Dec 03 2008

And One More Thing…

Published by under Uncategorized
Comments: 87

Yesterday I deconstructed Michael Egnor’s tangle of logical fallacies and false premises that he uses to attack modern neuroscience. There was one point I forgot to address, however. (One of the hazards of daily blogging.) It’s important enough to warrant a separate entry, however.

Reader Gary Goldwater hit upon this contradiction, although tangentially, with this comment:

I also wonder to myself….and perhaps you can explain this…how a brain surgeon would come to Egnor’s conclusions. If my knowledge base is correct, a brain surgeon would have a professional lifetime experiencing the direct connection between the material brain and the function of mind. It seems to me that one of the major foci of a brain surgeon is to limit collateral damage during surgery for the specific purpose of limiting an affectation in the patient’s mind.

The answer to Gary’s question lies, I think, in Egnor’s logical contradiction I did not point out yesterday.

Egnor’s position is that the mind is not caused “entirely” by the brain. He asks in his recent essay, for example,

So is the materialist inference that the mind is caused entirely by the brain plausible?

Egnor is employing a common denialist strategy – finding a way to accommodate undeniable scientific evidence while denying its implications. This is the exact logical equivalent to the “microevolution” tactic of creationists. Essentially, any slam-dunk evidence that evolution is actually happening in the living world is only evidence for “microevolution,” and does not prove “macroevolution.” It also equates to the creationist denial of a pattern of common descent in genes and fossils. “So there was a dinosaur-looking feathered creature that flew. That doesn’t mean it was actually a transitional form from dinosaurs to birds. It just was what it was.”

Egnor acknowledges the mountain of evidence that mental activity correlates with brain function. He can even practice neurosurgery based upon our extensive knowledge of what brain bits perform which mental functions. But he does two things: He denies that the correlation is exact, essentially relying upon current technological limits in our ability to image brain function. And he denies the obvious implications of the strong correlation that can be documented scientifically.

He tries to rescue his position, which he knows it at odds with the evidence from neuroscience, by saying that the brain does not “entirely” cause the mind. This still leaves him the out of saying that there must be some magical non-materialist cause also. He only needs the tiniest bit, the smallest sliver of uncertainty, to claim victory over materialism. This is an obvious attempt to insulate his position from scientific evidence about brain function.

But he creates another problem for himself, which came to a head in his recent post. He argues (falsely) that there are six features of mind that cannot be explained at all by a materialist model of mind. He essentially argues that matter can have no relationship with these phenomena – such as qualia or intention.

But then – how does the brain partly cause the mind if all the really important stuff cannot be caused by brain matter at all? And, why would brain function correlate at all with the mental functions he discusses?

If, as he claims, the continuity of our personality is independent of the organization of matter in our brains – then how come personality can be radically and immediately changed by damage to the physical structure of the brain? How can frontal lobe damage cause someone to become apathetic or disinhibited, for example?

Egnor’s position is ultimately incoherent and self-contradictory. He is using the “kettle defense” strategy – making any argument he can for his position, even when they are mutually exclusive.

He is forced into incoherence, however, because his position is ideological and untenable. Mental function correlates with brain function in every way, within our technical limits to measure such things.  Brain maturity correlates with mental maturity. Drugs that change brain function change mental function. If you damage the brain you damage the mind. When our brain’s sleep we sleep, and when we dream our brains are dreaming. Remove a part of the brain and the mental function that correlates with that piece of brain goes with it. The severity of dementia correlates with the extent of atrophy and pathological changes in the brain.

And (here is perhaps the real sticking point) when our brains finally die, we die. There is no credible evidence for any persistence of self beyond the ongoing activity of our brains. People can retain whatever personal faith they wish, but within the realm of science, when brain function ends, mental function ends with it.

None of this would be true, however, if Egnor’s six points were valid, and he cannot rescue this contradiction by saying that the brain “partly” causes mind. If brain causes mind at all, then all six of his arguments must be false.

But Egnor demonstrates one more brain-caused mental function – the ability to compartmentalize; to maintain mutually exclusive beliefs at the same time. As he demonstrates nicely, compartmentalization leads to incoherence.

Share

87 responses so far

87 Responses to “And One More Thing…”

  1. _Arthuron 03 Dec 2008 at 11:43 am

    Kettle logic, by Dr. Freud of Vienna:
    “The kettle you borrowed is broken!
    A:
    -It was OK when I gave it back to you
    -It was already broken when I got it
    -I never borrowed the damn kettle.

    (no entry in Wikipedia)

  2. Blair Ton 03 Dec 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Another kettle logic I read in a book of lawyer anecdotes:

    Defense for a rape case:
    My client has an alibi – he was two hundred miles away when the rape allegedly occurred. And if you don’t believe that, then there was consent.

  3. Eric Thomsonon 03 Dec 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Against my better judgment, I’ve started a series of posts on the creationists’ recent discovery of consciousness. My first post is here. May God have mercy on my soul.

    I’m fine if they want to be dualists for personal reasons, but their claims to have discovered insurmountable problems with neuroscience is silly.

  4. IanJNon 03 Dec 2008 at 2:54 pm

    “Egnor’s position is that the mind is not caused ‘entirely’ by the brain.”

    Might a more charitable interpretation be that the brain is necessary but not sufficient for mind? Like the relationship between tv set and tv show, for example. That’s the analogy I’ve had thrown at me in debates like this. Completely unfounded, yes, but it doesn’t seem contradictory.

    Under the tv analogy, mind disorders are like pink bananas. A skewed hue control will cause bananas to display pink, but the tv set cannot, by itself, create pink bananas.

  5. Oracon 03 Dec 2008 at 4:03 pm

    Might a more charitable interpretation be that the brain is necessary but not sufficient for mind? Like the relationship between tv set and tv show, for example. That’s the analogy I’ve had thrown at me in debates like this. Completely unfounded, yes, but it doesn’t seem contradictory.

    Actually, Dr. Egnor has made just that sort of argument before, in which he seemed to be saying that the brain was necessary for consciousness, likening it to cell phone receiving a signal from elsewhere, presumably the soul:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2007/06/michael_egnor_deepak_chopra_you_be_the_j_1.php

  6. IanJNon 03 Dec 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks for the link, Orac.

  7. pecon 03 Dec 2008 at 6:02 pm

    [And (here is perhaps the real sticking point) when our brains finally die, we die. There is no credible evidence for any persistence of self beyond the ongoing activity of our brains.]

    You have no evidence for your position. There is no scientific evidence either way, so people believe what makes sense to them within their worldview. According to materialism there is no mind apart from physical brains, so you do not believe the mind can survive death. Your belief is philosophical, not scientific. Your belief seems scientific to you only because you are so immersed in your philosophy of materialism, no other worldview seems plausible.

    [If, as he claims, the continuity of our personality is independent of the organization of matter in our brains - then how come personality can be radically and immediately changed by damage to the physical structure of the brain?]

    Our minds require a working physical brain in order to interact with our physical and social, and temporal, reality. For example, an ability to plan ahead and consider alternative possibilities depends on the brain’s ability to work with what we call “time.” Since the mind exists on some kind of higher dimensional level (according to non-materialist philosophies, that is), its experience of time requires certain transformations that are performed by the brain (don’t demand that I explain how all this works; it is theoretical and not scientifically explored, same as your materialist hypothesis.)

    There are many valid scientific and logical reasons for questioning your materialist assumption that mind equals brain. However I am talking about alternative perspectives from “New” science, which are not usually taught in medical programs.

    I think that if you spent a lot of time in libraries investigating alternative perspectives, you would lose your materialist certainty. Things would stop looking so clear and obvious and you would become more open-minded and truly skeptical.

    And I am not agreeing with Egnor. Just because I am a non-materialist does not mean I agree with every other non-materialist in all ways. We are talking about things that are barely explored and will not be understood any time soon.

    “Skeptic” does not equal “materialist.” A true skeptic keeps an open mind about things that have not been scientifically demonstrated.

  8. Steven Novellaon 03 Dec 2008 at 7:07 pm

    Yeah – that’s the brain-as-receptor hypothesis. I believe I have addressed that before.

    Multiple problems – there is no evidence to suggest that the brain is a receiver or that there is anything to receive. There is no apparent way to block the alleged signals. The receiver hypothesis makes no validated predictions, or perhaps it makes no predictions at all. It adds nothing to our understanding of how the brain works. We are therefore back to it being entirely superfluous.

