Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Making up the mind" by Chris Frith

Quotation from

This is another excellent book written by an eminent scientist for the general reader. The purpose of the book is clearly stated.

In this book I shall show that this distinction between the mental and the physical is false. It is an illusion created by the brain. Everything we know, whether it is about the physical or the mental world, comes to us through our brain. But our brain's connection with the physical world of objects is no more direct than our brain's connection with the mental world of ideas. By hiding from us all the unconscious inferences that it makes, our brain creates the illusion that we have direct contact with objects in the physical world. And at the same time our brain creates the illusion that our own mental world is isolated and private. Through these two illusions we experience ourselves as agents, acting independently upon the world. But, at the same time, we can share our experiences of the world. Over the millennia this ability to share experience has created human culture that has, in its turn, modified the functioning of the human brain.
By seeing through these illusions created by our brain, we can begin to develop a science that explains how the brain creates the mind. (p. 17)

Take the blind spot in the eye, the saccade in the eye movement or the range of electromagnetic spectrum for the human eye. Or why do we not feel we're moving every time we turn our face, just as we feel we are moving when we see the next train moving through a window of a train that is stopping at a station? It is evident that what we 'see' is something that is constituted by the brain. It is not a 'true' representation of the reality ("thing in itself" by Kant).The "I" believes it directly sees the reality, but it is its brain that makes it believe so. We only see or indeed experience anything just as our brain prepares for us.

Through its ability to learn and predict, my brain ties me to the world with many strong threads. Because of these threads, the world is not a buzzing, confusing mass of sensations; instead, everything around me exerts a push or pull because my brain has learned to attach values to them. And my brain creates more than mere pushes and pulls. It even specifies all the actions I might need to perform to reach some things and avoid others. But I am not aware of these strong connections -- my brain creates the illusion that I am independent being quite separate from this physical world.
Whenever I act in the world, moving my limbs and moving myself from one place to another, I cause massive changes in the signals striking my senses. The pattern of sensations on the retina at the back of my eye really changed. And my brain manages to create for me the experience of a constant, unchanging world through which I move. I can choose to attend to the various parts of my body, and then they too become part of this external world. But most of the time I, the actor, move through the world invisibly, a shadow that one can sometimes catch a glimpse of from the corner of one's eye before it moves on. (pp. 109-110)

Our 'reality' is a model that is produced by the brain. The "I" only sees the end product of the model. Since the world as the "thing in itself" is beyond our cognitive capacity, the model that our brain provides is only an appropriate creation, or fantasy if you may, for us (Poor little earthling!).

Our brains build models of the world and continuously modify these models on the basis of the signals that reach our senses. So, what we actually perceive are our brain's models of the world. They are not the world itself; but, for us, they are as good as. You could say that our perceptions are fantasies that coincide with reality. Furthermore, if not sensory signals are available, then our brain fills in the missing information. (p. 135)

This "fantasy" evolves into a more finely tuned one when its carrier (You) interacts with something (a.k.a. your neighbor) that you assume to be another carrier of the "fantasy" or the mind, to use a less provocative word. In communication, you realize that your model (mind) is slightly (if not incommensurably) different from that of your neighbor. Assuming that your neighbor is another carrier of the mind like you, you compare the two models and try to accommodate yours (or your neighbor's if you dare) so that two models can co-exist better. In the process, you just don't emit your ideas; you edit your ideas so that the different mind can understand them better.

I can know that my communication has been unsuccessful when my prediction about what you will do next is not quite right. But the process does not stop there. If I know that my communication has not been successful, I can then change the way I communicate. I should also have a clue as to how I should change the way I communicate. I compare my idea and my model of your idea and I see that they are different. This is the prediction error. But I can also look at the nature of the error. Where precisely are the differences between my idea and my model of your idea? The nature of the prediction error tells me how to change my communication: which points I should emphasize and which points are not important. I don't just choose my words because of what they mean; I choose my words to suit the person I am talking to. The more I talk to someone, the better an idea I get of what words will suit -- just as I get a better idea of how to perceive the world around me the more I look at it. (p. 171)

When communication is successful, I'm able to understand your model of the world and you're able to understand mine. I share your model and you share mine. I'm not alone, and neither are you.

