeniable human reality: We are responsible agents who should be held accountable for our actions, because responsibility is found in how people interact, not in brains.
An extraordinary book that ranges across neuroscience, psychology, ethics, and the law with a light touch but profound implications, Who’s in Charge? is a lasting contribution from one of the leading thinkers of our time. 
Two more recent arguments in favor of free will, however limited said free will might be, come from Thomas Metzinger ("The myth of cognitive agency: Subpersonal thinking as a cyclically recurring loss of mental autonomy," 2013; Frontiers in Psychology: Perception Science) and Gregory Bonn ("Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: Acting independently with a limited role for consciousness," 2013; Frontiers in Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology). There was also a recent article at The Emotion Machine blog in support of free will.

Okay, so that is some of the background supporting an idea Harris rejects completely and which philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett rejects mostly.

In fact, one of the critics on Harris's books was his fellow atheist (and horseman), Dennett. Here is the beginning of Dennett's LONG reply to Harris's book, followed by the beginning of Harris's reply to Dennett. For the record, I also think Dennett is wrong (again, see the article by Metzinger).

Reflections on FREE WILL

A Review by Daniel C. Dennett

(Photo via Steven Kersting)

Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) is a remarkable little book, engagingly written and jargon-free, appealing to reason, not authority, and written with passion and moral seriousness. This is not an ivory tower technical inquiry; it is in effect a political tract, designed to persuade us all to abandon what he considers to be a morally pernicious idea: the idea of free will. If you are one of the many who have been brainwashed into believing that you have—or rather, are—an (immortal, immaterial) soul who makes all your decisions independently of the causes impinging on your material body and especially your brain, then this is the book for you. Or, if you have dismissed dualism but think that what you are is a conscious (but material) ego, a witness that inhabits a nook in your brain and chooses, independently of external causation, all your voluntary acts, again, this book is for you. It is a fine “antidote,” as Paul Bloom says, to this incoherent and socially malignant illusion. The incoherence of the illusion has been demonstrated time and again in rather technical work by philosophers (in spite of still finding supporters in the profession), but Harris does a fine job of making this apparently unpalatable fact accessible to lay people. Its malignance is due to its fostering the idea of Absolute Responsibility, with its attendant implications of what we might call Guilt-in-the-eyes-of-God for the unfortunate sinners amongst us and, for the fortunate, the arrogant and self-deluded idea of Ultimate Authorship of the good we do. We take too much blame, and too much credit, Harris argues. We, and the rest of the world, would be a lot better off if we took ourselves—our selves—less seriously. We don’t have the kind of free will that would ground such Absolute Responsibility for either the harm or the good we cause in our lives.

All this is laudable and right, and vividly presented, and Harris does a particularly good job getting readers to introspect on their own decision-making and notice that it just does not conform to the fantasies of this all too traditional understanding of how we think and act. But some of us have long recognized these points and gone on to adopt more reasonable, more empirically sound, models of decision and thought, and we think we can articulate and defend a more sophisticated model of free will that is not only consistent with neuroscience and introspection but also grounds a (modified, toned-down, non-Absolute) variety of responsibility that justifies both praise and blame, reward and punishment. We don’t think this variety of free will is an illusion at all, but rather a robust feature of our psychology and a reliable part of the foundations of morality, law and society. Harris, we think, is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

He is not alone among scientists in coming to the conclusion that the ancient idea of free will is not just confused but also a major obstacle to social reform. His brief essay is, however, the most sustained attempt to develop this theme, which can also be found in remarks and essays by such heavyweight scientists as the neuroscientists Wolf Singer and Chris Frith, the psychologists Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, the physicists Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, and the evolutionary biologists Jerry Coyne and (when he’s not thinking carefully) Richard Dawkins.

The book is, thus, valuable as a compact and compelling expression of an opinion widely shared by eminent scientists these days. It is also valuable, as I will show, as a veritable museum of mistakes, none of them new and all of them seductive—alluring enough to lull the critical faculties of this host of brilliant thinkers who do not make a profession of thinking about free will. And, to be sure, these mistakes have also been made, sometimes for centuries, by philosophers themselves. But I think we have made some progress in philosophy of late, and Harris and others need to do their homework if they want to engage with the best thought on the topic.

I am not being disingenuous when I say this museum of mistakes is valuable; I am grateful to Harris for saying, so boldly and clearly, what less outgoing scientists are thinking but keeping to themselves. I have always suspected that many who hold this hard determinist view are making these mistakes, but we mustn’t put words in people’s mouths, and now Harris has done us a great service by articulating the points explicitly, and the chorus of approval he has received from scientists goes a long way to confirming that they have been making these mistakes all along. Wolfgang Pauli’s famous dismissal of another physicist’s work as “not even wrong” reminds us of the value of crystallizing an ambient cloud of hunches into something that can be shown to be wrong. Correcting widespread misunderstanding is usually the work of many hands, and Harris has made a significant contribution.

