| Index | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 |

next >




2008

"WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT?"

CHARLES SEIFE
Professor of Journalism, New York University; formerly journalist, Science magazine; Author, Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea

I used to think that a modern, democratic society had to be a scientific society. After all, the scientific revolution and the American Revolution were forged in the same flames of the enlightenment. Naturally, I thought, a society that embraces the freedom of thought and expression of a democracy would also embrace science.

However, when I first started reporting on science, I quickly realized that science didn't spring up naturally in the fertile soil of the young American democracy. Americans were extraordinary innovators — wonderful tinkerers and engineers — but you can count the great 19th century American physicists on one hand and have two fingers left over. The United States owes its scientific tradition to aristocratic Europe's universities (and to its refugees), not to any native drive.

In fact, science clashes with the democratic ideal. Though it is meritocratic, it is practiced in the elite and effete world of academe, leaving the vast majority of citizens unable to contribute to it in any meaningful way. Science is about freedom of thought, yet at the same time it imposes a tyranny of ideas.

In a democracy, ideas are protected. It's the sacred right of a citizen to hold — and to disseminate — beliefs that the majority disagrees with, ideas that are abhorrent, ideas that are wrong. However, scientists are not free to be completely open minded; a scientist stops becoming a scientist if he clings to discredited notions. The basic scientific urge to falsify, to disprove, to discredit ideas clashes with the democratic drive to tolerate and protect them.

This is why even those politicians who accept evolution will never attack those politicians who don't; at least publicly, they cast evolutionary theory as a mere personal belief. Attempting to squelch creationism smacks of elitism and intolerance — it would be political suicide. Yet this is exactly what biologists are compelled to do; they exorcise falsehoods and drive them from the realm of public discourse.

We've been lucky that the transplant of science has flourished so beautifully on American soil. But I no longer take it for granted that this will continue; our democratic tendencies might get the best of us in the end.


DAVID BODANIS
Writer; Consultant; Author, Passionate Minds

The Bible Is Inane

When I was very little the question was easy. I simply assumed the whole Bible was true, albeit in a mysterious, grown-up sort of way. But once I learned something of science, at school and then at university, that unquestioning belief slid away.

Mathematics was especially important here, and I remember how entranced I was when I first saw the power of axiomatic systems. Those were logical structures that were as beautiful as complex crystals —  but far, far clearer. If there was one inaccuracy at any point in the system, you could trace it, like a scarcely visible stretching crack through the whole crystal; you could see exactly how it had to undermine the validity of far distant parts as well. Since there are obvious factual inaccuracies in the Bible, as well as repugnant moral commands, then —  just as with any tight axiomatic system —  huge other parts of it had to be wrong, as well. In my mind that discredited it all.

What I've come to see more recently is that the Bible isn't monolithic in that way. It's built up in many, often quite distinct layers. For example, the book of Joshua describes a merciless killing of Jericho's inhabitants, after that city's walls were destroyed. But archaeology shows that when this was supposed to be happening, there was no large city with walls there to be destroyed. On the contrary, careful dating of artifacts, as well as translations from documents of the great empires in surrounding regions, shows that the bloodthirsty Joshua story was quite likely written by one particular group, centuries later, trying to give some validity to a particular royal line in 7th century BC Jerusalem, which wanted to show its rights to the entire country around it. Yet when that Joshua layer is stripped away, other layers in the Bible remain. They can stand, or be judged, on their own.

A few of those remaining layers have survived only because they became taken up by narrow power structures, concerned with aggrandizing themselves, in the style of Philip Pullman's excellent books. But others have survived across the millennia for different reasons. Some speak to the human condition with poetry of aching beauty. And others —  well, there's a further reason I began to doubt the inanity of everything I couldn't understand.

A child age three, however intelligent, and however much it squinches his or her fact tight in concentration, still won't be able to grasp notions that are easy for us, such as 'century', or 'henceforth', let alone greater subtleties which 20th century science has clarified, such as 'simultaneity' or 'causality'. True and important things exist, which young children can't comprehend. It seems odd to be sure that we, adult humans, existing at this one particular moment in evolution, have no such limits.

