About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mysticism and logic

By Massimo Pigliucci

Recently I started a new hobby: collecting relatively rare philosophy books. I figured that there would be some sense of poetry in having an apartment where there are absolutely no books (they all reside on my iPad) except for a few copies of my own and selected philosophical classics smelling of old paper. (I’m not talking about really expensive editions, obviously, not on my public university professor salary anyway.)
The first entry in my collection is a first edition (1918) of Bertrand Russell’s Mysticism and Logic, which is appropriate considering both the influence that Russell has had on me since I was in high school (when I read Why I Am Not a Christian) and because of the topic itself — the difference between rational argument and mystical intuitions.
I want to focus on Russell’s analysis of four characteristics of mystical “insights,” which I think still today provide a fine analysis of the phenomenon — and yes, the irony of logically analyzing an inherently non-logical process has not escaped me. Here is an extensive quotation from Russell, to which I will then add my own thoughts:
“The first and most direct outcome of the moment of illumination [the mystical insight] is belief in the possibility of a way of knowledge which may be called revelation or insight or intuition, as contrasted with sense, reason, and analysis, which are regarded as blind guides leading to the morass of illusion... The second characteristic of mysticism is its belief in unity, and its refusal to admit opposition or division anywhere ... A third mark of almost all mystical metaphysics is the denial of the reality of time. This is an outcome of the denial of division ... The last of the doctrines of mysticism which we have to consider is its belief that all evil is mere appearance, an illusion produced by the divisions and oppositions of the analytic intellect.”
Russell of course is not maintaining that all mystical systems share these four properties, but that very often these or some variations thereof constitute core aspects of the mystical belief, which strikes me as about right. There are two ways of reconstructing what a mystical experience is, one charitable and — I will argue — incorrect, the other one, well...
In one sense, we can think of mystical insights as a form of intuition. Notice that Russell himself uses that word, together with “insight” and “revelation.” The three, however, are clearly not synonymous. As it turns out modern cognitive science has been investigating how intuition works, and we have learned that there doesn’t seem to be a general faculty of intuition (as in “women’s intuition,” to use a loaded and politically charged example). Rather, intuition is a domain-specific type of (subconscious) information processing by the brain, processing that yields insights that are both fallible and limited to that domain.
The best studied case, though by no means the only one, is that of intuitions about the game of chess (for other examples, see the chapter on expertise in Nonsense on Stilts). Expert players, unlike novices (and many chess playing computer programs), do not actually explicitly work out all the possible ramifications of a given move because they have intuitions — rooted in their experience — about which moves are going to work out better given a particular configuration on the board. Chess masters’ intuitions are even better than expert players’, and in fact cognitive scientists have figured out how many thousands of hours of play are required to move from novice to expert to master (assuming one has the aptitude, of course, just playing doesn’t do it). Turns out that to become an expert in a particular field takes a number of hours that is roughly equivalent to those required to obtain a PhD in an academic field.
Of course, even though an expert’s intuitions about a particular domain are far more reliable than a non-expert’s considered opinion, they are not infallible. Which is why in academic fields from science to philosophy, experts’ insights are then carefully scrutinized by means of analytical dissection and comparison with the empirical evidence, where the latter plays a useful role. In other words, even in the case of reliable intuitions, the best course of action is to filter the resulting insights through rational, explicit analysis (if one has the time and resources).
But none of this can possibly account for mystical experiences. Not only do mystics steadfastly refuse to acknowledge any useful role for logical analysis (indeed, they tend to disdain the very idea), mystical insights simply cannot be a type of intuition because they refer to domains of (alleged) knowledge of which nobody actually has any cumulative experience. Since what generates increasingly reliable intuitions is precisely a long history of cumulative experience in a given field, mystics must be resorting to something else for their insights.
That something else is captured by the remaining word used by Russell to characterize the difference between mysticism and logic: revelation. Indeed, mystics would have us believe that they (and only they) have access to a deeper level of reality, a type of access that is not available to most of us (though in some mystical traditions one can acquire it through practices such as certain types of meditation).
But that being the case, what is this special access based on? Where does the revelation come from? Here again there are basically two possibilities: either the revelation comes from a supernatural being (that is the meaning of revelation in religious traditions) or it is made possible by the existence of a special sense that mystics have and the rest of us don’t (or that mystics have learned to use and the rest of us haven’t).
The first possibility (divine revelation) of course begs the question of the existence of divinities to begin with, and readers of this blog know exactly what I think of supernaturalism. The second possibility begs the question in a different way: since there is no externally verifiable evidence of either a mystical realm or of mystical insight, how do we know that these people aren’t either frauds or — more likely — simply deluded? Unlike intuition, mystical revelation cannot be subjected to the scrutiny of logical analysis and empirical investigation; and unlike the case of intuition as studied in cognitive science, we have no reason to believe that there even is anything like mystical revelation as a way of knowing things.
I will not carry the argument as far as concluding that there is no mystical realm, because proving that sort of negative is outside the scope of rational discourse. But this isn’t a shortcoming of rational discourse, it is a shortcoming of mystical discourse (if it is a type of discourse at all). It always amazes me how many people, when faced with extraordinary claims about “quantum mysticism” (a la Deepak Chopra), parallel realities, underlying unity of the cosmos, and so on, fail to ask the simple question: “This is very interesting, but how do you know?”
It can be answered that asking for evidence or reasons backing up mystical insights is missing the point entirely. Perhaps, but then what is the point? If self-professed mystics are allowed to make whatever claims they wish, without constraints imposed by reason or evidence, then why on earth would anyone believe them? The answer, of course, is because it makes some people feel good to think they “understand” a reality beyond the mundane, so much the better if they can stick it to self-important rational intellectuals such as yours truly. But here is Russell on feeling sure about things for which there is no reason or evidence: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” Amen.


  1. Slightly off topic but I think that with Russell we have a great argument for writing popular scientific books - whenever I ask fellow philosophers what turned them on to philosophy they very often respond by telling me about a popular scientific book written by Russell. It's a particularly useful example when a fellow academic starts to look down on such writing - "So, Prof. McSnooty, what got you interested in doing philosophy?"

    And, yes, in my case it was also Why I'm not a Christian that was very important. Not so much in getting me interested (I think I was born interested) but just allowing me to realise that one could do that.

    Konrad Talmont-Kaminski

  2. "It can be answered that asking for evidence or reasons backing up mystical insights is missing the point entirely."

    Isn't there a kind of equivocation happening when people even use the term "knowing" in reference to revelation: does it even make sense epistemologically to assert that "I know" something through revelation?

  3. I am speaking here for mystical traditions that in your view involve "a special sense...that mystics have learned to use and the rest of us haven’t".

    It is not the addition of a sense, but a loss. Specifically, the loss of the illusion of a unitary self. There is plenty of rational evidence, eg from neuroscience, that a unitary self is an illusion. But most of us routinely think this way even when we know it is wrong. During a mystical experience, the illusion is lifted, and one can experience whatever else there is in the absence of this illusion. Rational analysis alone cannot remove the illusion.

    It is not unreasonable to assume that what one sees when a known illusion is dispelled is "more true" than what one sees when the known illusion is present. And rationality is what makes us _know_ that it is an illusion.

  4. Johanna,

    I've heard that argument before, and it doesn't move me in the least. What neurobiology shows is that a unitary sense of consciousness can be broken down if certain things go *wrong* in the brain. And the result is a less functional, and sometimes completely dysfunctional, human being.

