Posts Tagged ‘brain science’

Thomas Nagel teaching ethics

Thomas Nagel teaching ethics

One of the great advantages of teaching psychology is exploring its own identity crisis. Is it a science? A humanities? Who is a psychologist – humanists, behaviourists, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists? What method would we use to identify which kind of psychologist you want to be?  Are there limitations to what the scientific method can tell us about human nature? This turns out to be a great exercise in meta-cognitive skills – or knowledge of how and when to use the right cognitive strategies – something in short supply these days among the scientific community, triumphant as they are over the liberal arts in universities.

Students should be initiated into these discussions because they will dominate the world they live in. As our technological grasp of nature improves, we have a greater duty to engage in ethical discussions and decisions. It is a crucial time to understand meta-cognition, as biologist E. O. Wilson said in a recent NY Times opinion piece:

It is time to consider what science might give to the humanities and the humanities to science in a common search for a more solidly grounded answer to the great riddle….

He concludes:

Self-understanding is what counts for long-term survival, both for individuals and for the species.

The great riddle is human nature, and the great unknown is human consciousness. Current efforts to map the circuits in the human brain will bring this question to front and centre. Scientists widely acknowledge that there is no current explanation for it, neither in evolutionary biology or physics. Like so many past discoveries, scientists are making a faustian bargain that better technology will lead to the holy grail. Who can deny the fantastic progress technology, and thus science, has made in the past half-century?

The project has been criticized by neuroscientists such as Erin McKiernan for putting technology ahead of concepts, rather than the other way around. The concept of mind is not yet defined, so how would we know when we’ve found it? One underlying assumption of the project shared by many scientists is that human consciousness can be understood through its physical connections – or its material causes alone. McKiernan also  that the initiative’s goals are not well definied –

What will a complete map of the brain look like? How will we know when it is complete? How will the dynamic nature of the brain be accounted for?

The Myers AP Psychology text I use reassures students that they aren’t just a bundle of neurons, that the their thoughts and beliefs are still valid, they are still real. While discussing evolutionary psychology, Myers takes great pains to explain that Darwinian science does not imply determinism because we have the capacity to shape our environments. They’re not just “jumped up monkeys,” as UC Berkeley economist and prominent blogger Brad DeLong believes. But that’s not the reality they will face in the universities.

While it’s true that scientific progress can be made without reducing all aspects to material causes, scientists should be more consistent in their belief about that possibility. When philosopher Thomas Nagel made this point in his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, the philosophers Leiter and Weisberg said he was attacking a straw man – most scientists reject theoretical reductionism. But for materialism to hold, all aspects of reality must in principle be reducible to material causes. Biologist Jerry Coyne responded to Leiter and Weisberg and accused them of shying away from the hard conclusions that reductivism demands (From Andrew Ferguson’s essay on Thomas Nagel):

It’s not surprising that scientists in various disciplines aren’t actively trying to reduce all science to physics; that would be a theoretical problem that is only solvable in the distant future. However: “The view that all sciences are in principle reducible to the laws of physics,” he wrote, “must be true unless you’re religious.” Either we’re molecules in motion or we’re not.

As I’ve noted here , one of the primary intellectual struggles today is the battle for belief in the human person, the individual, as opposed to the bundle of neurons of scientific reductionism.

Michael Gazzaniga, the psychologist famous for his split-brain experiments showing a dual track mind, gave the 2009 Gifford Lectures defending the concept of moral and legal responsibility in light of the latest wave of neuroscientific determinism. Determinists such as Sam Harris have also defended personal responsibility, in spite of their view that it is in reality a fiction. Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett has expressed reservation at lifting the veil on the hoi polloi – civilization may collapse if we explain to all that their subjective experiences from love, guilt, joy, and perceptions are nothing but neural signals governed by millions of years of random mutations in their DNA.

It’s this idea that our subjective experiences of the world are false, or at least not “real” according to science, that will throw students for a loop once they come face to face with its practical consequences. Under the popular belief that morality and truth are “relative,” and the evolutionary explanation that morality is a useful convention for survival, students will become further alienated from their personal desires. I think Roger Scruton’s analysis is astute – they will view the world as a world of objects. They will end up treating people as objects since that is what they are believed to be. Self-knowledge will give way to object-knowledge.

