Thursday, December 28, 2006

MORAL MINDS: spring 2007

Marc Hauser's Moral Minds (Amazon | B&N) is our book for discussion this spring. Selections on neuroethics came in second and will probably be our topic this summer. Information about the time and place of the spring meetings will be posted later.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Book Selection for Spring 2007

So what book do we want to discuss in the spring? I created a survey instrument at Survey Monkey on which you can indicate your preferences. Please go HERE and select your TWO favorite options. Summaries of the candidates are listed below. Thanks. --Rudy

Basic Instinct (Blumberg) [Amazon, $10.17]

This is a passionate (and at times polemical) survey of what contemporary neuroscience has to say about the nature of instinct. Actually, as it turns out, it might be more accurate to say the "nurture" of instinct, since Blumberg firmly argues against the perspective that what we think of as instincts are innate—he reframes "instincts," ranging from a baby's tendency to mimic faces to monkeys' fear of snakes, as a consequence of reflexes rather than innate knowledge. Though initially a bit dense with scientific jargon, the book picks up midway through, and the then generally accessible prose skillfully unpacks behaviors that seem instinctive, ranging from the mundane (getting thirsty) to the astonishing (androgenital licking in newborn rats). The writing is as persuasive as it is rich in intriguing detail, and a reader may well find that, by the end of the book, the word "nativism" (the perspective that animals and humans are born with cognitive instincts in place, which Blumberg at one point calls "an intellectual and experimental red herring") has become a dirty word.

Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics by Paul Glimcher

Parts of this book were recently profiled in The New Yorker; however, it may be a little heady for us.

From Scientific American
The notion that the brain and central nervous system are made of circuits that process stimuli and evoke bodily responses is a founding principle of neuroscience. And we humans believe that once we understand every neural pathway, we will be able to predict a motor response to every sensory input—from feeling the tug of a fish on a hook to catching your spouse in bed with someone else. All we have to do is build the right deterministic model of the brain. In Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics, Paul W. Glimcher, an associate professor of neural science and psychology at New York University, recounts how the history of neuroscience has brought humankind to this reflex-based model—and then explains why it is insufficient. Simple behaviors might arise from stimulus-response rules, he allows, but complex behaviors are far less predictable. For example, the brain can weigh value and risk, even with incomplete or uncertain information. But how? Fortunately, Glimcher points out, there is already a science to answer that question: economics, particularly game theory. Other scientists have tapped economic theory to explain the natural world. In the 1960s certain ecologists used the discipline to model how animals forage for food and choose a mate. Glimcher makes a case that "neuroeconomics" can complete our understanding of our brains. He cites his own experiments on humans and monkeys to show how economic principles can accurately represent intricate thought processes, in situations rife with competing values and interests. As the book proceeds, the going can get tough, but the historical insight is worth the trip. Readers may feel a bit unsatisfied when Glimcher notes that a unified theory of neuroeconomics has yet to be written and then admits that he doesn’t know what this theory would look like. Yet he rises to the occasion by suggesting how scientists could begin to apply neuroeconomics to define the optimal course of action that a person might select and by providing a mathematical route for deriving that solution. In this way, Glimcher says, scientists can devise a better understanding of how the brain makes complex decisions in an uncertain world.

Freedom And Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, And Political Power (Searle) [Amazon, $24.50]

Our self-conception derives mostly from our own experience. We believe ourselves to be conscious, rational, social, ethical, language-using, political agents who possess free will. Yet we know we exist in a universe that consists of mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles. How can we resolve the conflict between these two visions?

In Freedom and Neurobiology, the philosopher John Searle discusses the possibility of free will within the context of contemporary neurobiology. He begins by explaining the relationship between human reality and the more fundamental reality as described by physics and chemistry. Then he proposes a neurobiological resolution to the problem by demonstrating how various conceptions of free will have different consequences for the neurobiology of consciousness.

In the second half of the book, Searle applies his theory of social reality to the problem of political power, explaining the role of language in the formation of our political reality. The institutional structures that organize, empower, and regulate our lives-money, property, marriage, government-consist in the assignment and collective acceptance of certain statuses to objects and people. Whether it is the president of the United States, a twenty-dollar bill, or private property, these entities perform functions as determined by their status in our institutional reality. Searle focuses on the political powers that exist within these systems of status functions and the way in which language constitutes them.

Searle argues that consciousness and rationality are crucial to our existence and that they are the result of the biological evolution of our species. He addresses the problem of free will within the context of a neurobiological conception of consciousness and rationality, and he addresses the problem of political power within the context of this analysis.