    So I don't call the unit of consciousness an "illusion," it's a necessary aspect of what it means to be a functional human being. Which means that I think it is irrational to maintain that when a biological function breaks down we somehow gain quasi-magical access to an otherwise hidden reality (of which, of course, we have absolutely no other evidence other than that given us by our brain when they malfunction...).

  5. Massimo, the same conclusion arises from experiments that show that decisions are made BEFORE the experience of deciding. This is in a fully functional brain.

    The part of our brain that claims to be in control of the rest, making decisions etc, when really it is just the spin doctor rationalizing decisions already made, this part shuts up for a change during meditation. Yes, it would be hard to function in real life without the spin doctor. If you shut it down too severely, for example, you may lose language. But shutting it up for a while, and taking a break from language, does allow us respite from a certain set of illusions.

  6. @Massimo

    That makes sense to me. I can't imagine, going back to the notion of evolution as local optimization, that losing a sense of "I-ness" would reveal hidden and latent talents or perceptual abilities that weren't overtly selected for. This would seem to imply we're fundamentally flawed in some way, which sounds like the utter bunk a medium or psychic might say to convince people that he can do things that they can't.

  7. Joanna,

    the interpretation of the experiments you are referring to is actually much more controversial than you seem to imply. Moreover, they have nothing to do with shutting down consciousness to uncover an alleged underlying reality. You are attempting to climb mirrors washed in soap...

  8. Massimo, it would help if you gave a concrete criticism of the interpretation of these experiments, rather than just label them as "controversial". I am afraid your reply contained no substance.

    I do not claim that consciousness is shut down during meditation. Only a particular, normally dominant aspect of consciousness is, which allows other aspects to come to light. Using sanskrit terms, the ahamkara ("I-maker") shuts down, and eventually perhaps asmita ("I-sense"), but usually not buddhi ("intelligence"). These theories of consciousness are a little more refined than using a single catch-all word. Sorry for the bad translations, but English simply doesn't have the words. But I don't think this flaw in English justifies your mischaracterisation of the claims.

  9. Joanna,

    no time right now to look up references to the studies in question, I remember reading cautionary criticisms about methodological problems. More importantly, again, I see no link between those studies and what you are claiming.

    And sanskrit terms, however translated, don't make for a theory, much less for evidence. Is your only evidence for a mystical realm that some people think they perceive it when their consciousness is partly hampered - which can be obtained by meditation, drugs or starvation? That's it?

  10. Of course those sanskrit terms don't exist in isolation, they exist as part of a theory of consciousness. That theory was developed based on introspective, subjective observations, including manipulations. But more recent "objective" (quotation marks because I think it is an ideal, never fully realised) neurobiological measurements have all been consistent with that theory.

    The neurobiological observation in question here is that the part of our consciousness that does the talking and says "I decide that..." (ahamkara, according to the theory) is actually a minor player and doesn't do the deciding. But we nevertheless tend to identify a unitary self with the ahamkara. This illusion is not supported by the data. This illusion can be overcome, at least temporarily, by meditation.

  11. Maybe we ascribe different meanings to the word "theory." I seriously doubt that there is a sanskrit theory of consciousness. Hell, modern science doesn't have a theory of consciousness, yet. And you keep referring to "illusions" because it furthers your argument, not because consciousness really is an illusion - or perhaps we are using the term "illusion" in incompatible ways.

    Furthermore, this begins to sound to me like statements to the effect that the ancient atomists "got" modern physics because, you know, they were talking about atoms. No, they didn't, and no, they didn't have a theory in anything like the scientific meaning of the word. Oh, and they were wrong, too.

  12. We don't know consciously what we are going to say until we hear ourselves saying it in the instant that we have time to censor the utterance that our subconscious has in a prior instant determined we had the need to say.
    I'm with Joanna Masel on this one.

  13. If you give me a clear definition of what a "theory" is, I can tell you whether the yogic theory of consciousness fits your definition. And we can also see if you apply that definition consistently elsewhere.

    You keep referring to the word "consciousness". It is such an umbrella term as to confuse more than it describes. Better to use a more precise term for what is meant in each case.

    I never referred to consciousness as an illusion. I said that a unitary self is an illusion. I don't think the confusion comes from my use of the word illusion. I think it comes from your use of the word consciousness.

    When, as you concede, modern science does not have the answer, there is no reason to assume the a priori superiority of modern science. This is a rather different case to atoms, about which modern science is hardly lamenting its ignorance.

  14. Baron, Joanna,

    okay back to square one. Neurobiological data on when we make decisions, or on the unity of self are irrelevant to the demonstration of a mystical realm. The latter simply doesn't follow, or at least you have not even given a hint of how it may possibly follow. And the burden of proof is squarely on your shoulders on this one.

    As for "theory," I could refer you to much literature in the philosophy of science. But let's say simply something as well constructed, articulated and *empirically verified* as Darwin's theory of evolution or Einstein's theory of relativity.

  15. I disagree with the last quote. How about this one: "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties." --Sir Francis Bacon

    Intelligent people have doubts because that is what leads them to knowledge.

  16. >Intelligent people have doubts because that is what leads them to knowledge.

    I don't think intelligence is the proper term. There are many intelligent people who are gullible, i.e., they are not sufficiently skeptical.

  17. "But let's say simply something as well constructed, articulated and *empirically verified* as Darwin's theory of evolution - "
    What could be more mystical than a natural selection mechanism that has no observable structure and functions with no direct connection to the experiences of the individuals that are ultimately affected by the mystical assessments of that function?

    Yet Darwin was the farthest ever from a nutcase. (Unlike Chopra, who has had every opportunity to know better.)

  18. Baron,

    are you seriously comparing natural selection to a mystical process (whatever that might mean)? Really??

  19. I never tried to demonstrate the existence of a "mystical realm". Quit fighting straw men. I said that while in a mystical state, certain illusions are weakened or gone, which makes the world and the self look rather different.

    You are setting the bar pretty high with your definition of "theory". Clearly neutral theory and string theory are out. Even better stuff like life history theory doesn't quite make that bar.

  20. Joanna,

    quit shifting the post then. How can you talk about a "mystical state" if you don't have any evidence of a mystical realm? Or do you simply mean an altered state of consciousness? If the latter, then we trivially agree, but that has no bearing at all with mystical insights and realms.

    I'll be happy if you provide me with a theory of mysticism that reaches the lower bar of life history theory, thank you.

  21. It's a real process with a mystical explanation made even more mystical by Neo-Darwinists, who seem to find the mysteries that remain unsettling. IOW, the process remains mysterious, the explanations largely mystical.

  22. Baron, well, the only answer that comes to mind is: baloney, my friend.

  23. It can be answered that asking for evidence or reasons backing up mystical insights is missing the point entirely. Perhaps, but then what is the point? If self-professed mystics are allowed to make whatever claims they wish, without constraints imposed by reason or evidence, then why on earth would anyone believe them?

    Beautifully put! As I wrote in another thread here some time ago, the basic problem with not using reason to decide what is true is that then there will be no way to find agreement, and humanity turns into seven billion epistemic islands.

    However, one could look at it in the same way as at god claims: there is a wide spectrum of mystical "insights" ranging from very specific claims about the universe and what we have to do for our health or spiritual well-being (equivalent to religious commandments or the hadiths in their specificity) to extremely fuzzy feelings of one-ness with the universe carefully avoiding any concrete interpretations that could be tested (equivalent to Karen Armstrong style theology, perhaps?). The farther somebody leans to the latter position, the less fruitful it becomes to ask how they know, because they hardly claim to know anything. Not that this keeps them from feeling smug and special, of course.

