Monday, 24 February 2020

Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience by M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker



This book was written by a neuroscientist and a philosopher. I am qualified in neither of those disciplines, so I can't give it a full specialist review. But it was written for the non-philosophical public, especially neuroscientists. I'm sure I'm not on my own in consuming interpretations of neuroscience, so here's my two penn'orth.

Much of what scientists say about neuroscience is highly dubious; that's what this book is about - unpicking the meaningless statements that experts have made. The philosophy author, Dr Hacker, is a specialist in Wittgenstein-style analysis of statements and claims, and he is trying to return the interpretation of neuroscientific data to the terms of lived human experience, so that it actually makes sense in plain English.

I've thought for a long time that there's a lot of nonsense in what are presented as the 'findings' of neuroscience. We get headlines such as 'yes it's true we really do (eg - 'fall in love'; insert here any normal human experience) brain scans show it.' There's an obvious confusion of levels here, and the ideology of such statements is that we know nothing, and science knows all. Embodied wisdom is nothing, scientific discourse everything. Science will eventually know all (with sufficient funding, presumably). The underlying philosophical confusion goes back a long way, to Descartes, usually, and our culture's reluctance to go beyond his substance dualism.

So for instance, in stead of attributing behaviour or thought to a person, the writer attributes it to a brain. They write 'the brain thinks' or 'the brain decides' and so forth. This Hacker rejects as the 'mereological fallacy', the misattribution of the action of a whole to one of its parts.

This kind of thinking is not unrelated to the abyss that reductionism opens into. Not only are superfluous entities rejected, as per William of Ockham, but much of how we frame our experience is chopped away too. This is the kind of thinking that sets up a straw man of 'folk psychology' to slay, this being a false representation of ordinary language grounded in immediate, lived experience.

The most extreme tendency in this discourse is the eliminativism of such writers as Daniel Dennet. Faced with the so-called 'hard problem' of consciousness and its relationship to matter, instead of seeing that this 'hard problem' is an artefact of Cartesian dualism they proceed to deny the reality of anything called consciousness.

Fortunately, most people's minds reject eliminativism as a deeply flawed idea. The mental immune system knows it's nonsense. But because some people are convinced by it, Bennett and Hacker show us how to slay this chimera, by patient analysis of the language used. There's a whole appendix on exactly how Dennett is wrong.

It seems to me that much of the horror of the current culture is based on such anti-human notions, so eliminating eliminativism is an important philosophical task. Bennett and Hacker show that in fact the arguments for eliminativism are so transparently poor that only an ideologue would be taken in.

But that ideology is a terrifying thing, nothing less than the elimination of any respect for human subjectivity. Were it to succeed, it would be the triumph of the Expert, the High Priest of the deepest lies ever told - that your subjective experience is meaningless and irrelevant. Anyone who is not chilled to the marrow by this kind of thinking has simply not looked closely at it.

Such thinkers, the religious zealots of Scientism, want to squash the human world down to a tiny part of its true span, not in the spirit of bringing something up close to examine it - that's good science - but in the spirit of eliminating the rest, the parts that can't be fitted into the Procrustean bed of some dualist theory. This is part of a colonization of inner realities that was well under way with Christianity and continues forward into its offspring, Scientism. This colonization results in the destruction of the personal authority that comes from having a meaningful inner world. Which of course suits those in power.

The authors credit neuroscience interpretations where credit is due, acknowledging that neuroscience is great at neurological interpretations of sickness. This has led for instance to some useful improvements in ideas around depression.

I don't agree with everything these authors write. Their very approach is the sort that can slide into nit-picking, and it seems to me that that is what happened in their discussion on memes. This term was coined by Dennett's co-religionist Richard Dawkins and, although Dennett uses the concept as a tool to eliminate subjectivity, and they rightly criticise this, the term is quite a useful neologism. Also their arguments against a private inner world seem odd; it seems perfectly obvious to me that we do have private mental domains. Maybe I didn't understand what they are getting at.

I've written this review more to get the subject out of my system than to recommend the book. I read it because Alan Chapman recommended it to me after a discussion about the bearing neuroscience has on spiritual awakening, and I'm glad I read it. So I'd only recommend it if the stuff that neuroscience interpreters write annoys you as much as it does me in the way it so misses the point, and you'd like some tools to help them with their confusion, or blow them out of the water.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Jeffrey Kripal's The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge


In about 1980 one of Robert Anton Wilson's books, I forget which, had a cartoon in it, of a hippie juxtaposed against a scientific looking type. The caption was: Hey man, are you only using half your brain? As an acidhead with a science degree, I liked this; it was part of the drama of early chaos magic, or at least that's how I saw what we were doing, combining the rigour of science with openness to magical experience. For too long, people had either been space cadets who'd believe any old flim-flam, as long as it had shiny bits and rainbows on it, or 'hard-headed' science types, who rejected anything they couldn't measure.

