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.

The Mind is Not a Computer

February 25, 2008


I have just begun reading a fascinating book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge by the Nobel Laureate, Gerald Edelman. I wish that this book had been around thirty years ago when I was stuck in the philosophical quagmire known as “analytic philosophy of mind.” This would have been my Bible! As it was, I could only struggle on my own, a single undergraduate, towards a point of view that was pretty much rejected as irrelevant by the philosophic “giants” by whom I was being taught.

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! The mechanistic metaphor is so deeply embedded in our intellectual culture that this notion seems far fetched, wacky, at first if you are the type of person who has been seriously contemplating the riddles of consciousness. For many, the computer has seemed to be the best, if not the perfect model on which to draw for explanations of mentality.

In his book, right up front, Edelman makes the point that the brain, which is the primary seat of mind, is nothing like any machine. It is not like any machine humans have ever have, or would ever think of designing. To call it a machine, however poetically, is to do violence to the facts of biology and neuroscience. Why?

A computing machine runs on a clock – tick – tock – tick…each click of the microprocessor (that’s what all those GHtz specifications in the sales sheets are about, the clock speed of the central processor) sets up the machine to do another teeny part of the programmed algorithm…in order…in sequence. The brain has no such clock. It is massively parallel and massively redundant. The same result can be reached through an infinitude of computing paths. Not only that, the results of the previous activity-state, change the current state and future results. (When we train, we force a groove as it were, into our brain so that something, mental activity, physical motion of a certain sort, becomes easier, unconscious…) No machine behaves this way or is even conceived of to behave this way.

So, the machine metaphor is inadequate, and unecessary, for explanations of mind and consciousness. What a relief!

Free Will, and All That …

February 10, 2005

“Who is Number 1?”
“You are Number 6.”
“I am not a number. I am a free man!”


Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I …Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?

Two views of freedom for us poor pismires crawling about the surface of the globe. The Prisoner knows he is a free man, while Melville’s Ahab sees his actions as the movements of a puppet on a string, a string pulled by God, or something, perhaps the blind material universe. His insane murderous behavior is not his fault, it was caused, determined, preordained outside of his powers of volition.  I’ve been thinking about this free will jazz for a while, about thirty years. It occurred to me that something I said in my post about the so-called Intelligent Design theory might be said of free will, to wit, when you stop assuming it exists, you don’t see it anymore. That’s what some folks would argue about free will anyway, that it’s an illusion, that we are all, in fact, some sort of thinking automata that wonder if we have will and volition. Noooo. I don’t think so.

When a person becomes convinced of the soundness of evolutionary theory, he or she stops seeing design in nature, it’s true, but the person will also stop talking about design. Yes, they may say, “nature designed this in such a way..,” but that’s just shorthand for long phrases such as, “the random variation of types was winnowed by natural selection over a long period of time to yield…” Darwinians don’t believe in design in nature. People who claim to have demonstrated the illusory nature of free will still, however, use terms like choice, we, I, think, and so on. “When we make choices, we think we are free, but all our actions are as determined as the plunk and click of billiard balls moving about on a table.”  How can you speak of choice without free will?  Do thermostats make a choice when they go on as the temperature rises?  No, their actions are determined by physical law.  So, unless you think that people and their minds are machines like those we see about us, and unless you think that we never choose, you can’t claim not to believe in free will.

The issue of free will shouldn’t even be discussed – let’s ban it!  It’s a question badly framed at too high a level of abstraction.  First we have to decide what consciousness is, or mentality, because that’s what we think distinguishes us from purely deterministic machines.  Free will is just that question in another form.  And beyond that, there is the deeper question of what is determinism itself, what is causality, and what is time?  Free will is trivial if you can deal with those.

I like to say that the notion of free will requires determinism.  We act for reasons, acts are ‘determined’ by reasons, otherwise they would be random.  And random acts are not what we usually think of as the products of conscious volition.  So without strict determinism, there is no free will because there is no will.  Will is a determinate principle, whatever that means.  David Hume made sort of this argument when he said that the dispute was purely semantic and that our acts were free and determined.  Free in that that were not constrained, determined in that they had reasons.  I happen to agree with this for the most part but I don’t think it goes far enough in explaining why the anti-free will position just makes no sense.  I’m going to start by digressing onto a topic that I usually avoid, quantum physics.

