A new BBC video on free will

March 23, 2020 • 11:30 am

The BBC has just begun a video series on free will, and, thanks to reader Tom C., I got a link to part 1 of 3. The BBC’s notes are these:

There are many forces behind our everyday decisions. In a three part series we look at the hidden powers behind the choices we make.

Part one of three looks at the neuroscience behind our understanding of free will.

A series by Melissa Hogenboom and Pierangelo Pirak

Click on the screenshot to watch the 8½-minute clip, which isn’t bad, though it’s a bit confusing in places, as when describing experiments of “readiness potential” in non-choice situations.

Also, the language in places is a bit misleading or confusing as well, as when the Asian researcher (not named) says, “I want to argue that internal virtual-reality of our imagination is where free will is really active. It’s not picking, as in the Libet test, but it’s really an issue of choosing consequential decisions.”

That seems like obfuscation, and doesn’t even include a definition of “free will”, unless you think that decisions that are consequential involve free will by definition, while “minor decisions”, like what to buy at the grocery store, don’t involve “free will”.  That’s not very enlightening, is somewhat tautological, and doesn’t at all comport with what most people think of as free will. The one nod to the importance of the definition in deciding whether we have free will is well articulated by the woman speaking at 7:30.

I see that the second part is up, too, but I’ll deal with that later.

An extract from Matthew’s new book

February 27, 2020 • 9:45 am

In a comment on this morning’s Hili post, reader “Snake” called attention to the publication in today’s Guardian of “The Long Read”, which happens to be a nice big extract from Matthew’s new book, The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience. The book will be out March 12 in the UK and April 21 in the U.S. Here’s the U.S. version (click to go to Amazon site):

As I said before, I read the book in galleys and recommend it highly. It’s a history of ideas about how the brain works, starting from the ancient Greeks and proceeding on to today. It’s more a history of science combined with science than a pure scientific discussion about the brain. It turns out that at each period of time, scientists derived their ideas about how the brain works from their contemporary technology, ergo the title of the extract below.

And, as Matthew notes, we still know very little about the brain works, though he’s convinced that knowledge will accrue slowly. He also has no patience for panpsychism—the idea that consciousness is somehow inherent in each particle of matter rather than a phenomenon that arises when the brain reaches a certain level of complexity.

Here’s my blurb on Amazon (it’s on the cover too):

“In this engrossing book, Matthew Cobb deftly recounts the tortuous history of research on the brain, in which researchers pursue the hard problems of memory, consciousness, and volition, always limited by forced comparisons between human brains and the machines available at the time. A work of history and deep scholarship, but written in an engaging and lively way, The Idea of the Brain is optimistic about the recursive attempts of our brains to understand themselves, yet reminds us that the three most important words in science are, ‘We don’t know.'”―Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True

Read the extract by clicking on the screenshot below. I’ll give just one brief bit:

This is in fact the last paragraph of the book. I like the last one-word sentence:

There are many alternative scenarios about how the future of our understanding of the brain could play out: perhaps the various computational projects will come good and theoreticians will crack the functioning of all brains, or the connectomes will reveal principles of brain function that are currently hidden from us. Or a theory will somehow pop out of the vast amounts of imaging data we are generating. Or we will slowly piece together a theory (or theories) out of a series of separate but satisfactory explanations. Or by focusing on simple neural network principles we will understand higher-level organisation. Or some radical new approach integrating physiology and biochemistry and anatomy will shed decisive light on what is going on. Or new comparative evolutionary studies will show how other animals are conscious and provide insight into the functioning of our own brains. Or unimagined new technology will change all our views by providing a radical new metaphor for the brain. Or our computer systems will provide us with alarming new insight by becoming conscious. Or a new framework will emerge from cybernetics, control theory, complexity and dynamical systems theory, semantics and semiotics. Or we will accept that there is no theory to be found because brains have no overall logic, just adequate explanations of each tiny part, and we will have to be satisfied with that. Or –

Muddled philosopher: Consciousness could not have evolved

February 7, 2020 • 10:30 am

Here’s another philosopher who’s wrecked himself on the shoals of reason and logic when trying to deal with consciousness. Not all philosophers screw up when discussing issues of neuroscience, of course (Patricia Churchland and Dan Dennett are among those who are pretty much on the mark), but so often many of them simply look ridiculous, at least to scientists, when they tell us what could be true and what cannot be true. Today’s article, by a philosopher who maintains that consciousness could not have evolved, is a prime example.

The nescience is on view in an article from iai (The Institute of Art and Ideas) that’s wrong in almost every way that it could be (i.e., it’s “not even wrong”). The author, Bernardo Kastrup, is identified as a “Dutch computer scientist and philosopher who has published fundamental theoretical reflections on the mind matter problem.” Click on the screenshot to read (and weep):

Kastrup’s thesis is that consciousness could not have evolved. His alternative view of why it exists seems to be panpsychism: consciousness was always there as a “fact of nature”. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s Kastrup’s train of logic from the article:

1.) Evolution is a materialistic process.

2.) The salient characteristic of materialism is that all entities “are defined and exhaustively characterized in purely quantitative terms”.

3.) Consciousness cannot be characterized in quantitative terms: it is a qualitative and subjective property manifested by qualia: the sensations that inhere in “consciousness” like (classic example) “what it is like to see red” or “what it feels like to hear a Vivaldi sonata.”

4.) Ergo consciousness is not explainable by materialism.

5.) Materialism must therefore not be a universal explanatory schema for understanding nature; as Kastrup says, “Our very sentience contradicts materialism.”

6.) Because experience or qualia are not “materialistic” phenomena, they “cannot have a function under materialism”. Therefore, “It must make no difference to the survival fitness of an organism whether the data processing taking pace in its brain is accompanied by experience or not.” [JAC: note that natural selection is about reproduction, not survival itself].

7.) Therefore, qualia and consciousness could not have evolved by natural selection.

