Room for Doubt: Siri Hustvedt Takes on the Mind-Body Problem

Room for Doubt: Siri Hustvedt Takes on the Mind-Body Problem January 9, 2018

Doubt is not only a virtue in intelligence; it is a necessity.

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Novelist and social critic Siri Hustvedt takes aim at our dogmas in her essay “Delusions of Certainty” from her collection of nonfiction pieces A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind. In this sprawling essay, she explores the way doubt and skepticism go out the window when we’re being told what we want to hear about life, intelligence, technology and society.

The Nature Machine

The old Newtonian idea of the mechanistic universe should have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, but machine metaphors are harder to destroy than killer robots in our tech-obsessed age. We still talk about how the universe works, and use the term mechanism to describe various biological processes. We no longer consider it dehumanizing to be compared to machines; we’re said to be gene machines, for instance, and the computational theory of mind (CTM) is still a popular way of conceptualizing human consciousness. When we start ignoring problems with these oversimplifications, however, machine metaphors quickly become machine fantasies.

With wry wit and a daunting erudition in the literature of biology and neuroscience, Hustvedt examines the problems with the way contemporary researchers and authors have reduced consciousness to neural processes and dismissed any call for a broader definition of mind as “bio-chauvinism.” Researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) have been making predictions for decades that we will have truly intelligent machines any day now. She smirks at the presumption of authors like Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker, the very titles of whose works Consciousness Explained and How the Mind Works flaunt a certainty that’s entirely illusory:

 I do not believe that the “mind” is a jigsaw puzzle of rigid problem-solving mental modules independent of the brain and body. I don’t believe the “body” is a discrete machinery of operating parts that can be described without a relation to what lies beyond its skin, which includes objects, other people, culture, and language. Human beings are mammals with an evolutionary history, and we share much with those other creatures. I don’t believe people are wholly a result of social construction either, beings assembled by the languages of a culture, although they certainly shape us.Whether the mental exists at the level of particle physics I have no idea. What I do know is that subtle thinking requires embracing ambiguity, admitting gaps in knowledge, and posing questions that do not have ready answers.

Bringing the Body Back

What the machine-men forget is the body. Removing the mind from its context in a body was instrumental in helping logicians and computer scientists conceptualize modern computer logic. It does no justice to human consciousness, however, to define it as mere computation. Hustvedt points to copious evidence from research in neuroscience and infant cognition that strongly suggests that the mind is first and foremost part of the body, and develops through physical, interpersonal and cultural activity in the real world.

The disembodied mind is quite literally a classic myth: the ancient Greeks privileged the mind and reason above the emotions. Even in our high-tech millennium, the allure of this false dichotomy is irresistible to researchers and authors who believe they can isolate the rational mind from the messy ambiguity of the body, create a rational universe out of chaos. Hustvedt observes that, although Darwin described a biosphere of contingency and uncertainty, his successors have adopted computer metaphors to create a much different concept of life than the one he envisioned:

In The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Dawkins […] writes, “If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” This often-quoted sentence could never have belonged to Darwin, not only because the father of evolution could not have understood information technology in the way Dawkins does, but because he did not characterize natural processes in mechanistic terms. But exactly what are Dawkins’s vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes? I couldn’t help thinking of familiar images from science fiction movies, in which bubbling, brilliantly colored concoctions are intended to depict life being created artificially. Is Dawkins here referring to biology in general? Are these vibrant throbbing gels and oozes shorthand for our bones and tissues and blood and organs, our cellular makeup? Or is this throbbing gel, as I suspect, an embryo encased in a uterus, what we think of as life’s beginning? Is he telling his reader, if you believe life begins as a yucky, messy, slimy, wet business inside a woman’s body, think again?

Uterus Envy and the Fear of Ambiguity

Maybe the striving to create sentient technology is a compensation for not being able to gestate real life, suggests Hustvedt. The relation between mother and developing child is one fraught with the kinds of emotional significance and indistinct borders that are simply unscientific. The gene-centered view of life de-emphasizes the importance of the mother by attributing the heavy lifting of creating and developing life to the genetic program rather than a woman’s body.

Our modes of inquiry, Hustvedt concludes, are supposed to take us into unknown territory where we’re likely to discover things that make us doubt the way we understand the world. However, it’s all too easy for us to use the trappings of empirical inquiry to validate what we already think; if we’re only conducting research to reinforce our biases, what we discover says more about our mindsets than about the universe.

I’ve merely scratched the surface of this brilliantly written essay here. Hustvedt explains the philosophical background of the hard problem of consciousness very thoroughly, and discusses research concerning mind, brain, and behavior from various lines of inquiry. I can’t recommend A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women highly enough for anyone interested in a mental workout with a probing imagination.

