May 28 2015

How the Brain Chooses Where to Go

Neuroscientists are making progress mapping out the cortical pathways that allow us to know where we are and navigate to a desired location. A recent study adds another bit of information to this growing picture.

The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for 2014 was given to several scientists, Dr. John M. O’Keefe, Dr. May-Britt Moser and Dr. Edvard I. Moser, for their collective research in working out the basic neurological function that underlies our ability to place ourselves in our environment and to navigate around. O’Keefe identified place cells. A specific place cell will fire when we are in a specific location. Different patterns of place cells firing represent different locations.

These place cells are found in the hippocampus, specifically area CA1. O’Keefe also found that the place cells have memory function, and are therefore critical to our ability to remember specific locations.

Moser and Moser extended this work by finding grid cells in the entorhinal cortex. This area connects heavily with CA1, and contains cells that behave like the place cells. However, the grid cells are arranged in a hexagonal grid, and they fire in sequence as rats move through their environments. The grid cells therefore seem to be a literal map of the environment, and track our movement through the environment, while the place cells tell us where we are.

The new study adds yet another piece to this circuit. Hiroshi Ito and others, including Moser and Moser who discovered grid cells, did further studies looking at rat brains as they navigate their environment. In this case they were specifically interested in how the rats decide which direction to go in when confronted with a T in a maze. They used a maze designed like a figure 8 so that as the rats went around they would endlessly come to right-left branchings.

They found a number of things. First, the intensity of firing in the CA1 area predicted in which direction the rat would go. The neurons were all firing, but would fire more intensely in one pattern when the rat went right, and in another pattern when the rat went left.

They also identified a circuit leading from the prefrontal cortex to the  nucleus reuniens in the thalamus and then to the CA1 area of the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex is essentially part of the decision-making part of the brain. The thalamus is the main relay center in the brain. This circuit, therefore, makes sense based upon our current models of brain circuitry.

The researchers found that the differential firing of the CA1 neurons predicting navigation direction stopped when they lesioned or blocked signals from either the prefrontal cortex or the nucleus reuniens.

This circuit, from prefrontal cortex to nucleus reuniens, and then to the place cells in CA1, which itself connects to the grid cells in the entorhinal cortex nearby, allows us to think about where we are, where we want to go, and how to get there. This may not be the complete circuit, but it seems like the core portion of it at least.

These types of circuits in the brain likely represent the low-hanging-fruit for neuroscientists because they display some version of what is called somatotopic organization. In other word, the layout of the neurons reflect their function. In this case, grid cells are literally laid out in a grid that reflects the outside world. Another part of the brain that reflects a physical lay out that relates to external reality is the visual cortex. Neurons light up in a pattern that reflects the actual image that is being viewed.

These core physical functions are a great opportunity for scientists to explore the circuitry of the brain. However, there are many other circuits in the brain that subsume more abstract functions that will likely prove more challenging to map out. Imagine the complexity of the circuitry that represents language, for example.

Another advantage of basic functions like navigation is that we can study rats. We can’t study rats to map out the circuitry of language, however.

We might not even have the tools yet to explore brain circuitry in sufficient real-time resolution to map out the more complex and abstract functions. Technological advancements here, however, are making steady progress, and so our ability to map out brain circuits will likely continue to improve with the technology. I also think that efforts to reproduce brain function in computers will greatly advance our efforts to map the brain’s circuits (and vice versa).

It is always difficult to predict how long a certain scientific endeavor will take. It tends to be slower at first than we hope or imagine, but then quickly becomes faster than anyone expected as technology advances. Think of the human genome project, which accelerated by orders of magnitude over the length of the project. We are now engaged in the human connectome project. As new tools come online the pace of progress will increase. It’s hard to say if progress will be as dramatic as it was with the genome project, but it might be.

84 responses so far

84 Responses to “How the Brain Chooses Where to Go”

  1. michaelegnoron 28 May 2015 at 8:31 am

    Steven;

    Good post, but I disagree with the title.

    The brain doesn’t “choose” anything. Brains are organs, and they metabolize and secrete neurotransmitters and have action potentials. They do organ things appropriate to their physiology.

    We choose. We think and plan and decide. To ascribe such mental acts to brains is to commit the merelogical fallacy–to ascribe to parts what can only meaningfully be ascribed to wholes.

    It may seem minor, and likely you just mean it as metaphor, but all sorts of confusion arises from nonsensical things like this that seriously impede meaningful interpretation of neuroscience. Much of the neurobabble that haunts neuroscience research and scientists’ public communication–that frontal lobes plan things, that hippocampi remember things, that amygdala fear things– arise from the merelogical fallacy.

    Bennett and Hacker (a neuroscientist and a philosopher) have written a lot on this. Highly recommended.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/book/10.1002/9781118394267

  2. John Danleyon 28 May 2015 at 9:01 am

    Egnor is right. I can see clearly now the brain is gone.

  3. carbonUniton 28 May 2015 at 9:39 am

    Michael;

    What title would you suggest for this article? Seems clear enough to me that firing patterns in the CA1 region have been detected which correspond to the decision of which way to go. This is, at least in part, the process of a choice being made in the brain.

  4. edamameon 28 May 2015 at 9:57 am

    I think the hippocampus is actually not all that low hanging: it is about halfway between the two easier parts of the brain to study: primary sensory areas and primary motor areas. Now those loci are where the lower hanging fruit are, because it is a lot easier to make inferences about what is going on (though nontrivial by all means).

    But the hippocampus, that is stuck in between them, with idosyncratic connectivity, and it isn’t even neocortex, so it is idiosyncratic in that sense too. Is it sensory, is it motor, is it memory, is it location? Is it everything?

    Because of this I have always found the hippocampus to be a strange land. We can still navigate pretty well without one, which suggests it is not all that important for spatial navigation. What is really obliterated with hippocampus ablation is the ability to form declarative memories (ablation causes anterograde amnesia). My hunch is that the place cells aren’t used for navigation as much as to help lay down specific memories for a place (e.g., episodic memories).

    On Egnor’s philosophical criticism: it is always fun to see philosophers take on the role of language police and act like this is actually important. This critique is properly dismantled here:
    http://www.petemandik.com/blog/2007/12/12/your-brain-is-reading-this/
    Leave it to mediocre philosophers to get hung up on the words people are using instead of more substantive issues.

  5. michaelegnoron 28 May 2015 at 10:13 am

    @edamame:

    [it is always fun to see philosophers take on the role of language police and act like this is actually important.]

    Imagine a post about quantum mechanics:

    “How the Electron Chooses Where to Go”

    Neither brains nor electrons choose anything.

    Neuroscience is full of this nonsense.

    @carbon unit:

    [What title would you suggest for this article?]

    “What happens in our brain when we choose where to go?”

  6. FiveStringon 28 May 2015 at 10:38 am

    I suspect you’re just trying to argue against reductionism, Dr. Egnor, but I think you’re confusing scales. Your “How the Electron Chooses Where to Go” would be analogous to “How the Neuron Chooses Where to Go” and I agree that both are nonsensical.

    But your “We choose” supposes Cartesian dualism when, in fact, the “We”, the “I”, that is, the mind, is simply what the brain does. So I have no problem with Dr. Novella’s title.

  7. RickKon 28 May 2015 at 10:57 am

    “I can see clearly now the brain is gone.” Nice!

    ———

    “Neither brains nor electrons choose anything.”

    As soon as we find a component of “mind” (cognitive ability, sense processing, personality, etc.) that isn’t affected by physical changes to the brain, then we can posit that “mind” is something other than entirely the result of brain activity. Not before.

  8. Bill Openthalton 28 May 2015 at 10:57 am

    michaelegnor —

    Neither brains nor electrons choose anything.

    Brains “run” processes, and these processes and/or the interactions between the processes result in activities (such as moving to a location, or speaking). The technology is not the same as a computer, but both brains and computers are information processing devices.

  9. edamameon 28 May 2015 at 11:09 am

    Folks are we really going to indulge the troll again?

  10. Pete Aon 28 May 2015 at 11:25 am

    @edamame,

    His pedantry and semantic filibustering was initially quaint, but if I ever get to the stage of actually enjoying endless repetition then I shall get a parrot. Parrots aren’t religious, thank God 🙂

  11. Banzai Otison 28 May 2015 at 12:01 pm

    @ edamame

    Exactly. He is just trying to bait Steve (and everyone else) into some sort of dualism debate. Only instead of acknowledging the points/positions he knows darn well Steve has already taken, he is simply restating his conclusions as if they were obvious facts and as if none of this has been criticized or discussed before.

    If the past couple of creationism threads are any indication, he just wants to grandstand so he can lecture everyone on how much smarter and more philosophical he is.

    protip: Galloping in on a high horse and proudly proclaiming the self-evident truth of one’s beliefs != an attempt at genuine discussion.

  12. Paulzon 28 May 2015 at 1:06 pm

    Oh stars, the Egnor cancer has metastasized. Now he’s infecting other articles’ comment sections with his nonsense.

  13. ChrisHon 28 May 2015 at 1:31 pm

    “However, the grid cells are arranged in a hexagonal grid, and they fire in sequence as rats move through their environments.”

