"Logically Irrelevant"

The true poverty here is that anyone could ever imagine that mapping electro-chemical firings in the brain could ever tell us what love is, or hate, or why we wonder about eternity or why we seek meaning in life and relationships.  Talk about a fool’s errand.  I’m reminded of the story about the police officer walking his night-shift beat and noticing a man crawling around on all fours under a street light.  Approaching, he  asks, “Can I help you?”  The man looks up, and says, “Thank you officer, I lost my house keys.”  After looking a while, but with no success, the officer asked, “Right here, you lost them?”  And the man replied, “No, I lost them way over there in that dark alley.”  Puzzled, the officer asked, “Then why in the world are you looking here?”  The man replied, “Well, the light is so much better over here.”  These neuro-idiots are, as the song tells us, “looking for love (and everything else) in all the wrong places.”  Maybe we should examine their brain waves to see if the words “clueless” and “anal retentive” are spelled out in their electro-chemical firings.  I wish the neuro-scientists all the best and appreciate their work.  We should delve as far as possible into the mechanics of how our brains work and pursue every implication.  But please let us have none of this nonsense that somehow images and mapping will unpack the mystery of our minds or touch upon the complexity of what it means to be human.

“It’s not hard to understand why neuroscience is so appealing. We all seek shortcuts to enlightenment. It’s reassuring to believe that brain images and machine analysis will reveal the fundamental truth about our minds and their contents. But as the neuro doubters make plain, we may be asking too much of neuroscience, expecting that its explanations will be definitive. Yet it’s hard to imagine that any functional magnetic resonance imaging or chemical map will ever explain “The Golden Bowl” or heaven. Or that brain imaging, no matter how sophisticated and precise, will ever tell us what women really want.”

As an aside, we just celebrated Thanksgiving.  No brain image or analysis, magnetic resonance imaging, or chemical map will ever pin-point the feeling or notion of being “thankful” or what it means.  And for that, we can be very thankful.

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20 Responses to "Logically Irrelevant"

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    A pleasure as always. I hope you had a pleasant Thanksgiving.

    In fact, it is quite possible to manufacure emotions by way of electrodes or other electrical stimulation of the brain directly, rather than the messy real-world method you seem to favor. Likewise with drugs, another shortcut. But obiously it is early days and we have a lot more to learn about how to do this.

    Addiction researchers are particularly far along in analyzing how our normal reward pathway (the pleasure that you are seeking in the real world) works, and how it is grievously deranged by drugs like cocaine and alcohol.

    By all means, we are adapted to seek pleasure in the real world because that is what helps us flourish and reproduce. But don't fool yourself that how this works inside is some black box or un-analyzable philosophical conundrum. It isn't.

    Obviously none of this will ever explain heaven, because heaven is fictional. It might explain why we come up with such positive thinking thoughts, however. As for what it means to be human, Darwin already explained that, and beyond those bare bones, we are free to come up with all sorts of other proximal answers for ourselves.

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  2. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “Addiction researchers are particularly far along in analyzing how our normal reward pathway (the pleasure that you are seeking in the real world) works, and how it is grievously deranged by drugs like cocaine and alcohol.”

    No? Really? Wow, I could have told you that and saved everyone a lot of money and time. Who knew, I guess I am an “addiction researcher” along with every other person on the planet with common sense.

    “As for what it means to be human, Darwin already explained that…”

    That may be one of the silliest statements you’ve ever made. Even Darwin wouldn’t have presumed so much. There is a huge gulf between understanding the mechanics of evolution and knowing what it “means” to be human. Shakespeare has told us more about what it “means” to be human than Darwin or a thousand others like him. This isn’t even to disparage Darwin, it’s to recognize that he wasn’t trying to explain what it “means” to be human.

    I have read the Times essay and my post again and I’m trying to understand if you read the same. Where is there a discussion about “manufacturing” emotions or drug use? So I’m curious, what exactly did you think the point (whether you agree with it or not) of the Times essay was?

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    To spell all this out, the writer and you as well scorn the connection between brain chemistry and … voting Republican, or aesthetics, crime, love, meaning in life. Since neither of you actually delineate the logic that is wrong, but which which you disparage, it falls to me to explain what you both are talking about.

