samedi 5 septembre 2009

The ghost in William James' machine

A cretin who can't spell my name right (or spell tout court for that matter), and won't even link to me has written a pathetic "rebuttal" of my review of Irreducible Mind. I usually don't respond to idiots that systematically write "their" instead of "there", but this dimwit (who just turned 25) and doesn't know shit about anything (except perhaps for wrestling) thinks he can own me by basically claiming that I haven't read a particular essay and that Occam's razor, as applied to discussions of the paranormal, is a "cop out". That's it, that's the "rebuttal".
So what is this all about? It's about, again, the "transmission" theory of mind-brain relationships. You see, it turns out I completely missed the point. It's actually a "theory" that is very very hard to understand, so it's no wonder that, lazy as I am, I was bound to misrepresent it very unfairly. It's not only this lightweight though, other persons also have chastised me for having misunderstood it.
But now I'm told that if I really want to get a taste of the real thing, and maybe finally understand what this theory really is, I should read William James' essay Human Immortality: two supposed objections to the doctrine. That will definitely change my dismissive attitude. But how does this guy know that I haven't read it? He doesn't, of course, he just assumes this because in his worldview I can't possibly have read it and still reject the idea. Well guess what, I've read this very short piece a long time ago. I'm actually ashamed to say how long ago, so don't ask. But this gives me the occasion to re-read it and have a shot at it here. By the way, Keith Augustine asked me some time ago if I could help him track a review of this essay. I couldn't, so maybe that's the occasion to ask if anyone out there has a copy of, or access to, this:

Hodge, C. W. (1899). Review of Human Immortality. Psychological Review. Vol 6(4), 424-426.

We'd be very grateful, thanks in advance. My copy of Human Immortality is reprinted in the collection compiled by Gardner Murphy and Robert Ballou William James on Psychical Research (1960, Viking Press), pp. 279-308. I've bought that book some years ago assuming it must contain James' essay on automatic writing, but it doesn't. This paper describes the fabulous case of Anna Winsor, I managed to track it down since then and I'll probably write something about it someday. But in the meanwhile, let's examine closely the "transmission hypothesis" according to James. What follows is arranged from the notes I took when I first read the essay, with many additional comments that occurred to me while re-reading it now. But I must first say that I am a little bit dumbfounded that this piece should be held as a good account of the transmission hypothesis by a believer in the paranormal. I personally think that James' account is as good as one can get for such a ludicrous theory, but usually believers turn to (what they take as) more substantial stuff. Personally, if I really wanted that theory to be true, I'll definitely go with Henri Bergson instead of James or Myers. Also, although I will be severe in what follows, I must say that I have great admiration for William James, for a lot of reasons. His involvement with the topic of "immortality", by his own account (but you will have to read a little bit between the lines to get the feel of it), was a fringe activity that allowed him to vent some emotional issues and put to test his pragmatic approach to "beliefs". He wasn't convinced at all, neither by survival itself, nor by the "transmission" hypothesis (one should rather read his Principles of Psychology, which contains very interesting and more reasonable discussions of the "theory of the soul", notably in chapters VI and X of Volume 1, and also his essay The final impressions of a psychical researcher, also reprinted in the book mentioned above). In any case, what he wrote on this particular occasion, as an invitation to give the second annual Ingersoll lecture on immortality in 1898 (or 1897, I've got conflicting sources), was at moments very unworthy of such a great man.
Let's start with the preface to the second edition (this lecture was reprinted as a booklet, but I don't know if there ever was a preface to the first edition, in any case it is not reproduced in my copy). I write in small sections, mostly following the flow of the text (quotes from James are in read, the rest is my own snark). James start by addressing some not very interesting remarks that readers have made about the talk:

Preface 2nd edition:

- Critics have granted the transmission hypothesis, but said that what is being transmitted (a “pre-existing larger consciousness” or the “mother sea”) is too vague to even resemble our earthly “mundane consciousness”.

- The “mother sea” is thus not different from pantheism.