I realized that the world  isn't divided into science on the one hand, and nonsense or arbitrary biases on the other. And I wonder now what might be worth looking for, hidden there, fleetingly in-between.


HAIM HARARI
Physicist, former President, Weizmann Institute of Science

Clear and simple is not the same as provable and well defined

I used to think that if something is clear and simple, it must also be provable or at least well defined, and if something is well defined, it might be relatively simple. It isn't so.

If you hear about sightings of a weird glow approaching us in the night sky, it might be explained as a meteorite or as little green men arriving in a spaceship from another galaxy. In most specific cases, both hypotheses can be neither proved nor disproved, rigorously. Nothing is well defined here. Yet, it is clear that the meteorite hypothesis is scientifically much more likely.

When you hear about a new perpetual motion machine or about yet another claim of cold fusion, you raise an eyebrow, you are willing to bet against it and, in your guts, you know it is wrong, but it is not always easy to disprove it rigorously.

The reliability of forecasts regarding weather, stock markets and astrology is descending in that order. All of them are based on guesses, with or without historical data. Most of them are rarely revisited by the media, after the fact, thus avoiding being exposed as unreliable. In most cases, predicting that the immediate future will be the same as the immediate past, has a higher probability of being correct, than the predictions of the gurus. Yet, we, as scientists, have considerable faith in weather predictions; much less faith in predicting peaks and dips of the stock market and no faith at all is astrology. We can explain why, and we are certainly right, but we cannot prove why. Proving it by historical success data, is as convincing (for the future) as the predictions themselves.

Richard Feynman in his famous Lectures on Physics provided the ultimate physics definition of Energy: It is that quantity which is conserved. Any Lawyer, Mathematician or Accountant would have laughed at this statement. Energy is perhaps the most useful, clear and common concept in all of science, and Feynman is telling us, correctly and shamelessly, that it has no proper rigorous and logical definition.

How much is five thousand plus two? Not so simple. Sometimes it is five thousands and two (as in your bank statement) and sometimes it is actually five thousand (as in the case of the Cairo tour guide who said "this pyramid is 5002 years old; when I started working here two years ago, I was told it was 5000 years old").

The public thinks, incorrectly, that science is a very accurate discipline where everything is well defined. Not so. But the beauty of it is that all of the above statements are scientific, obvious and useful, without being precisely defined. That is as much part of the scientific method as verifying a theory by an experiment (which is always accurate only to a point).

To speak and to understand the language of science is, among other things, to understand this "clear vagueness". It exists, of course, in other areas of life. Every normal language possesses numerous such examples, and so do all fields of social science.

Judaism is a religion and I am an atheist. Nevertheless, it is clear that I am Jewish. It would take a volume to explain why, and the explanation will remain rather obscure and ill defined. But the fact is simple, clear, well understood and undeniable.

Somehow, it is acceptable to face such situations in nonscientific matters, but most people think, incorrectly, that the quantitative natural sciences must be different. They are different, in many ways, but not in this way.

Common sense has as much place as logic, in scientific research. Intuition often leads to more insight than algorithmic thinking. Familiarity with previous failed attempts to solve a problem may be detrimental, rather than helpful. This may explain why almost all important physics breakthroughs are made by people under forty. This also explains why, in science, asking the right question is at least as important as being able to solve a well posed problem.

You might say that the above kind of thinking is prejudiced and inaccurate, and that it might hinder new discoveries and new scientific ideas. Not so. Good scientists know very well how to treat and use all of these "fuzzy" statements. They also know how to reconsider them, when there is a good reason to do so, based on new solid facts or on a new original line of thinking. This is one of the beautiful features of science.


TIMOTHY TAYLOR
Archaeologist, University of Bradford; Author, The Buried Soul

Relativism

Where once I would have striven to see Incan child sacrifice 'in their terms', I am increasingly committed to seeing it in ours. Where once I would have directed attention to understanding a past cosmology of equal validity to my own, I now feel the urgency to go beyond a culturally-attuned explanation and reveal cold sadism, deployed as a means of social control by a burgeoning imperial power.

