Home » Biology, Culture, Evolution, Science » Robert Wright and the Evolution of Compassion

Robert Wright and the Evolution of Compassion

Robert Wright is seen here in a video presentation giving a lecture about the evolution of compassion.

He begins by saying that compassion, love and sympathy had earned their way into the gene pool. Regardless of how any gene could “earn” it’s way into a gene pool before it is a gene (because all genes, by being genes, are in the gene pool), the question that seems taken for granted is Do we have genes for compassion, love and sympathy? These are metaphysical things, so, notice that what he’s doing is taking metaphysical reality and making it material. But in the same way logic and reason are metaphysical, that is, there are laws of logic and reason that are not reducible to laws of physics or chemistry. Do these owe their existence to genes earning their way into the gene pool also? If so, then we have ruled out logic and reason existing on their own, and are subject to an evolutionary process that constantly changes, otherwise it isn’t an evolutionary process. I cannot see how, on the premise of evolution of metaphysics, which includes all mental capacities, all of our metaphysical judgments, to talk of the evolution of compassion and at the same time understand that the ability to reason to this conclusion is just as subject to evolution.

But so would the evolution of being unreasonable and not being compassionate also be subject to the same evolutionary process. Reciprocal Altruism is a contradiction in terms. Reciprocity is interested in what can be done for it in return, and altruism is not. It really means selfish selflessness. All mental states, all contradictory ones, would have the same purchase and the same taproot in evolution. There would exist no greater value to place on any one above another, for that judgment of value would itself be just another evolutionary expression, and why should we listen to it if we think that other evolutionary outcomes, i.e. not being compassionate and being illogical, are also exactly as much a product of the same evolutionary process? In other words, if evolutionary outcomes are on trial, then it won’t do to use, as your judge, other evolutionary outcomes, for that is what is on trial, and the judge cannot be the one on trial, or else the verdict is invalid. If compassion evolved, then so did not being compassionate, and so did any judgment that would try to compare and place value on them, and so would the thinking that there is any such thing as compassion or not; all would be subject to the same trial that it is trying to impose. I would say this is lunacy, but this doesn’t even reach the ground of being. Lunacy is, at least, something. It is a confusion of a standard. This way of thinking doesn’t even reach the ability to have a standard.

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

35 Responses to Robert Wright and the Evolution of Compassion

  1. Clive, Clive, Clive,

    Syllogism — 1
    All things evolve.
    Compassion is a thing.
    Compassion evolves.
    QED (Quo Erat . . . )

    Sillygism — 2
    Oh, except logic, it doesn’t evolve.
    But that’s ok; logic has survived thus far, so it counts.
    OED (Omni Erat . . . )

    [sarcasm]

  2. Logic must have evolved early and become such an intrinsic part of life that it can no longer evolve.

    We have a theory to account for this.

  3. Mung,

    Are you joking or not? It’s hard to tell.

  4. Clive, your analysis is simplistic.

    First, you declare love and compassion metaphysical but only by fiat. Provide proof.

    Second, logic didn’t evolve. The capacity to reason evolved, and logic is a series of rules that we arrived at using our capacity to reason. Luckily, checking it against reality has proved it useful.

    Third, compassion and lack thereof are used in different situations by the same individual. There is no contradiction.

  5. Joking, for the most part.

    But it might be an interesting research topic to attempt to discover logical operations within the cell.

  6. what of emotions? Are they material or metaphysical? Maybe compassion, love, sympathy, logic and rationality have a physiological component to them much like emotions do.

  7. Anthony09,

    First, you declare love and compassion metaphysical but only by fiat. Provide proof.

    Why should I provide proof? Should is a value judgment, which, if it were material, could be changed by a pill or cut out with a knife, and then you would feel differently. :)

    If love and compassion aren’t metaphysical, then they are physical, and can be removed or altered by a physical process, therefore your love for your mother or anyone else doesn’t even rise to the level of being a figment of your imagination, but rather a chemical process of material movements. In other words, they can be changed by a physical process, and if they can be changed by a physical process, then they don’t really exist, and neither does any other conclusion that can be altered in the same way, not even the conclusion that your thoughts are material, for they could, themselves, be altered for you to believe them to be metaphysical. The fatal flaw is that none of this way of thinking has anything at all to do with truth, only material movements.

  8. Tim,

    I’m glad you understand, and I appreciate your sarcasm.

  9. If love and compassion aren’t metaphysical, then they are physical, and can be removed or altered by a physical process,

    Isn’t that one of the problems with lobotomies? They sometimes do remove compassion and indeed other emotions.

  10. New Scientist once carried a pull-out supplement about the emotional component of intelligence.

    It cited one case of a man who had suffered a brain injury. He recovered from it physically and his intellect appeared unaffected. The only difference was that he seemed to have lost most if not all emotional response.

    To someone who once idolized the logical but unemotional Mr Spock of Star Trek that would have seemed to be an ideal situation but it was far from it.

    Before the injury the man had had a thriving career and a happy marriage with children. After the injury, he lost his job and found it hard to hold down any other. Although he could still see logical reasons for various courses of action he no longer had any emotional drive to follow them. And because he no longer could feel any love for his wife and children, eventually, his marriage broke up.

    There is little doubt that alterations or damage to the physical brain have observable effects on the mind and personality and there is simply no persuasive evidence for their existence separate from that physical substrate.