- James agrees that he has not been clear enough about this. He argues that it doesn’t matter, because anything goes anyway (“The plain truth is that one may conceive the mental world behind the veil [i.e. whatever it is that is being “transmitted” before it is actually “transmitted”] in as individualistic a form as one pleases, without any detriment to the general scheme by which the brain is represented as a transmissive organ (his emphasis)

- In other words: sure, you can say that human personality does not survive as such, but as a vague, impersonal and indefinite cosmic soul that bears no resemblance to what our earthly passage was like. But I can say that it does.

- And there is something new now: not only the brain filters and transmits with its own constraints and limits the larger consciousness, but this very process is able to change the larger consciousness itself. It works both ways. An interesting point that is sadly not elaborated.

- This is confessedly based on nothing but thin air: “[I]n transmitting it [the larger consciousness operating in the “reality behind the scenes”]- to keep to our extremely mechanical metaphor, which confessedly throws no light on the actual modus operandi- one’s brain would also leave effects upon the past remaining behind the veil; for when a thing is torn, both fragments feel the operation”.

- In any case, this would allow, in the present scheme, for human personality, personal memories etc. to survive on the other side.

- Sure, says James, that’s more like pre-existence or reincarnation than the Christian notion of immortality. (a notion that returns at the end of the essay when he writes that, after death, one "resumes" his "unrestricted condition")

- Everything is therefore compatible with “brain-function theory”, and we shall survive forever with our own personality and memories. Well, we shouldn't be surprised if James is merely making stuff up here. This is the spirit of the entire essay that follows.

Human Immortality:

- Here is how James starts: basically, organizations, institutions and academia inevitably distance themselves from their initial goals and the needs of the public which they were supposed to represent: human immortality is one such need, but it has been hijacked by the institution of the Church.

- After mistaking the gender of the very person who invited him for the talk, James proceeds to say that a “University official” like him might not be the best person to provide what the listeners of a lecture on immortality might want to hear. He says he’s still unsure about the issue.

- "Prophets" might be more appropriate for a talk like that.

- James mentions an interesting-looking book: Alger’s “Critical history of the doctrine of a future life” (1864, 914 pages, 75$ on Amazon, contains a list of 5000 references to writings on the afterlife)

- The topic of immortality must be an interdisciplinary enterprise. James thus accepts to be part of it, as “a mere professional psychologist”. The speech can start.

- He wants to address two points: his replies to two modern objections to the doctrine of immortality. The first one is “the absolute dependence of our spiritual life, as we know it here, upon the brain”. Right away, by saying “as we know it here” James unashamedly begs the question. We don't "know it" anywhere else than here.

- (the second point, to be addressed near the end of the essay in a much shorter way, pertains to the alleged overpopulation of the afterworld, were immortality true).

- James obviously grants the success of “physiological psychology”. Disorders and intoxication of the brain lead to changes in “the quality of our ideas”. There is even strong evidence for localizationism (or in modern terms, modularity).

- There are primary sensory areas, but also higher integrative (or secondary, or intellectual) areas. Flechsig, of course, is mentioned, although his work is primarily anatomical (based on painstaking brain dissections of foetuses, newborns, babies, infants and adults), and his application to “paralytics” and “criminals” was a bit stretched, (yet still incredibly prescient). Wernicke’s work is also mentioned, but not elaborated. This is unfortunate, Wernicke's ideas on the "somatopsyche" and "transitivism" were also astonishingly prescient of current work on the body schema and mirror neurons.

- James says that much of these speculations about brain functions are dogmatically held in academia, as a misplaced enthusiasm that Eccles and Popper will later call "promissory materialism”. But he grants the most extreme kind of phrenological thinking for the sake of his upcoming argument. He even underlines it: “Thought is a function of the brain. Here James is basically saying that whatever is theory will be, it would be unassailable by any data from brain science. It’s basically saying that there is no way to refute it.

- James then asks if, considering this dependence of consciousness and thought on brain function, one should give up any hope of survival after death (or even of “heaven”): answering in the positive is displaying “the puritanism of science”. Rhetorically, he asks if it would be incoherent to answer in the negative.

