30 September 2016

Christian nutbaggery threatens civil rights in Poland

Here's something with eerie parallels to the election here in the U.S., from The Guardian:
[Conservative party] Law & Justice triumphed in the elections on a mix of social and nationalistic promises: hostility to migrants, pledging to stand up to exploitative foreign investors and banks, reducing the retirement age and introducing a 500 złoty (£86) a month child grant. Crucially, the campaign had the blessing of conservative bishops.
The L & J party, which now holds an absolute majority, is threatening major incursions on the civil rights of women and LGBTQ individuals. The provisions include a total ban on abortions, regardless of the threat to a woman's health, the health of the unborn child, or in cases of rape. Amnesty International is not happy:
This is not scaremongering. One only has to look at other countries where similarly draconian laws exist to see their negative impact. Amnesty International’s research in IrelandEl SalvadorNicaragua, and Paraguay has shown that in all these countries women and girls pay a high price for restrictions on safe and legal abortion. They pay with their health, their well-being and even with their lives. 
Unsurprisingly, this is motivated by religion:
“It’s payback time for the church,” said Jacek Kucharczyk of the Institute of Public Affairs. “Law & Justice swept up the armies of people who had stood on church steps for eight years, bearing petitions against abortion and IVF. They were part of the church’s campaign against what it sees as morally regressive so-called gender ideology, perceived as being imposed by western Europe.”

Yet again, conservative religion is the primary motivator in resistance against the progression of secular modernity. Whether it's women's rights in the oppressive theocracies of Afghanistan and Iran, campaigns against the rights of LGBTQ people here in the United States, and impeding women's access to safe and affordable family planning both here and abroad, religious lunatics consistently manage to be the primary obstacle to a better world.

27 August 2016

How to understand theology

I know I'm not alone among atheists in that over the course of many conversations with our theist friends, I frequently find myself asking, "What does that even mean?" Discussions about theology are frequently steeped in concepts whose meanings are not always perfectly clear, and the conflicting assumptions underpinning the meaning of crucial concepts leads to debates between atheists and theists amounting to, as Tim Minchin described it, trying to win a tennis match by scoring perfectly executed shots from opposite ends of separate courts.

I've been thinking a fair bit about why this is, and revisiting a book that is an old favorite has helped me shed some new light on this issue. The book in question is one that any long-time readers of this blog (both of you!) ought to be familiar with: Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer. Far from a new-atheist polemic, Religion Explained is an academic study of religion through the lenses of anthropology, cognitive psychology, and evolution.

One of the chapters deals with the characteristics of gods and spirits. Why are they generally anthropomorphized? Why do people worship gods whose actions and thoughts are at least somewhat like that of humans? Why do they generally take on human (or sometimes animal) form, instead of being, say, misshapen tentacled beasts?

I can't possibly do justice to Boyer's thesis in a brief blog post like this, but his answer is that gods and spirits are concepts that come from our intuitive conceptual systems. The most intuitive aspect, and the one present in all gods and spirits, is agency. Boyer says [p. 145] that for those detecting the activity or influence of spiritual agents it is not so much like seeing "faces in the clouds", but rather "traces in the grass". This is part of our evolutionary tendency to be hyper-active agency detectors. Boyer explains,
[Our] agency-detection system tends to "jump to conclusions"—that is, to give us the intuition that an agent is around—in many contexts where other interpretations (the wind pushed the foliage, a branch just fell off a tree) are equally plausible. It is part of our constant, everyday humdrum cognitive functioning that we interpret all sorts of cues in our environment, not just events but also the way things are, as the result of some agent's actions.
Most interestingly, Boyer says that gods and spirits are much like humans and animals, but stripped of certain properties and saddled with others:
In myth and folktales, we find supernatural concepts describing all sorts of objects and beings with all sorts of violations: stories about houses that remember their owners, islands that float adrift on the ocean or mountains that breathe. But the serious stuff, what becomes of great social importance, is generally about person-like beings. These invariably have some counterintuitive properties—for example, a nonstandard biology (they do not eat, grow, die, etc.) and often nonstandard physical properties (they fly through solid obstacles, become invisible, change shape, etc.)—but people's inferences about them require that they behave very much like persons. [p.142]

How concepts work in theology

It's here where I realized that concepts in religious philosophy work in much the same way. [Note that I'm going to use the term theology going forward instead of "religious philosophy", but I'm speaking not about doctrines and dogmas but rather the broader aspects of metaphysics that are central to discourse in religious philosophy.] Theological concepts are everyday concepts stripped down to their purely intuitive aspects; and once it is assumed that only those intuitive aspects of the concepts are important for the concept to be meaningful, all kinds of conclusions can be reached when these assumptions are put to work through some system of formal logic.