    Now I will think of mice playing Dungeons and Dragons. 😉

  14. mumadaddon 28 May 2015 at 2:07 pm

    I dunno. I really like having Michael here. It’s instructive to hear the best possible version of the other side’s arguments, from the (you would hope) brightest and most articulate proponents. And if that turns out to be obfuscatory ducking and repetition of already countered points, that’s instructive too. Plus I imagine his residence here might drive some if his followers here too and expose them to this discussion. Which will be instructive for them too.

  15. Pete Aon 28 May 2015 at 2:21 pm

    @mumadadd,

    Yes, but: “If you integrate fantasy with reality, you do not instantiate reality. If you mix cow pie with apple pie, it does not make the cow pie taste better; it makes the apple pie worse.” — Mark Crislip.

  16. BillyJoe7on 28 May 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Michael Egnor,

    “The brain doesn’t “choose” anything”

    Actually, I agree.
    Brains just receive input, process it, and produce output.
    They don’t “choose”.

    “likely you just mean it as metaphor”

    Wow, what an insight!
    Of course it’s metaphor.
    Metaphors are not nonsense though, they’re just shorthand. Get over it.

    “We choose”

    Speaking of nonsense…
    …dualist nonsense.
    You exist only as an illusion in a brain.

  17. Nomen Nescioon 29 May 2015 at 2:47 am

    It should be obvious to Egnor that Steve writes from a materialist premise, and according to materialism the mind is what the brain does – therefore choosing (a mental process) is something that the brain does, i.e. the brain chooses.

  18. Paulzon 29 May 2015 at 3:24 am

    Serious question:
    Do grid cells repeat this hexagonal pattern in 3 dimensional fashion or is it largely 2D with some sort of qualitative difference to indicate it?

  19. Bill Openthalton 29 May 2015 at 4:29 am

    BillyJoe7 —

    You exist only as an illusion in a brain.

    Not so much an illusion as a reference to itself (a bit like this in OOP). It’s an illusion in the sense there is no object (physical or non-physical like a soul), but it is pretty real in the sense there is a process representing (or implementing) the self in the brain (even if that process is a meta-process distributed over different functional areas in the brain).

    When we say ‘The I is an illusion’, we don’t mean to say ‘You do not exist’, but I gather this is how dualists interpret it.

  20. BillyJoe7on 29 May 2015 at 6:34 am

    Bill,

    I’m pretty sure we’re in agreement here, just using different ways to express the same thing.
    That the self is an entity separate from the brain and controlling its actions and making decision is the “illusion of self”. This “illusion of self” is produced within the brain itself, and what we refer to metaphorically as “decisions” or “choices” are actually produced in other parts of the brain.

  21. Bill Openthalton 29 May 2015 at 6:45 am

    BillyJoe7 —

    That the self is an entity separate from the brain and controlling its actions and making decision is the “illusion of self”.

    We are in total agreement. I just wanted to say that in my opinion, illusion is an unfortunate choice because it makes it difficult for dualists to understand what exactly is meant: to them, illusions are not real, but the self is very real.

  22. michaelegnoron 29 May 2015 at 8:18 am

    The brain metabolizes, secretes neurotransmitters, generates action potentials–organ stuff. It does not think. That’s person stuff. It’s what we do, not our brains.

    Ironically, this materialist view derives from Cartesian dualism. Prior to Descartes, the person was understood from an Aristotelian standpoint: only a person, considered as a complete entity, thinks. A person is a composite of matter and soul, and the mind are several powers of the soul. But only the person has a mind and thinks, etc. The brain is an organ by which we think, not anything that has thoughts itself. Kidneys don’t urinate. We urinate using our kidneys.

    Descartes argued that substance dualism was a better metaphysical view. The mind was the res cogito, the body was the res extensa. Materialists follow Descartes–they have simply replaced brain with mind. But is it a dualist error to say that “the mind is what the brain does”.

    Only people think. We use our organs to help us, but we are the entity doing it. Materialist philosophy of the mind is much closer to Cartesion dualism than Aristotelian philosophy.

  23. bachfiendon 29 May 2015 at 8:44 am

    Michael,

    The kidneys produce urine. The brain produces thoughts. Neither function unless there’s the remainder of the body (mainly heart, lungs and circulation) supporting them.

    You don’t have any evidence that a ‘soul’ exists, let alone that the mind is ‘several powers of the soul’ (whatever that means).

    The mind is one of the things the brain does. No brain, no mind.

  24. mumadaddon 29 May 2015 at 8:46 am

    Michael,

    “Kidneys don’t urinate. We urinate using our kidneys.”

    “Only people think. We use our organs to help us, but we are the entity doing it.”

    In theory, your brain could continue to think even if it we removed it from your body, but your kidneys couldn’t urinate if we removed them, unless we removed a whole load of other stuff too. This is the distinction you’re missing – thought happens exclusively in the brain, therefore we can say that brains have thoughts, but we can’t say that kidneys urinate.

  25. michaelegnoron 29 May 2015 at 8:57 am

    @bach:

    [You don’t have any evidence that a ‘soul’ exists, let alone that the mind is ‘several powers of the soul’ (whatever that means]

    I mean an Aristotelian soul, not a Cartesian soul. An Aristotelian soul is the form of the body, bearing the same relation to a person that form bears to an inanimate object. It’s not spooky, it’s just a basic metaphysical principle.

    A Cartesian soul is a res cogito– a separable distinct substance that inhabits a body–a ghost in a machine.

    That is emphatically not what I mean by soul. I mean Aristotle’s soul–the intelligible principle of a person that makes the person what he is.

    I can see that you are not inclined to such distinctions, which is fine, but you really can’t coherently criticize them unless you understand them.

  26. BillyJoe7on 29 May 2015 at 8:58 am

    Bill,

    “We are in total agreement. I just wanted to say that in my opinion, illusion is an unfortunate choice because it makes it difficult for dualists to understand what exactly is meant: to them, illusions are not real, but the self is very real

    Show them this:

    http://web.mit.edu/persci/people/adelson/checkershadow_illusion.html

    And ask them this…

    Does ‘A’ look that same as ‘B’?
    Dualist: Yes.
    Therefore illusions are real.

    There’s a better example, but it escapes me for now.

  27. michaelegnoron 29 May 2015 at 8:59 am

    @mumadadd:

    [In theory, your brain could continue to think even if it we removed it from your body]

    Your brain didn’t think before you removed it, so it won’t think after you remove it.

    You think. If there still is thinking after all of your body has been removed, then you are still thinking, albeit with a profound alteration in your body, leaving you brain alone.

    Your brain can’t think. To say it can is not wrong as much as it is unintelligible.

  28. mumadaddon 29 May 2015 at 9:08 am

    Michael,

    My conscious experience and the thoughts I have are activity in my brain. Remove my brain and stick in in a vat and those thoughts can continue, with nothing of ‘me’ remaining but a brain; so ‘I’ am thinking but ‘I’ am only a brain in a VAT; a brain, thinking.

  29. mumadaddon 29 May 2015 at 9:10 am

    Don’t know why I capitalised VAT – must be too used to referring to Value Added Tax…

  30. BillyJoe7on 29 May 2015 at 9:29 am

    Michael Egnor,

    “The brain metabolizes, secretes neurotransmitters, generates action potentials…It does not think”
    The brain metabolizes, secretes neurotransmitters, generates action potentials and produces thoughts.

    “only a person, considered as a complete entity, thinks”
    My sister has only one leg and her brain produces thoughts just fine.

    “Kidneys don’t urinate”
    Kidney’s produce urine. Brains produce thoughts.

    “Only people think. We use our organs to help us, but we are the entity doing it”
    Only brains produce thoughts. The other organs help it. The soul is superfuous.

    “Materialist philosophy of the mind is much closer to Cartesion dualism”
    This is the logical fallacy known as the Argument by re-definition.

  31. chadwickjoneson 29 May 2015 at 9:57 am

    Michael,

    Perhaps you were one of the many that misunderstood the mereological fallacy, and, as it turns out, Hacker went back to try and clear up some of these misconceptions.

    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10670-013-9594-5/fulltext.html

  32. Damloweton 29 May 2015 at 11:41 am

    Someone may remember this study/finding.

    IIRC, there was a study showing that a ‘choice’ was able to be seen to be made in the brain a couple of seconds before the individual decided on that choice. Which indicates that either the brain is fore telling the future choices of the mind, or, it takes us a couple of seconds to become aware of the choice our subconscious has already made. Can someone clarify?

    Damien

  33. Pete Aon 29 May 2015 at 11:45 am

    Egnor clearly refuses to understand and/or accept the findings of modern philosophers and cognitive scientists, such as:

    The Self Illusion: Why there is no ‘you’ inside your head, by Bruce Hood.
    Free Will, by Sam Harris.
    Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind, by ‘Trick Slattery.

    I know full well that to properly understand the mind requires a solid foundation in static logic, temporal logic, and aspects of applied science that are far beyond the grasp of not just the layperson, but also the closed minds of all religious apologists.

    Applied science uses tools such as logic diagrams and timing diagrams to analyse and to properly explain how things actually work. Conversely, religionists can’t explain anything coherently because they rely on an ancient book combined with the obsolete musings of ancient, hopelessly ill-informed and misguided, philosophers; instead of relying on modern instrumentation, tools, the scientific method, and critical thinking skills.