The first parting of opinion on free will is between compatibilists and incompatibilists. The latter say (with “common sense” and a tradition going back more than two millennia) that free will is incompatible with determinism, the scientific thesis that there are causes for everything that happens. Incompatibilists hold that unless there are “random swerves”[1] that disrupt the iron chains of physical causation, none of our decisions or choices can be truly free. Being caused means not being free—what could be more obvious? The compatibilists deny this; they have argued, for centuries if not millennia, that once you understand what free will really is (and must be, to sustain our sense of moral responsibility), you will see that free will can live comfortably with determinism—if determinism is what science eventually settles on.

Incompatibilists thus tend to pin their hopes on indeterminism, and hence were much cheered by the emergence of quantum indeterminism in 20th century physics. Perhaps the brain can avail itself of undetermined quantum swerves at the sub-atomic level, and thus escape the shackles of physical law! Or perhaps there is some other way our choices could be truly undetermined. Some have gone so far as to posit an otherwise unknown (and almost entirely unanalyzable) phenomenon called agent causation, in which free choices are caused somehow by an agent, but not by any event in the agent’s history. One exponent of this position, Roderick Chisholm, candidly acknowledged that on this view every free choice is “a little miracle”—which makes it clear enough why this is a school of thought endorsed primarily by deeply religious philosophers and shunned by almost everyone else. Incompatibilists who think we have free will, and therefore determinism must be false, are known as libertarians (which has nothing to do with the political view of the same name). Incompatibilists who think that all human choices are determined by prior events in their brains (which were themselves no doubt determined by chains of events arising out of the distant past) conclude from this that we can’t have free will, and, hence, are not responsible for our actions.

This concern for varieties of indeterminism is misplaced, argue the compatibilists: free will is a phenomenon that requires neither determinism nor indeterminism; the solution to the problem of free will lies in realizing this, not banking on the quantum physicists to come through with the right physics—or a miracle. Compatibilism may seem incredible on its face, or desperately contrived, some kind of a trick with words, but not to philosophers. Compatibilism is the reigning view among philosophers (just over 59%, according to the 2009 Philpapers survey) with libertarians coming second with 13% and hard determinists only 12%. It is striking, then, that all the scientists just cited have landed on the position rejected by almost nine out of ten philosophers, but not so surprising when one considers that these scientists hardly ever consider the compatibilist view or the reasons in its favor.

Harris has considered compatibilism, at least cursorily, and his opinion of it is breathtakingly dismissive: After acknowledging that it is the prevailing view among philosophers (including his friend Daniel Dennett), he asserts that “More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology.” This is a low blow, and worse follows: “From both a moral and a scientific perspective, this seems deliberately obtuse.” (18) I would hope that Harris would pause at this point to wonder—just wonder—whether maybe his philosophical colleagues had seen some points that had somehow escaped him in his canvassing of compatibilism. As I tell my undergraduate students, whenever they encounter in their required reading a claim or argument that seems just plain stupid, they should probably double check to make sure they are not misreading the “preposterous” passage in question. It is possible that they have uncovered a howling error that has somehow gone unnoticed by the profession for generations, but not very likely. In this instance, the chances that Harris has underestimated and misinterpreted compatibilism seem particularly good, since the points he defends later in the book agree right down the line with compatibilism; he himself is a compatibilist in everything but name!

Seriously, his main objection to compatibilism, issued several times, is that what compatibilists mean by “free will” is not what everyday folk mean by “free will.” Everyday folk mean something demonstrably preposterous, but Harris sees the effort by compatibilists to make the folks’ hopeless concept of free will presentable as somehow disingenuous, unmotivated spin-doctoring, not the project of sympathetic reconstruction the compatibilists take themselves to be engaged in. So it all comes down to who gets to decide how to use the term “free will.” Harris is a compatibilist about moral responsibility and the importance of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, but he is not a compatibilist about free will since he thinks “free will” has to be given the incoherent sense that emerges from uncritical reflection by everyday folk. He sees quite well that compatibilism is “the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will” (p. 16) but adds:
However, the ‘free will’ that compatibilists defend is not the free will that most people feel they have. (p. 16)
First of all, he doesn’t know this. This is a guess, and suitably expressed questionnaires might well prove him wrong. That is an empirical question, and a thoughtful pioneering attempt to answer it suggests that Harris’s guess is simply mistaken.[2] The newly emerging field of experimental philosophy (or “X-phi”) has a rather unprepossessing track record to date, but these are early days, and some of the work has yielded interesting results that certainly defy complacent assumptions common among philosophers. The study by Nahmias et al. 2005 found substantial majorities (between 60 and 80%) in agreement with propositions that are compatibilist in outlook, not incompatibilist.