    It also doesn’t explain how changing the brain changes personality in a predictable way. Anything we can measure about the mind, experimentally, is determined by the brain. There is simply no room for this extra step of channeling the mind which resides elsewhere.

    In other words, the arrow of cause and effects seems to go from the brain to the mind, not the other way around.

  9. superdaveon 03 Dec 2008 at 7:15 pm

    PEC,
    you say, “A true skeptic keeps an open mind about things that have not been scientifically demonstrated.”.

    I therefore tell you that crushed moon rocks, dissolved in water to homeopathic dilutions, is the cure for AIDS.

  10. Steven Novellaon 03 Dec 2008 at 7:16 pm

    pec – I said there is no evidence for the existence of self beyond the functioning brain. You countered that there is no evidence for this position. So – there is no evidence for my claim that there is no evidence? Does that mean you have evidence for the existence of mind apart from brain?

    Or, are you trying to shift the burden of proof. There is a ton of experimental evidence that thoughts, memories, behavior, personality, etc. are features of brain function. There is no evidence for any mental phenomenon separate from the brain.

    Your talk about “worldview” and “open minded” etc. – again – are just ad hominem attacks and non sequiturs. I am talking about evidence – if you have evidence, reference it. You also did not point out any error in my logic. You therefore still don’t get it.

    Try, really try, to formulate a statement based upon logic and /or evidence rather than just dismissing with platitudes.

    I address the brain-as-receiver claim above – it’s unnecessary. The burden is on you to explain why it is necessary or there is evidence for it. Absent that, it is excised by Occam’s razor.

  11. MKandeferon 03 Dec 2008 at 7:54 pm

    Orac says,

    “Actually, Dr. Egnor has made just that sort of argument before, in which he seemed to be saying that the brain was necessary for consciousness, likening it to cell phone receiving a signal from elsewhere, presumably the soul”

    Yet this is one of those positions that creationists most certainly don’t want to find themselves in. If the brain is necessary, rather than all there is, then the evidence still suggests it is necessary for experiencing vision, audition, perception, proprioception, pain, long-term memories, pleasure, goals, etc. Once the body goes, so do these things if the brain is necessary for. What does the soul add, if such a thing exists? Can it do anything independent of a body, if so what? How does it attach itself to a body? I think most individuals that believe in an afterlife imagine that it will contain some form of eternal paradise where they experience things just as they are now, maybe with a little more light, and without all those negative things, like sins, whatever those may be. However, this cannot be the case unless the soul is sufficient for all the cognitive capabilities, and the brain adds nothing. Once again, the evidence just doesn’t swing this way.

  12. pecon 03 Dec 2008 at 8:02 pm

    “There is no evidence for any mental phenomenon separate from the brain.”

    Over a hundred years of parapsychology research is not so easy to dismiss.

    “There is a ton of experimental evidence that thoughts, memories, behavior, personality, etc. are features of brain function.”

    All you have are correlations, no evidence of causality.

    The brain as receiver idea makes sense to me, but needs to be developed and investigated much further. And I think the brain is much more than a receiver, and includes various kinds of logic circuits and transducers, and who knows what else. The point to remember is that we don’t know very much yet.

    The inability of artificial intelligence researchers to create human-like minds (or even insect-like minds!) is evidence against the mind-equals-brain hypothesis.

    But, as I said, neither side has won yet. We should all educate ourselves by listening more carefully to those we disagree with.

  13. Steven Novellaon 03 Dec 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Ah – the denial of causality. But the correlations exist in all the ways you would predict from brain causing mind. Read my post again. Therefore – brain causes mind is the best current theory of mind, and in fact the only one supported by evidence.

    Computers are definitely at the insect level. They can do everything insects can. Some insects have very simple neural circuitry.

    Just to be clear – your evidence that the mind is more than brain is the body of parapsychology research. That’s pretty thin ice.

  14. Karl Withakayon 03 Dec 2008 at 10:25 pm

    Occam’s Razor: Mind=Brain=Mind

    If the mind and brain were two separate things, the brain would have to be in complete control anyway. If we tinker with the brain, we tinker with the mind. We can alter the mind with drugs and surgery to the brain. We’re not as good as controlling/ programming the brain as we are computers, but we can do it, and the brain trumps the mind. We can change who you are and how you behave by altering your brain, and your soul/mind will not assert itself and refuse to be altered. If there was a separate mind, it could only assert itself after your brain was dead and it was released.

    There doesn’t seem to be any need for a mind with a soul aside from the brain.

    As my understanding of the universe evolved from Christianity to atheism, one of the concepts that helped lead me away from the concept of a soul was the very understanding that brain=mind.

    How are you supposed to determine when someone is in their “right mind” (and responsible for their actions) and when brain factors are overtaking and clouding the mind? When is a person themself, and when are they a victim of brain function and chemistry? It sure seems that brain function will always trump mind. Genetics, chemistry, development, and and programming (via life experience) account for all brain function.

    There’s just no evidence to support the contention there is a mind separate from the brain, and plenty of good evidence against it.

  15. cwfongon 03 Dec 2008 at 11:11 pm

    “Computers are definitely at the insect level. They can do everything insects can. Some insects have very simple neural circuitry.”

    Computers can do a myriad of things that insects can’t. Unfortunately this does not equate with doing everything that insects can.

  16. Gary Goldwateron 04 Dec 2008 at 12:01 am

    I really appreciate your analysis.

    Egnor does not see that his experience in the real world should be more informative to his authoritative source than the authoritative source is to this area of his knowledge.

    Thank you for your fine work.

  17. wertyson 04 Dec 2008 at 6:55 am

    I am delighted along with many regular readers to read that pec appears to have learned that correlation is not causality. The education of pec is coming along nicely !

    However, the statement that over one hundred years of parapsychology research is worth taking seriously is so much fluff. With one hand on my copy of Harry Houdini’s “Magician Among the Spirits” and the other on Randi’s ‘Flim Flam’ see how I can wave them about and make a hundred years of parapsychology ‘research’ disappear.

    Seriously pec, which parapsychology research do you think stands up to scrutiny. There isn’t any serious (or even semi-serious) research which has not been shown to be mistaken, misguided or just plain fraudulent. From Sheldrake’s psychic pets to Ganzfield to Targ and Puthoff, they are all discredited. I’d be keen to find if there are any I have missed….

  18. Clinton Huxleyon 04 Dec 2008 at 7:42 am

    The brain is a receiver picking up Soul FM? What total cobblers. A completely unsubstantiated and unscientific claim based entirely on thin air and wishful thinking. File with creationism and flat earth theory.

  19. daedalus2uon 04 Dec 2008 at 10:05 am

    I think the reason a non-material mind and/or the idea of the brain as a receiver is compelling to some people (such as pec and Dr Egnor) is because they are thinking with their “theory of mind”. They are thinking with the part of the brain that is specialized for communicating with other humans (and isn’t good for much else).

    To communicate with other humans you have to impute a “mind” to that human, and emulate it to understand how it is thinking. It is essentially just anthropomorphizing. Imagine that the other human thinks just like you, apply perturbations where needed, and voila, you have emulated their mind. An animal is just like a human except where it is different, so is a tree, a rock, and everything else. A human has a human-type mind, an animal has an animal-type mind, a tree has a tree-type mind, a rock has a rock-type mind. It is a type 1 error in falsely believing that something is animated by a “mind”. A “rock-type” mind can be thought of as the “spirit” of the rock, the “essence” of the rock, the fundamental “rockness” from which all rock-like behaviors derive (just as all human behaviors derive from that individual’s human mind).

    I think that such people are unable to abstract a level of function below that of mind, from which the mind emerges as an emergent property. They see the “mind” as essentially a homunculus, a little person inside controlling everything. This doesn’t solve the problem of consciousness or what forms the mind, it just moves it somewhere else.

    I think the reason for this is that such people (in extreme cases) are fundamentally incapable of even thinking in terms other than with their “theory of mind”. Whereas Dr Novella is able to consider both sides; the idea that the mind is an emergent property of a material brain, and also the idea that there is a non-material something else that somewhere, somehow, someway causes the mind with some degree of independence from the brain. People such as pec and Dr Egnor are incapable of thinking about or considering the idea that there is no non-material mind. That is why they raise so many mutually incompatible arguments. Any one of them, or even all of them (even though they are mutually logically incompatible) is better than the idea which cannot be thought because it doesn’t fit with the “theory of mind” paradigm of reality which is the only one they have the capacity to think.