In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of the Mind (Kandel) [Amazon, $19.77]

When, as a medical student in the 1950s, Kandel said he wanted to locate the ego and id in the brain, his mentor told him he was overreaching, that the brain had to be studied "cell by cell." After his initial dismay, Kandel took on the challenge and in 2000 was awarded a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking research showing how memory is encoded in the brain's neuronal circuits. Kandel's journey into the brain spans five decades, beginning in the era of early research into the role of electrical currents flowing through neurons and ending in the age of genetic engineering. It took him from early studies of reflexes in the lowly squid to the founding of a bioengineering firm whose work could some day develop treatments for Alzheimer's and on to a rudimentary understanding of the cellular mechanisms underlying mental illness. Kandel's life also took him on another journey: from Vienna, which his Jewish family fled after the Anschluss, to New York City and, decades later, on visits back to Vienna, where he boldly confronted Austria's unwillingness to look at its collusion in the Final Solution. For anyone considering a career in science, the early part of this intellectual autobiography presents a fascinating portrait of a scientist's formation: learning to trust his instincts on what research to pursue and how to pose a researchable question and formulate an experiment. Much of the science discussion is too dense for the average reader. But for anyone interested in the relationship between the mind and the brain, this is an important account of a creative and highly fruitful career.

Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundation of Religion by Todd Tremlin

Book description from Amazon: Around the world and throughout history, in cultures as diverse as ancient Mesopotamia and modern America, human beings have been compelled by belief in gods and developed complex religions around them. But why? What makes belief in supernatural beings so widespread? And why are the gods of so many different people so similar in nature? This provocative book explains the origins and persistence of religious ideas by looking through the lens of science at the common structures and functions of human thought. The first general introduction to the "cognitive science of religion," Minds and Gods presents the major themes, theories, and thinkers involved in this revolutionary new approach to human religiosity. Arguing that we cannot understand what we think until we first understand how we think, the book sets out to study the evolutionary forces that modeled the modern human mind and continue to shape our ideas and actions today. Todd Tremlin details many of the adapted features of the brain -- illustrating their operation with examples of everyday human behavior -- and shows how mental endowments inherited from our ancestral past lead many people to naturally entertain religious ideas. In short, belief in gods and the social formation of religion have their genesis in biology, in powerful cognitive processes that all humans share. In the course of illuminating the nature of religion, this book also sheds light on human nature: why we think we do the things we do and how the reasons for these things are so often hidden from view. This discussion ranges broadly across recent scientific findings in areas such as paleoanthropology, primate studies, evolutionary psychology, early brain development, and cultural transmission. While these subjects are complex, the story is told here in a conversational style that is engaging, jargon free, and accessible to all readers. With Minds and Gods, Tremlin offers a roadmap to a fascinating and growing field of study, one that is sure to generate interest and debate and provide readers with a better understanding of themselves and their beliefs.

Moral Minds by Marc Hauser

From Publishers weekly: How do humans develop their capacity to make moral decisions? Harvard biologist Hauser (Wild Minds) struggles to answer this and other questions in a study that is by turns fascinating and dull. Drawing on the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky, Hauser argues that humans have a universal moral grammar, an instinctive, unconscious tool kit for constructing moral systems. For example, although we might not be able to articulate immediately the moral principle underlying the ban on incest, our moral faculty instinctually declares that incest is disgusting and thus impermissible. Hauser's universal moral grammar builds on the 18th-century theories of moral sentiments devised by Adam Smith and others. Hauser also asserts that nurture is as important as nature: "our moral faculty is equipped with a universal set of rules, with each culture setting up particular exceptions to these rules." All societies accept the moral necessity of caring for infants, but Eskimos make the exception of permitting infanticide when resources are scarce. Readers unfamiliar with philosophy will be lost in Hauser's labyrinthine explanations of Kant, Hume and Rawls, and Hauser makes overly large claims for his theory's ability to guide us in making more moral, and more enforceable, laws. (Sept. 1)

Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness (Humphrey) [Amazon, $13.57]

Humphrey's History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness (1992) elaborates the ideas distilled in this digestible precis. Based on the author's Harvard University lectures, it directly addresses the reader as a fellow contemplator of consciousness. That every person knows what it is but cannot give a convincing description of it, is the nettle Humphrey grasps as he explains his view of the problem. Figuratively seating the reader in his darkened lecture hall, Humphrey illuminates a monochromatic screen--red in this case. By what psychological pathway does the viewer experience the redness of the screen? Humphrey classifies the experience of initial stimulation as a subjective "sensation," which through internal feedback loops becomes an objective "perception" of the screen as red. Holding that this cognitive process may be the origin of self-awareness, Humphrey parries criticisms of the theory, and follows the allusion to the academic debate with a narrative of his sensation/perception mechanism evolving from microbe to mankind. Illustrating his argument with the musings of poets and painters, Humphrey stylishly inspires curiosity about consciousness.

Selections on Neuroethics from books like:

Neuroethics (Illes, ed.) [Amazon, $58.90]
Mind and Morals (May, Friedman, Clark, eds.) [Amazon, $32.00]
Neuroethics: Mapping the Field (Marcus, ed.) [Amazon, $9.31]
Natural Ethical Facts (Casebeer) [Amazon, $19.00]

We might also look at articles by Joshua Greene, who is a Harvard philosopher widely recognized for his work on ethics and neuroscience. See his web site.