In a successful communication the point is reached where my model of your meaning matches my own meaning, and I no longer need to show you that there is a problem. And, critically, at the same time, you too have reached that point where there is no discrepancy between your model of my meaning and your own meaning. At this point of mutual agreement communication has been achieved. By building models of the mental world, our brains have solved the problem of how to get inside the minds of others. And it is this ability to make models of the mental world that has created the great gap between humans and all other species. Without the ability to build and share mental models of the world, there would be no such thing as language and culture. (p. 175)

Communicating minds are much better than a solitary mind, for you can share other person's mind which is better at predicting about the physical world. You can not only borrow the better mind, but also adapt your mind to make it like the better mind. If you have many other minds and those minds interact and exchange ideas, chances are that we're better off. (Cf. The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley)

In the very distant past our ancestors too were alone, constructing their models of the physical world, but unable to share them with others. At that time truth had no relevance for these models. It did not matter whether the model was a true reflection of the physical world. All that mattered was that the model worked by predicting what would happen next. But once we can share our models of the physical world, then we discover that other people's models are slightly different from our own.(p. 179) Some people are experts who clearly have better models of some aspects of the world. By putting together the models of many people, we can construct a new model that is better than any model produced by a single individual. And our knowledge of the world is no longer derived from a single lifetime -- knowledge passes from one generation to the next. (p. 181)

But not always with a happy ending. If what we share is a better approximation of the truth as in the culture of science, we're better off. But if it is a collective deception (as in the crazy speculation in the financial market) or an insane delusion (as in the belief in the cult group), we're doomed.

By making models of the minds of others (in the same way that it makes models of the physical world), my brain enables me to enter a shared mental world. By sharing my mental world with others, I can also learn from their experiences and adopt the models of others that are better than my own. From this process, truth and progress can emerge, but so can deception and mass delusions. (p. 183)

Despite these occasional unfortunate endings, it's better to communicate. And in communication, we assume that we're detached and we only have to guess other person's mind. This assumption is correct in that our qualia are inaccessible by others. But we're not unreachably separate because we can borrow and share other person's mind. We have the learning culture that we've developed over the past millenniums. In the culture, we've learned that it's better to treat other persons well, for that's the way we can learn better mutually.

There is an intimate relationship between our experience that we are free agents and our willingness to be altruistic, feeling pleased when we are behaving fairly ourselves and feeling upset by the unfairness of others. For these feelings to arise it is crucial that we experience ourselves and others are free agents. We believe that all of us make deliberate choices. Otherwise our willingness to cooperate would fall apart. This final illusion created by our brain -- that we are detached from the social world and are free agents -- enables us to create together a society and a culture that is so much more than any individual. (p. 193)

That's all for my arbitrary summary. I hope I was not unfair. But for a fairer share, get the book and read yourself.

Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World


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Monday, June 7, 2010

'The society of selves' by Nicholas Humphrey

Quotation from

The society of selves
by Nicholas Humphrey

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (2007) 362, 745-754

Available at:

The thought that your consciousness (or 'the true you', if you like) is inaccessible by anybody else than you may be depressing. You may feel you're so isolated that nobody understands you really.

But what if other people know that they themselves are inaccessible by you or anybody else than themselves? What if we, human beings, mutually know that our consciousness is only private? (In fact, we usually think we do!)

What our consciousness is about is private and not shared, but that our consciousness is private is not private but shared. This shared knowledge (actually assumption, to be exact) grants the sense of awe from your private perspective in every single human being, a carrier of consciousness.

Private use of your consciousness is one thing; your consciousness is (in many cases) only known to yourself; you can lie or cheat to defeat others.

Public use of the private nature of consciousness is another. It may give rise to a society in which every member is treated with greater dignity than the one a member receives in a society with no shared assumption of consciousness.

Human being is "we-being with separate Is."

If you didn't assume that other person's consciousness is private, you'd probably behave like an omniscient being. You'd be a dictator or a final judge, interfere with other persons too much and make yourself unhappy as a result.

If, on the other hand, you believed that while other people's consciousness is inaccessible, yours alone is accessible, you'd behave as if people around you are all predators. You'd be so scared as to attack others in your 'self-defense.'

The sense of "we-being with separate Is" makes our society as sane and reasonable as it is now.

Here's what Humphrey says:

If I myself have this astonishing phenomenon, known only to me, at the centre of my existence, and if (it is, of course, a big if ) I can assume that you do too, then what does this say about the kind of people that we are? It is not just me. Each of us is a creative hub of consciousness, each has a soul, no one has more than one. All men have been endowed by the creator with an inalienable and inviolable mind-space of their own.

We are a society of selves. The idea that everyone is equally special in this way is extraordinarily potent -- psychologically, ethically and politically. And I dare say it would be and is highly adaptive. I believe it is likely to have arisen within the human community as a direct response to reflecting on the remarkable properties of the conscious mind. And from the beginning, it will have transformed human relationships, encouraging new levels of mutual respect, and greatly increasing the value each person puts on their own and others’ lives. (p. 753)

Human beings need relationships. But the deepest and best relationships are going to be those between people who recognize the existence in others of a conscious self that is as strange and precious --and private--as their own. (p. 754)

'Otherness of other people' may make you feel lonely in relationship, but it makes you respect other people, which I believe in turn makes you happy.