In Cambridge at the end of the 70s, I began to be inculcated with the idea that understanding the internal logic and value system of a past culture was the best way to do archaeology and anthropology. The challenge was to achieve this through sensitivity to context, classification and symbolism. A pot was no longer just a pot, but a polyvalent signifier, with a range of case-sensitive meanings. A rubbish pit was no longer an unproblematic heap of trash, but a semiotic entity embodying concepts of contagion and purity, sacred and profane. A ritual killing was not to be judged bad, but as having validity within a different worldview.

Using such 'contextual' thinking, a lump of slag found in a 5000 BC female grave in Serbia was no longer seen as chance contaminant — bi-product garbage from making copper jewelry. Rather it was a kind of poetic statement bearing on the relationship between biological and cultural reproduction. Just as births in the Vin?a culture were attended by midwives who also delivered the warm but useless slab of afterbirth, so Vinca culture ore was heated in a clay furnace that gave birth to metal. From the furnace — known from many ethnographies to have projecting clay breasts and a graphically vulvic stoking opening — the smelters delivered technology's baby. With it came a warm but useless lump of slag. Thus the slag in a Vinca woman's grave, far from being accidental trash, hinted at a complex symbolism of gender, death and rebirth.

So far, so good: relativism worked as a way towards understanding that our industrial waste was not theirs, and their idea of how a woman should be appropriately buried not ours. But what happens when relativism says that our concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, kindness and cruelty, are inherently inapplicable? Relativism self-consciously divests itself of a series of anthropocentric and anachronistic skins — modern, white, western, male-focused, individualist, scientific (or 'scientistic') — to say that the recognition of such value-concepts is radically unstable, the 'objective' outsider opinion a worthless myth.

My colleague Andy Wilson and our team have recently examined the hair of sacrificed children found on some of the high peaks of the Andes. Contrary to historic chronicles that claim that being ritually killed to join the mountain gods was an honour that the Incan rulers accorded only to their own privileged offspring, diachronic isotopic analyses along the scalp hairs of victims indicate that it was peasant children, who, twelve months before death, were given the outward trappings of high status and a much improved diet to make them acceptable offerings. Thus we see past the self-serving accounts of those of the indigenous elite who survived on into Spanish rule. We now understand that the central command in Cuzco engineered the high-visibility sacrifice of children drawn from newly subject populations. And we can guess that this was a means to social control during the massive, 'shock & awe' style imperial expansion southwards into what became Argentina.

But the relativists demur from this understanding, and have painted us as culturally insensitive, ignorant scientists (the last label a clear pejorative). For them, our isotope work is informative only as it reveals 'the inner fantasy life of, mostly, Euro-American archaeologists, who can't possibly access the inner cognitive/cultural life of those Others.' The capital 'O' is significant. Here we have what the journalist Julie Burchill mordantly unpacked as 'the ever-estimable Other' — the albatross that post-Enlightenment and, more importantly, post-colonial scholarship must wear round its neck as a sign of penance.

We need relativism as an aid to understanding past cultural logic, but it does not free us from a duty to discriminate morally and to understand that there are regularities in the negatives of human behaviour as well as in its positives. In this case, it seeks to ignore what Victor Nell has described as 'the historical and cross-cultural stability of the uses of cruelty for punishment, amusement, and social control.' By denying the basis for a consistent underlying algebra of positive and negative, yet consistently claiming the necessary rightness of the internal cultural conduct of 'the Other', relativism steps away from logic into incoherence.


LEON LEDERMAN
Physicist and Nobel Laureate; Director Emeritus, Fermilab; Coauthor, The God Particle

The Obligations and Responsibilities of The Scientist

My academic experience, mainly at Columbia University from 1946-1978, instilled the following firm beliefs:

The role of the Professor, reflecting the mission of the University, is research and dissemination of the knowledge gained. However, the Professor has many citizenship obligations: to his community, State and Nation, to his University, to his field of research, e.g. physics, to his students. In the latter case, one must add to the content knowledge transferred, the moral and ethical concerns that science brings to society. So scientists have an obligation to communicate their knowledge, popularize, and whenever relevant, bring his knowledge to bear on the issues of the time. However, additionally, scientists play a large role in advisory boards and systems from the President's Advisory system all the way to local school boards and PTAs. I have always believed that the above menu more or less covered all the obligations and responsibilities of the scientist. His most sacred obligation is to continue to do science. Now I know that I was dead wrong.