  24. Massimo,
    Why don't you tell us then how the natural selection process actually works, from the standpoint of purpose, assessment process, expectations, choice-making, feedback, re-assessment, etc.

    That is, If you can't concede that much of this remains a mystery.

  25. Baron,

    you may want to look at this or any other similar books:


    If you find anything mystical there, we'll talk.

  26. Massimo, I do simply mean an altered state of consciousness. And, coming back to the true point of the discussion, a state of consciousness in which the person experiencing it obtains an important and in some sense "more true" view of the self and the world. A view that stresses an underlying unity of all things as a corrective to the natural and usually excessive tendency of the human mind to place everything into rigid, overly simplified categories. We use reason and not mystical insight to confirm that this view is more true, that these are indeed illusions that are being lifted. But philosophising about how things would look without specified cognitive illusions is not the same as experiencing it.

  27. Joanna,

    but claiming that altered states of consciousness yield a "more true" view of the world is begging the question. I claim that they simply create an illusion of oneness with the universe, which is the result of the sense of propioception misfiring. And no, I don't see reason as confirming at all that mystical insights are "more true." Got any actual independent evidence of such more trueness?

  28. We are going around in circles. The independent evidence is the neurobiological experiments already discussed, showing that the unitary-seeming self that we perceive as a decision maker does no such thing. A state that dispels this known illusion can be inferred to be in at least some senses more true.

    The yogic mystical tradition is also accompanied by a substantial philosophical (ie rational if not scientific) tradition. For example, it employs thought experiments such as determining at what point your breath is part vs. not part of you, to reach the conclusion that these categories are not clearcut, and that our tendency to categorize is excessive. I am sure neuropsychologists would agree about the over-categorization. Again, lifting a known illusion should have benefits.

  29. Massimo, you've simply ducked the question, which Futuyama's book supposedly answers for you, yet, surprise, surprise, does not. Neo-Darwinists' reverence for mother nature as a designer is as mystical as Chopra's reverence for Krishna.

  30. Yes, we are going in circles, that's the nature of these discussions, I'm afraid, which is another reason I distrust mysticism.

    Okay, the experiments on unitary self are different from those about subconscious decision making. The first ones show that the self is made of components, but not that it is an "illusion" to be dispelled. When it is, people become dysfunctional.

    Experiments on subconscious decision making tell us that some time we have reached a conclusion before we are aware of it. Not all the times, and it is not the case that we cannot reverse that conclusion by conscious thought. Unconscious decisions are fast but often inaccurate, conscious decisions are slower but more cautious. We clearly need both, and neither of these processes points to anything mystical at all.

    Yes, categories are not (always) clear cut. Sometimes they are, it depends. Regardless, a mental state that blurs all categories into one big damn thing doesn't seem to me to be particularly useful or insightful.

    As for eastern philosophy, as a philosopher I would argue that that tradition is not philosophy at all. It is, largely, mysticism. Philosophy as I understand and practice it is about reasoned arguments based on logic, not vague talk about ill-defined concepts like "I-maker" and "I-sense."

    (In case you are wondering, I also don't consider continental philosophy philosophy. That's not to say that everything that mystics or continental philosophers claim is wrong or useless, just that it isn't an argument based on logic.)

  31. Baron,

    I haven't ducked anything, you just don't want to bother doing the readings. I don't know of any neo-Darwinist (an incorrect term, by the way) who reveres mother nature, nor does the term *ever* enter into scientific discussions of evolution. And the comparison with Chopra and Krishna is simply ridiculous.

  32. 'The first entry in my collection is a first edition (1918) of Bertrand Russell’s Mysticism and Logic,"

    Har - I'm the exact opposite. Mysticism and Logic, along with Cosmos by Humboldt and Hume's The Natural History of Religion, are the only books I have in iBooks on my iPad; and my kindle is almost exclusively filled with old public domain books. Meanwhile, stacks and stacks of newer books are literally piling up around me. (Darn library book store and its addictive 1 dollar hardcovers!)

  33. Massimo,
    I've done the readings, thank you. Futuyama sees no purpose in the natural selection process. He does not see life's evolution as a self-engineering process. One that still remains a mystery as to the details? Of course.
    Mysterious does not equate to mystical however.

    The term "nature" does equate to "mother nature" (nature personified as a creative and controlling force).

  34. Where is your evidence that when the illusion of a unitary self is dispelled, the person becomes "dysfunctional"? The Eastern term for this experience is "enlightenment".

    If, as you agree, "we have reached a conclusion before we are aware of it", then the self cannot be unitary.

    Your statements divide the mind into unconscious, subconscious and conscious. The distinctions used by yogic philosophy to form a rather more extensive and useful classification system. Before you argue that this philosophy of the mind is not, in fact, philosophy, you might want to learn something about it. For example, it divides the mind into the sensory mind, the emotional mind, higher intelligence, the chattering ahamkara or "I-maker", and some other finer distinctions, and describes how these parts of the mind interact with one another. Where is the mysticism in this? It is grounded in the rational analysis of introspective observations that include but are not limited to mystical states. As opposed to Western philosophies of the mind, grounded in the rational analysis of introspective observations that exclude mystical states. I don't see that the a priori exclusion brings any greater understanding. Nor does "vague talk about ill-defined concepts like" the conscious, subconscious and unconscious.

    And most mystical experiences do not "blur all categories into one big damn thing". Although they do blur all categories.

  35. Massimo and Joanna,

    These studies about the brain response vs. conscious awareness are frequent and I've never come across controversy on the results that doesn't suggest that either consciousness comes after the fact, or try to imply "this can't possibly be the case" without supporting arguments. I'm not an expert. But many other aspects of consciousness would lead me to believe that a lot of processing and responding goes on before we've even put together an awareness of the situation, much less reacted consciously to it: most of our visual processing actually comes from memory; we filter out and fill in an enormous amount of raw information before we get the picture in our head together.

    The only neurological damage I can think of that specifically breaks a unitary consciousness (and I'm not granting that this exists at all, without further definition) is when the corpus callosum is cut, at which point it is possible to set up a situation in which one part of the brain lies to the other, but these are laboratory conditions, and these people tend to function perfectly normally, for the same reasons as described in the previous paragraph: the brain does a lot of work to keep things seeming normal, especially to its owner.

    Anyway, this is a bit beside the point: I think the access to a deeper level of reality, or to an alternative realm of existence is a layer of babble on top of the actual mystical experience. There are a lot of mystical traditions that are built up around the experience, and a lot of misinterpretation around attempts to describe. The passage quoted from Russell sounds like an excellent example of a poor describer and a bad interpreter, which is a constant problem.

    You don't even have to get to mysticism to come up against the fundamental problem with analyzing it: you can't describe an acid trip in any meaningful way to someone who hasn't done it, and you don't need to describe it to someone who has had it. Even acid is extreme; I hate to tap this barrel, but it's a problem of communicating qualia, and the mystic experience has no features besides a moment of experience.

    The mystical experience, as I've experienced it and had it described to me by non-dogmatic meditators, seems straightforward: it's a temporary loss of self, or stream of consciousness. So the brain is still experiencing, but not having any kind of communicable train of thought. It's not a loss of self-awareness, but it's a cessation of analyzing that awareness. With that goes self vs. other, all palpable sense of the passage of time, and judgement and symbolic constructions. It feels interesting, to say the least, and can generate a lot of physical sensations that are above par, but it's not really good, or bad, or uplifting, or revealing, or instructive. It's just a radically different sensation of existing and being aware.

