Infinite in All Directions: The Five Fronts of Consciousness, an Old Frontier

Infinite in All Directions is The Wire‘s science newsletter. Subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

Infinite in All Directions is The Wire‘s science newsletter. Click here to subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

Credit: marcelamcgreal/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: marcelamcgreal/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Good morning! You’re probably expecting Vasudevan Mukunth, the science editor at The Wire. But I’ll be filling in him for this morning. My name is Thomas Manuel. I’m a writer from Chennai and though I’ve won an award for writing something, I’m not a science-editor of anything. [VM – this award]

Standing as we are, on the shoulders of giants, I have a lot of respect for those who can set up ladders and climb even higher. I myself have other interests. Like, how did these giants get here in the first place? Why are they all old white men? What’s their favourite kind of sandwich?

These interests of mine, lying as they are not in scientific pursuits but rather in what happens in their periphery, are probably because my parents had Frantz Fanon and not Richard Feynman in the family library. Growing up, science (along with many other things including cooking and programming) seemed to occupy a separate magisterium. I’m happy to admit that I’m rectifying that gap but the damage is done. When I think of science, my heart is drawn to its historical roots, its sociological baggage and its philosophical underpinnings.

So, that said, here’s this week’s Infinite in All Directions – about consciousness.


Things We Don’t Understand #1: The Mind

In a conversation with the philosophers Massimo Pigliucci and Daniel Dennett, the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss joked that he studied physics because it was easy: “If I wanted to do something hard, I’d do consciousness”.

The mind is one of the most interesting frontiers of science today. Each new discovery is carefully dissected, debated, contradicted and, somehow, slowly, progress is made. The intense scrutiny is more than justified – there’s almost no branch of human endeavour that can claim to be disinterested. From self-help pop psychology to linguistics to medicine to economics, the mind matters.

One of the writers I really enjoy reading on the subject is Yohan John, a computational neuroscientist who regularly writes columns for 3QuarksDaily. His essays have ranged from topics such as the power of names and idols to the stickiness of ‘mind-body’ metaphors.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my favourite essays,’Persons all the way down: On viewing the scientific conception of the self from the inside out’:

Among neuroscientists, one of the most well-known cautionary tales is that of phrenology: the 19th century “science” that claimed to be able to peer into your soul by measuring bumps and dents on your head. The idea was that these hills and valleys were signs of size differences in areas dedicated to mental faculties such as “amativeness”, “concentrativeness”, “aquisitiveness”, “wit” and “conscientiousness”. So a bump near your zone of “amativeness” would mean that your brain has allocated additional resources towards the pursuit of love and sex. It all sounds quaint and Victorian — I imagine steampunk authors have taken the idea and run with it.

But if we strip away the old-fashioned terminology, how different is the concept of a brain area for “wit” from the concept of a “cognitive area” in the brain? How different is the idea of a center of “amativeness” from the idea that oxytocin is a love molecule? And is the idea that conscientiousness is baked into the brain any different from the idea that morality or altruism is baked into the genome?

There is a kind of implicit metaphysics underlying the idea of a “brain area for X”, a “neurotransmitter for Y” and a “gene for Z” — we might call it the neo-phrenology of the self. For every psychological state, however complex, the neo-phrenologist assumes that there must be some equivalent entity at the level of brain region, or chemical, or gene.

As someone who’s always going to be looking at science from the outside in, I’m a great admirer of those who can convey the wonder and complexity and limitations of what we know. Especially if they can do it with a neat turn of phrase.  


Why We Can’t Have Nice Things #1: Cognitive Biases

Talking about limitations on what we know, if you haven’t heard of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, you should check out Michael Lewis’ new book on the duo, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. Here’s an excerpt.

Kahneman and Tversky were psychologists who pioneered the study of the irrationality of the human mind through the documentation and exploration of our mental heuristics and innate biases. You might’ve heard of confirmation bias but what about the conjunction fallacy? Tversky and Kahneman found that the people they tested felt it was less likely that a good tennis player would “lose the first set” than that he would “lose the first set but win the match.” Or to put it in other words, a good tennis player was more likely to win after losing a set than lose a set in the first place. Doesn’t make any sense, right? Well, it doesn’t mathematically but it does feel like if a tennis player was good, he’d be better at comebacks than losing sets.

This kind of work was revolutionary. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler of Nudge fame referred to Tversky and Kahneman in their recent New Yorker piece as “the Lennon and McCartney of social science”.


Things We Don’t Understand #2: Reality

Getting back to consciousness, another thing that might be affected is reality itself. Consider cognitive scientist David Hoffman’s theory of reality.