  11. If love and compassion aren’t metaphysical, then they are physical, and can be removed or altered by a physical process, therefore your love for your mother or anyone else doesn’t even rise to the level of being a figment of your imagination, but rather a chemical process of material movements.

    To what extent can we say that a bottle of Scotch correlate with abuse of women and children?

  12. #10 Seversky

    Yes it is an interesting dilemma. And one I think someone who believes we are more than just material beings should have some kind of answer for. The change in personality that often occurs with stroke and how we appear to be the sum of our memories are all difficult.

    At University during into to Philosophy I was introduced to the three possibilities of being i.e. idealist, humanist and materialist. At the time I may have been in the idealist camp – we are in essence only non physical – but after thinking about it I came to the be in the humanist camp. I believe we are both physical and non physical. I believe that our brains are in some ways like conduits for our non physical selves allowing it to be expressed. I believe the physical self impacts the non physical and the non physical impacts the physical.

    If you damage the brain you damage the ability of the non physical to be expressed. But I also think you can damage your non physical self – through patterns of thought – and that ends up impacting your physical self.

    This is why psychiatrists will always have difficulty, it may not be something physical that needs fixing.

    I reach this conclusion because I think it explains the human experience.

  13. Mark Frank (#9), Seversky (#10) and Cabal (#11):

    Thank you for your posts.

    For me, the coup de grace for the materialist account of mind is that even the materialists’ identification of memory with structures encoded in the brain won’t hold water. It has been convincingly refuted by philosopher Stephen E. Braude in his brilliantly argued article, Memory without a Trace in the European Journal of Parapsychology 21, Special Issue (2006): 182-202.

    If the notion that I remember with my brain is wrong, then how much more so is the idea that I love or do logic with my brain?

    Seversky, you wrote:

    There is little doubt that alterations or damage to the physical brain have observable effects on the mind and personality and there is simply no persuasive evidence for their existence separate from that physical substrate.

    I have to disagree. Another possibility is that higher-order mental acts, even though they are not identifiable with bodily acts or brain processes, nevertheless presuppose the occurrence of certain activities in the brain, before they can take place. This should no more occasion surprise than the familiar fact that I am utterly incapable of cogitating, showing compassion or expressing my personality if my heart has stopped beating. We don’t say that the heart thinks and feels on that account. Rather, we conclude that blood circulation is a necessary (but not sufficient) requirement for mental functions to take place in the human animal.

    Mark Frank, you mentioned lobotomies. You can read about the effects of lobotomies here in the highly readable online textbook Psychology: An Introduction by Russell A. Dewey, Ph.D. Dewey writes:

    Lobotomy patients were said to act stimulus-bound. They reacted to whatever was in front of them and did not respond to imaginary situations, rules, or plans for the future. Many of the patients became fat. If food was set in front of them, they ate, hungry or not. Some of the patients grew sexually promiscuous; they pursued immediate gratification without regard for consequences. Few of the lobotomy patients could plan effectively for the future or sustain goal-oriented activities. A goal requires that complicated plans be held in mind, and this was evidently beyond the capacity of lobotomy patients, who tended to be distracted by immediate stimuli.

    So far, so good. But then Dr. Dewey continues:

    Cobb (1944) described the problem of lobotomy patients as a reduction in “long-circuiting.” This metaphor suggests that reduction of brain tissue, and number of neural circuits, is responsible for the effects of lobotomies. It seems possible that lots of “brain space” is required to represent abstract, intangible things like goals, morals, intentions to diet, or even intentions to buy food. Cobb’s metaphor is also supported by the finding that lobotomy-like symptoms are caused not only by damage to the frontal lobes but also by loss of large amounts of tissue almost anywhere in the brain….

    Lobotomies provided evidence that there was something special about the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain located behind the eyes. Brain scanning techniques confirmed this. Prefrontal areas are activated when people exercise will power, make plans, or do creative thinking (Posner, 1993). The frontal lobes provide us with a capacity for comprehensive forward planning which is a hallmark of our species.

    I believe that Dr. Dewey draws the wrong conclusions here. Certain regions of the brain (especially the pre-frontal cortex) play a vital role in integrating information from the outside world, so that the agent can make a decision which is appropriate under the current circumstances. These regions of the brain also screen out distracting stimuli which might cause the agent to get off-task and firget what he/she was doing. This is all well and good. But compassion itself can’t be equated with integrating information and staying on-task. Neither can logic. Neither can personality. Information processing represents the scaffolding on top of which these higher-level processes occur.

    Why, then, does consuming a bottle of Scotch frequently cause acts of violence, as Cabal (#11) pointed out? That’s easy to account for, without resorting to materialism. In the cerebral cortex, alcohol can certainly affect thought processes, leading to potentially poor judgement. This is hardly surprising, as alcohol interferes with communication between nerve cells. Alcohol also depresses inhibition, making drinkers more talkative and more confident – and in some cases, more violent. In other words, our primitive impulses take over our behavior when the regulatory function of our cerebral cortex is impaired.