Harris’s claim that the folk are mostly incompatibilists is thus dubious on its face, and even if it is true, maybe all this shows is that most people are suffering from a sort of illusion that could be replaced by wisdom. After all, most people used to believe the sun went around the earth. They were wrong, and it took some heavy lifting to convince them of this. Maybe this factoid is a reflection on how much work science and philosophy still have to do to give everyday laypeople a sound concept of free will. We’ve not yet succeeded in getting them to see the difference between weight and mass, and Einsteinian relativity still eludes most people. When we found out that the sun does not revolve around the earth, we didn’t then insist that there is no such thing as the sun (because what the folk mean by “sun” is “that bright thing that goes around the earth”). Now that we understand what sunsets are, we don’t call them illusions. They are real phenomena that can mislead the naive.

To see the context in which Harris’s criticism plays out, consider a parallel. The folk concept of mind is a shambles, for sure: dualistic, scientifically misinformed and replete with miraculous features—even before we get to ESP and psychokinesis and poltergeists. So when social scientists talk about beliefs or desires and cognitive neuroscientists talk about attention and memory they are deliberately using cleaned-up, demystified substitutes for the folk concepts. Is this theology, is this deliberately obtuse, countenancing the use of concepts with such disreputable ancestors? I think not, but the case can be made (there are mad dog reductionist neuroscientists and philosophers who insist that minds are illusions, pains are illusions, dreams are illusions, ideas are illusions—all there is is just neurons and glia and the like). The same could be said about color, for example. What everyday folk think colors are—if you pushed them beyond their everyday contexts in the paint store and picking out their clothes—is hugely deluded; that doesn’t mean that colors are an illusion. They are real in spite of the fact that, for instance, atoms aren’t colored.
Read more . . . .

And then here is the reply by Harris to Dennett's schooling of him on philosophy and free will (and it really does feel like a "master" painstaking trying to get through to a stubborn "student" who refuses to see beyond his own theory).

The Marionette’s Lament

A Response to Daniel Dennett

(Photo via Max Boschini)

Dear Dan—

I’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to review Free Will at such length. Publicly engaging me on this topic is certainly preferable to grumbling in private. Your writing is admirably clear, as always, which worries me in this case, because we appear to disagree about a great many things, including the very nature of our disagreement.

I want to begin by reminding our readers—and myself—that exchanges like this aren’t necessarily pointless. Perhaps you need no encouragement on that front, but I’m afraid I do. In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind. This is one of the great scandals of intellectual life: The virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead. The perpetual stalemate one encounters in public debates is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality—and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned the participants. I hope you and I don’t give our readers further cause for cynicism on this front.

Unfortunately, your review of my book doesn’t offer many reasons for optimism. It is a strange document—avuncular in places, but more generally sneering. I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running.
I am not being disingenuous when I say this museum of mistakes is valuable; I am grateful to Harris for saying, so boldly and clearly, what less outgoing scientists are thinking but keeping to themselves. I have always suspected that many who hold this hard determinist view are making these mistakes, but we mustn’t put words in people’s mouths, and now Harris has done us a great service by articulating the points explicitly, and the chorus of approval he has received from scientists goes a long way to confirming that they have been making these mistakes all along. Wolfgang Pauli’s famous dismissal of another physicist’s work as “not even wrong” reminds us of the value of crystallizing an ambient cloud of hunches into something that can be shown to be wrong. Correcting widespread misunderstanding is usually the work of many hands, and Harris has made a significant contribution.
I hope you will recognize that your beloved Rapoport’s rules have failed you here. If you have decided, according to the rule, to first mention something positive about the target of your criticism, it will not do to say that you admire him for the enormity of his errors and the folly with which he clings to them despite the sterling example you’ve set in your own work. Yes, you may assert, “I am not being disingenuous when I say this museum of mistakes is valuable,” but you are, in truth, being disingenuous. If that isn’t clear, permit me to spell it out just this once: You are asking the word “valuable” to pass as a token of praise, however faint. But according to you, my book is “valuable” for reasons that I should find embarrassing. If I valued it as you do, I should rue the day I wrote it (as you would, had you brought such “value” into the world). And it would be disingenuous of me not to notice how your prickliness and preening appears: You write as one protecting his academic turf. Behind and between almost every word of your essay—like some toxic background radiation—one detects an explosion of professorial vanity.