Taking even a cursory stock of current events, I am driven to the ultimately wise advice of my Columbia mentor, I.I. Rabi, who, in our many corridor bull sessions, urged his students to run for public office and get elected. He insisted that to be an advisor (he was an advisor to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, later to Eisenhower and to the AEC) was ultimately an exercise in futility and that the power belonged to those who are elected. Then, we thought the old man was bonkers. But today......

Just look at our national and international dilemmas: global climate change (U.S. booed in Bali); nuclear weapons (seventeen years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has over 7,000 nuclear weapons, many poised to instant flight. Who decided?); stem cell research (still hobbled by White House obstacles). Basic research and science education are rated several nations below "Lower Slobovenia", our national deficit will burden the nation for generations, a wave of religious fundamentalism, an endless war in Iraq and the growing security restrictions on our privacy and freedom (excused by an even more endless and mindless war on terrorism) seem to be paralyzing the Congress. We need to elect people who can think critically.

A Congress which is overwhelmingly dominated by lawyers and MBAs makes no sense in this 21st century in which almost all issues have a science and technology aspect. We need a national movement to seek out scientists and engineers who have demonstrated the required management and communication skills. And we need a strong consensus of mentors that the need for wisdom and knowledge in the Congress must have a huge priority.


DAN SPERBER
Social and cognitive scientist; Directeur de Recherche, CNRS, Paris; Author, Rethinking Symbolism

How I Became An Evolutionary Psychologist

As a student, I was influenced by Claude Lévi-Strauss and even more by Noam Chomsky. Both of them dared talk about "human nature" when the received view was that there was no such thing. In my own work, I argued for a naturalistic approach in the social sciences. I took for granted that human cognitive dispositions were shaped by biological evolution and more specifically by Darwinian selection. While I did occasionally toy with evolutionary speculations, I failed to see at the time how they could play more than a quite marginal role in the study of human psychology and culture.

Luckily, in 1987, I was asked by Jacques Mehler, the founder and editor of Cognition, to review a very long article intriguingly entitled "The logic of social exchange: Has natural selection shaped how humans reason?" In most experimental psychology articles the theoretical sections are short and relatively shallow. Here, on the other hand, the young author, Leda Cosmides, was arguing in an altogether novel way for an ambitious theoretical claim. The forms of cooperation unique to and characteristic of humans could only have evolved, she maintained, if there had also been, at a psychological level, the evolution of a mental mechanism tailored to understand and manage social exchanges and in particular to detect cheaters. Moreover, this mechanism could be investigated by means of standard reasoning experiments.

This is not the place to go into the details of the theoretical argument — which I found and still find remarkably insightful — or of the experimental evidence — which I have criticized in detail with experiments of my own as inadequate. Whatever its shortcoming, this was an extraordinarily stimulating paper, and I strongly recommended acceptance of a revised version. The article was published in 1989 and the controversies it stirred have not yet abated.

Reading the work of Leda Cosmides and of John Tooby, her collaborator (and husband), meeting them shortly after, and initiating a conversation with them that has never ceased made me change my mind. I had known that we could reflect on the mental capacities of our ancestors on the basis of what we know of our minds; I now understood that we can also draw fundamental insights about our present minds through reflecting on the environmental problems and opportunities that have exerted selective pressure on our Paleolithic ancestors.

Ever since, I have tried to contribute to the development of evolutionary psychology, to the surprise and dismay of some of my more standard-social-science friends and also of some evolutionary psychologists who see me more as a heretic than a genuine convert. True, I have no taste or talent for orthodoxy. Moreover, I find much of the work done so far under the label "evolutionary psychology" rather disappointing. Evolutionary psychology will succeed to the extent that it causes cognitive psychologists to rethink central aspects of human cognition in an evolutionary perspective, to the extent, that is, that psychology in general becomes evolutionary.