    I think this is the source of their virtual complete inability to even consider that their ideas are wrong. They have no fall back way of thinking about things. It isn’t a gap in knowledge; it is a gap in the ability to acquire knowledge, a gap in the ability to even think that there might be something that could fit in that gap. The brain fills in the space between the gaps so that no “gap” is apparent.

    Recognizing a gap in one’s knowledge and not filling it with either a false positive or a false negative is a very difficult conceptual challenge. It requires quite rigorous algorithmic thinking.

  20. pecon 04 Dec 2008 at 11:16 am

    That’s a ridiculous theory daedalus2u. I was a materialist/atheist for a long time, having been indoctrinated during college. I have no trouble imagining that my ideas might be wrong.

    I spent a lot of time and effort analyzing the materialist arguments and found them to be full of holes and contradictions. And I wondered why so many people saw things differently. Unlike you, I could not dismiss them all as ignorant idiots with a a gap in their ability to acquire knowledge.

    You are convinced of your worldview and you have no doubt. So naturally, everyone who disagrees must have some kind of disability. While you, of course, see everything clearly.

    You claim to have the ultimate answers. This is because you need certainty and you do not respect anyone who sees it differently.

    My position is that no one knows, life and intelligence are still ultimately a mystery to us. My disagreement is with people like you who need to feel they know it all.

  21. Puppet_Masteron 04 Dec 2008 at 12:30 pm

    If the non-materialistic mind theory is correct, what predictions can flow from it? Where these experiments done? What was Egnor’s response to these tests, pure rationalization?

  22. Eric Thomsonon 04 Dec 2008 at 12:43 pm

    An interesting discussion. Pec, you gave a very clear expression of your view and clearly no evidence can refute it outright. I have a little quibble though.

    Pec said:
    The inability of artificial intelligence researchers to create human-like minds (or even insect-like minds!) is evidence against the mind-equals-brain hypothesis.

    Steve, taking the bait:
    Computers are definitely at the insect level. They can do everything insects can. Some insects have very simple neural circuitry.

    We don’t even understand C elegans yet. I did my PhD on the nervous system of the leech (indeed, on one ganglion in the leech nervous system) and I could easily start a lab to understand it.

    However, Pec’s argument is just wrong. Insect brains (and worm brains, for that matter) are extremely complicated systems. We are ignorant of the circuit diagrams for all but the simplest (i.e., C elegans) nervous system.

    To make things worse, circuit diagrams are only necessary, not sufficient for understanding neural functioning. There are biophysical properties of individual neurons, synaptic strength of connections between neurons that we don’t understand, not to mention how all these respond to stimuli in a realistic environment!

    On the other hand, there is no reason to think that leech (or C elegans) behavior depends on non-neural factors. I put an electrode against a single leech sensory neuron, stimulated it, and caused the leech to behave differently. There is no reason to think the information flow from sensory input to behavior is not mediated by neuronal activity in the leech neural network (this is based on pharmacology, and in C elegans you can do genetics to tweak behavior at a finer-grained scale).

    The fact that we can’t build an artificial leech (and people have tried) is evidence that the leech is very complicated, not that we need dualism for the leech. That is a ridiculous claim.

    Whether leeches have minds is another question (I actually discuss how you might build an interesting mind from a relatively uninteresting leech biorepresentational system here.

  23. John Piereton 04 Dec 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Just in case you haven’t seen it yet, Dr. Egnor is at it again, this time riffing off a blog post by David Chalmers:

    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2008/12/consciousness_and_intelligent.html

    It’s another “mind-in-the-gaps” argument, mostly based on Egnor’s lack of imagination as to how consciousness could “lawfully depend on physical processes” (as Chalmers suggests) or how it could be expressed quantitatively if it does. If it wasn’t for a bad sinus cold that makes sorting through stupidity physically painful, I take a shot at exposing it myself.

    One good thing is that Egnor admits that ID is (charitably) a philosophical rather than scientific argument:

    “The intelligent design debate is one manifestation of a deeper debate about philosophical materialism.”

    No kidding! The Wedge Document told us that almost a decade ago. But it’s always nice to hear it from one end of the horse or another.

  24. pecon 04 Dec 2008 at 7:52 pm

    My comment that has been waiting all day for moderation:

    That’s a ridiculous theory daedalus2u. I was a materialist/atheist for a long time, having been indoctrinated during college. I have no trouble imagining that my ideas might be wrong.
    I spent a lot of time and effort analyzing the materialist arguments and found them to be full of holes and contradictions. And I wondered why so many people saw things differently. Unlike you, I could not dismiss them all as ignorant idiots with a a gap in their ability to acquire knowledge.
    You are convinced of your worldview and you have no doubt. So naturally, everyone who disagrees must have some kind of disability. While you, of course, see everything clearly.
    You claim to have the ultimate answers. This is because you need certainty and you do not respect anyone who sees it differently.
    My position is that no one knows, life and intelligence are still ultimately a mystery to us. My disagreement is with people like you who need to feel they know it all.

  25. superdaveon 04 Dec 2008 at 9:38 pm

    Pec the reason no one ever agrees with you is because your posts never actually have any substance to them. IT has nothing to do with bias or not having a open mind.

  26. daedalus2uon 04 Dec 2008 at 10:28 pm

    pec, if materialist ideas are full of holes and contradictions why are you unable to articulate any of them?

    I don’t at all presume that any of my ideas are the last word. I am pretty sure that they are correct because I have checked them against reality (i.e. facts) using logic. So far, no one has found fault either with the facts I base my reasoning on, or on my reasoning. If you find some flaws in either the facts or logic I would be appreciative if you could tell me. In no way do I think I “know it all”. I do know some things, and what I know is important and useful even if it is not the last word.

    Perceiving that individuals who do not think the way that we do have a disability is extremely common. That is what NTs have been doing with everyone else for as long as there have been people. Trying to fight that is the essence of the Neurodiversity movement.

    Understanding why people with ASDs are treated so differently by people who are NT is an interest of mine. I don’t perceive NTs to be ignorant idiots, I perceive NTs to have a savant ability at communication and a savant ability to think in terms of communication. To do that they use their theory of mind. The very powerful NT theory of mind gets used for everything; sort of like the saying “if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” NTs have an extraordinarily powerful theory of mind (extraordinarily powerful compared to the theory of mind of someone with an ASD that is). That is why NTs can communicate so well with each other. They have very powerful pattern recognition that imputes meanings to all sorts of actions, gestures, sounds, all the things that NTs communicate with. Those meanings are imputed whether or not there was an actual communication motive behind the action, sound, gesture. The imputation of meaning when none was intended is a type 1 error, a false positive. The compulsion to impute meaning into everything that happens is an NT trait. Useful when communicating with other humans where everything they do might have meanings or might be correlated with meanings (i.e. unconscious body language), not useful when trying to think about reality where most things are not related even if they do correlate.

    It is not ignorance that blinds people. Ignorance can be corrected with knowledge. But just as no amount of knowledge can restore a blind person’s sight, no amount of knowledge can make someone understand ideas they don’t have the neural structures to represent. A person can be blind with intact eyes if the visual cortex is damaged. Without the neural structures to manipulate the signals from the retina, an individual is completely blind. Without the neural structures to contain and manipulate an idea, an individual is unable to think about that idea. I suspect that modifying the neural structures in the brain to accommodate new ideas is why learning takes time. Some types of learning take a long time; it takes many years to understand quantum mechanics. I suspect that is because there are no evolved specialized structures to contain and manipulate the ideas of quantum mechanics the way that there are specialized structures to contain and manipulate language.

    Language acquisition occurs in essentially all children with essentially no effort. Humans are genetically programmed to acquire language at certain ages and will if the proper circumstances present themselves, unless there is a developmental problem, such as occurs with ASDs, or social isolation. Acquisition of quantum mechanics is not so simple. There is no genetically encoded mechanism for acquiring quantum mechanics.

    There is a pull and a compulsion exhibited by some individuals to acquire knowledge not thought important by NTs. Knowledge of things such as mathematics and quantum mechanics. Narrow idiosyncratic interests are one of the characteristic behaviors of ASDs, and they do acquire knowledge in their field of interest with a facility that NTs cannot match. Similar to the way NTs acquire language and communication with a facility that ASDs cannot match.

    I think that to acquire a good theory of reality takes requires active measures. It cannot be acquired passively the way that language can be (I appreciate that language acquisition is not “passive”, but it does not require volition). I think the ASD trait of intolerance for contradictions facilitates this.