    I’d like to finish by quoting an extract from Arthur Custance’s The Mysterious Matter of Mind (pp. 3-4, emphases mine – VJT):

    In 1961 Wilder Penfield reported a dramatic demonstration of the reality of active mind or will at work. He observed mind acting independently of the brain under controlled experimental conditions that were reproducible at will. His subject was an epileptic patient whose brain had been surgically exposed in the temporal area of one hemisphere. The “trigger” was stimulation of the cortex with a single electrode using a 60-cycle 2-volt current.

    In a now famous paper, Penfield wrote:

    When the neurosurgeon applies an electrode to the motor area of the patient’s cerebral cortex causing the opposite hand to move, and when he asks the patient why he moved the hand, the response is: ‘I didn’t do it. You made me do it’… It may be said that the patient thinks of himself as having an existence separate from his body.

    Once when I warned a patient of my intention to stimulate the motor area of the cortex, and challenged him to keep his hand from moving when the electrode was applied, he seized it with the other hand and struggled to hold it still. Thus one hand, under the control of the right hemisphere driven by an electrode, and the other hand, which he controlled through the left hemisphere, were caused to struggle against each other. Behind the “brain action” of one hemisphere was the patient’s mind. Behind the action of the other hemisphere was the electrode.

    So he concluded:

    There are, as you see, many demonstrable mechanisms (in the brain). They work for the purposes of the mind automatically when called upon… But what agency is it that calls upon these mechanisms, choosing one rather than another? Is it another mechanism or is there in the mind something of different essence? To declare that these two are one does not make them so. But it does block the progress of research. (Penfield, Wilder: in the Control of the Mind Symposium held at the University of California Medical Center, San Fracisco, 1961, quoted in Arthur Koestler, Ghost in the Machine, London, Hutchinson Publishing Group, 1967, pp. 203-204.)

    It is clear that Penfield’s epileptic subject had not only a brain capable of mechanistic manipulation but also a “mind of his own” by which the contralateral area [contralateral: same site on opposite side (e.g., left eye is contralateral to right eye)] could be ordered to work at cross purposes.

    In short: if somebody managed to control another person’s brain and thereby render that person compassionate or selfish at will, then I would start taking the materialist thesis very seriously. And if somebody could demonstrate control of a patient’s beliefs and opinions by turning a knob, then materialism would indeed be proved. Absent such a demonstration, I shall continue to maintain that materialism is nothing but poor philosophy masquerading as science.

  14. The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it can truly be called astonishing.

    (p. 3) -Francis Crick (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.

    How dare anyone question Nobel laureate Crick!! :-o

    Thankfully we already know that if Crick was right then he was also wrong. Rightness and wrongness are merely a function of physics and chemistry, i.e. an illusion that can change with every mutation.

    The proverbially old arguments of relativism are always self-contradictory.

  15. I’m going to start a new thread on this topic. In the meantime feel free to comment on this post until the new one is written.

  16. Clive, you added a non sequitor to your already muddled mess of a post.

    Of course compassion and love have their roots ion chemical, physical processes. To somehow conclude from that they this means they are somehow not real is the non sequitor.

    And explosion is entirely the result of a chemical, physical process. By your logic is too is not real.

  17. #13

    vjtorley

    Thanks for the Stephen Braude article, It was one of the more interesting things I have read recently. Although I ended up thinking “this guy is professor of philosophy at a major university!!!”

    You can see that there must be something strange about the argument because it applies equally to computer memory of e.g. where you positioned a window. The computer obviously keeps a representation of your window position in memory. Braude’s argument would suggest that for that to work the computer also have to memorise the link between that representation and the window leading to infinite regress. Of course, that is not what happens. The software provides that link. In the same way there is something in our brain that represents memories of past experiences (which incidentally is only one kind of memory – episodic memory) and some mechanism that links us to that representation when we for example recall that memory. But we don’t have to remember that mechanism!

  18. Anthony09,

    And explosion is entirely the result of a chemical, physical process. By your logic is too is not real.

    It is not real in the sense of not being true “about” something else. Love and compassion wouldn’t be true because they wouldn’t be true about anything else, which means that there would be no object loved, nothing to be compassionate about, and since this is the very thing that gives these words any meaning whatsoever, it is true to say that if they were not about anything then they are not anything at all. To say that the explosion was true “about” something else, is the same as saying, by your system, that an explosion “loved” an object. This is a confusion of thought. When you make the two (love and a bomb exploding) the same thing, you are muddled.

  19. #18

    Clive

    You say in #7 of love and compassion

    “if they can be changed by a physical process, then they don’t really exist”

    It has already been pointed out that they can be changed by a physical process – but let’s leave that for the moment.

    Anthony09 then points out that this is a non-sequitur. Many things can be changed by physical processes and they do exist.

    So you switch from “really exist” to “true” – on the basis that an explosion cannot be about something while love and compassion can. So presumably the argument now becomes:

    “if they can be changed by a physical process, then they are not true”

    Again I would dispute that love and compassion which are abstract nouns – not sentences – can be true or false. But anyhow this is still a non-sequitur. There are plenty of things which can be true, and which are about things, and which can be changed by a physical process. For example, the London Tube displays the time to the next train at most stations. This display may be true or false, is about the next train, and is the result of physical processes.

    What are you trying to say? It is very unclear.

  20. Mark Frank said it very well. Just because love is “about” something and is the result of a physical process doesn’t make it not true. That’s the non sequitor.

