Jun 13 2008

B. Alan Wallace and Buddhist Dualism

Published by under Uncategorized
Comments: 34

Previously I have discussed, largely in the context of an ongoing debate, the notion of cartesian dualism – the belief that consciousness is due, in part or whole, to a non-physical cause separate from the brain. (I hold the neuroscientific view that consciousness is brain function.) This form of cartesian dualism seems to be favored by Western dualists, like Michael Egnor from the Discovery Institute.

There are other forms of dualism as well. David Chalmers, a philosopher of consciousness, holds what he calls naturalistic dualism – that the brain causes mind but consciousness cannot be reduced to brain function. There therefore must be some higher-order (but still entirely naturalistic) process going on. This view is opposed by other philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, who believe no such higher order process need be invoked. Consciousness can be understood as an emergent property of brain function (the position I find most compelling).

Today I want to discuss the dualism of B. Alan Wallace, a former Buddhist monk. I interviewed Alan about a year ago for the SGU podcast and it was an interesting discussion. He is quite a prolific writer on the topic of science, Buddhism, and dualism – so in addition to the interview there is no shortage of material explaining his views.


Wallace has three primary points I want to address. The first is that consciousness does not derive from the brain but rather from “substrate consciousness.” The second is that if science is to understand the nature of substrate consciousness it must expand its methods to include a Buddhist style of introspection. And third, that quantum mechanics supports these views.

Here There Be Dragons

Although he wraps his views in Buddhist mysticism and jargon, Wallace constructs them very similarly to Christian dualist views. In an interview with Steve Paulson he said:

The psyche is not emerging from the brain, conditioned by the environment. The human psyche is in fact emerging from an individual continuum of consciousness that is conjoined with the brain during the development of the fetus. It can be very hampered if the brain malfunctions or becomes damaged.

All I’m presenting here is the Buddhist hypothesis. There’s another dimension of consciousness, which is called the substrate consciousness. This is not mystical. It’s not transcendent in the sense of being divine. The human psyche is emerging from an ongoing continuum of consciousness—the substrate consciousness—which kind of looks like a soul. But in the Buddhist view, it is more like an ongoing vacuum state of consciousness. Or here’s a good metaphor: Just as we speak of a stem cell, which is not differentiated until it comes into the liver and becomes a liver cell, or into bone marrow and becomes a bone marrow cell, the substrate consciousness is stem consciousness. And at death, the human psyche dissolves back into this continuum.

Wallace separates the mind into the psyche, which is essentially everything we can observe and measure about brain and cognitive function, and the substrate consciousness, which is the mysterious dualist aspect of consciousness. What he has done is identical strategically to what Michael Egnor and other modern cartesian dualists have done – accommodated the dualist philosophy to the undeniable findings of modern neuroscience. Just beyond the current findings of neuroscience, however, here there be dragons.

The problem for the dualists is that neuroscience does not leave them any room for the function of the soul or spirit – the non-physical aspect of consciousness. The physical brain is explaining more and more of cognitive function, leaving less and less for the non-physical to do. Egnor carves our room for the non-physical in the limitations of current technological and investigative techniques to describe brain function and correlate with mental function (a classic god-of-the-gaps strategy).

Wallace carves out room for the substrate consciousness (which is something like a soul, but somehow not mystical or divine) by two strategies, as far as I can tell. The first is to appeal to alleged non-physical mental phenomena – like reincarnation, ESP, and clairvoyance. In this way he is making some testable claims, unlike Christian dualists who generally deny these new agey phenomena.

The second is to appeal to the meditative states of Buddhist contemplatives – arguing that their subjective experience should be admitted as scientific evidence (more on this below).

On the one hand, Wallace creates the notion of the psyche to do away with all the evidence from neuroscience that the brain causes consciousness. He then does offer as evidence for something beyond the brain the existence of paranormal phenomena, so at least he is offering a positive argument (unlike Egnor). Unfortunately for Wallace, the evidence strongly suggests that none of the alleged paranormal phenomena exist. This, of course, is a discussion that goes far beyond this one blog entry. But I think it is fair to say that all of these phenomena are at best controversial, and none have been established and accepted by mainstream science.

Therefore, if we take Wallace at his word that his form a dualism predicts the existence of mental phenomena separate from the brain, than his hypothesis fails this empirical test. Unless and until an extra-physical mental phenomena is reliably demonstrated there is no reason to accept Wallace’s substrate consciousness as necessary, let alone true.

As a side note, the strategies of dualists are very similar to the strategies of evolution deniers. They too insert their supernatural beliefs just beyond the limits of current evolutionary science. They are forever retreating from the advance of evolutionary knowledge, but as science is always incomplete they will always have gaps (albeit shrinking gaps) to occupy.

Changing the Rules of Science

Another feature that some dualists have in common with evolution deniers is the desire to change the rules of science. The Intelligent Design (ID) movement was largely started by lawyer Philip Johnson who argued that the rules of science are rigged in that they exclude supernatural explanations a priori. This is not fair to those who want supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. The problem with this ID argument is that it is a non sequitur. Supernaturalism is not excluded a priori, it is simply incompatible with scientific methodology. Supernatural science is an oxymoron.