I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind.

I’m not qualified to comment on the theory itself obviously but the reduction to points of view must cheer people in the humanities who have been saying this all along! On a more serious note, there is an interesting question here – is what Hoffman is doing even science?

Watch this video of the conversation between Krauss, Pigliucci and Dennett that I mentioned earlier.

The first question to the trio is whether science has limits. They answer it and move on to answering a whole bunch of other questions. If you’ve ever been to any kind of panel discussion before, you’ll agree that this was a unique event in history. Watch it for the intellectual pyrotechnics.

It might surprise you that when Krauss discusses the limits of science, he isn’t engaging in theoretical physics or any sub-discipline in science, but rather he’s engaging in philosophy, specifically metaphysics. But let philosopher Robert Trigg explain it in a Nautilus article titled Why Science Needs Metaphysics:

Those who say that science can answer all questions are themselves standing outside science to make that claim. That is why naturalism—the modern version of materialism, seeing reality as defined by what is within reach of the sciences—becomes a metaphysical theory when it strays beyond methodology to talk of what can exist. Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics. It involves standing outside the practice of science and talking of its scope. The assertion that science can explain everything can never come from within science. It is always a statement about science.

If this is slightly confusing, don’t worry. Nautilus also published an article called Why Science Should Stay Clear of Metaphysics. It wasn’t a response to Trigg or anything like it. It’s simply the (slightly misleading) title for an interview with philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen, a pioneer of constructive empiricism.

Constructive empiricism is a theory that gains quite a bit of importance if you’re interested in the debates around whether we are moving towards ‘post-empirical science’, no small part of which is due to the progress of string theory. If you’re not familiar with the threat of string theory to the concept of empirical science, the idea is that string theory seeks to explain the nature of reality but it might do so without putting forward any propositions that might ever be experimentally verified.


Why We Can’t Have Nice Things #2: Ideological Biases

The title of this section is slightly misleading. This isn’t about the role of ideology itself but what I see as a product of ideology. When we think of science, historically and in the present, we think of men in lab coats, specifically white men. One way to rectify this image and reclaim an image of science as universal endeavour that should unite rather than exclude is by rectifying the histories we tell ourselves.

Paul Braterman, former Regents Professor at the University of North Texas, is another one of my favourite essayists at 3QuarksDaily and he does a spectacular job of mapping out various contributions of the Arabic world to science through the use of syllable al-.

Historically, the West has failed to give anything like due credit to the Arabic contribution to knowledge. A century ago, the justly renowned physicist, philosopher, and historian Pierre Duhem described the “wise men of Mohammedanism” as “destitute of all originality”. I myself, somewhat more recently, was taught at school that the Renaissance was brought about by Byzantine scholars who alone had been guarding the flame of knowledge kindled in classical times, and who, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, were dispersed throughout Europe. This account is as unhistorical as it is patronising. We can trace the golden age of Arabic science to the eighth century translation project, centred on Baghdad, which made the thought and knowledge of the Greece (and Persia and India) available in Arabic. And we must in turn acknowledge, as among the events leading up to the Renaissance and what we call “the” Scientific Revolution, the translation project centred on Toledo, that four centuries later was to translate the work of the greatest of the Arabic scientists we have met into Latin.

But even when the golden age of Arabic science is mentioned, it is often only given credit for a holding role – translating ancient Greek texts into Arabic, waiting for the ‘dark ages’ to pass and then translating them back into Latin just in time for the Renaissance. This version of history leaves out the science that existed before and after these two massive translation projects. For a long time, historians claimed that sometime after the second translation project, the Arab world moved away from science, partly due to a renewed religious orthodoxy that, like the Church in Europe, saw some scientific ideas as heretical. While there was definitely a Golden Age, this neat collapse after passing the baton onto Europe probably didn’t happen.

One funny thing that did happen is that one of the critics of science at the time, al-Ghazali, wrote a book whose title is translated roughly as The Incoherence of Philosophers. I’d like to think he was predicting Foucault.


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Things We Don’t Understand #3: The Reality of Animal Minds

This deep dive into the current state of animal cognition research and the comeback of anthropomorphism contains another repercussion of consciousness-research: ethics. We stopped the use of apes and chimpanzees in scientific tests on the basis of their perceived cognitive capabilities – but what happens when those same things are shown in rats? (Never mind that the current focus on testing on rats is a bit like looking for your keys under the streetlights.)

Here’s Brandon Keim in the Chronicle of Higher Education on animal minds.