Did anyone else read “Delusions of Certainty” here? Is pop science discouraging us from being sufficiently skeptical of scientific research?

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  • Neko

    I’ve not read it but will put it on my wish list bought it after reading your compelling review (only twelve bucks!). Thanks!

    “If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.

    As a mother, this made me laugh out loud. It is simply, as Dawkins would say, a delusion.

  • Raging Bee

    Dawkins can occasionally seem pretty delusional about his ability to understand other people (especially women) because he’s educated and rational, so it’s INCONCEIVABLE that he could be wrong.

  • Neko

    Yes, his posture toward women leaves much to be desired.

    And this notion of the person as iMac is too funny coming from a man. Right, that’s why entire sporting empires have arisen from redirecting male aggression. I/O

    But maybe I’m being unfair, reading his earnest advice out of context.

  • Incidentally, “bio-chauvinism” isn’t from Dawkins or even mentioned in Hustvedt’s essay. It’s a phrase Douglas Hofstadter used early on in Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book I really thought I was going to like more than I did.

  • Neko

    I haven’t read that book, either.

    I can see following your blog will be an exercise in self-improvement. 🙂

  • John Pieret

    I take no back seat in making fun of the crude determinism of people like Jerry Coyne:

    http://dododreams.blogspot.com/2010/09/acme-philosophy-corp.html

    But … you knew there was going to be a “but” … waiving vaguely at “the body” doesn’t solve the central problem. Our brains are made of the same stuff as the rest of our bodies and both are made of subatomic particles making up atoms making up molecules making up throbbing gels and oozes. And they are all subject to the basic laws of physics, perhaps most certainly in our (selfish) genes, which is the “information technology” that Dawkins is referring to. And those genes and what those throbbing gels and oozes that those genes ultimately shape are both necessary and sufficient to explain our bodies and what they do, including, without more, “consciousness,” whatever that is. Either there will have to be some sort of ghost physics in the machine or some completely different seat of the mind/consciousness other than our bodies to free us from our mechanical selves.

    Now I haven’t read Hustvedt so can you give me a hint what all the research concerning mind, brain, and behavior supposedly tells us about what consciousness is and where and in what it resides?

  • John, thanks for responding. I didn’t mean to imply that Hustvedt had solved the mind-body problem. If anything, she took issue with the hubris of the writers who claimed to have solved it. She talked about how Turing realized that in taking sex and sport out of the mind to create the modern computer, he had created a simulation of a brain. In the same way, mechanistic metaphors and reductionism are simulations of understanding.

    Our brains are made of the same stuff as the rest of our bodies and both are made of subatomic particles making up atoms making up molecules making up throbbing gels and oozes. And they are all subject to the basic laws of physics, perhaps most certainly in our (selfish) genes, which is the “information technology” that Dawkins is referring to. And those genes and what those throbbing gels and oozes that those genes ultimately shape are both necessary and sufficient to explain our bodies and what they do, including, without more, “consciousness,” whatever that is. Either there will have to be some sort of ghost physics in the machine or some completely different seat of the mind/consciousness other than our bodies to free us from our mechanical selves.

    Reductionism has its uses: properties of the water molecule can be explained by things we understand about its constituent atoms and the way they combine. However, consciousness isn’t reducible in the same way. It’s like saying we can only understand computer programs on the level of 0’s and 1’s. No one is denying that the laws of physics and DNA recombination and neurochemistry are involved with consciousness, any more than we could deny that 0’s and 1’s are at the base of every computer program. But saying that physics or genetics or even neuroscience is alone sufficient to explain consciousness and first-person experience is simply not true.

    Neither Hustvedt nor I deny science, or try to say that there’s anything supernatural about consciousness or human endeavor. It’s just that the way that computational theory of mind ignores physical, social and cultural context makes it inadequate as a tool to understand the mind. For the record, Hustvedt says that researchers in neuroscience by and large regard CTM as outdated, but its abiding popularity in pop science literature means it strikes a chord with people who prefer oversimplifications and tech-talk.

    can you give me a hint what all the research concerning mind, brain, and behavior supposedly tells us about what consciousness is and where and in what it resides?

    Not really. What we’re learning about it is that it depends not just on machine logic, but also on the entire body, personal experience, and cultural activity. The languages and symbols we use to interpret our experience aren’t created by us, and so we depend on the way our society conceptualizes phenomena to understand what our experiences even mean. The world we create creates us, as Stephen Jay Gould used to say.