Also, science does not say that supernatural explanations are not true – only that they are outside the realm of science. This is related to the fact that science as a method is not discovering the Truth with a capital “T”; it is not describing reality as it actual is, rather it is describing that slice of reality that is amendable to scientific methods of investigation. Because science has worked so well (at least so far) it is reasonable to conclude that the slice of reality open to science is fairly large, but from a philosophical point of view it is not the same as all of reality.

Just as the ID proponents want to change the rules of science to allow entry to supernatural causes, Wallace wants to change the rules of science to allow evidence from Buddhist contemplatives. He writes:

To discover the origins of any natural phenomenon, scientists have devised rigorous means of observing the phenomenon itself, conducting experiments on it when possible. This has been true for exploring the origins of all kinds of objects, from cells, on which experiments can be done, to stars, which can be observed but not manipulated through experimentation. The same is true for the psyche. To discover its origins, we must devise sophisticated methods for observing and experimenting on states of consciousness. It is not enough to observe and run experiments on their neural and behavioral correlates, and as long as cognitive science restricts its research to those, it cannot avoid the conclusion that consciousness emerges solely from the material processes under study. This is not a logical or empirical discovery, merely an inevitable conclusion based on a methodology of examining subjective, qualitative, mental processes by way of objective, quantitative, physical processes.

This is the ID argument – science concludes that consciousness is physical because it is limiting itself to physical investigation. If this were true it would still not be a reason to include non-scientific methods into science. The unstated major premise is that science must be able to discover the Truth, whatever it is. Therefore if someone has a hypothesis that cannot be investigated scientifically, science is inadequate and must change. But science cannot know everything. Changing the rules does not alter this fact, it just creates a non-scientific method (faith or philosophy) and calls it science.

Also, Wallace does not establish that this is true – that there is something to consciousness beyond what science can investigate. He tries to – which actually contradicts his first point. You can’t have it both ways – Wallace is saying that science explains consciousness physically only because it is limiting itself to physical methods, and also that science has found that consciousness is not entirely physical. His arguments for non-physical mental phenomena, like ESP and reincarnation, are arguments that the scientific method has found evidence for non-physical consciousness, which he says it is rigged not to be able to do.

He also says that: “As a result of this orientation, cognitive scientists are confronted with an “explanatory gap”: how is it that patterns of neural activity either produce or are equivalent to subjective mental processes?” If there really were an “explanatory gap” that is at least an argument for the inadequacy of the current scientific model. The problem is, there isn’t. While we are far from explaining all aspects of how the brain causes consciousness, the model is holding up so far. There are as yet no anomalies that defy physical explanation or demand a non-physical one.

Like Egnor, Wallace also cites Chalmers to defend his “explanatory gap”, and like Egnor he does not seem to realize that this does not support his position. Chalmers’ “naturalistic dualism” is just a discussion of how the brain causes consciousness – it explicitly rejects cartesian dualism or non-physical causes.

Wallace wants us to admit the subjective experience of Buddhist contemplatives because that way he can simply inject Buddhist mysticism at will, without having to justify any of his beliefs scientifically. He writes:

According to the experience of such contemplatives, there is a principle of conservation of consciousness that manifests in every moment of experience. The material constituents of the brain, such as neurons and electrochemical processes, do not transform into immaterial mental phenomena, such as dreams and hallucinations. No patterns of neuronal events actually become mental events. But nor do mental phenomena emerge from nothing. Rather, this empty, luminous, substrate consciousness transforms into the mental images, discursive thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and so on.

I would like to see that in a peer-reviewed scientific journal – “according to the experience of such contemplatives.” Wallace would have us just take the word of those who are authorities based upon their extreme skill at introspection. But science simply cannot function by relying upon the authority of individuals. Science must be objective and transparent.

In this statement we also see another major strategy of Wallace – shared with other dualists: he is playing with the language of material vs immaterial. How can a material brain create an immaterial mind? But this argument assumes its conclusion – that the mind is a thing that is not material. Rather, the mind is a process – it is not created by the brain, it is what the brain does. Wallace plays off semantic confusion to create an apparent (but false) paradox, then tries to resolve this alleged paradox by inserting his “substrate consciousness.”

Quantum Woo

It is interesting that so much of Eastern mysticism has looked to quantum weirdness for support. Deepak Chopra’s Hindu mysticism is often cloaked in quantum pseudobabble. Wallace too looks to quantum mechanics to give his mysticism the patina of scientific legitimacy. Notice in the first quote above he refers to the “vaccum state of consciousness.” He is using the language of quantum mechanics without applying its meaning – a classic feature of pseudoscience.

He writes:

While the full ontological and epistemological implications of modern physics, quantum mechanics in particular, certainly cannot be foreseen at this point, it does seem clear that they challenge the mechanistic, materialistic metaphysical framework that has dominated scientific research during the past two centuries. I would argue that it is the reductionistic axioms of scientific materialism, rather than the empirical facts of science itself, that have widened the breach between religion and science; and many prominent physicists and philosophers believe that modern physics is now revealing truths about the physical universe that may help bridge the rift between science and religion.

Here he is clearly trying to subvert science to validate his religion – a common apologist tactic but always fatally flawed. In my interview with Wallace he was big on quoting “prominent physicists” claiming that quantum mechanics supports mysticism. This is not, however, the consensus opinion and most physicists find it highly annoying that quantum mechanics is being so thoroughly abused in this way.