Are We Smart Enough is the latest in a profusion of books by scientists and popular-science writers: See also Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Nathan H. Lents’s Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals, Jonathan Balcombe’s What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, and Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds, all published in the last year or so. New research describes qualities among nonhuman animals that were once considered exclusive to us: empathy, mental time-travel, language, self-awareness, and altruism. Journals overflow with studies of animal minds, frequently described in language also used to describe human minds, and feats of animal intelligence seem to go viral weekly: an octopus escaping its tank, crows gathering to mourn their dead, fish solving problems, monkeys grieving, and snakes socializing.


On The Wire

[VM begins]

Bad Press? Why You Shouldn’t Blame Journalists Alone for Exaggerated Health News

One of the conclusions of a new study conducted by researchers from Cardiff University, UK, and the University of Wollongong, Australia, is that there is “no evidence that exaggeration in press releases is associated with increased news uptake” – or that the prevalence of caveats is associated with a reduction. To arrive at this result, the researchers analysed 534 press releases issued by high-profile health and biomedical journals for 534 peer-reviewed papers and the 582 news articles that were subsequently published about them. In the paper’s conclusion, they write, rightly so, that the “findings should be encouraging for press officers and scientists who wish to minimise exaggeration and include caveats in their press releases.”

Bury Jayalalithaa on Chennai’s Beach – and Then Bury the Rule of Law With Her

The Corporation of Chennai, for instance, is meant to enforce laws concerning burial, cremation or disposal of the dead by any other means. The Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act, 1919, has an entire section devoted to “Disposal of the Dead”. Section 321 (4) states that “No person shall bury, burn or otherwise dispose of any corpse except in a place which has been registered, licensed or provided as aforesaid.” Section 319 (1) of the Act sets out the process of licensing. It states that “no new place for the disposal of the dead whether public or private, shall be opened, formed, constructed, or used unless a license has been obtained from the council on application.” Sub-section (2) requires any application to be accompanied by a plan of the place, showing the locality, boundary and extent thereof, the name of the owner or person or community interested therein, the system of management and such…”. Section 321 (2) and (3) require the posting of a conspicuously visible sign near the entrance to the burial ground and publishing of a register of all approved burial places by the corporation.

Has LIGO Actually Proved Einstein Wrong – and Found Signs of Quantum Gravity?

When two blackholes collide to form a larger blackhole, there is a very large amount of energy released. In LIGO’s first detection of a merger, made on September 14, 2015, two blackholes weighing 29 and 36 solar masses merged to form a blackhole weighing 62 solar masses. The remaining three solar masses – equivalent to 178.7 billion trillion trillion trillion joules of energy – were expelled as gravitational waves. If GR has its way, with an infinitely thin event horizon, then the waves are immediately expelled into space. However, if quantum mechanics has its way, then some of the waves are first trapped inside the firewall of particles, where they bounce around like echoes depending on the angle at which they were ensnared, and escape in instalments. Corresponding to the delay in setting off into space, LIGO would have detected them similarly: not arriving all at once but with delays.

+ Featured in 3QuarksDaily

+ How do physics writers write uncertainty and illusion at a time when physicists are becoming more obsessed with particles that may not exist?

ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission’s Methane Instrument Has a Glitch

“Carbon dioxide signatures vary with topography, time-of-day, latitude and season,” he explained. “Temperature variations are very important – they cause the individual ro-vibrational spectral lines to vary in intensity.” Ro-vibrational stands for ‘rotational-vibrational’, a form of spectroscopy used to study the properties of gases. “The two instrument arms” – i.e. the methane and reference channels – “sample this variation in different ways, and accurate removal of the carbon dioxide signature from the difference signal is crucial to searching for methane, for example.” He added that the Fraunhofer lines, spectroscopic measurements used to infer the composition of a star’s atmosphere, “are also sampled differently by the two arms, further complicating the process”. As a result, “The net effect is that there is no way that one can [cancel] out those two signals in order to retrieve a methane signal”.

India Knows Its Invasive Species Problem But This Is Why Nobody Can Deal With it Properly

… we have a number of different agencies charged with preventing the introduction of invasive species and for management and control of invasive species. These include the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change, the National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources, the Plant Quarantine Organisation of India and various departments of the Ministry of Agriculture. This situation – “everybody’s responsibility, therefore nobody’s responsibility” – is far from ideal. We really need a single, comprehensive legal and policy framework on invasive species and a single nodal agency responsible for its coordination and implementation.


And close. So, how did you like Thomas’s Infinite in All Directions? Just reply to this email to leave a comment. I hope to have more amazing guest-curated editions of this newsletter in the future. If you’d like to take a shot at it, please send a pitch to mukunth@thewire.in.

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