Friday, 25 November 2011

'Mind' is not a noun!

Listening to episode 62 of Dr Ginger Campbell's interesting Brain Science Podcast I was fascinated to hear discussions about the implications of claims that we are just controlled by our neurons.

Some religious people who feel a need to invoke the concept of a soul (and a god) have suggested that if we are just machines then we could argue that we do not have personal responsibility for our own actions.  Our free will is possibly in question.  (Of course our free will is probably in question for other reasons too.)

An interesting response has been offered by Warren Brown (neuroscientist) and Nancy Murphy (philosopher) in their book Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will.  Their idea involves the importance of feedback.  Our experience of the world and our ability to interact with it at all, relies entirely on feedback from all our senses.  Without this feedback we learn nothing and effectively our brain is useless if it is isolated in this way.  It would never understand the world around it. 

As an example, it is known that if you get people to wear spectacles which reverse the image that their eyes see, they are able to adapt the actions of their bodies within a few days.  In other words, they compensate, and the brain's internal workings exhibit ' plasticity'.  But - this adaptation occurs only if they are free to interact with the world that they see reversed.  If they wear the spectacles but are prevented from interacting with their surroundings by touch, they do not learn to adapt.

The sci-fi concept of the 'brain in a jar' could never be realised and the concept of the mind residing in the brain alone then becomes conceptual nonsense.  In fact, they argue that the word 'mind' is not a noun at all, but a verb.  The mind is not a thing but a description of whether we care (or mind) about things.

They have been careful to stress that their book is not about theology, but the implications of their work for the existence of the soul can hardly be ignored.


Hilary said... you not think that you have a soul? :)
This then would make you a determinist? No free will at all? You think you ahve free will but this is deception, and therefore you have been programmed to think in such a way as to think that you have been programmed to think in this way due to your neurons, your genetics, you circumstances and any and all other factors...

actually there is a great deal that contradicts this, for example people in comas who hear and are aware of everything around them, and can remember conversations when they emerge from the coma, there is also the question of emotions, and will power and those who have suffered horrendous brain damage but who have recovered.

The material world is only a small part of the whole...we are spirit, and soul and mind. If the world continues to develop some strange idea that we are not then the world will develop along hedonistic lines with no thought for those who suffer as there would be no reason to...that is the logical outcome of seeing human beings as mere neurons...

Derby Sceptic said...

@Hilary I don't see why the experiences of people in comas is relevant to your argument.

My understanding is that when in a coma parts of the human body continue to work yet others do not - the person may well be unable to show signs of movement or speech but the hearing and memory may well be unaffected.

Why does this contradict PE's standpoint?

Derby Sceptic said...

@Hilary You believe that if we don't consider ourselves spirit, soul and mind then the world will develop with no thought for those who suffer.

I cannot agree on this - there are people who act in this way from all religions as well as those without faith.

Take as examples the attack on the World Trade Centre and the London Underground bombings - did the perpetrators of these have any thought for those who suffered - yet the people behind this claimed to have very strong faith and be acting upon it.

Furthermore I know of christians whose treatment of others causes suffering, yet the reaction if questioned is that god will forgive them and only god can judge. Maybe they go to their church and ask for forgiveness.

This is transferring responsibility for their actions away from themselves. I cannot see that as acceptable regardless of your beliefs.

Hilary said...

D.S your argument isn't an argument, you have given no reason as to why what I have said is not correct! All you have done is pointed out faults in people who profess faith in something. (These are the militant aggressive acts of terror which just about every muslim and every christian will agree has little to do with the faith)
So...if you argue against my conclusion then perhaps you could tell me why I am not correct! If I am not then I can only suggest that in fact, the supposed belief that a man/woman has no soul/spirit is really not believed in at all by those who say they do.
It also leads to some interesting thoughts.
1) No free will
2) Every action is determined by all factors as stated earlier
3) If all factors known then actions can and could be predicted.
4) No purpose for life
5) No reason not to terminate life
6) Why should it matter to those who believe this that there are some who believe in God after all, it makes no difference in the end according to this theory.
7) I guess it's just a matter of time and evolution before ants, spiders, bees, octopuses, dolphins, chimpanzees and parrots figure out how to build a spaceship and get away from us destructive humans...:)

Derby Sceptic said...

@Hilary: Quite a lot of points there. Perhaps I should state my view from another angle.