    You disparage the connection that brain differences, from genetics, development, or drug treatment, could have on all the above concepts, as though it were glaringly obvious that the meaning of life has nothing to do with out brains. But depressed people would beg to differ. The connection between inborn temperament and social style, which influences polical affiliation and religiosity is particularly interesting, to me at least. These connections are statistical, not absolute, due to the complexity of, well, everything. But they are there. So where is the logical irrelevance?

    But don't take it from me.. explain what you and your writer are talking about, and I will have more to work with. Certainly, Shakespeare portrayed our emotions in all sorts of depth. But Darwin explained why we have them in the first place, how they got there, and what motivates us to keep going.. i.e. the meaning of life at a very basic level. We have great deal left to work out about how the emotions are made and operate, but that is the excitement of this field.

    Now, what the media do with all this, and university PR departments, etc.. it does often go overboard. But the progress is real.

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  4. Darrell says:

    Isn’t the logic glaringly obvious? Are you suggesting we could chemically change Republicans into Democrats? And why would we? Because one is clearly superior to the other, right? Or theists into atheists? Or you name the difference. Should we chemically alter gay people so they “think” the “right” way about sexual attraction? You forget that to understand that our brains are involved doesn’t solve the problem the writer and the other critics are talking about. Many of those critics know as much about the brain and how it functions as you or the other scientists working in the area know. Why are they still critical?

    “The connection between inborn temperament and social style, which influences polical affiliation and religiosity is particularly interesting, to me at least. These connections are statistical, not absolute, due to the complexity of, well, everything. But they are there. So where is the logical irrelevance?”

    Because they are not absolute, yes, due to the obvious complexity. And to forget both those factors is to become logically irrelevant. Or perhaps we should believe that you are a liberal atheistic Democrat due to inborn temperament, social style, and brain chemistry and for no reasons that have anything to do with free will, choice, reason, logic, or common sense. Is that what you are saying is possible? Is that the “progress” you speak of?

    “…But Darwin explained why we have them in the first place, how they got there, and what motivates us to keep going.. i.e. the meaning of life at a very basic level.”

    No, he simply noted how things already present change over time and he noted the importance of survival. That hardly touches what we are talking about here. The “meaning” of life is hardly about “just” survival. Otherwise, every tyrant and war-monger who ever lived found the “meaning” to life.

    “We have great deal left to work out about how the emotions are made and operate…”

    Wow, the understatement of the century. Again, mapping and operating, the mechanics, does not tell us about meaning or what we should then do with this mapping, operating, and mechanical knowledge. You are equating knowing how a gun works, breaking it down and putting it back together, with then knowing I shouldn’t fire it into my neighbor’s house. One (mechanics) does not translate into ethics. How is that not clear?

    “Now, what the media do with all this, and university PR departments, etc.. it does often go overboard. But the progress is real.”

    There, we agree, and that was really the point. Yes, there is progress, but none is being made in these very areas where you agree people are over-reaching. This is just eugenics all over again. Not a great history.

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  5. Burk Braun says:

    ” Are you suggesting we could chemically change Republicans into Democrats?”

    Yes, we could. Not by current chemical means, but by altering some key genes, sure, though this possibly would need to be done prior to childhood to get the full effect. Even in real time, we know that fear is conducive to Republican themes and psychology, while prosperity is conducive to Democratic psychology (the daddy vs mommy parties sort of thing). We know the party affiliation has to do with psychological characteristics and heritable genes.

    Whether we would want induce a change is another question. But it is simply a fact that people sort, to some measurable degree and in many psychological and thus behavioral respects, by inborn temperament. This is best supported by twin studies.

    Being gay is also due to genetic and developmental factors. That doesn't mean that we can or want to reprogram them or anybody, just that it is a fact. Just like it is a fact that some people are smarter than others for heritable as well as other reasons. Is this a reason to do eugenics? That is a separate question from the facts of biology.

    “Or perhaps we should believe that you are a liberal atheistic Democrat due to inborn temperament, social style, and brain chemistry and for no reasons that have anything to do with free will, choice, reason, logic, or common sense. Is that what you are saying is possible?”

    Yes- that is a fine point. I may be all these things. That is what makes these arguments (political and religious especially) so difficult- that each person has their founding viewpoints, and it can take a sledgehammer's worth of reason to convert them to another view. Just think of the history of creationism.. why is that such a perennial topic, when the science was settled long, long ago? And some temperaments are more open to new experience and new evidence than others are.