Let's take a few examples: mind, existence, and causation.

Example 1: Mind

Theologians often conceive of God as being an unembodied mind, having no physical body or brain. The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity states that God is not composed of parts, and is therefore "metaphysically simple". God is conceived not just as an agent, but as a mind that is itself pure agency. But in our everyday understanding of a mind, there are several crucial properties of the mind incompatible with such a view. 

Firstly, minds and brains are intimately connected. I'm going to carefully sidestep the debate on substance dualism here, as I think that most rational people will readily agree that brains and minds are crucially and causally connected. After all, brain damage can cause radical and often counter-intuitive changes in cognition: we can lose the ability to feel empathy; we can retain the ability to feel empathy, but lose the ability to respond to or act upon those feelings; we can lose our ability to recognize faces; we can lose our ability to remember the names of people or animals, but still remember the names of objects or tools. Moreover, our understanding of abstract concepts are crucially dependent on our physical bodies. We use what in cognitive linguistics are called primary metaphors like "that went right over my head", or "tomorrow is the big day". There is an exhaustive (and fascinating) list of these embodied metaphors here

Secondly, our minds are governed by a vastly complex subconscious. George Lakoff hints at just how deep this goes in Philosophy in the Flesh [Kindle location 152-3] :
Consider, for example, all that is going on below the level of conscious awareness when you are in a conversation. Here is only a small part of what you are doing, second by second: 
Accessing memories relevant to what is being said 
Comprehending a stream of sound as being language, dividing it into distinctive tinctive phonetic features and segments, identifying phonemes, and grouping them into morphemes 
Assigning a structure to the sentence in accord with the vast number of grammatical constructions in your native language 
Picking out words and giving them meanings appropriate to context 
Making semantic and pragmatic sense of the sentences as a whole 
Framing what is said in terms relevant to the discussion 
Performing inferences relevant to what is being discussed 
Constructing mental images where relevant and inspecting them 
Filling in gaps in the discourse 
Noticing and interpreting your interlocutor's body language 
Anticipating where the conversation is going 
Planning what to say in response 
All of these processes are completely and totally inaccessible to our conscious process of reasoning, yet they are crucial in governing it. Our understanding of the mind is dependent on the existence of a subconscious.

But neurological correlates, embodied primary metaphors, and subconscious reasoning are all very counter-intuitive things. What's not counter-intuitive is conceiving of a mind as an agent — possessing some form of conscious reasoning. This leads to some questions that theologians seem reticent to grapple with: How does an unembodied mind understand embodied concepts? Does God have a subconscious? If God is omnipotent, does he know his own processes of reasoning — entailing that he does not have a subconscious at all?  To even consider that an unembodied mind could understand embodied concepts and/or have a process of reasoning radically different from our own necessitates the uncomfortable conclusion that whatever God's mind might be, it's radically different than minds as we observe and understand them. 

Example 2: Existence

What if I told you I had a close friend and, when you asked to meet him, I replied, "Well, he's not really anywhere. In a sense he's here with us right now, even though you can't see, hear, or touch him. But he's never at any particular place at any particular time." You'd probably think I was nuts, but a being who exists outside of space and time is precisely how God is very often conceived. Generally, we conceive of existence as a spatial and temporal phenomenon. Even if we're generous enough to say that abstract thoughts "exist", we conceive of our minds as containers and say things like, "it's a thought inside my head". We don't conceive of our thoughts existing nowhere at no time, nor do we consider them omnipresent in the universe. 

The theological concept of existence is stripped of spatio-temporality, down to its most intuitive skeleton: something that is real. It is real in that it has agency and/or causal influence in the universe. When we say "unicorns don't exist", we mean that there are no agents or objects that can either act or be acted upon which fit the description of a unicorn. But God is conceived of being able to act upon things despite lacking any kind of spatial or temporal properties.

Example 3: Causation

When we think about causes, we're generally thinking about what philosophers might call "event causation". That is, causes describe a relationship between events — events that take place in space and time. Effects always follow their causes, and causes always precede their effects. In classical physics, the concept of causation is essential to connecting physical processes — if we know the initial state of a system, then the laws of physics can tell us precisely what the outcome will be. We can even work backwards, connecting effects to their causes. 

