Monday, December 5, 2011
My Unconscious Mind Has Preconditioned Me to Disagree With This Book... Or Something Like That
So about the book... well in the beginning, I was just unimpressed. He kept going through all these examples of how what we see isn't reality and how our brain does so much unconsciously for us. He said these things like they were a revelation, instead of which, almost all of what he said was familiar to me. I suppose his framing of it was something new in a few cases - that we really don't tend to realize the role the brain plays in composing our view of the world. But mostly it was like, uh yeah, our brain processes a lot unconsciously, that's what it's there for. And along with his dramatic reveal of the unconscious, Eagleman continuously refers back to evolution as the cause and impetus of all this - evolution dictates that this was better for survival, this was advantageous... Without offering one iota of proof or even acknowledgement that evoking evolution as a magical force does not cement its place as the most logical explanation of how intelligent life (us) came about. I mean it's not like I expected the guy to launch into a defense of evolutionary theory, but given the utter lack of any backup when he mentions that this or that was better than some other scheme for survival and that's why it has survived, why mention it at all?
Ah, because my early annoyance at his constant noddings to that origins of life theory was, in fact, a pick-up on his not-so-hidden agenda. Because once the book finishes showing us how our conscious minds are the smallest, most unimportant, and late-to-the-party part of our brain, it launches into the next phase of Eagleman's exploration of the psyche. Given that so much of "us" is unconscious, do we even have free will? Well he posits this - the conscious mind is that which decides between warring factions in the unconscious - and in that, I think he's pretty much on the nail. Why aren't we animals? We have the ability to choose between right and wrong. But my agreement with his theory of consciousness notwithstanding, I diverge quite far from him at the next juncture.
And that is twofold - 1) that our ability to make decisions is influenced by innumerably many factors that are out of our control and 2) we haven't found a place in the brain that isn't looped in with other parts, making an independent, self-reliant conscious mind impossible. Now as far as the first point, he is undoubtable correct - we are put into this world with a given set of circumstances about which we have no say - but we all know the big but, and that is that every person has the ability to choose right and wrong *within his personal circumstances.* No one gets let off the hook just because they had an alcoholic mother or grew up below the poverty line - if you do something wrong, you are culpable. Of course, we know that we're not the ones who can judge what's wrong (or at least what's a wrong choice) for any one person, so there's no question he has some point - more on that anon. His second point is the one that really irks me (not surprisingly). So here's my first needle poke in his balloon - have you isolated the area of the brain that you claim constitutes the conscious mind, that is, the place where arbitration between dueling unconscious processes takes place? I think not. Which means you haven't explored the whole brain yet, so there very well could be a place that doesn't "take orders" from anywhere else. And, more importantly, what if you don't find such a place? Well it just proves (or ok, not proves, but indicates strongly) exactly what I (and lot of other people) believe (know) - the seat of the unconscious is the non-material, intangible soul. It's actually beautiful in a way, to see the scientific arguments in favor of a spiritual consciousness :)
In any case, I really can't expect Eagleman to know all this, I just need to vent when I hear him spewing ideas that are to me so very wrong. And when it gets down to the practical, I don't think there's anything *very* wrong with his ideas. He points at that the current criminal justice system, with its notions of blame, is fundamentally flawed. Well we all know the criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed, and I actually, I disagree with him that it's all based on blame. I think far more of sentencing is based on two things - get 'em off the street and make sure no one ever does this again. But yeah, jail time isn't the best way to accomplish this in all cases, and I think we're all in favor of rehabilitation over incarceration, if we knew rehab could work. So as far as neuroscience can help rehab, I'm all for it. Am I as sanguine as Eagleman when it comes to the possibilities? Well, obviously not, but who knows? We certainly are gaining a better understanding every day of the inner workings of the mind.
Which brings me to my last (side) point - whatever the mind is like, it is not a computer and I find it patently ridiculous that Eagleman attempts to explain its myriad functions as a series of subroutines, that get programmed in some vague manner. I don't think that's how the brain works, and I don't think we're going to achieve AI via modeling it that way. But he probably knows more about AI than I do, and I'm sure they've gotten somewhere with that approach :) In any case, I found this book to be mostly hand-waving in the important parts (that is, the science) and, unsurprisingly, mistaken in its conclusions. Disappointingly enough, I don't feel like I learned anything much at all from this book... but I suppose it made me understand my own faith just a little bit better - so there's something to be said for that :)