    Buffoonery — behaviour that is ridiculous but amusing — appears to be one of Egnor’s fortes.

  34. Bill Openthalton 29 May 2015 at 11:46 am

    Damien —

    It’s the awareness that lags behind the decision.

  35. mumadaddon 29 May 2015 at 12:16 pm

    Pete A,

    “If you integrate fantasy with reality, you do not instantiate reality. If you mix cow pie with apple pie, it does not make the cow pie taste better; it makes the apple pie worse.”

    I love this quote and totally agree with it in the context in which it was meant, which was integrating ‘alternative’ medicine with modern, science/evidence based medicine. I guess I just like watching these discussions unfold, hearing these arguments from the proponents and better understanding their flaws through reading the responses here. That’s personal taste though, and I understand that others may want to keep the comments section for rational discussion only.

  36. Pete Aon 29 May 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Damien,

    Subconscious decisions are made anywhere from circa one hundred milliseconds to months (perhaps even many years) before they result in physical actions. Our brain includes synchronisation mechanisms that compensate for the differential processing delays in its various subsystems. Without this synchronisation, the resulting cognitive load of coping with everyday real-time events would render consciousness both utterly useless and intolerable to endure!

    It is only the very few people who have damage to the synchronisation area of their brain who experience the difference in the processing delays of its subsystems. Here’s an example of the differential delays of the auditory and visual subsystems “First man to hear people before they speak”:
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21929245.000-first-man-to-hear-people-before-they-speak.html

    Nearly everyone is thoroughly convinced that “me/myself/I” is our sole agent; our personal and unique “master of ceremonies”; the sole director in charge of our operations and decisions. However, this is not simply just an illusion: it is by far the most overwhelmingly powerful illusion that humans are capable of experiencing; and this tenacious belief seems to be reinforced 100% of the time that we are awake.

    This tenacious belief appears to be reinforced 100% of the time because our plethora of cognitive biases ignore/discard/filter-out each occurrence of contradictory evidence — as do religionists 🙂

    When we observe the acts performed by expert magicians, conjurers, psychic mediums, sCAM practitioners, and other illusionists, we are unable to spot the tricks they are using therefore their acts appear to be objectively very real and highly convincing. It is only when they make a mistake that the illusory nature of their act becomes apparent.

    Now, we can apply these concepts to ourself. When we are speaking to someone and we inadvertently muddle our words, we need to ask the pertinent scientific question “Who was speaking?” because it certainly wasn’t the conscious self “I” (our internal agent and master of ceremonies) who instigated/caused the mistake! Those who bother to listen to what they’re saying may spot their mistake, which post hoc becomes apparent to their conscious self, providing the self with the opportunity to interrupt and correct “the speaker” before it carries on with what it was saying.

    As an aside, psychologists are researching the tonality and structure of the inner voice that we use while we’re thinking because it will hopefully lead to much needed improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health problems.

    To everyone who’s deeply interested in learning more, I thoroughly recommend reading The Self Illusion: Why there is no ‘you’ inside your head, by Bruce Hood. The science is complex in places, but his excellent practical examples are easy to understand and relate to.

    Properly and fully understanding that the mind is only the result of the brain makes it much easier to cope with debilitating chronic illnesses, such as clinical depression[1]. Conversely, religious indoctrination and teleological-based explanations can and does result in unnecessary suicides and other avoidable direct and indirect suffering.

    1: A person who is depressed could be described as being a depressed person. Those who have clinical depression should never be described as being a depressed person because their condition is a response to an illness; their illness is not caused by their depressive thoughts. I implore everyone to stay astutely aware of the deplorable misdirections used in appeals to teleology.

  37. Pete Aon 29 May 2015 at 3:35 pm

    mumadadd,

    Sorry to nitpick your reply to me: Your “personal taste” that is evident in all of your comments on Dr Novella’s articles serves, I think, as an exemplary demonstration of the genuine rational enquiry (aka inquiry) that underpins the whole of science, skepticism, critical thinking, and our vast accumulation of modern epistemic knowledge.

  38. bachfiendon 29 May 2015 at 6:29 pm

    Michael,

    Aristotles concept of a soul, as the form of the body, doesn’t add anything to neuroscience, besides being just as unprovable as the concept of a Cartesian (which is also the Christian) soul.

    If you remove a kidney from the body and perfuse it with a heart-lung machine it would still produce urine. It doesn’t need a ‘soul’ in the remainder of the body to do its function (not ‘purpose’ note).

    I contend that if you were completely unethical and removed a brain and hooked it up to a heart-lung machine, it would continue to think. It would promptly go insane – being in a ‘locked in state’ with at least some sensory input would be nothing compared to being a completely isolated brain.

    Fortunately no one would ever perform this procedure.

    I think you’re suffering from attention deficiency. When you were writing your ‘Egnorance’ blog, you occasionally was noticed by your peers. Then in June last year, you stopped, announcing that you were going to write more for ‘Evolutionnews’ in order to fight atheism (you didn’t, not much anyway). You tried to restart your posting on ‘Egnorance’, the last one on May 10 I think, which hasn’t attracted much attention. A failure.

    I think you’re just feeling as though people regard you as unimportant and want to regain attention. By posting irrelevant and incorrect comments on other people’s blogs.

  39. mumadaddon 29 May 2015 at 6:47 pm

    Pete A,

    Thank you for the kind words. To expand the point I was trying to make a little: I think it’s important to hear the opinions and arguments that dissent from your (or our) own; give them an appropriate forum (please note that I’m not endorsing ID in science classes) and hammer them out.

    I’m often concerned that I hold a cartoonish misrepresentation in my head of people who don’t share my own perspective; that I don’t expose myself enough to, or engage with, their actual arguments other than when they’re (potentially mis-)represented by other people who share the conclusions I’ve already reached. So for me, Michael’s appearance here and willingness to engage was a great opportunity to sharpen my own perspective (despite very limited participation, I followed the both threads closely), and in fact validate my own position and its basis.

    It’s quite easy to see how ME’s pitch could sway people if left unchallenged. When you have a neurosurgeon politely and patiently explaining to you that there are very subtle philosophical concepts that you don’t understand (and would need to read a series of books to understand), which underpin science itself, and that these things that you don’t grasp render natural selection an ’empty concept’, it would be cognitively easier (for a lay-person) to walk away feeling slightly embarrassed and with a little itch of doubt about the veracity of the overwhelming consensus of expert opinion on evolution. That’s a tactic, and I wouldn’t have really understood it as such had I not seen it play out first hand here, despite having read about such tactics from a detached perspective. Nothing brings it home like direct experience.

    So I say, let’s rock. Long may Michael continue to post here, and if he can demonstrate some merit to his ideas then I for one will be ecstatic.

  40. Damloweton 29 May 2015 at 7:09 pm

    Bill O + Pete A:

    Cool. I was hoping to garner that type of confirmation to further imply there is not soul acting as ME suggests. Because (I gather with his logic) if there were to be a soul it shouldn’t be lagging anything the brain is creating, it should be the catalyst for everything the brain does.

    Pete A;

    Thanks for the reference, I will have to hunt that down and have a read. (Found it, $13 to my door 🙂 )
    Cheers.

    Damien

  41. Bill Openthalton 29 May 2015 at 7:10 pm

    michaelegnore —

    A person is a composite of matter and soul, and the mind are several powers of the soul. But only the person has a mind and thinks, etc. The brain is an organ by which we think, not anything that has thoughts itself.

    and

    I mean an Aristotelian soul, not a Cartesian soul. An Aristotelian soul is the form of the body, bearing the same relation to a person that form bears to an inanimate object. It’s not spooky, it’s just a basic metaphysical principle.

    A Cartesian soul is a res cogito– a separable distinct substance that inhabits a body–a ghost in a machine.

    That is emphatically not what I mean by soul. I mean Aristotle’s soul–the intelligible principle of a person that makes the person what he is.

    These kind of distinctions only make sense if one accepts there is a material plane (which contains everything that can be observed through the senses and their extensions) and an immaterial plane, containing Platonic Forms, which cannot be observed and are knowable only through thought.

    You can believe this, but you cannot use it to disprove the mind is the result of the activity of the brain. Anyone is free to accept or reject Plato’s theory (not in the scientific sense of the word) of Forms, and it has been a matter of discussion since it was first formulated. Your assumption of an immaterial plane is no more and no less valid than the assumption only the material plane exists. But it does limit you in your enquiries — by assuming the mind is immaterial, you cannot subject it to scientific enquiry.

    It turns out there is a lot of evidence for the ‘brain as an information processing device’ hypothesis, and even though results are not guaranteed, there is a fair chance we’ll create thinking systems with a form of self-awareness. Watch this space :).

  42. mumadaddon 29 May 2015 at 7:48 pm

    Bill O,

    (or anyone really) Can you recommend a decent, readable intro book (or any other medium) to concepts such as ‘Platonic forms’ and others related to it? I just watched a 7 minute YouTube video on this specifically, and I’m almost sure I must be missing something.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7xjoHruQfY

  43. mumadaddon 29 May 2015 at 7:58 pm

    It’s surely not just that ‘essence’ is a real thing in another dimension, right?