And yet many readers, along with several of our friends and colleagues, have praised us for airing our differences in so civil a fashion—the implication being that religious demagogues would have declared mutual fatwas and shed each other’s blood. Well, that is a pretty low bar, and I don’t think we should be congratulated for having cleared it. The truth is that you and I could have done a much better job—and produced something well worth reading—had we explored the topic of free will in a proper conversation. Whether we called it a “conversation” or a “debate” would have been immaterial. And, as you know, I urged you to engage me that way on multiple occasions and up to the eleventh hour. But you insisted upon writing your review. Perhaps you thought that I was hoping to spare myself a proper defenestration. Not so. I was hoping to spare our readers a feeling of boredom that surpasseth all understanding.

As I expected, our exchange will now be far less interesting or useful than a conversation/debate would have been. Trading 10,000-word essays is simply not the best way to get to the bottom of things. If I attempt to correct every faulty inference and misrepresentation in your review, the result will be deadly to read. Nor will you be able to correct my missteps, as you could have if we were exchanging 500-word volleys. I could heap misconception upon irrelevancy for pages—as you have done—and there would be no way to stop me. In the end, our readers will be left to reconcile a book-length catalogue of discrepancies.

Let me give you an example, just to illustrate how tedious it is to untie these knots. You quote me as saying:
If determinism is true, the future is set—and this includes all our future states of mind and our subsequent behavior. And to the extent that the law of cause and effect is subject to indeterminism—quantum or otherwise—we can take no credit for what happens. There is no combination of these truths that seems compatible with the popular notion of free will.
You then announce that “the sentence about indeterminism is false”—a point you seek to prove by recourse to an old thought experiment involving a “space pirate” and a machine that amplifies quantum indeterminacy. After which, you lovingly inscribe the following epitaph onto my gravestone:
These are not new ideas. For instance I have defended them explicitly in 1978, 1984, and 2003. I wish Harris had noticed that he contradicts them here, and I’m curious to learn how he proposes to counter my arguments.
You see, dear reader, Harris hasn’t done his homework. What a pity…. But you have simply misread me, Dan—and that entire page in your review was a useless digression. I am not saying that the mere addition of indeterminism to the clockwork makes responsibility impossible. I am saying, as you have always conceded, that seeking to ground free will in indeterminism is hopeless, because truly random processes are precisely those for which we can take no responsibility. Yes, we might still express our beliefs and opinions while being gently buffeted by random events (as you show in your thought experiment), but if our beliefs and opinions were themselves randomly generated, this would offer no basis for human responsibility (much less free will). Bored yet?

You do this again and again in your review. And when you are not misreading me, you construct bad analogies—to sunsets, color vision, automobiles—none of which accomplish their intended purpose. Some are simply faulty (that is, they don’t run through); others make my point for me, demonstrating that you have missed my point (or, somehow, your own).
Read more . . . .

Friday, February 14, 2014

4 Ways to Make Your Brain Work Better - Chris Mooney at Mother Jones

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013) and her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Boston Globe, The Observer, Scientific American MIND, and Scientific American, among numerous other publications.

She is the guest for this episode of the Inquiring Minds Podcast with Chris Mooney and Indre Viskontas (via Mother Jones).

4 Ways to Make Your Brain Work Better

The New Yorker's Maria Konnikova explains the science behind why we need to sleep more, waste less time on the internet, and stop multitasking.

—By Chris Mooney
Friday, Feb. 7, 2014


You're a busy person. Keeping up with your job, plus your life, has you constantly racing. It doesn't help that when working, you're distracted not only by your mobile devices, but also by your computer. You average 10 tabs open in your browser at any one time, and you compulsively click amongst them. One's your email, which never stops flowing in. At the end of the day, you sleep less than you know you should, but as you tell yourself, there's just never enough time.

If this is how you live, then Maria Konnikova has a simple message for you: Pause, step back, and recognize the actual costs of your habits. A psychology Ph.D. and popular writer for The New Yorker, Konnikova circles back, again and again, to a common theme: how we thwart our own happiness, and even sometimes harm our brains, in our quest for a simply unattainable level of productivity. "The way that we've evolved, the way our minds work, the way we work at our most optimal selves, is really not the way we have to operate today," Konnikova explained on this week's Inquiring Minds podcast. "I feel like I'm fighting a losing battle, but I hope that if there are enough voices out there, someone will finally hear that, 'Hey, this attempt at hyperproductivity is making us much less productive.'"

Based on Konnikova's writings, here are four ways that we can change our lifestyles so as to also improve our brains and how they function:

Maria Konnikova (Margaret Singer and Max Freedman.)