Lakoff describes the literal skeleton of the concept of causation as "a determining factor for a situation"[Kindle location 1277]. Theologians strip causation down to this most basic intuitive level. To the theologian, time and space are not necessary for causation to occur. Nor are any particular physical components or even physical laws. God, the unembodied agent who exists nowhere at no time, can nonetheless causally influence events in the universe and (of course) create or destroy the universe purely through his will. 

How theology works

These are just three examples, and there are of course plenty more. But what can be seen from these examples is that in every case, an everyday concept is stripped of any counter-intuitive aspects it might have. Once it is assumed that those counter-intuitive aspects are unessential to the meaning of a concept, a vast array of possibilities unfold. Things don't have to exist in particular places at particular times and they don't have to have any particular set of clearly-defined properties, but they can nonetheless causally interact with things that do exist in particular places and particular times. We can plug these stripped-down concepts into various systems of formal logic and work out their entailments. The irony, of course, is that the entailments can themselves be highly counter-intuitive precisely because those stripped-down concepts are crucially distinct from our common understanding of them. 

The divide between the theist and the atheist is that the atheist sees no reason to entertain these deconstructed concepts as anything but idle speculation — wherein their true meaning has been hopelessly mired in ambiguity —  while the theist views them as integral to metaphysical knowledge. And with no readily apparent way to bridge that divide, the impasse seems destined to continue.

28 July 2016

Brute facts and classical theism

The modal cosmological argument, or MCA, deals with the concepts of necessity and contingency. I'll leave more formalized versions for your reference here and here. For this post, it'll be sufficient to summarize it as follows:

  • Something that could exist in a different state or fail to exist at all is contingent, in that its state of existence must be explained by something else, such as another contingent thing. For example, a chair is a contingent object. It could have different properties (i.e., be a different type of chair) or not exist at all. It was brought into existence by something else, such as a carpenter. 
  • There can't be an infinite regress of contingent things, otherwise the existence of the contingent set is not explained.
  • Therefore, the existence of the contingent set must be explained an entity whose existence is explained by its own necessity. 
There's a lot of nuance in these arguments that is beyond the depth of this post — the semantics of 'necessary existence' requires one to assume Essentialism, and the argument from contingency requires one to assume some version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. If you don't assent to either of those views, you won't find the modal argument persuasive. 

But today, I'm going to ignore all that and grant the underlying assumptions of the MCA. I'm going to grant that "necessary existence" is a real thing, and that the criteria for "contingency" is not only accurate, but applies to the Universe itself. What happens when we follow the MCA to its logical conclusions?

Importantly, the MCA rejects the existence of 'brute facts'. Brute facts just are. There is no "explanation" for them. In my experience, most secular philosophers agree that brute facts exist. They view "explanations" as a human cognitive construction that has limited coherent application; they believe it's nonsensical to demand an explanation for the existence of the universe itself — perhaps it simply is. A proponent of the MCA would tell you that brute facts are incoherent for two reasons: first, they admit of no explanation; and second, if one accepts the proposition that explanations are hierarchical, then the brute fact can impart no explanation onto anything else. I would argue that such conceptualizations of "explanations" are entirely metaphorical, and that we can have perfectly coherent world views without them. But for now, as with the other underlying assumptions, concepts, and semantics embedded within the MCA, I'm going to grant them.

One final thing: while the temporal cosmological argument (popularly known as the Kalam) requires the universe to be past-finite, the MCA allows for either an infinite or past-finite universe. God may or may not 'create' the universe, but God definitely 'sustains' the universe as a logically prior first cause. And while I know my fellow atheists are chomping at the bit to tear apart the notion that the universe needs to be causally 'sustained' and the dubious semantics of 'logically prior' in such a context, for the purposes of this post I'm going to grant that rather massive assumption as well.
Got all that? Let's see where granting the assumptions of the MCA lands us.

Two bad options for the classical theist

There are two ways in which the MCA leads to unappealing options. Both are coherent, but undesirable for the theist for reasons that will be apparently pretty quickly.

Option 1: God is necessary and brute facts do not exist, but there are no contingent facts

If God is timeless and unchanging, God cannot 'decide' to create the universe. Nor was there an 'act' of creation. Decisions, acts, or even any process of thought whatsoever, would reflect a change of God's conscious state as well as indicate that God exists temporally. Time can be expressed as a relationship between events, or an expression of change. This means God cannot 'think' or 'do' anything at all, as we'd conceptualize those things. God just is. Thomists describe God as "pure act", relating to the concepts of "act" and "potency" in which all change is conceptualized as "act moving to potency" [note: Thomists take this description as literal, but it's dependent on an embodied primary metaphor: "change is movement"]. If God could think, act, or change in any way whatsoever, then he would be contingent and his existence would have to be explained by some other entity.

