Sunday, August 31, 2008

Brain as Composter X

I don't know why, but my blogpost series always seem to end up as a series of 10 to 12. It seems to take that many for me to get complete thoughts expressed. Maybe it's the price I have to pay for having an old but still pretty busy undermind.

Anyway, this will be the wrap-up post to the Brain as Composter series. I promised I would tie in Burton's excellent book, and I will. First though, I want to summarize thoughts that occurred to me over the course of writing this series.

1. I'm not as thrilled with Dan Hemenway's article on permaculture as I was once upon a time. I think he feng shui-ed it a bit to make it pretty, and I fell for the prettiness as well as the content. I still like the content, but can see the prettiness of the packaging as a separate "meme" which I don't like as much. One has to learn to spot when one's mind is being manipulated by meme-packaging.

2. I also examined my own responses to Guy Claxton's Hare Brain Tortoise Mind book. I can see how in the decade since that book was written, my own ideas have changed - I categorize things differently than a decade ago. I feel like the book's content may even be supportive of an anti-scientific stance in the way it equates science with non-thinking - a stance known as PoMo. While I can nod at some of it, love to see ballooned pomposity pricked as much as anyone, love and use the word "deconstruct" all the time about almost everything, I do not agree with the PoMo attitude that "science" is just another "mindset" to be deconstructed. To further the farming metaphor, the pomo attitude toward science is equivalent to saying that topsoil is just another kind of dirt, no different, no better, no worse. I completely, vehemently disagree.

The products of science are one thing, and yes, they may become conceptual shorthand enabling successive generations of science-seekers and builders to move along more quickly.. however (and this is a big however) the process of scientific thinking is anything but D-mode. It takes ages (relatively speaking) to get something conceptualized, a test formulated, an experiment completed, a study written, and after that, wait for peer-review and eventual publication. Once published, this still doesn't mean that something can be called "science" - instead it might just be what Harriet Hall calls "tooth fairy science" - data have been generated about whether it's better to put the tooth in a facial tissue or in a baggie - with no question or discussion about whether or not tooth fairies exist in the first place.

So... I think, at this stage of the game I'm starting to know the difference. I hope.

Anyway, I still like the metaphor of the unconscious mind as the compost bin, and I do still like the idea of our brains being a natural system - without them there would be no consciousness to worry about. Without compost there is no topsoil. Without fertile topsoil nothing can grow, at least not for long. The process of composting takes care of breaking ideas back down into components, which when recombined, will support active growth once again, in a cyclical manner. Science is the end product, the sweet smelling wheat in the bin of human accomplishment. Science not only provides the seeds, it is the seeds that can be plowed back into future generations of underminds to grow future ideas.

At the very least, science can offer up things that we can feel reasonably certain ABOUT.. which I think Burton would agree is different from what he is talking about when he refers to the "feeling of knowing" being an emotion and the pleasurable sensation of "certainty" not being a reliable indicator of truth. Yes, it "feels" preferable to the "feeling" of cognitive dissonance, however, it behooves all of us to learn to tolerate feelings of uncertainty as we do other feelings of discomfort. Perhaps the more we learn to search into our niggles of various sorts, not only will we become more tolerant of them (and of other peoples' too, by extension), but the more "mindful" we will end up in the end. By mindful, I mean, capable of holding paradox and puzzle in our mind and letting them have sufficient time to compost themselves into resolution.

Here is a list of posts that have comprised this series:
1. Is certainty a dopameme? (May 6/08)
2. BrainScience Podcast #42: "On Being Certain" (July 25, 2008)
3. "On Being Certain": Ginger Campbell interviews the author, Robert Burton MD (Aug 13/08)
4. Brain as Composter (Aug 14/08)
5. Brain as Composter II (Aug 16/08)
6. Brain as Composter III (Aug 17/08)
7. Brain as Composter IV (Aug 18/08)
8. Brain as Composter V (Aug 22/08)
9. Brain as Composter VI (Aug 23/08)
10. Brain as Composter VII (Aug 24/08)
11. Brain as Composter VIII (Aug 26/08)
12. Brain as Composter IX (Aug 28/08)

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