vendredi 31 juillet 2009

Comments on Subversive Thinking's A critique of Sebastian Dieguez's review of Irreducible Mind

I have been informed that someone on the internet wrote a comment on a book review I wrote for Skeptic magazine, about the book Irreducible Mind. The blog hosting this comment does not allow comments, and unfortunately I have some. So I guess it is only fair that I take the whole thing into my own blog.
To make things clear, what follows is the entire text taken from the blog Subversive Thinking (which contains lots of interesting information and vigorous defenses of the forces of the unknown). In grey is the main text, in bold gray are quotations from my review in Skeptic, and in bold blue quotations of the book Irreducible Mind. My comments are in red.

TUESDAY, JULY 28, 2009

A critique of Sebastian Dieguez's review of Irreducible Mind

In a recent issue for the "Skeptic" magazine, Sebastian Dieguez wrote a review of the book Irreducible Mind. Let's to examine some of Dieguez's considerations:

People trying to study the biological basis of consciousness are currently involved in many debates that range from the methodological to the metaphysical, and one can find a lot of books out there on these issues. Do we know how consciousness emerges out of a group of connected neurons? Do we have a firm grasp on how and why it evolved? Is there even an agreement as to what consciousness is? No, there are many things we don't know yet, and this is the reason why cognitive neuroscience and its related fields are so interesting. But in IM you won't find any sense of this awe. Kelly, et al. simply assume that researchers are on the wrong tracks and should adopt a radically new approach. As such, IM intends to be the kind of textbook that could redirect the whole enterprise of the scientific study of consciousness by leading a new generation of researchers down the right path

The authors of IM don't "simply assume" that mainstream neuroscientists are wrong. The entirte book is an argument, based on empirical evidence and theoretical considerations to the conclusion that mainstream neuroscience is wrong.

In some places, they say that "mainstream neuroscience" is not wrong, but incomplete. In other words, everything works, except for the existence of phenomena which reality and/or actual mechanisms are precisely the things at stake here. Sorry, I’m not convinced by either the “empirical evidence” or the “theoretical considerations” in IM. In fact, I’m appalled by them. For one thing, you don’t base any theory on controversial data or rogue phenomena. All of the phenomena described in IM are controversial, very controversial, and at best poorly understood. As well as extremely diverse. If you want to take them seriously, if you manage to perceive a common thread among these things, but you don’t really have an explanation, then what you’ve got amounts to a “soul of the gaps” argument, which is the title of my review. Some philosophers think there is an “explanatory gap” somewhere in between our understanding of mind-brain relationships. Well, this gap is the dustbin where to throw your century-old ghost stories and medical wonders. This is what IM amounts to, by the own account of its authors (last chapter: "sorry, no theory, it’s for our next book").

It's not an assumption, but a conclusion based on evidence (if the evidence is correct or not, or if the conclusion is sound or not, is another question. The point is that Dieguez misrepresent the IM argument to suggest it's an argument from ignorance).

It is an argument from ignorance. As well as from personal incredulity. It can be put this way: I don’t understand how “will” can be translated into “motor commands” and then into “actions” + I believe in ghost stories, therefore the soul. To which you might add: also Myers was right all along. See, the point is indeed not whether the evidence is correct or not, but whether the evidence is evidence at all, and if so, evidence of what exactly?

You can see that IM tried to be coherent. But it failed: the extended literature reviews do not serve to make the case for a precisely stated hypothesis, they are merely a freak show of psychological and medical research. Fun, intriguing, bizarre publications from the past. Nothing more.

In the authors' words "Despite their intrinsic difficulties, however, these diverse materials combine to produce what we think is a compelling demonstration that current mainstream opinion in psychology must change, and in directions that are both theoretically fundamental and humanly momentous. In a nutshell, we are arguing for abandonment of the current materialistic synthesis, and for the restoration of causally efficacious conscious mental life to its proper place at the center of our science. We hope to catalyze the emergence of an enlarged and reunified mainstream psychology, one that does not systematically ignore—as the present-day mainstream does—many large bodies of evidence deeply relevant to our most central and abiding human concerns" (preface)

Yes, this is a charming aspect of IM: it’s enthusiasm. While it gets horribly boring in places, IM’s authors never tire of saying that everybody is wrong except them, and that they can really make the world a better place. Which somehow brings to mind the following question: how can a “transmissive” theory of mind-brain relationships help explain synesthesia and binocular rivalry?