Sleep more. Science still has a lot to learn about how sleep deprivation affects us. But the research is starting to look pretty grave, especially in light of new studies (Konnikova has written about them here) suggesting that a crucial function of sleep is to purge the brain of biochemical waste products that are the result of conscious brain activity. This means that not sleeping enough could be contributing to the buildup of harmful proteins like beta-amyloids, which could in turn predispose us to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

So how do you fix your bad sleep habits? Not easily: It requires nothing less than a major lifestyle change. "You can't just think that, 'Well, I'm not ever going to get enough sleep, but on the weekends I'll sleep in and I'll be okay,'" says Konnikova. "It doesn't work that way." Recovering from one night with too little sleep is easy, but recovering from chronic sleep deprivation requires nothing less than chronic sleep, er, restoration.

How much sleep? People vary, but the National Sleep Foundation says adults need seven to nine hours per night.

Stop being an internet junkie. You've probably wondered what the internet is doing to your brain. And especially if you can actually remember the era before the internet's existence, you've probably noticed how the widespread availability of things like email has changed you. It might even have made you into a kind of addict, habituated to constant switching from task, to task, to task: Facebooking, tweeting, emailing, reading…and whatever else arises.

Using the internet in this frenetic way is just bad for us, says Konnikova. "Where the problem comes in is when we start to do it all simultaneously, when we start to multitask and really very quickly switch our attention from an article, to a tweet, to a Facebook post, and we're just all over the place," she explains. "Because that's very cognitively demanding, and that makes us less able to engage with what we're reading and what we're doing, and it also just makes us exhausted and worse at the tasks that we do have to accomplish."

So how do you use the internet better? Set rules for yourself, advises Konnikova: a half-hour of email, followed by a half-hour of Twitter, and so on. You can force yourself to have this kind of discipline, or, you can use a tool to help you with it. To get writing done, Konnikova herself uses an app that blocks you from using the internet for a set period of time, forcing you to work and focus.


Put a check on your multitasking. Our problems with using the internet productively are just a subset of a broader problem: multitasking. We have a culture that encourages it, even though it forces us to use our brains suboptimally (at best). "How many job descriptions have you seen where it says, 'Good at multitasking,' or, 'We need someone who's a good multitasker'?" asks Konnikova. "It's just this mindset that this is a very very good thing."

It isn't. Konnikova wrote recently about how open offices, which are widespread, distract us and leave us stressed out and less productive. It's because they thwart our ability to focus; the space itself is structured for multitasking and a lot of distractions and interruptions. And yet, being able to focus is closely related to happiness. "There's really interesting work showing that when you're focused on what you're doing, you become happier, even if what you're doing is incredibly boring," says Konnikova. "And even if you're doing something very fun, it will be less fun for you if you're not paying attention to it."

So how do you stop multitasking? First, try to make a habit of noticing how much you do it, Konnikova says. And instead, as with the internet, try to discipline yourself, so that you do only one thing at a time.

Practice mindfulness. But there's also a broader solution. It's called mindfulness, and it's outlined in detail in Konnikova's bestselling book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

The most striking thing about Arthur Conan Doyle's character is his supreme attentiveness, his ability to perceive the details that everybody else misses. And yet Konnikova notes that Holmes solves his crimes, in significant part, through inactivity. "He often just sits in his armchair and does a lot of nothing," says Konnikova. "He has his eyes closed, or is playing the violin, but often just does nothing at all." It is this rest, this calm, that enables Holmes to be such a hyperfocused and attentive detective when he's actually on the case.

So how do you think like Sherlock Holmes? Konnikova says you need to mimic the detective in his armchair: Take 10 to 15 minutes each day, set them aside, and designate them as your time for not doing anything. "All you really need to do, for instance, is sit in your chair in your office, and close your eyes for 10 minutes, and focus on your breath, just on the ins and outs of your breath," says Konnikova. "And that's it."

Research shows that such mindfulness exercises help improve your attention, your focus. "It's like a muscle, it starts growing stronger, bigger," says Konnikova. "You start being able to focus much more easily, and for longer stretches of time."

But, you might be thinking, making these changes would be so hard! Yet that very way of thinking is itself the problem. "It's this mindset that this is the way we need to operate, but it's really counterproductive," says Konnikova. "And what we don't realize is that it's making us less creative, it's making us unhappy, and it's not using humans to the best of their capacity on both a mental and physical level."

You can listen to the full interview with Maria Konnikova here:

This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a report by Climate Desk's Tim McDonnell on how climate change is threatening winter sports, and a special guest appearance by science communicator Dr. Kiki Sanford, who helps us break down what happened in the widely watched Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham creationism debate earlier this week.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" shows on iTunes—you can learn more here.

Omnivore - What the Social Sciences Have to Tell Us

From Bookforum's Omnivore blog, this collection of links deals with the social sciences - everything from book reviews, the new journals, to poststructuralism and sociolinguistics.