This means that God's desire and act of creating/sustaining the universe is literally part of his necessary being. From this we're forced to infer that God could not have created or sustained a different universe. Since the creation/sustenance of the universe is part of God's nature, and God exists necessarily, it follows that the universe and all within it is also necessary. Contingent facts cannot arise from a necessary cause, because the if the cause is necessary then it could be no other way. Everything had to happen exactly as it has happened, from the Big Bang all the way to your annoying neighbors who have a flood light in their back yard and a Trump sign in their front window (well... maybe that's just me).

This results in a universe in which God's necessity is preserved, but we live in a universe that is completely and totally deterministic.

Option 2: Contingent facts exist, but God is contingent and brute facts exist

The second option is that God could have decided to create a different universe, and He doesn't necessarily govern everything that happens within it. We've left the hard determinism of the first option behind. But if God could have different desires and take different actions, then by the definitions laid out in the MCA, God is contingent. The theist is then forced to accept that God's particular desires admit of no explanation — they are brute facts.

Both options are unappealing to the theist. The first preserves God's necessity, but entails a kind of hard determinism that renders all choice illusory. Calvinists might be fine with that, but most theists want to believe that God can actually think and act in some anthropomorphic way. Otherwise God is not really answering prayers, intervening in the world, or whatever. God is more like some ever-present unchanging force, and we're just puppets on a stage.

The second option gets rid of God as a necessary being, but entails that the basis for assenting to the underlying assumptions of MCA in the first place — that is, the rejection of brute facts — is an incoherent position. In that case, the theist might as well just toss out the MCA entirely and hope they have better luck with the Kalam (they won't).

Option 3: Ad Hoc the hell outta this one

But of course, when you've been debating theists as long as I have, you know what's really going to happen: ad hoc rationalizations to make the initial assumptions fit the desired conclusion. Something like this:
Well, you see, God actually can have thoughts and act, but not in the way we think of those things; only analogously. Because we don't know what a timeless unchanging existence is like, a clear conceptualization of God's mind and being is beyond our epistemic horizon. But we can at least know that the arguments lead us to deduce God's existence; his exact attributes, or our ability to conceptualize them, are of secondary importance. 
As long as you avoiding clearly defining your terms of engagement, you can make any argument fit your conclusions. You can imply that words like change, thoughts, and actions have one meaning in your premises, but then take on an analogous meaning in your conclusions. It's a fallacy of equivocation, but y'know, whatever. Checkmate, atheists!

13 July 2016

Something that really puzzles me about the Ark Encounter

Friendly Atheist has had some coverage of Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis and Creation Museum fame) and his organization's new Young-Earth Creationism monstrosity, the $100-million+ Ark Encounter. They took quite a few pics from inside the 'replica', but these in particular caught my attention:

Basically this is saying that prior to the Flood, God didn't 'permit' humans or animals to eat meat. Let's set aside for a moment the oddity of suggesting that animals had the ability to understand and violate divine moral commandments and think instead about their anatomy. Essentially this implies that God either a) changed animals' anatomy while they were on the Ark, or b) changed it after the Flood. Because as any trivially educated person knows, animals aren't carnivorous (or not) because they decide to be, but because their biology mandates it to be.

Here's what gets me: if you're just going to say that God magically changes animals' anatomy at the drop of a hat, then why concoct this elaborate explanation for how they ate and pooped? Why not just say that for 40 days and nights, God made it so none of the animals would have to eat or poop at all? Why not say that God made Noah and his family's bellies full for the entire duration of the Flood?

This kind of ad hoc explanation shows what kind of severe cognitive dissonance Young-Earth Creationists are dealing with. Over the years, they've encountered (no pun intended) plenty of challenges to the plausibility of both the Flood and the Ark itself, and it seems like they just decided to conjure up answers to whichever ones seemed most problematic. The best part is that their answers just boil down to magic anyway, so they really could have 'answered' any possible challenge to their narrative by suggesting that God just poofed this or that scenario into being. Concocting an elaborate explanation for something, like how the poop was removed, probably just makes them feel a bit more scientific even though there's no particular reason for them to argue that Noah even needed to deal with animal poop. After all, Noah didn't need to deal with obviously carnivorous dinosaurs, reptiles, and mammalian predators eating other animals because God poofed them into being vegetarians.

