Science Writer: Mind Explanation Book Fails

In a leading scientific journal Nature, science writer Philippe Ball reviews a book offering to explain how the mind is born out of mud. And he deviates from the script.

The book is Spirit Journey: How thought emerged from chaos by neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam. One would expect a conventional science writer to announce that this new book is an important contribution to the quest to naturalize the human mind – to show that the mind is merely an adaptation that has enabled the monkey without a tail to survive in the savannah. Such a belief need not be true (and is not); it is a placeholder for a better grounded purely naturalistic belief.

Yet Ball examines the claims made in spirit journey, and offers real review:

Ogas and Gaddam have a very broad view of the mind as “a physical system that converts sensations into action”. At first glance, this grants a spirit to thermostats and robots as much as to living entities. “A spirit responds. A mind changes. A spirit acts,” they write. But the same goes for many machines. What, then, distinguishes a spirit? If it is about sensibility or conscience, the authors give a confused picture. They say an amoeba’s “self-awareness” is “pitiful” – and later seem to deny this quality to all organisms except vertebrates.

Many claims go beyond the facts. The discussion of consciousness rests on the belief that the problem has been solved by cognitive scientist Stephen Grossberg (whom the authors thank for “his guidance and support”). Since the late 1960s, Grossberg has developed the idea that consciousness arises from the “resonance” between specific brain modules. Ogas and Gaddam are vague about what resonance means here, beyond saying that the modules amplify and extend each other’s outputs, and they give the reader little guidance on the empirical evidence that exists to support the idea. Grossberg’s theory is provocative and thought-provoking, but, framed within the abstract mathematical framework of dynamical systems theory, it remains contingent on his assumption that “all conscious states are states of resonance.” I am not convinced that this amounts to the revolution that the authors claim.

Philippe BallA tour of the evolution of minds” at Nature (7 March 2022)

Ball is right, of course. Popular scientific literature on the mind boasts many claims that we are on the verge of reducing it to a material substrate. Meanwhile, professional approaches to the subject have been described in the Chronicle of higher education like weird. Repeated rebuffs of proof teach nothing in most cases except to keep trying.

Now, about cognitive scientists Stephen Grossberg: He is the author of the highly praised Conscious mind, resonating brain (2021):

The work embodies groundbreaking principles of mind that clarify how autonomous adaptive intelligence is achieved. It provides mechanistic explanations for multiple mental disorders, including symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, autism, amnesia, and sleep disturbances; the biological bases of morality and religion, including why our brains are geared towards the good so that values ​​are not purely relative; puzzling aspects of the human condition, including why many decisions are irrational and counterproductive despite evolutionary selection for adaptive behaviors; and solutions to large-scale problems in machine learning, technology, and artificial intelligence that provide a model for autonomously intelligent algorithms and robots. – From the editor

If the publisher is any guide, the book certainly hits all the right pop sci buttons: “mechanistic explanations of multiple mental disorders”, “biological bases of morality and religion”, “why our brains are biased towards the good in order to values ​​are not”. purely relative” (brain bias, do not moral choice), “many decisions are irrational and counterproductive despite evolution’s selection of adaptive behaviors” (the fact that we are supposed to have evolved to behave in one way but in reality we often behave in a any other way should never cast doubt on the theory itself) … And, unsurprisingly, “solutions … that provide a model for autonomously intelligent algorithms and robots”

Ball seems like too thoughtful a science writer to swallow it all and encourage it. But he must be careful:

There’s a lot to like in Journey of the mind. He is so often informative and entertaining that it seems mean to quibble. But the book illustrates a persistent problem in popular science, in which pet theories are presented with too much confidence and too little context. Readers deserve the full picture – less definitive and satisfying, perhaps, but ultimately more honest and illuminating.

Philippe BallA tour of the evolution of minds” at Nature (7 March 2022)

That’s true, but the full picture would highlight the huge flaws of reductionist materialism. It’s no wonder so many people continue to find solace in scientific writing like “Eureka!” The “moral choice” module finally found – among the guinea pigs! »

You can also read:

The relationship between the mind and the brain isn’t even clear Journalist and editor Ken Francis poses a series of skeptical questions to those who claim that the mind is really just the brain. The placebo effect – we start to get better because we believe we will, before the drugs have taken effect – is a classic demonstration of the mind at work.


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