Let’s take these up one by one, but first let me dispose of contention #7 first. Traits can evolve but need not have evolved by natural selection. They could be byproducts (“spandrels”) of other traits that were selected, like the red color of our blood that’s simply the color of hemoglobin, or they could have been “neutral” traits that came to predominate by random genetic drift (much evolution of DNA sequences is of this sort). Or they could even be detrimental, rising in frequency in small populations despite counterselection (the high frequency of genetic diseases in small populations is likely due to this).  Many scientists think, for instance, that consciousness may not have been selected for directly, but is simply an epiphenomenon—a byproduct that appears when neurological complexity reaches a certain level. Our ability to play chess or do advanced mathematics, for example, are epiphenomena of this type, for they certainly weren’t objects of selection. They were things that became possible when our brains got sufficiently large and complex.

So the first error we find is that Kastrup conflates evolution with natural selection.

And if consciousness is either a spandrel, a byproduct of neutral evolution, or the direct object of selection, it is still a property of our brains, for there are many experiments and studies showing that consciousness can be affected or removed or altered by manipulating our brains. If this be true, then consciousness must have evolved one way or another, even if not by selection. But Kastrup thinks that not only is materialism untrue when it comes to consciousness, but also that consciousness is not a property of a sufficiently complex brain, or even of organic matter; rather it is a property of all of nature. While he’s not explicit, he seems to be adhering to panpsychism, the view that all matter—even electrons—have a rudimentary form of consciousness that in some unexplained way becomes a “higher” form of consciousness when enough matter piles on top of each other. Panpsychists think that rocks, dirt, and stars are conscious in some way. They’re nuts.

Back to the contentions, taken in the order above:

1.) Yep, evolution is a materialistic process, though I prefer the word “naturalistic” because “material” implies “stuff”, and lots of nature, like gravity, isn’t “stuff.”

2.) Kastrup is dead wrong that materialism requires all entities to be measurable. Here’s a question: do you have a liver? The answer is based not on measurement, but on observation. I have never heard a definition of “materialism” that requires quantitative measurement, but that’s Kastrup’s definition and it seems to be one he’s confected to rule out consciousness as a material phenomenon, or the result of a material phenomenon. Unfortunately, he rules out a lot of material phenomena that can’t be quantified as well, like “love”. (I’ll let readers quibble about that one.)

Here, for instance is the definition of “physicalism” (which is said to be the same as “materialism”) from authoritative Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (my emphasis):

Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. The thesis is usually intended as a metaphysical thesis, parallel to the thesis attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, that everything is water, or the idealism of the 18th Century philosopher Berkeley, that everything is mental. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.

That seems pretty accurate, especially with “supervene on the physical” at the end (for that is what consciousness is), and it says nothing about quantitative characterization. 

Kastrup’s definition of “materialism” is bogus.

3.) It’s not just human consciousness that is the “hard problem” because we find it difficult to characterize. Any sensation in animals, be they bacteria or humans, involves some sort of qualia. For example, what does it “feel like” to the crustacean Daphnia to detect a predatory fish in its pond? We know that Daphnia can detect fish, and some species respond by growing spines to deter predators. And we may even work out the entire pathway of detection and developmental response. But we might be able to do that for consciousness in humans as well! As Patricia Churchland has pointed out, once we work out the pathway that leads to a particular sensation that we can detect (and granted, detection is hard—but not impossible—with human consciousness), then the Hard Problem goes away. We have understood consciousness and qualia, and no further effort is required (see here). As Churchland wrote:

. . .the philosopher may go on to conclude that no science can ever really explain qualia because it cannot demonstrate what it is like to see blue if you have never seen blue; consciousness is forever beyond the reach of scientific understanding.

What is the merit in this objection? It is lacking merit, for if you look closely, you will find that it rests on a misunderstanding. The argument presumes that if a conscious phenomenon, say smelling mint, were genuinely explained by a scientific theory, then a person who understood that theory should be caused to have that experience; e.g., should be caused to smell mint. Surely, however, the expectation is unwarranted. Why should anyone expect that understanding the theory must result in the production of the phenomenon the theory addresses? Consider an analogy. If a student really understands the nature of pregnancy by learning all there is to know about the causal nature of pregnancy, no one would expect the student to become pregnant thereby. If a student learns and really understands Newton’s laws, we should not expect the student, like Newton’s fabled apple, to thereby fall down.  To smell mint, a certain range of neuronal activities have to obtain, particularly, let us assume, in olfactory cortex. Understanding that the olfactory cortex must be activated in manner will not itself activate the olfactory cortex in manner. We are asking too much of a neuroscientific theory if we ask it not only to explain and predict, but also to cause its target phenomenon, namely the smell of mint, simply by virtue of understanding the theory.

4.) Ergo, it’s way premature to say that consciousness can’t be explained by materialism (see Churchland here as well). We already have lots of evidence that consciousness and qualia are in fact phenomena requiring a materialistic brain, and that manipulating that brain can change or efface consciousness. Science is making progress on the problem, and those like Kastrup who assert that this or that problem can never be explained by science are showing their ignorance of the history of science.

5.) I’ve already addressed the claim that materialism can’t explain sentience. That is a “panpsychism of the gaps” argument.

6.) I have no idea whether consciousness is a direct product of natural selection or a byproduct of selection on features like our brain. It could be a direct adaptation or it could be a spandrel. We may never know the answer. But if it does supervene on our physical brain, as the evidence clearly shows, then it has evolved, for our physical brain has evolved.

I can in fact think of ways that subjective sensation could be adaptive and increase reproduction, thereby being favored by selection. The feeling of pleasure that comes with orgasm, for example, is a qualium (is that the singular of qualia?). And that pleasure is what drives many people to copulate, so people able to experience that subjective sensation would copulate more often and leave more offspring. If you were able to experience pain, and it hurt, then you might be selected to avoid situations that could damage you and diminish your reproduction. There are many ways one could think of that the experience of qualia, which is consciousness, could be the target of natural selection.

7.) I’ve already refuted this contention as well. Consciousness shows every sign of being a property that supervenes on our brain, and if that’s the case, it evolved. It need not have evolved by direct natural selection—something Kastrup doesn’t seem to have grasped. In contrast to the evidence from neuroscience, Kastrup’s own theory, that nature has consciousness as an innate property, which seems to be a form of panpsychism, has no evidence supporting it. Nor, as some panpsychists say, can there be any evidence, which makes panpsychism like string theory: a hypothesis that can’t be tested—at least in any way we know now.