Quantum mechanics does not do away with scientific materialism. This is a complete misreading of the implications of quantum physics. The confusion stems largely from certain undeniably weird and non-deterministic effects that occur at the atomic and subatomic levels. Matter and energy at this scale display what is called wave-particle duality – they travel in waves but interact as particles. Also, the waves are waves of probability – an electron’s position can only be described as wave function of probability of it being in any particular location.

Other strange quantum effects include the uncertainty principle which holds that any particle has a minimum amount of uncertainty as to any pair of related attributes you care to measure. So if you look at vector and momentum, the more you know about one the less you know about the other, and there is a minimum total uncertainty that is impossible (as a fundamental law of nature, not a technological limitation) to eliminate.

Even more strange is quantum entanglement – that different particles will be entangled so that the properties of one are determined instantly by the properties of the other, even at vast distances.

Wallace uses these weird quantum effects to argue that physics supports rejecting a strict materialist explanation for phenomena that occur or are observed on the macroscopic level -like the functioning of the brain. There are two primary flaws with his reasoning, however, both stem from his misunderstanding of quantum mechanics.

The first is decoherence. While coherence is indeed strange, it does not violate the speed of light or other laws of physics because, while the two particles may be entangled, their connection cannot be used to transmit information faster than the speed of light. The coherence is not a real connection allowing for instantaneous information transfer – it just says something about their entangled origin. This means that the phenomenon of coherence cannot be invoked to explain ESP or any other paranormal phenomena that Wallace uses to argue for dualism.

Also, as entangled particles interact with the environment – with any other matter, they rapidly decohere. The entanglement goes away. Coherence as a phenomenon is really restricted to specific and exotic laboratory conditions. In the macroscopic world of large amounts of matter interacting with other matter, decoherence rapidly abolishes any effects of coherence. There this phenomenon is not relevant to brain function.

The second quantum fact missed by Wallace is the de Broglie wavelength. Louis de Broglie won the Nobel prize in 1929 for his work in quantum mechanics deriving the formula for calculating the effective wavelength of an electron. His equation actually apply to any physical object, including a person, or the neurons in our brains. The de Broglie wavelength of anything is equal to Planck’s constant (6.626 x10^-34) divided by the object’s momentum. For electrons, this gives a sizable wavelength. The bigger an object the smaller the de Broglie wavelength, and for macroscopic objects it is insignificantly small.

During the SGU interview Wallace was very impressed with recent experiments that show that large carbon molecules (so-called bucky balls, comprised of 60 carbon atoms) displayed the wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics in a classic double slit experiment. Wallace argued that this was evidence that such quantum effects are not limited by size and would scale up even to macroscopic objects.

However, this is simply not true. First, these carbon molecules are still 15 orders of magnitude smaller than the smallest macroscopic objects. So this is not a trivial extrapolation. But more importantly, the de Broglie wavelength clearly indicates that such effects would disappear for anything much larger than these 60-carbon molecules. de Broglie’s “wavelength characteristic” specifically refers to the quantum probability wave – the characteristic that gives small bits of matter their quantum weirdness.

In other words, as objects become larger the de Broglie wavelength effectively disappears and with it all quantum effects. At the macroscopic level the quantum world behaves like the classical world. Therefore de Broglie kills Wallace’s entire quantum argument.

Conclusion

I find Wallace’s position similar to the famous “kettle defense” – he seems to be marshaling whatever arguments he thinks he can use to defend his beliefs, but he is not articulating a coherent position. The reason is clear enough – he is making the classic mistake of starting with a desired conclusion (merging Buddhist mysticism with modern science) and then working backwards. To achieve these ends he tries but fails to make scientific arguments for dualism and he simultaneously tries to fudge the rules of science to sneak in mysticism as evidence to support his side.

Also he utterly mangles quantum mechanics theory in an attempt to argue that – science says the world is weird, and my beliefs are weird, therefore science supports my views. The logic of this argument fails, but it doesn’t matter because the premise if wrong – quantum weirdness disappears at the macroscopic level.

In the end Wallace does no better than anyone who tries to subvert science to support any ideology.

Share

34 responses so far

34 Responses to “B. Alan Wallace and Buddhist Dualism”

  1. Michelle Bon 13 Jun 2008 at 9:31 am

    To paraphrase Sam Harris, ‘reasonable’ believers of non-evidential beliefs by cherry picking science to buttress their faith-based beliefs fail both their faith and science.
    ______

    Therefore if someone has a hypothesis that cannot be investigated scientifically, science is inadequate and must change.
    ____

    Not to mention close-minded! *sarcasm off*

    Other believers of non-evidential concepts will gladly instead embrace the NOMA of Gould. But that embrace is becoming more and more problematic as the god gaps keep shrinking, the NOMA folks are uncomfortably being regarded as silly and irrational. I predict more frenzied cherry-picking of science to quell their rising cognitive dissonance. (And in the case of woo believers, the clamoring of more funds for researching their silly and undeserving-of-research notions.)

  2. DevilsAdvocateon 13 Jun 2008 at 10:17 am

    Wallace’s substrate consciousness sounds a bit like Jung’s collective unconscious, later labeled ‘objective psyche’.

