R.I.P. A Real Brainiac!

May 23, 2014


Gerald M. Edelman, Nobel Laureate and ‘Neural Darwinist,’ Dies at 84

“There isn’t going to be any kind of theory of the brain that doesn’t involve elements of his ideas. The brain is never — never has been or ever will be — in the same state twice, and will never encounter the same environmental cues twice. What’s attractive about his model is that it tries to address that reality.”

From earlier posts:

I’m not going to go into a detailed account of Zen ideas or Edelman’s here, but one remark is cogent: He suggests that consciousness has no causal consequences – it does nothing!

 Edelman makes the important and emphatic point that the brain is not a computer. He is dismissive of artificial intelligence as it is practiced today, although he expects, eventually, that an artificial mind will be created…it just won’t be a machine!


Mind-Body Milestone!

May 16, 2012

Bodies Inert, They Moved a Robot With Their Minds

Scientists said a tiny brain implant allowed two quadriplegic people to manipulate a robotic arm with just their thoughts.


Just noticed this story in the NYTimes – a wonderful medical advance!  I do feel the need to point out, however, that I move my inert body parts with just my mind/thoughts every moment of the day.  How else is a person supposed to get around?

Gray Matter

March 22, 2012

Reading Eric Kandel’s wonderful book, In Search of Memory, I recalled the marvellous little Dan Reeder ditty from his first CD:


The book is fascinating, and even exciting.  As the Times reviewer noted: 

If there is another book that does a better job of demonstrating how biological research is done, or of telling the story of a brilliant scientist’s career, I don’t know it. Nor do I know one that better conveys the unique excitement that drives the success of research . . . or that gives a better descriptive narrative of the historical evolution of our understanding of mind

The fact that he seems to endorse the philosophical views of my undergraduate bête noir, Thomas Nagel, is a minor point.  (I skimmed ahead to find this out.  Maybe I’ll feel differently on a full reading.)

Kandel notes that memory is of two kinds:  the type that we use consciously (Who was the first president?); and the unconscious kind, e.g. remembering how to ride a bike after not doing it for years.  This was a very important discovery in neuroscience, and it has philosophical implications.  He notes that Gilbert Ryle, in 1949, discussed the two kinds of knowledge:  knowing what, and knowing how.  I wonder… are they really so different?  As Julian Jaynes  pointed out, a lot of what passes for conscious ratiocination, e.g. logic, is not that at all.

I also enjoyed reading Kandel’s discussion of Dr. Galvani’s landmark contribution to the foundations of a science of mind.


October 9, 2010

Weather of the Mind

September 17, 2010

I work right next door to Century 21, a fabulously popular discount department store, famous all over the world.  At one time or another, I have gone through various levels of involvement with the store.  For periods of weeks or months, I have visited it daily on my lunch hour, usually buying a few shirts, a belt, socks, or during some stretches, a different pair of shoes each week.  Now, I never go there.  The thought of walking in there bores me stiff.

What changed?  Why did it change?  Oh, you can say I just “got bored,” but why?  Is there some time-dependent mechanism involved?  Can we quantify it, at least for me?  Is it an accumulation of small things adding up to a big, final, ho hum?

Consider all the similar changes that happen over shorter time scales – a month, a week, a day…an hour?  We seem to have no control over them, we just react to them.  Or are simply aware of them.

This seems to wreak havoc with our normal ideas on the nature of the self.  Is our personal mentality simply a mental landscape over which storm fronts and high/low pressure areas shift endlessly, on their own power?  Reason seems to have a small part to play, and is present only because we have abstract language to talk about all this.

I come back to my bedrock conviction that people are more like plants than they like to think.  Free will exists, but there’s less of it than we pretend.  We are just organisms in an environment, responding and surviving.  Even our mental life, about which we are so proud, is hardly of our “own” creation.

Anyone in there?

June 21, 2010

*Is is possible to be wrong about whether or not you are in pain?
*Can a colorblind person know what the rest of humanity experiences when it sees things?
*Can we ever know what it is like to be a bat?