There is a ton more evidence for the material origin of consciousness than there is for Kastrup’s foolish contention that consciousness “can only have been there from the beginning as an intrinsic, irreducible fact of nature.” There is, as I said, not an iota of evidence for that claim.

Katrup’s piece is weak, poorly argued, and rests on a logical chain whose center (and edges) cannot hold. The sad part is that it may appeal to those who haven’t read the philosophical arguments against his position, and are also unaware of the data from neuroscience showing that qualia and consciousness are intimately connected with the brain—that they supervene on the physical.

Another philosopher embarrasses himself in public, and you don’t have to be a professional philosopher to see through his arguments.


h/t: Several readers sent me this article, so thanks to you all.

The weirdness of split-brain experiments

January 16, 2020 • 10:15 am

I’m reading Annaka Harris‘s recent book Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, which is a short but very readable and absorbing account of recent work on consciousness, both empirical and philosophical. Although she seems to have a weakness for panpsychism, I’m not yet through with that bit and so will report on it later. (I may post a bit later today on a new Goff piece on panpsychism.)

What I wanted to mention now are two experiments described by Harris that were conducted on “split brain” patients: those unfortunates who, afflicted with terrible epilepsy, undergo a surgical “splitting” of most of the brain (the division of the corpus callosum that connects the brain’s hemispheres). This is done to prevent electrical “storms” that produce epilepsy from spreading throughout the brain. In such operations, depending on what the surgeons do, there may remain some possibility that the brain’s hemispheres could communicate with each other through subcortical structures, but they don’t communicate in some obvious ways (see below). This radical surgery does seem to work pretty well.

The interesting bit to me is how this division of the brain seems to divide consciousness or awareness as well as volition. This is based on some stuff we already knew: for example, that visual information from the left eye goes to the right side of the brain and vice versa, and also that the language center resides on the left side of the brain.

So here’s one experiment about consciousness. You present the word “key” to the subject’s left eye only. That visual information goes to the right side of the split brain. When you ask the subject what word she saw, she says “I saw nothing”, because the ability to formulate language is on the other side of the brain, the left side. This apparently means that the consciousness of having seen the word has been split.

But when the subject is asked to reach through a hole with her left arm (controlled by the right brain) and feel a number of objects, and asked to then pick the object that she’s seen on the screen, she will correctly pick up the key. This seems to mean that the consciousness of having seen the word “key” and picking it out is physically separated from the consciousness of knowing what a key is and identifying it. What’s weirder is when you ask the subject what happened when she picked out the key, she sometimes reports that her right hand acted on its own, without any conscious will to pick up a key. The notion of volition has disappeared from the the left side of the brain.

Well, you can argue about what this means, but this next experiment is even weirder. I’ll just reproduce Annaka’s description. (Matthew Cobb has a description of some of these experiments in his upcoming book on the history of brain research, but I don’t have the book at hand.)

From Conscious:

The split-brain literature contains many examples suggesting that two conscious points of view can reside in a single brain. Most of them also topple the typical notion of free will, by exposing a phenomenon generated by the left hemisphere that [Michael] Gazzanaga and his colleague Joseph LeDoux dubbed “the interpreter.” This phenomenon occurs when the right hemisphere takes action based on information it has access to that the left hemisphere doesn’t, and the left hemisphere then gives an instantaneous and false explanation of the split-brain subject’s behavior. For example, when the right hemisphere is given the instruction, “Take a walk” in an experiment, the subject will stand up and begin walking. But when asked why he’s leaving the room, he will give an explanation such as, “Oh, I need to get a drink.” His left hemisphere, the one responsible for speech, is unaware of the command that the right side received, and we have every reason to think that he does in fact believe his thirst was the reason he got up and began walking.  As in the example in which experimenters were able to cause a feeling of will in subjects who were in actuality were no in control of their own actions, the phenomenon of “the interpreter” is further confirmation that the feeling we have of executing consciously willed actions, at least in some instances, is sheer illusion.  [pp. 59-60]

I talk about those “other experiments” in my lecture on free will. In one of them, doctors are stimulating the brain of a conscious patient undergoing surgery (this is not done as pure science, but as probes during operations on the brain). This causes the patient to raise his arm and wave it. When they asked the guy why he moved his arm, he replied, “Oh, I saw that nurse over there and wanted to wave at her.” Again, in this case the subject confabulates an act of will to account for something he did, suggesting that the idea that “will” made him voluntarily move his arm is an illusion. He was not in any way in control of what he did.

Experiments of this sort are the kind that I use to convince people that “will”, “volition” and “consciousness” are the results of purely physical processes in the brain, and thus that the idea of non-brain stuff is not part of will, dispelling dualism. But most people here aren’t dualists anyway. Still, the experiments also suggest that perhaps the notion of consciousness and of will are things that merely report to us after the fact the deterministic actions of our brain, and are not in any way part of a causal chain. That, at least, is what Annaka thinks. (I think Sam Harris agrees as well.)

Also, it makes you at least think about the truth of panpsychism. Do we really expect to split consciousness by splitting the brain if consciousness is simply a property of the particles of matter that make up the brain (remember, the brain isn’t completely split), or, as some think, not of the particles themselves but of the wave function that encompasses all matter? Answering that question is, for the time being, above my pay grade.

Off to dine with Pinkah!



Sean Carroll vs. Philip Goff on panpsychism

January 7, 2020 • 10:30 am

Since we’ve been talking about panpsychism lately—that’s the theory that the entire Universe and its constituents are in some way conscious—I thought I’d post a podcast in which two opposing academics hash out the issues.

