Here’s the intro to my latest 3QD essay:
I’ve always had a problem with the word ‘nature’. It seems to serve as a label for multiple, mutually inconsistent notions. This in itself is not a reason to dislike a word — we seem to have little problem with most words that have multiple meanings. (Surely “right” as in “right versus wrong”, is easy to separate from “right” as in “right versus left”? Surely it isn’t semantic confusion that causes left-handed people and leftists to be accused of being wrong, and even unnatural?) What seems to make the concept of “naturalness” especially problematic is the way it is used to justify particular situations or courses of action.
So what are the multiple senses of the concept of nature? I think we can discern at least three, which can be best described in terms of dichotomies. We have:
- Nature versus the Supernatural
- Nature versus Nurture
- Nature versus Culture
Let’s examine them one by one, and then see what they imply for ‘human nature’.
3quarksdaily: What do we mean by “Nature”? And what do we mean by “Human Nature”?
For my latest 3QD post, I expanded on my answer to a Quora question: Is neuroscience ruining the humanities?
Here’s an excerpt:
“Neuroscience is ruining the humanities”. This was the provocative title of a recent article by Arthur Krystal in The Chronicle of Higher Education. To me the question was pure clickbait , since I am both a neuroscientist and an avid spectator of the drama and intrigue on the other side of the Great Academic Divide . Given the sensational nature of many of the claims made on behalf of the cognitive and neural sciences, I am inclined to assure people in the humanities that they have little to fear. On close inspection, the bold pronouncements of fields like neuro-psychology, neuro-economics and neuro-aesthetics — the sorts of statements that mutate into TED talks and pop science books — often turn out to be wild extrapolations from a limited (and internally inconsistent) data set.
Unlike many of my fellow scientists, I have occasionally grappled with the weighty ideas that emanate from the humanities, even coming to appreciate elements of postmodern thinking. (Postmodern — aporic? — jargon is of course a different matter entirely.) I think the tapestry that is human culture is enriched by the thoughts that emerge from humanities departments, and so I hope the people in these departments can exercise some constructive skepticism when confronted with the latest trendy factoid from neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. Some of my neuroscience-related essays here at 3QD were written with this express purpose [3, 4].
The Chronicle article begins with a 1942 quote from New York intellectual Lionel Trilling: “What gods were to the ancients at war, ideas are to us”. This sets the tone for the mythic narrative that lurks beneath much of the essay, a narrative that can be crudely caricatured as follows. Once upon a time the University was a paradise of creative ferment. Ideas were warring gods, and the sparks that flew off their clashing swords kept the flames of wisdom and liberty alight. The faithful who erected intellectual temples to bear witness to these clashes were granted the boon of enlightened insight. But faith in the great ideas gradually faded, and so the golden age came to an end. The temple-complex of ideas began to decay from within, corroded by doubt. New prophets arose, who claimed that ideas were mere idols to be smashed, and that the temples were metanarrative prisons from which to escape. In this weak and bewildered state, the intellectual paradise was invaded. The worshipers were herded into a shining new temple built from the rubble of the old ones. And into this temple the invaders’ idols were installed: the many-armed goddess of instrumental rationality, the one-eyed god of essentialism, the cold metallic god of materialism…
The over-the-top quality of my little academia myth might give the impression that I think it is a tissue of lies. But perhaps more nuance is called for. As with all myths, I think there are elements of truth in this narrative.
Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily: Is neuroscience really ruining the humanities?
My latest 3QD post is up. This time I’m talking about symmetry and its relationship with science.
Here’s a snippet:
Attitudes toward science in the public sphere occupy an interesting spectrum. At one extreme there are the cheerleaders — those who seem to think that science is the disembodied spirit of progress itself, and will usher us into a brave new world of technological transcendence, in which we will merge with machines and upload our minds to the cloud. At the other extreme there is decidedly less exuberance. Science in its destructive avatar is often called scientism, and is seen as a hegemonic threat to religions and to the humanities, an imperial colonizer of the mind itself.
The successes of science give the impression that it has no limitations, either in outer space or inner space. But this attitude attributes to science somewhat magical powers. The discourse surrounding science might benefit from an awareness that its successes are closely tied to its limitations. The relationship between scientists and the rest of society needs mutual understanding and constructive criticism, rather than a volatile mix of reverence, fear, and mistrust. The veil of the temple of knowledge must be torn in two — or at least lifted up from time-to-time.
To this end, it might be illuminating to see scientific ideas as tools forged in workshops, rather than spells divined by wizards in ivory towers. The tool metaphor also reminds us that science is not merely an outgrowth of western philosophy — it is also the result of the painstaking work of “miners, midwives and low mechanicks” whose names rarely feature in the annals of Great Men. 
So what sort of toolbox is science? I’d like to argue that it’s a set of lenses. These lenses allow us to magnify and clarify our perceptions of natural phenomena, setting the stage for deeper understanding. The lenses of science reveal the symmetries of nature, so we might call them the Symmetry Spectacles. The Symmetry Spectacles are normally worn by mathematicians and theoretical physicists, but I think that even laypeople interested in science might find that the world looks quite interesting when viewed through them.
Read the rest at 3QD.
Here’s the intro to my latest blog post at 3 Quarks Daily.
“The osmosis of neuroscience into popular culture is neatly symbolized by a phenomenon I recently chanced upon: neurochemical-inspired jewellery. It appears there is a market for silvery pendants shaped like molecules of dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, norepinephrine and other celebrity neurotransmitters. Under pictures of dopamine necklaces, the neuro-jewellers have placed words like “love”, “passion”, or “pleasure”. Under serotonin they write “happiness” and “satisfaction”, and under norepinephrine, “alertness” and “energy”. These associations presumably stem from the view that the brain is a chemical soup in which each ingredient generates a distinct emotion, mood, or feeling. Subjective experience, according to this view, is the sum total of the contributions of each “mood molecule”. If we strip away the modern scientific veneer, the chemical soup idea evokes the four humors of ancient Greek medicine: black bile to make you melancholic, yellow bile to make you choleric, phlegm to make you phlegmatic, and blood to make you sanguine.
“A dopamine pendant worn round the neck as a symbol for bliss is emblematic of modern society’s attitude towards current scientific research. A multifaceted — and only partially understood — set of experiments is hastily distilled into an easily marketed molecule of folk wisdom. Having filtered out the messy details, we are left with an ornamental nugget of thought that appears both novel and reassuringly commonsensical. But does neuroscience really support this reductionist view of human subjectivity? Can our psychological states be understood in terms of a handful of chemicals? Does neuroscience therefore pose a problem for a more holistic view, in which humans are integrated in social and environmental networks? In other words, are the “chemical self” and the “social self” mutually exclusive concepts?”
– Read the rest at 3QD: The Chemical Self and the Social Self
My next 3QD column is out. I speculate about the role of boundaries in life, curiosity, and identity.
This image is a taster:
If you want to know what this diagram might mean, check out the article:
From Cell Membranes to Computational Aesthetics: On the Importance of Boundaries in Life and Art
I’ve written a long-form essay for the blog/aggregator site 3 Quarks Daily:
Boundaries and Subtleties: the Mysterious Power of Naming in Human Cognition
Here’s a taster:
I’ve divided up the essay into four parts. Here’s the plan:
- We’ll introduce two key motifs — the named and the nameless — with a little help from the Tao Te Ching.
- We’ll examine a research problem that crops up in cognitive psychology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence, and link it with more Taoist motifs.
- We’ll look at how naming might give us power over animals, other people, and even mathematical objects.
- We’ll explore the power of names in computer science, which will facilitate some wild cosmic speculation.