    Strip away the bells and whistles and scientific sounding jargon, and basically Wallace, et al, offer a large example of one of Ockham’s unnecessary elements, further condemned by its having zero empirical founding, and finally killed off as an explanatory theory by a requisite leap to belief on faith. By golly, it sounds like religion and is entirely subjective.

  3. Roy Nileson 13 Jun 2008 at 3:50 pm

    At the point where the calculative apparatus of life forms attained the ability to attempt predictions about more than the immediate future, while at the same time adding the mechanical concept of “future” to calculative algorithms, these forms also (in my view at least) attributed purpose to those anticipated events – purpose having been sensed in other life forms, and all nature’s forces then presumed, for safety’s sake, as purposeful. But nature’s purposes remained (and will still remain) a mystery since the living entities presumably behind them have remained mysterious.

    It’s this mysteriousness we now refer to as the supernatural. To cut to the chase, consciousness, which we can safely presume has long been sensed as a purposeful force of mysterious origins, was thus early on classified as a supernatural phenomenon (or phenomena as the case may be). But more importantly, evolutionary forces seem to have long solidified those feelings into what we could call an instinctive acknowledgment of their “supernaturally purposeful”origins.
    Some in fact refer to such a thing as a a “hyperactive agent detection device.” There’s little question in my mind that such instinctive mechanisms exist, but still a question as to exactly how they prevent at least some of us from seeing beyond this type of built in bias.
    Because just listening to Wallace on the SGU podcast, it seems he has an almost desperate need to be skeptical about everything except his convictions about the source or sources of consciousness. Or perhaps more accurately, convictions about our inability to demonstrate that those sources aren’t clearly in the realm of the supernatural.

  4. DevilsAdvocateon 13 Jun 2008 at 6:24 pm

    Could be nothing more than some people having difficulty accepting that what they believe enables the ‘mind’, originating from the core of their respective belief systems as it does, might be entirely material in nature after all – another essentially religious tenet overturned by science. While many people would understandably struggle with the slow decomposition of their beliefs, some of them can articulate the belief very well, though it ultimately doesn’t survive scrutiny -thanks to party poopers like Dr. Novella and other rational people.

    The tendency for so many of these folks to speak in almost entirely scientific language (or at least try to, however tenuous) rather than in the language of their particular religious beliefs may be a sign of penultimate surrender, an acknowledgement that not only can they not supplant science, they cannot even become ‘partners’, on the big stage that is – that we’re seeing historically the last gasps of trying to intellectualizing or ‘scientificate’ essentially religious belief systems before they are finally abandoned by the masses over the next few centuries. Perhaps the end of religion is upon us.

    Yeah, and the NC State Lottery is going to call me tomorrow with great news.

    *sigh*

  5. Roy Nileson 13 Jun 2008 at 7:24 pm

    I’m advised that a lottery by its very nature is reliant on supernatural influences, and you can’t win the lottery unless you had earlier allowed the winning number to enter your psyche through the means of your substrate consciousness.

    Incidentally, I don’t see Wallace’s views as all that similar to Christian views, because he seems to concede that this ultimately shared consciousness could exist in all life forms (allowing of course for someone to return as a bug or potted plant) while the Christian version of the soul seems to stop where the human genus or species started.

    Wallace and his tribe thereby dodge the necessity of dealing with the noted silver bullet question:

    http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=silverbqp2

  6. daedalus2uon 13 Jun 2008 at 7:34 pm

    All organisms that communicate with other members of their species (that would be all social organisms) require the ability to compute how that other members of their species are going to respond and so can communicate with that organism accordingly.

    It has been said that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. When your major cognitive structures have evolved for social communication with other members of your own species, what ever thoughts you try to think with those cognitive structures will be thoughts appropriate for communication with your own species.

    I think this is the reason why some humans anthropomorphize so much. Those individuals don’t have the cognitive structures to think in terms other than by imputing human motivations to non-human organisms and even objects.

    I think this is why people construe motivations and consciousness to objects in the environment, and even to the environment itself. I think this is the major source of the belief that there are immaterial ghosts in everything. It is a convenient way of thinking about people to impute a “mind” that is responsible for various attributes of that individual, those same cognitive structures can then be used to understand non-human objects too. The analogy or metaphor is wrong, but it is the only one they have.

    This type of behavior is commonly observed in what is called psychological projection, where an individual will impute motivation to another that derives from themselves. In a sense it is like the school-yard taunt “it takes one to know one” which is (I think) in some sense true. To understand another, one must be able to emulate that other’s thinking process and so compute how that other will react to certain stimuli. If one can’t emulate the other, then one cannot understand the other. When one can’t understand the other, the default position is to substitute your own mental processes and impute the same outcome on the other. If you and the other are very similar, that process works. If you are diametrically different, then it doesn’t.

    I think this is the psychological process going on in many of the denialist communities including ID, antivax, HIV denialists. The anti-mercury quacks have no problem using dangerous untested and unreliable methods on children for pay, so they project that the medical community has the same low standards as themselves. They play fast and loose with the facts so they project that the medical community does too. The IDiots have no compunction about lying, so they project that scientists have no compunction about lying too.