The conviction that our consciousness is categorically inaccessible and only contingently inferable by others forms a basis of our civilication.


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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Chapter 5 of Orality and Literacy (How prints affected human consciousness)

Quotation from

By Walter J. Ong
Routledge: London, 2002 (first published in 1982).
also available in Questia


Alphabet letterpress printing

Print culture substantially started with the invention of alphabetic letter press print in fifteenth-century Europe, although other types of printing with carved surfaces of wood blocks were in use since the seventh or eighth century China, Korea and Japan. (p. 116)

Print culture reified the word

Ong argues that "it was print, not writing, that effectively reified the word" (p. 117) because "in the West through the Renaissance, the oration was the most taught of all verbal productions and remained implicitly the basic paradigm for all discourse, written as well as oral. Written material was subsidiary to hearing in ways which strike us today as bizarre. " (p. 117)

Prints and science

Prints made the repetition of exactly worded descriptions possible, which accompanies exact observation. Exact description and observation is apparently the basis of science. (p. 125)

Print eventually removed the ancient art of (orally based) rhetoric from the center of academic education. It encouraged and made possible on a large scale the quantification of knowledge, both through the use of mathematical analysis and through the use of diagrams and charts. (p. 127)

Prints and literature

Production of many copies of exact verbalization, made possible by prints, affected literature as well. Detailed attention to natural phenomena was not in pre-Romantic prose. (p. 125)

The 'correctness' of language

With exact copies of the same verbal expressions in print amply available, the idea of 'correct' language began to emerge. With the tradition of Learned Latin, the paradigmatic form of language was now the printed text, not the written text, let alone the oral discourse. (p. 128) Moreover, the printed text is considered as 'final' and this sense of finality probably enhanced the sense of the 'correctness.' (p. 130)

A new sense of the private ownership of words

Ong argues that resentment at plagiarism developed with writing. Print added another step.

[P]rint encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space. (p. 129)

The romantic notion of 'originality' and 'creativity' started with the printing culture.

Manuscript culture had taken intertextuality for granted. Still tied to the commonplace tradition of the old oral world, it deliberately created texts out of other texts, borrowing, adapting, sharing the common, originally oral, formulas and themes, even though it worked them up into fresh literary forms impossible without writing. Print culture of itself has a different mindset. It tends to feel a work as ‘closed’, set off from other works, a unit in itself. Print culture gave birth to the romantic notions of ‘originality’ and ‘creativity’, which set apart an individual work from other works even more, seeing its origins and meaning as independent of outside influence, at least ideally. (p. 131)

'Reading public'

Print promoted a text detached from specific readers or contexts. The writer now seems to describing from nowhere, as it were, and likewise the writer imagines the 'reading public,' a new imaginary invention.

The fixed point of view and fixed tone showed in one way a greater distance between writer and reader and in another way a greater tacit understanding. The writer could go his or her own way confidently (greater distance, lack of concern). (...) The writer could be confident that the reader would adjust (greater understanding). At this point, the ‘reading public’ came into existence?a sizable clientele of readers unknown personally to the author but able to deal with certain more or less established points of view. (pp. 132-133)

Electronic technology and 'secondary orality'

The electronic technology of the 20th century brought back the oral culture, but with the print culture long established, the orality was no longer the same as the primary orality.

This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas (Ong 1971, pp. 284-303; 1977, pp. 16-49, 305-41). But it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well. (pp. 133-134)

Secondary orality is not only more deliberate and self-conscious, but also much larger in scale.

Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture --McLuhan’s ‘global village’. (p. 134)

But the sense of a 'global village' is probably only beginning to be shared by us all with the rise of the Internet culture. The analysis must continue.


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'Final Theory' and Isaac Newton

Quotation from
'What Price Glory?'
The New York Review of Books, JUNE 10, 2010

I find it ironic that Weinberg, after declaring so vehemently his hostility to religious beliefs, emerges in his writing about science as a man of faith. He believes passionately in the possibility of a Final Theory. He wrote a book with the title Dreams of a Final Theory, and the notion of a Final Theory permeates his thinking in this book too. A Final Theory means a set of mathematical rules that describe with complete generality and complete precision the way the physical universe behaves. Complete generality means that the rules are obeyed everywhere and at all times. Complete precision means that any discrepancies between the rules and the results of experimental measurements will be due to the limited accuracy of the measurements. (p. 12)


Isaac Newton, the scientist who took the biggest single step toward the understanding of nature, saw clearly how far he was from any Final Theory. “I do not know what I may appear to the World,” he wrote toward the end of his long life,

but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Newton wrote more modestly than Weinberg of the ability of the human mind to penetrate the mysteries of Nature. Newton was a devout Christian, as dedicated to theology as he was to science. Newton was no fool.(p. 12)


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