- What follows is interesting. He confesses in a footnote that, much to his surprise, he was unable to find a clear example or quote of a scientist explicitly denying immortality purely on physiological grounds (although he would have sworn he had read many such passages). The accusation of the strawman fallacy looms around. But there's nothing to be worried about, James continues anyway (the second point of his lecture is also an obvious strawman: he doesn't quote anyone who ever explicitly claimed that heaven would be overcrowded if immortality were true).

- Nevertheless, James proceeds to say that there is one kind of functional dependence [of consciousness upon brain function] that does not preclude the possibility of survival. The materialist (or “physiologist”) simply has been unable to imagine or consider this special form of dependence (although he just said that he was unable to find a single quote of a “physiologist” holding the conclusion he denounces. Ironically, James later quotes from someone, WK Clifford, who denies immortality not based on “physiological grounds”, but on a subtype of the transmission hypothesis, the so-called “mind-stuff” hypothesis - the topic and title of the aforementioned chapter VI of Principles).

- There follows a long footnote were the alternative to the “production” theory is set forth (one wonders why the most important point of the lecture should be buried in a footnote): “…one cannot see more than two really different sorts of dependence of our mind on our brain: Either (1) the brain brings into being the very stuff of consciousness of which our minds consists; or else (2) consciousness pre-exists as an entity, and the various brains give to it its various special forms.” Now if (2) is true, “there are, again, only two ways of conceiving that our brain confers upon it the specifically human form. It may exist (a) in disseminated particles; and then our brains are organs of concentration, organs for combining and massing these into resultant minds of personal form. Or it may exist (b) in vaster unities (absolute “world-soul”, or something less); and then our brains are organs for separating it into parts and giving them finite form.”

- So he summarizes: “There are thus three possible theories of the brain’s function, and no more… (1) the theory of production; (2a) the theory of combination [“the mind-dust or mind-stuff theory”]; (2b) the theory of separation [“specified more particularly as the transmission theory”].

- Next he laments that the “production theory” is actually seldom formulated “very distinctly”. But he goes on to quote Cabanis at some length, and also a bit of Spencer, Büchner, Luys and Percival Lowell. Well, it seems to me that the "production theory" was addressed distinctively enough by Lange, La Mettrie, d’Holbach, Vogt, or Soury along the years. Or even Lucretius, for god's sake. Probably James wasted too much time reading the GHOST STORIES of his friends at the SPR.

- He gives several examples of “production” in nature (steam, light, power), but says that there are also instances of “releasing or permissive function”, as well as “transmissive function”, in nature. Examples of "releasing function" are the trigger of a crossbow, and the hammer falling upon a detonating compound. A prism and the keys of an organ have a "transmissive function".

- So, at last, here is the thesis: “when we think of the law that thought is a function of the brain, we are not required to think of productive function only; we are entitled also to consider permissive or transmissive function. And this the ordinary psychophysiologist leaves out of his account”. (his emphasis). Of course, one wonders immediately how James is so sure, then, that “steam”, “light” and “power” are good example of “production”. Why can’t there be a larger, pre-existing, cosmic "light" operating behind the veil of boring, mundane, earthly light? I guess that's because that would be a ludicrous and useless hypothesis based on zero evidence, not even worth considering. But that would be a too obvious cue.

- So his first argument to defend the “transmission” theory, unsurprisingly, is that "common sense" and "philosophy" are already used to the idea that “the whole universe of material thing (…) [could] turn out to be a mere surface-veil of phenomena, hiding and keeping back the world of genuine realities”. Indeed, no idea is more widespread than the delusion positing that for everything in the real world, there is a spiritual and truer double somewhere in a second world. For French readers, I recommend the entire works of philosopher Clément Rosset, who has spent his career basically trying to examine this craziest of all notions (starting with Le reel et son double, 1976; see also this interview in English that I just found)

- Once you accept this idea, of course, you’re bound to detest the banality of the real world. But James is an awesome writer, and he can wax more lyrical than that (quoting this well-known verse from Percy Bysshe Shelley):

Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,

Stains the white radiance of eternity

- Ok, so the world as we know it, and the human brain, is a “dome”, and normally this "dome" is opaque to the “full super-solar blaze” (whatever that is). But this opacity can vary under certain circumstances, thus letting “certain beams pierce through into this sublunary world”. The beams, of course, are consciousness. How does that work? Well, “the veil of nature can grow thin and rupturable enough for such effects to occur”. Examples of such “gleams (…) of the absolute life of the universe” are: “glows of feeling, glimpses of insight, and streams of knowledge and perception” that “float into our finite world”. Brilliant, I’m almost convinced. What else he’s got? Evidence, perhaps?