What the social sciences have to tell us

Feb 12 2014  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Neurophenomenology" by Evan Thompson

This very short talk by philosopher and cognitive scientist Evan Thompson (author of Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind [2010], co-editor of Self, No Self?: Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions [2013], and co-author with Francisco Varela of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience [1992]) is from the We Are Our Brains roundtable, part of the Peter Wall Institute International Research Roundtable series. Thompson's forth-coming book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy and will be published as a trade book by Columbia University Press in 2014.

"Neurophenomenology" by Evan Thompson

Published on Feb 5, 2014
Title: Neurophenomenology
Speaker: Evan Thompson

This video was recorded on October 23-25, 2013 during a Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies International Roundtable, "We Are Our Brains," led by Principal Investigator Dr. Peter B. Reiner (Department of Psychiatry, UBC and the National Core for Neuroethics).

Adult Neurogenesis in Brain Repair: Cellular Plasticity vs. Cellular Replacement

In this interesting new article from Frontiers in Neuroscience: Neurogenesis, the authors offer an opinion piece on the limitations and potentials of cellular replacement and cellular plasticity in the context of brain repair - with a special focus on remote plasticity.

Full Citation: 
Quadrato G, Elnaggar MY, and Di Giovanni S. (2014, Feb 12). Adult neurogenesis in brain repair: cellular plasticity vs. cellular replacement. Frontiers in Neuroscience: Neurogenesis; 8:17. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2014.00017

Adult neurogenesis in brain repair: cellular plasticity vs. cellular replacement

Giorgia Quadrato [1], Mohamed Y. Elnaggar [1,2] and Simone Di Giovanni [1,3]
1. Laboratory for NeuroRegeneration and Repair, Center for Neurology, Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research, University of Tuebingen, Tuebingen, Germany
2. Graduate School for Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience, University of Tuebingen, Tuebingen, Germany
3. Molecular Neuroregeneration, Division of Brain Sciences, Department of Medicine, Imperial College London, London, UK


The last decade has seen an exponential increase in research directed to the field of regenerative medicine aimed at using stem cells in the repair of damaged organs including the brain. The therapeutic use of stem cells for neurological disorders includes either the modulation of endogenous stem cells resident in the brain or the introduction of exogenous stem cells into the brain. The final goal of these attempts is to replace damaged dysfunctional cells with new functional neurons. Nevertheless, there are multiple concerns regarding the therapeutic efficacy of the cellular replacement approach both from endogenous and exogenous sources. Indeed the extensive heterogeneity of neuronal subtypes in the brain makes it difficult to drive stem cells to differentiate to specific neuronal subtypes (Hawrylycz et al., 2012), which is a major requirement for regaining the lost neurological function. Furthermore, the fact that the brain is a very complex 3D structure with highly complex hierarchically organized connections raises a question on whether new neurons formed outside the brain niche can be functionally integrated into the preexisting circuitry. An alternative approach to cellular replacement can be enhancing plasticity in newborn neurons in the neurogenic niche to take over a function of a remote brain region. This strategy may have a yet unknown potential as it overcomes the limitations of the cellular replacement approach. In this opinion paper, we discuss limitations and potential of cellular replacement and cellular plasticity in the context of brain repair with a special focus on remote plasticity.

Cellular Replacement Following Neurological Disorders

Cellular replacement upon brain damage involves two main strategies: (i) pharmacological or genetic modulation of endogenous neural stem cells (NSCs) and (ii) transplantation of exogenous stem cells.

NSCs resident in the adult brain are characterized by the ability to self-renew their own pool through cell proliferation and by the potential to differentiate into the three main cell types of Central nervous system (CNS): neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes (Gage, 2000).

Active neurogenesis occurs throughout adulthood in primates and various mammals including; rodents, rabbits, monkeys, and humans (Ming and Song, 2005; Martino et al., 2011). New functional neurons are produced under physiological conditions in two neurogenic niches: the subventricular zone (SVZ) in the lateral wall of the lateral ventricles and the subgranular zone (SGZ) of the dentate gyrus (DG) in the hippocampus (Gage, 2000). Moreover, various studies have shown the presence of “local” progenitors residing in various brain regions outside the stem cell niches including; neocortex, cerebellum, striatum, amygdala, substantia nigra, and hypothalamus (Ming and Song, 2005; Martino et al., 2011; Crociara et al., 2013).