  7. Roy Nileson 13 Jun 2008 at 7:56 pm

    That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s a predator versus prey world and organisms do learn to communicate with those of a different language, if only to warn them off or convince them the food is better at a different table. Cephalopod behavior gives an almost perfect example of how this inter-species communication can work.

  8. daedalus2uon 13 Jun 2008 at 9:22 pm

    I am not sure that I would call all of that “communication” in the sense that I was using it, but certainly some of it is. There is a comment on Respectful Insolence on the crystal woo thread mentioning that plants emit volatiles when attacked by herbivores that signal predators. Certainly that is signaling, but I wouldn’t call it communication via “language”.

    To me, “language” has to have primitive symbols that can be assembled in a syntax where the meaning depends on that syntax. One-to-one associations are not “language” no matter how many of them can be strung together. Language depends on a syntax that is to some extent arbitrary and with different choice of syntax the symbol string takes on a different meaning.

    Bees have language and communicate. I am not sure that bees have a theory of mind and what they do if the communication doesn’t work. I suspect it invokes xenophobia and they kill the bee that isn’t communicating properly.

  9. pecon 14 Jun 2008 at 6:12 pm

    “The physical brain is explaining more and more of cognitive function, leaving less and less for the non-physical to do.”

    You are being illogical and misleading again. Maybe you think more and more is being explained, but it’s still very little (as you have admitted in other posts). And the more we understand, the greater our ignorance seems. Every time we find one answer, we find several more questions.

    You probably believe your own deceptions.

  10. Roy Nileson 14 Jun 2008 at 8:06 pm

    pec, regarding images that sighted life forms pick up from objects of interest – said images as Wallace has claimed having a lack of any material substance – are those images assisted by the supernatural before becoming discernible by the nervous systems of that particular viewer? Do all life forms thus need some version of a soul in order to perceive anything of the outside world? Does this apply to sound sensations as well, or touch representations, or smells?

    Or are you just objecting to the rhetoric and not to the dismissal of the non-physical as having a critical role to play in the detection of sensory input?

  11. DevilsAdvocateon 14 Jun 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Apparently there’s some arbitrary time frame in mind for progress in learning, a reluctance to bear not knowing. Woos have less patience than those actually doing the work, thank goodness.

  12. hugerobotson 15 Jun 2008 at 11:24 am

    Comedy enswoos.

  13. daedalus2uon 15 Jun 2008 at 11:42 am

    pec, your statement here epitomizes the difference between real scientists and pseudoscientists such as yourself. “And the more we understand, the greater our ignorance seems. Every time we find one answer, we find several more questions.”

    This is precisely your problem. When a scientist finds a scientific answer, they know one more answer and so know themselves to be less ignorant. When pseudoscientist faith-based believers such as yourself find a scientific answer, it often contradicts one of their faith-based beliefs that they thought was true but was actually wrong, so they feel more ignorant.

    Knowing more science doesn’t make real scientists more ignorant, it does make pseudoscientists such as yourself feel more ignorant as you must discard more and more of what you previously believed (erroneously and with no basis) was correct.

    When a scientist finds and answer to a question it often does raise more questions that extends the scope of what the scientist is trying to understand and how that new information fits with all other reliable information that scientist has access too. It adds to the reliable information base science already has, creating cross links and connections and making that whole knowledge base more reliable and useful.

    When a pseudoscientist finds a scientific answer that contradicts their pseudoscientific beliefs, either they allow those beliefs to shrink and retreat into the gaps between reliable scientific information or they descend into delusion and denial by rejecting the plain scientific facts incompatible with their beliefs. I find it sad (and sometimes dangerous) when people do that.

  14. Blake Staceyon 15 Jun 2008 at 12:25 pm

    As a person who actually works with quantum mechanics, I’d be impressed if most of the people who invoke it to justify their woo babble could pick the Schrödinger Equation out of a line-up, let alone calculate a decoherence timescale or write out the Dirac notation for an EPR experiment.

  15. pecon 15 Jun 2008 at 7:26 pm

    daedalus2u,

    Human knowledge is finite while human ignorance is infinite. As science progresses, nature looks more and more complex. Nature becomes less comprehensible the more we learn about it.

  16. Roy Nileson 15 Jun 2008 at 8:09 pm

    pec, I really didn’t expect you would or could answer my question, but the absolute dumbness of your answer to daedalus2u’s susequent comments is close to astonishing.
    You apparently have no analytical capabilities at all.

  17. daedalus2uon 15 Jun 2008 at 8:55 pm

    pec, I know how complex reality is. I don’t need to recalibrate how complex I think reality is every time I learn something new.

    It is my experience that reality becomes easier to understand the more I know. Each fact either reliably fits in with the other facts or I keep it separate until it does. If it never becomes reliable I don’t bother with it.

    If your experience is that reality is getting more complex and harder to understand the more you learn, then you are learning the wrong things and trying to put them together in the wrong ways. That is a sign that the cognitive structure you are using to try and understand reality is fundamentally flawed and is not mapable or scalable to reality.

  18. pecon 16 Jun 2008 at 6:17 am

    “It is my experience that reality becomes easier to understand the more I know.”

    So you are good at deceiving yourself.

    The nature of matter was “understood” very well over 100 years ago. Now there is little hope that physics will ever lead to a complete understanding of matter.