I’ll be posting a bit more about panpsychism in the weeks to come as I read and learn more about it, but the more I learn, the more I see it as a form of either woo or religion. Its advocates don’t seem to define what it means for matter (like an electron) to be “conscious”, and they admit that there’s no way to test their theory. But they see it as a superior alternative to dualism (i.e., the view that there is material “brain stuff” and nonmaterial “mind/consciousness stuff”) and also to materialism (consciousness is an epiphenomenon of a brain that reaches a certain level of complexity) as way of explaining human consciousness. If the constituents of the brain—and all matter—have some kind of consciousness or some component of consciousness, they argue, then consciousness is inherent in our brain, just as it is in a rock or, as Patricia Churchland put it, in a dust bunny. Ergo, problem solved—or so they think.

I see panpsychism as a cult or a religion: an untestable proposition that adds no explanatory value to neuroscience or non-wooey philosophical approaches to consciousness. And, like religion, its advocates won’t admit of any evidence against their theory (i.e., the many palpable connections between the brain and consciousness), but maintain their hypothesis with no supporting evidence. It’s just consciousness all the way down. And they can maintain it to those who don’t think too hard because there can be no evidence against it—not until they tell us what consciousness means for a rock or an atom.  As philosopher/panpsychism booster Philip Goff says:

I agree that panpsychism cannot be directly tested. But neither can materialism or dualism or any other theory of consciousness.

He’s wrong. We’re already making progress on understanding what neurology requires for consciousness, and how to alter its presence or nature.

Except for free will, I’ve never received as much pushback against what I see as a reasonable, science-based stand as I have for my opposition to panpsychism. I get emails, ticked-off posts by philosopher/panpsychism booster Philip Goff on his website, and even arguments by some readers who favor panpsychism.

Goff himself, in the podcast below, repeatedly states that he’s “heartened” by the increasing (but still minority) view among philosophers that panpsychism is the way to go in explaining consciousness. And others, like physicist Lee Smolin, authors Annaka Harris and Philip Pullman, and philosopher Stephen Law, have endorsed Goff’s new trade book, though this doesn’t mean they all endorse panpsychism. Goff’s claim, in the podcast below and elsewhere, that other philosophers agree with him doesn’t move me, for the number of people who adhere to a falsehood doesn’t increase its truth value.

But on to the podcast: Sean Carroll’s “Mindscape” that you can access by clicking on the screenshot below.  Sean, of course, is a physicist, cosmologist, and author, who knows a lot about philosophy. Debating him is Philip Goff, a philosopher at Durham University and perhaps the most vociferous advocate of panpsychism (he has a new book about it).  Sean states from the outset that he doesn’t accept panpsychism, and that materialism (his view of the world) is perfectly capable of explaining consciousness, though it’s a hard problem and will take a long time to understand.

The podcast is 94 minutes long, and I’ve listened to all of it. I won’t summarize it in detail, but if you want to listen to just the heart of the argument, start at about 1:11:00—71 minutes in.

A brief view of the controversy. Goff avers that materialism won’t help us understand consciousness because all it produces are correlations between brain activity and conscious experience. That, he says, is useless because it doesn’t enable us to get at the heart of consciousness: subjective experience or “qualia”. As he says, “How can you capture in an equation the spiciness of paprika?” (Understanding consciousness won’t necessarily require equations, though.)

In the other corner, on the side of materialism, Sean Carroll, is puzzled at what all the fuss is about. Once he understands how the laws of physics work, he says, we will understand how consciousness arises. (That’s not good enough for Goff, as he says that that “correlational” approach doesn’t tell us what consciousness is, just like Goff says that a definition of mass in physics doesn’t tell us what mass really is.).  Carroll finds this puzzling, since if he has a comprehensive system of understanding how something comes to be, including the real phenomenon of consciousness, then that’s all there is.

(I am summarizing based on one hearing here, and urge you to at least start listening for yourself, at least to the last half hour.)

Carroll’s general response to panpsychism begins about 37 minutes in. In response to Goff’s statement that we need to know what consciousness really is,  Carroll answers he doesn’t really care about the “intrinsic nature of subjective experience”. If you have consciousness and know how it’s produced from neurons and the brain, that’s all there is to know.

As I said, the heart of the disagreement starts about 71 minutes in, when Goff argues that yes, everything is conscious: even the mass, spin, and charge of physical particles like electrons are forms of consciousness: a “limited form of conscious experience.” But that’s about as far as he goes in defining consciousness of inanimate objects. When Carroll asks him if he means that everything is conscious, because everything has physical properties, and whether the the Universe’s wave function is also conscious (Sean talks about that wave function his latest book Something Deeply Hidden), Goff gives a reluctant “yes”. Goff also declares that panpsychism is completely congruent with what physics tell us about the Universe.  Carroll then asks him what panpsychism adds to our understanding of the Universe, and—at least to me—Goff doesn’t produce a coherent answer.

At the end, we see one of Goff’s beefs with materialism when he says that materialism produces a bleak view of life. Instead, says Goff, knowing that “we’re conscious creatures in a conscious Universe” can make us feel better about ourself. It also, he says, will enable us to treat the environment better, for when we realize that plants are conscious, too, we won’t destroy them. (But should we eat them?). But, say I, rocks are conscious as well: does that mean we shouldn’t dig up rocks or pulverize them? Should we split atoms if they are conscious? Is a plant more conscious than a rock?

I am completely with Sean here, as we are both materialists (or “naturalists”, if you will), and I see no explanatory value of panpsychism. But those of you who still adhere to panpsychism might be surprised, as I was, at how poorly the advocates of that theory defend it. It’s not even philosophy, as there doesn’t seem to be much rationality about it.

But click and listen. 


Oy! LiveScience touts panpsychism as the solution to the hard problem of consciousness

November 12, 2019 • 11:30 am

Until I read this piece, I always thought that LiveScience was a rigorous science site. Indeed, most of it is, but here’s an exception: a paean to “panpsychism”, the view that everything in the Universe, from electrons to elephants—indeed, the Universe as a whole—has a form of consciousness. The author of the article is Philip Goff, a philosopher (now at Durham University) who makes a living touting panpsychism and whose views I’ve critiqued before. So I’ll try to be brief.

Goff’s thesis is that the reason we can’t solve the “hard problem” of consciousness—how neural impulses can be converted into subjective experience—is that we’ve been groping around in the wrong area: neuroscience.  The solution, he suggests, is to recognize the possibility of panpsychism.