  44. edamameon 29 May 2015 at 8:05 pm

    Plato’s Republic is clear, amazing, highly readable for Forms and so much more. A classic everyone should read at least once…
    http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato-Second/dp/0465069347/

  45. Bill Openthalton 30 May 2015 at 8:31 pm

    mumadadd —

    It’s surely not just that ‘essence’ is a real thing in another dimension, right?

    Plato believes that yes, Forms (which is his word for essentials/essence) are more real than the world we live in, and exist in another plane that we cannot observe directly. The world we live in is a mere shadow of the real world of Forms. In other words, we cannot know reality through the senses, but only through the mind. For other philosophers, this is nonsense, and the world we observe is the only real world. Others will say this is true, but that we cannot obtain reliable knowledge of the world. And yet others will claim knowledge is relative (once upon a time, pi was exactly 3, said the historical relativist :). Michael Egnore could be a pragmatist — god exists because he (his god would be a he) is useful.

    Philosophy (should) lead(s) to humility, because it shows us how much we have to rely upon assumptions even when we think we’re working with ‘reality’. On the other hand, philosophy doesn’t prove or disprove anything for anybody but you. If your philosophical proof of god makes sense to you, that’s great, but you cannot triumphantly turn to someone else and claim you’ve proved god exists, and he has to accept this (which is something you can do with a scientific proof, if you don’t care about interpersonal relations — the other just has to do the replication).

  46. BillyJoe7on 31 May 2015 at 5:10 am

    I read edamame’s recommendation and Bill’s summary and I think “what a disconnect!”

    How can Plato’s Republic be worth reading, except perhaps to understand what everyone’s talking about. In Plato’s day, there may not have been any difference between science and philosophy but, over the last four hundred years, science has shown us that philosophy not rooted in science is a total crock.

    But, I see it’s available in kindle, so perhaps I should see for myself what the big deal is.

  47. mumadaddon 31 May 2015 at 8:47 am

    Bill,

    Thanks for the explanation. Is this still taken seriously by philosophers, or mainly just used as a crutch by theologians?

  48. Pete Aon 31 May 2015 at 10:41 am

    BillyJoe wrote: “In Plato’s day, there may not have been any difference between science and philosophy but, over the last four hundred years, science has shown us that philosophy not rooted in science is a total crock.”

    For philosophy and science to be useful to the modern world they must, firstly, abide by the same core set of rules and, secondly, each must be subjected to independent auditing — just as corporations must abide by rules/legislation and be independently audited. We all know what happens when an organisation bends the rules to suit its agenda!

    Modern epistemology sets the rules for gaining knowledge and it contains auditing tools. This means that an independent auditor can use epistemology plus science to audit philosophy; and can use epistemology plus (modern) philosophy to audit science. Independent auditors do not require a great deal of expertise in either philosophy or science, but they do need a good set of critical thinking skills because this skill set is rooted in modern epistemology.

    If, instead, modern philosophy were to be rooted in science then it would form and incestuous relationship that was not open to independent auditing, therefore, science could not be relied upon to accumulate accurate epistemic knowledge.

    Just by chance yesterday I watched part of a lecture by Daniel Dennett in which he was describing how to explain objective reality in a comprehensible manner, then later watched a documentary based on Stephen Hawking explaining our subjective impressions of reality using science (including the appeal to an infinite number of universes). I think it fair to say that laypersons who’ve watched both of these will be left hopelessly confused, and mistrusting of science and scientists. Of course, most people don’t realise that lectures provide mainly information whereas TV documentaries provide mainly entertainment.

    I particularly liked Dennett’s scientific explanation of his term “design without a designer”. The reason that scientists, but definitely not theologians and metaphysicians, can speak of many aspects of nature in terms of design is simply because we find out how they work via reverse engineering. E.g. the slippages that occur in snow and sand are not the causal outcome of a designer, but we can design experiments to study, emulate, and simulate these slippages under various tightly-controlled conditions. When we’ve gained sufficient knowledge of an aspect of nature we can, if we so wish, incorporate it into our deliberate engineering designs — e.g. gravel roads and pathways.

    Plato was totally ignorant of modern science and engineering therefore, just like religionists (both then and now), he had to rely on pulling ideas out of thin air, aka: wishful thinking; magical thinking; clutching at straws; pseudoscience.

    Using Plato’s Forms it becomes trivial to assert claims such as: A chair did not exist until the first chair was completed (thereby instantiating the first instance of the chair Form). Such claims are obviously both epistemic nonsense and antiscientific in the 21st Century. It is a silly as claiming that the Hubble Space Telescope did not exist before it started returning images to Earth after being placed into orbit.

    @mumadadd,
    Obsolete philosophy and obfuscation are the crutches used by theologians.

  49. edamameon 31 May 2015 at 10:54 am

    BillyJoe I respectfully submit you are coming at Plato from the wrong angle. His work is an amazing work of literature like The Inferno or Don Quixote or Infinite Jest. You don’t read those just to find the philosophical tidbits (of which there are plenty), but also because you have the opportunity to engage in conversation with one of the greatest geniuses in the history of our species, with literary and philosophical allusions that echo loudly today from popular writing to current literature.

    If you think you are reading Plato because you want to refute his theory of forms, then you will be very pleasantly surprised. The style, the pace, the logical give and take of the Socratic method, is something I can almost guarantee you will enjoy. It is rightly considered one of the cornerstones of the Western canon.

    If it is too much, perhaps start with The Trial. If you like the style, then you will like the Republic. Plato’s ‘The Trial’ is also amazing, and only about 20 pages.

    Note I’m not endorsing Platonism or his general philosophy, but if someone were to not read The Republic because they are not a Platonist? Ugh. That’s like not reading Don Quixote because you don’t want to fight windmills.

  50. edamameon 31 May 2015 at 11:07 am

    Pete wrote:
    Modern epistemology sets the rules for gaining knowledge and it contains auditing tools. This means that an independent auditor can … use epistemology plus (modern) philosophy to audit science.

    Scientists audit each other. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with an example of epistemologists making a substantive contribution to science using this “auditing” function in the past 50 years. Philosophers (especially epistemology) tend to be so out of touch with the methods of modern science as to be useless.

  51. Pete Aon 31 May 2015 at 2:51 pm

    Edamame wrote: “Scientists audit each other. …”

    It’s a damned good thing that financial institutions or governments aren’t appointed to be the auditors of each other. Oops, look at what happens as a result of allowing it to occur!

    Scientific peer review works only because it is fully open to, and thrives upon, independent auditing and enquiry based on modern epistemology. If it were not, then science and religion would be equally dogmatic empires vending nothing other than their competing ideologies.

    What the heck do you think skeptical enquiry is for, and is founded upon — just some kind of narcissistic bent?

    Sorry to be so blunt, but it seems to me that you do not know, or are unable to understand, the fundamental and crucially important definition of the word “knowledge” as it is used in the 21st Century. Perhaps you are just confusing modern philosophers (e.g. theologians) who use deliberately bastardized forms of epistemology, with the people who are fully qualified in both modern epistemic philosophy and science.

    I know that many people object to the following simple epistemic definition (and their reasons why), but it is more than adequate to make my point in this discussion:

    Knowledge is justified, true, belief.

    NB: The word “true” in that sentence means: an independently verifiable fact — aka empirical evidence — that has a very high probability of being correct/accurate. E.g. believing that pi=3.1415926… is an item of knowledge because it is a justified, true, belief for all practical purposes. The fact that its umpteenth digit is currently uncertain does not in any way disqualify it from being an item of knowledge.

    I don’t need to be an evolutionary biologist (or even a scientist) to independently audit the theory of evolution by natural selection. All I need is critical thinking skills founded upon modern epistemology:
    Q1. Has the collected empirical evidence been independently confirmed to be true, if so, to what degree of certainty (probability)?
    Q2. What are the justifications for believing the evidence to be true?
    Q3. What are the justifications for believing the theory to be true?
    Q4. What are the competing hypotheses and what are their plausibilities?
    Etc.

    So, yes, all those questions have been answered to a sufficient degree that we can state: Evolution by natural selection is indeed an important aspect of modern knowledge; it is also scientific knowledge.

    I shall end with an example of why modern epistemology is crucially important in the accumulation of human knowledge…

    If a child asks me “What is the value of pi?” and I respond “Approximately 3.1415926”, have I imparted knowledge to the child? Absolutely not! I have relayed a fact, and perhaps instilled a belief in that fact. If someone then asks that child “What is the value of pi?” the child is able to repeat the value I told them. However, if someone asks the child to justify their belief, i.e., to properly explain how they know their belief to be true, the child can provide only the answer “Well, Pete told me. He seems to know what he’s talking about when it comes to maths and science.” That isn’t knowledge, it’s only the child’s opinion that just happens to be factually correct.

    Had I instead answered the child with “According to the Holy Bible the value of pi is 3.” then we have a different outcome. The child would be believing an erroneous value to be the true value, but his/her justification for holding that belief would appear to much stronger: it would now be an appeal to the authority of the Bible rather than an appeal to the authority of some anonymous (therefore unauditable and unaccountable) guy named Pete.

    Sceptics can, and frequently do, bring about worthwhile changes in modern knowledge by using epistemology to challenge both science and religion.

  52. edamameon 31 May 2015 at 6:24 pm

    Pete got an example from the last 50 years of epistemology helping move science forward?

