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Ethical Brain: Chapter 9

#21: Oct. - Dec. 2005 (Non-Fiction)
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Chris OConnor

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Ethical Brain: Chapter 9

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This thread is for discussing Ch. 9 - The Believing Brain. You can post within this framework or create your own threads. Edited by: Chris OConnor  at: 11/1/05 12:29 am
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Re: Ch. 9 - The Believing Brain

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Among other things, this chapter left me with a number of questions concerning the methodology and rationale that led to the conclusions Gazzaniga has espoused. And it seems to me that the only way to really get answers to those questions is to do a hell of a lot more reading -- Gazzaniga leaves a lot of gaps in the argument that are presumably covered more in depth in the scientific abstracts he references in the endnotes. I probably won't get to many, if any at all, of those abstracts, but I thought I'd raise the questions for the benefit of the group, or on the chance that someone else picked something out of the reading that I missed.1. What does it mean to say that part of the left hemisphere "interprets" or "makes sense of.. the events in our life"? Are we talking about making things meaningful in the sense of appraising their significance, about translating them into modes of practical action, simply arranging them into forms that we can then consciously assess? What?2. All of the case studies Gazzaniga has performed and synopsized in on pages 148-150 were performed on people with rather severe, pre-existing, neurological damage. What methods did he and his staff use to ensure that this damage didn't skew their results and conclusions? How can we feel sure that that these conclusions hold equally true in undamaged brains?3. In talking about the response of people surveyed about a particular ethical dilemma, Gazzaniga concluded that "what is different is how they interpret their response, which is based on how they think and feel about the issue at hand." (p. 153) The emphasis is Gazzaniga's but it hits the crucial word. His conclusions seems to presuppose that the moral response necessarily precedes the conscious thought which explains it. But how do Gazzaniga and Marc Hauser (whose research Gazzaniga has employed here) justify that presupposition, especially sense the research was carried out over a web site? Why should we feel inclined to accept that order over the more traditional view that we think consciously about the problem in order to produce the moral response? Would it not be just as plausible to suppose that, in completely novel dilemmas, the person must do some conscious cognitive work to arrive at a moral response, but that such dilemmas may then be generalized such that the individual bypasses the formerly necessary cognitive work by associating certain general features of a problem with a remembered moral response?4. How is it determined that everyone from van Gogh to Socrates suffered from TLE? Van Gogh's case is, fortunately, well documented, since Van Gogh himself produced a large body of biographical material. But Socrates left no writings, and first hand descriptions are of dubious certainty, since at least one of his contemporary biographers used Socrates as his mouthpiece in fictionalized dialogues. The other historical figures represent a range of biographical certainty, so what purpose is achieved in casting light on the agency behind their achievements?More later.
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Re: Ch. 9 - The Believing Brain

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Ramachandran's book Phantoms in the Brain, which I recommended earlier, has a lot more details about the correlation between certain brain conditions and beliefs, including religious beliefs. Ramachandran was more convincing, though the concerns MadArchitect raised were still present.It was ironic when Gazzaniga reported that many people don't justify their moral judgments. After all, my complaint about the book is that Gazzaniga doesn't justify his own conclusions.Even though I'm an atheist, Gazzaniga's implication that religious believers are less rational than scientists annoyed me. As I see it, everyone's beliefs include some irrationality and inconsistencies, and it's arrogant to dismiss people you disagree with because their views come across as irrational.
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Re: Ch. 9 - The Believing Brain

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Mad wondered how it was determined that all of those famous people suffered from TLE. I also wish that Gazzaniga would have elaborated on that. I should point out that Gazzaniga did not say that these people definitely had TLE. His sentence reads: "Other famous people thought to have had TLE include..." The italics are mine. Also, Gazzaniga gives a footnote on Van Gogh's TLE. Perhaps the text on Van Gogh would shed some light on this manner. If anyone has read about Van Gogh's TLE, I'd be interested to hear about it.
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Re: Ch. 9 - The Believing Brain