    “No, he simply noted how things already present change over time and he noted the importance of survival. That hardly touches what we are talking about here. The “meaning” of life is hardly about “just” survival. Otherwise, every tyrant and war-monger who ever lived found the “meaning” to life.”

    Think about Shakespeare for a minute- aren't his main themes sex and power? Or did he write plays about animal husbandry and shipping? Aren't those the perennial themes of tragedy as well as comedy? What motivates them? Shakespeare didn't know why we have these drives, but he sure knew we do have them. Darwin told us why we have them, in the deepest sense. Because we wouldn't be here if we didn't.

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  6. Darrell says:

    “Yes, we could. Not by current chemical means, but by altering some key genes, sure, though this possibly would need to be done prior to childhood to get the full effect. Even in real time, we know that fear is conducive to Republican themes and psychology, while prosperity is conducive to Democratic psychology (the daddy vs mommy parties sort of thing). We know the party affiliation has to do with psychological characteristics and heritable genes.”

    Even for you this sort of assertion is patently ridiculous. This is exactly what the Times writer was pointing out along with the other critics as over-reaching (to put it mildly). This is sermonizing under the cover of “science.” A total BS statement. Please do tell us who has said that by altering some genes, we can produce a Republican or a Democrat? Please tell us who’s isolated the Republican gene and the Democratic gene? Do some of the lines within the gene take the form of an elephant or donkey?

    “Think about Shakespeare for a minute- aren't his main themes sex and power? Or did he write plays about animal husbandry and shipping? Aren't those the perennial themes of tragedy as well as comedy? What motivates them? Shakespeare didn't know why we have these drives, but he sure knew we do have them. Darwin told us why we have them, in the deepest sense. Because we wouldn't be here if we didn't.”

    He wrote about sex and power, but what they could mean beyond “mere” sex and power. In other words, life is about more than “just” sex and power. If you think Shakespeare reduces to survival, then you have never understood a single word. Darwin told us, in the shallowest sense, of why we have them. You are assuming that mechanical means “deeper.” That would be like someone telling us how, mechanically, the ovens in the Nazi death camps operated as a way of telling us the deeper meaning of the Holocaust.

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  7. Burk Braun says:

    “… Please tell us who’s isolated the Republican gene and the Democratic gene? Do some of the lines within the gene take the form of an elephant or donkey?”

    Well, you are just displaying a little ignorance here, or ludditism. In any case, the claim is implicit in finding that twin studies (among others) show genetic heritable components to various psychological characteristics. If something is heritable, then it has a genetic cause, which means that, given the technical means to change someone's genome and the knowledge of DNA sites responsible (sure to be spread out all over the genome, and having other complicated charateristics..), if one could change the genome, one could change the person. We are not blank slates or replaceable clones.

    As for the depth or shallowness of meaning, that is surely in the eye of the beholder. Many people search for origins- the origins of families, of geological features, of social behaviors, of the cosmos, etc. That is one way of looking for meaning.

    Others perhaps value more the meanings they bring to pursuits like music and creative writing. There are many paths. If you do not like the purpose embodied in our biological design to inform your “meaning”, so be it. But in that case, to speak of a single meaning of being human is absurd- we make it up as we go along.

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  8. Darrell says:

    “Well, you are just displaying a little ignorance here, or ludditism. In any case, the claim is implicit in finding that twin studies (among others) show genetic heritable components to various psychological characteristics. If something is heritable, then it has a genetic cause, which means that, given the technical means to change someone's genome and the knowledge of DNA sites responsible (sure to be spread out all over the genome, and having other complicated charateristics..), if one could change the genome, one could change the person. We are not blank slates or replaceable clones.”

    Burk, who is showing their ignorance here? What you note is true. But, nothing you say here would lead anyone, other than someone who is half-baked, to then claim that we could change someone or genetically produce a Democrat or Republican, or conservative or liberal, protestant or catholic. Nothing. Zero. Nada. You are trading in complete BS here. Total monkeyshine. Clearly the Times writer had you in mind.

    And clearly, if we could do what you think here, we would be “blank slates” and “replaceable clones.”

    Further, I never said there was a single purpose to being human. Being human is complex and a deep mystery. But there does seem to be some universals and these are what Shakespeare and the Bible and many other works show us. What they all agree upon is that life and our biology is about much more than survival and mere power.