  53. Bill Openthalton 31 May 2015 at 6:47 pm

    mumadadd —

    Is this still taken seriously by philosophers, or mainly just used as a crutch by theologians?

    Plato’s pupil Aristotle did not agree with his idea of Forms being located in their own world :). Seriously though, platonism as the belief there are abstract objects that have no existence in the material plane (or space-time if you wish) and neither are mere constructions of the mind (e.g. numbers) has supporters like Gödel. Of course, they don’t believe in a parallel, Platonic world of Forms, but (and that’s quite reasonable) that things like numbers are not just a construction of the human mind even though they are not material. Thinking about numbers is a lot of fun.

    Ideologues will bend any knowledge to suit their beliefs (I know, having been first a member of Opus Dei and then a rather strident marxist in my misspent youth), and philosophy is not an exception. Michael Egnore’s use of philosophical terms to dismiss scientific knowledge is typical for people with strong religious beliefs, but wholly without foundation.

  54. edamameon 31 May 2015 at 8:42 pm

    Note I wrote ‘The Trial’ by Plato above, but meant ‘The Apology.’

  55. Pete Aon 01 Jun 2015 at 6:33 am

    Edamame— That’s like asking me: Got an example from the last 50 years of mathematics helping move science forward? 🙂

    Mathematics isn’t science, but it’s founded upon the same epistemic pillars as science otherwise it would be useless to science and vice versa.

    Sam Harris uses sound epistemic reasoning in his writing and debating, as do Peter Boghossian and ‘Trick Slattery.

    Bill’s paragraph above starting “Ideologues will bend any knowledge to suit their beliefs…” sum’s up what I’ve been trying to describe.

    See also:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_wars
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_science

  56. BillyJoe7on 01 Jun 2015 at 8:06 am

    edamame: “The Apology”

    It’s online here with a big introduction:

    https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/plato/p71ap/introduction.html

  57. edamameon 01 Jun 2015 at 9:59 am

    Pete you said: That’s like asking me: Got an example from the last 50 years of mathematics helping move science forward?

    Well, not really. It’s easy to find mathematics helping science. Information theory, signal detection theory, and nonlinear differential equations have all been uncontroversially useful to many scientists. Not so easy to find examples of philosophy serving as an independent auditor of science, at least not recently.

    Perhaps you just mean that every scientist implicitly has some kind of philosophical framework guiding their work. That may be the case.

  58. edamameon 01 Jun 2015 at 10:01 am

    Thanks BillyJoe that is a cool site!

  59. Pete Aon 01 Jun 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Edamame,

    You wrote: “Perhaps you just mean that every scientist implicitly has some kind of philosophical framework guiding their work. That may be the case.”

    Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been attempting to explain. Modern mathematics, science, knowledge, critical thinking skills, and scepticism (aka skepticism) are all founded upon the same modern epistemic pillars.

    Actually, I find it extremely sad that so many modern scientists were/are not taught these explicit epistemic pillars. Far too many PhD courses fail to teach the “Ph” aspect of the specialised courses — i.e., the essential explicit epistemology that lends robust credibility to the subjects being studied.

    Religion, theology, alternative medicine, magical thinking, wishful thinking, pseudoscience, and antiscience [apologies for the multiple repetition] are all founded upon what I refer to as the long-outdated/obsolete ramblings of metaphysicians (philosophers).

    ‘Creationist science’/ID is a covert misdirection: it claims to be modern science by using endless appeals to antiquity (appeals to obsolete philosophy) — special pleading. Furthermore, it uses obsolete epistemology (the theory of knowledge) to relentlessly attack the epistemic pillars of modern knowledge and critical thinking, especially the aspects of science with which it vehemently disagrees: such as the theory of evolution by natural selection. It can no longer sweep under the carpet the ever increasing volumes of verified empirical evidence (facts) supporting evolution; it is left with the choice of admitting that it was wrong or relentlessly attacking the epistemic pillars of modern knowledge. It chooses the latter option.

    Skeptics and scientists who do not understand this repeatedly fall into the simple traps (set by their opponents) that keep them focussed on the tenets of the ‘magical thinkers’ rather than focussing on their insidious motives and agendas.

    I spent most of my career working in specialist branches of applied science that relied heavily on branches of mathematics and theoretical science. Fortunately, I was taught at a very early age the fundamental epistemic principles that underpin modern science, technology, enquiry, and human knowledge. Unfortunately, I’ve never managed to learn how to write in a succinct and coherent manner!

    Many thanks for your replies.

  60. brainzon 01 Jun 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Grid cells get their name because they respond when an animal moves into one of multiple regions in its environment that are arranged in a grid, not because the cells’ locations in the brain form a grid.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grid_cell

  61. Bill Openthalton 01 Jun 2015 at 7:14 pm

    Pete A —

    Skeptics and scientists who do not understand this repeatedly fall into the simple traps (set by their opponents) that keep them focussed on the tenets of the ‘magical thinkers’ rather than focussing on their insidious motives and agendas.

    I think ideologically motivated people are totally honest — they really believe in their god or their worldview, and they really think science is wrong, there is a class struggle, etc.. And, like many a skeptic who cannot believe someone can really fall for an outlandish conspiracy theory, they cannot believe someone could honestly deny the evidence that to them is utterly compelling.

    The crux of the matter is that humans are fully capable of believing the unbelievable when it defines a worldview. These core beliefs are shielded from critical analysis, and people who challenge them (because as non-believers they notice how silly these beliefs are) are immediately classified as out-group (and hence probably evil). In a sense, core beliefs have to be unbelievable to serve as differentiators: reasonable ideas anyone would accept cannot be used to separate in-group from out-group.

  62. ccbowerson 01 Jun 2015 at 10:11 pm

    Bill- I disagree that ideologically motivated people are totally honest, although I think I understand your point. The ideologically motivated are usually intellectually dishonest, almost by definition, when their ideologies are challenged by evidence. I agree that does not mean that they are doing so with sinister motives, but let’s not confuse that with total honesty. Not all ideologies are the same in this regard, although they all will motivate reasoning to different degrees.

  63. mumadaddon 02 Jun 2015 at 4:17 am

    Often, in defence of non evidence-based beliefs, the arguments presented are not what led that person to their own belief. In the case of religion and god, this is usually straight-forward indoctrination combined with a hotchpotch of cognitive biases. People then go out and look for arguments that they think should convince others, and also serve ease some of the cognitive strain of having obvious holes in their core beliefs pointed out to them. They often end up with sophisticated philosophical nonsense which is often too complicated or obscure for even the proponent to understand themselves. So they may be conning themselves as much as trying to deceive others, but clearly some intellectual dishonesty inherent in the backwards approach of starting with a conclusion and seeking to justify it.

  64. Bill Openthalton 02 Jun 2015 at 7:11 am

    ccbowers —

    The ideologically motivated are usually intellectually dishonest, almost by definition, when their ideologies are challenged by evidence.

    In my opinion Michael Egnore is totally honest, in the sense he really believes he has found fault with evolution. Of course he knows he’s not part of the consensus, but his reasoning is not “I know evolution really happened, but for my own motives I will pretend it didn’t and find highfaluting philosophical arguments to bamboozle the hoi poloi” (you’re welcome to set me straight, Michael ;)).

    Of course, if you define “intellectually dishonest” as “not accepting scientific evidence”, you would be correct, but the essence of Michael’s belief is that philosophy can be used to invalidate science. There is no way you can force him to see things your way, like there is no way he can “prove” he is right. Doubting the sincerity of the opposition is widespread — I know from my ideological days I did ascribe malice to those holding different belief. This morphed into labeling them “stupid”, and ultimately I realised core beliefs determine how humans see the world. It’s the same world, but the angle of vision is different.

  65. Pete Aon 02 Jun 2015 at 8:12 am

    Laypersons who are ideologically motivated are, in the main, totally honest. E.g. those who’ve recovered from an illness after using homeopathy are being honest when they claim: “Homeopathy cured me therefore it works”. They become ‘true believers’ because they are unaware of the logical and medical mistakes they made in reaching their conclusion. Similarly with other belief systems.

    The people who continue to scientifically research the mechanisms of homeopathy are dishonest because of the huge mountain of robust empirical evidence that clearly demonstrates homeopathy is not efficacious for any known illness. The people in charge of the homeopathic associations and societies are fully aware that homeopathy does not work, but they pretend that it does and they provide funding to researchers and other experts who will cast doubts on (i.e., attack) science and the scientific method. They claim that homeopathy does work; the scientific method is wrong because it is unable to show that homeopathy works.

    The alt-med empire and the creationism/ID empire copy each other. Why? Because they can get away with it and because it attracts new clients. Alt-med and religion have identical business models: businesses that make vast sums of money despite having no actual product. Those at the top levels of these empires know exactly what they are doing: they are marketing experts; not laypersons who can be excused for being misled by the wilful obscurantism used in the sales literature.

    I hope my comments have made it obvious why the marketing experts try very hard to keep sceptics busy on endless rounds of non-winnable arguments over the tenets; and away from discussing the marketing techniques used to sell a non-existent product, the profits and other financial details of the business empire, its business ethics, and its meddling in politics.