    You ought to read this essay, which destroys your non sequitor: http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/ghost.html

  21. Mr Frank,

    To clarify your analogy, some memory addresses in a computer program are hard coded into the text of the program, and others areindirect or relative to a value stored in memory. There is really only one hard address that program needs, the start of the symbol table. From this it can find the values of all other references to memory.

    The analogy is that some locations are hard wired into the brain. The brain is not infinitely plastic, the basic wiring laid down during development.

  22. Mark Frank –

    It has already been pointed out that they can be changed by a physical process

    The Bible warns you that physical processes can affect your soul — yes you can lose love and the ability to love.

    It comes down to what choices you make and it’s why you should always be a little bit thoughtful about choosing.

    Christianity, of course, has traditionally taught that deeds done without choice mitigate or even expunge the guilt.

    For instance, if someone wired you like that epileptic and made you strangle a child the sin would not be yours.

  23. Mark Frank (#17)

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article by Braude. I would like to emphasize that most of the arguments he deploys are not original to him. One author whom he repeatedly cites is Heil, J. (1978). ”Traces of Things Past.” Philosophy of Science, 45, 60–67.

    Heil’s article is also cited in the bibliography of Dr. John Sutton’s article on Memory in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Section 2 of the article contains an argument which is substantially the same as the one advanced by Braude, which you criticized:

    How does the postulated trace come to play a part in the present act of recognition or recall? Trace theorists must resist the idea that it is interpreted or read by some internal homunculus who can match a stored trace with a current input, or know just which trace to seek out for a given current purpose. Such an intelligent inner executive explains nothing (Gibson 1979, p. 256; Draaisma 2000, pp.212-29), or gives rise to a vicious Rylean regress in which further internal mechanisms operate in some “corporeal studio” (Ryle 1949/1963, p. 36; Malcolm 1970, p. 64).

    But then the trace theorist is left with a dilemma. If we avoid the homunculus by allowing that the remembering subject can just choose the right trace, then our trace theory is circular, for the abilities which the memory trace was meant to explain are now being invoked to explain the workings of the trace (Bursen 1978, pp. 52-60; Wilcox and Katz 1981, pp. 229-232; Sanders 1985, pp. 508-10). Or if, finally, we deny that the subject has this circular independent access to the past, and agree that the activation of traces cannot be checked against some other veridical memories, then (critics argue) solipsism or scepticism results. There seems to be no guarantee that any act of remembering does provide access to the past at all: representationist trace theories thus cut the subject off from the past behind a murky veil of traces (Wilcox and Katz 1981, p. 231; Ben-Zeev 1986, p. 296).

    Even if Braude’s argument is fundamentally flawed (as you contend), at least he has plenty of eminent philosophical company. So I hardly think it disqualifies him from his job.

    Let’s return to the argument cited above. The epistemic problems we face here are that: (i) current traces in the brain cannot uniquely specify the past events that generated them; and (ii) there is no general guarantee of their accuracy.

    You write that there must be something wrong with Braude’s argument because “it applies equally to computer memory.” I disagree. Computers don’t do epistemology. They don’t ask themselves, “How do I know my memories are accurate?” Of course, we can ask that question about a computer’s memory, because we can trace the processes according to which computers encode, store and retrieve data. These processes sometimes generate errors, and we can usually rectify these.

    Another way of attempting to rebut the argument is to bite the bullet and reject the demand for incorrigible access to the past. This is what Sutton seems to suggest:

    The past is not uniquely specified by present input, and there is no general guarantee of accuracy: but the demand for incorrigible access to the past can be resisted.

    But he goes on to honestly admit that there are weighty problems associated with the question of how memories can represent anything at all:

    How can memory traces represent past events or experiences? How can they have content? …In stating the causal theory of memory, Martin and Deutscher argued that an analysis of remembering should include the requirement that (in cases of genuine remembering) “the state or set of states produced by the past experience must constitute a structural analogue of the thing remembered” (1966, pp. 189-191), although they denied that the trace need be a perfect analogue, “mirroring all the features of a thing”. But is there a coherent notion of structural isomorphism to be relied on here? If memory traces are not seen as images in the head, somehow directly resembling their objects, and if we are to cash out unanalysed and persistent metaphors of imprinting, engraving, copying, coding, or writing (Krell 1990, pp. 3-7), then what kind of “analogue” is the trace?

    To deal with these problems, cognitive scientists are forced to suppose that memory is a constructive process, and that the traces are “dynamic” – i.e. in a state of perpetual flux. Although Sutton maintains that “there is no reason to think that ‘constructed memories’ must be false,” I feel compelled to respond that that is no reason why we should trust them.

    I might add that structural isomorphism is far less problematic for computer memory than it is for human memory. But then, computers do a lot fewer things with their memories than we do, and in a much more humdrum, routine fashion. And they don’t ask skeptical questions.

    In short: the notion of a “memory trace” in the brain that mirrors the past event that originally caused it does not hold up to philosophical and scientific scrutiny. There are good grounds for thinking such a trace could not exist. And whatever “traces” do reside in the brain carry no assurance of their reliability, even in general terms. If that’s not a problem for materialism, I don’t know what is.