The human species is exceptional in its massive investment in cognition, and in forms of cognitive activity — language, higher-order thinking, abstraction — that are as unique to humans as echolocation is to bats. Yet more than half of all work done in evolutionary psychology today is about mate choice, a mental activity found in a great many species. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in studying mate choice, of course, and some of the work done in this area is outstanding.

However the promise of evolutionary psychology is first and foremost to help explain aspects of human psychology that are genuinely exceptional among earthly species and that in turn help explain the exceptional character of human culture and ecology. This is what has to be achieved to a much greater extent than has been the case so far if we want more skeptical cognitive and social scientists to change their minds too.


THOMAS METZINGER
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Author, Being No One

There are No Moral Facts

I have become convinced that it would be of fundamental importance to know what a good state of consciousness is. Are there forms of subjective experience which — in a strictly normative sense — are better than others? Or worse? What states of consciousness should be illegal? What states of consciousness do we want to foster and cultivate and integrate into our societies? What states of consciousness can we force upon animals — for instance, in consciousness research itself? What states of consciousness do we want to show our children? And what state of consciousness do we eventually die in ourselves?

2007 has seen the rise of an important new discipline: "neuroethics". This is not simply a new branch of applied ethics for neuroscience — it raises deeper issues about selfhood, society and the image of man.  Neuroscience is now quickly transformed into neurotechnology. I predict that parts of neurotechnology will turn into consciousness technology. In 2002, out-of-body experiences were, for the first time, induced with an electrode in the brain of an epileptic patient.  In 2007 we saw the first two studies, published in Science, demonstrating how the conscious self can be transposed to a location outside of the physical body as experienced, non-invasively and in healthy subjects. Cognitive enhancers are on the rise. The conscious experience of will has been experimentally constructed and manipulated in a number of ways. Acute episodes of depression can be caused by direct interventions in the brain, and they have also been successfully blocked in previously treatment-resistant patients. And so on.

Whenever we understand the specific neural dynamics underlying a specific form of conscious content, we can in principle delete, amplify or modulate this content in our minds. So shouldn’t we have a new ethics of consciousness — one that does not ask what a good action is, but that goes directly to the heart of the matter, asks what we want to do with all this new knowledge and what the moral value of states of subjective experience is?

Here is where I have changed my mind. There are no moral facts. Moral sentences have no truth-values. The world itself is silent, it just doesn’t speak to us in normative affairs — nothing in the physical universe tells us what makes an action a good action or a specific brain-state a desirable one. Sure, we all would like to know what a good neurophenomenological configuration really is, and how we should optimize our conscious minds in the future. But it looks like, in a more rigorous and serious sense, there is just no ethical knowledge to be had. We are alone. And if that is true, all we have to go by are the contingent moral intuitions evolution has hard-wired into our emotional self-model. If we choose to simply go by what feels good, then our future is easy to predict: It will be primitive hedonism and organized religion.


MARC D. HAUSER
Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University: Author, Moral Minds

The Limits Of Darwinian Reasoning

Darwin is the man, and like so many biologists, I have benefited from his prescient insights, handed to us 150 years ago. The logic of adaptation has been a guiding engine of my research and my view of life. In fact, it has been difficult to view the world through any other filter. I can still recall with great vividness the day I arrived in Cambridge, in June 1992, a few months before starting my job as an assistant professor at Harvard. I was standing on a street corner, waiting for a bus to arrive, and noticed a group of pigeons on the sidewalk. There were several males displaying, head bobbing and cooing, attempting to seduce the females. The females, however, were not paying attention. They were all turned, in Prussian solider formation, out toward the street, looking at the middle of the intersection where traffic was whizzing by. There, in the intersection, was one male pigeon, displaying his heart out. Was this guy insane? Hadn’t he read the handbook of natural selection. Dude, it’s about survival. Get out of the street!!!