    My specialty is inventing things. That is coming up with new ideas, which if they work form the basis for useful things. My inventions do work (although they tend to be overly complicated). The reason that they do work is because they are consistent with reality. The things I invent, no one thought of before. I know I am not that much smarter than the billions of people who have gone before me, just more creative and in the right place at the right time to have the idea and to then recognize that it is a good idea and develop it further. Being prepared to recognize correct ideas and work on them and reject incorrect ideas and not waste time on them is an extremely important skill to have. That is what I use my theory of reality for.

  27. DevilsAdvocateon 05 Dec 2008 at 5:21 pm

    How sad that some feel their having moved from one position to another automatically constitutes a move from wrong to right. Pec used to be a materialist, is now a nonmaterialist. It’s a two way street. Sure, abandon the position which enjoys the supportive evidences, viable mechanisms, and confirmatory experimentation. Choose instead the position without supportive evidences, with no mechanism offered, and zero confirmatory experimentation and declare it the better position.

    I can’t think of a better declaration of a faith-based belief. It even includes the haughty disdain for anyone who rejects its sterile emptiness.

  28. pecon 05 Dec 2008 at 5:26 pm

    I don’t know what NT or ASD is supposed to stand for. I do know that you, daedalus2u, are very proud of your ability to see the facts and the real reality. That may be possible in your area of science or engineering, whatever it is. It is possible in my area, and the real reality is there to be found. I have no trouble seeing things clearly in my work, just like you in your work.

    You are assuming some big difference in our brain structures that makes you see able to see reality and unable to tolerate contradictions, while I live in a fantasy world where everything has meaning. Actually, you are utterly and completely wrong. I am hyper-analytical and unable to tolerate contradictions. There is nothing about my brain that makes me good at communication and bad at science, or whatever crazy hypothesis you have come up with.

    You do not see things clearly, except maybe in your work. You are just like all of us. The main difference between you and me is that I can see that the ultimate questions are beyond my understanding. You can’t see that. You think your ability to see the truth in your work extends to life in general. It does not.

  29. trrllon 05 Dec 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Another problem with the notion that the brain is somehow the “receiver” for a nonmaterial mind is the timing issue. EEG studies that examine the timing of awareness of a simple decision, such as choosing when to press a button, find that the electrical activity associated with that decision precedes the conscious awareness of having made the decision. This is of course precisely what one would expect if awareness is a function of the brain involving a complex chain of neuronal firing and transmitter release, such that some minimum amount of neuronal activity is required to occur before the subjective impression of conscious awareness is generated. On the other hand, if awareness resides in some nonmaterial locus, broadcasting its commands to the brain by some undetectable signaling mechanism, then it is hard to see why the awareness of the decision should not precede the electrical activity, since in that model the electrical activity is a consequence of receiving the signal informing the brain of the decision, not part of the decision-making process itself.

  30. trrllon 05 Dec 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Devil’s Advocate said:

    “How sad that some feel their having moved from one position to another automatically constitutes a move from wrong to right.”

    It is bizarre that some people seem to believe that having changed their mind somehow makes their current opinion more credible. People can certainly change their minds for good reason. If somebody changes their mind about the answer to a mathematical problem, and describes the discovery of an error that led them to change their mind, then that might well add some credibility. On the other hand, if a person cannot provide a clear basis for the change in opinion, one tends to suspect that his opinions are easily changed because he does not think things through. Pec certainly does not inspire confidence by saying “I was a materialist/atheist for a long time, having been indoctrinated during college.” All that tells me is that he is a person susceptible to “indoctrination,” and may well have changed his views because he is now being indoctrinated by somebody else.

  31. DevilsAdvocateon 06 Dec 2008 at 12:22 am

    How telling that Pec’s posts inevitably end up being about Pec.

  32. trrllon 06 Dec 2008 at 1:12 am

    The main difference between you and me is that I can see that the ultimate questions are beyond my understanding.

    I’ve always wondered how somebody could “see” that the ultimate questions are beyond his understanding without knowing what the answers are–in which case they aren’t beyond his understanding at all, are they?

    In any case, it is certainly clear that one of the defining characteristics of the scientist is the assumption that there is no question that is beyond human understanding. This may or may not actually be true. But what is most certainly true is that if you assume that a question is beyond your understanding, you will never discover the answer.

  33. Militant Agnosticon 06 Dec 2008 at 3:04 am

    The Neurologist Steve Novella
    Is a very logical fella
    But Micheal Egnor
    Continues to ignore
    The logical case of Novella

    I wonder how dualists explain the minds of non human animals, especially the more intelligent ones like apes, dolphins and elephants. This must be a problem at least for most Christians who generally do not believe that humans are special and animals do not have souls.

  34. daedalus2uon 06 Dec 2008 at 1:29 pm

    pec, if you look at my blog, the top post right now is where I lay out the case for the trade-off along the autism spectrum to be that of theory of mind vs. theory of reality. NTs stands for neurologically typical individuals, ASDs stands for autism spectrum disorder individuals. It is laid out in some detail, more so than there is room for in a comment. I appreciate that it is a simplistic approach. Any and every approach to something as complicated as cognition and neurodevelopment is necessarily simplistic.

    Simon Baron-Cohen originated the hypothesis of ASDs as being “the extreme male brain”, one of “hypersystemizing” and also did much of the work on theory of mind as it relates to ASDs.

    http://adc.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/91/1/2

    I briefly spoke with him about my idea, and he seemed to like my idea of theory of mind vs theory of reality because the hypersystemizing of ASDs does not extend into language or communication. That was an off the cuff remark on his part, not a considered opinion and not based on his reading of my analysis. Maybe he was just being polite. Theory of mind vs. theory of reality does partition the relative abilities of NTs and ASDs somewhat better than does simple hypersystemizing. It also provides a basis for why there is that partitioning of the brain. The optimum time for programming and optimizing brain function is during the first trimester when that brain is forming. The maternal pelvis limits infant brain size at birth. With limited brain size at birth, optimization of function requires trade-offs. Early neurodevelopment happens to be the time when various in utero effects increase the incidence of ASDs, thalidomide, valproate, maternal stress, maternal infection. There has to be physiology that links the various stressors to neurodevelopment and so increase the incidence of ASDs. I think that physiological linkage is via low NO, which is consistent with everything I have been able to find in the literature.

    Many of your arguments seem to be theory of mind based arguments, along the lines of “lots of people believe XYZ, therefore there must be something to it”. An appeal to authority is a theory of mind type argument, not one based on facts and logic.

    I don’t think I have ultimate answers to ultimate questions. I think the premise that there are such things is a mistaken notion. I don’t try to think of “ultimate questions”. I think about questions until I have a path to an answer. A path of facts and logic.

    Dr Novella made an excellent point in another comment thread. Quantum weirdness does not call into question the scientific finding that the world is not flat. My understanding of quantum mechanics is incomplete. I know enough about it, and about the shape of the world to know that anyone arguing that quantum weirdness means the world might be flat is wrong about the shape of the world, about quantum mechanics and about the logical path used to get from one to the other.

  35. Eric Thomsonon 06 Dec 2008 at 5:16 pm

    trrll’s point about Libet’s experiments is excellent.

    I hadn’t considered before in the context of arguments that the relation between mind and brain is like that between source and receiver (it is usually brought up in discussions of free will rather than consciousness per se).

    I’ll try to play dualist’s advocate, but it would be interesting to see what pec thinks.

    In the Libet-style experiments, there is a ‘readiness potential’ (RP) seen before the subject is aware of their conscious intention (CI) to press the button (BP).

    A prediction of dualism that if the mind is a source that sends signals to the brain, and the contents of our mind are conscious, that the order should be:
    CI–>RP–>BP

    But the actual timing is:
    RP–>CI–>BP

    How is the dualist to escape this seeming falsification of their prediction?

    One, they could deny the assumption that the mental channel sending signals to the brain is actually conscious. This would be strange, as the whole point of dualism is to provide an explanation of consciousness. If the nonphysical part of the mind is not conscious, then that means the physical part is, so it isn’t clear there is any reason to posit the nonphysical mind.

    They could say that consciousness emerges as an interaction between the nonphysical channel and the physical receiver/transmitter. For instance, our nonphysical mind doesn’t experience visual impressions until it receives inputs from the brain. Perhaps for the Christian dualist, they can say that God set it up so that in this world the experiences are dependent on the tight interaction between receiver/channel (and the brain and mind both act as receiver and channel: one is not the channel and the other receiver–it is more like a resonance between two different things such as the wind and the Tacoma narrows bridge).