This alienation from ourselves, from the ability to question our view of reality, is illustrated well in the popular idea that the brain is simply a complex computer. The idea has been most forcefully advanced by Google execs Larry Page and Sergey Brin (in the sense that it has changed our habits the most). They believe that increasing the speed at which we can access information will lead to greater human potential (see Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, or his 2008 Atlantic articleIs Google Making us Stupid?”). Neuroscientists such as MIT wunderkind Ed Boyden are hopeful that we may be one day able to upload or download memories and experiences, Star Trek style, with enough processing speed at our finger tips (see his fascinating TED talk  about turning neural pathways on and off like a light switch).

While I’m a relative newcomer to the topic, it seems to me that scientists like Boyden have not engaged in the metacognitive discipline of philosophy as they should, where alternatives to the materialist conception of mind are discussed. In an article by CNN, “Top brain scientist is a philosopher at heart”, Boyden shows that he’s still a freshman when it comes to philosophy:

He’s a man of many ideas, and wants to understand the biology behind where ideas come from. “I guess I’m still drawn by the philosophy,” he said.

Sure, Aristotle was a biologist as well as logician. But it’s a sad day when philosophy is reduced to finding mechanical ways of enhancing your computational power:

People don’t like to talk about enhancing the brain, Boyden said; it makes people uneasy to think about designing or engineering a way to sharpen our minds. Yet plenty of people take pharmaceuticals — sometimes without a prescription — to help themselves focus or be less anxious, and caffeine and alcohol have been around for centuries.

“I think the most important thing is for humanity to openly discuss this topic,” he said. “If we can discuss it, and we also can talk about side effects, should we maybe try to design more optimized versions of things?”

What does this say about our society, about the place of liberal arts, when philosophic thought is reduced to utilitarian calculus, however successful?

More worrying is whether or not  it’s safe to even question the dominant materialist reductionist account of the universe.

Thomas Nagel found out the hard way, mocked and ridiculed by the likes of thinkers and scientists such as Steven Pinker for questioning materialism and suggesting a teleological view of nature. The subtitle to his book didn’t help – Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. As one of America’s greatest philosophers, the extent of his fall from grace was so great colleagues rushed to his defense…to propose that wasn’t isn’t in fact mentally ill.

The Nagel debate requires a post in itself.  For now I can only point you to Andrew Ferguson’s classic essay and the excellent book review by biologist H. Allen Orr.

The point about meta-cognitive skills: as it becomes harder to make sense of life and integrate views from various disciplines – physics, biology, ethics – it is precisely the disciplines that deal with meaning that can piece together a coherent story. Without meaning, life is reduced to the material cause and ceases to be worth living. There is always one more material fact underlying the last material fact. Knowing that the love I have for my daughter is a neurochemical response based on genetic expression does not tell me anything about my experience of that love, let alone whether I should love her, just because I seek to pass on my genes.

Students and scientists should be more aware of the need to justify or ground their disciplines in a view that brings together their ideas and their actions. In other words, E. O. Wilson is right, we need both the humanities and the sciences to understand human nature.

Do we really believe that we are a pack of neurons? If so, why do we insist on acting morally, of distinguishing right from wrong? Scientists like Sam Harris have tried to produce a biologically based ethics. But as Thomas Nagel points out – why should we, according to an Darwinian point of view, subject our emotion and intuition to reason? Why should we choose to act rationally according to what science is telling us? This is a question of moral philosophy and philosophy of science, not science per se.

Before we agree to a reductive materialist view of the world, it might be wise to consider whether it is possible to live in a world of pure facts. Might there be other ways of looking at the world, methods that don’t depend on observation alone?

Read Full Post »

Back in 1999, Ken Osborne, a history teacher and retired faculty in the University of Manitoba education department, warned us of the lack of civic debate concerning the ends of public education.

His book, Education: A Guide To The Canadian Education Debate – Or, Who Wants What and Why? was intended to bolster this discussion beyond “the slogans that dominate the debate today.”

Osborne provides a concise, pragmatic, and slightly biased account of the debates, slipping in counter-arguments here and there for a traditional liberal arts education.

And who better to survey the distinctive character of Canadian education and history, with its unsettled compromises, than an Englishman and a progressive conservative? –

“One of Canada’s distinctive contributions to the world of politics is the idea of progressive conservatism. In education, I am best described as a progressive traditionalist, by which I mean that I believe in the value of a more or less traditional liberal education for all students, but I also believe that the so-called child-centred methods of teaching associated with progressive education are the best way to achieve it.”