    Of course, then all those thoughts and constructions come flooding back, and people think they've touched god or whatever they want to tell people later. The same thing is true of recreational psychotropic drugs, but all that's going on is you're having a different brain wave pattern. Personally, I find it liberating and pleasant, and it does suggest that if this is a readily available alternative way to be, the rest of the daily hassles and arguments don't really matter, because it is possible, albeit briefly if you want to continue eating, to make all of those things not matter by exploiting what is probably a neurological glitch.

    Sorry for the novel.

  36. "In case you are wondering, I also don't consider continental philosophy philosophy." - Massimo Pigliucci

    I find it hard to believe that there is just cause for considering continental philosophy an activity that differs sufficiently in kind from analytic philosophy so as to exclude it entirely from philosophy - ditto for eastern philosophy. Philosophy has never been purely based in logic, nor does continental philosophy reject logic. I would love to hear the line of reasoning (oops, I mean analysis) behind this; maybe in another post. When I don't have the flu. Ya know, it's a whole other can of worms.

    On the topic at hand; out of a sea of mystical weirdness, Joanna's distinction between mystical experience and, oh, I don't know, let's call it rational understanding, might demand more investigation. I'm pretty sure I've done both (thanks to large quantities of LSD, and good old fashion book learn'in). What I'm not sure about is how a mystical experience results in a different kind of knowledge, much less a knowledge that is "more true" in some sense. Maybe Joanna wants to elaborate on this a bit.

  37. Joanna,

    I'd rather we don't play the "you don't know what you are talking about" game, it's insulting to both of our intelligences.

    What I hear from you doesn't qualify as a theory in my mind. The evidence of dysfunction is that - as another commenter pointed out - when we really see the unit of conscious experience break down we have aberrant behavior as a consequence. Hardly enlightening.

    And if you are no longer talking about mysticism (which, after all, is the topic of this post) but rather of introspection, fine they are different things. But I don't put much stake into introspection either, regardless of whether it comes from the eastern or western (continental) tradition.

  38. "But I don't put much stake into introspection either -"

    Russell, on the other hand, did put a lot of stake in introspection. Likened it to intuition as I recall. Just sayin'.

  39. Baron,

    actually, Russell was deeply suspicious of introspection, and for good reason. And introspection is not at all the same thing as intuition. Just sayin'.

  40. Massimo, here's one you might enjoy tracking down for your collection: Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers. (Gilson was more a historian of philosophy than a philosopher himself, but you might find it interesting.)

  41. Massimo, I may be playing the "you don't know what you are talking about" card, but it is not an insult to your intelligence. It is simply a statement about your current knowledge. You made the sweeping statement that a system does not qualify as philosophy, in the absence of enough knowledge to be familiar with the basic terminology of that system. I can hardly elaborate an entire philosophical system in a blog comment. The onus is on you to acquire a basic understanding about a topic, eg including the meanings of the words capturing its core concepts, before you make strong statements dismissing its worth.

    According to you "the evidence of dysfunction is that...the unit of conscious experience breaks down". You are back to referring to a single unit of consciousness, which is not compatible with the neurobiological evidence. What breaks down (ahamkara) is, as nicely translated by Peter into more Western terms, the "stream of consciousness". And it is quite possible to have higher rather than lower function when that usually non-stop chatter shuts up for a change. Amongst other benefits, one gets a better perspective on what is really important. It also yields a useful opportunity to break out of unhelpful self-reinforcing cycles of thought.

    My digression from mysticism to the defense of Eastern philosophy was directly prompted by your request for an independent line of evidence, outside the mystical experience itself.

  42. Joanna,

    I have read about eastern philosophy, though certainly not in great detail. I am curious to know why you think that not counting that sort of intellectual activity as philosophy in the Western analytical tradition is somehow an insult. Eastern philosophy, and in a different sense, continental philosophy, are different types of things, and though I personally certainly care much less about them than about the traditional way of doing philosophy, it doesn't mean that those other form of thoughts are necessarily inferior.

    As for dysfunction: as someone as pointed out above, people with split brains are the best evidence we have of the disunity of consciousness, and it's not a pretty picture.

    And about your statement that one gets a "better perspective on what is really important" I respect your opinion. It differs from mine substantially. (And yes, I have actually tried meditation, and found it a disheartening waste of my time, frankly.)

  43. Incidentally, Joanna, you are most welcome to send me a blog post about why mysticism is a legitimate form of knowledge or insight, if you'd like to give it a try.

  44. I don't really care whether we classify eastern and western analytic philosophical traditions as different sorts of things. If you admit that the eastern philosophical traditions have merit, then we have an independent line of evidence regarding the nature of the mystical experience, as you requested. If you do not admit that they have merit, then I think it reasonable to consider this an insult.

    What Peter did point out is that people with split brains are actually remarkably functional, and that one has to go to some lengths in the laboratory to characterise any dysfunction. And that there is plenty of other evidence, in particular the decision-making experiments in fully functioning individuals, that consciousness is not unitary, as even your own quote "we have reached a conclusion before we are aware of it" concedes.

    I am sorry that meditation did not work for you. Do you mean that you did not succeed in achieving a state in which the streams of consciousness shut up? How many times did you try?

  45. Thanks for the offer Massimo, but I'll pass. I think this conversation confirms traditional wisdom on one point. Philosophical discussions of mysticism should never be divorced from regular experience of the state itself.

  46. Massimo, I invite your readers to look at Russell's own writing about introspection, The Analysis of Mind by Bertrand Russell. Lecture VI. Introspection.


    Your spin that he was deeply suspicious of introspection is just that, your spin. And neither I nor he said it's the "same thing" as intuition.
    He simply makes it clear that you don't have one without the other.

  47. Joanna, I tried for a few weeks, and yes I did achieve a state of the stream consciousness slowing down if not stopping completely. I just didn't find that that was the way I wanted to spend a significant amount of my time. Yes, of course I may have developed a different attitude had I persisted, but one has to hedge one's bets based on the information available at any particular moment.

    Baron, you said: > Russell, on the other hand, did put a lot of stake in introspection. Likened it to intuition as I recall. < That does sound to me as if you were saying that Russell equated intuition and introspection. At any rate, I don't think that intuition as understood by cognitive science has much at all to do with introspection. Imagine that, even Russell can be wrong.

  48. I love when Massimo takes on the buddhists!

    On the issue of which perspective is "most true" (which does not have to be the "most useful")

    which of these most closely fits your actual, honest, feelings (but not thoughts-very important!), on average:

    1. "stranger in a strange land" - I feel no close relationship to most people, organisms, the planet, or the universe.

    2. "earthling" - I feel as if not only all people and organisms on earth, but the planet itself (and the universe), is essentially, me (ie I am one of myriad forms that matter occurs in)

    Choice #1 is what most people feel because without this feeling of separateness it would be hard to survive (thus xenophobia, lack of concern for environment etc have been built into us over the eons; selfishness is required for survival).

    Choice #2 is what some mystics feel, sometimes, but it rarely lasts and wouldn't be terribly beneficial to survival anyhow. When it is felt, it does feel "more true" than the former, normal perspective - despite it being as you say Massimo, a "malfunction".