Here's some food for thought, though. Anyone not deeply steeped in the YEC Kool-Aid can see the myriad of problems with their ad hoc reasoning, but this is common among 'sophisticated' theologians as well. My favorite example is William Lane Craig arguing that the probability of Jesus' resurrection happening by natural means is very low, but his probability of being resurrected by supernatural means is very high. Well, of course it is. As soon as you invoke supernatural magic, from the creation of the universe to walking on water, you can "explain" anything you want. 

02 June 2016

Take off the kid gloves: dualism is a pseudoscience

We non-believers are pretty good about calling out religious people who subscribe to young-Earth creationism or 'intelligent design'. They're pseudosciences — bolstered with arguments often couched in scientific-sounding language, but ultimately not just unsupported by data but in stark, irreconcilable conflict with the data we do have.

For some reason, most of us are a lot easier on dualists — those who insist the mind is somehow independent of the brain. Granted, there's always neuroscientist and skeptic Steve Novella, who definitely doesn't pull any punches, but a firm condemnation of dualism just isn't quite as prevalent in the public community of skeptics and non-believers as arguments against evolution deniers.

Maybe it's because the mind sciences — neurobiology, neurocomputation, and cognitive science — are a bit more esoteric. They're characterized by a somewhat obscure lexicon that doesn't always lend itself to concisely packaged arguments. But that should not obscure the fact that from a scientific standpoint, there is no dispute that the mind is wholly caused by the brain. You are not going to comb through an issue of Scientific American Mind and find the latest research from dualists because, well, dualists aren't actually doing any research. That's because unlike a brain-emergent theory of mind, dualist theories of mind don't make predictions and accordingly are unfalsifiable. Instead, they live in the margins as post hoc rationalizations for data produced by the hard sciences of the mind.

Dualism is conceptually ambiguous

A common refrain from dualists is that since the mind is not material, it cannot be studied empirically. Science, they say, studies the 'natural world'. This allows dualists to have their cake and eat it, too: they can try to explain scientific data in the context of dualism without ever producing a working scientific theory that would actually generated testable hypotheses.

But this rationalization fails at a basic conceptual level.  Sean Carroll concisely summarizes the problem in an op-ed for Scientific American:
Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there's no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?
And Sam Harris, in a discussion with the late Christopher Hitchens, David Wolpe, and Bradley Artson Shavit, summarized the issue on similar terms:
Science is not in principle committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife or that the mind is identical to the brain.
If it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain and can – by virtue of ectoplasm or something else we don’t understand – be dissociated from the brain at death, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding of the world if we discover it.
But there are very good reasons to think it’s not true. We know this from 150 years of neurology where you damage areas of the brain, and faculties are lost. You can cease to recognize faces, you can cease to know the names of animals but you still know the names of tools.
What we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain, and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, [but] you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognizing grandma and speaking English!

All of these discussions point to two fundamental conceptual problems with mind-body dualism:

  • Dualists do not have a theory of what the mind is, or even an unambiguous description of a non-material substance
  • More importantly, dualists do not have a testable hypothesis that would explain how the immaterial mind causally interacts with the physical brain — or even why it should in the first place.  

The evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of a material account of the mind

Aside from the lack of empirical evidence or even a coherent theoretical structure from dualists, there are many reasons to be confident that the mind is caused by the brain. 

Embodied cognition

Evidence from cognitive linguistics shows that basic conceptual systems used for reasoning are defined not just by our brains, but by our motor systems. Gestalt perception and motor schemas share neural circuitry with higher-level abstraction. From Lakoff:
• Our brains are structured so as to project activation patterns from sensorimotor areas to higher cortical areas. These constitute what we have called primary metaphors. Projections of this kind allow us to conceptualize abstract concepts on the basis of inferential patterns used in sensorimotor processes that are directly tied to the body. [Philosophy in the Flesh, Kindle location 962]
Primary metaphors are such concepts as big is important (tomorrow is the big day!), love is closeness (the stress of their jobs drove the couple apart), more is up (stock prices skyrocketed!), bad is smelly (this movie stinks), etc. There are a great deal of these metaphors, and they are integral to our process of reasoning — we literally cannot reason without them.