    To cap it all, Braude points out that most memory isn’t episodic (as you correctly noted):

    If trace theory has any plausibility at all, it seems appropriate only for those situations where remembering concerns past experiences, something which apparently could be represented and which also could resemble certain triggering objects or events later on. But we remember many things that aren’t experiences at all, and some things that aren’t even past — for example, the day and month of my birth, the time of a forthcoming appointment, that the whale is a mammal, the sum of a triangle’s interior angles, the meaning of ”anomalous monism.” Apparently, then, Kohler’s point about trace activation and the need for similarity between trace, earlier event, and triggering event, won’t apply to these cases at all. So even if trace theory was intelligible, it wouldn’t be a theory about memory generally. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

    I repeat my original skeptical question in #13 above: if materialism cannot even account for memory, then why should we believe that it can account for higher-order mental acts, such as human compassion, or reasoning?

  24. vjtorley, quoting Sutton:

    How does the postulated trace come to play a part in the present act of recognition or recall? Trace theorists must resist the idea that it is interpreted or read by some internal homunculus who can match a stored trace with a current input, or know just which trace to seek out for a given current purpose.

    This is where cross-disciplinary knowledge comes in handy. Braude and Sutton are making the same mistake: each is assuming that an independent mechanism is necessary in order to identify the appropriate trace and “read it out”.

    That is how conventional computer memory works. The items to be remembered are stored in particular locations, each of which has a unique numerical address. To retrieve a datum, the appropriate numerical address must be presented to the memory system. Braude and Sutton are effectively asking “Who remembers the address? And if the address itself is stored in memory, who remembers the address where the address is stored? And what about the address where the address of the address is stored? And so on…”

    Apparently, neither Braude nor Sutton is aware that there is another kind of memory, known as content-addressable memory (or CAM), wherein memory locations are activated not by address, but by virtue of their contents. In this scheme, an input pattern is presented to all of the memory locations at once. A particular memory location will activate itself based on how closely its contents match the input pattern.

    Human memory is clearly much more like CAM than it is like ordinary computer memory.

    For example, this morning I saw a reference to the Rio Grande in an article I was reading. Immediately, the song King of the World by Steely Dan started playing in my mind. It contains the line “Any man left on the Rio Grande is the king of the world, as far as I know” (great song, by the way. You can listen to it here).

    Obviously, my brain didn’t go through a list of each song in its memory, one by one, playing them back and looking for one containing the phrase “Rio Grande”. That would have taken forever. Instead, the appropriate memory trace was activated because of its similarity to the input pattern — in this case the phrase “Rio Grande”.

    Further evidence that human memory is like a CAM is that the input pattern doesn’t have to be identical to the stored pattern in order to activate a trace. I ran across the name “Sebastian Cote” during a web search yesterday, and I immediately thought of Sebastian Coe, a British distance runner who held the world record for the mile in the 1980′s. I had never seen the name “Sebastian Cote” before, so there was clearly nothing in my brain that said “when you see the name ‘Sebastian Cote’, go and activate the trace stored at this location” (the one containing Sebastian Coe). Instead, that trace was activated based on the similarity between the input pattern “Sebastian Cote” and the stored pattern “Sebastian Coe”.

    CAM can also explain some of the confusions our memories generate. A friend of mine once attributed the song “Hello It’s Me” to Dolph Lundgren. Todd Rundgren is the singer who did that song; Dolph Lundgren is an actor. If our memories were accessed by location, this sort of confusion would not occur.

    Human memory is clearly CAM-like, and CAMs do not suffer from the problem raised by Braude and Sutton.

  25. Seversky @ 10

    It seems you are referring to the Phineas Gage story, which has suffered from historical revisionism much like the stories of the Snopes trial and the Galileo affair.

    Phineas Gage: Evolution of a lecture room psychopath, from UD’s own Denyse O’Leary.

  26. vjtorley:

    And whatever “traces” do reside in the brain carry no assurance of their reliability, even in general terms. If that’s not a problem for materialism, I don’t know what is.

    Why is that a problem for materialism? We know that memory is unreliable (cf. the work of Elizabeth Loftus on eyewitness testimony).

    And if it’s a problem for materialism, it’s also a problem for those who believe in an immaterial mind, because you have no assurance that an immaterial mind is reliable, either.

    The reliability (or lack thereof) of mind is something that must be ascertained from the inside, regardless of whether the mind is material or immaterial.

  27. angryoldfatman,

    I suspect Seversky is talking about Elliot, a famous patient of Antonio Damasio’s who is discussed in this article by Jonah Lehrer.

    In any case, there are hundreds of stories of patients whose emotion, will, self-knowledge, and even morality are affected by physical changes in the brain. The thesis that the mind is physical doesn’t stand or fall on the basis of Phineas Gage’s story.

  28. Like Mark Frank, I found Stephen Braude’s paper both challenging and stimulating.

    My immediate response was that his strongest argument was really based in the hard problem of consciousness. The mechanics of how we store and retrieve memories is obviously difficult in itself but not as difficult as explaining who or what is doing the retrieving.

    Thinking about the question of whether or not memories are stored locally in the brain reminded me of the case of a British musician who lost the ability to store long-term memories following an illness. My own unreliable memory failed me when I tried to retrieve the name so I had to augment it with the Google search engine and eventually found Clive Wearing. I think his case is powerful evidence for memory being strongly correlated with the physical brain and that, to a large extent, we are what we remember.