    I'll leave off with a relevant Einstein quote (which I hope is genuine - can anyone verify?)

    "A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us." Einstein

  49. Massimo

    I believe I've already been defended on this point, but I think it's vital, if tangential: people with split brains are ostensibly normal. I don't know where this "not a pretty picture" comes from; everybody who's undergone the procedure demonstrates no noticeable dysfunction.


  50. Peter (and Joanna),

    It's fine to cite Wikipedia, I do it too. But if you read both Gazzaniga's original work on split brain patients, as well as Ramachandran's popular rendition of it, you will see that split brain is no picnic. These people make up stories to explain situations that were created by a lack of communication between the two hemispheres. I don't call confabulation and epistemic blindness "functional."

  51. Yes, split brain people make up stories to explain situations where different brain regions are in conflict. So do normal people. In split brain people we have an easy way to study this. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that normal people do not do the same. I believe the word is "rationalization".

  52. Rationalization in "normal" people includes, but is not limited to, a functional arrangement among the selves where one self may be required by circumstances to deceive another. That aspect of rationalization is missing in the split brain patients where selves are deprived of that communicative facility.

  53. Joanna,

    are you seriously arguing that rationalizing as understood in cognitive science is the same sort of dysfunctionality as a split brain? That does sound to me like rationalization at work to somehow make modern neurobiology compatible with thousand years old mystical beliefs.

  54. Rationalization is a psychologic defense mechanism, without much overlap with the neurologic disruption created by hemispheric disconnection and its compensatory mechanisms. The corpus callosum is thankfully not the only commisure in the brain, and most surgical collosotomies are intentionally incomplete, sparing parts of the corpus callosum, allowing parts of the hemispheres to continue communicating, while inhibiting rapid distribution of epileptic waves from one hemisphere to the other. Nevertheless, people with acquired collosotomies (thankfully, performed less frequently nowadays) do experience a variety of disabling neurologic conditions, grouped under the term hemispheric disconnection syndrome. Complete callosotomies tend to more severely impair cognitive function. There is copious redundancy in the brain, and more plasticity than we formerly thought. Centers in hemispheres specialize in functions and modes of operation, and a complete commisurotomy (not limited to the corpus callosum) will invariably create major neurologic disruption, at least in the acute stage. The remarkable ability of the brain to partially recover from such disruption appears to be defined by its plasticity, the younger, the better. Even in the case of complete commisurotomies, it can be argued that information crossing will happen at lower, more primitive centers of the brain.

    As far as we can tell, there is no "cartesian theater" where consciousness "sits". According to the Dennettian multiple drafts model, the stream of consciousness at any given point is the embodiment of one "famous" instance out of multiple competing drafts, one that gains access to memory. Famous for a few microseconds. If that is true, these drafts most likely happen all over the neocortex, left and right, which explains how even more major surgeries such as hemispherectomies tend to preserve basic consciousness, personality, and even memory. (But not sensory function, some linguistic capabilities, motor function, etc).

  55. Ah, this is another of the reasons why I like this blog so much. You write about so many different topics that you draw a very, very diverse set of, let me say, interesting opinions here.

    Some to contemplate, some to snicker about. So now I'm a mysticist because I accept the evidence for natural selection. Ah. You can always learn something new, no?

  56. What I am suggesting is that rationalization is a process that takes a highly non-unitary self that may have internal disagreements, and spins a story together that makes it look like a unitary self. The connection to the split brain patients is only that rationalization is what they use to avoid noticing discrepencies that we as experimenters expose them to.

  57. Oy, I'm a bit conflicted on this one.

    On the one hand, I totally share Massimo's skepticism of metaphysical interpretations of altered states of consciousness (a.k.a. "mystical experience"). In addition (putting aside psychedelic drugs), I find it hard to commit to meditation; i.e. the traditional Eastern gateway to such experience.

    On the other hand, I recall reading numerous reports of medical and psychological benefits to meditation; e.g. with respect to stress reduction and increased subjective well-being (a.k.a. happiness). Given what little time I have invested in it, such claims seem plausible to me, but only with the caveat that no particular mystical/metaphysical beliefs are required (or at least no more so than for physical exercise).

  58. It still seems to me as though Joanna is making the banal observation that the notion of a person is an abstraction, just as the notion of anything other than a point particle or physical force is an abstraction. I, "myself", am a bunch of different mental organs that do not have some sort of locus of decision-making or consciousness. Another thing that's like that? The University of Arizona. How about we switch topics completely and instead berate Joanna for believing that the University of Arizona exists when it's really just a bunch of different buildings and departments with radically different purposes, without some sort of central decision-making body, etc. In fact, I would like to personally recommend my own University Disembodiment Meditation that slowly allows one to experience professorship free from the notion of a unified "university".

  59. Well, truth is truth, whether we judge it to be "banal" or not. (This reminds me of what a professor of mine once told me: "Common sense is not so common.") In more favorable terms, I'd say that Joanna's point is a "modest" one; viz. that recognition of the abstract, composite nature of personal identity was as well-known to ancient mystics as it is to modern neuroscientists. True, she also seems eager to credit that old insight to the Eastern dharmic traditions, but then some of y'all (Massimo included) seem as eager to discredit (or at least dismiss) those same traditions (e.g. as worthless wastes of time), so perhaps your combined efforts cancel each other out in the end.

  60. Indeed, part of my point is what jcm says. The other is that while it may be equally "banal" for someone who is red-green colorblind to understand at a rational level the physics and physiology of color perception, it is quite a different thing to actually see the world in 3 colors. This is a distinction whose importance is stressed far more by eastern traditions stresses than by modern western ones. Modern western thought seems to think that once one understands the physics and physiology of color, what more is there possibly to know about the matter?

  61. Dufus wrote: "So now I'm a mysticist because I accept the evidence for natural selection."
    No, it would be because you accept that selections are made by mother nature's all knowing magical sieve.
    One supposedly devoid of purpose, of a minimally intelligent assessment process, expectations, choice making, feedback, re-assessment, etc.
    For more about your mystical sieve, go here:

  62. > Modern western thought seems to think that once one understands the physics and physiology of color, what more is there possibly to know about the matter? <

    Joanna, I can't let you get away with that. I may not know enough about eastern mysticism, but you seem to ignore pretty much the entirety of modern philosophy of mind, as well as its antecedents in the Western tradition. Never heard of the problem of qualia?

  63. "What I am suggesting is that rationalization is a process that takes a highly non-unitary self that may have internal disagreements, and spins a story together that makes it look like a unitary self." - Joanna

    I think he gets that, or at least, the possibility of it. What seems to be at stake is what conclusions can be derived from the relationships between parts and wholes.

    Take, for example, your assessment of the self as a rationalization of cognitive parts (if I can call our mental bits and pieces pieces that) into a self, and apply the same argument to a universal mystical unitary principal; isn't this sort of unitarian view of the universe simply a process of rationalizing parts into a whole? If we apply your characterization of rationality universally, and take its conclusions seriously (which you seem to be asking us to do), we should end up with a chaotic universe of infinite parts, forever in flux, forever unknowable and undiscernable.

    Similarly, I should be required to argue that the cognitive parts you speak of are themselves an illusion created by a process of rationalization that chops unified objects into pieces (dare we say rations) in order to explain pre-existing intuitions about oneness.