  • John Pieret

    Hustvedt says that researchers in neuroscience by and large regard CTM as outdated

    Statements like that always make me leary. Does she reference any researchers actually saying that in print?

    [Consciousness] depends not just on machine logic, but also on the entire body, personal experience, and cultural activity.

    All too vague to get me excited about a solution to the problem being at hand.

  • Sorry, John, I don’t have the book handy and can’t cite the researchers. But are you implying that you think CTM is a valid scientific construct? Please explain.

    [Consciousness] depends not just on machine logic, but also on the entire body, personal experience, and cultural activity.

    All too vague to get me excited about a solution to the problem being at hand.

    I never said a solution was at hand. Hustvedt is talking about the illusion of certainty that machine metaphors and reductionism produce. The only solution to the problem, as with so many others in history, appears to be to doubt that we’ve conceptualized the problem correctly.

  • John Pieret

    We know that chemical/electrical activity in the brain is highly correlated with what we call thought and we understand how that chemical/electrical activity works well enough that there is no obvious alternative explanation for “thought” and, therefore, “consciousness” than the basic physics generating that chemical/electrical activity. Absent some other mechanism we are, at this point, stuck with reductionism because it is sufficient to explain the phenomena. I don’t feel like a meat puppet but that is hardly evidence. I don’t worry about it much because I don’t know the answer and, fortunately, nobody else really does either.

    I will go on picking at the arguments on both sides simply because that’s still the best way to test them.

  • We know that chemical/electrical activity in the brain is highly correlated with what we call thought and we understand how that chemical/electrical activity works well enough that there is no obvious alternative explanation for “thought” and, therefore, “consciousness” than the basic physics generating that chemical/electrical activity. Absent some other mechanism we are, at this point, stuck with reductionism because it is sufficient to explain the phenomena.

    Um, sure. Except for the explain part.

  • John Pieret

    That assumes that there is anything more to explain than chemical/electrical activity = thought (or what we call “thought”). Chemical/electrical activity certainly is sufficient to explain how and why our bodies move, what we do, what animates us, as the crudest “experiment” of causing that chemical/electrical activity to cease causes all those other things to cease. The “hard problem” of consciousness is demonstrating that there is anything more to thought/consciousness than that chemical/electrical activity.

  • As I said, no one’s denying that there’s chemical/electric activity in the brain. It’s just that chemical/electric activity doesn’t explain anything about consciousness as a first-person experience laden with personal and cultural meaning and significance. If you’re content to handwave away the problem by asserting that brain meat just produces this exhaust called consciousness and that’s all there is to it, then you’re just explaining it away.

  • John Pieret

    This is my last thought on this because we’ve stopped getting anywhere. I’ll just say that you have a strange idea of how scientific investigation proceeds. Your “first-person experience laden with personal and cultural meaning and significance” is inextricably tied up with and reliant on the chemical/electrical activity in your brain from the simple fact that it all disappears (absent appeals to “spiritual” existence) once the chemical/electrical activity of the brain ceases. I know you would like there to be more and, frankly, so would I but I am not waiving away any “problem” when no problem has been demonstrated to exist. All that “first-person experience laden with personal and cultural meaning and significance” is sufficiently explained by our brains ticking over under the basic laws of physics … at least based on what you’ve put forward here. No one is required to demonstrate that the world isn’t the way you’d like it to be.

  • Neko

    Yes.

    #stablegenius Edward Witten agrees there’s more to explain about consciousness than chemical/electrical activity and thinks it will remain mysterious, or at least, mysterious to physics.

    “World’s Smartest Physicist Thinks Science Can’t Crack Consciousness”

    https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/world-s-smartest-physicist-thinks-science-can-t-crack-consciousness/

  • Neko

    This guy Witten is a theoretical physicist and professor of mathematical physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and he sees consciousness as a “problem.” I’m guessing he has some idea of “how scientific investigation proceeds.” (Apologies for the supersized video.)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUW7n_h7MvQ

  • John Pieret

    He’s expressing an opinion and, even if it is an informed opinion, it is just an opinion about what physics might tell us about consciousness sometime in the future. That wasn’t what Shem and I were discussing, which was whether there is now any reason to believe that, based on vague appeals to “first-person experience laden with personal and cultural meaning and significance” the laws of physics are observably insufficient to explain whatever the phenomena we call thought/consciousness is.

  • Neko

    Er, I was responding to your confidence that “no problem has been demonstrated to exist” in regard to consciousness and your indignation at what you describe as Shem’s “strange” grasp of the scientific method and his presumed desire for “something more.” (One shared by Witten’s interviewer, to which Witten replied, “Well, I don’t think my wants and dis-wants [?] have much to do with it.”) By “first-person experience laden with personal and cultural meaning and significance” Shem appears to be referring to something like Witten’s “what it is when we’re experiencing consciousness.”

