Category Archives: fact-based reasoning

The blind spot of science

Good essay by an astrophysicist, theoretical physicist and philosopher on the nature of human experience and its relationship to science. Some excerpts:

“This brings us back to the Blind Spot. When we look at the objects of scientific knowledge, we don’t tend to see the experiences that underpin them. We do not see how experience makes their presence to us possible. Because we lose sight of the necessity of experience, we erect a false idol of science as something that bestows absolute knowledge of reality, independent of how it shows up and how we interact with it.”

“To bring the point home, consider that in certain intense states of absorption – during meditation, dance or highly skilled performances – the subject-object structure can drop away, and we are left with a sense of sheer felt presence. How is such phenomenal presence possible in a physical world? Science is silent on this question. And yet, without such phenomenal presence, science is impossible, for presence is a precondition for any observation or measurement to be possible.”

“Scientific materialists will argue that the scientific method enables us to get outside of experience and grasp the world as it is in itself. As will be clear by now, we disagree; indeed, we believe that this way of thinking misrepresents the very method and practice of science.”

“The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this method gives us access to unvarnished reality. But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world.  […] Scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools.”

“So the belief that scientific models correspond to how things truly are doesn’t follow from the scientific method. Instead, it comes from an ancient impulse – one often found in monotheistic religions – to know the world as it is in itself, as God does. The contention that science reveals a perfectly objective ‘reality’ is more theological than scientific.”

“Recent philosophers of science who target such ‘naive realism’ argue that science doesn’t culminate in a single picture of a theory-independent world. Rather, various aspects of the world – from chemical interactions to the growth and development of organisms, brain dynamics and social interactions – can be more or less successfully described by partial models. These models are always bound to our observations and actions, and circumscribed in their application.”

Mental rigidity in both Parties

Another one of those studies comparing political identification. The study is about extreme attachment to a Party. What about those who strongly identify with humanity with high cognitive complexity and flexibility who don’t identify with a Party? Are their nuanced arguments that account for numerous factors and their interplay ‘extreme?’ Is the Green New Deal extreme? If a living wage extreme? Is corporations paying their fair share extreme? Is addressing the climate crisis extreme? Is transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy extreme? I think we all know the answer to those questions.

“They also found that self-described Independents displayed greater cognitive flexibility compared to both Democrats and Republicans. Other cognitive traits, such as originality or fluency of thought, were not related to heightened political partisanship. […] The aim of this research is not to draw false equivalences between different, and sometimes opposing, ideologies.”

Objective reality does not exist

From this article at MIT Technology Review:

“Massimiliano Proietti at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and a few colleagues say they have performed this experiment for the first time: they have created different realities and compared them. Their conclusion is that Wigner was correct—these realities can be made irreconcilable so that it is impossible to agree on objective facts about an experiment. .[…] ‘This calls into question the objective status of the facts established by the two observers,’ say Proietti and co.” […] Proietti and co’s result suggests that objective reality does not exist. In other words, the experiment suggests that one or more of the assumptions—the idea that there is a reality we can agree on, the idea that we have freedom of choice, or the idea of locality—must be wrong.”

Divided brain, divided world

I was reminded of the video below, and this longer examination of the ideas therein. Here’s the blurb from the latter:

“Divided Brain, Divided World explores the significance of the scientific fact that the two hemispheres of our brains have radically different ‘world views’. It argues that our failure to learn lessons from the crash, our continuing neglect of climate change, and the increase in mental health conditions may stem from a loss of perspective that we urgently need to regain. 

 
“Divided Brain, Divided World examines how related issues are illuminated by the ideas developed in author and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s critically acclaimed work: The Master and his Emissary. It features a dialogue between McGilchrist and Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre, Dr Jonathan Rowson, which informed a workshop with policymakers, journalists and academics.

“This workshop led to a range of written reflections on the strength and significance of the ideas, including critique, clarification and illustrations of relevance in particular domains, including economics, behavioural economics, climate change, NGO campaigning, patent law, ethics, and art.”
 