And: "Views of this sort unquestionably hold sway over the vast majority of contemporary scientists, and by now they have also percolated widely through the public at large.3 They appear to be supported by mountains of evidence. But are they correct?

Note the exquisite irony of these last two sentences, when IM repeatedly implores the reader to take into account the overall quantity of evidence they have “marshaled”, not so much the crazy details.

The authors of this book are united in the conviction that they are not correct—that in fundamental respects they are at best incomplete, and at certain critical points demonstrably false, empirically. These are strong statements, but our book will systematically elaborate and defend them" (Introduction)

Note that, contrary to Dieguez's straw man, the authors are not "assuming", but "concluding" after the examination of the evidence (including some of the best evidence of parapsychology, something that most neuroscientists and philosophers ignore).

Accordingly, the reader is warned from the onset that the reality of paranormal phenomena (psi) is taken for granted in IM. For those not convinced, Kelly, et al. direct you to the references listed in the appendix, where all the evidence can be found. This, of course, is really begging the question, since psi clearly is not an established phenomenon, and the convenient phrase "see the Appendix" that recurs incessantly throughout the book really translates as "we realize that what we just wrote sounds crazy, but there are some books that say it's true, and we chose to believe them.

Dieguez's straw man tries to portrait a simplistic view of IM arguments. Note how he reconstruct the argument in this way "We realize that what we just wrote sounds crazy, but there are some books that says it's true, and we chose to believe them" (emphasis added).

But this is a fair assessment! This sentence is exactly what they mean with the paragraph you conveniently quote right below!

But the authors of IM has not argued such silly thing. In their own words: "This issue of scientific resistance has proved especially troublesome for one particular family of observations among the many kinds we draw upon in developing the central argument of this book—namely, observations adduced in the course of over a century of effort by workers in "psychical research" and its somewhat desiccated modern descendant, "parapsychology." My co-authors and I wish therefore to state immediately and unequivocally our own attitude toward this still-controversial subject. The irrational incredulity that remains characteristic of mainstream scientific opinion in this area seems to us a remarkable anomaly that will provide abundant and challenging grist for the mills of future historians and sociologists of science. Sufficient high-quality evidence has long since been available, we believe, to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt the existence of the basic "paranormal" phenomena, at least for those willing to study that evidence with an open mind.5

Our Appendix contains an annotated bibliography providing useful points of entry into this large and complex literature. I hasten to add that this literature is uneven and imperfect, like any other scientific literature, and that our endorsement does not extend to all parts of it equally" (p.28)

You see? If you don’t accept the reality of psi, it’s simply because you have not read the relevant, though “uneven and imperfect”, literature. If only you would read it, then you would believe. Therefore: go read the Appendix or shut up.

The problem is, as I very charitably wrote in my review, that parapsychology is still controversial. Why? I know you want to blame the hegemony of “materialism” in academia. But that's ok, we can leave you that, if that’s all you have: the academia is to blame.

Obviously, the authors are not defending "crazy" things, based on what some books "say", nor they are "chosing" (which subtle would imply an arbitrary decision) to believe in this. What they're saying is that the evidence for paranormal phenomena is good and that it have been neglected in mainstream academy (precisely, due to the materialistic influence).

See? Blame the black shadows hiding behind “materialistic influence”. Don’t work harder to provide just really good evidence and make your case, instead just keep referencing to Radin, and now IM, and keep blaming “close-minded” people. Which somehow brings to mind the following question: does anyone believe the PK Man could actually control the weather?

