The “Streetlight Effect”: a metaphor for knowledge and ignorance

Here’s the beginning of my latest 3QD piece:

There is a story that I think anyone interested in human knowledge ought to know. It comes in many forms. Here is one version, incarnated as a joke: ‘A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”‘muttjeff01

A parable featuring the Seljuk Sufi mystic Nasrudin Hodja may be the earliest form of the story: ‘Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground. “What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked. “My key,” said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it. After a time the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?” “In my own house.” “Then why are you looking here?” “There is more light here than inside my own house.”‘ The Indologist Wendy Doniger quotes this parable in her book The Hindus: An Alternative History, as a way to prepare the reader for the disappointing realization that the “available light” on Hinduism — the hymns, the histories, the archaeological remains — tends to illuminate the perspectives of dominant groups, relegating to the shadows the viewpoints of women, lower castes, and other marginalized groups.

Noam Chomsky has a characteristically dry and precise version of the story: “Science is a bit like the joke about the drunk who is looking under a lamppost for a key that he has lost on the other side of the street, because that’s where the light is. It has no other choice.”

So historians, mystics, scientists and drunks have something in common: they all tend to seek the truth where the process of seeking is easy, rather than where truth is. Responses to this problem vary. The mystic is most likely trying to remind the listener of how limited human knowledge is, and how often we look for solutions in precisely the wrong places. The humanities professor Doniger uses the problem as a justification for reading between the lines: using the available light to speculate about what may lie in the darkness. And the cognitive scientist Chomsky seems to be using the problem to justify why scientists answer questions that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the questions they originally set out to answer.

I’m a scientist, a history buff, and also a bit of a mystic, so I tend to combine all three perspectives on the “available light” problem, also known as the “streetlight effect“.

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily.

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What do we mean by “Nature”? And what do we mean by “Human Nature”?

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:

  1. Nature versus the Supernatural
  2. Nature versus Nurture
  3. 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”?

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Me and My Brain: What the “Double-Subject Fallacy” reveals about contemporary conceptions of the Self

MiBMy latest essay for 3 Quarks Daily is up: Me and My Brain: What the “Double-Subject Fallacy” reveals about contemporary conceptions of the Self

Here’s an excerpt:
What is a person? Does each of us have some fundamental essence? Is it the body? Is it the mind? Is it something else entirely? Versions of this question seem always to have animated human thought. In the aftermath of the scientific revolution, it seems as if one category of answer — the dualist idea that the essence of a person is an incorporeal soul that inhabits a material body — must be ruled out. But as it turns out, internalizing a non-dualist conception of the self is actually rather challenging for most people, including neuroscientists.
 A recent paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience suggests that even experts in the sciences of mind and brain find it difficult to shake off dualistic intuitions. Liad Mudrik and Uri Maoz, in their paper “Me & My Brain”: Exposing Neuroscienceʼs Closet Dualism, argue that not only do neuroscientists frequently lapse into dualistic thinking, they also attribute high-level mental states to the brain, treating these states as distinct from the mental states of the person as a whole. They call this the double-subject fallacy. ( I will refer to the fallacy as “dub-sub”, and the process of engaging in it as “dub-subbing”.) Dub-subbing is going on in constructions like”my brain knew before I did” or “my brain is hiding information from me”. In addition to the traditional subject — “me”, the self, the mind — there is a second subject, the brain, which is described in anthropomorphic terms such as ‘knowing’ or ‘hiding’. But ‘knowing’ and ‘hiding’ are precisely the sorts of things that we look to neuroscience to explain; when we fall prey to the double-subject fallacy we are actually doing the opposite of what we set out to do as materialists.  Rather than explaining “me” in terms of physical brain processes, dub-subbing induces us to describe the brain in terms of an obscure second “me”. Instead of dispelling those pesky spirits, we allow them to proliferate!
Read the whole thing at 3QD:
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Is neuroscience really ruining the humanities?

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 [1], since I am both a neuroscientist and an avid spectator of the drama and intrigue on the other side of the Great Academic Divide [2]. 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?

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Science: The Quest for Symmetry


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. [1]

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.

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Does dopamine produce a feeling of bliss? On the chemical self, the social self, and reductionism.

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

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From Cell Membranes to Computational Aesthetics: On the Importance of Boundaries in Life and Art

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

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