    If one wanted to be consistent with mystical traditions, one would deny the existence of both parts and wholes. After all, one is rationalizing whether one is i the act of splitting or lumping. One would be required to deny science as well, as it relies on necessary distinction in order to establish validity. In fact, I'm not sure logic itself survives the wholesale undermining of the possibility of rationality.

    But what could I possibly mean when I present the condition "consistent with mystical traditions," when consistency itself depends on the rationalization of time? The mystical reality is a radically unraveled one, a radically unhinged one, defined by its own impossibility juxtaposed its adherents conviction that it is certainly so.

    Wicked, I think my cough medicine just kicked in.

  64. Massimo, recognising the importance of qualia by talking about the topic is not the same thing as insisting that a philosopher take certain actions so that they can experience something for themselves.

    James, I made no such extreme claims. Obviously, if one does not create categories, one cannot function. Nevertheless, through a process of rationality one can arrive at the conclusion that the human brain has a perhaps useful but nevertheless inaccurate tendency to overly categorise things to an extent not justified by reality. Meditating from time to time to gain corrective relief from one's daily cognitive errors has some benefits. Most of us are in no danger from the other extreme.

  65. Joanna, I'm sorry, are you saying that philosophers of mind don't "take the action" of seeing colors??

  66. No, that was an analogy. I am aware of no technology that allows a colorblind person to take that action. Western philosophers do not take the action of seeing consciousness in the absence of the ahamkara/stream of consciousness/illusion of a unitary self/whatever you want to call it.

  67. Joanna, I'm completely confused. If that was an analogy, what was the point of it? Of course no such machine exists, but your charge was that "the western tradition" doesn't acknowledge the importance of first person experience and the like. Clearly, that is not true, and my point is that one doesn't have to invoke obscure concepts like ahamkara to do that job.

  68. The Western tradition acknowledges the importance of first person experience by talking about it rather than by taking action to experience it. Essentially, it assumes that experiencing something is trivial, in the sense that it requires no training or special instruction. The training is all focused on analysing the experience after the fact.

    Where the Western tradition identifies cognitive errors, it merely points them out and perhaps asks the philosopher to please stop making them. It provides little guidance for how to do so.

  69. Joanna, this is bordering on the bizarre. First of all, western philosophers - just like anyone else - simply cannot avoid having first person experiences, even if they wanted to. And no philosopher I know thinks of these experiences as "trivial."

    Second, of course they "talk about it." That's what philosophy and rational discourse are about. And that's what I meant when I said that much of the eastern tradition is not philosophy. Action is all good, but we all do it anyway, it's thinking about what we do that is more difficult and far less frequent.

  70. "Essentially, it assumes that experiencing something is trivial, in the sense that it requires no training or special instruction."

    This is an odd statement. Nobody believes that an action is trivial if it requires no training or special instruction.

    I'm supposing you mean that Western philosophy does not emphasize training yourself to have certain experiences. You're right. Western philosophy does not try to train people to rid themselves of the sense of "I-ness". Incidentally, Western philosophy also does not emphasize training people to go skydiving.

  71. Massimo, it seems in this case that you agree with my statement that philosophy assumes that "experiencing something is trivial, in the sense that it requires no training or special instruction", since you say that "we all do it anyway". And my defense here of mystical traditions, including but not limited to their accompanying philosophical (ie talking about it) traditions, is that not all doing and not all experiencing is trivial in this sense.

  72. Joanna, of course not all doing and experiencing is trivial (see Ritchie's example of skydiving). But you were talking about color, the experience of which - I firmly believe - is indeed trivial and does not require training.

    Besides, again, training people to do something is a completely different activity from philosophizing, which was one of my points.

  73. We all draw inferences automatically from our first person experiences, which would include emotional experiences. Western culture in the main discourages attempts to draw further inferences as to the mechanisms in play that select out the initial inferential data. Objectivism and our either/or syllogistic systems of analyses have made such introspection a problem for us, but also our quasi-religious perceptions (such as held by the Jungians) that there's an evil shadow in there that can't bear to be looked at.

  74. Joanna's portrayal of Eastern tradition as a system (or family) of beliefs and practices (or "theories" and "instructions") sounds suspiciously to me like religion.

    That's not to suggest that the contents of Eastern and Western religions are identical or interchangeable. Far from it. But it's not like the West lacks such systems. Rather, I think it's more a question of whose religion(s) one finds more palatable.

    On that question, Joanna and I probably share the same (or similar) preference for the East.

    But, on the other hand, that does not mean that I intend to adopt a religion (not even an Eastern one) any time soon (if ever).

  75. Baron P:

    And what is so special about that? We also do not presume that gravity has a purpose, or that magnetic attraction is guided by intelligence. While your comments are too cryptic to be entirely sure, you come across as a hyperactive agent detection device.

  76. Apropos of nothing in particular:
    There's stuff in our unconscious trove of instinctive "wisdom" that we don't want to be there, and we don't want to find - it can be evidence we are not who or what we want to be or should be.
    "But," I expect to hear the bulk of you say, "there is no such thing as instinctive wisdom."
    And that will be that.

  77. "We also do not presume that gravity has a purpose, or that magnetic attraction is guided by intelligence."

    Neither gravity nor magnetic attraction are selective mechanisms, and neither operates to pull behavioral traits that they have accidentally designed to serve a specific purpose out of mother nature's you know what.

  78. Here's a quick read for those who might want to envision a natural selective mechanism that is based on biological experience rather than mother's mystical marbles:
    The Pillars of Darwinism
    Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb

  79. BP,

    You really, really need to read up on basic concepts of biology and science in general, and perhaps most importantly you need to stop assuming that you know what those who you are criticizing actually believe. The concept of a personalized "mother nature", for example, is alien to me, and to the best of my knowledge it plays no role in biology, our textbooks or our daily scientific practice. In that sense, it is very hard to understand what would make you think that any "Neo-Darwinist" believes the things you assume they do.

    You may also simply be confused by the fact that when an evolutionary biologist uses the word purpose in the context of organisms, it does not mean the same thing as when we are discussing man-made items. We simply cannot help using and adopting words that are familiar to us and therefore carry some baggage when we are addressing processes in the natural world that lie beyond beyond human intuition. Thus, evolution is inadvertently often described in words that can be misunderstood as anthropomorphizing and ascribing intent, directionality or purpose to processes that are really just blindly happening.

    Really, gravity is not such a bad comparison. You could just as well look at how precisely a lake fills out every corner of a basin, and how nicely smooth its surface is, and then speculate that achieving this precision is the purpose behind gravity, or that filling out the basin is the purpose of the lake. No. Likewise, there is no purpose in a human sense behind a stick insect's camouflage. It just so happened that its ancestors did not die because they just happened to have random mutations that conferred this morphology when without it they would have.

  80. @Ritchie the Bear: Your analogy between the U of AZ and the self was illuminating and correct. Its not to say that the central decision-making body does not exist, it's just entirely fair to look at it in many ways as if it does not exist.

    Without the concept of 'university' or access to the responsible parties, one can still devise explanations of why one day all of the buildings have new and uniform signage, or why there are more people in the vicinity in September than August. But given this Stonehenge state of affairs over a long period of time, someone will come up with a concept of 'university' that will offer more satisfying explanations of local behavior.

  81. From Metaphors for Dummies: " A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes something as though it actually is something else, thereby enhancing understanding and insight.”