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  9. Burk Braun says:

    “Chris Mooney raised similar ire with the book “The Republican Brain,” which claims that Republicans are genetically different from — and, many readers deduced, lesser to — Democrats. “If Mooney’s argument sounds familiar to you, it should,” scoffed two science writers. “It’s called ‘eugenics,’ and it was based on the belief that some humans are genetically inferior.””

    Well, one issue is the wild extrapolation and imagination of the writers here. If someone “deduces” inferiority, it doesn't sound like the original writer actually said that. I listen to some of Mooney's work, and folks who talk about this have a lot to say about how the temperamental aspects of Republicanism have many virtues, as expressed in their far better cohesiveness as groups, for instance.

    And taking this to “eugenics” and the like is pure slander and projection. This kind of thing should not appear on the times site. It is the kind of hyperbole that the piece itself supposedly tries to decry, oddly enough.

    Likewise, if I said there was a Republican gene, or I said there was a Republican injection, then tell me I am wrong. But if I go through observations that are true and indicate what in principle they allow as possibilities, given technical limitations by no means overcome, then am well within reasonable bounds. I am not reading into anyone's intentions or saying anything that is untrue. Incidentally, most of these (not currently possible) gene changes would have to take place very early in life to have any effect, since our temperament is quite stable. But then people have been known to change personalities substantially due to disease, lesions, and injury, so perhaps we can have recourse to other methods!

    “It’s also that they are part of a larger cultural tendency, in which neuroscientific explanations eclipse historical, political, economic, literary and journalistic interpretations of experience. A number of the neuro doubters are also humanities scholars who question the way that neuroscience has seeped into their disciplines”

    Well, if the neuro explanations have merit, then they will take their place alongside those other levels of interpretation.. what is wrong with that? I'm sorry, but reality is the way it is, and we have complex and interesting psychology, do we not? Was Hitler just a little nuts, or was he not? If humanities are scared about seepage, they should look to the quality of their own scholarship. Increasing cross-disciplinary work is the theme all over the academy. They should get used to it and adopt what is best.

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  10. mrstanwell says:

    Burk says: Yes, we could. Not by current chemical means, but by altering some key genes, sure, though this possibly would need to be done prior to childhood to get the full effect… We know the party affiliation has to do with psychological characteristics and heritable genes.

    Darrell, I believe the response you're looking for here is — as they say on Wikipedia — “Citation needed.”

    After all, we don't believe anything without scientific evidence. (And by evidence, of course, we mean replicated studies.)

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  11. RonH says:

    That previous comment was mine. 😉

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  12. Burk Braun says:

    The irony here is that when I speak of possibilities in principle, beyond our technical capabilities possibly forever, I am not speaking of supernatural nebulosities or other things that are completely unknown. The heritability of all this is well-known, so the logical (if technically fanciful) deductions are likewise well-known. If you want to complain about reasoning that is completely unhinged, look in the mirror.

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  13. RonH says:

    Sorry Burk. You're the one arguing that science is our only source of truth. Which means, on your own terms, if you haven't scientifically established something you can't assert its truth.

    Unless, of course, you want to appeal to faith. Which is fine by me.

    Your claim that we could determine a person's political party affiliation by manipulating their genome isn't any more “unhinged” than Darrell's claims on the issue. At least, not until you produce the replicated studies establishing your truth.

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  14. Burk Braun says:

    Ron-

    As you know, the issue is whether one has proper premises and logically uses them to draw inferences. The genetics at work here (premises) is all citable. The logical deductions I have offered are all well-reasoned, though I make no claims that making genetic modification in whole organisms is or ever will be practical.

    There is no faith involved, in the sense that I might take some supernatural realm to exist and be responsible for goings-on here below. You are welcome to attempt to conclude such principles by inference from whatever mysteries you choose, but the track record of doing that is extremely poor. No such inferences have ever proven out.

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  15. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Just like when you asserted that robots or machines could one day express emotions like humans, you simply have been called out on other more ridiculous claims. Nice back pedaling but no dice. It’s clear you are talking science fiction and not science. Your great faith is evident in what you think is possible, but admit, is likely never to happen. But you believe anyway. To us you scold back, “Oh ye of little faith.” And you would be correct.

    What you still don’t get is that the issue isn’t the practicality. The issue is that it’s impossible. One could change as many genes as one wished and in five or a million years a free person allowed their conscious choice could make decisions that completely went against their upbringing, education, culture, and family history. It happens every day. Life as we know it now and as confirmed by history is that people can change their minds and lives in a radical fashion. Now there is a fact. And it’s a fact that doesn’t show up on an MRI, just in real everyday life.