    For this particular case, the dualist could say that the mind is acting like a receiver of the readiness potential, and when a threshold is crossed, the mind says “OK, push the left button” and this pushes the brain in the right direction. On the other hand, a recent study showed that the readiness potential actually predicts which button will be pressed (paper here).

    This makes the case even tougher for the dualist. I guess they could say there is this resonance (or whatever) and once a certain threshold is passed in the mind-brain interaction, then the final intention is actually experienced (so for a while before the conscious experience, the mind and brain are communicating, building up to the final experience).

    Generally it would be nice for dualists to supply more predictions about what they expect about the relationship between brain states and conscious states if their theory is true. Just because their view is antinaturalistic doesn’t mean it shouldn’t make predictions!

    There is a lot of detailed data out there of this sort, and the dualists, instead of making arguments from the armchair using general considerations, need to build positive theories that integrate the data rather than providing glib “overviews” of the data such as ‘Of course the mind and brain are correlated’ The nature of the correlations, the timing of the phenomena observed, are all data that should be part of a positive story.

  36. cwfongon 06 Dec 2008 at 8:20 pm

    mind |mīnd|
    noun
    1 the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought : as the thoughts ran through his mind, he came to a conclusion | people have the price they are prepared to pay settled in their minds.
    • a person’s mental processes contrasted with physical action : I wrote a letter in my mind.
    2 a person’s intellect : his keen mind.
    • the state of normal mental functioning in a person : the strain has affected his mind.
    • a person’s memory : the company’s name slips my mind.
    • a person identified with their intellectual faculties : he was one of the greatest minds of his time.
    3 a person’s attention : I expect my employees to keep their minds on the job.
    • the will or determination to achieve something : anyone can lose weight if they set their mind to it.

    The problem here is that unless there is an agreement as to what the word defines, there can be no agreement as to its function, or that it is representative of any specific brain function. The most that can be persuasively argued is that none of the present definitions are accurate reflections of any known or observable biological entities.

  37. pecon 06 Dec 2008 at 9:12 pm

    “Many of your arguments seem to be theory of mind based arguments, along the lines of “lots of people believe XYZ, therefore there must be something to it”. An appeal to authority is a theory of mind type argument, not one based on facts and logic.”

    No you misunderstand me, daedelus2u. I don’t give a darn what the current mass consensus might be, and I am probably almost as asocial and eccentric as you. Females can be weird too, you know.

    I am not at all interested in fitting in and merging with the majority. But when people at all times and places have had a similar belief, then I think it’s only scientific to wonder why the belief is so common.

    Ghosts are one example — modern science assures us they are not real, but people everywhere have believed in, seen, and feared them. In some cultures I have read about, careful precautions were taken to prevent ghosts of departed love ones from returning to the village. So it doesn’t sound like simple wishful thinking to me. They did NOT want to see their loved ones again!

    There are many other examples. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts, but I can’t just dismiss the belief as superstition merely because modern science assures us they can’t possibly be real.

  38. cwfongon 06 Dec 2008 at 10:55 pm

    pec: Not wanting to see your loved ones again is frequently found to be wishful thinking.

  39. DevilsAdvocateon 07 Dec 2008 at 11:32 am

    Nor does a ghost have to be that of a loved one. Modern science does not assure us ghosts can’t possibly be real. Modern science recognizes there is no quality evidence for the existence of ghosts.

  40. pecon 07 Dec 2008 at 4:33 pm

    “Modern science does not assure us ghosts can’t possibly be real. Modern science recognizes there is no quality evidence for the existence of ghosts.”

    I never heard of a materialist scientist saying we have no quality evidence that ghosts are real. They always say that believing ghosts, and that sort of thing, is pure ignorant superstition.

    And if you don’t have any quality evidence for ghosts it is mostly because you have not looked, because you already “know” they don’t exist.

    There are many other things you are absolutely sure are not real, such as telepathy. In fact, all the things that every pre-modern culture has believed are denied by modern science. Could it be that modern science has tried to promote itself as the sole authority?

    You don’t just say that there is no quality evidence for telepathy — you say it’s so implausible it should not be taken seriously. Not because it actually is implausible. You deny telepathy because it is so widely believed, in all pre-modern cultures and even by most people today.

    You make yourselves special by seeing the vast majority of humans as ignorant. You convince yourselves that you know things you do not know, and try to convince the entire society that you are the wise men.

    And you are doing a good job of because impressionable college students are being successfully indoctrinated.

  41. trrllon 07 Dec 2008 at 5:45 pm

    You don’t just say that there is no quality evidence for telepathy — you say it’s so implausible it should not be taken seriously. Not because it actually is implausible.

    Its first implausibility lies in the failure of anybody to detect or measure any kind of signal that could reasonably be used to transmit thought, so right from the outset, one is forced to postulate some novel form of energy that doesn’t interact with any kind of measuring equipment, yet somehow does interact with the brain–which based upon all evidence, operates according to the same principles as our measuring equipment. That’s a pretty big implausibility.

    On top of that, there is the inability of anybody to to it reliably under controlled conditions, to the point that if the phenomenon exists at all, it must somehow conspire not to work under controlled conditions. That’s a second pretty big implausibility.

    Third, there is the fact that if brains really could communicate in such a way, it would provide a huge selective advantage to any species that developed the ability, so we should identify many species that communicate primarily by telepathy rather than by making sound or exchanging visual or olfactory signals. Prey species, in particular, would have a big advantage in exchanging telepathic information, rather than making noises that might be overheard by predators. Yet instead, we have all sorts of creatures making all sorts of noises and cries. When rodents want to communicate without being overheard by cats, they don’t use telepathy, they use ultrahigh frequency noises beyond the range of human hearing. So even though it seems that telepathy would be really useful, any such capability must be so difficult to use in practice that no creature, including us, has found it so useful that they have evolved to use it routinely as their primary mode of communication. That’s a third big implausibility.

    Most scientists will consider, without strong well-controlled evidence, a hypothesis with one major implausibility. Some will consider a hypothesis with two. Three is really pushing it.

  42. pecon 07 Dec 2008 at 8:25 pm

    “if brains really could communicate in such a way, it would provide a huge selective advantage to any species that developed the ability”

    I think you are looking at this backwards. Knowing the thoughts of others would be a disadvantage and is, most of the time, to be avoided. The brain needs to screen out most information so it won’t be overwhelmed by clutter and chatter.

    We do need to know others’ thoughts, but we also must be very selective. According to various linguistic theories, the purpose of linguistic symbols is to help focus attention — so language does not convey information, it guides our awareness to the relevant message.

    An one theory that I know of goes farther and says that all communication is basically telepathic, and audible signals merely guide the process.

    So what I am proposing is: telepathy is ubiquitous, and the challenge is to control, restrict and focus it.

    I have not proven my theory, but you haven’t proven yours either. The parapsychology literature shows that, although telepathy experiments are hard to control, the evidence overall is hard to deny.

  43. cwfongon 07 Dec 2008 at 9:19 pm

    I read a comment somewhere that ghosts are metaphors for modesty because they purposefully appear clothed no matter what the weather conditions.

  44. daedalus2uon 07 Dec 2008 at 9:19 pm

    pec, it is much easier to ignore and block out information if that information is available than to gather that information in the first place. In other words it is very easy to degrade an information channel.

    The predators that could detect its prey by thought would have a gigantic advantage over all other predators that could not. Even an extremely degraded information channel that merely signaled the presence and approximate location of a prey organism would be such an advantage that any predator species that achieved that rudimentary ability would quickly become the dominant predator.

    If all communication is telepathy, how can people communicate via written language? How are you able to read the words I have written and understand them unless your reading them is synchronous with my writing them? The words a person has written do not lose meaning when that person dies. Since computers can generate strings of words which are understood by humans to have meaning, then you must be saying that computers have minds that can telepathically communicate with humans.

  45. trrllon 07 Dec 2008 at 10:02 pm

    I think you are looking at this backwards. Knowing the thoughts of others would be a disadvantage and is, most of the time, to be avoided. The brain needs to screen out most information so it won’t be overwhelmed by clutter and chatter.

    The brain is able to do this with all other sensory modalities. You can screen out other voices and understand what another person is saying in a crowded room. You can drive on a road with all kinds of scenery and other visual stimuli, and yet manage to keep track of other cars and the edges of the road. Even some fairly simple organisms can do this; the fly’s retina (not even the brain, but the retina) can identify a moving fly against a moving background. So now you are piling on yet another implausible assumption–that there is something special about telepathy such that the brain’s ability to pay attention to specific sensory inputs does not work–and indeed, it is for some reason impossible for evolution to achieve this.