I’ve just been reading an absolutely marvelous little book by Richard Feynman called The Character of Physical Law.  Feynman is brilliant, profound, and funny all at once, and if you think you’re not the type to read treatises by quantum physicists, this is the book for you.  Really – it was actually written for you!  The reason I avoid discussing quantum physics is because I’m sick of hearing people who don’t appear to know any more about about physics than I do say things like, “Of course, this applies to everything except the quantum level,” or “Of course, that only applies at the quantum level.”  I don’t know that much about physics, but it always seems to me that these arguments are kind of like deus ex machina.  And then, I wonder, how valid can an argument about everyday life be if it has to rely on quantum physics for a justification?  Something seems out of whack.

Now thinking again about that beefeater, David Hume, I’ve come up with a new thought: People get all hot and bothered about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle because they feel it contradicts what they know to be true about life.  What if it were just a confirmation of what we knew to be true?  What if life is not predictable, not determinate, but is sort of random?  And how does that square with what I said earlier?

Hume examined the notion of cause in detail and found that he couldn’t really pin it down.  A causes B because event A always precedes event B.  More than that, there is nothing to say about what cause is, anymore than we say what gravity is.  (Or what is is?)  We arrive at the notion of causality through induction, i.e., by watching and observing the same sequence happen over and over, and then drawing the conclusion that A causes B, but we cannot prove that someday A won’t cause B, or that B will happen without A happening first.  Notice that causality seems to work in one direction, forward in time (whatever that means.)  Hume is rather skeptical about this notion of cause, although he recognizes its utility, and he does not believe that it can be justified in any genuine way other than that it seems to be quite useful.  So, what if cause is an illusion?  Then the notion that we have no free will would be an illusion, wouldn’t it?  And wouldn’t free will be impossible since I claimed that it requires determinism?  No again, causality and determinism are not the same thing.

The conflating of predestination, determinism, and causality is a big problem with all of these discussions, but right now I want to point out that while causes appear, to us, to work forward in time, determinism always seems to be after the fact – something figured out in hindsight.  “Aha,” we say, “Now I see why that happened…because this, then that, then those, then finally this!”  This is exactly how it is with free will:  A person makes a choice; we ask why?  The person gives reasons; the anti-free will philosophers say, “Your choice was determinedby those reasons. You have no free will. It was all determined.”  But discerning determining circumstances is not the same as demonstrating causality.  If we didn’t have reasons for acting, we wouldn’t have a will, but having reasons doesn’t mean our choices were unfree.

Into this rambling discussion I now must vent my wrath against the sizable community of counter-factualists, those people who worry and wonder about what would have happened if Hitler hadn’t overslept on D-Day, if Richard’s horse hadn’t lost a nail, if John Wilkes Booth had missed his target, and so on.  You can wonder, but you can’t make much sense if you try to predict the future of the past as if the past had been different.  I have to fall back on my ironclad law of historical causation: Things happened as they did because that’s how they happened.  It wasn’t predetermined, it wasn’t predictable, it wasn’t predestined, and it only seems deterministic in hindsight.  But it was all caused, one piece at a time, and each free choice was determined by reasons one at a time. We really have to keep these concepts separate since they may not even make all that much sense taken one at a time.

If Hitler hadn’t overslept, perhaps NOTHING would have changed.  And if Hitler had died in that bomb plot, perhaps NOTHING would have changed, except he would have died.  We can’t even begin to say something sensible about this, except to carefully speculate on what the possibilities were.  (It was not possible that Martians would lead the Nazis to victory!)  And no matter how much data we have on what the situation was, and what the possible choices were (what is an impossible choice?) we can’t make any sensible statement (determination) about what counter-factual thing might have happened.  Call it Lichanos’ Historical Uncertainty Principle if you like.