Further reflection provided the solution to this apparently mutant, male pigeon. The logic of adaptation requires us to ask about the costs and benefits of behavior, trying to understand what the fitness payoffs might be. Even for behaviors that appear absurdly deleterious, there is often a benefit lurking. In the case of our apparently suicidal male pigeon, there was a benefit, and it was lurking in the females’ voyeurism, their rubber necking. The females were oriented toward this male, as opposed to the conservative guys on the sidewalk, because he was playing with danger, showing off, proving that even in the face of heavy traffic, he could fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee, jabbing and jiving like the great Muhammed Ali.

The theory comes from the evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi who proposed that even costly behaviors that challenge survival can evolve if they have payoffs to genetic fitness; these payoffs arrive in the currency of more matings, and ultimately, more babies. Our male pigeon was showing off his handicap. He was advertising to the females that even in the face of potential costs from Hummers and Beamers and Buses, he was still walking the walk and talking the talk. The females were hooked, mesmerized by this extraordinarily macho male. Handicaps evolve because they are honest indicators of fitness. And Zahavi’s theory represents the intellectual descendent of Darwin’s original proposal.

I must admit, however, that in recent years, I have made less use of Darwin’s adaptive logic. It is not because I think that the adaptive program has failed, or that it can’t continue to account for a wide variety of human and animal behavior. But with respect to questions of human and animal mind, and especially some of the unique products of the human mind — language, morality, music, mathematics — I have, well, changed my mind about the power of Darwinian reasoning.

Let me be clear about the claim here. I am not rejecting Darwin’s emphasis on comparative approaches, that is, the use of phylogenetic or historical data. I still practice this approach, contrasting the abilities of humans and animals in the service of understanding what is uniquely human and what is shared. And I still think our cognitive prowess evolved, and that the human brain and mind can be studied in some of the same ways that we study other bits of anatomy and behavior. But where I have lost the faith, so to speak, is in the power of the adaptive program to explain or predict particular design features of human thought.

Although it is certainly reasonable to say that language, morality and music have design features that are adaptive, that would enhance reproduction and survival, evidence for such claims is sorely missing. Further, for those who wish to argue that the evidence comes from the complexity of the behavior itself, and the absurdly low odds of constructing such complexity by chance, these arguments just don’t cut it with respect to explaining or predicting the intricacies of language, morality, music or many other domains of knowledge.

In fact, I would say that although Darwin’s theory has been around, and readily available for the taking for 150 years, it has not advanced the fields of linguistics, ethics, or mathematics. This is not to say that it can’t advance these fields. But unlike the areas of economic decision making, mate choice, and social relationships, where the adaptive program has fundamentally transformed our understanding, the same can not be said for linguistics, ethics, and mathematics. What has transformed these disciplines is our growing understanding of mechanism, that is, how the mind represents the world, how physiological processes generate these representations, and how the child grows these systems of knowledge.

Bidding Darwin adieu is not easy. My old friend has served me well. And perhaps one day he will again. Until then, farewell.


ROBERT PROVINE
Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author, Laughter

In Praise of Fishing Expeditions

Mentors, paper referees and grant reviewers have warned me on occasion about scientific "fishing expeditions," the conduct of empirical research that does not test a specific hypothesis or is not guided by theory. Such "blind empiricism" was said to be unscientific, to waste time and produce useless data. Although I have never been completely convinced of the hazards of fishing, I now reject them outright, with a few reservations.

I'm not advocating the collection of random facts, but the use of broad-based descriptive studies to learn what to study and how to study it. Those who fish learn where the fish are, their species, number and habits. Without the guidance of preliminary descriptive studies, hypothesis testing can be inefficient and misguided. Hypothesis testing is a powerful means of rejecting error — of trimming the dead limbs from the scientific tree — but it does not generate hypotheses or signify which are worthy of test. I'll provide two examples from my experience.

In graduate school, I became intrigued with neuroembryology and wanted to introduce it to developmental psychology, a discipline that essentially starts at birth. My dissertation was a fishing expedition that described embryonic behavior and its neurophysiological mechanism. I was exploring uncharted waters and sought advice by observing the ultimate expert, the embryo. In this and related work, I discovered that prenatal movement is the product of seizure-like discharges in the spinal cord (not the brain), that the spinal discharges occurred spontaneously (not a response to sensory stimuli), that the function of  movement was to sculpt joints (not to shape postnatal behavior such walking), and to regulate the number of motorneurons. Remarkable! 

