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Chapter 7 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis 
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 Chapter 7 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Chapter 7
Finding Purpose in a Godless World
by Ralph Lewis


Please discuss Chapter 7 of Finding Purpose in a Godless World by Ralph Lewis in this thread.



Wed Aug 01, 2018 11:54 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 7 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Here Ralph Lewis takes a crack at consciousness. While newcomers to neuropsychology may not find all made clear in this chapter, it does give a good account of the basic understanding of scientists, namely that the brain is a very sophisticated system of organized connections which gives rise to the experience of consciousness in the normal course of its operation. The idea that some extra or outside process can carry on the functions of consciousness has no verified or experimental evidence.

I particularly liked his discussion of the difference between stimulus-response "decision-making" in higher vs. lower animals (p. 148). Simple animals display "competence without comprehension" as Daniel Dennett put it. Similarly, human (and presumably other complex) minds can put many processes on "autopilot" so that no attention is required. And attention is what? Well, among other things, it is a result of experiences that don't conform to expectations. So our mind is constantly predicting the future, based in part on observations, and when we see or hear something that deviates from the automatic predictions, we give it "attention." And our predictive expectations can be so powerful that when we have directed our "attention" circuits to focus on something else, a gorilla can walk through the middle of a basketball game without attracting our attention, so that we only see what was predicted, not the egregious violation of it. Placebo effects may be a side-effect of this power of self-prediction.

I appreciated several things about this. One is that it gives a useful working account of "attention." More on that a bit below.

A second is that higher level processes reach out to "find" lower level processes that are relevant. We now know (it has been indicated for about 60 years) that repeated processes form their own channels of response, in part by the coordinating neurons sending exploratory connections to parts of the brain that "should" be part of the pattern to be recognized. The neurons for a certain word have thereby sensitized themselves to certain sounds occurring in a certain order, and when that pattern is detected, they register the word. If part of that is distorted, as by a person with an accent or a speech impediment, the overall pattern recognition process is still able to pick up on the word, and certain "checking" processes can verify that the distortion is one that "makes sense" or "seems possible." Lewis' account of "predictions" probably relies on some form of these "active searches", since we must have some sense of what is supposed to come after what, in sequences that "make sense", and thus our mind is busy forming concepts of, and then checking, patterns that are important to be able to recognize and check on.

To my mind this sort of patterns-as-concepts would including things like cross-traffic stopping, in driving, or certain sounds being part of the milieu, in processing our auditory experience. Attention has some way of editing out the expected and routine, but that means there is some pattern-recognition that can declare an experience routine. In keeping with Belaqua's example about not noticing the color of the chair you sit in, we need structures of meaning or importance to tell us which "non-routine" elements are worth paying attention to. Polynesian wave navigators know what interference patterns to look for to find islands that are over the horizon - I would have no clue.

Shortly after this section Lewis begins to look for "Where are 'you'?" That is, to ask where in all this processing a sense of self emerges. He locates this in "self-representations" and "executive functions." When we make decisions about what is important we will generally also be experiencing emotions about the things. Our mind puts those together into patterns to recognize that are experiences of "self." Of course we use concepts to process this, including high level concepts like "Did I just say that? I would never say something like that - would I?"

Lewis is at pains to note that there is no "small entity" within us who is taking decisions, but rather a composite process weighing up importances and probable outcomes of a given course, and emotions about those, "recursively" as he puts it at one point. Attention (aka "consciousness") seems to give us an ability to form an account of these experiences, (which we may edit later for reasonableness, because obviously I would never say anything like that, and a guy destined for the Supreme Court would never drunkenly attack a cheerleader), which should be thought of more like a video than a script or story. The video may or may not have a "running commentary" - some practices, like speed reading, explicitly aim to remove the verbal narrative from the video because it slows the whole process down. Any blinkists, or one-minute managers out there?

He then goes into the observation that information is physical (and if you destroy the physical representation of a pattern, the information is lost, which is still being struggled with by quantum physicists).