- No, an analogy! These always work well in psychical research. James had no radio or TV set, so he must go with a low-tech analogy: “…as the air now comes through my glottis determined and limited in its force and quality of its vibrations by the peculiarities of those vocal chords which form its gate of egress and shape it into my personal voice, even so the genuine matter of reality, the life of souls as it is in its fullness, will break through our several brains into this world in all sorts of restricted forms, and with all the imperfections and queernesses that characterize our finite individualisties here below”. We’re getting closer now, all we need is some evidence.

- Let’s turn back to the brain. This organ can find itself in all kinds of states, accordingly “the barrier of its obstrusiveness may also be supposed to rise and fall” (just like the entire universe of James’ glottis). James will later discuss how sensory thresholds, the big thing in the newly born science of experimental psychology (or psychophysics), is somehow relevant to the point he’s trying to make.

- In the meanwhile, he explains what happens when we die: “when finally a brain stops acting altogether, or decays, that special stream of consciousness which it subserved will vanish entirely from the natural world. But the sphere of being that supplied the consciousness would still be intact; and in that more real world with which, even whilst here, it was continuous, the consciousness might, in ways unknown to us, will continue”.

- All this of course is quite hypothetical (to use a euphemism). James is merely saying that immortality, even when we accept that the brain is the organ responsible for our current earthly personality, is not impossible. That’s thanks to the “transmission” hypothesis. But in any case, it’s not really clear why survival should be synonymous to immortality (meaning eternity) in the first place. But that’s probably the least of the problems with such reasoning.

- You see, the materialist is just neglecting this brilliant alternative. As such, James must "insist on the illogicality of a denial based on the flat ignoring of a palpable alternative". One unfortunate consequence of this attitude, is that it makes people sad: “How much more ought we to insist, as lovers of truth, when the denial is that of such a vital hope of mankind!” Indeed. These are the very scientists who deny many other “vital hope[s] of mankind”: humans cannot flap their arms and fly around, they cannot control the weather at will and they cannot travel through time. Damned scientists!

- Thankfully, people like James are not so narrow-minded: “My words ought consequently already to exert a releasing function on your hopes”. And that’s all that matters, really. Even more than, say, evidence.

- Oh, but that’s coming, too. Indeed, evidence would be good at this point. As James aptly put it, everything he has claimed until now (“the abstract notion that our brains are colored lenses in the wall of nature, admitting light from the super-solar source, but at the same time tingeing and restricting it”) has “a thoroughly fantastic sound”. Yes, that’s a nice understatement. Moreover, “isn’t the common materialistic notion vastly simpler”? Then he shoots himself in the foot by asking: “Is not consciousness really more comparable to a sort of steam, or perfume, or electricity, or nerve-glow, generated on the spot in its own peculiar vessel?” But why shouldn’t these examples turn out to be the result of some “transmissive function”, too? He doesn’t care, only human consciousness and the hope of immortality are relevant here.

- His defense is that materialism is merely based on “mere concomitant variation”. This is the usual gambit of the over-educated crackpot: correlation is not causation. (Except that sometimes it is, but never mind that.) You might find all the evidence you want of brain-mind correlations, still “all talk about either production or transmission, as the mode of taking place, is pure super-added hypothesis, and metaphysical hypothesis at that”. And we don’t want to go all metaphysical, don’t we?

- What follows is the unsurprising argument that, watch out, we don’t know yet how on earth brains can produce consciousness! Making the claim that they do, is akin to saying that “thought is “spontaneously generated” or “created out of nothing”. Therefore, well, pretty much anything goes.