    Mother Nature is a metaphor. So is Father Nature, although the latter has lately been in a state of disuse. Blind Watchmaker is also a metaphor, used by Neo-Darwinists to enhance misunderstanding - notably their own - of Mother Nature's role in the Virgin Birth of the First Instinct from which all life has unthinkingly passed through the Sieve of Time with Miraculous Diversity.
    (Warning: Metaphors not recommended for the Literal Minded and children under the age of 12.)

  82. BP: Could you take one comment to just state exactly what you're claiming without any jokes or polemics?

  83. Massimo,

    "These people make up stories to explain situations that were created by a lack of communication between the two hemispheres."

    I absolutely make the argument that an enormous amount of what we consider conscious experience is confabulation. 80% of your visual experience comes from memory. This was compared to rationalization, I don't agree with that; it's a pre-conscious process before you even have the raw material with which to cogitate.

    This relates to an earlier counter-point: "Experiments on subconscious decision making tell us that some time we have reached a conclusion before we are aware of it. Not all the times, and it is not the case that we cannot reverse that conclusion by conscious thought."

    The suggestion of current experiments is not that some decisions are pre-thought and they can be re-thought, the suggestion is that all of your thoughts are in the works before you're conscious of them, backing up the opinion that consciousness as we're so fond of it is just a glamour on top of reacting chemicals.

    So by that logic, mystical experience is really just ignoring the glamour.

  84. Peter, I think you are over-reading the literature. There is plenty of evidence that conscious processing can and does filter subconscious decision making, for instance by showing that certain types of moral judgment can be slowed down if the subject if simultaneously busy with another cognitive task.

    This is precisely what worries me about mysticism: conscious and rational thought is not "glamour," it's a fundamental process that distinguishes us from any other species on earth (likely, we don't know about the other great apes).

  85. IP,
    All evolution is the proximate result of the entity involved reacting strategically to its experience.

  86. "This is precisely what worries me about mysticism: conscious and rational thought is not "glamour," it's a fundamental process that distinguishes us from any other species on earth (likely, we don't know about the other great apes)."

    This is a very important point. I get really annoyed when people act like everything is subconscious and that rationality is all just rationalization. Maybe I'm simplifying Massimo's point a good deal (am I, doctor?), but I have talked to too many Eastern meditation freaks who talk about how faith in one's intelligence is really an ego trip and that shedding thought is the key to understanding. It's such bullshit.

  87. one cannot consciously decide to think a thought because to do so would require an infinite number of regressive decisions (to decide to decide, to decide to decide to decide, etc). I think Massimo's "filtering of the subconscious" is done by the subconscious.

  88. Derek, that strikes me as complete nonsense. Are you also going to argue that Achilles cannot overtake the turtle because, you know, he still has to get half way there, first, and then half way to half way...?

  89. Massimo,
    Ha, of course not. By calling it nonsense you must be stating that it is possible to think something that has no preceding "existence" in the subconscious. This is certainly not my area of expertise but it was my understanding that this is not how the brain & consciousness works. I could be wrong.

  90. Right, I love it when people put words in my mouth (or on my keyboard) that I actually never said so that they can retreat from their initial surprising - and nonsensical - statements.

    You said: > one cannot consciously decide to think a thought because to do so would require an infinite number of regressive decisions (to decide to decide, to decide to decide to decide, etc) <

    That makes no sense to me. But it does not imply that conscious thoughts were not present in some sense before they emerged to consciousness. In fact several people have argued that that's exactly what consciousness is: a spotlight that focuses (and sometimes reshapes) unconscious thoughts. No regress involved.

  91. Then we agree. It is the unconscious that first decides and the conscious spotlight focuses on that decision. No regression needed. My point was a reductio ad absurdum - I didn't say it's impossible to make a decision, I said it's impossible for the conscious mind to make a decision (by itself). Perhaps I wasn't clear about the "by itself" part. Sorry for the confusion.

  92. Derek, yes, then we do agree. Correct, I don't think any philosopher of mind or cognitive scientist would claim that the conscious mind can make decisions "by itself."

  93. baron,

    Seriously? Bacteria, simple organisms without memory or any cognitive processes whatsoever, make strategic decisions based on experiences? Maybe you do not know what all those words you are using mean?

  94. http://www.ted.com/talks/bonnie_bassler_on_how_bacteria_communicate.html

  95. http://www.amazon.com/Wetware-Computer-Every-Living-Cell/dp/0300141734

  96. "rational thought is not "glamour," it's a fundamental process that distinguishes us from any other species on earth"

    Given the intellectual damage human exceptionalism has historically done, especially to evolutionary thought, this statement requires a particularly high dose of skepticism. What does "fundamental" mean here other than acting as a value statement in the same way as "glamour"?

    I happen to agree with placing a high value on rational thought. But I think while we may be better than other organisms at it, we are still much worse at it than we think we are. All sorts of nonrational thoughts pass themselves off as rational. This is all part of our set of illusions about our cognition, consciousness and selfhood.

    Personally, I find meditation to be particularly useful for dropping emotional baggage, and as a result I think more rationally about charged situations afterwards. Non-attachment does wonders for rationality.

  97. Joanna,

    > Given the intellectual damage human exceptionalism has historically done, especially to evolutionary thought <

    I'm not sure what you mean by this. There would *be* no evolutionary thought without "human exceptionalism."

    > What does "fundamental" mean here other than acting as a value statement in the same way as "glamour"? <

    It's very different from glamour. The latter is a value judgment, the fact that human beings are the only known animals who can reflect and talk about what they do is a fact.

    > happen to agree with placing a high value on rational thought. But I think while we may be better than other organisms at it, we are still much worse at it than we think we are. All sorts of nonrational thoughts pass themselves off as rational. <

    Indeed, but most of what we know about these problems come from epistemology and cognitive science, not eastern mysticism.

    > Personally, I find meditation to be particularly useful for dropping emotional baggage, and as a result I think more rationally about charged situations afterwards. <

    I don't doubt it. When I tried it, meditation did calm me down (though, frankly, I could achieve a remarkably similar result by the far more pleasurable mean of having a martini with a friend). But again, that's got nothing to do with having special insight into the way the world is.

  98. Human exceptionalism refers not to ways that humans are distinct, but to an overeagerness to find such traits, and the value judgements we place on them. It drove an attachment to the concepts of progress and purpose in evolutionary biology, which were certainly damaging. Darwin bought in far less to human exceptionalism than his contemporaries, which certainly contributed to his ability to understand evolution. But the problem did not end with Darwin.

    How is "fundamental" not a value judgement?

    "most of what we know about these problems come from epistemology and cognitive science, not eastern mysticism."

    Most of what you know, I have no doubt. That is hardly a valid argument, since you reject, a priori, the validity of the philosophical traditions that accompany eastern mystical practices. Under these circumstances, of course your knowledge does not come from these sources. That is circular.

    At the minimum, it is abundantly clear that many insights that "we" learned only in the 20th century were well understood much earlier by eastern mystics.

  99. Joanna, I have no idea why you are bringing in human exceptionalism thus defined. I certainly never raised it on this thread. And "fundamental" simply means "defining" or "uniquely different" in this case - I do not attach a value judgment to that term.

    I don't reject eastern mysticism a priori. I'm just waiting for someone to put her money where her mouth is. The more I read about mysticism the more I get nebulous and unverifiable statements, coupled with dubious and superficial analogies to the discoveries of science. Not compelling.

  100. Oh fer crying out loud! So single celled organisms send out some signals, and they show reactions! Gosh! Let's just call it strategic decisions and imply that it is equivalent to a human brain planning the logistics for an expedition to the arctic, eh?