Book: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

In his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David J. Epstein investigates the significant advantages of generalized cognitive skills for success in a complex world. We’ve heard and read many praises for narrow expertise in both humans and AIs (Watson, Alpha Go, etc.). In both humans and AIs, however, narrow+deep expertise does not translate to adaptiveness when reality presents novel challenges, as it does constantly. 

As you ingest this highly readable, non-technical book, please add your observations to the comments below. 

‘Neurosexism’ debated

Neuroscientist Larry Cahill takes issue with a Feb 2019 Nature favorable book review of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain.

Cahill’s response prompted an interview by Medium Neuroscience writer Meghan Daum.

Scientific findings have a way of upsetting apple carts, especially when we consider our oft-demonstrated human capacity to bend science to advantage some power-coveting groups over others.

Valid research amply shows there are real differences in male and female neuroanatomy and functions. Honest science must follow the evidence where it leads. Clearly, any discovered differences cannot be allowed to justify unequal social or economic opportunities or treatment. Cahill compares the situation to genetics. That people differ genetically in a vast number of ways cannot be taken as cause to misstate scientific findings or preclude further learning about genetics.

There are times and circumstances in which certain research approaches must be blocked for humane or other reasons but that is a different argument than denying the findings of a body of research because they are uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Thoughts?

Homo deus

Power Valued Over Truth

Dear Ed and All,

“We are the ones that create human nature by inculcating cooperation and care over selfishness and power.”

The view you express, Ed, contesting Harari’s claim in Homo deus, seems to edge up closely to the “pre-modern” standard social science of model of human nature, i.e., that it is almost solely a product of culture, with no or minimal influence of naturally selected genes and very fancy naturally selected epigenetic mechanisms for gene regulation. It is the idea that we pretty much are born, mentally, a blank slate. That is demonstrably wrong. There is a deep and mighty pan-cultural, species-typical human nature that impacts all our intrapsychic life and behavior. It is designed only to be impacted in very specific and limited biologically fitness-enhancing ways by local cultural influences. Harari is correct, at least in the sense that our basic nature is only contingently to value truth, that is, only to the extent that it increases our power to generate greater lifetime inclusive fitness.

Yet, and here is where you and I can find, IMO, great and expansive common ground, natural selection in our species created a mind designed to compete in complex multi-partner, multi-currency socioeconomic bargaining, and thus for status (i.e., power), with great acumen, during an ongoing intraspecific arms race with other humans, including close social partners, over the last several hundred thousand years. Importantly, non-trivial metacognition and mentalization (theory of mind) capacities evolved as part of our package of competitive cognitive capacities; these can be used to evaluate, predict, and manipulate others, and to observe and study ourselves. Imaginative capacities and an ability to believe deeply in both fantasy and evidence also evolved to allow us to cohabit “adaptively subjective dreamworlds” (ASD) that hold human groups together. For example, one example of a written down, very dear and pretty darn auspicious ASD is the US Constitution.

Natural selection has zero foresight. This is the only reason we have any chance of beginning to alter how our minds operate. Down the road, once some leaders develop the capacity to make good decisions about how to genetically modify ourselves to be more compassionate and sustainable, probably with the help of evolutionary psychology, a massive program of intentional genetic evolution may be what’s really necessary to get us through our current very dangerous technological adolescence.

Robust, transparent (nonconscious), sly and clever neurological regulatory mechanisms assuredly have evolved to more or less (denoting very slight individual variation in brain development) lock us into making effective and efficient (i.e., powerful) use of our outstanding cognitive abilities to maximize lifetime gene propagation, whether we know this is what we are up to or not.

Yet, this same program of natural selection, epiphenomenally, gave all or most of us the potential — almost always hard won and seldom truly accessed — to employ evolutionarily novel intrapsychic maneuvers, learned from our most sophisticated ancestors, to weaken or “get ahead of” the above-mentioned regulatory mechanisms. Here I am referring to introspective techniques that help us see our own mental operations more objectively, not techniques that just lead to relaxation or greater happiness. This unnaturally objectified seeing can happen in real time (best) or during reflection upon past events (dicey).