    All good marketing departments use the services of expert psychologists. For readers who are interested in acquiring some detection skills and defence mechanisms, I thoroughly recommend the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Cialdini

  66. Bill Openthalton 02 Jun 2015 at 7:13 pm

    Pete A —

    So you think the Pope knows full well catholicism is a crock, god doesn’t exist and Jesus is a myth, but he keeps up pretences to keep the money flowing. The socialist politicians standing on stage singing the International know their lofty ideals of solidarity between the workers are codswallop but they sing to motivate the party members.

    Personally, I find that hard to believe, because these people would have to be incredible actors to continue to convince the faithful — it’s a lot easier to be really convinced than conning everyone all the time. And how to be sure someone’s in the know so you can let down your guard? I do agree that some people are indeed knowingly dishonest, Bernie Madoff for example. But in my opinion, the overwhelming majority are true believers (cf. Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate).

    It’s actually quite easy to discover the vestiges of religious belief in oneself. If you’re born in a country with a christianity-based culture, the idea of a virgin impregnated by (a) god giving birth to the son of that god in a claimed monotheistic religion is, well, rather acceptable a thought. Outside of a christian culture, it’s ridiculous. Children grow up absorbing the basic tenets of the culture and these become totally self-evident, no matter how ridiculous they are to outsiders.

  67. ccbowerson 02 Jun 2015 at 10:51 pm

    Bill – yours is a very narrow definition of dishonest. Intellectual honesty is a defined term which is has many more requirements than your definition. Any way you slice it, a person who is using ideology to determine their beliefs on a topic that is not an ideological question is not intellectually honest. It’s nearly the definition of intellectual dishonesty. I won’t post a wikipedia article link, but take a look.

    I agree that it isn’t helpful to accuse people of being intellectually dishonest, but it is helpful to point out where they are not being fair or reasonable. At least others may recognize the flaws if pointed out.

  68. Pete Aon 03 Jun 2015 at 5:26 am

    Bill— If you are unaware of the utterly disgraceful things that have been said and done by recent popes and homeopaths then you’ve been burying your head in the sand. HIV/AIDS and Ebola are perhaps the most well known controversies. Advocating deadly actions based on a belief goes far beyond the bounds of questionable dishonesty!

    The word “despotic” seems appropriate considering its antonyms are: democratic, accountable.

    You seem to be focussed on the belief in the tenets rather than on the resulting behaviours and actions. We all have the human right to believe whatever we want; no person and no organisation has the right to do whatever they want based on their beliefs.

    There’s a vast difference between just calling someone dishonest and pointing out their intellectual dishonesty. Far too many people are under the false impression that having their beliefs challenged is a personal attack or an attack on their organisation and fellow members — yet they see no problem with their relentless attacks on scientists and science because scientific discoveries have disproved one or more of their tenets.

    Continuing to hold a belief, despite having been present with an overwhelming volume of evidence and reason to the contrary, is being dogmatic and intellectually dishonest; or it’s delusion, which is a sign of mental illness. Attacking the messenger(s) and the whole of science is being despotic.

  69. Bill Openthalton 03 Jun 2015 at 9:13 am

    ccbowers —

    Intellectual honesty is a defined term which is has many more requirements than your definition.

    The definition requires an agreement on such things as personal belief, relevant facts, etc. It’s rather easy to determine intellectual honesty in the frame of science, but it’s not as easy to conclude that anyone who doesn’t have a naturalistic worldview is intellectually dishonest. Like Santayana, I believe science has been so successful we should use a scientific approach to philosophy, but this is not a view one can enforce on others.

    For me, there is nothing intellectually dishonest about not espousing a naturalist worldview. It’s simply not my cuppa.

    Any way you slice it, a person who is using ideology to determine their beliefs on a topic that is not an ideological question is not intellectually honest.

    How do you determine if something is an ideological question? More importantly, how do you get people with different views to agree on what is, and what is not, the purview of ideology? What we do know is that science is by definition naturalistic, so considerations that cannot be proved scientifically have no place in science — that’s why I have kept asking Michael Egnore to do the science to prove ID, instead of using his brand of philosophy (which anyone is free to accept or reject).

    I agree that it isn’t helpful to accuse people of being intellectually dishonest, but it is helpful to point out where they are not being fair or reasonable. At least others may recognize the flaws if pointed out.

    “Fair” and “reasonable” are words one should use with extreme care. Your idea of what is fair might not correspond with someone else’s idea of fair, and more often than not we perceive things as fair when we get what we want. Only when all parties willingly agree something is fair can we conclude it is indeed fair (even if not involved parties don’t consider it fair). Similarly, what is reasonable for one person is unreasonable for another. There is no independent, objective way to measure fairness and reasonability.

  70. Bill Openthalton 03 Jun 2015 at 6:20 pm

    Pete A —

    I am not a catholic, and I don’t agree with the catholic approach to sex, but neither do I perceive sex as just another harmless pleasurable activity like, eh, bowling. But that’s another debate.

    The least one can say is that the stance of the catholic church with regard to the use of condoms is not reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS. We observe people will have sex whatever their religion’s teachings (or other rational considerations, hence my opening remark) about the activity. The moral position of the catholic church is that people should only have sex within marriage (and that marriage is for keeps), and not endorsing condoms follows from this position. Whether it is unconscionable for people (or a moral authority) to have moral rules not reflecting actual human behaviour could be a matter for debate, but is it usually assumed morality deals with how people should behave, in the assumption they do not always do so…

    As far as homeopaths suggesting the use of homeopathy to cure Ebola, this makes sense when you assume they really believe homeopathy works. Of course, homeopathy does not work for all the reasons we know, but the problem is these people do not see it our (scientific) way, like Dean Radin who really believes in the paranormal even though science is not on his side. You assume these people know their stuff doesn’t work, and hence knowingly choose to let people die to promote their belief, but I think they don’t for a moment doubt the efficacy of homeopathy. Granted there are a number of people in the homeopathy business who actually know it is a scam, and prefer to keep mum not to endanger their livelihood — but these are criminals, which one finds in all walks of life.

    You seem to be focussed on the belief in the tenets rather than on the resulting behaviours and actions. We all have the human right to believe whatever we want; no person and no organisation has the right to do whatever they want based on their beliefs.

    The honest believers don’t do whatever they want — they do what they think is the moral thing to do based on their flawed knowledge and their conveniently filtered perception of reality. The homeopathic practitioners really want to help their patients, and they really believe homeopathy is the way to do it.
    Just as you believe they are being dogmatic and intellectually dishonest, they feel about us — after all, their confirmation bias provides them with proof after proof of the efficacy of homeopathy.

    The HiFi crowd (the people who spend a month’s wages on silver cables and rave about tube amps, record players weighing 100kg etc.) think double blind listening tests are useless because these tests show they cannot distinguish between 2.5mm light cord and their fancy cables. There is just no way you can convince a true HiFi fanatic that the ‘added poise and dynamic differentiation in the bass register, with a much better insight in the psyche of the performer through a subtle improvement of the balance between voice and guitar‘ of their latest moving coil cartridge is pure, unadulterated confirmation bias. You can give them all the science you want, they simply turn away and maintain their ears are far more sensitive than the best measuring equipment, because damn it, they hear the difference. Try and prove that wrong :).

    Continuing to hold a belief, despite having been present with an overwhelming volume of evidence and reason to the contrary, is being dogmatic and intellectually dishonest; or it’s delusion, which is a sign of mental illness. Attacking the messenger(s) and the whole of science is being despotic.

    But don’t you SEE — the evidence is not compelling, and the reasoning is flawed. It convinces you, but it does not convince them because it does not confirm what they know to be true. The belief has been etched in their subconscious and no amount of scientific evidence presented to their rational mind can trump it. Their convictions are as strong as yours, just different (and wrong, scientifically speaking, but who agreed science was the ultimate yardstick?)

  71. bachfiendon 03 Jun 2015 at 6:52 pm

    Regarding the confirmation bias displayed by the HiFi crowd… I bought a DAC (digital analogue converter) for around $600, with the promise that it was magically going to improve the sound coming from CDs, with the sterile digital data being converted to the richer analogue signals.

    I compared it with unconverted CDs. Couldn’t tell the slightest difference. It’s difficult to distinguish an improvement of ‘excellent’. But it was the best $600 I spent. I use it entirely to play (and recharge) an iPad through decent amplifiers and speakers, either Internet radio or the downloaded music on the iPad. And it’s excellent.

    There’s the famous quote about motivated reasoning by the novelist Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton ‘it was a dark and stormy night’. No, wait, that’s the wrong quote, it’s ‘the easiest person to deceive is one’s own self’.

    The Pope and homeopaths probably believe genuinely whatever nonsense they accept as true. And the same applies to probably everyone about something we’ve hadn’t had the time to examine (or are unwilling to do so, because it will destroy our illusions).

  72. Pete Aon 04 Jun 2015 at 11:48 am

    Bill,

    I always enjoy reading your comments and I think this thread is the first time we’ve been unable to agree on an issue. Your last reply makes perfect sense to me, up to a point. I have no wish to list actual cases of organisations using not their belief system, but deliberate deceit — these have been thoroughly documented elsewhere. Instead, I’ll use a fictitious analogy.

    Suppose I create an organisation for people who hear voices in their head. To the members, their voices are real. Telling them that their voices are an illusion/delusion is not going to convince them, neither is it going to help them. If I encourage the members to act out what their voices are telling them, would this be acceptable, or should my organisation be held to account for endangering the public? Personally, I think it would be a dangerous thing to do, but, had a voice told me to do it then I would totally believe it to be the right and proper thing to do. My organisation must not be held to account for its beliefs, but for its behaviours and actions.