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I forget the title at the moment, and I don't have my notes with me at the moment, but I recall that Gazzaniga was synopsizing information from another book, which goes more in depth on the TLE question. So ultimately, I think the question I raised earlier has to be referred to another text. That's a bit unfortunate for Gazzaniga's argument, I think, but to some extent that kind of thing is necessary in the interests of brevity.For my part, until I get a chance to read that other book -- and I do have the title written down elsewhere -- the tendency is towards assuming that the list of names is part of a habit of historical revisionism that seems fairly common in pathological medicine. Anytime someone elaborates on a newly described disease, someone feels inclined to attribute it to any major historical figures who exhibited characteristics similar to the symptoms of their pet disease. Which is, I think, part of a larger phenomenon of trying not merely to understand the natural world and our place in it -- which is the more noble goal of the sciences -- but to explain it away, and particularly to explain away the differences that distinguish "great" historical figures from the rest of the rabble.There's an ideology underlying that habit, it seems to me -- the weaker strain of the modern love of the ideal of equality.
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Re: Ch. 9 - The Believing Brain

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MadArchitectQuote:Anytime someone elaborates on a newly described disease, someone feels inclined to attribute it to any major historical figures who exhibited characteristics similar to the symptoms of their pet disease. Which is, I think, part of a larger phenomenon of trying not merely to understand the natural world and our place in it -- which is the more noble goal of the sciences -- but to explain it away, and particularly to explain away the differences that distinguish "great" historical figures from the rest of the rabble.Brilliant, thank you. There was something about the discussion that troubled me and I couldn't put my finger on it. It almost sounds like a variety of "intern syndrome". JulianTheApostateQuote:Even though I'm an atheist, Gazzaniga's implication that religious believers are less rational than scientists annoyed me.As you say, all of us have our rational and irrational ideas. What we know about believers is that they advertise one giant irrational idea that the non-believer does hold. Some non-believers advertise their irrational ideas but most don't; so it is an unknown about them. I don't recall Gazzaniga saying the person "is" irrational but it clearly is a data point. If you make yourself really small, you can externalize virtually everything. Daniel Dennett, 1984
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Re: Ch. 9 - The Believing Brain

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Some non-believers advertise their irrational ideas but most don't; so it is an unknown about them.There's an historical element to that argument. It may turn out that the social, cultural or even scientific truths espoused by modern "non-believers" will one day be regarded -- and with good reason -- as irrational at root. I'm not saying that it's an inevitability, but historically it has been true that one generation's assumptions of what is reasonable are barely discernable myths to the generation that follows.
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Re: Ch. 9 - The Believing Brain

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Julian, Do you really think the author was dismissing the religious? I found it more of a discusssion of possible rational explanations for the phenomenon they experienced, vs a dismissal.Additionally, in the second half of p 159, he talks about two ways of looking at this issue, which I found very insightful. Specifically, some would argue that an organic explanation would negate the reality of the beliefs, but others would argue that this is the way religious experience works. To be honest, I had not thought about it that way before. While I personally don't agree with that idea, I can see how others could and therefore find it insightful in understanding those with the other opinion. Edited by: ginof at: 11/26/05 6:39 pm
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Re: Ch. 9 - The Believing Brain

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Quote:p 155 Something as elaborate - as time-, energy-, and thought-consuming- as religion would not exist if it didn't have secular utility. Religiions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone. The mechnisms that enable religious groups to function as adaptive units include the very beliefs and practices that make religion appear enigmatic to so many people who stand outside of them.- David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathederal: Evolution, religion and the Nature of SocietyWow, what a brilliant insight! As a person who is not religious, this really describes the positive aspects of religion to me.
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Re: Ch. 9 - The Believing Brain

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ginof: Julian, Do you really think the author was dismissing the religious? I found it more of a discusssion of possible rational explanations for the phenomenon they experienced, vs a dismissal.Not addressed to me, I know, but yes, I think he was trying to bring religious belief into question. Gazzaniga was being fairly diplomatic, but in trying to find a naturalistic explanation for the existence of religious belief I think he meant to imply that religion is invalid.
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