There is clear evidence that people without any regligious belief or faith, and hence not believing in the regligious definitiion of spirit, soul and mind are anything but hedonistic. They are very clear about being responsible for their actions and often altruistic within the community.

There are causes like NBGA (Non believers giving aid) which demonstrate this.

I myself am passionate in my support for Cancer Research and make donations directly and also via sponsoring people in charity events where money is collected for this cause. Rather than spread my donations thinly across many charities I support just a few so that each can benefit more from my money.

With regard to the militant aggressive acts carried out by those who profess faith, are you stating that they are not real believers? I can see in my readings of the bible that there are many places where violence is promoted, and my limited knowledge of other relogious texts tells me that they too promote or condone violence for other faiths. Maybe these people are merely taking their particular text very literally.

I will come back to your interesting thoughts later.

On a slightly lighter note, how often have you referred to your 'stupid computer' thus assigning characteristics that would normally be assigned to people, and in your view of people with no spirit, soul and mind in the religious sense, these could not even be assugned to those people?

Derby Sceptic said...

@Hilary - re your interesting thoughts:

1) If god is Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent - does that not preclude free will in those who follow him?
2) All actions are determined by the god of the 3 O's
3) As for 2
4) What is the purpose for life as you see it? Just to worship god? Doesn't soumd that good to me.
5) I think the majority of people see that terminating life unnaturally is wrong regardless of their beliefs. A simple basis is to ensure that in living your life you do not harm others.
6) If people wish to believe in god or another deity then that is their right, however they must not impose this on others or use it to control their actions.
7) I refer you to the various books of the HitchHikers Guids to the Galaxy. Note the mice and the dolphins!

Plasma Engineer said...

I missed out on the comments of the last 24 hours but I'll try to address all the points briefly. In general I disagree (of course) with all @Hilary's views expressed here but welcome the discussion except on one point which I will return to.

Let's be clear what I think the science of the mind tells us.

I think it is clear that we do not have souls, that there is no way that such a non physical entity can interact with our physical bodies, and that there is no need to invoke such a concept anyway.

But I am not a determinist because of:
a/ Chaos
b/ Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle
c/ The role of feedback (as described in the post)

These three make the future unpredicatable in principle.

The argument that millions believe in something called the soul is irrelevant. It is a logical fallacy to claim it as being in any way useful.

People recover from brain damage because of plasticity in the brain.


It is an outrageous slur to imply - against all the available evidence - that hedonism is an obvious result of the lack of a soul or the lack of a deity.

Normally offensive remarks are deleted from the comments on this blog, and that really IS an offensive comment and I won't have it go unchallenged on this blog.

Hilary said...

Ah I do apologise for causing offence it was not meant personally to any atheist and particularly not to either of you D.S and P.E. But you make my point admirably which is that you do not live as though you do not have a soul and in fact you live very much as if you do and this is the very point I am making, that in fact we all live according to what we believe and my question perhaps I should rephrase it for fear of causing more offence, is to ask again, why it is that you do not live as if you have no soul since you do not believe that you do?

I concede sadly that there are those who do profess belief who live as if they have no soul and only one such person is one too many, sadly it seems power and greed and opportunity for both is too much temptation for many whether professing believer or unbeliever...

I base my faith on the person of Jesus Christ who went to the Cross and healed the ear of the soldier of whom Peter sliced it off (sorry for the not very good English there lol) in the garden of Gethsemene. Thankfully there are more examples of Christians who follow the footsteps of Christ into suffering for the greater good of others than there are those who do the opposite.

(I could of course take deep offence at you saying as if a fact(which it isn't of course as you can never prove such a statement) that a human being has no soul, but of course this is your blog and you are entitled to say whatever you like)

But once again I ask, why do you not choose to live according to what you believe? Or, as I suspect, what you believe is purely an intellectual pursuit that has no basis in reality, which takes us back to the philosophies of those such as Aristotle?

Simple question, and one I am curious about and which hasn't yet in either of your responses been answered. Any why would you take offence seeing as you think you have no soul? How can a non-soul be offended? :)

Plasma Engineer said...

I don't think I said that I have taken offence, but only the remark is undeniably offensive.

I'm afraid I haven't understood your question. "Why do I not live according to what I believe?" Do you think I don't?

Do you mean "Why do I not live the life of moral terpitude that you seem to equate with a lack of belief in gods or souls?"