    We do need to know others’ thoughts, but we also must be very selective. According to various linguistic theories, the purpose of linguistic symbols is to help focus attention — so language does not convey information, it guides our awareness to the relevant message.

    And yet, it is possible to show mathematically, just based on the number of bits, that language is capable of conveying information. And there is no evidence that the information conveyed by language is more than the number of bits. So now you are making the implausible assumption that we spend years learning this complex language, with a high information content, then ignore the information content of the words, and instead use it to “focus our attention” on some undetectable source of information that duplicates the content of the language. If we just need words to focus our attention, why do we need so many of them? If one wants to focus one’s attention to meditate, for example, all one needs is a one-word mantra. For that matter, why is it that words in a foreign language do not convey the same information? An Italian opera is sung quite beautifully, and certainly focuses my attention on the words. Surely that should be easier for me to understand than somebody speaking English in a monotone. So why do I have so much trouble following the plot of a Mozart opera, yet I can understand a boring lecturer speaking in English about a complex subject?

    An one theory that I know of goes farther and says that all communication is basically telepathic, and audible signals merely guide the process.

    Again, this is ridiculously implausible. We come up with all of these complex utterances, which can be shown mathematically to have a high information content, and then we ignore the information that we hear and use some other, conveniently undetectable, information channel instead?

    Implausible does not necessarily mean impossible, to be sure. But it does mean, simply from the standpoint of Bayesian probability, that a higher standard evidence must be met to convince somebody that an implausible notion is true. Or in common parlance, “Extreme claims require extreme evidence.”

  46. DevilsAdvocateon 08 Dec 2008 at 12:47 am

    I’d be curious to know why telepathy would not be naturally selected to the point of out front ubiquity and obvious existence, as obvious as an opposable thumb. Telepathy would constitute incredible survival benefits, yet it is so very elusive, existing always just beyond the horizon of physical, scientific evidence, very much like the second coming, alien disclosure, and other faith-based beliefs. Oh, now there’s a clue.

  47. pecon 08 Dec 2008 at 11:35 am

    “So now you are making the implausible assumption that we spend years learning this complex language, with a high information content, then ignore the information content of the words, and instead use it to “focus our attention” on some undetectable source of information that duplicates the content of the language. ”

    Oh you just don’t know what you’re talking about. Don’t have time to explain in detail now, and anyway my comment won’t go through for hours. Your notion that words have an information content shows a complete ignorance of information theory.

  48. cwfongon 08 Dec 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Words contain some sort of cryptographic key to the telepathic emanations, is that it? But then isn’t that key in some way informative?

  49. TheBlackCaton 08 Dec 2008 at 1:34 pm

    “An one theory that I know of goes farther and says that all communication is basically telepathic, and audible signals merely guide the process.”

    Someone has already pointed out written text and computer speech recognition. But we also have computer speech production and even the ability to record and play back spoken words decades later. So are you saying that computers are telepathic? That telepathy can communicate with people in the future.

    “Your notion that words have an information content shows a complete ignorance of information theory.”

    No, in fact information theory was originally developed to deal with the transmission of words. If there is a piece of data, using words to describe that data changes the conditional probability for the value of the source data relative to just transmitting random noise. Therefore, by definition, it has information.

    That is, the information I an event yi (in this case a string of words) has about an event xk (the data that someone wants to convey) is:

    I(xk;yi)= log( P(xk|yi) / P(xk) )

    This is the definition of mutual information of xk and yi

    And I(xk;yi)=0, that is yk has no information about xi, if and only if x and y are statistically independent.

    This means that words do very much contain information about an intended message, since they have some correlation with the message. Even a single word, for instance “dog”, which we know identifies (however roughly) a certain class of animal would restrict the range of possible messages considerably and thus it would contain some information. This is for the discrete case, which is appropriate since there is a finite number of words.

    If you are looking for a source look at section 2.3 of Transmission of Information: A Statistical Theory of Communications, by Robert M. Fano. This is the man who, along with Claude Shannon, invented information theory.

  50. pecon 08 Dec 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Don’t feel obliged to teach me about information theory, since it was my dissertation topic.

    The word “dog” does NOT contain information. The information is in the relationship between the symbol “dog” and the system it is part of — in other words the context.

    In information theory, a message results from a selection process. If a system consists of the symbols 1 and 0, then selecting 1 means “1 AND NOT 0.” There is no information contained in the symbol “1″ aside from what it means in that context.

    In natural language, each symbol selects from a possibly vast range of options. You cannot know a word’s meaning without intimate knowledge of its context, and THAT IS WHY computers are so bad at natural language processing.

    Even without any telepathic aspect, our shared knowledge as humans, and as humans within a particular culture, is vast.

  51. trrllon 08 Dec 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Your notion that words have an information content shows a complete ignorance of information theory.

    So is Google telepathic? If I type the word “dog” into Google, Google shows me pictures of dogs. If there is no information in the word “dog,” where did Google acquire the information required to know that it was supposed to select images of dogs out of all of the millions of images that are on the web?

  52. cwfongon 08 Dec 2008 at 3:44 pm

    Google merely makes educational guesses? Which I suppose would be informative only if found useful and/or interesting.

  53. PaulGon 08 Dec 2008 at 3:52 pm

    I don’t think anybody should be confusing Information Theory as it relates to binary systems (computers), with linguistics and the amazingly complex systems memory and sensory data used by humans.

    Human linguistics can tie-in to every sense we possess – for example, in context (as pec points out), our understanding of the word “egg” relates to an image, memories of taste, smell and possibly sound (such as an egg sizzling on a hot griddle). Thinking about the word (processing the word), will provide a whole range of memories of such sensory data – large eggs, small eggs, fried aggs, all with other associated sensory data.

    Superficially similar to the algorithms involved in a Google search.

    A computer though, will be limited to it’s programming; to the limited data that have been specifically associated with a given input value. In comparison, to the way humans use linguistics, memory and sensory data together, information processing by binary systems is still some way off even imitating the process we take for granted.

    However, The BlackCat is still perfectly correct in saying that a single word does narrow the field of data that the mind would “return” (conditional probability). The word “egg” or “dog”, is unlikely to return the mental image of a guy at an airport with “monkeys in his pants”.

    Unless you’re a very disturbed individual indeed.

    The way language works with our own, amazing, biological computers is still so incredible we don’t fully understand all it’s intricacies.

    But we do know enough to have figured out that telepathy can be filed under that UK “technical term” I have mentioned elsewhere in Dr. Novella’s blog… “complete bollocks”.

  54. TheBlackCaton 08 Dec 2008 at 4:01 pm

    @ pec: now you are just playing semantics, and you are getting really far from your original point. Words are a form of communication, and you can consider a string of meaningful words as a communication channel. Like all communication channels it needs a sender to encode it and receiver to decode it. Without a sender and a receiver, there can be no communication. So when talking about a communication channel it is fully proper to say that the data communicated contains information because communication necessarily implies that there is a sender able to encode it and a receiver able to decode it. Yes just the number 0 and the number 1 do not contain information, but a communication of a 0 or 1 does contain information by the very definition of communication.

    It is all right there in the mathematical definition of information, in fact. The definition requires that there be some statistical dependence between the data that is to be transmitted and the signal used to transmit it (otherwise the information would be zero). Since the signal is treated as being pretty much arbitrary there must be some external source that imposes that dependence. So right there in the mathematical definition it requires that there be an encoder to impose that dependence. Talking about “information” is meaningless without it. So I apologize if I assumed you would make the same reasonable assumption that is made in the mathematical formulation itself, that is that there is a sender and a receiver that are both aware of the encoding strategy. I felt it was okay to leave that bit out because it is a fundamental requirement of communication in the first place.

    This has absolutely nothing to do with telepathy, however, which was your original point. As long as both the sender and the receiver have agreed beforehand on what the meaning of the string of characters or sounds “dog” contains, then the word contains when used by that sender and receiver. A significant portion of the first 15 years or so of a person’s life is spent teaching them the agreed-upon encoding/decoding strategy used by their culture for communication. Everybody in that culture is expected to share roughly the same encoding/decoding strategy. So for people in English-speaking cultures “dog” contains information because people have been trained to correlate that word with a specific class of animals, and they are trained to change the conditional probability of their thoughts to reflect that when they hear or see that word. As an arbitrary string of characters it does not contain information, but as a form of communication by individuals, and computers, that are aware of the agreed-upon significance of that string then it very much does contain information.