On the whole, it is worthwhile book and achieves its purpose admirably. It’s greatest virtue in my mind is Osborne’s emphasis on the renewal of citizenship education in the face of an increasingly utilitarian and technologically driven society.

“As things stand, a vacuum exists as far as the purposes of schooling are concerned, with the result that those who wish to direct schools to serve economic goals are winning their case more or less by default” (24).

I met Osborne last year at the Social Studies professional development day, where he gave an excellent presentation on teaching history through dilemmas. His approach struck me immediately as humane – guided inquiry which helps students think through real life ethical issues and place themselves in historical character’s boots, making historical decisions themselves based on whatever evidence is at hand.

So how does Osborne define liberal education, and what role does it play in 21st century education?

First off, a slight bone to pick in the history of education department. Though his perspective is helpful and often pithy, Osborne’s view that citizenship education began only in the 20th century with public schools strikes me as very strange. Before the modern age, he says, education was about learning specific skills such as rhetoric in debate. It’s certainly not surprising that Osborne would reach this conclusion, given the plethora of error-filled histories of education that have been written. It seems that in his account, only democracies have citizens. Is it the elites and the masses who were taught only skills in days gone by?

As far as I know, Aristotle’s educational program for young aristocrats includes the Nicomachean Ethics, which is intended to be followed by his work on Politics. Isocrates, arguably the most influential educational thinker of ancient times and Plato’s contemporary, saw his method of education as a preparation for citizenship. Shakespeare’s father sent him to public school (British version of private school – confusing, I know) where he learned the classics and transformed Plutarch’s great character studies. And it is impossible to ignore the constant reading of Cicero throughout the ages, who was considered by statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson to be the ultimate guide to prudence and rhetoric. My excuse for appealing to the classics is their effect they had on the concept of the English “gentleman” – which indeed was popularized over the course of centuries and had much to do with the idea of civic engagement. But more on the idea of a gentleman later…

Osborne tacks in a familiar direction when discussing the advantages of a liberal education. After making a case for a civic-minded populace in today’s complex democracy, he says something rather startling to the “progressive” ears. The primary characteristic of civic-minded people people is their concern for the “Big Questions” of life. Cue the appeals to the authority of John Dewey, whose great legacy was to heap liberal arts into the dustbin of history in favour of pragmatic “socialization” of students. Big Questions? What have they to do with the economy, er, I mean the life of the average blue collar worker?

Osborne provides a few examples of these Big Questions from his experience of teaching history.  A true education, he says, is about teaching people how to think about tough issues. If he happened to be a philosophy rather than history major, he’d be advocating for the study of philosophy in schools. Whether teaching English, History, or Philosophy, the crux of the matter is the same: without a life of the mind, education becomes a preparation for drone existence, where we become “workers and consumers, fodder for the technological future” (22).

To paraphrase, civic engagement requires people who can think beyond their own physical desires, who know the difference between well and poorly formulated arguments, and especially people who use their leisure time to pursue a greater understanding of the whole. I am starting to hear the voice of Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Gentlemen, we must not be carried away by our emotions. By studying history, students are “less self-centred by connecting them with other people in other times and places.”

The most important example of a Big Question which Osborne presents is the one Rousseau raised in his Emile in the late 18th century, and which especially dogs us today. Citizenship is the “difficult art of balancing personal freedom with social responsibility.” In Grade 9 Social Studies we all learn that we have rights and duties. The question is, how are we to go about doing this balancing act?

Osborne mentions the need to be exposed to many different ideas in order to become tolerant, and he also makes clear that being able to disagree is of fundamental importance in a complex democracy such as Canada. Nodding to cultural literacy exponent E.D. Hirsch, Osborne defends the need to learn hard facts, because without knowledge, student “will have no basis for questioning anything.”

But Osborne never gets around to the method by which we are to evaluate knowledge or think about the Big Questions. To be fair, it’s not the point of his book to provide policy suggestions, but that hasn’t stopped him from setting the terms of the debate and advocating civic-education. As he says early on, the shrill back and forth between “direct” and “child-centred” instruction is a bit of a red herring because he believes both are needed.

