Co-operation adds up, the math says

I’ve been reading Jonathan Haidt and Edward O. Wilson this week, so it was serendipitous to run across a very different take on one of their favourite topics — the dynamics of co-operation.

“Does it pay to be nice? – the maths of altruism ” by Rachel Thomas was published in two parts by +Plus magazine on April 23rd. The article highlights the work of Harvard biologist and mathematician Martin Nowak, who has long applied mathematical analysis to such classic co-operation exercises as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”
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To understand consciousness, look at a rainbow?

There’s been a lot written here about consciousness lately. And there’s been much, much more in the popular science press.

For example, the April 20th issue of New Scientist contains an article titled “We’re Closing in on Consciousness in the Brain.”

In the article, Christof Koch, a colleague of Francis Crick in devising the idea that there are “neuronal correlates of consciousness” (NCC), claims that NCC are “the minimal neuronal mechanisms – the synapses, neurons and brain regions – that are jointly sufficient for any one conscious percept.”

You’ll notice that this claim makes no reference to the rest of the body, much less to the rest of the world outside the brain. This is the prototypical “the mind is the brain” conception.

And, according to robotics expert Riccardo Manzotti, it’s completely wrong.
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Conservative Morlocks, Liberal Eloi — does psychology explain politics?

As the U. S. settles in for six months of Romney v. Obama (with an interruption for the Zimmerman trial in Florida), all of the psychologists who want to be political pundits — and all of the political pundits who want to be psychologists — are wasting no time getting their message out there.

And last week’s loudest message was a rehash of research that purports to show that we’re not conservative or liberal because we’re rational beings who have been convinced by the merits of the arguments for and against.

Oh no. We were, in the words of almost every headline writer, “Born This Way.”
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Language v. Science

A reference to Max Bennett and Peter Hacker in one of the articles I reviewed last time prompted me to read more.

Now that I’ve finished Neuroscience and Philosophy, I’m compelled to write just one more article about the assaults on neuroscience mounted by philosophers and the like. This is the last one of these for a while. I promise.

Neuroscience and Philosophy (N&P, hereafter) is the book form of a conference debate between Max Bennett and Peter Hacker, on one side, and Daniel Dennett and John Searle, on the other.

The essence of the dispute: Is it right to say that consciousness happens in the brain, that the brain thinks and feels? For language philosopher Hacker and neuroscientist Bennett, the answer is an unqualified “No.” For Dennett and Searle, it’s a qualified “Yes.”

N&P is not new, having been published in 2003, but it’s new to me, and, like the “brave new world” of Miranda, it’s full of strange creatures. Continue reading

Two more non-scientists criticize neuroscience

The defenders of culture, beauty, and subjectivity are at it again, toiling to save civilization — and us — from a bleak, science-infested future.

Two recent examples from England, where this battle seems most energetically joined, are articles by Roger Scruton and George Walden.

The articles have different emphases, but taken together they illustrate the literati’s fear of the cold and inhuman scourge of “scientism.” Continue reading

Fiction on the brain

When we read a novel, the same areas of the brain activate as those that light up when we encounter something similar in the real world.

Smell a lilac, or read about the scent of lilacs — it’s pretty much all the same to our brains.

This fact is interesting enough on its own, but does it also have implications for “representational” theories of consciousness? Continue reading

Can other animals help us understand our emotions?

We often attribute feelings and emotions to members of other mammalian species.

Our  dogs are loyal, while our cats are haughty. Orcas who live in aquarium tanks miss the open sea, and chimpanzee mothers mourn for infants that have died.

The list goes on and on.

Entire ethical movements are based on a belief that cultivated animals feel pleasure and pain in the same ways that we do. One current example is the push to recognize higher animals like dolphins and chimpanzees as “intelligent non-human persons.”

But how much can we learn about our own emotions by looking for emotions in  animals? Is there a better way to do comparative studies?

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Proposing an extremely embedded mind

A number of recent posts have focused on the origins and nature of consciousness. These articles have more or less favoured or disfavoured various degrees of reductionism.

We’ve seen one extreme, Markram’s proposal to generate a computer model of our entire knowledge of how the human brain functions. It seems only fair to take a look at the other end of the continuum. So today’s piece features a social science view that aims to smash once and for all the world-brain barrier.

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Five writers tackle the issue of God

Coincidentally, another periodical published last week a series of articles on one subject. Last time, it was free will.

This time, it’s God.

On March 21st, New Scientist made temporarily available online five articles from, and on, “The God issue.” The pieces’ authors include well-known apologists and atheists, pundits and professors. Like the free will pieces, these short God essays exhibit a wide range of interest in the question of the origins of belief in God. Continue reading

A free discussion of free will

Despite its frequent academic navel gazing and elitist condescension, The Chronicle Review manages to publish some pieces of broader scope and interest.

This time they’ve outdone themselves, producing a series of six short but engrossing articles on the subject of “free will.”

The articles, published online March 18th,  feature scientists, philosophers, and moralizers of various stripes– and these authors assume as wide a range of positions on the subject at hand. Taken together, the six short pieces are a useful summary of the key free will questions. Continue reading