But decades later, this and similar work is largely unknown to developmental psychologists who have no category for it. The traditional psychological specialties of perception, learning, memory, motivation and the like, are not relevant during most of the prenatal period. The finding that embryos are profoundly unpsychological beings guided by unique developmental priorities and processes is not appreciated by theory-driven developmental psychologists. When the fishing expedition indicates that there is no appropriate spot in the scientific filing cabinet, it may be time to add another drawer.

Years later and unrepentant, I embarked on a new fishing expedition, this time in pursuit of the human universal of laughter — what it is, when we do it, and what it means. In the spirit of my embryonic research, I wanted the expert to define my agenda—a laughing person. Explorations about research funding with administrators at a federal agency were unpromising. One linguist patiently explained that my project "had no obvious implications for any of the major theoretical issues in linguistics."  Another, a speech scientist, noted that "laughter isn't speech, and therefore had no relevance to my agency's mission." 

Ultimately, this atheoretical and largely descriptive work provided many surprises and counterintuitive findings. For example, laughter, like crying, is not consciously controlled, contrary to literature suggesting that we speak ha-ha as we would choose a word in speech. Most laughter is not a response to humor. Laughter and speech are controlled by different brain mechanisms, with speech dominating laughter. Contagious laughter is the product of neurologically programmed social behavior. Contrasts between chimpanzee and human laughter reveal why chimpanzees can't talk (inadequate breath control), and the evolutionary event necessary for the selection for human speech (bipedality).

Whether embryonic behavior or laughter, fishing expeditions guided me down the appropriate empirical path, provided unanticipated insights, and prevented flights of theoretical fancy. Contrary to lifelong advice, when planning a new research project, I always start by going fishing.


TODD E. FEINBERG, M.D.
Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Author, Altered Egos

 

 


Soul Searching

For most of my life I viewed any notion of the "soul" a fanciful religious invention. I agreed with the view of the late Nobel Laureate Francis Crick who in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis claimed "A modern neurobiologist sees no need for the religious concept of a soul to explain the behavior of humans and other animals." But is the idea of a soul really so crazy and beyond the limits of scientific reason?

From the standpoint of neuroscience, it is easy to make the claim that Descartes is simply wrong about the separateness of brain and mind. The plain fact is that there is no scientific evidence that a self, an individual mind, or a soul could exist without a physical brain. However, there are persisting reasons why the self and the mind do not appear to be identical with, or entirely reducible to, the brain.

For example, in spite of the claims of Massachusetts physician Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who estimated through his experiments on dying humans that approximately 21 grams of matter — the presumed weight of the human soul — was lost upon death (The New York Times "Soul Has Weight, Physician Thinks" March 11, 1907), unlike the brain, the mind cannot be objectively observed, but only subjectively experienced. The subject that represents the "I" in the statement "I think therefore I am" cannot be directly observed, weighed, or measured. And the experiences of that self, its pains and pleasures, sights and sounds possess an objective reality only to the one who experiences them. In other words, as the philosopher John Searle puts it, the mind is "irreducibly first-person."

On the other hand, although there are many perplexing properties about the brain, mind, and the self that remain to be scientifically explained — subjectivity among them — this does not mean that there must be an immaterial entity at work that explains these mysterious features. Nonetheless, I have come to believe that an individual consciousness represents an entity that is so personal and ontologically unique that it qualifies as something that we might as well call "a soul."

I am not suggesting that anything like a soul survives the death of the brain. Indeed, the link between the life of the brain and the life of the mind is irreducible, the one completely dependant upon the other. Indeed the danger of capturing the beauty and mystery of a personal consciousness and identity with the somewhat metaphorical designation "soul" is the tendency for the grandiose metaphor to obscure the actual accomplishments of the brain. The soul is not a "thing" independent of the living brain; it is part and parcel of it, its most remarkable feature, but nonetheless inextricably bound to its life and death.



< previous

| Index | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 |

next >


|Top|