The reference to the Appendix is to suggest the readers to explore the literature for themselves, since the book IR is not a survey of the paranormal as such (the evidence of psi is used by the authors as part of their case, but the book is not basically about parapsychology findings)

That’s true. So if the evidence is so good, it could stand alone without the whole of parapsychological findings, right? So why not skip the parapsychology part altogether, since it’s still “controversial”?

And the authors are not accepting the paranormal because "some books that says it's true", but because the evidence presented in those books is good (in fact, many of this evidence has been gotten by the own authors!). Also, the evidence is available in lectures, like these by Dean Radin:

[Follows two videos of a most boring lecture by Radin, modestly comparing himself to Newton, Edison and Marie Curie ]

Dieguez seems to be ignorant that Michael Shermer (editor of the Skeptic Magazine) has gotten positive evidence for psi in his own test:

[Follows one video of a non-scientific test of Vedic Astrology]

It is not hard to imagine what Dieguez would say about the above test. Since it is evidence for psi (at least, evidence consistent with the existence of some psi abilities in the subject being tested), it DOESN'T COUNT for Dieguez.

I've watched this last video. Shermer didn't find evidence for psi, but for Vedic Astrology. Or is that all the same? So yeah, it totally seems that thanks to the science of Vedic Astrology, one can approximate some individual's personal features merely by knowing his or her date and place of birth. Unfortunately, this particular power is not addressed in Irreducible Mind, who seems curiously anti-astrology, despite the quality of the available data in that area.

No consistent pseudoskeptic would accept such evidence, because for a pseudoskeptic only counts evidence against the paranormal (never the one in favor of it, even if the evidence is gotten by a professional pseudoskeptic!) So it's a waste of time to rationally discuss with them any positive evidence for psi. For them, it simply doesn't exist nor can exist.

Well sorry. I just don’t accept the evidence as it stands. Keep it cool man, the point here is not that I’m being obtuse for simply remaining a skeptic - these things happen you know, because of opinions and such -, the point is that it’s been a long time now, it’s not like parapsychology was not given a chance, and yet parapsychology still remains the same mixed-back of sheer silliness, selective reports, debates about super-ESP, fraud, wishful thinking, and lack of any foreseeable theoretical advance. It’s not my fault, but parapsychology’s output has been poor in terms of scientific progress. I think part of this feeling is implicitly shared by the authors of IM: that’s why they don’t mention Gary Schwartz, Rupert Sheldrake and Ted Serios in the book. They feel ashamed of the state of their own field.

So, Dieguez's uncharitable reading and straw man is simply another example of a pseudoskeptical bias and prejudices.

Dieguez continues with the following condescending and arrogant comment: "While there is not space here to debunk one by one the innumerable wild claims that are taken at face value in IM, three very general remarks should provide an idea of the flaws in this kind of thinking"

Maybe is more accurate to say that Dieguez CANNOT debunk such "innumerable" claims. The "lack of space" argument is simply an euphemism ot Dieguez's unability to refute the substantive points made in IM. If the IM arguments and claims are so "wild" and false, why didn't Dieguez refute them (at least some of them)? Why does he engage himself in straw men and caricatures, instead of addresing the book's substantive points? Why the space is sufficient to speculate and misconstruct the authors' argument, but insufficient to refute them?

Very true, I CANNOT debunk the “innumerable claims” made in IM. No one can, it’s too much to handle (both physically and emotionally). Well I guess that’s a fair criticism. I didn’t address each and every extraordinarily claim made in IM. I note however that no one here seems alarmed by the “taken at face value” part of the quotation. Are the claims reported in IM more often than not “taken at face value”, or not?

You know what? We can do this privately. If there's something in particular you think in IM makes the case that it clearly cannot be explained by current mainstream neuroscience or psychology, please indicate it. I'll respond.

Instead of this, Dieguez posit "three very general remarks" against IM:

First, there is a very remarkable difference between the treatment of "mainstream" cognitive science and that of the "rogue" phenomena. There would be nothing left in this book if Kelly et al. would apply equal standards of scrutiny to both. They simply rant relentlessly about the limits of the former, while swallowing indiscriminately all of the latter.