Moreover, these metaphors have a neural grounding in what is called conflation. Lakoff, again:
In research on metaphor acquisition in children, Johnson (Al, 1997b, c) studied the Shem corpus in detail. This is a well-known collection of the utterances of a child named Shem, recorded over the course of his language development (D, MacWhinney 1995). In an attempt to discover the age at which Shem acquired a commonplace metaphor, Johnson looked at Shem's use of the verb see. His objective was to discover the mechanism involved in the acquisition of metaphor. He had hypothesized conflation as a possible mechanism, and he wanted to find out whether there is indeed a stage of conflation prior to the use of the metaphor. His test case was Knowing Is Seeing, as in sentences like "I see what you're saying." In such metaphorical examples, knowing is the subject matter. Seeing is the metaphorical source domain used to conceptualize knowledge, but it is not used literally.
Johnson discovered that, prior to using metaphor, Shem went through a stage in which the knowing and seeing domains were conflated. Since we normally get most of our knowledge from seeing, a conflation of these domains would have been expected. In such conflations, the domains of knowing and seeing are coactive and the grammar of know is used with the verb see in a context in which seeing and knowing occur together-for instance, "Let's see what's in the box." Here, seeing what's in the box correlates with knowing what's in the box. [Philosophy in the Flesh, Kindle location 633]
The case for embodied cognition is vastly more complex than these few snippets can illustrate, but what's important to take from this is that the embodied account only makes sense in the framework of a physical account of the mind, and it makes direct, falsifiable predictions about the structure of our conceptual systems from the neural circuitry of our brains.

Moreover, if dualism were true, there would simply be no need to describe conceptual systems in the terms of our embodiment and our neural circuitry. As always the dualist position can be shoehorned in as part of a weaselly post-hoc rationalization of data, but dualism does not produce a theory of mind that predicts or necessitates embodied cognition — cognitive linguistics, however, does precisely that.

Science predicts a relationship between cognitive states and brain states

Another famous argument of dualists is that the relationship between brain states and cognitive states is strictly correlative, not causal. But aside from suffering from the same deficiency of being only a post-hoc rationalization of data, a scientific account of the mind predicts states of cognition as outcomes of brain states. These predictions are falsifiable, reliable, and reproducible. Steve Novella elaborates:
As we have learned more and more about brain function, we have identified many modules and circuits in the brain that participate in specific functions. During the Afterlife debate I gave a few of my favorite examples.
Disruption of one circuit, for example, can make someone feel as if their loved-ones are imposters, because they do not evoke the usual emotions they should feel.
Disruption of another circuit can make a person feel as if they are not in control of a part of their body – so-called alien hand syndrome.
A stroke that leaves the ownership module intact but unconnected to the paralyzed limb can rarely result in a supernumerary phantom limb – the subjective experience of having an extra limb that you can feel and controlled (but that does not exist).
Seizures are also a profound area of evidence for the mind as brain theory. Synchronous electrical activity in particular parts of the brain can make people twitch and convulse, but also experience smells, sounds, images, feelings, a sense of unreality, a sense of being connected to the universe, an inability to speak, the experience of a particular piece of music, a sense of deja vu, or pretty much anything you can imagine. The subjective experience depends on the part of the brain where the seizure occurs.
There is also copious evidence from strokes and other forms of brain damage. As a practicing neurologist I can examine a patient with a stroke and with a high degree of accuracy predict exactly where the lesion will be in the brain on subsequent imaging. Everything you think, do, and feel has a neuroanatomical correlate in the brain, and if that function is altered or not working, that will predict where the lesion can be found.
Not only does dualism fail to account for such correlates with any sort of theoretical framework, but there's no reason to think these predictions should hold on a dualistic account. A material account of the mind requires such predictions to be reliable and valid, as they are. Dualism is ambiguously and equivocally defined, so it's not entirely clear what a dualistic theoretical framework would require. But since no dualistic 'theory' makes testable predictions, there's no reason to think dualism would require any particular neurocognitive predictions to hold.

Worst of all for dualism is perhaps the most obvious problem: cognitive states have never been observed to occur without brain states. We cannot communicate with dead people. When someone has suffered severe brain damage — via a stroke, accident, or some other misfortune — specific and often counter-intuitive changes to personality, memory, awareness, empathy, or communication may be adversely affected. Not only has a neurocognitive model of the mind been able to successfully predict these cognitive states, but they've been able to show with great detail the biological mechanisms at play.