- Although it might sound a little bit childish, James does not hesitate to provide the following advice to his adult audience: “All that one needs to do (…), if the ordinary materialist should challenge one to explain how the brain can be an organ for limiting and determining to a certain form a consciousness elsewhere produced, is to retort with a tu quoque, asking him in turn to explain how it can be the organ for producing consciousness out of whole cloth. For polemic purposes, the two theories are thus exactly on a par.” Exactly on the same par. Et toc! As we say in French, from the kindergarten onwards, but usually not for too long. Well, that was easy. But still not evidence.

- We're getting there. But there is still more creative writing before. Not only the transmission and the productive hypotheses are exactly on the same par, but the transmission one turns out to be superior. That’s a contradiction, yes, but it doesn’t really matter because the stakes are so high. Hope! How could anyone argue against the hopes of one's fellow human beings?

- So why is the transmission hypothesis superior to plain materialism, then? Well, not because we know how it works: “Just how the process of transmission may be carried on, is indeed unimaginable”. Fine, that's honest enough. But that doesn’t prevent James from making formidable claims about the “mother sea” and the “universe”, because, you see, there exist some evidence that can “encourage [his] belief”. Evidence! Finally! So, what evidence exactly?

- Oups sorry, nope, still no evidence here. James prefers - ever trading his hat of psychologist for his haut-de forme of philosopher when convenient -, to mischievously revert the accusation of violating Occam’s principle: “Consciousness in this process does not have to be generated de novo in a vast number of places. It exists already, behind the scenes, coeval with the world. The transmission theory not only avoids in this way multiplying miracles, but it puts itself in touch with general idealistic philosophy better than the production theory does”. And he adds this wonderful gem: “It should always be reckoned a good thing when science and philosophy thus meet”. I’m not quite sure, but this might well be the stupidest argument ever made by an otherwise smart person. In any case, it certainly is a good theory that needs only one miracle, as opposed to those that need several ones. And I ask you: how could materialism ever be reconciled with idealistic philosophy? That’s not going to happen, therefore materialism is not idealism. QED.

- Finally, James decides to turn to some evidence. Recall that for the moment, the transmission theory according to James is merely a logical possibility that stands in accordance with some metaphors, with common sense and with idealistic philosophy. This seems utterly hopeless, but fortunately there is more: “It [the "transmission" theory] puts itself also in touch with the conception of a “threshold””. For this he quotes at some length in an interminable footnote Fechner (pioneer of psychophysics, or modern experimental psychology, or psychophysiology, together with Weber and Wundt, who are not mentioned). These scientists tried to formalize the fact that some sensations do not make their way to consciousness, while others do, depending on a host of circumstances. This was just, and continues to be, great science. But James takes it all for himself, to defend the petty idea that humans never die: “This rising and lowering of a psychophysical threshold exactly conform to our notion of a permanent obstruction to the transmission of consciousness, which obstruction may, in our brains, grow alternately greater or less”. Why yes, that’s so obvious! It’s unfortunate that James does not mind to spell out the details of how exactly this works. So I will try. Let’s take the tactile modality and the classic two-point discrimination task. Depending on the spatial interval between the two pinpricks and the part of the body that is being stimulated, subjects might report one or two sensations. According to James, then, this is the case because the tactile stimulation somehow lowers or raises the “opacity” of the brain/dome separating the mother sea of cosmic consciousness from our earthly experiences. Or maybe it’s the other way round. We’re lucky that no more than one miracle is needed for this to happen. In any case, if any believer in "transmission" reading this has a better way to explain this, he's welcome to make his case right here. I'll be curious.