Thinking is a catch-all phrase, which is why it is all the more important to figure out what we mean by it. Osborne defines most of his terms, but not this one. Nor do most educators. Thinking can refer to any number of activities of consciousness – intuition, concentration, logical reasoning, empathy, meditation, prayer, remembering or just being conscious of your own thought. Animals think to a certain extent. Osborne quotes Northrop Frye –

“the difference between a good and a mediocre teacher lies mainly in the emphasis the former puts on the exploratory part of the mind, the aspects of learning that reveal meanings and lead to further understanding.” (Design for Learning 1962)

So what are the exploratory parts of the mind? As we all know, exploring could include any level of thinking from Bloom’s taxonomy from the base level of gathering facts, to evaluating them. Osborne has already noted the need for some knowledge stored in long-term memory in order for exploration to happen. Memorization skills are an ally in this regard, not just for the knowledge, but because memorization is a transferable skill itself. Though I haven’t read Bloom’s tome, the way the highest stages of thought – such as synthesis and evaluation – have been presented to me are anything but clear. At most we have an intuitive understanding what evaluation means, as with”exploring.”

What evaluation means for a philosopher and historian are different, which is why I think Osborne, the history teacher, focuses more on being exposed to different points of view. A good argument in history follows the 6 historical thinking concepts laid out by Peter Seixas, the excellent consultant to many new curriculum writers:  have you determined the historical significance? have you used primary sources? Can you identify continuity and change? can you analyze cause and consequence? can you take a historical perspective? and can you discuss the ethical dimensions of the event?

In philosophy, however, we must add a couple more criteria to a quality evaluation. The biggest one, and the one historians are most afraid of (because of Hegel’s legacy of thinking in circles), is logical consistency. The methods of history and philosophy are different. The events of history do not follow a logical progression, necessarily. But when Peter Seixas brings up “discussing the ethical dimensions” of events, the gates are opened to a new philosophical dimension, one that involves the complex “schemas,” and reasons gained from experience, one’s own freedom of will, and other sources of moral authority.

Generally when we challenge a student’s way of thinking as well as opinions, we are challenging their “schemas” – their structures of meaning gathered over time.

In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, the technology writer Nicholas Carr has done an admirable job of gathering the brain science on how reading books develops these “schemas” differently than when we spend time online. Carr shows that long-term memory plays a crucial role in developing meaning, or “schemas” about the world. The exploratory part of the mind is engaged when we are re-evaluating our perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs, all of which are brought forth to consciousness by a good teacher from what students already begin with (the meanings stored in their memories). The human mind is not a computer that just recalls facts from a database, and then decides what to do with them. It takes time to develop attitudes and change perceptions, and these are stored in long-term memory.

So the liberal arts, which deal with Big Questions, are the disciplines which teach how to think about and explore meanings. Where he is most clear about the processes of thinking, Osborne is discussing the need to explore moral issues in school. He quotes the 1988 B.C. Royal Commission on Education:

“Young people at school today are forced to consider many difficult moral issues and their consideration of such issues is made even more problematic by the diversity in social values that marks the society in which they live. They must learn to answer for themselves, for the future generation they represent, an array of ethical questions… in the realms of social relations, science, technology, and medicine. Through education, they begin to learn how individuals can reason clearly about vexing moral issues and choices, and what it means to act in morally responsible ways consistent with such reasons and choices.”

But instead of establishing “schemas” and consistent reasons for moral action,  it turns out that Osborne’s primary method of pursuing the Big Questions is to leave them open to criticism.

Secular humanism “does not regard all values as relative, but does believe that values should be open to scrutiny…it is the only tradition of thought that deliberately and consistently questions its own fundamental beliefs. Nor is it incompatible with religious faith.”

Without a clear method with which to question one’s beliefs and hold them to scrutiny, we are left with the postmodern virtue of skepticism. The greatest public virtue becomes the willingness to suspend all opinions in mid-air, to question everything, and especially to distrust any authority. But if no one’s opinion carries more weight than others, then we must respect all opinions equally. This wasn’t what the great liberal arts scholar Cardinal John Henry Newman had in mind when he said:

“Great minds need elbow room, not indeed in the domain of faith, but of thought. And so indeed do lesser minds and all minds.”

Elbow room, or freedom of thought, has been transformed magically into the sacred multicultural duty of “tolerance.” Tolerance no longer means what it once did – that we should not suppress others’ opinions because we disagree with them.

While tolerance is a necessary component of learning how to think and of being introduced to new ideas, the attitude in practice is much more difficult to achieve. This is because tolerance is not a belief in the equality of all opinions per se, but the belief that individuals should be free to have their own opinions. It’s a fine distinction, but one that is often lost when discussion time rolls around. I’ve witnessed many teachers who claim to be taking advantage of “good discussion,” when really the so-called discussion is an exercise in affirming any and all opinions, except for the ones the teacher finds most disagreeable. These are discussions for the sake of tolerance, but they regularly miss the point of challenging students to think clearly about their opinions and why they disagree with one another. And most of all, it fails to teach students that their opinions must be laid on solid foundations.