Click on the screenshot to read the piece:

Now neuroscientists have pretty much accepted that consciousness is a product of the brain, for we can alter consciousness or eliminate it or even split it by various brain manipulations or psychological tricks. And we’re starting to understand the neural correlates of consciousness: the parts of the brain that give rise to subjective experience—”qualia”. But that is the “soft problem”, and doesn’t address how physiological and neurological processes produce the sensation of consciousness.  As Steve Pinker said in a superb popular article on consciousness in Time magazine:

The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.

I do think it’s a genuine scientific problem, and I can hazily glimpse how it might be solved in the future, but right now it’s a mystery. And it’s a mystery that has buttressed a lot of woo, ranging from religion (“See, science can’t tell us everything. Sometimes you must invoke God”) to Goff’s panpsychism.

Here’s how Goff sets up the problem:

We have made a great deal of progress in understanding brain activity, and how it contributes to human behavior. But what no one has so far managed to explain is how all of this results in feelings, emotions and experiences. How does the passing around of electrical and chemical signals between neurons result in a feeling of pain or an experience of red?

There is growing suspicion that conventional scientific methods will never be able to answer these questions. Luckily, there is an alternative approach that may ultimately be able to crack the mystery.

Well, maybe science will never be able to answer the question, but that may mean that the problem is simply hard, or that its solution is so counterintuitive that, like quantum mechanics, our brains aren’t capable of grasping it. But it doesn’t mean that we need to invoke the numinous. Too many real empirical solutions have been overlooked in the past (lightning and disease, to name two) because a problem was hard, tempting people to punt to a woo-ish explanation.

Goff does the requisite invocation:

I believe there is a way forward, an approach that’s rooted in work from the 1920s by the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the scientist Arthur Eddington. Their starting point was that physical science doesn’t really tell us what matter is.

This may seem bizarre, but it turns out that physics is confined to telling us about the behavior of matter. For example, matter has mass and charge, properties which are entirely characterized in terms of behavior — attraction, repulsion and resistance to acceleration. Physics tells us nothing about what philosophers like to call “the intrinsic nature of matter”, how matter is in and of itself.

It turns out, then, that there is a huge hole in our scientific world view — physics leaves us completely in the dark about what matter really is. The proposal of Russell and Eddington was to fill that hole with consciousness.

I’m not sure, nor does Goff tell us, how panpsychism tells us what matter really is. All it seems to tell us is that all matter is conscious. He goes on:

It turns out, then, that there is a huge hole in our scientific world view — physics leaves us completely in the dark about what matter really is. The proposal of Russell and Eddington was to fill that hole with consciousness.

The result is a type of “panpsychism” — an ancient view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world. But the “new wave” of panpsychism lacks the mystical connotations of previous forms of the view. There is only matter — nothing spiritual or supernatural — but matter can be described from two perspectives. Physical science describes matter “from the outside”, in terms of its behavior, but matter “from the inside” is constituted of forms of consciousness.

This means that mind is matter, and that even elementary particles exhibit incredibly basic forms of consciousness. Before you write that off, consider this. Consciousness can vary in complexity. We have good reason to think that the conscious experiences of a horse are much less complex than those of a human being, and that the conscious experiences of a rabbit are less sophisticated than those of a horse. As organisms become simpler, there may be a point where consciousness suddenly switches off — but it’s also possible that it just fades but never disappears completely, meaning even an electron has a tiny element of consciousness.

This argument is bogus on its face. Make the same comparison with metabolism, coded replication (DNA), or any other behavior or characteristic of organisms. Those are not continuous with nonliving matter: a rock doesn’t replicate itself faithfully, or metabolize, or seek food. Surely a minimal requirement for consciousness is some kind of neuronal network. I may be wrong, but emergent properties can arise with a certain degree of complexity. Humans can use symbolic language, mice can’t.

I can’t be arsed to dig into all the links Goff cites, but saying that mind is matter doesn’t solve the problem of what matter is, for we still don’t know what “mind” is! And so Goff passes on to how every bit of matter is conscious.

What panpsychism offers us is a simple, elegant way of integrating consciousness into our scientific worldview. Strictly speaking, it cannot be tested; the unobservable nature of consciousness entails that any theory of consciousness that goes beyond mere correlations is not strictly speaking testable. But I believe it can be justified by a form of inference to the best explanation: panpsychism is the simplest theory of how consciousness fits into our scientific story.

While our current scientific approach offers no theory at all — only correlations — the traditional alternative of claiming that consciousness is in the soul leads to a profligate picture of nature in which mind and body are distinct. Panpsychism avoids both of these extremes, and this is why some of our leading neuroscientists are now embracing it as the best framework for building a science of consciousness.

I am optimistic that we will one day have a science of consciousness, but it won’t be science as we know it today. Nothing less than a revolution is called for, and it’s already on its way.

Yes, his theory is untestable, but I’m not sure it’s even the simplest theory. After all, you could voice a simpler theory that “consciousness was bequeathed to us by God”. Further, the idea of a continuum of self-awareness from humans to photons is not only hard to accept, but is supported by no evidence at all. Yes, you could say that photons have a different kind of consciousness, or are only dimly aware of things, as is a bacterium, but, as Christopher Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

In the end, Goff fails in his task of explaining how panpsychism solves the hard problem of consciousness; he just avoids the problem by asserting that everything is conscious. Consciousness is simply an inherent quality of all matter. But the hard problem remains. From where does that consciousness arise? What properties of matter produce a sentient atom?

Goff’s unfounded speculations don’t belong in LiveScience because they’re not scientific speculations, but a form of unsubstantiated woo. When he tells us how he knows that matter is conscious, then I’ll pay attention.

h/t: Bill

The biology of sex differences in human brains and behaviors: a new book on “neurosexism”

March 31, 2019 • 9:00 am

For a while now I’ve written the occasional post about claims that there are no evolved and genetically based differences between male and female behaviors, brains, or hormones. This claim is based not on science but on ideology, stemming from the fear that if you show differences between men and women in these respects, you will somehow justify a biologically based sexism: that women are inferior to men in some ways and thus can be treated as subordinates.