    But let's look again at your claim: All evolution is the proximate result of the entity involved reacting strategically to its experience.

    While there are several ways to phrase it, not many of my colleagues will probably find much issue if I say that evolution is defined as the combination of production of new alleles by random mutation and the changes in frequency of existing alleles from generation to generation through the non-random process of natural selection and the random processes of genetic drift and founder effects.

    By definition, it is not about decisions of the organisms. But how could it even theoretically be? We are talking intergenerational changes here! How could you possibly decide what the genetic makeup of your descendant in 200 years is, apart from the very indirect influence that mate choice may have? And even that breaks down in all organisms that do not chose their mates, such as plants or many marine organisms which simply release sperm and eggs into the water. The ability of a amoeba to decide into which direction to crawl is evolved, and it is an evolutionary advantage over immobile cells, but it can in no way be seen as the ability to decide in which direction evolution will continue.

  101. Well at least you're now able to grasp that an amoeba can decide "into" which direction to crawl. An unplanned result being that some actually got to the arctic before we did. But then again we're composed in the main of bacteria, so go figure.

  102. And then I wrote:
    A typically ignorant comment on purposive behaviors in organisms, recently received (at another site) went like this: "Likewise, there is no purpose in a human sense behind a stick insect's camouflage. It just so happened that its ancestors did not die because they just happened to have random mutations that conferred this morphology when without it they would have."
    Except that commenters like this fail to realize that the individual entity here will be born with instinctive knowledge, in the form of an inherent strategy, so that if this insect responds in a certain way to threats, for example, the morphed structure is expected to be useful. The insect doesn't have to know the purpose to act exactly as if it did. Somewhere back down its evolutionary line, something, in some sense, was cognizant of the deceptive value of the camouflage, whether or not that something was instrumental in its morphological acquisition.
    Camouflage has become that morphology's acquired purpose, because the insect uses it deliberately to achieve that purpose.
    It's simplistic to explain that "without it" the insect would have died, yet "with it" was allowed to survive, regardless of any advantage the insect would have learned to take from its acquisition. Of course these simple folk might not accept that an insect could learn, or worse, that such learning could be heritable. The watchmaker, if blind, can't learn by his experience to see the watch - or can he?

  103. I probably shouldn't deviate from this very interesting discussion but maybe Massimo would be interested to talk a little bit more about his new hobby. Massimo, do you plan to collect only first-edition books? How difficult is it to find those books? I imagine a lot harder than, say, classic Sci-Fi. Do you know a few dealers specialized in this area, or do you just go book hunting in second-hand bookstores?

  104. optical,

    I am doing three things: checking rare (not used) book stores in New York, checking internet sites that specialize in rare books, and keeping an eye on rare books that appear on eBay. I'm trying to limit myself to first edition or first English language editions, though of course that means being limited to late 19th century and early 20th century, unless I want to put down a good chunk of money for a Bacon or Mill (which I might do, on the occasional occurrence of getting a particularly generous speaking fee, say, or a book contract's advance). The number of books on the market is still surprisingly high even with these fairly narrow parameters. Besides, my intention is to buy only a few per year, at most, and I'm trying to stick with the idea of reading all or large samples of the books before going to my next purchase.

  105. Massimo,

    Be very careful with buying books from Ebay. It has turned out to be very common for sellers there to be selling books altered carefully to appear to be first editions to boost their apparent sale value. If possible, try to go to actual stores for your purchases, and, if you want to do over the internet sales, always be certain you are buying from a vendor associated with the Antiquarian Bookseller's Association of America (http://www.abaa.org/), as it is very good at policing hinky practices that can burn you as a buyer.

    Out of curiosity, what sparked your new interest in collecting?

  106. Back to the stick insect's camouflage, assuming anybody is still (or ever was) interested, I need to qualify my earlier remarks as follows:

    Deceptive strategies being common (if not basic) in the biological world, it's more likely that the opportunity afforded for the adaption of the archetypical mimicking strategy drove the evolution of the structure, rather than the structure having influenced the development of the strategy. One reason being that strategies adapt themselves to environments, and the forms that activate their functions are made to suit their strategic purposes, rather than the reverse.

  107. Mel,

    thanks for the advice, yes I buy only from established retailers on eBay. As for what prompted this, I have always toyed with the idea, then a few weeks ago I visited a colleague at Michigan State who started his own collection (in his case, biology books) and I got newly inspired. I also like the irony of having only old books in my apartment, everything else being on my iPad... ;-)

  108. I very thankfully came upon your post! I really enjoyed the rational argument you posed, debating against how intuitions may be considered illusion, therefore not valid in our lives.

    I had a mystical awakening in which I have been trying to rationally understand it, maybe there is no answer for me here but I really enjoyed being educated by the material you offered in this blog post. Thank you. I quoted a piece of this article in one of my recent posts on my blog. I wondered if multiple spiritual communications revealed over time can be taken in a scientific frame of reference to be studied for truth, or a reality of truth that is meant for human kind universally?


  109. I support Joanna on this,though Massimo fits the bill of a public intellectual.This is great public discourse by a learned scholar/scientist/philosopher by professional with an interested and well learned independent thinker.

    My comments and positions are as follows:

    1.Joan's argument and theses are simple and clear:

    1.1. The mystical tradition is training via meditation to correct the natural cognitive biases and illusions that humans have.

    1.2.Massimo does not(and neither has nor can scientific research refute this fact) deny that the brain and human physiology is such that we interpret events/reality with a lens that creates a narrative of the subject's life in space-time.

    1.3.Neither Massimo nor Joan claim that this "subject/person" is "wrong" in viewing things from unitary subject point of view though Joan contends that this unitary view could often mislead as much as it could help one navigate space-time and life as a mentally and emotionally healthy person.

    1.3.1. Massimo has not taken a position on the above contention of Joan,though as a rationalist myself,I'd think for the sake of this discourse,a "philosopher in the Western rationalist tradition" e.g. Russell,Popper,etc we could grant Joan her view as truth.

    1.3.2. I believe Einstein and Joan would have a point of agreement,(Joan is also a rationalist in my view-in that she is arguing her case and is being open to criticism and also in challenging Massimo with argued criticism) :

    "A human being is a part of a whole, called by us _universe_, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

    Both Einstein and Joan and myself are rationalists and mystics in this sense.So is Spinoza,Parmenides,Heraclitus and Plato too in a way(as per Russell's Mysticism and Logic!) are rational mystics! .

    2.Massimo' counter arguments seems to be the same as that of Albert Ellis,founder of the Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy(CBT) method of psychotherapy,which he based on the Stoics,the Socratic method and the Eastern philosophical/wisdom/meditative traditions of Lao Tzu,Buddha and Confucius- that the meditative state is by no means a cure all nor is it a practical solution.Philosophic reasoning and constant practice via actions are better than meditative methods and the non/less -unitary state of consciousness have no claim to be superior to the more "normal" evaluative and unitary delusion prone state of mind.

    2.1.But as Jonathan Haidt in his "Happiness Hypothesis" argues meditation and CBT are equally efficient methdos to reduce stress and increase happiness.

    2.2. Massimo seems to be high handed in denying that the Eastern traditions have philosophy-they do,just not as critical as the Western traditions.But,we aren't going to get closer to the truth by adopting a priori dismissals. That's not the freethinking way of proceeding.

    3.I side with Joan,I don't see what Massiomo has to disagree with-unless Joan feels that I've presented her case wrongly.