So when I picked this book up (as the result of listening to Kripal interviewed by Gordon White), I was already someone who'd been there, done that and worn out the t-shirt decades before. And I wasn't much impressed with the first couple of chapters, in which he writes about various scientists who'd gone through some epiphany or other, left behind their naïve Scientism and adopted a spiritual perspective. The kind of epiphany that frees the scientist from Scientism he calls the flip, hence the book's title. Sure, these were interesting experiences, but was this to be just another of those books that lists some people's weird moments?

No, it's more than that. A lot more. Kripal shows scientists who continue practising science without the dumb religion of Scientism, in which anything that you can't do in the lab doesn't actually exist, thereby deleting the majority of human experience. And he also shows how their philosophies are breaking new ground, even to the extent of giving us a glimpse of what a future intellectual culture might look like, with neither science nor magic and religion being rejected.

He outlines the ideas of a few key thinkers in flip-world, classifying the extent of their departure from Scientism. The first stop he notes on this journey is panpsychism, which is getting to be quite popular with scientific thinkers - not as the answer to everything but as something considerably more realistic than Cartesian dualism. 

His second stop is dual-aspect monism, in which both matter and consciousness are aspects of a third, deeper principle. This is a philosophical standpoint with a lot of pedigree. It can also be seen as a favoured metaphysics for chaos magic, in that mind and matter both arise from chaos.

His third stop is quantum mind. Now I must confess to being a bit over most of the 'quantum physics = cosmic consciousness' stuff; that was being peddled back in the 1980s too, along the lines of 'Look, quantum physics shows you can believe in magic now!', and the metaphor is getting a bit threadbare. But Kripal follows Alexander Wendt in insisting it's not a metaphor, but that quantum metaphysics can rescue us from the prison of dualism.

His fourth metaphysics is cosmopsychism. He expounds the 'priority monism' of Philip Goff, 'the top-down view that the one and only fundamental entity in the universe is the universe itself, and that all conscious subjects are partial aspects of this more fundamental unified subject.'

The fifth and final, the furthest departure from Scientism, is idealism, the 'position that mind is fundamental and that matter is an expression or manifestation of some cosmic or universal mind.' This is another metaphysics with an ancient pedigree in both Western and Eastern philosophies. This is where it gets exciting. AI researcher Bernardo Kastrup writes of the role of imagination in forming the world:

'... in consensus reality synchronization emerges across the imaginations of multiple conscious entities, so to form a coherent shared picture. The constraints entailed by such emergent synchronization may be what we call the laws of physics. Perhaps the apparently fixed mechanisms of nature are merely an epiphenomenon; an emergent property of the sympathetic harmonization of different imaginations, imagination itself being the true primary substance of reality.'

Now that's my kind of talk. We can continue to do science without being Mr Stupid. Scientism is profoundly dehumanizing; Kripal defends the arts against Scientism's zealots who would relegate the arts to a secondary, unimportant human activity where in fact he shows the humanities to be prophetic in nature:
'In the humanities, the truths discerned almost always offend or violate the status quo and the comfortable... This is precisely why these truths are so important'

These shifts in culture will not be easy:
'I am certain that many will consider my emphasis in this book on extreme religious experiences and anomalous states of consciousness an eccentric means to argue for the future centrality of the humanities, much less the irreducible nature of consciousness. I make no apologies. We must be bolder. We must proceed through an intentional and systematic ontological shock if we are ever going to arrive at the future of knowledge.' [My emphasis]

This is where it gets exciting for the future of culture. Our present culture is Scientism-based, and its basic philosophy is that we live on a bleak prison planet where all that matters is individual survival and greed for more stuff. That culture does seem to be in its death throes. For the last few years, I've been asking myself what a culture could look like that had spiritual awakening at the invisible centre point of its cultural mandala.

The values I would see reflected in the culture include an attitude to the world that doesn't just see it as resources for humans to exploit, but as a thing in itself, a thing which has its own sacredness. A society in which human life is valued for its own sake rather than what people can produce.
A massive shift away from materialism.

This book has part of the answer: once we learn to value mystical experience and its implications for how the world really is, we will have to undo much of the intellectual world of Scientism. This will give us the opportunity to learn to live as what we really are. Kripal calls this cosmic humanism.

The Flip is a shard of a possible brighter future. What this future requires from us is a little optimism about the possibility of integration of science and spiritual reality. In these stupid and scary times, that might seem like a big ask. But it's what we need, and it's happening out there. Kripal shows how broad the movement is, how many professional scientists are making brave attempts to integrate their science with their cosmic experiences. Sure, these are a specialist subset of the population, but hopefully books like this can spread these ideas to lay readers.

Should you buy this book? Yes, if you're interested in science, in (readable and relevant) philosophy and want to think about what the next stage of civilization might look like. Yes, if you want to find real things to take heart about in the fertile chaos of the world.