    If we assume the alternative, that memory is not stored locally in the brain but elsewhere, with the brain being some sort of interface device or transceiver, the problems are multiplied. Not only does the problem of explaining how memory works remain but also have to explain where and in what form memories are stored. If it is some kind of transcendental common mass storage domain, how do we locate and retrieve just our memories from all the others? Whatever the problems inherent in any explanation of brain-based storage, they are multiplied massively with such an alternative.

    For memory to work, however it is encoded, the data must be retrievable in the same form as it was entered. Every form of long-term storage of data we have now – be it symbols chiseled in stone or clay, inkmarks on parchment or paper, spiral grooves on a disk, magnetic coatings on a tape or disk or pits cut in a disk by laser – involves recording it on some sort of physical substrate which does not change over time or, rather, does so very slowly. While allowing that science and technology could change dramatically in the future, there seems to be no escape from that principle.

    While there is no reason not to explore more speculative approaches, it is reasonable to infer from the above that our memories are most likely stored in the brain.

    It seems there is still a long way to go explaining how and we have yet to crack the hard problem of consciousness but cases like that of Clive Wearing and others, all the data from other disorders or injuries to the brain, research into transcranial electromagnetic stimulation and even Michael Persinger’s “God helmet” point towards consciousness and the mind being brain-based.

  29. This may be of interest:

    The Mind and Materialist Superstition – Six “conditions of mind” that are irreconcilable with materialism:
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....super.html

    A Reply to Shermer – Medical Evidence For NDEs – Pim van Lommel M.D.
    Excerpt: as soon as the function of brain has been lost, like in clinical death or in brain death, with iso-electricity on the EEG, memories and consciousness do still exist, but the reception ability is lost. People can experience their consciousness outside their body, with the possibility of perception out and above their body, with identity, and with heightened awareness, attention, well-structured thought processes, memories and emotions. And they also can experience their consciousness in a dimension where past, present and future exist at the same moment, without time and space, and can be experienced as soon as attention has been directed to it (life review and preview), and even sometimes they come in contact with the “fields of consciousness” of deceased relatives. And later they can experience their conscious return into their body.
    http://www.nderf.org/vonlommel.....sponse.htm

    in further note:

    The Brain is Non-Materialistic In Its Organizational Structure thus strongly suggesting the brain is designed by a “living transcendent Being” instead of an accident of the random actions of “dead material particles” of which life supposedly accidentally emerged from:

    Brain Innately Separates Living And Non-living Objects For Processing
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....142430.htm

    Category-Specific Organization in the Human Brain Does Not Require Visual Experience:
    Distinct regions within the ventral visual pathway show neural specialization for nonliving and living stimuli (e.g., tools, houses versus animals, faces). The causes of these category preferences are widely debated.
    http://www.citeulike.org/user/.....le/5443232

    The preceding fact is a very curious thing to know when seeing how people react to statements about the “Living” God:

    To The Brain, God Is Just Another Guy
    Grafman says there were some differences between religious and nonreligious people. Those who said they believed in God had a negative emotional response to statements like, “There is no higher purpose.” Nonbelievers had the same reaction to statements that assumed God exists.
    http://current.com/items/89919.....er-guy.htm

    In The Wonder Of Being Human: Our Brain and Our Mind, Eccles and Robinson discussed the research of three groups of scientists (Robert Porter and Cobie Brinkman, Nils Lassen and Per Roland, and Hans Kornhuber and Luder Deeke), all of whom produced startling and undeniable evidence that a “mental intention” preceded an actual neuronal firing – thereby establishing that the mind is not the same thing as the brain, but is a separate entity altogether. http://books.google.com/books?.....8;lpg=PT28

  30. As well, This may be of interest:

    In conjunction with the mathematical necessity of an “Uncaused Cause” to explain the beginning of the universe, in philosophy it has been shown that,,,

    “The ‘First Mover’ is necessary for change occurring at each moment.”
    Michael Egnor – Aquinas’ First Way
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2......html#more

    I find this centuries old philosophical argument, for the necessity of a “First Mover” accounting for change occurring at each moment, to be validated by quantum mechanics. This is since the possibility for the universe to be considered a “closed system” of cause and effect is removed with the refutation of the “hidden variable” argument. i.e. There must be a sufficient transcendent cause (God/First Mover) to explain the quantum wave collapse to the “uncertain” 3D effect for “each moment” of the universe.

    Why, who makes much of a miracle? As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles, Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
    Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,,,
    Walt Whitman – Miracles

    Moreover, the transcendent cause must be sufficient to explain the semi-unique effect of 3D centrality witnessed by each individual observer in the universe.

    Quantum Mechanics – The Limited Role Of The Observer – Michael Strauss – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elg83xUZZBs

    That the “mind” of a individual observer would play such an integral yet not complete “closed system role”, in the instantaneous quantum wave collapse of the universe to “3D centrality”, gives us clear evidence that our “mind” is a unique entity. A unique entity with a superior quality of existence when compared to the “uncertain 3D particles” of the “material” universe. This is clear evidence for the existence of the “higher dimensional soul” of man that supersedes any “material basis” that the soul has been purported to “emerge” from. These following studies confirm this “superior quality” of our minds:

    i.e. what right do we have to presuppose material to have the ability to produce a “mind” when a mind is shown to be necessary for “uncertain” 3D reality to “materialize from its quantum wave function in the first place? Clearly it is logically inconsistent to presuppose as such.

