Nov 262012
 

Image from NYTimes.comA friend of the podcast pointed me to today’s column in the NYTimes Gray Matter by Alisa Quart about a backlash against neuroscience, particularly popular accounts of it throughout mainstream media from Malcom Gladwell on tipping points to Chris Mooney on the “republican brain” to Eben Alexander on the neuroscience of heaven. These all follow the general theme of over-simplification and over-extrapolation of, in this case, neuro-scientific studies. (Alexander would seem to be something of an exception here. He’s using his cred as a scientist to give authority to his personal testimony regarding a near-death experience. He’s not pointing to a double-blind study or anything. He’s just saying “I saw heaven when I was in a coma and since I’m smart and I’m a neuro-scientist, you should believe me.”)

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Aug 212012
 

Contemporary neuroscience is not a challenge to free will, according to Eddy Nahmias:

Most scientists who discuss free will say the story has an unhappy ending—that neuroscience shows free will to be an illusion. I call these scientists “willusionists.” … Willusionists say that neuroscience demonstrates that we are not the authors of our own stories but more like puppets whose actions are determined by brain events beyond our control.

According to Nahmias, “willusionists” wrongly assume that free will requires some sort of dualism, or “an impossible ability to make choices beyond the influence of anything, including our own brains.”

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Apr 162012
 

Watch on Vimeo

One way to naturalize Buddhism is to discern the moral lessons it might offer after shedding its metaphysics. Another way is to scrutinize the physiological effects of its practices. As Owen Flanagan explained on PEL’s first “naturalized Buddhism” episode, not all Buddhist sects practice meditation. But of course, many do, particularly within the Japanese Zen tradition so popular in the West. The lecture above comes from Dr. James Austin, Emeritus Professor of Neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Austin believes Zen meditation has discernable physical benefitsthat can be studied neuroscientifically. His numerous books reviewing the neuroscience behind Zen meditation receive both positive and dismissive reviews. Owen Flanagan (who, like Austin, publishes through The MIT Press), gives the following cautious praise for Austin’s work:
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Jan 102012
 

Neuroscientists are using anesthesia to study consciousness in a way that seems related to higher order theories of consciousness. The conclusion so far: “consciousness emerges from the integration of information across large networks in the brain”:

Over the past few years, other EEG studies have supported the idea that anesthesia doesn’t simply shut the brain down but, rather, interferes with its internal communication. Mashour’s research, for instance, has shown that feedback between the front and back of the brain is interrupted during general anesthesia, leading to a disconnect between different brain networks. That feedback is thought to be important for consciousness.

“What we find is that the anesthetized brain is still very reactive to stimuli,” he says; both EEG and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an indirect method of measuring brain activity, show response to light and sounds. But somehow that sensory information is never processed and integrated into the type of activity necessary for conscious awareness.

– Wes

Nov 182011
 

Free will is always a sticky wicket. On the one hand, we make decisions every day that point to our having a say in what we do. Accountability, in general, relies on this notion. On the other hand, whatever our will is, it is clearly constrained: we can’t will away gravity.

Free will is a hot topic in neuroscience these days, especially with experiments leveraging new fMRI imaging techniques in which we can “watch” the brain do its thing. One of those the neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga, interviewed briefly in Scientific American to “explain the new science behind an ancient philosophical question.” Though he wants to claim “the demise of free-will,” he does seem less carelessly strident than some, characterizing the study of free-will as the study of “the nature of action.”

Philosophers, of course, continue to be in on this conversation. Recently in NYTimes’ The Stone, Eddy Nahmias asks, “Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?” The article does a nice job of pointing out common oversimplifications of the problem of free-will, particularly as a dichotomy with determinism.

Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

Not too surprisingly, the way out of this all-or-nothing style free-will/determinism discussion relies on being in the messy middle where we have constraints that don’t determine. (Emergence anyone?)

-Dylan

Aug 022011
 

This September, PBS will re-broadcast an interesting episode of NOVA ScienceNOW, which touches on some points raised in PEL’s interview with Patricia Churchland. The episode demonstrates a procedure called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which can influence a person’s moral judgments as they are being made, simply by messing with the neural activity located within the brain’s Right TemporoParietal Junction (RTPJ):

If you find the clip interesting, you can find the published research here.

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Jul 182011
 
Pat Churchland

We spoke with Patricia Churchland after reading her new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. We also discussed David Hume’s ethics as foundational to her work, reading his Treatise on Human Nature (1739), Book III, Part I and his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Section V, Parts I and II.

What does the physiology of the brain have to do with ethics? What bearing do facts have on values? Churchland thinks that while Hume is (famously) correct in saying that you can’t deduce “ought” from “is,” the fact that we have moral sentiments is certainly relevant to figuring out what our ethical positions should be, and it’s her main goal to figure out what the mechanisms behind those moral sentiments are: What brain parts and processes are involved? How and when did these evolve? How did cultural factors come into play, building on top of our biological capacity to care for others?

Pat spoke with Mark and Dylan Casey here about topics ranging from the war on drugs to the rationale of punishment to Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape. Read some more initial thoughts (and some substantial discussion in readers’ comments) here.

To read along with us, buy Pat’s book.

End song: “Bring You Down” from the 1994 album Happy Songs Will Bring You Down by The MayTricks.

Jun 302011
 

The talk is somewhat misleadingly titled “Roger Scruton – Persons and their Brains”, but what he’s really concerned to do is point out the limits of neuroscience and justify a place for philosophy in the study of human behavior.  Not sure if that’s a straw man or not, but he has some critical things to say of our podcast guest Patricia Churchland.    Take a look:

Watch at DailyMotion.com.