This “blank-slateism” has also been applied to differences between ethnic groups and is often used to dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology—for the same reasons. The ideological denialism of differences between any groups rests on the premise that difference equals inferiority and justifies unequal treatment and bigotry.

Well, leaving aside the possibility that genetically based trait differences may reveal better rather than worse performance of marginalized groups, the ideological dismissal of evolutionarily-based sex differences in brains and behavior is misguided. First, it’s based on the deeply problematic assumption that although differences between male and female bodies may well have evolved (most likely via some form of sexual selection), that cannot be true of the brain.

Yet there’s been equal time for divergent selection on both bodies and brains of males and females, so why did one (bodies) evolve sex differences and the other not (brains)? There’s no a priori reason to assume that brains are immune to divergent evolution, for sexual selection is based on female preference and male behavior, both of which presumably act through the brain. If bodily differences evolved by sexual selection, how can we rule out brain differences, especially those affecting sexual behavior? (The same holds if sexdifferences evolved by divergent natural selection.)

The answer to the ideological “sexes-must-be biologically-identical” argument is simple. We should, and must, give both sexes (and all ethnic groups) complete equality of opportunity as a moral principle—for such equality is the foundation of a good society. Average differences in behavior are just that—average differences—and do not justify differential treatment of individuals, whether their groups be based on sex or ethnicity.  Somehow the “blank slaters” can’t grasp that simple principle.

To be fair, blank-slaters base their ideology on biological determinism being used in the past by bigots to suppress groups, but let us remember that blank-slateism remains not science but ideology, an ideology that is not only biologically misguided but whose fears can be overcome by changes in morality. And, indeed, changes in morality are overcoming it. Steve Pinker has documented the increasing moral equality of the sexes in his last two books.

Still, blank-slateism with respect to male and female brains persists, most prominently in the books of Cordelia Fine, an Australian philosopher and psychologist who has made a career out of debunking the idea that men and women are biologically different. I’ve now read both of her books on this topic, Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, and found them a mixed bag.  Fine is good at debunking bad research, as well as the implicit sexism of some researchers who work on brain biology, but is loath to admit, much less admire, the good research that’s shown differences in both brain anatomy and behavior between men and women. In other words, her books are not works of science but of tendentious ideology. (See here, here, here, and here for my posts on her claims.)

It is, in my view, a bit of a travesty—indicating the unscientific blank-slateism that has infected science—that Testosterone Rex won the Royal Society’s Insight Investment Book in 2017. At the time I called it “not a bad book, but a biased book. It’s not a judicious work of science, but a polemic.”

The same problems that plagued Fine’s books now appear to resurface in a new book by Gina Rippon that makes the same “no-difference-in-brains” claim: The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain, recently out in the UK and soon to be released in the US under the title Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds. Wikipedia describes Rippon as “professor of cognitive neuroimaging at the Aston Brain Centre, Aston University, Birmingham.”

Despite ample evidence for genetically based differences in male vs. female brain structure and behavior, the reviews of The Gendered Brain and interviews with Rippon have characterized the book as doing exactly what its title says: aiming to dispel the myth that there are average differences between male and female brains. (Those differences, by the way, may be and probably are be effected through hormonal influences on that organ, which may not produce obvious morphological differences, even though there is substantial evidence for such differences.) The book has received extremely favorable reviews in Nature and The Guardian, though the claims and uncritical approbation in those reviews raised red flags for me.

The review/interview in the Guardian, for instance, characterizes Rippon’s thesis as indicting socialization as completely responsible for sex differences in behavior. The “plasticity” argument is one common to biological ideologues:

The next question was, what then is driving the differences in behaviour between girls and boys, men and women? Our “gendered world”, she says, shapes everything, from educational policy and social hierarchies to relationships, self-identity, wellbeing and mental health. If that sounds like a familiar 20th-century social conditioning argument, it is – except that it is now coupled with knowledge of the brain’s plasticity, which we have only been aware of in the past 30 years.

My suspicion that Rippon’s new book (which I’ll read when it comes out in the U.S) is guilty of the same sins committed by Cordelia Fine, is awakened by the following review in Quillette. It’s by Larry Cahill, identified as “a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California, Irvine and an internationally recognized leader on the topic of sex influences on brain function.”

Click on the screenshot to read it:

I’ll give a few quotes from Cahill’s review, quotes that could apply to Fine’s works as well. The first paragraph pulls no punches in enumerating the book’s problems:

A book like this is very difficult for someone knowledgeable about the field to review seriously. It is so chock-full of bias that one keeps wondering why one is bothering with it. Suffice to say it is replete with tactics that are now standard operating procedure for the anti-sex difference writers. The most important tactic is a comically biased, utterly non-representative view of the enormous literature of studies ranging from humans to single neurons. Other tactics include magnifying or inventing problems with disfavored studies, ignoring even fatal problems with favored studies, dismissing what powerful animal research reveals about mammalian brains, hiding uncomfortable facts in footnotes, pretending not to be denying biologically based sex-influences on the brain while doing everything possible to deny them, pretending to be in favor of understanding sex differences in medical contexts yet never offering a single specific research example why the issue is important for medicine, treating “brain plasticity” as a magic talisman with no limitations that can explain away sex differences, presenting a distorted view of the “stereotype” literature and what it really suggests, and resurrecting 19th century arguments almost no modern neuroscientist knows of, or cares about. Finally, use a catchy name to slander those who dare to be good scientists and investigate potential sex influences in their research despite the profound biases against the topic (“neurosexists!”). These tactics work quite well with those who know little or nothing about the neuroscience. Here are some lowlights. . .

The “lowlights” include praising bad studies claiming to show no average differences between male and female brains, and misrepresenting good studies that do show such differences.

Here’s Cahill’s summary of the known science and of the book.

So are female and male brains the same or different? We now know that the correct answer is “yes”: They are the same or similar on average in many respects, and they are different, a little to a lot, on average in many other respects. The neuroscience behind this conclusion is now remarkably robust, and not only won’t be going away, it will only grow.