    Recent progress in genetics is telling us more about our ignorance than about the nature of life.

    The same is true in psychology, one of the subjects I have a Ph.D. in.

    Novella and most others at this blog sincerely believe they are smarter than nature. So ultimately you will understand nature completely and get it under your control.

  19. daedalus2uon 16 Jun 2008 at 7:20 am

    pec, you are quite wrong. Some people may have believed that they understood what matter was 100 years ago, real scientists knew that they didn’t. That is why real scientists continued to do research. 100 years ago knowledgeable scientists knew they didn’t understand the source of the Sun’s energy. Without knowing fundamental stuff like that, they knew there was a lot they did not understand.

    Some people may believe that they understood how genomes worked before those genomes were sequences. They were mistaken. They were ignorant of how ignorant they were. Once the data was available, they realized their ideas were too simplistic and have moved on to try and understand the complexity of real genomes.

    I am not troubled by my own ignorance. I know the only real solution to ignorance is to learn more. The more I learn the less ignorant I am. I am satisfied with that state of affairs. I have no illusion that I know more than I actually do. If I can’t back-up an idea with a train of logic that leads back to facts, I don’t “know” it to be true and don’t pretend that it is. I don’t pretend to myself or to anyone else.

    You are troubled by your ignorance. Your solution is to make stuff up and to listen to people who make stuff up to fill that ignorance with stuff that is made up. When those made-up ideas come up against reality, the made-up stuff pretty much always loses. It is your made-up ideas failing that make you feel ignorant.

    When real scientists gather data that causes their hypotheses to fail they have made progress. They can now abandon those failed hypotheses, abandon failed lines of research and move on to areas that are more productive.

  20. woobegoneon 16 Jun 2008 at 7:39 am

    “Nature becomes less comprehensible the more we learn about it.”

    I disagree: complexity is not the same as incomprehensibility. Nature is anything but simple and it is often unpredictable – science has made us more aware of this than ever. But nature is remarkably comprehensible, and we are comprehending it better each day.

    Take cancer. If someone gets cancer, we will, in all likelihood, never know for sure what caused it. With some exceptions (lung cancer in a heavy smoker say), we will never be able to work out exactly which combination of carcinogenic substances or gamma rays or sheer quantum noise led to the mutations which led to the development of the tumour. Likewise, while we can say that some groups of people are at a high risk of cancer, we generally cannot say for sure who will get it and who won’t. We probably never will.

    And yet cancer is anything but incomprehensible. We know exactly what kinds of things cause cancer, and how they do it, and what cancer is on a cellular level. Faced with cancer, we know that somewhere down the line something has caused a mutation in some genes regulating the cell cycle. We understand cancer, even if in any specific case we can’t pin down the exact sequence of events.

    Now in the case of the brain, we may not yet know exactly how the brain encodes (say) memory, but we do know that it has something to do with proteins and receptors and neurones and ion channels. In the future we will know more – but even if we never work out how the brain encodes a given memory, we already comprehend memory better than we did 100 years ago, or even 30 years ago. We know the kind of things involved. Clearly we understand cancer better than we understand memory. But not infinitely better.

  21. mindmeon 16 Jun 2008 at 10:51 am

    Pec… Pec. You didn’t heed my advice you come across as a man who thinks he won a boxing match with Tyson because he did such a good job stopping all of Tyson’s punches with his face. Well, at least it’s entertaining to watch you keep taking it on the face by people who know more and can express themselves better.

  22. Larryon 20 Jun 2008 at 1:17 pm

    A wicked problem with evaluating psychic experiences (or other controversial findings) is evaluating the experience in some framework of religion, pseudoscience, or skepticism.

    Take a simple documented psychic experiment where 10 people for 100 trials are able to guess a correct answer 36% of the time when the selection is one out of four or a 25% probability of being correct (a one in 10 trillion probability). What does this prove?

    The religious man might say that it proves that his religion is correct, the pseudoscientist might say that some scientific theory is correct, and the skeptic might say that there was never any such experiment. Everyone can retreat within their fortress and claim victory.

    But suppose we apply some exacting standard of science, even more so, some standard of skepticism. Then the religious man, the pseudoscientitst, and yes, even the skeptic, can’t prove anything, but each can claim that they are correct.

    If an unexplained event occurs once, then unexplained events occur. Regardless of what we postulate as a possible explanation, including denial, the event remains unexplained.

    This is the true razor of skepticism, that the skeptics denial or postulations do not resolve the the matter, as the true skeptic is skeptical of any proposed resolution that can not be undeniably proven.

    Are unexplained events such as the above psychic? Who knows. Did I see this happen? No. Was it properly documented and subject to peer review? Yes.

    Arguments against the existence of psychic events are pretty much meaningless unless you define psychic. I generally define psychic to mean unexplained acquisition of knowledge or anomalous cognition. Once you have a definition, then you can test for results.

    The results are conclusive that anomalous cognition occurs. Why does it occur? Who knows.

    As skeptics, we might try to deny over 30 years of well-documented evidence or use some other ruse to convince people that such evidence is not sufficient. But that really doesn’t meet the standard. If it occurred once in those 30 years, then it occurred. If all of those experiments were falsified and the Government agreed to pay over $20 Million for falsified material which was confirmed as true time after time, then I believe the standard has been met.