An analogy, accidentally constructed by the Wachowskis (?), for using the introspective techniques I’m referring to is vividly given in “The Matrix” trilogy, when Morpheus and his team, eventually especially Neo, purposely send their minds into the matrix via skillful intrapsychic hacking procedures. They are not going in there to sunbathe… even though that would be nice. They cannot. The regulatory mechanisms that already are in place are quite, albeit imperfectly, adaptive in real time. They have the ability to learn. They are seldom are far behind and their prime mandate is to encapsulate or literally destroy the complex neural circuits (i.e, symbolized by Matrix characters like Trinity, Morpheus, Mouse, Sipher) that may collaborate to enable biologically subversive attempts at gaining deep objective self-knowledge. These regulatory mechanisms are key to biologically adaptive neurodevelopment, and they are extraordinarily resourceful and ruthless. They may be limbically based, but any part of the brain can be recruited to help them fulfill their mission, as was “The Matrix” character Sipher.

My own mind largely has been ruined, I feel, by engaging in this process. A lot of my essential “freedom circuitry” has been repeatedly hammered. But, I still believe success is possible for some, particularly if they can learn from the mistakes and rare successes of others. Call it faith in consciousness.

A new analogy has hit me. We are born into a cognitive-emotional prison cell full of delights as well as sources of suffering. (As per astute Buddhist teachings, it’s really all suffering.) But, we may notice that hanging from the ceiling, outside the cell bars but more or less within reach, there are various sets of shiny keys. Usually, one of them opens our cell door. Others keys in the set open additional doors spread throughout an unknown intrapsychic labyrinth. Opening some of those doors triggers an instant alarm, others a delayed alarm, maybe others no alarm at all, especially if the key is inserted and turned correctly. Some sets of keys open doors that lead to traps and cul-de-sacs. You can easily end up in a seemingly nicer jail cell. Or a worse one. Perhaps you can end up in enticing cells, but with no keys hanging outside the bars. It may be hard to tell if one has progressed in any meaningful way.

A legitimate teacher, or cultural tradition, and/or a modern scientific tradition may help us learn something of the labyrinth, and which set of keys to pick that lead to real freedom, or at least time-limited degrees of it. We can learn to go farther and farther.  But the prison is larger and more complex than we typically can conceive, especially anywhere near to our starting position, and especially if we try to do so alone.

Perhaps the best path is right around a nearby intrapsychic corner. But if anyone tells you so, beware. — Paul

PS: I’ll try to post this on our web site, since it took a couple hours to write, and may have some value for our upcoming discussion(s).

The evolutionary and present significance of reading

In her new book, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, author Maryanne Wolf explores how reading affects the brain and mind. What different effects result from consuming digital media rather than print media and long forms rather than tweets, posts, and other microcontent? In her excellent recent article, she says,

Will new readers develop the more time-demanding cognitive processes nurtured by print-based mediums as they absorb and acquire new cognitive capacities emphasized by digital media? For example, will the combination of reading on digital formats and daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences — from social media to virtual games — impede the formation of the slower cognitive processes, such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy, that are all part of deep reading?

Wolf first addressed the evolution of reading and its implications in her earlier book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. She summarizes her thesis in this interview (14 min video).

Stanislas Dehaene, an author whose work we’ve discussed, also investigated the brain circuits involved in reading. Hear him speak on the topic in this video (33 min).

AI-enabled software creates 3D face from single photo

I wrote on my blog about this development and more generally about the increasing ease with which AI tools can forge convincing media. Go see my creepy 3D face.

Seeing my blindfold

I’ve found some thought-provoking answers on the Q&A social media site, Quora. Follow the link to a perceptive and helpful answer to, “Can a person be able to objectively identify exactly when and how their thinking processes are being affected by cognitive biases?

The author provides some practical (if exhausting) recommendations that, if even partly followed by a third-to-half of people (my guestimate), would possibly collapse the adversarial culture in our country.