The book is downright farcical when it comes to modern animal research, simply ignoring the vast majority of it. The enormous power of animal research, of course, is that it can establish sex influences in particular on mammalian brain function (such as sex differences in risk-takingplay behavior, and responses to social defeat as just three examples) that cannot be explained by human culture, (although they may well be influenced in humans by culture.) Rippon engages in what is effectively a denial of evolution, implying to her reader that we should ignore the profound implications of animal research (“Not those bloody monkeys again!”) when trying to understand sex influences on the human brain. She is right only if you believe evolution in humans stopped at the neck.

And everyone who isn’t a sexist or a racist, and is objective about the data, eventually arrives at this conclusion:

After almost 20 years of hearing the same invalid arguments (like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” waking up to the same song every day), I have come to see clearly that the real problem is a deeply ingrained, implicit, very powerful yet 100 percent false assumption that if women and men are to be considered “equal,” they have to be “the same.” Conversely, the argument goes, if neuroscience shows that women and men are not the same on average, then it somehow shows that they are not equal on average. Although this assumption is false, it still creates fear of sex differences in those operating on it. Ironically, forced sameness where two groups truly differ in some respect means forced inequality in that respect, exactly as we see in medicine today.

What he’s referring to is the neglect of women in clinical studies of medical interventions or drugs, which often show different outcomes in men and women. That’s based largely on biology rather than socialization, and shows differences between the sexes in bodies and their physiology. The best guess is that our brains will also show differences, and to deny that a priori as a possibility bespeaks a profoundly unscientific attitude.

Is there evidence for libertarian free will? Part 1.

March 3, 2019 • 11:00 am

I’ll try to put up two posts on this topic today as a single one would probably be too long, falling into the TL; DR category.

About two weeks ago, kvetching about the Templeton Foundation’s incursion into and corruption of philosophy and biology, I wrote about Dan Dennett’s criticism of Templeton. This came up when Dan reviewed a book by Alfred Mele,: Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will (2014). At the end of his review, Dennett “threw shade” on Mele for taking so much money from Templeton. (Mele responded, of course). But because Dan liked the book, and it’s short (less than 100 small pages), I went ahead and read Free. I’m going to ignore Templeton here and concentrate on Mele’s book. I’ll just say that Mele’s conclusion, that contracausal free will may be pervasive, is clearly something Templeton would throw money at.

I wasn’t impressed with the book. Mele does point out a few alternative interpretations to experiments like Benjamin Libet’s which apparently show that some decisions can be predicted with accuracy of up to 80% by brain-scanning as far as ten seconds before the actor is conscious of having made a decision. Some of Mele’s criticisms are useful, while others are not. Mele’s main objection is that the real decisions we make are based on rational pondering and consideration, and these decisions are very different from the simple binary choices predicted by brain-scanning studies. To that I reply “so what”?

First, it’s possible that you can engage in complex reasoning before making a binary decision, and I can think of lab experiments that could see if those decisions could also be predicted by brain scanning. (It would be harder, since training the subject to do the experiment beforehand would be more difficult.) More important, “reasoning” and “cogitation” are just complex computer processes that go on at various levels in many species of animal, and why should those be independent of the laws of physics? The input may be complex, but the output is still limited.

Mele’s conception of free will in this case is similar to that of Dennett’s in Freedom Evolves: free will is the fact that when an agent arrives at the ability to ponder different scenarios, cogitate, and then make a “rational” decision, that process constitutes free will, regardless of whether (as Dennett believes), such decisions are purely deterministic. This is a form of compatibilist free will, in which “free will” is conceived as something that is perforce compatible with determinism. (By “determinism, I mean “obeying the laws of physics, including purely indeterministic phenomena like quantum mechanics”.)

But Mele actually considers two forms of free will. The one above he calls “modest free will”, defined as “having the ability to make—and act on the basis of—rational informed decisions when you’re not being subjected to undue force” (p. 78).

The other form, which is libertarian, he calls “ambitious free will”, requiring what he calls “deep openness”. In this form of free will, says Mele, “free agents have open to them alternative decisions that are compatible with everything that has already happened and with the laws of nature” (p. 79). This is clearly contracausal or “you-could-have-done-otherwise” free will.

Which one does Mele adhere to in his book? Well, it’s not clear, since he lays out different varieties at the outset, and the last paragraph of his book implies that science has refuted neither of the two versions described above. He’s wrong about “ambitious” free will.


So, you ask, does free will exist? If you mean what I call modest free will, I say yes without hesitation. If you mean what I call ambitious free will, I say the jury is still out. In fact, this point about the jury is the main moral of this book. Scientists have most definitely not proved that free will—is an illusion. For all we know now, ambitious free will is widespread. If it isn’t, at least modest free will is.

That’s a pretty weaselly statement. What I would say is this: “For all we know now, ambitious free will—contracausal, you-could-have-done-otherwise free will is NOT widespread.” That’s because such free will requires violating the laws of physics in such a way that at a given point in time, with every molecule in the same place and everything leading up to a “decision identical”, you could have decided differently. Now the only thing that could create such different behavior is quantum mechanics, and we don’t know if quantum mechanics can even play a role in human decisions. And even if it can, that is not “free will” in the sense that an agent you, would be making the decision instead of an indeterministic movement of a particle.  If you are going to promulgate the idea that at a given point in time you can really make “alternative decisions”—decisions that you (rather than an errant electron) decide, then you are suggesting that humans can flout the laws of physics. This is magic.

While some people punt and say that you can have contracausal free will without flouting those laws, I don’t see how that’s possible. Such an attitude is profoundly anti-naturalistic given that are brains are made of molecules.  Compatibilist free will? “Yes”, of course, because you can define anything as free will so long as it doesn’t disobey the laws of physics. But the form of free will to which most people adhere is a contracausal free will, as surveys show. True, philosophers adhere to compatibilist free will, but I’m not so much concerned with what academic philosophers think about the topic than I am about what the average person thinks about free will. It’s just like I’m more concerned with what the average believer thinks about God than what Sophisticated Theologians™ like Karen Armstrong think about God.