  55. pecon 08 Dec 2008 at 4:17 pm

    “So is Google telepathic? If I type the word “dog” into Google, Google shows me pictures of dogs.”

    There is no information CONTAINED IN the word “dog.” Google is programmed to recognize the symbol. In the context of the Google computer system, “dog” triggers a response which tries to resemble our culture’s definition of “dog.”

  56. pecon 08 Dec 2008 at 4:24 pm

    “So for people in English-speaking cultures “dog” contains information because people have been trained to correlate that word with a specific class of animals”

    “Dog” does not CONTAIN information, it triggers a response in the receiver’s mind. It is a typical misconception to think that words contain meaning, and that words can be meaningful in isolation.

    And yes, this is a separate question from telepathy. We first have to see that words do not contain information — an accepted fact in some linguistics schools. Since we are immersed in our cultural context, we are not usually aware of it.

    The telepathy theory goes farther and says that the information triggered by words is not actually in the brain, but might be located in some kind of shared mind.

    And, as I said, this is hypothetical, and I am not going to argue for it as though it were a scientific fact. But you have no scientific reasons for dismissing the idea, either.

    And it all started because someone said telepathy is not scientifically plausible, and that if it were possible then physical communication would not be needed. I tried to explain that physical communication may be useful in ways you have not thought about.

  57. TheBlackCaton 08 Dec 2008 at 5:14 pm

    ““Dog” does not CONTAIN information, it triggers a response in the receiver’s mind. It is a typical misconception to think that words contain meaning, and that words can be meaningful in isolation.”

    I have three paragraphs describing what I mean, saying over and over that I was referring to an implicit sender and receiver of the communication and not the signal in isolation. You take one sentence out of context and pretend that I am arguing for the words having information in isolation despite the fact that I repeatedly and explicitly stated otherwise. You are even ignoring everything after the “because” in the sentence you quoted, where I am explicitly saying that I am not talking about the words in isolation but as a mode of communication between two people who have agreed to give that word meaning. This is seriously one of the most blatant strawman arguments I have seen in a while.

    “The telepathy theory goes farther and says that the information triggered by words is not actually in the brain, but might be located in some kind of shared mind.”

    If that was the case we wouldn’t need to spend a decade and a half or more learning vocabulary and grammar, and there wouldn’t be such a huge difference in vocabulary between fairly similar people due to different levels of study. The fact that we need to learn the words and how to use them shows that we aren’t tapping into some sort of shared repository of information (unless you count libraries).

  58. PaulGon 08 Dec 2008 at 5:37 pm

    BlackCat – take a look at pec’s other posts throughout the site.

    This is what pec does. You’re making sound, reasoned argument against somebody that (I deeply suspect), only posts to frustrate and irritate people.

    Sometimes pec’s arguments really can’t go unchallenged, but beyond a certain point the argument is not worth the effort.

    You’ve made your point. It’s well reasoned and (as far as I can see it – with a background in zoology/animal behaviour and IT), it’s factually correct. Anybody rational can see that. Pec won’t or can’t.

    It’s at this point that I tend to become flippant and dismissive – not intellectually very honourable perhaps, but I enjoy myself.

  59. weingon 08 Dec 2008 at 5:53 pm

    grkdzhrlk

  60. trrllon 08 Dec 2008 at 6:20 pm

    There is no information CONTAINED IN the word “dog.” Google is programmed to recognize the symbol. In the context of the Google computer system, “dog” triggers a response which tries to resemble our culture’s definition of “dog.”

    You still have not answered my question–does Google have to be telepathic to interpret the word “dog” in such a way as to show pictures of dogs? If it does not, then upon what basis can you argue that humans have to be telepathic to visualize dogs when they see the word “dog” on a page? Is the human brain so much less capable than a computer that it somehow requires telepathic assistance to do what a computer can accomplish by simple algorithms?

    As for information: Prior to transmission of the word “dog,” Google has no information as to what is desired. After receipt and decoding of the word, Google has a certain number of bits of information that it did not have before, and that it is able to use as an index to select images of dogs out of its vast database. So if that information was not transmitted in the bit pattern that encodes the word “dog,” where did it come from? How did Google acquire the information that it did not have previously? Telepathy?

  61. daedalus2uon 08 Dec 2008 at 6:32 pm

    I think that pec is speaking for only for herself in that her words (as she says) don’t have any information content. I have no trouble with the information content of everyone else’s words. I must be very severely telepathically challenged to not pick up on the telepathic emanations from pec. Either very telepathically challenged or very fortunate. ;)

  62. pecon 08 Dec 2008 at 7:55 pm

    “You still have not answered my question–does Google have to be telepathic to interpret the word “dog” in such a way as to show pictures of dogs?”

    OF COURSE NOT.

  63. pecon 08 Dec 2008 at 7:57 pm

    “If it does not, then upon what basis can you argue that humans have to be telepathic to visualize dogs when they see the word “dog” on a page?”

    I NEVER ARGUED ANYTHING LIKE THAT. I said I know of at least one linguistics theory that hypothesizes telepathy. I said telepathy is NOT RULED OUT by our current scientific knowledge.

  64. pecon 08 Dec 2008 at 8:00 pm

    “we aren’t tapping into some sort of shared repository of information”

    I think we might be. Language helps translate information down to our “physical” level. Our bodies and brains are essentially machines for allowing our minds to navigate our “physical” reality.

  65. pecon 08 Dec 2008 at 8:01 pm

    And by the way most of what I am saying is taken for granted in alternative science and generic mysticism. If it sounds odd to you, it’s only because you have been indoctrinated into extreme materialism.

  66. TheBlackCaton 08 Dec 2008 at 8:28 pm

    Pec, can you be any more self-contradictory? First you say:

    “If it does not, then upon what basis can you argue that humans have to be telepathic to visualize dogs when they see the word “dog” on a page?”

    I NEVER ARGUED ANYTHING LIKE THAT. I said I know of at least one linguistics theory that hypothesizes telepathy. I said telepathy is NOT RULED OUT by our current scientific knowledge.

    But in your very next post you say:

    “we aren’t tapping into some sort of shared repository of information”

    I think we might be. Language helps translate information down to our “physical” level. Our bodies and brains are essentially machines for allowing our minds to navigate our “physical” reality.

    So in one post you say you never argued we are using telepathy, but in the very next post you assert we are using telepathy. You really are amazing.

    Now, for the third time, I will ask you to please explain to me why we need so much education in language if we are just tapping into a shared repository of information?

  67. trrllon 09 Dec 2008 at 12:12 am

    “You still have not answered my question–does Google have to be telepathic to interpret the word “dog” in such a way as to show pictures of dogs?”
    OF COURSE NOT.

    So answer the rest of the question: If Google is not telepathic, where does the information come from that enables Google to select pictures of dogs, if it is not conveyed by the word “dog” typed into the search box?

    I said I know of at least one linguistics theory that hypothesizes telepathy. I said telepathy is NOT RULED OUT by our current scientific knowledge.

    No, telepathy is not ruled out, any more than it is ruled out that the sense of the words that you read is conveyed by invisible fairies whispering in your ears. You can come up with whatever implausible hypothesis you please if you don’t insist on actual evidence.

  68. pecon 09 Dec 2008 at 11:12 am

    “So in one post you say you never argued we are using telepathy, but in the very next post you assert we are using telepathy. You really are amazing.”

    It is possible to believe something is possible, without asserting that it is true. Your inability to see that is what is really amazing.

  69. pecon 09 Dec 2008 at 11:14 am

    “If Google is not telepathic, where does the information come from that enables Google to select pictures of dogs, if it is not conveyed by the word “dog” typed into the search box?”

    The program recognizes the symbol “dog” and follows rules that associate the symbol with a picture. It might locate the picture because the picture is named “dog.jpg,” for example, or because there is a table that maps the symbol “dog” to the filename for the picture.

    DUH.

  70. trrllon 09 Dec 2008 at 12:25 pm

    The program recognizes the symbol “dog” and follows rules that associate the symbol with a picture. It might locate the picture because the picture is named “dog.jpg,” for example, or because there is a table that maps the symbol “dog” to the filename for the picture.

    A description of the algorithm is not an answer to the question. Care to try again?