  31. scrofulous @ 27

    angryoldfatman,

    I suspect Seversky is talking about Elliot, a famous patient of Antonio Damasio’s who is discussed in this article by Jonah Lehrer.

    Thanks, scrofulous, that’s the one.

  32. #23 vjtorley

    This is the most interesting exchange that I have seen on UD for months, possibly ever.

    I take back my rather glib comment about Braude’s status. There clearly are interesting issues here.

    Let me start by saying that I don’t think “memory trace” means a single physical configuration corresponding to each memory. Indeed I am not sure what “a memory” is. How do you enumerate memories? I agree with Sutton (and modern cognitive psychology) that remembering is a wide diversity of related but different processes which are constructive and dynamic. All I would contend is that there is no reason why memory cannot be an entirely physical process (and any apparent logical problems are not solved by adding a non-physical element).

    You identify two key problems with memory traces:

    (1) They cannot uniquely specify past events
    (2) There is no guarantee of their accuracy

    Again I concur with Sutton. I see no reason why they need to do either. We know all too well that in practice memories are partial and often inaccurate.

    You ask why should we trust them? This seems rather easy to answer. Because in practice we find that they are mostly reasonably accurate as determined by consistency with our other memories, other people’s memories, and current observations. But in any case there seems to be no reason why adding a dash of the supernatural should make them more trustworthy.

    A slightly different question is why do we trust our memories? This is different from why should we trust them. When I remember going to the cinema last night it is not based on a careful evaluation of its consistency with other events. I am certain because I remember it so vividly. There is also the phenomenon of recognition. I may be sure I have seen a face or situation before without knowing when or where (and this process may also be in error sometimes – déjà vu). This strikes me as an evolved facet of the way our mind/brain works. As in many other areas we have evolved a propensity to trust our senses and memories without stopping to evaluate them.

    The computer example is helpful for two reasons. Although clearly far simpler than the human case it demonstrates two things:
    1) How a physical trace memory can be linked to past event without causing an infinite regress

    2) How a physical trace memory can “represent” a past event in the sense of allowing aspects of it to be reproduced without looking anything like the past event

    As far as I can see the only objections you have raised to the computer example are:

    Computers don’t ask sceptical questions and computers do a lot less with their memory. I don’t see the relevance of either to the two points I am making. Are you saying the objections to trace memories only apply to entities that can ask sceptical questions have complex memories? What about 1 year old children?

    Finally let’s deal with non-episodic memory. Remembering is many different things and these different things may have different physical explanations. Semantic memory is broadly the ability to use certain facts (e.g. that the ipconfig command will give me the IP address of a router) in a wide variety of situations. The physical explanation is that there is something in our brain that causes me to reconstruct that fact when I need to. I see no reason why it has to correspond to a past experience – although clearly past experiences have created this ability in my brain. Indeed this is what learning in the cognitive brain is all about.
    That’s quite enough.

  33. I think seversky at #28 got it.

    How can we possibly store data, or perform processes in thin air ? Where is our ‘mind’ ? Does it follow us round like a cloud ? What happens when we die ?, does the cloud sort of drift away ?

    Some evidence is needed please.

    I thought the story of Phineas Gage (and many like it), should have demonstrated pretty clearly that physical changes to our brain cause changes to our entire nature. This is called evidence.

  34. Mr Vjtorley,

    Sorry to come late to your comment, but I think if we can analogize to computer memory at all, then there are analogs to epistimology in the computer arena. One is the checksum, which is used to verufy that a number of memory cells have not changed. The error correcting code is similar. At another level of analogy, we have the database journal.

    When these are combined, we have systems that know when they have suffered a ‘stroke’, such as a cosmic ray changing the values stored in memory, and a way of recovering the correct version of that memory.

    We also have systems of reasoning that can explain their conclusions going back to ground facts such as “I observed it.” “I was taught it.” “I deduced it through this logical operation.”

  35. Mark Frank, scrofulous, Mr. Nakashima, Seversky, Graham1 and bornagain77,

    Thank you all very much for your comments and links. I would also like to offer my sincere apologies for the long delay in my response to you all. Truth be told, I’ve been busy proof-reading a text on optics which is in the process of being translated into English, so I haven’t had much spare time recently.

    After reading all your comments, I have to acknowledge that Braude’s original argument that memories cannot possibly be stored in the brain, which I cited above in #13 and #23, is by no means as compelling as I had imagined, although I still think it has a good deal of merit, for reasons I shall outline below.

    Scrofulous’ suggestion (#24) that memories stored in the brain may be content-addressable certainly makes a lot of sense, and I think it’s a satisfactory response to Braude’s infinite regress argument.

    By the way, here’s an interesting link: A Hybrid Neural Network of Addressable and Content-Addressable Memory by Kinwen Ma in International Journal of Neural Systems, Vol. 13, No. 3 (2003) 205–213.

    See also “A DNA Associative Memory Potentially Larger Than The Brain” by Eric Baum in DNA Based Computers edited by Richard Lipton and Eric Baum (Proceedings of a DIMACS Workshop, April 4, 1995) at http://books.google.com/books?.....38;f=false .