So finally, I get back to Richard Feynman, who was explaining in his little book the well known puzzler about the electrons shooting through the sheet of metal with two holes in it, and interference patterns and all that, and it comes down to the simple inexplicable fact that you just can’t tell which hole an electron is going to come through as they pop out toward the sheet.  Just no way to predict, no matter what you know about the total situation.  Might be this one, might be that one.  “Nature herself does not know,” is how Feynman quotes one physicist.  Now this reminds me of another situation, much more familiar to readers of magazines and newspapers:

Two boys growing up next door to one another in a very poor, crime ridden neighborhood.  Same age, same family status, same education, same…everything!  One goes on to become a hood, and ends up badly, in jail for murder.  No surprise, it was a foregone conclusion, social determinism, environmental determinism, etc. etc.  The other one goes on to become a doctor and spends his life setting up free clinics for children all over the world, has a beautiful, brilliant doctor wife, and five lovely children.

Why one, and not the other?  Now, I’m not saying the environment doesn’t count, because it obviously changes and can constrict the choices available to one, but one still has choices.  Even with a gun to your head you can choose to obey your torturer or to die – it’s a bad set of choices, but you have a choice.  But maybe life is not deterministic as we usually take that word, and this is just one more example of it.  And maybe the world is not deterministic in the way that we think our notions of causation make us see it, and Feynman’s puzzler is just one little example of that.  Maybe…the electron…and the poor boys…are behaving in much the same manner.  (I don’t mean the electrons choose, but that both are not deterministic in the simple, can-be-predicted way we think of it usually.)  You see, we covet choice in the world, and want to get rid of it too.  Choice for people, causality and determinism for thermostats.  Maybe causality and determinism aren’t quite what we think for all and everyone.  Freedom for all!

[A simple thought-experiment: A man faces two doors; which will he pick?  He picks the red one: Aha, it was determined because of this, that, and the other thing, including his childhood experiences with … But if he had picked the blue door, we would have made the same comments mutatis mutandi, we would have found a string of determining circumstances, so what does this tell us about anything?]

And what about randomness?  Huh, what about it?  What the hell is that?  Does anyone even try to explain why if I take 10,000 ball bearings and drop them in the top of a device with a grid of pegs over which they bounce as gravity pulls them down they will fall out the bottom and always make a bell-shaped distribution as they pile up?  Even if I drop each one in exactly the same way?  Is randomness some sort of effect of hidden causes, or, could it be, like those electrons? Just some irreducible fact of nature?  It seems that with ball bearings, as with poor boys, the same determining factors can lead to different outcomes.  (That’s not choice, but surely it leaves room for choice.  But what makes the choice?  What is the will after all?  Arrrrgghh!!)  Which would mean that our notion of cause should probably be more like David Hume’s than the rock-solid axiom we think it is.  Which means that free will isn’t so odd in the context of a ‘deterministic’ universe, and quantum effects are not so odd either.

The best book I ever read on this topic, before Feynman, was by Erwin Schrodinger, who certainly knew this stuff.  A wonderful little book, in which he said that when your ideas lead you to conclude that matter acts simultaneously as a particle and a wave, and that this causes contradictions, then it’s time to come up with a different notion of matter.

Sometimes I wonder if all these questions aren’t just a problem of scale.  As the scale of things changes, some things disappear.  As we walk around, we are not aware of quantum effects at the sub-atomic level; we aren’t even aware of molecules, not to mention that we are oblivious to the fact that matter is mostly empty space.  What if the same sort of effects relate to time – what would that do to our notion of causality and determinism?  As we ‘zoom’ our time-scale out to the enormous, everything would appear to be happening at more or less the same time, wouldn’t it?  Events that seem of long duration now become an eye-blink. Stretches of intervening time between events become eye-blinks. (Remember that eye blinking as Dave makes his descent to Jupiter in 2001?)  And finally, everything is happening simultaneously. What came before what? If you don’t know, you can’t talk about causes. And if an event is always happening, or has always happened, e.g. the universe has always been here, then it was never caused at all, which is how some medieval philosophers demonstrated that there could be an event without a cause, which might or might not have been God…

I don’t pretend to know the meaning of what I just wrote there, but I do think our notions of time are very crude, and have only changed slightly in the last 100 years since Einstein gave them a jolt. Things may change a lot more in very many ways. Meanwhile,

It’s my life and I’ll do what I want
It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want
Show me I’m wrong…