Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Intellectuals, according to Corey Robin, are effective when they create their public, as opposed to pandering to an existing one. A long, thoughtful essay from the guy who inspired me to start the now archived Scientia Salon project.

Meditation, placebos, virtual reality (?!) and the mind-over-body issue.

Sometimes probability estimates may be trumped by personal testimony. Or should they? Interesting thoughts about the topic at the OUP blog.

The study of dreams of dying people: what they tell us about their lives, and how managing them can lead to a more peaceful death.

What compels people to share certain videos? No, this isn’t about Dawkins…

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45 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. Massimo,
    I can’t let this thread close without noting that if you think that dreams have content of which dreamers may not be aware, that this content reflects unconscious processes, that they are objectively interpret-able and that they represent the mind’s attempt’s to adapt to the world (they even said “working through” for God’s sake), then you might not be as far apart from a certain “pseudo-science” than you might think.

    (I know you didn’t endorse the article in part or in whole, just posted so it’s a real “if”, but my statement stands.)

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  2. David,

    right, I didn’t endorse the article. Especially the part you are objecting too. In fact, my personal notes regarding that section say: “pseudoscience?!”

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  3. Massimo,

    Noted. The thing I don’t get though is how it can be denied that these dreams can be interpreted. These dreams are so obvious in their symbolism that it is hard to deny that they have meaning. Why not ask the one woman in the article, “what do you associate with spiders?” The unconscious is clearly not “choosing” the images and situations people dream of arbitrarily, why would this not also be true of specific images? Is it difficult to imagine that they can be interpret-able in a more fine grained why?

    This kind of project may be non-science but it need not be pseudo-science.

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  4. For the secularist crowd, I have JUST checked out this very interesting-sounding new book, “The Illusion of God’s Presence,” which promises to go beyond scientific explanations of NDEs into larger issues, but it’s by a biologist, not an anthropologist or sociologist like Atran or Boyer.

    Among its touters, if the above doesn’t catch your eye, is V.S. Ramachandran.

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  5. This is a general puzzle I have. Our DNA, if current estimates of functional DNA are about right, has the equivalent of about 80MB storage, which is not a lot. This contains instructions for building and maintaining an entire body, the musculoskeletal system, the brain and nervous system, heart, kidneys, liver and circulatory system, skin, immunity systems. It also has the details of the cell mechanisms including signalling.

    And apparently it has thousands of beliefs hard coded in there too, if we take all the claims of EvPsych and suppose that maybe 5% of them have some basis. It makes me wonder how and where all of these beliefs are supposed to be stored in our DNA and if anyone has addressed this.

    That would be a lot more interesting than any of the claims of EvPsych.

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  6. Robin,

    right, the idea that DNA “encodes” a blueprint of human beings, or any other living organism, is absurd. What DNA does is to provide an organism’s developmental system with general rules of self-assembly, which are more or less heavily influenced by the environment.

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  7. Socratic, re your link, he is described as a neurologist, though I suppose he could be a biologist as well. The reviews are positive, though couched in rather inflated language. This is apparently not a book that argues for the existence of a supernatural being. Instead, it appears to attempt to explain why humans have religious or spiritual feelings. Sounds like mammals now have good reason to believe in a mammalian god. 🙂

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  8. Thomas, exactly. It’s not that, and while agreeing with Massimo’s reproach on the word “encode” (which I had passed over on Robin’s first response, because ignoring that particular word, the general idea of the body and NDEs holds true) does build on findings on that, while also looking at the emotional and faith aspects many attach to this.

    He takes seriously the experience of things that Rudolf Otto called “the numinous,” focusing on the numinous in religions with personal deities, tho he promises a later chapter will look at Theravada, etc.

    He also doesn’t scorn or sneer at the experiences. He said he had one himself after getting lost in the desert and running out of water. He specifically describes it as being what many would call a numinous experience — but without any religious belief attached.

    As I noted, it’s touted by the likes of Ramachandran. If you’re read or heard of him, that should tell you this isn’t a fly-by-night.

    I tweeted the link to John Horgan, to see if he’s heard or it yet.

    Oh, and per what I said above, while many a secularist may well like this book, it probably will NOT be New Atheists’ cup of tea.

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  9. The problem goes farther than simply the use of the word ‘encode’ because this depends upon the concept of the expectation of a powerful comforting figure being, in some sense, encoded in the DNA.

    As I said, I don’t think it can be the case that all these things EvPsych speculate on, are somehow inherent in the DNA (whether you use words like ‘encode’, ‘programmed’ or not), it is not consistent with the facts at hand.

    I don’t think that you can make easy assumptions about what is in the DNA and what depends upon the environment (which in this case would include things like the infant’s early experiences and the existing culture).

    And I think that the idea that credence is added to this by the fact of Ramachandran having contributed to the blurb dovetails into my reservations about the idea of public intellectuals creating a public.

    The argument should be the thing, not the arguer and certainly not the contributer to the blurb.

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  10. Thanks for bringing this up David, and obviously Massimo as well for confirming that he did present that particular “dreams” article for discussion purposes rather than as an endorsement itself. In themselves dreams do perplex people, so the final dreams of a dying person ought to do so even more. Here’s a rough sketch of what I think is going on:

    We have “a mind,” the vast majority of which is non-conscious, or essentially functions as one of our computers do. As for the conscious part, however, there are three forms of input to it. These are our senses (like sight), our sensations (like pain), and our memories (which may be considered as a retrieval of past consciousness itself). Then the conscious processor (called “thought”) accepts these inputs in order to figure out what to “do” by means of its ability to operate muscles (output). Apparently conscious processing is motivated by the rewards of positive sensations, and the punishments of negative sensations.

    As far as dreams go however, I classify this as a form of consciousness which occurs when under the degraded conscious state of sleep. I call such degradation “sub-conscious” (which is spoken with a slight pause as opposed to the standard subconscious idea), and drug impaired states would be the same sort of thing. Regardless, dreams may then be considered as a degraded form of conscious function. Things just aren’t quite right in them, are they?

    I see no reason to consider the dreams of the dying to be anything beyond standard degraded conscious states. But given that we do not yet have an accepted consciousness model from which to work (such the one that I use), the “new age” sort of speculation presented in that article should be difficult to overcome in general.

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  11. What Eric said.

    The signal is getting lost in the noise.

    That doesn’t mean the noise isn’t still conscious.

    We are just as conscious as babies, but it isn’t linear and we can’t wind the tape back and play it in our minds, if there is no sequence.

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  12. “Apparently conscious processing is motivated by the rewards of positive sensations, and the punishments of negative sensations.”

    Polarity crates linearity. Toward positive and away from negative.

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