Then in a very interesting section called "The Thrifty Brain" he points out that many shortcuts in processing patterns, observations and predictions make sense only from the point of view of saving on the physiological requirements of processing within the brain. Beliefs, he argues, are an example of such "labor-saving" devices and should be subject to questioning, verification and modification when unexpected information seems to conflict with them. Most of us are well used to doing so with respect to dietary and exercise advice.

Finally he turns to addressing God, firmly in the context of "beliefs" about what is causing things. This is a God of the Gaps, in his choice of terms, or "bad science" as I like to call it. Unfortunately he remains within the same context (more or less) to raise the question he plans to address next: how are our ideas about purpose or morality dependent on God? In particular, he promises to explain in upcoming chapters how caring about others can arise spontaneously (i.e. by response to evolutionary pressure, without externally sourced communication) within the social life of complex creatures.



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Tue Sep 18, 2018 10:23 am
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Post Re: Chapter 7 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Harry, thanks for the great summary of this chapter, with your thoughts. Were there any parts of this chapter you took issue with?

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He then goes into the observation that information is physical (and if you destroy the physical representation of a pattern, the information is lost, which is still being struggled with by quantum physicists).


Robert and I discussed this at length before. I forget the details of the discussion, but I made the connection between information and "meaning". Meaning is informational, isn't it? Even if that information is encoded emotionally, it's a pattern-based relational glue.


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Fri Sep 21, 2018 6:18 am
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Post Re: Chapter 7 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Interbane wrote:
Were there any parts of this chapter you took issue with?

Not seriously. His choice to address the question of God inspiring meaning in terms of "explanations" strikes me as unfortunate, but pretty standard. The whole idea that information is physical strikes me as reductionist. If a compression pattern, aka a wave, passes through some water, there is no question that the wave is "physical" (what else would it be?) but that somehow strikes me as losing track of its "wave-ness".

There is a physical representation in my brain of the Gettysburg Address (my representation has some holes in it, but never mind.) So I quote it at a UN meeting and it is translated into Chinese and then there is a Chinese representation of it in the brain of a Chinese representative in attendance. It's content is in the pattern with which such rhetoric gets stored in brains. Yet it's physicality has been drastically altered if encoded in Chinese. Or, more to the point, its physicality has been even more altered if stored in print. Yet the meaning is not lost.

The cover blurb ad that Chris has posted for this book trumpets that it lays to rest "transcendence." But reductionism doesn't end transcendence, it merely highlights one aspect of it. Pointing out that biological processes are "just atoms and molecules interacting" doesn't remove the emergent biological properties that matter to its alive-ness.

Analysts of culture keep getting worked up about the fact that "gods were invented by humans." As if that was startling, just because theists argue otherwise. Yet it misses something vital, because the nature of what was thought up does convey something transcendent to the people who communicate to each other about that in terms of the wishes of deities. That is, transcendence is in the values, and the relationship between ordinary values and transcendent values. Pointing out that these are not removed from our understanding or beyond our capacity to comprehend or modify doesn't change their transcendent importance.

I tend to think of the stories of Gods as the substrate in which transcendent meaning was conveyed, and we can now transfer it to something quite different without losing the essential nature of the understanding. If I pointed out that complex numbers are stored in the minds of humans, it would not change their nature.

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Meaning is informational, isn't it? Even if that information is encoded emotionally, it's a pattern-based relational glue.

I expect it is, although I find it hard to get myself to focus on the question. I forget what it was that got you two discussing it, but I dropped out pretty early because I couldn't convince myself I cared about the issue.



Fri Sep 21, 2018 10:57 am
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Post Re: Chapter 7 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Harry wrote:
The whole idea that information is physical strikes me as reductionist.


My take is that although information requires a physical medium, it also has emergent properties that could be mapped to other physical mediums. But at no point can the information be divorced from any medium. At the foundation of any sized emergent-property pyramid, there is a physical layer.

Richard Carrier went into this in detail in "Sense and Goodness Without God", and it made a lot of sense to me.