This is demostrably false. Dieguez doesn't provide any example to support his claims (and he cannot, since his claims are false). He hopes his unsupported assertions be swallowed by the readers of the Skeptic magazine (which is probable, since most readers of that journal are materialistic atheists and agnostic, biased against the paranormal). Moreover, the IM book is expensive and it is not probable most people will read it.

Of course, what I wrote is perfectly true. On the one hand, the authors of IM mount a violent attack against current or cognitive science in general, with lengthy explanations of the limit of such and such cognitive model, on the other hand they mention levitation, stigmata and mediumship favorably, hardly mentioning the controversial nature of these things. Well, if computational neuroscience has problems and limits, surely do ghost stories from the 19th century!

It’s easy to resort to the experience of “free will” as an argument against materialist causality, which the authors of IM and especially Emily Kelly do repeatedly, because it appeals almost irresistibly to anybody. Everybody can experience what the “explanatory gap” means, everybody feels to be in charge, to be someone. If you find a theory that says it’s actually not like that, that the more we learn about motor cognition the less consciousness seems to be a relevant aspect for everyday behaviour, that it’s all in the brain and, yes, just an illusion that will disappear with death, then nothing would be easier than to reject this theory merely on emotional grounds. So I’m not alone, to be “biased”. But I’m the one, here, with the best data on his side. It’s good data that we have now, you know, solid neuroscientific facts, a lot of them.

Dieguez doesn't specify any example where a difference on the "standard of scrutiny" support the book claims. It's pure pseudokseptical speculation.

Well I say something about NDEs in there, I think. I ask: if dysfunctional brain activity cannot account for the type of experiences lived during a NDE, why should no brain activity at all be a better explanation? Lots of questions like this pop out when you read the book in fact. I used the abbreviation BQ in the margins of almost every page of the book: begging the question. They do that a lot.

Second, a good exercise while reading IM is to imagine what the world would look like if everything in this book was true. One would think that if there was "something" more to consciousness, mind, and the self than the workings of the brain, then the real world, and hence science itself, would obviously look drastically different.

This is a rhetorical strategy common in pseudoskeptics. They appeal to our wishes to imply that a certain claim is false.

Since if IM claims are true, then science and the world would be different; and we don't want science and the world be different, so IM claims are false. Bravo!

Wait no, this is bizarre. The publication of IM did not make de facto true the phenomena it reports! Or any truer. The problem here is not that I don’t want the world to change, it’s that the world does not look at all as it should look, were the claims in IM true.

Is that a rational, scientific argument? Note that Dieguez has not posited any scientific factual argument to refute the IM claims. He tries to undermine by association, appealing imaginative "exercises" and other fallacies.

For example, psi, NDEs and apparitions would be all over the place. This, in fact, is candidly acknowledged in chapter 4, where a lengthy rendition of such a magical world is conveniently provided (293)

This is false. Psi could be "all over the place" (in different intensities), but NDEs and apparitions won't, because they can manifest only under specific conditions.

No, you just don’t know this. If NDEs are a peek in the afterworld, I don’t see why only a tiny minority of cardiac arrest survivors report them, and I don’t see either why so many who report them were actually not near-death at all. And why should “Psi be all over the place (in different intensities)”. What do you know about the intensity and epidemiology of psi? You’re just begging the question, assuming that psi comes “in different intensities”. And what is the unit of psi? Psi?

Regarding the "magical world" "candidly acknowledged" in chapter 4, Dieguez is intentionally misrepresenting an imaginative conjeture posited by the authors desgined to ILLUSTRATE a point about Myers' ideas on personal identity. Let's to cite it at long: Nonetheless, the spatiotemporal criterion of personal identity, however useful under ordinary circumstances, is, as I have argued, by no means sacrosanct. It is in fact not difficult to conceive a world that is recognizably similar to, but in some respects considerably different from, our own, in which memory would be generally accepted as a criterion of personal identity at least equal to, and sometimes capable of overriding, bodily track, and in which (for related reasons) certain sorts of supernormal phenomena (not there regarded as supernormal) might be widely accepted or indeed taken for granted. These phenomena would of course be especially the ones which Myers regarded as constituting evidence for survival of bodily death.