    I will also take on board Mr. Nakashima’s point that computers can be said to check their own memories, using algorithms such as checksum, and can also recover them. However, it would be a category mistake to attribute the cognitive attitude of skepticism to a computer purely on the basis of its ability to detect and correct its own faults – and I don’t think you would wish to do that, anyway.

    Seversky makes the excellent point that difficult as it is to suppose that memories are stored in the brain, our problems are multiplied many times over if we suppose them to be stored somewhere else – e.g. in some immaterial realm. I agree – and so does Braude . That was his whole point – memory isn’t stored anywhere:

    However, it’s one thing to say that the brain mediates the capacity to remember, and another to say it stores memories. The former view (more likely the correct one) takes the brain to be an instrument involved in the expression of memory; the latter view turns out to be deeply unintelligible. For a very limited analogy, we can say that while a functionally intact instrument may be causally necessary for performing a musical improvisation, the music is not stored in the instrument (or anywhere else).

    What Braude was trying to do was shake off the old trace paradigm which has dominated Western thinking about memory for 2,400 years – just like Plato’s Theaetetus account of knowledge as justified true belief, which was widely accepted until Gettier challenged it. What if the trace is a scientific blind alley? What if it’s a stale idea that no-one has challenged, simply because we can’t imagine the alternative?

    Seversky also objects that everything else that remembers, does so by storing data, so it’s a fair bet that our brains do the same:

    For memory to work, however it is encoded, the data must be retrievable in the same form as it was entered. Every form of long-term storage of data we have now … involves recording it on some sort of physical substrate which does not change over time or, rather, does so very slowly.

    To my mind, all this argument proves is that if you’re going to store a memory, you’d better store it somewhere safe and stable, over time. Yes – if. And in any case, we know that the brain isn’t like the examples Seversky cites. Whatever human memory is like, it certainly isn’t like “symbols chiseled in stone or clay, inkmarks on parchment or paper, spiral grooves on a disk.” There are no stone tablets in the brain, that’s for sure.

    Let’s go back to the other arguments raised by Braude against the storage theory. I would like to point out that even if we grant that human memory is content addressable, severe epistemic problems relating to memory still need to be addressed.

    All of you seem to have agreed (or conceded) that if memories are stored in the brain, they are not isomorphic to the events that they are supposed to be memories of.

    In that case, it seems we may still legitimately ask:

    (1) What makes them representational, if isomorphism is absent?

    (2) What makes them memories of one particular event in the past, rather than a host of similar events resembling it, which might have happened instead?

    (3) Why should we trust them, if there is no guarantee of their accuracy?

    (4) How far should we trust them, if there is no such guarantee?

    Now, I will admit up-front that I don’t have a better theory of memory to offer you, so you could throw the same questions at me if you liked.

    Mark Frank (#32) questions the legitimacy of Sutton’s request (see #23 above) for an account of how memories can uniquely specify past events, and for a guarantee of their accuracy, on the grounds that we all know memories are often faulty – i.e. partial and inaccurate. True – but we nevertheless rely heavily on them, in court, at work and in everyday life. I would argue that that degree of trust requires a warrant of some sort – and at present there is none. Mark Frank’s answer to the warrant problem is a practical one:

    Because in practice we find that they are mostly reasonably accurate as determined by consistency with our other memories, other people’s memories, and current observations.

    I have to say that this sounds a lot like the coherence theory of truth (an account which fails to give us the truth), with an added evolutionary twist. For I presume Mark Frank would add that if our memories weren’t generally reliable, we wouldn’t be here now. Animals that mis-remember tend to die young, leaving no progeny.

    Well, my response is: it’s not that simple. Showing that our memories work and have worked in our evolutionary past isn’t the same as showing why we should trust them. I might have a justified belief that my memory is probably accurate at any given time. But the causal and structural nexus between a memory M and the event E that it’s supposed to be a memory of, remains as mysterious as ever. In effect, the pragmatic justification amounts to saying: “Don’t ask me how it works. It just does, that’s all.”

    Will content addressable memory get us out of trouble? Scrofulous (#24) characterises it as follows:

    …[A]n input pattern is presented to all of the memory locations at once. A particular memory location will activate itself based on how closely its contents match the input pattern.

    While human memory clearly has much more in common with content addressable memory than with other kinds of computer memory, it behooves us to be skeptical. Where’s the pattern in the brain? That’s the point at issue. And if it does exist, it’s in flux. Sure, there may be a causal chain from the original event to the current memory – but causal chains can sometimes be wayward. (See http://www.blackwellreference......9524_ss1-3 .) It seems that a purely physicalist account of memory offers no way in principle of distinguishing a bona fide causal chain from a wayward causal chain.

    Finally, the philosophical problem of how memories stored in the brain could be said to be representations has not been addressed at all.

    Graham1, I don’t wish to deny for a moment that brain damage often destroys people’s memories and abilities, and also changes people’s personalities drastically. But what I would predict is that if scientists could somehow repair the damaged brain – e.g. undo a lobotomy or grow back a prefrontal lobe – the ability or memory should reappear. If the storage model is correct, then it shouldn’t: even if the damaged part of the brain grows back, the old pattern in the brain that constituted the memory will have gone forever.

    Now that would be an exciting empirical test.

    Bornagain77, thank you very much for the links to the articles about Dr. John Eccles and also the article by Dr. Michael Egnor. They were well worth reading.

Leave a Reply