Endogenous cellular replacement requires either: (i) increase in the number of newborn neurons in the neurogenic niches as compared to physiological conditions, (ii) migration of new neurons from the neurogenic niches to the damaged area, or (iii) production of the new neurons from local progenitor cells in the vicinity of the damaged brain. Indeed, various reports have demonstrated the occurrence of these three phenomenona following brain damage. Specifically, it has been shown that neurogenesis can be upregulated in neurogenic niches in response to different brain insults including ischemia (Jin et al., 2001; Harry, 2008; Osman et al., 2011), seizures (Parent and Lowenstein, 2002; Smith et al., 2005) and traumatic brain injury (Dash et al., 2001; Harry, 2008). Similarly, migration of newly generated neurons to the site of damage has been reported following brain ischemia (Arvidsson et al., 2002; Thored et al., 2007). Furthermore, neurogenesis following brain insults has been also reported in areas outside the neurogenic niches including the cortex, striatum, hippocampus, subcortical white matter, and corticospinal system (Sohur et al., 2006).

Although the reactive increase in neurogenesis that occurs following injury may indicate an attempt of the damaged brain to self-repair, this response fails in promoting functional recovery and in producing adequate amounts of newborn neurons that can survive and integrate.

Therefore increasing the number of functional neural precursor cells by increasing their survival rate, via pharmacological or genetic modulation, could be a promising strategy for brain repair.

The other cellular replacement strategy, following neurological insults, involves the transplantation of stem cells from exogenous sources into the damaged brain. The most commonly used stem cells are immortalized human neural stem cell lines, mesenchymal stem cells, embryonic stem cells, neuronal progenitors isolated from rodents or humans, and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) (Liu et al., 2009; Martino et al., 2011). The therapeutic potential of the transplanted stem cells have been validated in various models of diseases and injuries (Shihabuddin et al., 2000; Pluchino et al., 2003; Cummings et al., 2005; Jin et al., 2005). Although varying degrees of functional recovery have been observed, it does not always correlate with the number of newly integrated neurons resulting from the differentiation of the transplanted stem cells. Indeed there is general agreement that transplanted stem cells play various other roles beside cellular replacement in the diseased/damaged brain including neuroprotection and reduction of the inflammatory response via a bystander effect (Martino and Pluchino, 2006; Martino et al., 2011).

Limitation of the Cellular Replacement Approach

Stem cells-based cellular replacement from endogenous or exogenous sources has many limitations including those stemming from the heterogeneity of neuronal subtypes and the highly complex structure of the brain. During the development of the nervous system different types of neurons are produced in highly controlled manner both temporally and spatially. This process is conserved in different species and fate determination of neural progenitor cells result in several postmitotic progenies with distinct phenotypes (Cepko et al., 1996). Importantly, the molecular signature and the transcriptional regulation of different neuronal subtypes vary enormously between different anatomical regions in the brain (Hawrylycz et al., 2012) limiting the differentiation of transplanted stem cells into specific brain regions and neuronal subtypes. One way to overcome this limitation is to develop techniques to direct the differentiation of neural progenitor cells to a specific phenotype. This solution is not easily applicable due to the limited potential of adult neural progenitor cells to differentiate to most neuronal subtypes. Indeed the wide heterogeneity of neuronal subtypes in the central nervous system originates during embryonic development from earlier neural precursors cells.

The functional integration of the newly generated neurons in the existing brain circuits is another major limitation to the cell replacement approach for transplanted cells and for cells produced outside the neurogenic niche. This can be attributed to the fact that the brain is composed of highly entangled set of cells and connections with precise stable spatial organization. The introduction of new neurons in the existing brain structure requires complex processes including: (i) directed migration of the new neurons to the proper site of integration and (ii) directed neurite-growth over long distances, which have not been demonstrated in the adult brain outside the neurogenic niches.

Therefore, the introduction of new neurons directly to the site of damage in the brain either by exogenous or endogenous sources faces major challenges such as differentiation to the correct subtype and integration. This leaves to date the newborn neurons in the neurogenic niches as the only cell type shown to be able to functionally integrate in the adult brain circuitry.

Consequently, one fundamental question is how we can make use of the reactive pool of neural precursor cells residing in the neurogenic niches to take over the function of a remote damaged brain region. In order to address this question it will be important to gain knowledge from the plastic properties of the older brothers of neural stem cells, the postmitotic neurons.

Cellular Plasticity Following Neurological Disorders

Postmitotic neurons exhibit a certain degree of plasticity following brain ischemia and traumatic brain injuries. Indeed, despite the permanent structural damage and cellular loss, functional recovery is observed to a certain extent following brain damage (Chollet et al., 1991; Cao et al., 1998).