The last bastion for dualism lies not in science, but in classical philosophy. As the theologian Edward Feser claims, "The mind knows itself directly, without the mediation of a mental image or any other representation." Cognitive science has shown this claim to be unequivocally false. You have absolutely no knowledge of or choice in the formation of the metaphors that form the structure of your reasoning — and the embodied, metaphorical structure of reasoning could not have been predicted by philosophers. Lakoff, again:
[There] is no Cartesian dualistic person, with a mind separate from and independent of the body, sharing exactly the same disembodied transcendent reason with everyone else, and capable of knowing everything about his or her mind simply by self-reflection. Rather, the mind is inherently embodied, reason is shaped by the body, and since most thought is unconscious, the mind cannot be known simply by self-reflection. Empirical study is necessary. [Philosophy in the Flesh, Kindle location 80]
A neurocognitive account of the mind is robustly supported by scientific data that spans multiple interrelated disciplines. It's comprised of sound theoretical models that have successfully and reliably made falsifiable predictions. Dualism trudges on, clinging desperately to the coattails of scientific progress with post hoc rationalizations of scientific data, most likely spurred by fear of facing the entailments of a successful scientific theory of mind: souls probably do not exist, and when you're dead you're gone forever. But as Carl Sagan famously said, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring". Let's stop treating dualism as anything other than the nonsense that it is — an antiquated folk theory of mind that belongs in the dustbin along with young-Earth creationism and intelligent design.

29 May 2016

Lakoff: Math is made up by your brain

Tonight I was on YouTube, and in my 'recommended videos' section there was a selection from the channel Closer to Truth asking physicist Max Tegmark the old granddaddy of questions, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Tegmark goes on to expound on his view that the universe is fundamentally mathematical and that mathematics are discovered, not invented.

Tegmark's view is an example of a view called mathematical Platonism, a form of mathematical realism which holds that:
  • There are mathematical objects
  • Mathematical objects are abstract
  • Mathematical objects are independent of intelligent agents and their language, thought, and practices.
There are several difficulties that this point of view faces, both conceptually (what, exactly, is an "abstract object" and how does it causally interact with the brain?) and given what we actually observe here in the physical universe. Alexander Vilenkin touched on Tegmark's ideas in his book Many Worlds In One:
The number of mathematical structures increases with increasing complexity, suggesting that “typical” structures should be horrendously large and cumbersome. This seems to be in conflict with the simplicity and beauty of the theories describing our world.
It just so happens that in the 'related videos' sidebar, YouTube recommended this vid from George Lakoff on embodied mathematical cognition — a condensed version of his book Where Mathematics Comes From. It's a scientific alternative to folk theories of mathematics like mathematical Platonism and though it's a relatively nascent field with plenty of challenges ahead, there's growing evidence that it's correct [1, 2, 3]. It's not without controversy, but challenging intelligent people to case aside philosophies entrenched in academia for centuries is inevitably going to meet resistance.

My take is that the conceptual ambiguities intrinsic to mathematical realism put it at a disadvantage to embodied mathematical cognition, which builds on research from the broader field of embodied cognition. Is it true? I don't know. And as a non-mathematician, some of this stuff is over my head. But I think it's fascinating as hell, and the fact that it grounds conceptual abstraction within the purview of scientific inquiry instead of mysterious 'metaphysical realms' is a big reason why I'm such a fan of Lakoff's work.

Anyway... here's the lecture. 

20 May 2016

The Oklahoma State Legislature makes me embarrassed to live in the state

Just this week, the legislature in my state of Oklahoma has:

And just a couple of months ago, the passed legislation that would ask voters to restore the 10 Commandments monument to the Capitol after the state supreme court ruled it unconstitutional.

Now look, this is bad enough. Most of this legislation is flagrantly unconstitutional. Our governor Mary Fallin, by most accounts an incompetent stooge, at least had the foresight to veto the abortion law and save the state hundreds of thousands in legal fees from a sure-loss court case. 

But here's what really grinds my gears: shit is bad in Oklahoma, and a good deal of it is the legislature's fault. Years of Laffer-Curve economics has led the state to a record budget shortfall that is threatening funding for medicaid, teachers, schools, public attorneys, and much much more. And Oklahoma is just one of many GOP-led states whose Laffer-Curve policies have led to steep red ink.

You'd think this would lead to a little introspection among the legislature: Golly, maybe supply-side economics aren't working! Pfff. Of course not. Tax cuts have become such a central part of the GOP milieu that it's unfathomable that a candidate would campaign without them. Conservatives love to chide Bernie Sanders supporters for wanting "free stuff", while presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump offers a tax-cut plan that would cost nearly $10 trillion over the next decade, with most of the cost coming from cuts to top earners. But hey, I guess that's just "free stuff", right? 