    A similar argument applies to compulsory vaccinations: we’ve seen the unnecessary suffering and death caused by clusters of people who base their refusal to vaccinate their children on the propaganda spread by the alt-med empire. Who is accountable for this problem; the parents who refuse to vaccinate, or the alt-med empire for continuing to promote its false beliefs [rhetorical question].

    Under most jurisdictions, a registered organisation is itself a stand-alone entity with rights, responsibilities, and accountability; rather than just being a collective name/label used to refer to its members. E.g. if organisation X has done something wrong then a complaint is filed against X, not against one or more of the members of X. This is to avoid the pitfalls inherent in your type of argument: well, the members were all acting in good faith therefore none of them are culpable. If you place a telephone order to purchase a product, and it doesn’t arrive, you complaint is to the company; not to the individual company member who took your order, nor to the person(s) in charge of the company. Registered religions and charities are not exempt from this rule.

    I’m glad you commented on the ‘Hi-Fi crowd’. I remember when the consumer audio industry first realized that profits could be ramped up by conning people into buying high-end cables. That was a superb demonstration of using psychology to maximally exploit superficial knowledge, cognitive biases, and an absence of critical thinking skills. That cable trick is still working decades later 🙂 My favourite examples are:

    1. Tube amps and vinyl records — many of the recordings were made in analogue recording studios in which the total signal path amounted to a mile or more of standard-grade interconnections. It is both technically and logically infeasible that a few feet of high-end cabling is required in the listening room in order to extract the full detail available in those recordings.

    2. Optical cables (and other digital interconnects) — cheap cable A and expensive cable B both result in zero transmission errors therefore they cannot possibly sound any different! It has always amused me that the magazines promoting expensive cables fail to conduct this simple measurement during their product reviews and ‘laboratory tests’.

    Most people don’t understand analog and digital transmission systems so they’re very easy to fool by using the marketing strategies specifically designed to target them. Likewise, most people are easy pickings for the marketing strategists of the religious and the alt-med empires. Buyer beware!

    The level of wrongness committed by selling someone an expensive cable that they don’t need pales into insignificance when compared to the level of wrongness committed by vendors of snake oil who ‘promise’ to prevent and cure diseases, and vendors of religion who ‘promise’ that you must follow their religion to avoid spending an eternity in Hell, which is far more frightening than a death threat. I find it very odd that issuing a death threat to someone is a criminal offence yet issuing a far worse death threat in the name of religion is deemed to be perfectly acceptable. Those who deem such behaviour to be fair and reasonable are being guided by hopelessly miscalibrated moral compass.

  73. Bill Openthalton 04 Jun 2015 at 7:00 pm

    Pete A —

    We don’t need to agree on everything — hell,it would be scary if we did :).

    Suppose I create an organisation for people who hear voices in their head.

    So you also hear voices? Usually, people who found organisations (or religions) do so because they experience something. Take Muhammad, who heard voices himself (or so it is said — we don’t know if he even existed). Or Saul, who had an epileptic episode which lead him to found (or muscle in on) a sect. Of course, you have L Ron Hubbard, for whom we have evidence he started scientology to make money off the gullible, but it would seem after a while he started to believe his own crapola. Originators can be unscrupulous manipulators or genuinely delusional (it could be difficult to convince enough people if you’re not believing your own nonsense — humans are quite good at diagnosing dishonesty, but some humans are exquisite actors.)

    Be that as it may, if one successfully kicks of a trend lasting centuries, it is likely subsequent leaders are drawn from the followers, or from people who have been educated in the faith, and hence have been programmed (not brain-washed, because there wasn’t any prior information to remove) to consider the foundational principles as totally and unquestionably evident. Muhammad and his cronies might have been just successful bandits (the stories of the genesis of islam point in that direction), but once there were a couple of generations distance between the founding events and the sect/religion/movement, the founding history got sanitised and became a hagiography. The core (a bunch of highway robbers make it big and overrun neighbouring countries) remains, but the protagonists acquire supernatural attributes in line with existing myths and stories. You see the same pattern with the mormons, scientologists etc.

    The crux of the matter is that once children are born and grow up with in community, they accept the foundational beliefs, no matter how arcane or silly, as self-evident: these beliefs determine how reality is perceived, and the children acquire these beliefs naturally. If the organisation/religion has moral principles that favour effective cooperation and growth (e.g. co-opting existing rituals and accepting conquered populations in the fold, or being so ruthless conquered populations adopt the religion of their conquerors, and/or superior hygienic rituals), its myths and morals become the bedrock of a thriving and long-living society.

    The new leaders are drawn from the faithful, and hence have the core beliefs of their religion/society. Contrary to the founder(s), who were either dishonest or delusional, or both, these are normal people (if probably at the gullible side of the spectrum), for whom blatant nonsense like a virgin birth, gold tablets from the archangel Moroni, or personal instructions from god allowing the prophet to sleep with whomever he pleases, is utterly normal and evident. I simply do not believe one can have a stable society when the leaders know everything is a scam, generation after generation. This sounds too much like “we’re ruled by reptilian overlords”-type theories. In fact, if the ruling caste were effectively a different species, such a theory would be plausible; one only has to look at the South-African apartheid regime for a real-life example.

    So my contention is that with the exception of the founders and their immediate successors, the leaders of a successful society/religion are honestly convinced of the truth of their beliefs. Again this doesn’t mean all leaders, because there will be criminals exploiting the system, or leaders “losing their faith” (through reading this blog :)) who maintain their position because their livelihood depends on it, etc. When I lost my faith, I quit, but then I was young and my livelihood did not depend on staying. Also, in my opinion people like L Ron get caught up in the success of their scam and end up believing in it. Humans tend to adopt the beliefs of the group they live in, even if it’s a ridiculous belief they started themselves.

  74. ccbowerson 04 Jun 2015 at 8:38 pm

    Bill you are just making excuses, and your perspective on intellectual honesty is untenable (in fact the concept of dishonesty almost disappears). Intellectual (dis)honesty is mostly determined by behavior, and it does not matter the source of ideology. If a person makes a particular argument, and then ignores evidence to the contrary, then shifts to different arguments and when those arguments are shown to be unsupported shifts again… those are intellectual dishonest behaviors.

    It doesn’t matter that the original ideology is truly held. The fact that they are truly and strongly held is usually the reason that they are ideologically motivated. That doesn’t make them intellectually honest… it leads to protective tactics that are intellectually dishonest. People can disagree on many many topics. It’s just that there are intellectual honest and dishonest ways of doing so. And largely honest people can be intellectually dishonest about certain topics. Perhaps that is where you are resisting the idea.

    Your follow up questions about what are ideological topics are reasonable questions, but that doesn’t impact the greater topic. You are promoting a completely relativistic view, which is not convincing at all. To somewhat answer your question, I would say that ideological topics are those in which there tends to be people (usually subgroups of the population) who are biased on a topic in a particular direction without regards to evidence. Sometimes these topics are not about evidence, but sometimes they are highly subject to evidence, and that is where things go awry, and intellectual dishonesty kicks in.

  75. Bill Openthalton 05 Jun 2015 at 4:24 am

    ccbowers —

    If a person makes a particular argument, and then ignores evidence to the contrary, then shifts to different arguments and when those arguments are shown to be unsupported shifts again… those are intellectual dishonest behaviors.

    The problem is with what either party perceives to be “evidence”. The evidence of a committed catholic for the existence of god is not evidence to me. And he doesn’t agree with me there is a sinular lack of evidence for the existence of his god. Neither of us is intellectually dishonest — or by your definition, both of us are.

    When there’s no difference in the perception of evidence, or what constitutes moral behaviour, it is possible to determine who is honest and who is dishonest. There is large agreement in society on what constitute proper business practices, and by that standard, Blatter and his cronies have been dishonest. But mind you, not so long ago business “gifts” were not frowned upon (cf. Mad Men), and people using these practices were not considered dishonest. There is no absolute morality, simply morality better able to sustain a society at a moment in time (or if you wish we can use Sam Harris’s approach of ranking moral systems based on how they maximise well-being).

    Sometimes these topics are not about evidence, but sometimes they are highly subject to evidence, and that is where things go awry, and intellectual dishonesty kicks in.

    Certain things are purely personal (de gustibus etc.), but we keep coming back to what constitutes evidence. A naturalistic worldview and only accepting evidence that can be scientifically (to use a shorthand) verified is a parsimonious attitude, but we have to ask whether we can we force this approach onto others — we have to choose our axioms, and what is evident to one isn’t necessarily evident to another.

  76. ccbowerson 06 Jun 2015 at 10:21 pm

    “Neither of us is intellectually dishonest — or by your definition, both of us are.”

    I’m curious how you got to that conclusion. I did not say that there must be dishonesty, but your arguments excuse away nearly all intellectual dishonesty as mere differences of opinion. The conclusions people draw in regards to evidence is not completely arbitrary like the ‘best’ ice cream flavor or beer style. Not every perspective is on equal footing with respect to the evidence, and we are not just talking about differing yet honest evaluations of existing evidence. This can and does happen, but during argument it is often revealed who is being intellectually honest…it could be only one side, both, or neither.