    Prior to receiving the word “dog,” Google has no information as to which of the millions of images in their database the user wants to see. After receiving the word “dog,” Google has that information which it did not have before. The question is: If transmission of the word “dog” conveys no information, then where did the information come from?

    It seems like a simple question. Why do you keep dodging it?

  71. pecon 09 Dec 2008 at 1:57 pm

    “If transmission of the word “dog” conveys no information, then where did the information come from?”

    I NEVER SAID THAT SYMBOLS CONVEY NO INFORMATION. I said they do not CONTAIN information. Information is conveyed by a symbol in that it selects from a range of options available in the given system. A symbol in isolation from a system contains no information whatsoever, and has no meaning. It can’t even be called a symbol, because a symbol owes its existence to its membership in a system.

    I can’t imagine how you could fail to understand that, but I am sure you will, somehow.

  72. trrllon 09 Dec 2008 at 2:33 pm

    I NEVER SAID THAT SYMBOLS CONVEY NO INFORMATION. I said they do not CONTAIN information.

    Fine, feel free to substitute the word “convey” for the word “contain” In everything I’ve written.

    A symbol in isolation from a system contains no information whatsoever, and has no meaning.

    The great advance of information theory was the recognition that information can be considered separately from meaning. I believe that this is the sense of “information” that I and everybody else around here is employing. By this definition, even a random number, with no meaning whatsoever, carries information (even though it is only information about the content of the message that was sent).

    I can’t imagine how you could fail to understand that, but I am sure you will, somehow.

    I can’t imagine any scientifically literate person being unfamiliar with information theory, but if you want to educate yourself, you can start with this Wikipedia page

  73. pecon 09 Dec 2008 at 3:52 pm

    You are a big waste of time.

    “The great advance of information theory was the recognition that information can be considered separately from meaning.”

    Information can be quantified separately from its meaning. And that has nothing to do with what I said. So go waste someone else’s time.

  74. weingon 09 Dec 2008 at 4:30 pm

    I thought symbols were information. But I know squat about information theory and have no idea of the technical terms employed there.

  75. trrllon 09 Dec 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Information can be quantified separately from its meaning. And that has nothing to do with what I said. So go waste someone else’s time.

    So you now concede that words convey a quantity of information, quite independently of interpretation or meaning?

  76. pecon 09 Dec 2008 at 5:19 pm

    “So you now concede that words convey a quantity of information, quite independently of interpretation or meaning?”

    Words do not convey any quantity of information, except in relation to a system in which they are defined. And words only have meaning in relation to the system they belong to. Words in a computer program only mean what they are defined to mean in that program, and it’s the same with words in a natural language. The words have no meaning, and no quantity of information, outside of their cultural context.

    And the quantity of information conveyed by a word will vary depending on its context of the moment.

    And I am not conceding anything, just wasting more time trying to explain the obvious.

  77. pecon 09 Dec 2008 at 5:34 pm

    “I thought symbols were information.”

    No symbols are not information. Information results from relationships between symbols, within a particular context. Words in a computer program are commands that run sub-programs, and they have no meaning, and do not convey any information, outside of some program in which they are defined. The definitions specify exactly what action the computer should take when that command is received. Google receives the symbol “dog” in its picture search and a specific series of instructions are triggered, which were specifically decided on by the programmer. The instructions could say that an elephant should appear when the word “dog” has been entered — although that would not be very useful. The point is that the symbols are arbitrary and have no necessary connection with the meanings that they trigger, whether in a computer program, or in natural social interactions.

    The meaning the word “dog” has for us is completely unrelated to its sound when spoken, or the letters that make it up. It is an arbitrary convention. It does not hold any information within itself, and it does not have an inherent quantitative value. It has meaning and value ONLY with respect to some system, or context, within which it has been defined.

    And, by the way, natural language evolves constantly and the meanings of words are not static, although some evolve very slowly.

  78. cwfongon 09 Dec 2008 at 6:01 pm

    “And I am not conceding anything, just wasting more time trying to explain the obvious.”

    In what context does the word obvious take on the meaning of the word opaque?

  79. TheBlackCaton 09 Dec 2008 at 6:10 pm

    “Words do not convey any quantity of information, except in relation to a system in which they are defined. And words only have meaning in relation to the system they belong to. Words in a computer program only mean what they are defined to mean in that program, and it’s the same with words in a natural language. The words have no meaning, and no quantity of information, outside of their cultural context.”

    That is exactly what I said, and you said I was wrong.

  80. trrllon 09 Dec 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Words do not convey any quantity of information, except in relation to a system in which they are defined. And words only have meaning in relation to the system they belong to. Words in a computer program only mean what they are defined to mean in that program, and it’s the same with words in a natural language.

    But you have already acknowledged that “Information can be quantified separately from its meaning.” So if that is the case, how can a definition, which serves to associate a word with its meaning, alter the quantity of information?

    Aren’t you contradicting yourself here?

  81. pecon 09 Dec 2008 at 8:24 pm

    “how can a definition, which serves to associate a word with its meaning, alter the quantity of information?”

    First of all, definitions do not associate a word with its meaning — what is the disembodied meaning that is separate from a word? The word “dog” is associated with a cultural abstraction, not some “meaning” out there in the world.

    The quantity of information conveyed by a word varies depending on its current context, including how many options are in the set being selected from, and the probabilities of selection for each member of the set.

    If “dog” is highly probable in a context, the quantity of information conveyed by it is relatively low, in that context. And vice versa. If I said “I looked over at the car in the next lane and saw that the driver was a dog,” “dog” would be relatively high in information quantity, because it would be relatively unexpected, or surprising.

  82. trrllon 10 Dec 2008 at 1:13 am

    First of all, definitions do not associate a word with its meaning

    I suppose, since you believe that meaning of a written message is communicated by telepathy rather than by the word itself, that you imagine that, like Humpty Dumpty, you can use a word in whatever idiosyncratic personal sense you choose and people will understand you. In practice, however, you will find it easier to communicate if you use words according to their conventional meanings. You may find it helpful to consult a dictionary. Here, for example, is the dictionary entry for “definition”:

    def⋅i⋅ni⋅tion   [def-uh-nish-uhn] Show IPA Pronunciation
    –noun
    1. the act of defining or making definite, distinct, or clear.
    2. the formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word, phrase, etc.

  83. trrllon 10 Dec 2008 at 1:25 am

    If “dog” is highly probable in a context, the quantity of information conveyed by it is relatively low, in that context. And vice versa. If I said “I looked over at the car in the next lane and saw that the driver was a dog,” “dog” would be relatively high in information quantity, because it would be relatively unexpected, or surprising.

    You are certainly correct that if a word has a known meaning, it may convey a lower quantity of information, since there is a high degree of redundancy in human language, and it can thus be compressed into a fewer number of bits. On the other hand, a completely random character string, such as “i6y” contains even more information than “dog,” since it is completely unexpected no matter what the context, and even knowing the first letter provides no clue as to what the next two might be. So is telepathy required to communicate the information in “i6y”? Or is it telepathy that causes the information content of “i6y” to be greater than that of “dog?”

  84. Clinton Huxleyon 10 Dec 2008 at 9:07 am

    I am constantly amazed that my primarily telepathic method of ascertaining what someone is trying to communicate to me breaks down utterly when I don’t understand their language…

  85. weingon 10 Dec 2008 at 9:26 am

    I don’t know but I am not surprised to see a dog driving the car next to mine. I would be surprised to see Angelina Jolie driving a car in the adjacent lane.

  86. mat alfordon 11 Dec 2008 at 4:18 pm

    As a dyslexic atheist I can’t even accept that there is a dog…

  87. jmcanoy1860on 17 Mar 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Hey guys,

    I am an MD as well. Just thought I would point out that Surgeons cut. That is what they do. Brain surgeons cut brains. Although everyone is certainly entitled to have an opinion on “mind” there isn’t even a consensus for a definition of “mind”

    He could have read every book in the world on the subject and it wouldn’t matter. The closest explanation I have ever come across is the Buddhist philosophy of “no mind”.

    It irks me when an amateur bible banger starts making claims like he is an expert. Utilizing credentials that have “neuro” in them as if that was synonymous with mind. Literally, these guys spend all day removing meningiomas (shelling peanuts).

    I would love to think that another physician was capable of logic. Yes, some of us are scientists. Maybe, 1% (myself included). The remainder of us are not. Analogy of an engineer (scientist) vs a car mechanic.

    May the Noodly one bless this site with his starchy appendage.
    (Please see venganza.org for the flying spaghetti monster)

    James

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.