    Your response is that Witten’s “expressing an opinion” and anyway, he’s talking about the future instead of the present. Yet the problem exists in the present, since physics has yet to explain “what it is when we’re experiencing consciousness.” So, if I understand you, you’re declaring the problem to be a non-problem by fiat. Uh, OK.

  • John, I’m afraid you misunderstand what my point is here. It’s like when Feynman claimed that “Everything human beings do can be understood as the wigglings and jigglings of atoms.” This is about how we define understanding, and I’m just saying that the explanation is lacking. I’m not disputing that all matter is, at its foundation, atoms. I’m not looking for, or hoping for, anything “more.” What I’m disputing is that such reductionist methods are sufficient for us to understand these phenomena. Can Beethoven’s Fifth, or democracy, be understood from the atomic level? Can first-person experience, what it’s like to experience phenomena, truly be understood with reference to electric and chemical activity?

    Nope.

  • John Pieret

    if I understand you, you’re declaring the problem to be a non-problem by fiat.

    No, you are taking what is, at most, some people, not based on evidence but opinion, saying something to the effect that “I don’t understand how physics as we understand it explains something, like ‘consciousness'” which is, itself, without definition (as Witten said) and call that a “problem.” What I have been saying is that you can’t bootstrap your way up that way. You can’t take something that nobody can explain and say that physics can’t explain it when, as I’ve said repeatedly, there is direct and indisputable evidence that physics in the form of the chemical/electrical activity in our brain does control the very existence of whatever it is that we call thought/consciousness. You can’t claim there is an unexplained mystery based on your inability to define a phenomena like “consciousness.”

    I am not saying people shouldn’t try to explain consciousness in whatever way they want to try but don’t tell me I have to demonstrate that physics explains something you cannot even describe or else I’m the one who is handwaving away the issue.

  • John Pieret

    Can Beethoven’s Fifth, or democracy, be understood from the atomic level?

    What do you mean by “understood”? Is there some easy to discern a direct path from subatomic particles to Beethoven’s Fifth? Of course not, anymore than there is an easy to discern direct path from a hot dense singularity at the Big Bang to the universe we see 13.7 billion years later. All those “first-person experiences laden with personal and cultural meaning and significance” are themselves, as far as we can tell, the result of multitudinous inter-reactions of matter acting within the basic laws of physics. There is no easy place where you can “cut-out” reductionism and determinism. Simply expanding the range of those interactions doesn’t do it; nor does pointing out our lack of computation power.

    Anyway, I found Hustvedt’s book at my local library but it’ll take me a few days to read it, I suspect. I doubt it will be some light page-turner.

  • Neko

    You wrote:

    No, you are taking what is, at most, some people, not based on evidence but opinion, saying something to the effect that “I don’t understand how physics as we understand it explains something, like ‘consciousness'” which is, itself, without definition (as Witten said) and call that a “problem.”

    “Some people”? Do you propose the “World’s Smartest Physicist” formed his opinion heedless of evidence that suggests limits to physics’ explanatory power in regard to consciousness? This guy understands as well as anybody how the cosmos works based on science.

    I certainly understand Witten’s hesitancy to define consciousness. He’s extremely precise and exacting, and he may be dissatisfied with the imprecision and elasticity of what we mean by consciousness. However, there is no need to slog through an Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to know we mean something by the it produced by electro-chemical reactions that transcends sensory impressions and mental calculations to produce, for example, self-consciousness.

    You wrote:

    What I have been saying is that you can’t bootstrap your way up that way. You can’t take something that nobody can explain and say that physics can’t explain it…

    Witten said he could be wrong. Hence, it’s a problem. Rome has not spoken, as it were.

  • PD

    Deep down most of us think of ourselves as “Persons” with capacities
    that are not reducible to the complex machinations of matter in motion.
    If I am enjoying a good meal (qualia) I don’t imagine that to be the
    same thing as whatever my brain happens to be doing at that time. In the case of significant activities getting married or deciding to move I
    certainly don’t think that what is happening is simply a manifestation
    of the behavior of “a pack of neurons,” as Francis Crick once put it. No, persons act for reasons rather than from mechanical causation. If I decide to move 2000 miles away and take a new job, it would never occur to me that this is just a subjective manifestation of dancing brain cells. So, the threat of eclipsing personhood and agency is something that needs to be considered when interpreting the neuroscience of consciousness.