I can't believe that you actually think that way.

Plasma Engineer said...

This is not exactly the quote that I was seeking, but here is something from Christopher Hitchens:

“About once or twice every month I engage in public debates with those whose pressing need it is to woo and to win the approval of supernatural beings. Very often, when I give my view that there is no supernatural dimension, and certainly not one that is only or especially available to the faithful, and that the natural world is wonderful enough—and even miraculous enough if you insist—I attract pitying looks and anxious questions. How, in that case, I am asked, do I find meaning and purpose in life? How does a mere and gross materialist, with no expectation of a life to come, decide what, if anything, is worth caring about?

Depending on my mood, I sometimes but not always refrain from pointing out what a breathtakingly insulting and patronizing question this is. (It is on a par with the equally subtle inquiry: Since you don't believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart's content?) Just as the answer to the latter question is: self-respect and the desire for the respect of others—while in the meantime it is precisely those who think they have divine permission who are truly capable of any atrocity—so the answer to the first question falls into two parts. A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities… but there, there. Enough.”
― Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22

Hilary said...

...but you see there is of necessity no logic in that quote... as if a person has no soul and a person is simply a tangle of neurons and atoms, then it is without meaning and therefore without purpose...and it doesn't matter if a life exists or it doesn't, this is not a patronising view, it is simply logical, and, whether you can't believe that I think this way or not, it remains an unanswered question to which I am still curious to know the answer.

What logical reason is there for living life by some form of morals/respect/love/friendship etc which clearly you do. Where is the basis for all of this? What you think of Christianity is not relevent to my question which should be possible to answer without reference to what you think I think!

(I personally am quite staggered too at times at the way that you seem to think but it doesn't stop me attemtping at least to give answers to your questions...)

Incidentally, Hitchins' comment is full of emotional response to the questions of others which is really rather unhelpful, and whether he considers the question to be patronising or insulting is neither here nor there unless the motive of the questioner has been with that intent. I can assure you, I have no such intent, I am genuinely curious.

Your claim is that a human being has no soul or spirit separate from the physical body, so, according such a bold claim, what therefore is the foundation of how you live? How do you decide what is right and wrong, as clearly you do each day...whether you call it right and wrong is irrelevent.

Your argument seems constantly to launch at those bad examples of faith professing people, but such is no answer to my question which, for I eagerly await? :)

Plasma Engineer said...

Quite right. What I think of christianity (or emotional responses) isn't important. But whether things are right or wrong is far from irrelevant.

Incidentally - I see things from a different point of view. It is your claim that is bold - that we do have an immortal soul just because - in some extreme imaginings - it seems that way.

But what is this bold claim that I make? Have I launched a single bad example of the failures of people who express faith? I can't see one. (That would be low-hanging fruit and I try to avoid taking it.)

Just ask a meaningful question and I will try to answer it. Why do christians always need to have a foundation? We just live until we just die, and it is best if we do it nicely. It seems more pleasant that way. Even the authors of the bronze age myths noticed it and tried to tie common sense into their mysticism.

Is that a good enough answer?

p.s. The suggestion that you can't understand my point of view leads me to an important question. Were you were ever a real atheist as you sometimes claim?

Hilary said...

Ah, well I never thought that I didn't have a soul, or spirit I just didn't attribute that to God, but more to a general force be with you type of thing...I was probably a greek philosopher in the wrong time zone lol...I'm just reading a fascinating book called 'Aristarchus the ancient Copernicus' and actually some of the ideas in those days were not so far off these days really.

So, no I didn't believe in God, either a personal God or any other kind, but I believed in the inner essence of human beings and that having come from somewhere we could then take hold of life and find purpose and longevity of life eventually...

I had a huge awareness of time and eternity when I was about 4 years old maybe 5. I had a fear of waking up and finding myself dead or somewhere was a recurring I could see no known reason why that wouldn't or couldn't happen...existing seemed a very precarious thing to me at 5 years of age and time and space seemed to be very connected as far as I could work out...:)

Anonymous said...

I've always found it strange that we use, and are usually untroubled with, complex concepts like "society," but the concept "mind" throws us for a loop. Mind is nothing more than abstract noun meant to sum up a set of certain phenomena. Like society, it's a word that describes a host if interrelationships, but points to no singular entity or existent.