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Archive for June 29th, 2017

The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

O YE THAT ARE LYING AS DEAD ON THE COUCH OF HEEDLESSNESS! Ages have passed and your precious lives are well-nigh ended, yet not a single breath of purity hath reached Our court of holiness from you. Though immersed in the ocean of misbelief, yet with your lips ye profess the one true faith of God. Him whom I abhor ye have loved, and of My foe ye have made a friend. Notwithstanding, ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you. Were ye but to open your eyes, ye would, in truth, prefer a myriad griefs unto this joy, and would count death itself better than this life.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Persian Hidden WordsNo. 20)

I ended the last post with this point. Our survival now depends not upon our evolutionary heritage of tunnel vision approximations to reality but upon our transcending these limitations as rapidly as possible both as individuals and as a species. If not, extinction beckons.

Where there’s a will

I couldn’t of course say that in any meaningful way if I accepted Dennett’s argument in Consciousness Explained that willpower is an illusion.

By the time Dennett was writing his influential tract about consciousness in the early 90s he spoke for many when he dismissed the idea of conscious choice as a genuine initiator of action. He wrote (page 163):

[Libet] found evidence that . . . “conscious decisions” lagged between 350 and 400 msec behind the onset of “readiness potentials” he was able to record from scalp electrodes, which, he claims, tap the neural events that determine the voluntary actions performed. He concludes that “cerebral initiation of a spontaneous voluntary act begins unconsciously.”

. . . It seems to rule out a real (as opposed to an illusory) “executive role for “the conscious self.”

An even simpler experiment seemed to point in very much the same direction. W. Grey Walter implanted electrodes into what he suspected were brain areas with arousal related to initiating ‘intentional actions.’ He then asked the subjects in this experiment to press a button when they wanted to see the next slide in a series (page 167):

Unbeknownst to the patient, however, the controller button was a dummy, not attached to the slide projector! What actually advanced the slides was the amplified signal from the electrode implanted in the patient’s motor cortex.

One might suppose that the patients would notice nothing out of the ordinary, but in fact they were startled by the effect, because it seemed to them as if the slide projector was anticipating their decisions. They reported that just as they were “about to” push the button, but before they had actually decided to do so, the projector would advance the slide . . .

There are holes in this argument in so far as it constitutes proof that all experiences of conscious choice and willpower are illusions. For a start there is evidence that even such triggers of action as this was based upon, such as simple basic responses, can be blocked at the last moment. They’re not completely inevitable.

Even more importantly, key clinical research demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the mind can change the brain. It would be impossible to describe all the evidence adduced to support the claim that volition is real and its exercise can change the brain, i.e. mind alters matter in this case and it cannot be explained as one part of the brain working on another part.

One compelling example that will hopefully suffice for now is Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work, which he examines in The Mind and the Brain, showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.” His model involves four stages. He concludes (page 94):

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

In case we miss the full implications of this work they spell them out (page 95):

The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . And as we will see, modern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

Even though subliminal influences of the kind I outlined earlier still run the show most of the time when we’re on automatic pilot, as Kahneman has also demonstrated at length in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, many of us have also clearly shown the capacity to use our minds to change our brains and make ourselves wiser and more adaptive. This is effortful but possible.

It important though that we do not stop at the level of the individual.

Collective Simulations

Our implicit personal simulations, the ones that trigger instinctive responses, evolved to optimise our individual chances of survival. Our collective simulations in any culture or sub-culture are created by the most powerful prevailing influences at the present time and serve to reinforce its priorities. None of these simulations is correct but we treat them as if they were and they are strongly related to our preferences. This can have serious and widespread consequences.

Klein unpicks these in terms of climate change and the influence of wealthy deniers.

She quotes Dan Kahan in This Changes Everything (pages 36-37):

[He] attributes the tight correlation between “worldview” and acceptance of climate science to ‘cultural cognition,’ the process by which all of us – regardless of political leanings – filter new information in ways that will protect our ‘preferred version of the good society.’ . . . .

In other words, it is always ‘easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered.’

In America 69% of those holding strong ‘egalitarian’ views regard climate change as ‘a high risk,’ whereas only 11% of those with strong ‘hierarchical’ views do so. Between 2002 and 2010, according to a Guardian report she quotes (page 45) ‘a network of anonymous U. S. billionaires had donated nearly $120 million to “groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change.”’ We can fairly presume that this was not all they spent on similar purposes: it’s probably the tip of a very large iceberg, of the kind that will become increasingly rare in nature as time goes on if we don’t change our ways. The polling figures she quotes (page 35) show that from 2007 when 71 per cent of Americans ‘believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would alter the climate’ the figure fell through 51% in 2009 to 44% in 2011. She claims similar trends have been detected in the U.K. and Australia.

Donations from billionaires was probably not the only factor influencing this trend, though it probably helped boost the flood of antagonism that greeted attempts in newspapers and on the web to support the validity of climate change and which resulted in a certain reluctance in some quarters to stick heads above the parapet on this issue. I’ve already blogged about how drug company investment in new markets, largely by targeting potential tablet swallowers, led to doctors being inundated with requests for the new wonder drug. That there should also be a correlation between high levels of spending to persuade a wide audience that climate change is a myth and a predictable widespread negative response to climate change advocates does not surprise me in the least.

Through processes of reflection, which I have explored at length on this blog and will come back to later, we as individuals can step back from our default patterns of belief, thought and behaviour, including our default susceptibility to persuasion, and change them radically for the better. But first of course we have to realise that something is badly wrong and that we need to change.

Through processes of consultation resolutely applied, again something I have explored on this blog and will return to, we can as groups, communities, nations, continents and beyond, reflect upon and modify our default patterns of belief, thought and behaviour, and change them radically for the better. Collectively recognising that something is badly wrong and that we need to change is even more difficult for communities than it is for individuals.

More on this next time.

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