Teachers are losing their jobs. Schools are facing closings, 4-day weeks, larger class sizes, and reduced bus routes because of massive shortfalls in education funding. Public attorneys aren't getting funding. The House passed a bill cutting 111,000 people from medicaid

At a time when the state legislature should be hard at work on solutions to these problems, they're passing frivolous laws and pandering to the most extreme of their constituency. Unsurprisingly, the non-profit Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity gave Oklahoma an "F", citing a lack of transparency, corruption, inequality, and access to public information. The one bright spot is in the state's auditing office, which independently found "fraud and waste across a broad spectrum of public bodies".

It's not entirely clear what can be done in the short term. I just hope that the widespread knowledge of the legislature's incompetency inspires more urban young people to get out the vote.

Robert Epstein: Your brain is not a computer

For decades, the neurocomputational metaphor has been an integral part of research that attempts to bridge the gap between the biological structure of the brain and cognition. But it is, alas, only a metaphor. In an essay for Aeon, psychologist Robert Epstein argues that your brain does not process information, store knowledge, or retrieve memories. In short: it is not a computer.

Some choice quotes:
We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.
[The] IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.
Misleading headlines notwithstanding, no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary.

It's a fascinating and provocative essay. I'd be very curious to hear thoughts on it from writers I follow like Steve Novella (neuroscientist) and George Lakoff (cognitive linguist).

However, there are a few issues that I'd raise with this essay.

The first is that while metaphor is of course not literal — computers don't literally store and process information — metaphors are nonetheless integral to our human process of reasoning. As counter-intuitive as it might be, we literally cannot reason without the use of metaphor. These range from primary metaphors like big is important ("tomorrow is the big day!") or love is closeness ("we grew apart over the last year") and many more, to conceptualizations of time as spatial movement ("the holidays are approaching quickly") or causation as motion ("FDR's leadership brought the country out of depression"). The fact that we conceptualize the brain using the neurocomputational metaphor is not in itself fault, such that it allows us to understand and predict states of cognition. But Epstein is likely correct in that the metaphor is inherently limited. That's why we need a cross-disciplinary study of the mind and brain from neurobiology, neurocomputation, and cognition.

I'm also skeptical of this claim:
[There] is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience. If you and I attend the same concert, the changes that occur in my brain when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th will almost certainly be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain.
Our shared biology constitutes a reason to think that responses to similar experiences are at least somewhat the same. Perhaps Epstein simply means that the configurations of neurons that change over a lifetime are inherently widely varied due to our vastly varying experiences; but we don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater — the same parts of the brain likely undergo similar structural changes in response to similar stimuli, simply because our brains are — by our shared, human DNA — very similar organs.

Those are my thoughts, at least. But it's a provocative topic, certainly.

Full essay: The Empty Brain

18 May 2016

Humans of New York, and thoughts on childhood cancer

Christian theodicies contend that God has a Divine Plan, and thus morally sufficient (if inexorably mysterious) reasons for allowing this child to suffer. (Click to embiggen...)

His story is one of many. If there's anything that convinces me a theistic god — one who is invested in human affairs — does not exist, it's childhood cancer. And the weaselly rationalization that it's a necessary part of God's unknowable, mysterious, yet presumably perfect plan just strikes me as the most blind and desperate kind of faith. 

16 May 2016

Galen Strawson: Consciousness Isn't a Mystery

Galen Strawson, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, writes in a New York Times op ed that the "mystery of consciousness" isn't really so mysterious:

Consciousness Isn't a Mystery. It's Matter.

In his own way, he argues for non-eliminative physicalism:

Those who make the Very Large Mistake (of thinking they know enough about the nature of the physical to know that consciousness can’t be physical) tend to split into two groups. Members of the first group remain unshaken in their belief that consciousness exists, and conclude that there must be some sort of nonphysical stuff: They tend to become “dualists.” Members of the second group, passionately committed to the idea that everything is physical, make the most extraordinary move that has ever been made in the history of human thought. They deny the existence of consciousness: They become “eliminativists.” 
This amazing phenomenon (the denial of the existence of consciousness) is a subject for another time. The present point — it’s worth repeating many times — is that no one has to react in either of these ways. All they have to do is grasp the fundamental respect in which we don’t know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff in spite of all that physics tells us. In particular, we don’t know anything about the physical that gives us good reason to think that consciousness can’t be wholly physical. It’s worth adding that one can fully accept this even if one is unwilling to agree with Russell that in having conscious experience we thereby know something about the intrinsic nature of physical reality.

I don't think his take on it is as illuminating as Lakoff's, but for a quick op-ed it does the job.