Back Off Science


Posted in mind by backoffscience on November 16, 2009

Psychiatrist Dr Iain McGilchrist speaking here about the two halves of the brian:

“The difference is essentially one of attention. It might not sound important, but it is.

“If you look at birds, we know that chicks use the eye that is connected to their left hemisphere to get seed, to be able to pick out that detail against the grit. The other one is watching out for predators. Taking the wider view.

“The left hemisphere has its own agenda, which is to help manipulate and control the world (hence it controls the right hand for grasping). The other hemisphere has no preconceptions, and simply looks out to the world for whatever there might be. In other words it has no allegiance to any particular set of values.

“It matters because, over the course of time, there has been a shift towards the view of the left hemisphere. There has been  a series of shifts backwards and forwards, but with each shift there has been a gain of ground by the left hemispheres view of the world – the view, essentially, of the world as a mechanism.

“That is because it is a very coherent, self-refering system. It is a beautiful model which allows things to be simple, graspable and usable. It is a bit like the difference between a map, and the land the map represents.

“It results in a visualizing and self-refering world, in which doctors, teachers and policemen find, they spend an awful lot of time planning, reporting and analysing what they are doing, and not doing it.

“We have substituted a rather lifeless, mechanical, fragmented picture of the world. Which has robbed it of its complex, changing, interconnected quality. That actually has a huge impact on our view of ourselves as human beings and what we are doing on the planet.

“We are in the process of destroying the planet through a need to be constantly grasping and using. We miss out on the non-mechanical aspects of our existence, and see ourselves as simply rather clever machines and a lot of other things get neglected.


The missing link

Posted in mind by backoffscience on October 19, 2009

The split of subjective and objective seems a bad one for everyone. It goes like this. There are things that can be verified by everyone. Science finds them out. There are things that are only known to me. This is consciousness – a mystery and probably best left alone.

The reality is that we share our lives with lots of people in a variety of ways. Our reality is communal. There is truth in both the subjective and the objective perspective, but only as extreme positions on an otherwise ambiguous spectrum.

Is the full explanation of a painting in an art gallery to be found in the chemical structures of the materials? Nope. Is it found in the interpreted colour patterns we sense? Nope – and I don’t know how you managed to experience just the colours anyway.

No, it is found in the experience of an object about which you have already learned a massive amount from other people – the story of the artist, the ways we look at art, the history of art, the objects from other places we see in it, what we know about the specific work from what other people have told us. missing link in all of this is aspect perception. This is an everyday phenomena which somehow no-one talks about. Here’s the duck rabbit – the first of many. You see a duck. Then you see a rabbit. The two experiences are different and yet nothing has changed.

The important bit is not the aspect shift, which is quite an interesting feeling. The interesting bit is thinking about a drawing with a non-ambigous aspect. Then you realize that every other experience you have is jam packed full of concepts. So our idea of there being no concepts in the world is wrong. Concepts are everywhere. And how do they get there? Well our world is organised conceptually, and we get our concepts from… everyone. The connections between you, me and everyone and everything we know run so deep into our lives that it is impossible to escape them.

So it is not rational to be objective, because that completely misses a massive section of our reality. And it is certainly not rational to be subjective, because we don’t live in a world by ourselves. The truth is much harder. Whether we want to or not, we directly experience a shared world, and we’re going to have to make the most of it.

Destroying our (virtual) reality

Posted in mind by backoffscience on October 13, 2009

Our image of ourselves, the image of man, of humankind, is changing faster and more dramatically then through any other scientific revolution in the past. In a way we are destroying a lot of what mankind has believed in during the last 4,000 years, but it’s also clear that in this emerging vacuum neuroscience will not be able to put something new into this vacuum.

All in the Mind with Thomas Metzinger via Mindhacks

Metzinger’s theory of consciousness, now that science has discovered it at last, is one of the friendlier from the scientific perspective. He sees it as a kind of virtual reality model of the world, which sort of excludes the self, but accepts that the non-existant self will never be able to perceive its non-existence:

The conscious self is a fantastic tool that emerged in natural evolution that allows a body to own itself.

But, as he says himself, his philosophy is “unintelligible” to a conscious human.

My theory—big, unintelligible philosophical theory—says that we identify with this image of our body because we cannot recognise it as an image. says unintelligible as a kind of a joke, but it really is not. From our perspective, unless you define “consciousness” in a silly technical way that allows you to pretend it is not THIS, it is impossible to truly conceive of your own life as a simulation of a life. It is just life full stop. My life.

