Pharyngula

Chocolate brains

The ever-charming Sam Harris has smarmily connected me to Deepak Chopra, so now I’m getting a flood of both smug, superior cluelessness from the Vulcans of Planet Sam, and the spacey vacuous nonsense of the Chopralites. Thanks, Sam! Although, I must say, so far Chopra freaks are doing a better job of actually saying something. Which isn’t saying much.

They seem to be impressed with this fatuous defense of dualism from Chopra. I’m going to skip virtually all of the noise to focus on one point that I found particularly annoying.

In the case of brain science, there will be much better knowledge about the mind once we question the assumption that the brain is a physical thing that produces the mind. Here are the reasons that the brain-as-mind model is crumbling:

1. The model is self-referential. The very thing you need to define (the brain) is also the thing doing the defining.

4. Mapping the brain is not sufficient to understand a qualitative experience, since everything we know about the brain is an experience. The brain is gelatinous, dark, gray, moist, and zapping with tiny electrical shocks. Those qualities are simply there, like the hardness of a rock. You can’t get beyond them, and yet you need to if you want to know what’s real.

This last point is the toughest, so let’s go into it. The Sun is bright. The brain is dark. Is the brightness of the Sun produced by the darkness of the brain? Neuroscience says it is, but clearly it can’t be. If you put the brain to your tongue, it will have its own taste. But in that taste you won’t find sugar, salt, chocolate, fish and chips, etc. As long as you stay inside the brain’s thingness, the vast range of color, taste, sight, sound, and smells that constitute our experience of reality cannot be explained. Many cultures have a saying that the eye cannot see itself. This is a metaphor that applies to the brain: If everything we know is produced by the brain, we are trapped inside its processes. Any attempt would be just another brain process.

The first point is actually correct. If you just sit around trying to think understanding of your mind into existence, you’ll fail. What Chopra doesn’t seem to understand, though, is that that is precisely what he and his wanking circle-jerk of pompous gurus are doing — rather than trying to find external evidence to test their hypotheses about where their mind comes from, they just bloviate and meditate and parrot theologians. He has no external frame of reference.

But science actually provides a way around this problem. We have multiple minds taking different approaches to the problem of the mind; we have tools to probe the functions of the brain that provide verifiable, objective evidence; we use experiment to tease apart how it all works. We don’t rely on just our unaided perception or preconceptions about the mind to explain it. We aren’t the ones trying to bootstrap knowledge straight out of our minds with no external assistance — we’re working on the problem, rather than dreaming about it.

His fourth point, the one he thinks is the toughest, is just silly. Why would you even expect an object that processes sensory information about other objects to look like them? He seems to be shocked that he can look at a chocolate bar, and his brain doesn’t turn to chocolate; that when he flips a light switch on, his brain doesn’t start glowing. Your brain is the perceiver, not the perceived.

When he opens up a computer, and sees that it’s bits of shiny metal and plastic, with wires all over the place, and that it gives him shocks if he paws at it, does he think it can’t possibly get beyond the material qualities of his uninformed perception to function in subtle and complex ways? (Well, maybe not after he’s poked his fingers into it and shorted everything out.) We know that if organic disease or injury erodes the physical structure of the brain, the mind is affected; we know we can take drugs that modify the chemical makeup of the brain, the mind will operate in different ways.

As for his metaphor of the eye not seeing itself…has he ever heard of a mirror? A photograph? We can get confirmation that we have eyes from other people. We can touch our own eyes and determine that they are there. We know that the eyes are the organ that permits sight — lose them and you are blind, grow old and they become weaker. There is no ghost carrying images to your mind, but simply the absorption of photons by opsin triggering resistance changes in photoreceptor membranes that translate into voltages — those tiny electrical shocks — traveling up a pinkish gray cable of fat and protein and salt water to your brain.

Your optic nerve doesn’t turn into chocolate, either. In Chopra’s world, that must mean it doesn’t actually work.

Comments

  1. #1 imr90
    Springfield, MA
    September 25, 2014

    And since humans can’t fly there is no way a gelatinous grey mass could construct a flying machine!

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    September 25, 2014

    Although, I must say, so far Chopra freaks are doing a better job of actually saying something. Which isn’t saying much.

    Actually, that does say rather a lot about Harris’s fans. Much more, I’ll stipulate, than it does about Chopra’s.

  3. #3 jane
    September 25, 2014

    “If you put the brain to your tongue, it will have its own taste. ”

    Can’t resist. Braaaaiiiiinnnnsss…..

  4. #4 kosk11348
    September 25, 2014

    His fourth point, the one he thinks is the toughest, is just silly. Why would you even expect an object that processes sensory information about other objects to look like them?

    Well, to be fair, I think Chopak is trying to relate the hard problem of consciousness. His explanation might be poor, but I don’t think we can dismiss the problem as silly.

  5. […] Source: Chocolate brains [Pharyngula] […]

  6. #6 proximity1
    September 25, 2014

    RE:

    “The ever-charming Sam Harris has smarmily connected me to Deepak Chopra, ….”

    Link?

  7. #7 Shawn Beaulieu
    New York
    September 25, 2014

    He didn’t actually connect you in any meaningful way to Deepak Chopra (which would, indeed, be a gratuitous insult). He merely said that he was being criticized by both of you. I don’t see how that qualifies as “smarmy”. Whether your brand of criticism is valid is another matter entirely…

    For those who didn’t see the tweet PZ is referring to:

    Sam Harris: “How is it that I have @DeepakChopra and @pzmyers sniping at me simultaneously? Either I’m doing something right, or this is hell.”

  8. #8 Shawn Beaulieu
    New York
    September 25, 2014

    RE: “Actually, that does say rather a lot about Harris’s fans. Much more, I’ll stipulate, than it does about Chopra’s.”

    Actually, it doesn’t. It says something about those who responded brashly and stupidly. Since when did a handful of irate twitter users become a representative sample?

  9. #9 proximity1
    September 26, 2014

    “Your brain is the perceiver, not the perceived.”

    It’s even subtler than this. The brain’s electrical-impulse signals and related chemical markers serve in an ever-emergent and renewed process which, itself, ultimately produces what we term “perceptions.” These processes are found mediated within and through the brain’s relevant tissues and regions–since, after all, “where else” would they “be”? But each perception event vanishes as soon as it is produced and manifested in immediate memory–the memory of the instant you have only now experienced–to be immediately replaced by its successor. In most of that activity, “the brain” itself isn’t an orchestra conductor, it’s more the locus of the a ambient air on which and through which the musical “notes” vibrate and are “registered.” That’s how it has been explained to me, at any rate.

    Also, recent technical breakthroughs have permitted a person who is clinically blind to perceive via an artificial optical sensor with an electrical sensor receptor placed at the end of a line implanted in the cerebral cortex of the subject. This permitted him to experience some rudimentary vision without having passed via his eye, the retina or optic nerve. The direct link from device to brain had circumvented the optic nerve’s part in the process. (Neuroscience Letters (519)2 ( topical subject: neuroprosthetics; Wikipedia)

  10. #10 Centurion13
    Bremerton
    September 28, 2014

    No, Sam’s pretty much nailed it. He’s in hell. But it’s worth it to see PZ address him with a heaping helpin’ of condescend smothered in insult sauce. Classic. Tear yourselves to bits, ladies. We’ll be around to pick up the pieces.

  11. #11 James Jordan
    Massachusetts
    October 6, 2014

    My apt moniker for the woo woo monger is Deepcrap Chopper. Sam Harris is reverting to a sorry state of quasi spiritualism with his latest book SPIRITUALITY WITHOUT RELIGION. How about religion without spirituality? See the difference?

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