Imagine, for instance, a world, occupied by humans like us, in which instances of telepathy and other forms of ESP and also of PK, or telekinesis, are quite common, and in which many persons routinely undergo altered slates of consciousness (ASCs) of various kinds, including vivid dreams and visions, states of dissociation, trance and secondary personality, and episodes of automatic writing and speaking. Next let it be the case that the episodes of telepathy, ESP, and PK occur with particular frequency and effectiveness when the persons undergoing or initiating them are in an ASC. And let us assume that the ESP manifesting during the ASCs takes the form not just of information or warnings about distant happenings, past, present or impending, but of messages, written or spoken, from living persons, and that on further inquiry or as the result of experiment, it turns out that these messages were intended or appropriate and that the ostensible senders were often themselves in an ASC or even undergoing an OBE in which they believed themselves to be visiting the spot at which and the person through whom the message was received. And let it further be the case that quite often messages containing correct and appropriate information be similarly received ostensibly from deceased persons.

The stage is now set for the final and most dramatic aspects of this imaginary world. Suppose, there are also many cases in which it is found that one person may be associated with more than one body, or one and the same body with more than one person. Suppose, for instance, there are cases in which a living person undergoing an OBE or NDE or in some other abnormal state manifests as a mediumistic communicator and exhibits the right kind of memories, cases in which a person has disappeared from a seriously ill or comatose body and been replaced by a totally different and lately deceased personality with a completely different but appropriate set of memories, cases in which a mediumistic communicator manifests with a continuous memory through different and independent mediums, and cases in which a mediumistic communicator of impressive authenticity announces his or her impending reincarnation and then turns up as predicted as one of Stevenson's children who ostensibly remember past lives. Into this interesting assortment of phenomena we might also throw post-mortem apparitions of various nunciative or message-bearing kinds.

In a world like this, I think it is fair to say, a socially sanctioned conceptual framework would be almost universally adopted within which survival of death would be more or less taken for granted and with it the overriding importance of memory as a criterion of personal identity. To explain the phenomena in terms of so-called "super-ESP" would involve weaving a web so tangled that "super" would be a wholly inadequate prefix to apply to the "ESP" required. But at the same time the citizens of this imaginary world, at least the more philosophically oriented ones, would be cautious about saying they had "proof" of survival. Personal survival cannot be directly demonstrated by third-person observation, as one might demonstrate (though with difficulty) that certain terrestrial bacteria can survive on Mars. Nor can it be demonstrated by theory-based logico-mathematical inference from observable phenomena to the postulated existence of something not itself directly observable, as the existence of dark matter can be mathematically inferred from its gravitational effects. In our imagined world, acceptance of survival would be almost a foundational assumption of life in society, a broad canvas picture without which the citizens could not even begin to make sense of much that they encountered on a daily basis, but within and through which many matters would be seen to fit together in ways which might in the future be refined and which would already seem to confirm the larger schema. In some ways it would be like the "foundational assumption," shared by all of us save perhaps a few psychopaths, that other people are sentient beings like ourselves. The power of the whole would derive not from its generating exact predictions but from the fact that it and it alone would render adequately comprehensible the nature of and the relations between certain classes of otherwise puzzling phenomena. (pp. 293-294)

Note that the authors are presenting an imaginary world to illustrate a specific point. But Dieguez presents such scenario as the world is according to the authors (that is, how the "world would look like if everything in this book was true"). The conflating is subtle, but you recognize the fallacy in Dieguez's thinking if you hav read the book (if you have not read it in its context, you possibly would be fooled by Dieguez's subtle rhetoric)

You have to agree that for a skeptical neuroscientist, this long description of a magical world really looks“candid”. It is hilarious in fact, and I thank you for reproducing it in extenso.