    “…it can take a sledgehammer's worth of reason to convert them to another view…”

    It certainly can Burk, but we still have hope for you.

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  16. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    My asertion on robots and AI was a matter of speculation. Hardly one of burning faith. Whether it happens or not is of little importance to me- I am just making an educated guess, for your edification. Nor do other aspects of my world view or devotional practices depend on this speculation.

    “One could change as many genes as one wished and in five or a million years a free person allowed their conscious choice could make decisions that completely went against their upbringing, education, culture, and family history.”

    Nope, there you are unfortunately wrong. We are dependent on our genes all the time, even if some of their most interesting activity has already happened during development and is hard or impossible to redo/undo. Gene therapy on blood cells has been able to supply functions missing from individuals with specific mutations / diseases, so this is hardly a fantasy.

    For instance, given the ability to do whole-body adult gene therapy, I could easily imagine a gene change that would turn off my beard-hair follicles and let me not shave any more. Those are cells and genes that are always working, and altering them would alter my body. Much of the real effect of anti-depressants is thought to be due to changes in gene expression, since they have such slow onset of their effect. This is an area where direct changes to the relevant genes could (given a technology of gene therapy, again..) be more focussed and effective treatment.

    So the idea that your decisions are somehow immune to the activity of your genes is incorrect. You are a system whose genes are always working, forming the base of the complicated mechanism that is you. It is a very active base. Proof in principle has not been done in humans, since we do not have the gene therapy technology, but has been done in other organisms. In mice, for instance, genes can be inserted into their genomes that can be turned on/off by the experimenter, and they can have serious mental effects:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17848917
    “To evaluate the neuronal and behavioral effects of mutant DISC1, the Tet-off system under the regulation of the CAMKII promoter was used to generate transgenic mice with inducible expression of mutant human DISC1 (hDISC1) limited to forebrain regions, including cerebral cortex, hippocampus and striatum. Expression of mutant hDISC1 was not associated with gross neurodevelopmental abnormalities, but led to a mild enlargement of the lateral ventricles and attenuation of neurite outgrowth in primary cortical neurons. These morphological changes were associated with decreased protein levels of endogenous mouse DISC1, LIS1 and SNAP-25. Compared to their sex-matched littermate controls, mutant hDISC1 transgenic male mice exhibited spontaneous hyperactivity in the open field and alterations in social interaction, and transgenic female mice showed deficient spatial memory. The results show that the neuronal and behavioral effects of mutant hDISC1 are consistent with a dominant-negative mechanism, and are similar to some features of schizophrenia.”

    Would you make the same decisions if you had schizophrenia? I'll leave that for you to decide. Obviously, this is very early days, and a blunderbuss was used here. As we know more about the genome and have better technologies tomake more subtle alterations, they may be able to make Republican mice out of Democratic ones!

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  17. Darrell says:

    “We are dependent on our genes all the time…”

    I never said we weren’t.

    “I could easily imagine a gene change that would turn off my beard-hair follicles…”

    Has nothing to do with what I asserted.

    “So the idea that your decisions are somehow immune to the activity of your genes is incorrect…”

    I never said they were immune.

    You are not listening. Nothing you say here, zero, nada, changes one whit what I asserted. I said people, given a healthy free situation, can radically change their minds and lives. They do all the time. Are their genes involved? Of course, their entire bodies are. So what? You miss the point. Are you telling us that you are genetically incapable of changing your mind? Are you a zombie? Is conversing with you pointless because of your gene pool?

    Again, you are just spouting nonsense. It’s not that you’re even wrong—it’s that you don’t comprehend what’s being asserted.

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  18. Burk Braun says:

    Very well.. I am glad we agree. So perhaps we are getting back to the free will discussion. Are your decisions influenced by your temperament? By your mental health status? By your economic conditions and history, and by everything else? Yes- they are all influences. That is why the genetic components are not 100%. We are not zombies, but historical actors integating influences coming from all sides, including our biological makeup. And if that makeup changes, then it is quite conceivable that our decisions would change too.

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  19. Darrell says:

    Well if we agree, then all your responses regarding this post were well off the mark. Fine with me.

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  20. Burk Braun says:

    But that is all the various article writers were saying as well, before you and your critic friends got all bent out of shape about eugenics and holocausts. That biologically-based proclivities have influences, more or less strong, on our mental lives.

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