- More evidence please! Ah, at least here is something more serious here: “The transmission theory also puts itself in touch with a whole class of experiences that are with difficulty explained by the production theory”. Like what? “I refer to those obscure and exceptional phenomena reported at all times throughout human history (…) namely (…) religious conversions, providential leadings in answer to prayer, instantaneous healings, premonitions, apparitions at time of death, clairvoyant visions or impressions, and the whole range of mediumistic capacities, to say nothing of still more exceptional and incomprehensible things”. Who’s quoted here? “The “psychical researchers”, with Mr. Frederic Myers at their head”. Indeed, it is now easy to see how the transmission theory is superior: “All such experiences, quite paradoxical and meaningless on the production theory, fall very naturally into place on the other theory”. So there we are all over again. Unfortunately, just like the authors of Irreducible Mind, Myers doesn’t spell out the details, and doesn’t make any predictions that could be tested scientifically. I have some questions though. For instance, under what kind of circumstances does the “lowering of the brain-threshold” let through the cosmic consciousness to produce “instantaneous healings” rather than “premonitions”? How does that work? Are such breakthroughs obligatory, or does it happen sometimes that the “brain-threshold” is lowered and nothing mysterious happens? Why are the claims of mediums so boring, when they could have access to the entire "reservoir" of universal consciousness? Oh, and why is the evidence so disappointing and ambiguous for all these phenomena anyway, when they should be entirely obvious and all over the place if the "transmission" theory were right? Also, is it a coincidence that brain disorders and fraudulent behaviour tend to produce very similar phenomena than those listed by James? Why should that be the case, if the theory were true? Finally, what if the evidence for these phenomena turns out to be entirely, or even mostly, negative, one after the other? At which point does the “transmission” theory become, from being superior, inferior to the “production” theory? Someone please answer these questions, instead of simply saying that I'm narrow-minded, ignorant, fearful or that I'm going to hell. Someone do the job already.

- Ok, so we’re basically done here. James admits that his last point (about paranormal phenomena), far from being the coup de grace that some contemporary writers (well, bloggers mostly) take it to be, is likely to be rated not very high by his audience. But hey, the “transmission” theory still has “the advantage of not conflicting with a life hereafter”. And really, that’s all one needs.

- James then devotes some lines to acknowledge a few predecessors, or what he takes to be predecessors, on the “transmission” theory. These are the “great orthodox philosophic tradition”, Kant, and FCS Schiller (that’s Ferdinand, not Friedrich Schiller). Schiller was sort of a James’ copycat, author of Riddles of the Sphinx. The quote selected by James and reproduced in another lengthy footnote is interesting in that it summarizes exquisitely the whole of the “transmission” idea. It’s all in one page, and it even ends with NDEs: “[the transmission theory] will also serve to explain (…) the extraordinary memories of the drowning and the dying generally”. James assures us that Schiller’s account of the theory is “much more complex” than the one presented in his lecture, so maybe I should go read that book instead. In any case, I find it interesting that the very same argument of the “life review” in the drowning was made by Henri Bergson in his presidential address to the SPR in 1913. Bergson’s version of the “transmission” theory is actually much smarter than James’ or Myers’. His approach doesn’t deal so much with GHOST STORIES and behavioural wonders, but is actually based on neuropsychological data. (The problem is that he misuses this data: he over-generalizes, selectively picks up what he finds convenient, makes stuff up at times and generally stretches the significance of some case reports way too far). But still, his ideas were very smart, and he foresaw many future crucial developments in modern theories of memory, embodiment and language. I shall write about Bergson one of these days.

- Back to James. He concludes his “objections” to materialism by saying that he doesn’t want to discuss exactly what it is that survives when we die. Will we be just the same on the other side, with the same memories, personality and so forth? Of will we be meshed into our “original source”, the “great reservoir” where our “unrestricted condition” resumes and become altogether unrecognizable? He says that that wouldn’t be so bad (but obviously he realizes that this is not really what people hope for), but anyway he doesn’t want to enter these “higher and more transcendental matters” “upon this occasion”. Yeah right Bill, like on other occasions you would have more to say on the topic. Well, after all why should he stop making stuff up just now? He could go on forever.

- If you made it this far, you might remember that James wanted to address two arguments. Well, the second one is so stupid that I will only summarize it as follows: if everybody that ever lived had a soul, then heaven must be heavily crowded by now, and even more so if we grant immortality to those “repulsive” “Chinamen” (here James disturbingly calls his audience a bunch of racists and self-righteous bigots, which they presumably were as they allowed him to finish his talk), but that is not the case because heaven actually expands with each new soul that enters it. QED.

So, that's it. That was the brilliant essay recommended by that moronic blogger. Now I ask him, what is left for me to read before I really understand the deep substance of the "transmission" hypothesis? What else is there about this brilliant idea to defend anyway?

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