Metzinger is incredibly self-aware of both the paradox and the danger caused by the invading culture of neuroscience. He suggests a new field of morality be born to make decisions about states of human and animal consciousness, which would be a step in the right direction.

But he fails to see the possibility that there is a debate to be had about what scientists say, about the way the facts come out. The subjective is out of reach for scientists by definition, so of course every theory they come up with will exclude it somehow. It’s the rules of the game.

It seems to me that telling someone that, from the perspective of a form of inquiry that excludes the subjective, there is no such thing as subjectivity, is kind of pointless. But at the same time it does damage the subjective narratives that bind people and their world together.

It is harmful and pointless to undermine people’s sense of reality, when there is no reality behind to get at. That is a simple misuse of the concept of reality.

Metzinger is right to say that neuroscience is destructive. But it is not simply beliefs that are destroyed. It is beliefs that humans created over hundreds of years, and which will not be easy to replace once gone.


More transcript:

Thomas Metzinger:”We don’t find a will in the brain, that’s for sure. What we have is the conscious experience of having free will, of actually deliberating, wanting something, of weighing different goals against each other and so on, and that conscious experience of free will, that will be explained by science.

And the question is…many people in the general public feel an uneasiness with this debate about freedom of the will. Imagine there was no freedom of the will, that if we had a theory that said that, we couldn’t really believe that theory, it would make us sick. I mean, how could you imagine that every thought, every intention you are consciously experiencing right now has been predetermined by something unconscious outside of your reality. The people that have that experience are usually in psychiatric institutions. Our brains were never made for this.


My unitelligible philosophical theory says that we identify with this identity of our body because we cannot recognise it as an image…

… the conscious self is a fantastic tool that emerged in natural evolution that allows a body to own itself. That’s what is actually happening, for instance, when you wake up in the morning and a conscious self emerges, that is when the body that was sleeping boots up this virtual reality tool to own itself, to control itself in a new way. That is where selfhood came from.


Thomas Metzinger: Our image of ourselves, the image of man, of humankind, is changing faster and more dramatically then through any other scientific revolution in the past. In a way we are destroying a lot of what mankind has believed in during the last 4,000 years, but it’s also clear that in this emerging vacuum neuroscience will not be able to put something new into this vacuum.

Natasha Mitchell: You see it as that we’re witnessing a disenchantment of the self, which is interesting because you’ve just banished the self in this conversation.

Thomas Metzinger: Well, who is ready to do that, who could even understand, honestly, what that would mean. I think we’re seeing a lot of good things, interesting things. For instance, we’ll be able to heal psychiatric diseases much better in a few decades, but we’ll also pay a price. We’ll pay an emotional price, there are these unsettling things about freedom of the will, then there is the social cultural price we’re going to pay for it which is much harder to assess.

I mean, how will our culture actually react to a naturalistic turn in our image of man, if there’s no supernatural root even in our minds anymore, and we actually have to come to terms with the fact that not only our bodies but also our minds are results of a process that had no goal, that was driven by chance events…I mean, how are we going to come to terms with this? Will we develop a culture of denial, or will we all become vulgar materialists? And I think something that could help us to take this step in integrating all this brand new knowledge and the new potentials for changing our brains and our minds technologically…

Natasha Mitchell: And pharmaceutically.

Thomas Metzinger: And pharmaceutically, that’s what we’re researching in my cognitive enhancers group…how are we going to make this historical transition in an optimal way? And I think, to put it very simply, we could do it by just thinking not only about what is a good action but what is a good state of consciousness. What states of consciousness do we want to show our children? How can neuroscience help us with optimising education? What states of consciousness are we allowed to impose, to force upon animals? Are all these experiments in, say, primate research, in consciousness research, in neuroscience ethically tenable? What states of consciousness should be illegal in our society? New drugs. What states of consciousness do we want to foster and cultivate?

It’s also a question of preserving our dignity in the face of these sometimes very sobering discussions, and in developing a cultural response to it. Can modern science help me? It’s not only about defending ourselves, it’s also about what I call riding the tiger; can all this new knowledge help us to improve our autonomy, maybe also our rationality? How can I take responsibility and charge for the way I deal with my own brain? Can it help us to die better deaths? Who knows? But I think we should all, not only philosophers and scientists but all of us, start to think about what we want to do with all these new brain/mind technologies. Just looking the other way won’t make it go away.