“Now that I think about it, I’m not that religious after all”

According to a much-trumpeted new study, rational thinking has a negative effect on the strength of religious belief.

Well, gee, really? Isn’t that the whole idea behind rational thinking? Do we really need a new study to tell us this? Many religious leaders and almost all atheists readily agree that religious belief is more a feeling than a thought, more emotion than analysis. 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?

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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

Trying to wrap up consciousness by boxing up the brain

An article published by Nature on February 23rd highlights Henry Markram’s proposal to spend €1,ooo,ooo,ooo to create a supercomputer simulation “that integrates everything known about the human brain, from the structures of ion channels in neural cell membranes up to mechanisms behind conscious decision-making.”

To say that Markram’s idea is controversial is to state the very obvious.

Who is this guy, and why does he want to corner most of the available research money for a project that many believe will spend tons of effort and cash on what may be the wrong approach to brain science in the first place? Continue reading

What if we never figure out mind?

One issue raised in the last article was how much it matters whether or not we can ever understand human consciousness fully.

British philosopher and founding “mysterian” Colin McGinn continues to believe that we can’t.

In “All machine and no ghost?” (New Statesman, Feb 20, 2012) McGinn challenges his readers to try to imagine a world without consciousness. “Now add consciousness to it.” Continue reading

Solos and choruses, swordfights and death scenes

In a recent series of articles, I’ve tried with limited success to explain the conception of consciousness that seems to me to be the most reasonable. Some common metaphors come easily to mind, but they’re not really satisfactory.

The brain may be a processor, but mere processing is not consciousness, or this netbook would be asking for a coffee break about now. And a flowing stream is more unidirectional than it should be.

So I’ve been looking for a different conceptualization. While I was listening to music the other day, a very different metaphor came to mind, one that comes much closer to what all the research suggests is going on. I’m not claiming that it’s a point for point analogy, but even that could maybe be accomplished, with a little fudging and a lot of indulgence. Continue reading

Getting wired — slowly — is good for our brains

All last week, I wrote about the debate over the extent to which our brains are different from other primate brains.

There is new empirical data, and there are scientists eager to integrate the emerging information into their own work.

According to an extensive new study, the cognitive capabilities of human brains may outstrip those of our primate relatives because of a combination of the brain’s plasticity and our longer childhoods.

The idea is that early neuronic connections are stimulated by experiences, and that the extra years that we humans spend as immature children give us significantly more opportunity than chimps and macaques have to “wire up.” Continue reading