    It may be (I think it is) the case that all of the complex phenomena I adduced above *depend* on the regularities of physics. That doesn’t mean that a) physio-chemical events at the micro-level *cause* them to occur as they do, nor that b) they are sufficient as explanations. Mechanical explanations (efficient causes as with one billiard ball hitting another which then accelerates, etc.) seem poorly suited to enable *understandings* of behavior that feature prominently such properties as intentionality, purpose, intersubjectivity, qualia et al.

    Btw, not all physicalists and certainly not all naturalists are reductionists about mental states. Many think in terms of emergent properties, or supervenience. Others think that the best answers are to be found at the biological level, and that further reduction leads to confusion since at the quantum level determinism breaks down (making efficient causation itself problematic). There is much we do not know about these things which still fall under the rubric of philosophy of mind. Many scientists (though not too many neuroscientists) believe that these matters are too complex and/or elusive for empirical science to penetrate now, and possibly at any point. But the fundamental issue here (understanding personal and interpersonal experience, subjective states and so on) is not one that physics sheds much light on. If I want to understand the meaning of the things you type, physics is no help. It’s the wrong level of analysis. Semantics and psychology will be useful, and much will rely on things like hunches, intuition, imagination– terms we can’t “operationalize” for lab experiments, but which we need to describe our best understandings of what we do when we empathize, read each other, formulate hypotheses about each others’ intentions etc.

  • John Pieret

    Please … not an appeal to misplaced authority. First, he is not speaking based on evidence he has produced from his work and, second, there is no reason to believe he is an expert on the equally important issue of “consciousness” (which would be hard anyway, since no one has produced a coherent theory of consciousness, much less evidence remotely convincing on what it is). If you have produced such a theory and supporting evidence that it “transcends sensory impressions and mental calculations to produce, for example, self-consciousness,” defining all your terms along the way, I suggest you publish as soon as possible since a Nobel Prize is waiting for you in Stockholm.

    Anything we want to know more about can be, I suppose, labeled a “problem.” It is not, however, something that shifts any burden to others to explain when there is already a well understood process that is clearly inherently linked to what we call thought/consciousness. If anything, the burden of proof is on those who claim that process isn’t sufficient to demonstrate why the chemical/electrical activity in our brain doesn’t explain what we call thought/consciousness. That was what my point to Shem was.

  • no one has produced a coherent theory of consciousness, much less evidence remotely convincing on what it is

    If anything, the burden of proof is on those who claim that process isn’t sufficient to demonstrate why the chemical/electrical activity in our brain doesn’t explain what we call thought/consciousness.

    Except you’ve never presented anything resembling an explanation. How interesting that, even though no one knows what consciousness really is, you seem positive that it’s just the sort of thing that chemical/electrical activity can produce.

    Delusions of certainty indeed.

  • Neko

    I guess I’m surprised it took you this long to complain of an appeal to authority. And really, in order to speculate on this big question I must offer a (coherent) theory of consciousness? Uh, OK, I’ll get right on it.

    I get your point to Shem, thanks.

  • PD

    This is interesting.

    >>> “I won’t define consciousness because I don’t believe it will become part of physics… Trying to apply Quantum to ourselves makes us very uncomfortable because of our consciousness which seems to clash with that idea.” (Witten)

    I mentioned that problem above, and interestingly he references one of the physicists (Penrose) who *speculates* on a future version of QM which would apply to the brain, and within which the indeterminism I mentioned above might be a basis for such conscious properties as free will. It’s not at all clear that QM indeterminism is compatible with free will. Free will requires dependable sequences in nature such that if event x occurs then it will reliably cause event y to occur (e.g. if I decide to type the word “mystery” then the neuronal events will always reliably link my intention and the result which can be read on the page). Indeterminism allows for gaps in such neuronal sequences, and Penrose hypothesizes there may be a special role for microtubules in making possible a kind of orderly indeterminism which would save us from being determined without leading to gaps in causal chains that would preclude purposeful choices. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3470100/

    A few thoughts on all this… Witten, I think, is right to get to the heart of the matter by saying that even if QM is revised so that we understand certain brain functions better (i.e. understand *how* we function in the ways we do when conscious), that will not shed light on what consciousness is as a phenomenon. Unlike force, distance, acceleration, mass et al., it doesn’t fit inside any formulas or equations since it is not well defined at all. We can use terms like mass, force and others to make predictions that can be tested. How would a term like “consciousness” serve to make predictions if used in equations? I can’t see how. I think this point bothers physicalists when it is raised, which is becoming more and more frequently. Some are led to embrace an odd theory called “neutral monism” in which it is supposed that such things as subatomic particles have the property of “being capable of becoming conscious.” Does that mean anything more than, “inanimate elementary particles can become animate and conscious within systems?” Saying it doesn’t explain a thing even if somehow some such process does actually to occur.