Perhaps emergent properties transcend the physical, but not in the sense that they exclude it or do not need it to exist.

Quote:
I expect it is, although I find it hard to get myself to focus on the question. I forget what it was that got you two discussing it, but I dropped out pretty early because I couldn't convince myself I cared about the issue.


Fair enough.

I think this is one of those pedantic points that can be a fulcrum that tips a worldview one way or the other. It's the epistemic root of some people's belief in the supernatural vs the natural. Can emotion be divorced from a physical substrate?


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Fri Sep 21, 2018 12:39 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 7 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Interbane wrote:
My take is that although information requires a physical medium, it also has emergent properties that could be mapped to other physical mediums. But at no point can the information be divorced from any medium. At the foundation of any sized emergent-property pyramid, there is a physical layer.

I think this is the right idea. An idealist would emphasize the notion that some relationships between ideas, such as the mechanics of complex numbers or the moral inadmissibility of applying principles one would not accept if positions were reversed, are inherent in the cause and effect of the universe and would be rediscovered even if, as information, understanding of them was somehow lost.

A strong-form idealist would argue that these ideas are not contingent (that is, their content doesn't emerge from the circumstances leading to investigation of them) and so they will act as shaping forces on events rather than depending on events for their truth.

I am very sympathetic to that idea, but would not want to extend it to ethereal ideas of a transcendent realm of truths, or to imagining that some entity had created things that way and thus decreed them. I think it might contradict your idea that there "must be" a physical layer to such principles, but I would have to give it more thought.

Interbane wrote:
Perhaps emergent properties transcend the physical, but not in the sense that they exclude it or do not need it to exist.
I think that is phrased too abstractly for me to feel I can evaluate it. It comes across to me sounding like some Zen koan about a tree falling in the forest where no one is there to hear.

Interbane wrote:
I think this is one of those pedantic points that can be a fulcrum that tips a worldview one way or the other. It's the epistemic root of some people's belief in the supernatural vs the natural.

I think its epistemic tipping role is unfortunate. There is a small discussion on a religious website about the "two cultures" in the pews, with one set of people believing reality is "enchanted" (i.e. shot through with supernatural intervention) and another believing no such enchantment is occurring, and each thinking the other is out of touch with reality. (It turns out there are a lot of people who self-report going back and forth between the two, which would seem to rule out contempt for the opposite view.)

It seems to me those who take the enchantment view are engaged in wishful thinking, but that's kind of intentional. In a way similar to the way I come on trusting to people because I am hoping my trust engenders mutual trust, these people are "coming on grateful" to the universe. Perhaps they are engaged in fooling themselves in a sort of placebo exercise, but isn't it possible they are thereby giving themselves good medicine even so?

Interbane wrote:
Can emotion be divorced from a physical substrate?
I would think that's a no. But what is happening when someone asks "What would Gandhi do?" and thereby experiences a simulated experience of Gandhi's emotions? This is no idle question. Traditional African religion relied on such exercise of the imagination, and contemporary evangelical Christianity asks its adherents to "experience the presence of Jesus." I grew up singing "You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart."

Evidently there is a physical substrate within the person doing the imagining, but its capacity to create simulations of the world creates a connection between the seeker and Gandhi (despite Gandhi being dead.) You might argue "it is only the idea of Gandhi" but in a real sense that is true also of a contemporary sitting at Gandhi's feet while he was still alive. During Gandhi's life there is an additional connection, in that the devotee can ask questions that the live Gandhi can ponder and answer. But even the understanding of his answer, a communication theorist will tell you, involves a surprising amount of "theory of mind," as the listener exerts himself to understand Gandhi's meaning.

So to some extent my mind is hiding in the physical substrate of other people's brains. I'm perfectly willing to grant that this is a confusion of terms, but we don't have terms yet for the intersubjective processes in understanding, and so the individualist "substrate" version is also a bit of a confusion of terms.



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Sat Sep 22, 2018 3:33 pm
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