    Larry

  23. Roy Nileson 20 Jun 2008 at 1:43 pm

    When you lie to people, have they been anomalously cognated?

  24. huntressristichon 20 Jun 2008 at 4:37 pm

    People who experience precognition or have unusual physical or mental abilitites are just human. They are not machines and are as variable as all other humans. They are difficult to study due to the extreme pressure that is placed upon people who seem to have more than other people. Religions want to claim them as their own, to support their religions. Society and science wants to harness and use their abilities for the betterment of all in society.

    There is no concern for the health of people so labeled or for their safety from members of society who are desperate for help against sickness, death and social injustices. Think of the movie ET. No one would want to be him.

    Someday I hope psychic abilities will be as understood as the workings of the more common senses like vision, hearing and smell. However, I do not think that they will be as harnessable and useful to modern society as most would like to think. I think we already have and will have in the future, machinery and scientific devices that make psychic senses unnecessary.

    I believe that precognition is an ancient personal alarm system wired into the human to help protect him from danger in a dangerous world. Now we have more protection from these dangers and thus less need for precognition to survive. Also, today society really encourages us to not follow hunches or troubling feelings of impending doom. We all just shrug them off and say we are being silly. Why? We don’t want to seem foolish, childish or worse yet to be proven wrong. Perhaps if psychic premonitions were more consistently correct or more precise they would have been prized above other methods of ensuring safety and security.

    Think of the little toe and how it is so small on modern man due to the changes in lifestyle. Or even more evident the residual tail that we all have and some are even today born with outward remnents of which can be removed for esthetics. That is most likely what psychic abilities are.

    I find it interesting though that scientists focus so much on psychics who are not totally honest instead of realizing that dishonesty is rampant in all of society. Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, heaven, voices of comfort from the grave: all there to provide a layer of kindness and justice in an unkind and unjust world. Most adults realize that is all it is, and no outrage at all.

    When you start studying people you are bound to find science not totally up to snuff. In fact that is the problem. No plants or other animals or minerals study people. People study people. That makes it difficult for all the reasons that psychics are derided. They are just people, and most if not all, are not scientists or trained in scientific methods. Further, there is really no incentive for anyone to subject themselves to scientific inquiry. There is everything to loss as an individual and nothing to be gained. That is because their experiences are not consistent. They may have numerous psychic experiences or just one in their entire lifetime. They may guild the lily or just ignore or hid their abilities or experiences. They already know they will not be respected or admired by scientists. They will always be suspected of deceit or fraud.

    In other words, science should look to the study of brain function in humans to find answers to questions of psychic abilities or esp. I think the ultimate answers lie there.

  25. Roy Nileson 20 Jun 2008 at 5:21 pm

    huntressristich says: “I find it interesting though that scientists focus so much on psychics who are not totally honest instead of realizing that dishonesty is rampant in all of society.”

    Not totally honest? The dishonesty, which you pretend not to know, is that these alleged psychics are “totally” lying about having any such ability at all.

    Or are you saying that since dishonesty is rampant in society, it’s no big deal that people lie about psychic abilities?

    And how can it be that if there are those who have such abilities, none of them have ever come forward to denounce the frauds who sell fake readings for a living?

    And how can it be that no psychic who advertises that fact has ever agreed to have that ability tested under controlled conditions?

    In your case, of course, these are largely rhetorical questions, since people who believe in and defend psychics have an almost desperate need to hang on to those beliefs.

  26. huntressristichon 21 Jun 2008 at 4:45 pm

    I should have used the term mystic rather than psychic. I consider mystics to be psychics. I really meant that I do not agree with the concept of dual consciousness either. I think that eventually the things we see as not existing as real concrete senses with physical origins, like psychic abilities, will in time, through more research into the functioning of the human brain, be found to originate there, not in some mystical non-physical substrait consciousness.

    That said, I found fault with those who would deride the Buddist monk for using scientific terms to explain his position. If he had used a more mystical vocabulary his target audience, the scientific community, would not have understood him at all, most likely.

    So you see I really don’t agree with him totally, but I respect his opinion, and understand why he may think the way he does due to the seemingly otherworldly nature of the mystical (psychic) experience. I then point out the fact that most mystics and psychics aren’t scientists or trained in scientific methods.

    They see their inward experiences as something outside the realm of the physical world, more ethereal, with its own existence, outside of the individual physical body.

    I see it more as a product of the individual human brain (mind), ending when that brain or mind ends, not having an existence of its own that continues after the person’s physical death.

    I think that is what the debate is about. Am I wrong?

  27. Roy Nileson 21 Jun 2008 at 5:14 pm

    What you are wrong about is the degree of legitimacy that any psychic has been able to demonstrate concerning the nature of their self-proclaimed abilities.

  28. huntressristichon 21 Jun 2008 at 5:18 pm

    On the dishonesty of psychics: I merely meant that psychics are as likely or unlikely to be honest as any other group of people. I was not refering to people who are “professional” psychics, that make money telling fortunes (fortune tellers). Fortune Tellers may or may not be psychic. If you understood how fortune tellers are trained you would know that they use systems that were devised many years ago, like astrology, and do not claim to gain their information in any other way, usually.