And there’s no fallacy in my "subtle rhetoric", I’m using irony.

But more important, if the advice of Kelly, et al. was actually followed, it would be interesting to know what exactly cognitive scientists should be expected to do. Should they all become parapsycologists? The response to this question is left unclear, especially when one considers what is not in IM. Indeed, I have noticed that Uri Geller and Ted Serios are not featured in this book.

This is irrelevant regarding the truth or falsehood of IM arguments. Is Dieguez pretending that such "argument" undermine the empirical and theoretical claims of the IM book? Note, again, that Dieguez doesn't address, with scientific arguments, any of the claims made in IM. He tries to debunk them by association.

No, this is actually the most relevant part of my review. I’m asking a very legitimate question. Let’s assume that IM becomes widely read in neuroscience schools, and everybody comes to accept its proposals. Then what would that change in the daily work of cognitive scientists? Should they always refer to a hidden creative energy in their reports? Should they become parapsychologists? What would that change to science exactly? Interesting question, no? But you won’t find an answer in IM.

So, acccording to Dieguez, if the IM claims are true, then cognitive scientists will dissapear or, at least, will become parapaychologists. And how most cognitive scientists don't want to lose their jobs (nor become parapsychologists), then IM claims have to be false! (Note that Dieguez's argument is essentially an appealing to the emotions of cognitive scientists, not a rational argument against the claims of IM).

Well yes, as a cognitive scientists I was pissed off by this book. I took it very personally, just as any evolutionary biologist is appalled when he reads the attacks of creationists.

See for example Dieguez's "argumentation" against the transmission theory of consciousness: "Nonetheless, IM claims though-out that the "evidence" it presents supports an alternative theory of the nature of mind-brain relationships (that is, alternative to what most researchers in this area are supposed to think). This theory is not only meant to do justice to the glorious diversity of ghost stories, miraculous healings and other "rogue phenomena" reviewed in IM, but would also accommodate most of what we know about the brain. The idea is that the brain does not produce consciousness or cognition, it merely "constrains, regulates, restricts, limits, and enables or permits expression of the mind in its full generality" (607). This is the so-called "filter" or "transmission" theory of mind-brain interaction. One is asked to believe that the brain actually gets in the way of the mind, the latter really being something that Myers called the Subliminal Self, a purposeful entity that lurks somewhere inside of you and sometimes manifests itself in the form of supernormal phenomena. Where does this "mind" come from? We don't know, maybe it's turtles all the way down. This "theory" doesn't really get any dearer than that in IM, although towards the end of the book the whole idea is unsurprisingly buried under the usual quantum babble that one expects in pseudoscience books. In any case, Kelly, et al. acknowledge that they are still thinking hard about all this and confide that hopefully a more coherent treatment of the "theory" will see the light in a further book (638).

So, don't expect to find much sense in this one. Instead, for the time being, at least, their strategy is to convey the illusion that sheer quantity of information somehow amounts converging significance that some kind of "soul" must magically spring out of current gaps in knowledge."

Obviously, Dieguez's rhetoric doesn't amount to the level of an argument. He doesn't address the substantive points; nor he specifies what his scientific objections to the transmission theory are.

Have you just read what you quoted from me? It is not for me to provide a rational framework for the "transmission" theory. My point was precisely that the concept is empty, and I drew attention to the important fact that near the very end of the book, the authors admit that they don't have any theory to provide. They say that they are still working on it, and that maybe they will publish another book when they find answers. The transmission theory is not a theory: it is the "soul of the gaps" argument.

His "review" is just another propaganda tool to convince the readers of the Skeptic magazine that the IM book is not worth reading. But you won't find any scientific, philosophical or theoretical contribution to the mind-body debate in his review

Well I only wish I had those propaganda powers. But I don't need them anyway for my daily work. It is when you claim to turn over the edifice of science because of some old medical wonders and various reports of magical powers that you need propaganda.

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