If we wish our students to avoid becoming cynics and skeptics, if we wish them to be civically-engaged citizens who have a concern for individual and societal Good, and if we wish to avoid simply telling them what that Good is, then they need a way to think their way to this consistent view of reality. Most of all, students must be exposed to the tools by which they can construct meaning.

We are at the point where both teachers and students cannot distinguish between the methods of science, which do not construct meanings, from the methods of philosophy, which can both bring into question, and construct consistent rational “schemas.” A very good example is the concept of person. Our idea that the fellow next to me is a conscious being with freedom of will has no basis in scientific observation. Freedom is an condition that can only be discussed and discovered by philosophy and that we must defend with reasons.

The British philosopher Roger Scruton writes in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy that the main crisis of our age is the denial of human meanings in favour of reductive mechanistic and scientific explanations. Colours are not just the way we perceive wavelengths, they are also beautiful. Our live are composed of memories that are woven together with meanings, not explanations. Sex is not just the attempt to procreate or achieve desires, it is also shrouded in meaning – love is not the exclusive domain of science.  Constant skepticism has eroded meanings, and a wise approach to philosophy today would be a balancing constructive role.  Again, the human mind is not a computer. It needs to make sense of the world, not process information.

If we can defend moral choices with consistent reasoning, then we can define what it means to pursue character as one of the goals of education. Osborne insists that we had lost hold of the idea of character formation in our schools. It is not surprising, given our belief that we can no longer rationally discuss what good character really is. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre showed in his 1981 book After Virtue, we live in a land of emotivism – the belief that actions are determined solely through will, not reason.

But we still want our kids to be “good.” Lytton Strachey, the Canadian essayist who exploded the tradition of Victorian hero worship with his critical character sketches, writes about the reform of Rugby school under Headmaster Arnold. The parent he quoted sounds much like any parent today: “If he’ll only turn out to be a brave, helpful, truthtelling Englishman, and a Christian, that’s all I want.” (Plus the making-lots-of-money bit).

So one of the “Big Questions” Osborne considers to be of fundamental importance for civic education is whether we can ground our actions with consistent reasons in order to call them “good.”

But reasons do not come out of thin air. They are hard won. In order for them to be consistent we need logic. And in order for “values” to be free of relativity we need a common ground where they can be weighed against each other. Reason is this common ground, and reason is inseparable from logic. This is a fundamental aspect taken for granted by Osborne. If he believes schools should study logic, he does not say so explicitly.

When faced with the overwhelming pressure to be politically correct, it is easier to talk about “reason” and “thinking,” without actually defining what you mean. The study of logic has taken quite a beating in the 20th century, being reduced in schools to the more innocuous sounding “critical thinking.” With a smattering of informal fallacies and Venn diagrams, we are taught to respect other’s opinions while becoming judicious rather than gullible consumers. The post-modern disgust with “linear” reasoning associated with “euro-centric imperialism” tries to do away with any claims of superiority, even the superiority of clear opinions supported through the best logic and evidence.  As far as I know, logic is not taught in our schools today, and it’s authority is being replaced by default with the scientific method. And this is eroding our understanding of what it means to be free human beings, and to make ethical choices.

The least we can do in public education is provide the tools of thinking and a way back from the thicket of relativism. I wholeheartedly agree with Osborne that studying the Big Questions is indispensable if we are to produce more than “workers and consumers, fodder for the technological future.” But we need a way to build up consistent “schemas” rather than tear down.

I am not suggesting that we teach philosophy, or assume that the aims of public education are “freedom of thought,” with its incessant questioning of purpose.  Aiming this high might get us as far as our belief in freedom, but not necessarily of thought. I am suggesting that we provide the tools required for “freedom of thought” – the main one being logic – since these exercise the faculties that are distinctly human, and hence liberal.

Public schools can provide the basis by which to pursue life-long learning. More importantly, we should be able to show that a life of character, as Ken Osborne rightly identifies, is the prerequisite for balancing personal freedoms with social responsibility.

Osborne is right. We lack civic debate on the purpose of public education and resort to slogans. Is this because we no longer believe that there is a common ground by which to define character?

Read Full Post »