    If you ever go to a professional psychic you will note that they have a disclaimer that states that the reading is for entertainment purposes only. That doesn’t proclude them being true pyschics, but it does protect them from litigation.

    I mention the fraud of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny that is a lie told to children, who tend to be more gulliable and vulnerable then adults. However, no one is outraged at the people who make money off of these children’s faith in these lies.

    Professional Psychics entertain adults, usually considered less gullable and vulnerable then children. A real professional psychic is taught to should never tell a person if they intuit or see in the cards, or whatever other system of discernment they employ, some grave disaster, like the person’s emanient demise, but rather to just provide comforting, uplifting information to such a person.

    That is one of the ethical codes that real professional psychics are taught to uphold. It involves lying to a person. But to cause emtional distress for no good purpose is much worse then lying to provide comfort and happiness. That is what I meant in that regard.

    Being wrong about information is what I address in the concept of the psychic sense just being a residual sense, like the tail bone in humans. It is no longer needed, so most of us only have that bit of precognition that we pay no mind to usually. That is why psychic information is so lacking in detail and consistency. That is why it really isn’t all that useful.

  29. Roy Nileson 21 Jun 2008 at 5:52 pm

    There is no ethical code among professional psychics, unless it’s an unenforceable lip-service variety. Sylvia Browne, for one, did not recognize such a code.

    Also, your contention that psychics have helped in police work, for examples, is plain baloney. I’ve been in that business most of my life and the only “evidence” of any effective assistance comes from the psychics themselves, and always after the fact.

    To say, as you just did again, that “psychics are as likely or unlikely to be honest as any other group of people” is to be pulling words out of you know where, as just making the claim of having such ability will be either a lie or based on self-delusion.

    Scientists are as interested in documenting any such ability as you might be, but after many such attempts, any credible evidence of such abilities has not been forthcoming. Those who claim otherwise are invariably discovered to be either dupes or liars.

    You can equivocate by referring to “mystics” as an alternative, but the same considerations apply.

    I have in fact worked closely with “professional” psychics, including gypsies and the like, to learn their methods, and without the use of fraud and deception, none would have any more success in discerning someone’s past or predicting their future than any other perceptive or intuitive human.

    They are essentially thieves and any semblance of honor in or among them is notably absent.

  30. huntressristichon 22 Jun 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Roy you are confusing professional psychics who perform for money, such as fortune tellers, with the psychic who believes they are communing on a spiritual level with either a greater consciousness (like God) or spirits. Not all people who profess such communion take money from people or operate fortune telling businesses. I would imagine the Buddist monk is not anything like the type of “psychic” to which you refer.

    Mystical psychics beliefs are protected by the constitution as religious beliefs and practices. If you disallow them to practice openly their faith, you would in all fairness need to disallow all religious practice. There are many Atheists and Scientific Materialists who would think that is a good idea, but you would have difficulty enforcing it.

    That is why, in response to this particular article, I decided to replace the word psychic with the word mystic, which I use to describe believers in dualism, like Buddists.

    My own explanation for what is being experienced by believers in dualism is purely my own supposition, with no solid evidence for or against. In other words, an educated guess.

  31. Quantum « Scepticonon 24 Jul 2008 at 8:44 pm

    [...] http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=312 [...]

  32. Fifion 25 Jul 2008 at 9:49 am

    huntressristich – From my understanding, there are two takes on Buddha’s teachings (well many more but to simplify for the sake of this conversation) – one which is dualistic and one which isn’t. One arm celebrates “psychic” experiences and demons as being real, the other looks at these as mental phenomena that arise to distract during meditation and should not be invested in. Nonduality is quite a big deal in certain kinds of Buddhism, and duality is a big deal in other kinds. (Just like in Islam or Christianity, or Judaism, there are many different schools of Buddhism, which have been influenced by the pre-existing religions of the indigenous cultures of the countries/lands that these religions expanded into/conquered and became part of the government and official dogma).

    Buddhism does have its own grifters – usually they’re selling protection from evil spirits or exorcisms. Some promote themselves in the West – usually a version of directing Chi (really just an exotic version of “use your psychic powers against your enemies and to get laid”, generally there’s a claim that this powers have been proven by science and often a rather flashy “The Secret” style video these days). Personally I’ll stick with kung fu movies – the special effects are better and the actors are usually cuter.

  33. [...] intellectual than Schwartz. Another Buddhist and quantum mechanics abuser is B. Allan Wallace (see here for my discussion of Wallace and why the quantum mechanical arguments for dualism are fatally [...]

  34. Robben Waineron 17 Nov 2013 at 6:30 am

    Recently in attempting to earn my Masters Degree I have been faced with an issue regarding Dualism and beginning over from the beginning. I am a Phi delta Kappa Student who doesn’t have a diploma. The Honors Society certificate on my wall serves as an honorary degree. Attempting to start over again, I was still banking on student loans to do whatever I wanted to. That attempt failed, as I am in the process of applying for a student loan forgiveness. I am in a disposition where I won’t be able to get another loan, and I can’t work for five years. That means no college for the time being. I do have a respectable Graduate achievement, but I will have to see what my future brings when I know I can work, and pay for college tuition on my own.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.