    In a nutshell, none of the constituents of the micro-physical world (e.g. elementary particles) have either the property of a) life and b) sentience *as far as we know*. The thresholds between inanimate matter/energy and life, and between non-conscious and conscious life are *qualitative thresholds* that cannot be explained away by mathematical physics at present. There is simply no warrant to believe that particles are the kinds of things that are alive and sentient when they are located in cells and brains. There’s certainly no reason to believe it is these inanimate and elusive micro-level entities that convey or mediate such qualitative experience and actions as thinking, hoping, believing, desiring, loving, deciding, or cracking jokes.

    So as Witten said, even to understand brain functioning (much less consciousness) will require a *biological* level of analysis and not just physics. Biology at least deals with living beings. How many of those beings (from single-celled organisms to homo-sapiens) are conscious, and how we define that and draw lines is not clear. But it is almost certainly necessary to draw such lines in biological and psychological terms– not subatomic ones.Yet bio and psych don’t have answers to the key questions, a) what is life, b) what is basic awareness and c) what is it that we call unity of experienced consciousness with sense of identity, continuity, efficacy as agents and so on. All these terms (identity, agency, emotion, thoughts) are just so far removed from anything we understand in terms of inanimate processes (chemicals, atoms, particles) and even what we understand about life-forms, that at the very least we should admit that any proposed *scientific* explanations of *what consciousness is* are highly speculative and very possibly wrong.

  • Neko

    Thank you for this lucid explanation, and my apologies for making stuff up. I might’ve gone to the tape for Witten’s reason for not defining consciousness, or simply grasped the obvious.

  • Yet the problem exists in the present, since physics has yet to explain “what it is when we’re experiencing consciousness.”

    Let’s be fair, this is a disturbingly common belief in the blogosphere. People who rightly mock the silly pronouncements of religious folks have no qualms about making equally fatuous fact-free pronouncements that we’re supposed to accept without question because they’re dressed up in the trappings of empirical inquiry. One of my loyal detractors told me this on another thread here at DTA:

    People are, in their entirety, pools of nested chemical reactions. Those reactions, in aggregate, create everything we do, including all meaning and all culture.

    Chemical reactions create all meaning and culture. It’s just that simple!

  • Neko

    Yes! The absolute certainty and bravado are perhaps unwarranted. 🙂

    Btw got the book, read the Introduction and am excited to get going. I’m an arts/humanities type (not professionally) so am relieved to have a pathway into Siri Hustvedt’s rarefied milieu. She’s very pleasantly readable and lucid. Thanks so much for the tip!

  • John Pieret

    300+ years after Newton and we still don’t have an explanation for how gravity acts at a distance. But we are justifiably confident, because of high correlation, that mass and the effects we ascribe to gravity are intimately related. Mass is, therefore, an explanation for the effects we ascribe to gravity. No one needs explain that fact. In the case of thought/consciousness, since we can’t even describe what they are (the way we can describe distance) you need to do that first before you can demand something more is needed than the chemical/electrical activity in the brain.

    P.S.: I’m still working on Hustvedt’s book but was rather distracted today. It’ll be a while yet.

  • Glad you’re enjoying the book! I haven’t yet read any of Hustvedt’s fiction, but I thought her essays were very erudite and compelling. My wife, who works at MIT and hears plenty of physics-is-truth demagoguery, was impressed by A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women too.

  • al kimeea

    When the last human brain goes extinct, where does our culture go?

    Meaning and culture are emergent properties of human consciousness. Where else would these abstract concepts arise if not in our minds, AKA three pounds of gloop?

  • al kimeea

    SP – consciousness as a first-person experience laden with personal and cultural meaning and significance.

    Our neighbours recently had a grand-daughter pass away. How many “first-person experience(s) laden with personal and cultural meaning and significance.” would her consciousness have enjoyed in the 14 weeks she had on this mortal coil?

    I’ll wager quatloos to donuts that our ancestors were conscious when they swung down onto the savanna.

  • al kimeea

    Doesn’t mean he’s right. And so what if we don’t crack consciousness. Not sure what else it could be other than an emergent property of what’s happening in our noggins, since it can be altered physically and chemically. I once suffered from chronic pain in the small of my back, resulting in little sleep. For 6.5 years. Sis said I was a different person…

    I would hazard consciousness is required for culture to flourish or for personal anything to exist.