People generally fall into one of two camps on questions of this sort: 

  1. These questions are idiotic, a waste of time, and only really strange and intellectually eccentric people care about them.
  2. These questions are fascinating, albeit strange, and by thinking about them we can start to understand the phenomenon of mentality.

The vast majority of people is in the first camp.  For better or worse, I have always been in the second.  This is the province of the Philosophy of Mind, the discipline that seeks, or pretends to seek clarity regarding our notions of what it means to be conscious, have a mind, be a sentient, perceiving being, and not to be a machine, a robot, or a zombie.   (The latter category of being is much in vogue today, among philsophers of mind.)

I know of no better guide through this morass than Professor Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University.  His 1991 book, Consciousness Explained is the best thing I have ever read on the topic.  His recent short book of lectures that revisits that earlier work, Sweet Dreams:  Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness is a great refresher on his ideas.  The word science is key:  Dennett is trying to use philosophy to clear away intellectual deadwood so that science may advance more rapidly.  He rejects the notion that philosophy has a primary role in formulating an explanation of consciousness, and for this he is labeled as reductionist, materialist, physicalist, mechanist, and several other more or less pejorative terms, some of which he is happy to accept, albeit with qualifications.

As a student of philosophy in college, I became disgusted with the narrowminded and dogmatic point of view that dominated the department, and I left to take a degree in art history.  One  intellectual luminary, who was my personal bête noir, Thomas Nagel, is the subject of frequent, sustained, and devastating criticism by Dennett.  Of course, I love that.  (Nagel’s essay, What is it like to be a bat? , is a “classic” in the field.)

I have seen Dennett on TV, and read opinion pieces of his in the NYTimes, and he has a tendency towards pugnacious and aggressive humor, but he has a right to it.  The people with whom he’s arguing need shaking up.  And he’s right!  At times, as when he discusses atheism, he seems a bit of a crank, but that too is probably a result of arguing with mystics who think they are scientists.  If the arguments of his critics seem, as he presents them, to be utterly ridiculous, that’s because they are.  The bigger question is why they continue to be revered as sophisticated philosophical investigators.

These books are not for those seeking an introduction to the topic, and if you are not familiar with the arcane and involved history of these questions in the philosophical literature, you will find them tough going.  Sorry, but I don’t know any books that do fit that bill.

Brain Science Buddha

March 7, 2008


Reading Edelman’s book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge, I was once again struck by a thought I had many years ago, that the Zen Buddhists are much better epistemologists than the academic nosepickers that I had been studying for years. First of all, they are down-to-earth, and have no investment in building grand systems. They laugh at that. Then, they are very attentive to actual, lived human experience, as opposed to the textbook examples that pose all problems in terms of the introspective, highly-educated philosopher pondering the mystery of his own intelligence. They recognize the power of the reason, language, culture, and its limitations. They don’t ignore their intuition that something else lurks behind all this intellectual chatter, but they don’t accept it uncritically either.

I’m not going to go into a detailed account of Zen ideas or Edelman’s here, but one remark is cogent: He suggests that consciousness has no causal consequences – it does nothing! It can affect nothing. Sounds like a retreat into Cartesian dualism, but although he’s rather fuzzy on these points, I don’t think it is. He is a nouveau epiphenomenalist. What does consciousness do? It informs us of our brain-states, which brings understanding. Here we have a great similarity to the zen attitude: just sit, meditate, and observe your mind jumping about. It does nothing. Means nothing, just produces chatter. Meanwhile, the being moves on. Our consciousness is like a rider holding on to a bucking bronco, but thinking he is controlling it. Much wiser to just pay attention to the beast, and take care.

Edelman also deals with the question of free will, but his treatment of it is so brief and cursory, it’s a bit of a shock. I must assume that he simply finds the question boring. And in truth, I think it has nothing at all to do with consciousness. The question of free will is entwined with our notions of causality and determinancy, which are logically prior to anything human.