So he leads with a bit of arrogance: “I’m English so I don’t see things like Americans,” which I guess is supposed to signal to us that he – what?  If I interpret the subtext (pun intended, see below), he’s saying that he doesn’t worship at the church of science, like we Americans.   Scruton refers to Churchland’s work and reiterates her question:  What does philosophy have to contribute to our understanding of human mental processes, compared to neuroscience?

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Jun 272011
 

With special Guest Pat Churchland herself!

What does the physiology of the brain have to do with ethics? We were contacted by Pat Churchland’s publisher and invited to speak with her about her new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality.

She was good enough to chat with us (Mark and Dylan) for a full, regular length show yesterday, and not only about her own book, but also about one of her major influences, David Hume, who pioneered a “naturalistic” approach to ethics: we look not for normative laws to provide commands for our behavior, but at the moral sense we already have, and how this plays as a practical matter into the challenges we face in making laws, deciding on punishments, and just getting along in a society.

Churchland’s addition to this project is reporting on and synthesizing the broad swath of current scientific findings on what exactly this moral sense is: how is it realized in the brain and our endocrine system? What mental operations make moral assessments and rule-following possible? Much of her book is taken up with reporting on animal physiology and behavior, so we can see where on the evolutionary path we picked up the abilities to expand the circle of self-regard to include kin and associates, to represent others’ intentions and beliefs to predict their behavior, and to understand and follow social norms.

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Jun 272011
 

With special Guest Pat Churchland herself!

What does the physiology of the brain have to do with ethics? We were contacted by Pat Churchland’s publisher and invited to speak with her about her new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality.

She was good enough to chat with us (Mark and Dylan) for a full, regular length show yesterday, and not only about her own book, but also about one of her major influences, David Hume, who pioneered a “naturalistic” approach to ethics: we look not for normative laws to provide commands for our behavior, but at the moral sense we already have, and how this plays as a practical matter into the challenges we face in making laws, deciding on punishments, and just getting along in a society.

Churchland’s addition to this project is reporting on and synthesizing the broad swath of current scientific findings on what exactly this moral sense is: how is it realized in the brain and our endocrine system? What mental operations make moral assessments and rule-following possible? Much of her book is taken up with reporting on animal physiology and behavior, so we can see where on the evolutionary path we picked up the abilities to expand the circle of self-regard to include kin and associates, to represent others’ intentions and beliefs to predict their behavior, and to understand and follow social norms.

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Jun 062011
 

David EagletonWes’s recent post on David Eagleman led to my listening to the Philosophy Bites episode interviewing him.

Eagleman’s point here is that the criminal justice system assumes a model of free will that is unsustainable given what we know about neurology, and he gives examples like a normal guy with no apparent deviant impulses suddenly starts exhibiting child molester behavior. He’s subsequently diagnosed with a giant brain tumor, which is then removed, and his behavior (and self-reported desires) return to normal… but then they return, and what do you know? The tumor’s back.

Overall, I agree with his prescription for criminal justice to be forward-looking and not retributive, and that moral guilt as we normally think of it does assume a metaphysics of free will that doesn’t entirely make sense. One point in particular made me think, though, that he doesn’t understand the compatibility deliberations that have been a main project for elaboration for philosophers since Kant or before: the interviewer brought up Sartre’s notion of freedom, i.e. that to us, our actions always feel free (apart from when we’re drugged against our will or whatnot). Even if someone has a gun on me, I choose what to do next. So from a first-person perspective, we can’t use the excuse that “my neurological state caused me to do such and such;” that just doesn’t reflect how we perceive the situation.

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May 312011
 

Terry Gross has an interesting interview with neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Incidentally, if you’re in Boston you can catch him at Harvard Bookstore on Friday). Eagleman’s book is about, among many other things, the neuroscience of unconscious processes and their importance to our behavior (something of the particular interest to me); and has some very neo-Kantian ideas about space and time being “constructed” by the brain and not “out there.”

– Wes

May 252011
 

We’ve bashed NY Times columnist David Brooks before on this blog for his attempts at philosophy, and I absolutely feel for the guy from a logistical perspective: he’s not an academic that can take a sabbatical and hole up to write and revise. He’s more or less a blogger who has to fumble around every few days to figure out something that he’s read about to spit back in an insightful way, and I don’t think that’s a recipe for great depth and profundity.

Well, now he’s released a book on neuroscience

In this article in “The Nation,” Gary Greenberg rips Brooks for his pretentious (Brooks: “I’m going to walk, stylistically, in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”) scientism. (Greenberg: “These science-minded utopians may disagree wildly with one another about the essence of human nature, and the kind of world best suited to its flourishing, but they all are equally certain that only scientific inquiry… can settle the matter. We can crack our own source code…, and… we can build a world in which we cannot help being, as Skinner once put it, ‘automatically good.’”)

As Newt Gingrich said a week or so back in a wholly different context, “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering.”

I’m currently reading both Plato’s Republic and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (both utopian visions) for future episodes, so this is all right on topic for me.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Apr 142011
 

Churchlands

Patricia and Paul Churchland

Paul and Patricia Churchland are researchers and advocates of eliminative materialism in neuroscience and philosophy of mind. Eliminative materialism claims that everyday concepts such as the beliefs, feelings, and desires we attribute to each other are illusions of what we should refer to as “folk psychology.” They believe not only that these concepts are destined to be eliminated by a genuinely scientific understanding of human nature, but that this goal is a good or end to which research ought to be hastened.

One argument in response to this position comes out of the discussion in episode 35 and episode 36 on Hegel’s account of self-consciousness. Here is the argument:

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