But Mele’s “ambitious free will” does flout the laws of physics, and in that sense the jury, which is physics, has already decided against it. I am in fact surprised that Dan liked Mele’s book so much given that Mele leaves open the possibility of contracausal free will, something that Dan rejects.

There are other problems with Mele’s book as well. He uses as evidence for free will the fact that in some “identical” situations, such as Milgram’s famous “shock the subject” experiments, not everybody behaved the same way. Some people continued to up the fake shocks as the subject pretended to be in pain, while others desisted. In Zimbardo’s famous “prison experiment”, some of the guards were nasty to the prisoners, while others weren’t. As Mele argues:

If situations really did completely determine behavior, then everyone in the same situation would act the same way. But only some of the guards acted cruelly; others didn’t. This pessimistic view of decisions isn’t true to the facts.

Mele does this over and over again, ignoring the fact that the “situation” isn’t the same for everyone: the subjects have different genes, different life experiences, and had different experiences of the prisoners or subjects of these experiments. To say that determinism and a lack of free will predicts that everyone will act the same in an experiment is to evince shoddy thinking. And that, in fact, is the subject of the next post in this series, describing an experiment that Mele uses in his book to support “ambitious” free will.

Unlike Dan, I can’t recommend Mele’s book. It is tendentious, regardless of whether Templeton had a hand in funding the research (there’s a long and butt-kissy acknowledgement to the Templeton Foundation at the beginning). In fact, while reading it I felt that I was stuck in Fulsome Prison.


Matthew on The Infinite Monkey Cage

January 30, 2018 • 10:00 am

Matthew was too reticent to tell me that he appeared on yesterday’s Radio 4 episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage with Robin Ince and Brian Cox. The 30-minute episode is “The Teenage Brain”, and you can download it by going to the site below (click on the screenshot). Besides Matthew Cobb (professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester), we have Scottish comedian Rory Bremner and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a neuroscientist at University College London.

The topic:

 Stomping off to your bedroom, being embarrassed by your parents, wanting to fit in with your peers and a love of risky behaviour are all well known traits associated with our teenage years, exasperating parents through the ages. But new research into dynamic changes going on in the brain during these key years has revealed that it’s not just hormones that are responsible for these behaviours. Could a better understanding of what is going on during these formative years not only help teenagers themselves, but inform our education system and even help prevent many of the mental health problems that often begin during adolescence?

As usual, the show is a mixture of good-natured banter, comedy, and hard science:

h/t: Kevin

E. O. Wilson: confused about free will

January 12, 2018 • 11:45 am

An article in the September 14 Harper’s, “On Free Will (and How the Brain is like a Colony of Ants”), gives an excerpt from Wilson’s book released that year, The Meaning of Human Existence.  In the piece and the passage below, Wilson appears to be a sort of compatibilist, but I find his discussion so confusing that I’m not quite sure what he’s trying to say. But his message is pretty clear: we can act as if we have a kind of free will, and those who deny it are doomed to insanity and a “deteriorating mind”.  The main bits:

The power to explain consciousness, however, will always be limited. Suppose neuroscientists somehow successfully learned all of the processes of one person’s brain in detail. Could they then explain the mind of that individual? No, not even close.

. . . Then there is the element of chance. The body and brain are made up of legions of communicating cells, which shift in discordant patterns that cannot even be imagined by the conscious minds they compose. The cells are bombarded every instant by outside stimuli unpredictable by human intelligence. Any one of these events can entrain a cascade of changes in local neural patterns, and scenarios of individual minds changed by them are all but infinite in detail. The content is dynamic, changing instant to instant in accordance with the unique history and physiology of the individual.

Because the individual mind cannot be fully described by itself or by any separate researcher, the self — celebrated star player in the scenarios of consciousness — can go on passionately believing in its independence and free will. And that is a very fortunate Darwinian circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it, the conscious mind, at best a fragile, dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism. Like a prisoner serving a life sentence in solitary confinement, deprived of any freedom to explore and starving for surprise, it would deteriorate.

While Wilson admits earlier in this short piece that the conscious mind “cannot be taken away from the mind’s physical neurobiological system”, he’s not as firm about the physical/deterministic nature of free will as he is about consciousness.

Note in the second paragraph that Wilson cites “chance” in support of free will. If by “chance” he means “things that are determined but we can’t predict”, then that’s no support for the classic notion of free will: the “you could have chosen otherwise” sort.  If he’s referring instead to pure quantum indeterminacy, well, that just confers unpredictability on our decisions, not agency. We don’t choose to make an electron jump in our brain.

From what I make of the third paragraph, his message is that because we are a long way from figuring out how we make behavioral decisions, we might as well act as if we have free will, especially because “confidence in free will is biologically adaptive.” Yet there are powerful arguments that at bottom our decisions are based on physical circumstances. We don’t understand the complete physics of a billiard game, either, but we don’t pretend that the balls have free will in where they roll.

As for free will and confidence in it being biologically adaptive, well, that’s an assertion without evidence. I often ponder where our feeling of agency comes from, and have come up with three or four evolutionary scenarios in which our feeling of being agents who can make free choices could have given our ancestors a reproductive advantage. But these are all pure speculations, and none are testable. Wilson is simply wrong in asserting with confidence that our feeling of agency is known to be an adaptation.

Finally, I have no confidence in free will, even though, like all people, I feel as if I have agency. But if I think about it for a millisecond, I know that I could not do otherwise than what I do—nor can anybody else. Has that made me fatalistic, subject to a deteriorating mind? I don’t think so!  This is just the old argument, one made by Dennett and other compatibilists, that we need to believe in free will because without such a belief, society will fall apart. Well, that’s what they said about religion, too, but they were wrong. (Look at Scandinavia.)

I don’t deny for a minute that all of us feel that we make real choices, and could have made different choices. But feeling that and believing that it’s true are different matters. We can still feel that we have agency, but at the same time realize that we don’t—and society will survive.  It’s members will be like me, and though you may say that’s not such a good thing, I contend that a nation of determinists is not a nation doomed.

And now physics has decreed that I walk over to the South Indian Studies department to give a professor a book to take to my friends in India. The real Moby-Dick in a few hours!

h/t: Greg Mayer