The compelling complexity of the mind

I’ve been accessing online courses for a while now. I like that I can learn as much or as little as I wish about any subject out there, with no mandatory tests, essays, or lab reports. And without any direct cost.

The most recent course that I’ve been following is “Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life,” by Dr. Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago. This is not the place to go to find sophisticated presentation or innovative instructional methodology, but there sure is a lot of detail.

So much detail, in fact, that I come away from each session with two fundamental thoughts. First, we sure are a smart bunch of primates to be able to figure out all of this stuff. Second, the brain — and the mind it creates — is one damned complicated place.
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Doing the math on mythic literature

Some people in the softer sciences, including much of psychology, are very wary of “reductionism,” the practice of understanding via an analysis of the interaction of the parts of complex systems.

Yet there are scientists, especially statistical mathematicians, who love to tear apart complex systems as a way of classifying or codifying them.

So it’s not entirely surprising that a group of mathematicians has applied statistical analysis to mythic literature. In an article titled “Universal Properties of Mythological Networks,” a team from Coventry University has analysed three classical myths to see how much their historicity can be established statistically.

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Study links altruism to specific brain site

What accounts for differences in the level of altruism we display? Why are some people generous, while others are not? 

Some of the answer is surely cultural, as there are marked differences between cultures in the frequency and forms of altruistic behaviour. But a new study, published in the July 12th issue of Neuron and reported online last week, shows that there is a measurable physical component to altruism. People who are more altruistic have more grey matter in a particular part of their brains, and that region is more active in them than in people who are less altruistic.

The Neuron study shows for the first time that there is a connection between altruism and the anatomy and activity of the brain.
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Is neuroscience the next “great tragedy of Science”?

The great tragedy of Science —
the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Human behaviour is so complex – and feels so personal – that some thinkers believe that empirical methodologies will never be able to explain it fully, even if “explain” is correctly understood to mean understanding “what” and “how” rather than “why.”

Yet the research keeps coming, and as it does, the likelihood increases that the good kind of reductionism, the kind that uncovers the more basic structures that underlie the more complex, will someday lead to a thorough knowledge of how what we do works – including what we think and feel.
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A commitment to the natural and the observable

Way back, near the start of this blog more than a year and a half ago, I posted an article titled “Science: not just another religion.”

In that article I agreed with Richard Dawkins’s contention that science, unlike religion, doesn’t give unyielding precedence to tradition and authority, and it doesn’t give any credence to claims grounded in faith or revelation.

Having recently finished viewing a full 24 hours of video lectures and discussions from the 2006 and 2007 “Beyond Belief” conferences — not consecutively, in case you were curious — I’d like briefly to pursue a somewhat more nuanced version of Dawkins’s claim. This seems especially relevant in the context of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

What I won’t do is to slacken in any way my thoroughgoing commitment to the supremacy of the natural and the observable as the only true reality. What I hope to do is examine the nature of that commitment itself, as an epistemological stance — there is no other way to know — and as a heuristic — there is no other way to know.
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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

Reductionism non absurdum

In one way or another, skipping along the surface or lurking in the shadows, reductionism was part of last week’s series on consciousness, not to mention any number of other postings, recent and not so recent.

To some non-materialists, especially when it comes to the study of consciousness, “reductionism” is an evil methodology that takes the human out of humanity.

But there is reductionism, and then there is reductionism. Continue reading