    How do things that don’t exist without consciousness explain consciousness? “first-person experience(s) laden with personal and cultural meaning and significance” describe things that human consciousness can do not what it is

  • Neko

    Of course it doesn’t mean he’s right, and he readily admits he could be wrong. The point is he’s forthright about what he perceives as the limitations of science, or at least his speciality (the theme of the OP).

    How do things that don’t exist without consciousness explain consciousness?

    How else can consciousness be explained except through consciousness?

  • al kimeea

    The whole basis of science is admitting error. I am just as forthright about that as Edward and as are many. many others like me. That doesn’t mean there aren’t others with lesser motivations

    IIRC, Robert Millikan disagreed with Einstein’s ideas and set out to disprove them. He won a Nobel Prize for failing to do so.

    How is science limited, if not by the people doing it? There is no science without us, at least not this solar system. I’m a science geek. I know I can be wrong and received a B for not realizing it and reaching the wrong conclusion. Many women did better than my partner and me.

    The existence of consciousness cannot be in question – elephants, dolphins, corvids, other apes…, display some level of this, as do we. Possessing enough consciousness to wonder on the Intertubes why we can wonder at all, doesn’t explain why we can do that.

    When and how did consciousness arise? I’m not exactly sure, but it had to be before culture could influence how a consciousness experiences things.

  • al kimeea

    SP – The disembodied mind is quite literally a classic myth: the ancient Greeks privileged the mind and reason above the emotions.

    The Holocaust is a result of emotionally driven hatred of a group based on the interpretation of a narrative in a holy book. I didn’t know that until after my parents taught me how easy and pernicious racism – hatred – is.

  • Neko

    But admitting error wasn’t the point. The point was Witten thinks “physics won’t explain this thing.”

  • al kimeea

    Neko – “The point is he’s forthright about what he perceives as the limitations of science, or at least his specialty (the theme of the OP).”

    The above is often a theme in this bar, as if anyone who favours science is completely unaware of it having limits and why. The implication being if a scientist speaks, the fanbois will uncritically swallow it whole. Sorry, no.

    Does the failure of science – meaning the people using the tool – to explain a phenomena validate competing ideas? Let’s say the sciences – meaning the people in those fields – fail to understand consciousness. What then?

  • Neko

    You wrote:

    The above is often a theme in this bar, as if anyone who favours science is completely unaware of it having limits and why…The implication being if a scientist speaks, the fanboys will uncritically swallow it whole.

    That’s not my understanding. And “favoring” science is a strange thing to say; most people are pleased to invoke science, even when they don’t know beans about science (again, most people). Wouldn’t you agree it’s important to be able to distinguish between science and pseudo-science? Or that maintaining a critical approach is advisable regardless of the issue, without devolving into hyper-skepticism and crackpottery?

    You wrote:

    Does the failure of science – meaning the people using the tool – to explain a phenomena validate competing ideas?

    What a bizarre thing to say. Obviously it depends on the validity of what those competing ideas might be.

    Personally I’m sanguine the sciences will arrive at an explanation of consciousness some day (though it may not be physics, as Witten suggests). But meanwhile consciousness remains mysterious. So what?

  • al kimeea

    consciousness remains mysterious. So what? – Bingo! LOL. Before I wrote the above, I started it with that sentiment ha ha.

    Neko – Wouldn’t you agree it’s important to be able to distinguish between science and pseudo-science?

    Of course, do it all the time. Not sure what hyper-skepticism is or why crackpottery is a result of distinguishing between pseudoscience and reasonable science.

    While it may sound bizarre to you, that defense is trotted out quite regularly by those selling pseudoscience when the science does not favour them – Science fails all the time! Therefore I’m right!

    BTW the proprietor here has clearly stated there is no difference between the two,.. Asking me of the importance of distinguishing between them, shows you favour science.

  • Wouldn’t you agree it’s important to be able to distinguish between science and pseudo-science?

    BTW the proprietor here has clearly stated there is no difference between the two

    When did I do that?

  • Neko

    Ha! But I don’t mean So What Who Cares. Origin of life and consciousness is the game. I mean So What if consciousness remains mysterious at the moment.

    Hyper-skepticism tends to manifest as skepticism toward expertise, but I suppose it means uninformed and/or unreasonable skepticism.

    You wrote:

    Not sure what hyper-skepticism is or why crackpottery is a result of distinguishing between pseudoscience and reasonable science.

    Not sure how you got that from what I wrote. It’s certainly not what I meant.

  • al kimeea

    In the comments on another of your handful of posts. When I pointed out the difference, you agreed that what works is called science. I’m not sure what you’re meaning as a result.