    You also seem to be assuming that people form ideological opinions by reviewing the evidence and coming to a different conclusions. Yet this is not the typical way people form such ideological skewed opinions. They generally start with their ideological biases, and then distort the evidence to fit their biases. To the extent they distort the evidence is not being intellectually honest. Only when repeated and overwhelming evidence contradicts their opinion overtime are they sometimes able to change their minds. From what I understand from your view only allows room for intellectual dishonesty when a person displays near psychopathic level of indifference.

    I’m thinking of an analogy in criminal law of ‘mens rea’… you seem to think that intellectual dishonesty requires a strong intention (done ‘purposefully’) to mislead, but there are other levels of behavior that are also dishonest like ‘recklessness’ with facts and evidence, or perhaps a ‘negligence’ standard.

  77. ccbowerson 06 Jun 2015 at 10:28 pm

    I meant “From what I understand from your view only allows room for intellectual dishonesty when a person displays near psychopathic level of ‘intention.’ “

  78. Bill Openthalton 07 Jun 2015 at 10:43 am

    ccbowers —

    Let’s try again. I consider a committed catholic to be intellectually honest, even through there is no scientific evidence for the existence of his god. I expect him to consider me intellectually honest even though I do not accept his evidence for the existence of his god. It is obvious from the interventions of Michael Egnore he does not accept evolution (what he calls Darwinism), and he has philosophical evidence for this. I consider him to be intellectually honest, even though my take on his philosophy is that he doesn’t know his philosophical ass from his philosophical elbow. Philosophy being what it is, he probably thinks the same about me.

    There is overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution — it is a scientific fact. Science (through its offshoot, technology) is hugely successful, but this does not mean people have to adopt a science-based worldview. People who believe in an interventionist god are not intellectually dishonest, in my opinion at least.

    I grant you we (those with a science-based worldview) can consider those with a different (incompatible) worldview to be intellectually dishonest, because they ignore the evidence, but within their worldview, they don’t. The choice of worldview precedes the establishment of the rules that govern intellectual pursuits. A catholic who wants scientific proof of god is intellectually dishonest. A skeptic who ignores scientific proof is intellectually dishonest.

    You also seem to be assuming that people form ideological opinions by reviewing the evidence and coming to a different conclusions.

    A large majority of people acquire an ideology from the group they are born in, find themselves in, or elect to join. The essence of an ideology is that its core beliefs are irrational and unprovable. You cannot prove Jesus was born from a virgin and half of his DNA was divine, and to a scientific mind, the idea is wholly absurd. You cannot prove Muhammad met with an archangel who dictated the koran. You cannot prove Joseph Smith did not get golden tablets from Moroni. There is no evidence for the class struggle marxists believe in, etc. None of these claimed happenings are even remotely probable (to a scientifically minded person), but accepted without a second thought by people wha adhere to the ideologies concerned. It’s my personal idea these foundational beliefs have to be unprovable and irrational to serve as such.

    You keep using evidence as if it is something absolute, but what is evidence to one person is a hallucination to another. For the muslim, the koran is evidence — you cannot read it and deny it is the word of god. For an atheist, the koran is self-serving drivel. Scientific evidence has the nasty habit of being difficult to deny (especially the kind of evidence that falls on your toes, or zaps you, etc), but you can see from Egnore’s interventions that less obvious scientific evidence is still challenged (and he’s relatively sophisticated in his use of philosophy, which most scientists hold in high esteem). The ‘were you there’ challenge isn’t sophisticated, but enough for people whose ideology is opposed to evolution. Obviously, no-one is going to deny gravity, because it has this ‘it hurts to ignore it’ quality evolution lacks.

    So, if we all were to accept scientific evidence (which as one of its principles has that it can, and should be challenged) — you see the problem, don’t you?

    If we accept people are entitled to hold different worldviews, we cannot call those holding a different worldview intellectually dishonest merely for holding it.

  79. Pete Aon 07 Jun 2015 at 1:08 pm

    Bill— I get the strong impression that your definition of being “intellectually honest” includes those who insist on shifting the burden of proof onto those who cannot possibly disprove the claims being made, because belief-based claims (and other personal opinions) are, by definition, unfalsifiable using empirical evidence combined with reason.

    Your comments have clearly highlighted why religion and science are fundamentally incompatible, and always will be.

    Suppose I’m a maths teacher who insists on teaching my students that pi=3 because the Bible says it is; there must be a suitable word or phrase to adequately point out my error and the damage that it causes. What would you suggest? I suggest that the following would be highly apt: nincompoop; intellectually dishonest; a person who’s committing a sackable offence; religious zealot.

    Holding a personal worldview based on an untestable belief system is a human right. Espousing that belief system is: Pretending to know things that you don’t know; it is blatant dishonesty. Forcing (or attempting to force) that belief onto others is blatant indoctrination and a strong indicator of the belief system being a totalitarian system devised for the purposes of gaining power, control, and wealth. The acid test is whether the system is fully open to critique and updates itself in the light of new evidence (e.g. science) or it relies heavily on dogma (e.g. religion and alt-med).

  80. BillyJoe7on 07 Jun 2015 at 5:29 pm

    Sorry, this is probably just a personal beef (and only tangentially relevant) but…

    Do you think it is intellectually dishonest to ban someone from your blog but also post and criticise the comment that got them banned and open it up for everyone else to criticise as well. Is it intellectually dishonest to deny the right of reply to someone who you’ve criticised. My opinion is that it is and, ironically, I seem to have been banned from that blog for saying so.

    Note: what I actually said was: “it’s a bit unfair” to deny that person the right of reply. That comment was not posted and several subsequent posts have bounced as well. And, just ot be clear, it is a reasonably popular sceptical science blog.

    Sorry, please carry on, I just had to get this off my shoulder, I used to admire the guy.

  81. Bill Openthalton 07 Jun 2015 at 5:30 pm

    Pete A —

    How can we make sure everybody accepts ’empirical evidence combined with reason’ as the basis of knowledge? Even this apparently simple sentence has its difficulties — does it mean reason based only on verifiable observations, or can reason stand by itself? If the latter, you open the door for those who feel reason tells them their god exists. We haven’t gotten very far in convincing the religious and other ideological folk of the virtues of empiricism and science (apart from using technology :)), but we have managed to convince them to be (mostly) tolerant of other belief systems, and religion has in many Western nations become a personal matter only. But it has come at some cost, like weakening social bonds (you don’t shove religion in the personal corner without reducing its ability to build communities).

    Remains that ideology is great at motivating people. Whether socialism or islam, people are prepared to lay down their lives for their ideology. something I don’t see any metaphysical naturalist doing (but please prove me wrong :)).

    Holding a personal worldview based on an untestable belief system is a human right. Espousing that belief system is: Pretending to know things that you don’t know; it is blatant dishonesty.

    Here’s the rub: you would like believers to accept their view is arbitrary and untestable. For them, it is neither. You would like believers to accept the superiority of metaphysical naturalism. For them, it is poor and limited. It is not because you don’t like someone’s beliefs you can call them intellectually dishonest, because that would be akin to forcing them to accept your worldview. We don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.

  82. Bill Openthalton 07 Jun 2015 at 5:43 pm

    BillyJoe7 —

    You have my sympathy.

  83. Pete Aon 08 Jun 2015 at 11:53 am

    Bill—

    “How can we make sure everybody accepts ’empirical evidence combined with reason’ as the basis of knowledge?” That’s easy: deny them access to modern technology and evidence- and science-based medicine; let them rely on only their belief systems, such as alt-med and the power of their deity to answer prayers.

    Have you not noticed that those who strongly promote their faith-based system(s) come running to ’empirical evidence combined with reason’ whenever they have a serious personal problem? This behaviour is a blatant demonstration of culpable intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy. Obviously, an indoctrinated child would not be culpable for such behaviour. Equally obviously, those in charge of the alt-med and religious empires are the most culpable and accountable.

    Parents torturing their child because they believed their child to be ‘possessed by evil spirits’ is NOT acceptable behaviour in the 21st Century. Also totally unacceptable is giving a child or a debilitated adult alt-med treatments instead of real medicine.

    Misdirecting billions of people by pretending to know that there is life after death remains a grey area between right and wrong. However, pretending to know things that one doesn’t know is lying, firstly, to oneself and, secondly, to others. Deception for the purposes of financial or other personal gain is fraud.

    Rather than me discussing this any further, I implore you to read and fully digest The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan.

    My sincerest thanks for your thoughtful and insightful replies, which have helped me to improve my way of thinking.

    BillyJoe7–
    I’m sorry for the way that you were treated. In my humble opinion, both you and Bill Openthalt are highly-valuable educators in our difficult-to-navigate modern world.

  84. Bill Openthalton 08 Jun 2015 at 3:36 pm

    Pete A —

    Don’t get me wrong — I am at your side of the fence, but I am looking how we can help those at the other side to join us willingly. Calling them ‘intellectually dishonest’ isn’t going to do the trick, and using force (like denying them science-based treatments) would put us in very bad company (though the idea appeals to the cruel parts of my mind ;)).

    BTW, I have a nearly 20 year old dead-tree copy of The Demon-Haunted World 🙂

    It was nice exchanging insights. Take care and keep well.

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