Neuroplasticity is defined as the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new functional synaptic connections throughout life. Continuous remodeling of neuronal connections and cortical maps in response to our experiences occurs to enable neurons to adapt to new situations (Taupin, 2008). Reorganization of brain networks plays also an important role allowing healthy neurons to compensate for damaged neurons (Sbordone et al., 1995; Cramer and Bastings, 2000; Demeurisse, 2000; Weidner et al., 2001). For instance, this functional compensation is evident following brain injury in the hemisphere contralateral to the lesion site. The contralateral hemisphere is reorganized and new connections are formed between intact neurons to take over some of the functions of the injured hemisphere (Takatsuru et al., 2009, 2011). Recent advances in functional imaging, e.g., positron emission tomographic and functional magnetic resonance imaging have indeed confirmed the occurrence of this reorganization (Calautti and Baron, 2003; Butefisch et al., 2006; Crosson et al., 2007; Ward, 2007). There is also clinical evidence that reorganization of the somatosensory cortex contralateral to the lesion site in stroke patients plays important role in the compensation of impaired functions (Chollet et al., 1991; Cao et al., 1998). Furthermore reorganization of brain networks has been reported in patients suffering from aphasia (speechlessness) in which the non-dominant right-hemisphere takes over the function of Wernicke's area (speech center normally present in the dominant left hemisphere) (Weiller et al., 1995).

Despite the consistent reports confirming circuitry reorganization in the brain following injury, the molecular and electrophysiological mechanisms controlling this fascinating phenomenon remain still elusive.

Another unexplored aspect of compensatory plasticity includes the question of whether newborn neurons are involved in the reorganization of brain circuitry that occurs following brain injury. However, because of their peculiar cellular and plastic properties, we believe that newborn neurons in the neurogenic niches are important players in this phenomenon.

Indeed it has been shown that newly generated neurons, as compared to mature granule cells, exhibit a lower threshold for induction of LTP (Schmidt-Hieber et al., 2004). This property, facilitating synaptic plasticity, makes young neurons ideally suited to adapt to the reorganization of brain networks and to take over a function that is normally played by other brain regions.

Importantly, following brain ischemia, newborn neurons react with a plastic response enhancing not only their proliferation rate but also exhibiting increased spine density and dendritic complexity as compared to resident hippocampal neurons (Liu et al., 1998; Niv et al., 2012).

So far it has not been investigated whether this plastic response includes changes in the pattern of brain connectivity of newborn neurons. However the recent application of retrograde monosynaptic tracing to study the connectome of the newly generated neurons (Deshpande et al., 2013) in neurogenic niches provides us with tools to address this important question.

The next step following the demonstration of the involvement of newborn neurons in brain reorganization would be to increase their plastic potential by increasing their number. This may be achieved, taking advantage of the increase in the proliferation rate of NPCs that normally occurs upon brain damage (Liu et al., 1998), by increasing their integration and survival rate.

Previous work has described a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors required for newborn neurons survival (see Table 1). The modulation of such factors, important to regulate the survival and integration of newborn neurons in physiological condition, may become even more crucial following brain damage. Recently, cytoskeleton regulators such as Rho kinase and Rho-GTPases have been included among the most important intrinsic regulators of the adult neurogenesis (Christie et al., 2013; Vadodaria and Jessberger, 2013; Vadodaria et al., 2013). Interestingly, the modulation of the Rho-Pathway is also critical for growth cone collapse, neurite outgrowth and regeneration after neurotrauma in the CNS (McKerracher et al., 2012), making it an ideal target to enhance both cellular plasticity and survival. In this perspective the identification of molecular mechanisms that can be targeted to increase both the number and the plasticity of newborn neurons can increase the probability of functional reorganization of brain networks following injury.


Table 1. Factors required for newborn neurons survival and integration in physiological conditions. 


The vast amount of information that have been gathered in the recent years about the use of neural stem cells in brain repair indicates that cellular replacement alone cannot lead to effective restoration of function due to the complex anatomical, histological, and functional organization of the brain.

In this perspective, due to their plastic potential and their innate ability to functionally integrate in brain circuits, newborn neurons produced inside the neurogenic niches are the most suitable targets for brain repair. Moreover, the importance of neurogenesis-related plasticity is further supported by the finding that hippocampal neurogenesis occurs in humans throughout adulthood with a modest decline during aging (Spalding et al., 2013). Indeed, the central location of the hippocampus in the medial temporal lobe in the human brain (Haines, 2004) may allow the communication of newborn neurons to various brain circuits.

In this scenario strategies that enhance the survival and the plasticity of newly generated neurons in the dentate gyrus may be the most effective to foster the functional reorganization of brain circuits following injury.


We thank the Hertie Foundation and the DFG (to Simone Di Giovanni) and the Fortüne Program of the University of Tübingen (to Giorgia Quadrato) for financial support. We apologize to authors whose original papers could not be cited due to space constraints.


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