  • You misunderstood me completely then. What works is what we call science, that’s true. But pseudoscience is when the trappings of science are employed to push an agenda. There is a difference.

  • al kimeea

    Our “Who Cares?” are in sync.

    Based on the evidence, I would say our host is engaging in hyper-skepticism. He writes like any apologist of woo, be it medical or spiritual or cold fusion. The people who claim to have healing touch say the evidence isn’t yet discovered, like SP regarding cold fusion. The reason they do that is because others have taken the methodology and been unable to reproduce their results. Ever.

    When It’s pointed out that their science is faulty, for any legitimate reason, then the wooligans start ranting about the “Unquestioned Authority of Science”, “other ways of knowing” and scientism is spat out.

  • Neko

    No, Shem is not one of those people! As I understand it he wants to apply the critical reasoning integral to the scientific process to science itself. Far cry from woo.

  • al kimeea

    Shem writes just like they do when their “other ways of knowing” are critically examined and found to be severely lacking and undeserving of being added to our body of knowledge. He also makes the same arguments as creationists: you can’t prove it in a lab, therefore it doesn’t apply.

    While Shem may not want to discuss it, religions all do the same, as do the mediwooligans. Take a troubling aspect of science and use that to call the entire field into question as validation of an idea. “Scientism!” is the cry of the brave loner, rebelling against the tyranny of the established authority of scientific dogma.

    We had 1st person experiences and culture for many, many thousands of years and science had been around for a while before someone even twigged to the idea that disinfection & cleanliness will help prevent the spread of disease, make surgery safer and the subway smell better.

    The culture of Mary Queen of Scots taught it was best to bathe once a year in red wine and to then drink it was a real privilege…

  • Shem writes just like they do when their “other ways of knowing” are critically examined and found to be severely lacking and undeserving of being added to our body of knowledge. He also makes the same arguments as creationists: you can’t prove it in a lab, therefore it doesn’t apply.

    Al, one of my least favorite things is having words put in my mouth. You’ve done this twice now. Please make a better effort to understand what I’m saying before you attribute opinions to me, okay?

  • Neko

    You wrote:

    He also makes the same arguments as creationists: you can’t prove it in a lab, therefore it doesn’t apply.

    No way did Shem say that.

    Take a troubling aspect of science and use that to call the entire field into question as validation of an idea.

    Neither did Shem say anything of the sort.

    Your interpretations are highly overwrought.

  • al kimeea

    Read that paragraph again. Where did I put words into your mouth? Describing your style as being very similar to those who push nonsense, which causes very real suffering, is not saying you agree with them. Just that you write, just like them with many of the same words, phrases and tropes.

    You have mentioned, more that once, things that can’t be double-blind experimented on are beyond science – just like creationists regarding evolution. If you think that means I think you’re a creationist, I canna help ye there laddie.

    For one thing, you have a different motivation. Strangely it’s the same one I have.

    You’re conflating the general public with people with a passion for science and who are quite well aware of it’s limits and how those in power will abuse it to their advantage. It’s the “I only read one book in my life and not a lick of science either” crowd that would watch CSI:NY and think no factual liberties were taken in a fictional story. Unfortunately, it is a large crowd.

    You mentioned a faulty forensic analysis of a burn pattern that happened to have a Satanic appearance convicting someone. Is it forensics that introduces Ol’ Nick to the equation or religious indoctrination from the cradle? Was it a poem which overturned this biased conclusion or better forensic analysis of the evidence?

  • Al, I didn’t ask for more of your scatterbrained ramblings. If others here want to engage with you, fine. As long as you’re not abusive or disruptive, I don’t care.

    Just leave me out of it, and don’t put words in my mouth.

  • al kimeea

    Shem said – Like any other science, forensics is about inference, not evidence. We need to acknowledge that data can be interpreted in many different ways, that we should question our certainty about the assumptions underlying these supposedly airtight methods, and that science is a legitimating institution that serves to protect the powerful and validate their authority.

    I was ok with that post right up until this paragraph.

    How can anyone infer anything without some information – evidence – to work from?

    Big Tobacco paid scientists good money, which they were quite happy to take BTW, to use science to lie for them and validate their authority. Meanwhile, other scientists with a desire to understand what’s happening, also used science to reveal the lies, invalidating their authority and power.

    But that can’t be because science serves to protect the powerful – despite there being people using science to do the opposite.

  • al kimeea

    Scatterbrained? Should have been easy to pick apart rather than handwave away with a personal attack. I’d name the fallacy but don’t want to be accused of using debaterese.