Wednesday, August 13, 2008

"On Being Certain": Ginger Campbell interviews the author, Robert Burton MD

I help out Ginger Campbell sometimes by transcribing some of her podcasts for her, just the ones I decide are so interesting I want to spend time with the podcast and might as well be doing something useful at the same time that might help out other listeners, i.e., typing. The typing helps me too - makes me listen more slowly, makes me repeat parts to make sure I heard them right.

Here is a link to my transcription of her BrainSciencePodcast interview #43, an interview with author Robert Burton MD, about his book, On Being Certain: Believing you're Right Even When You're Not. (I wrote a post based on this book, and the previous BrainSciencePodcast #42, here.)

In the interview, toward the end, Burton compares perception of mind to perception of pain:
"I don't know if I can articulate this because it's still sort of seeping around in there is that most of us feel that we are what our conscious mind tells us we are. That question you asked about the free will and about someone said what your unconscious is doing is not part of 'you' - I think that we sense only what we sense. We sense ourselves as starting an idea, having a thought, making plans, etc etc. and we really don't see that that facility arises out of the same cognitive stew that causes all these perceptual illusions in general. And somehow, if you were to take a look at sort of western thought, it really is all about the mind-body thing. All the major questions arise out of the conception that the mind is somehow a separate entity. I mean there's a book by John Searle the philosopher - he has a whole book called The Mind, and he covers all the various kinds of theories, but none of them make any sense if you think about it. Because way down deep the mind is simply a higher level function that we can't conceptualize, just the same way as you said it's more than the sum of its parts I think you said.. this whole idea of emergence is really impossible to visually see - in other words you realize that if you take a chocolate chip and you take a piece of flour and take water, there is no embedded cake in there.. there's nothing - there's just chocolate and flour but we know you can make a cake. Well the cake is material. You can still see it. But in this case the problem is, the problem is what the brain generates is immaterial, that we can't see, yet does exist. I mean exists in the same way that pain exists. Pain isn't anywhere. The brain doesn't experience pain in the neurons I'm suffering. When you stub your toe there's no neuron that goes ouch. It occurs at a higher level. The problem I haven't figured out yet which I think might be the next project is, there needs to be a metaphor for understanding higher level function when seen from a lower level that will allow people to get rid of this distinction and argument about the mind and free will and causation. I think these are all problems of language that arise out of misconceptions what the mind is. Which is sort of what I think might be the next project."

Ginger says:
"You pointed out in your book that we don't think pain is something mystical or magical just because it can't be localized - it's emergent - yet somehow it seems natural to look at our mind and feel that it has to be somehow different."

His next comment is:
"Right. And I haven't been able to think of it because maybe I'm too dense, but there must be some analogy or metaphoric analogy where you can say, well just as pain exists but is undetectable, the mind exists, but it exists arising out of stuff that we cannot control so even though it feels like it's separate and also feels like it's in control in some sense it also feels like it's you, and feels like a self - these are all phenomena that are undetectable but necessary - I don't want to use the word illusion because illusion implies it doesn't exist - but on the other hand it is an illusion if you mean by illusion you can't see or taste or smell or touch it. It's an illusion without being an illusion."

I'm working on an analogy/metaphor for him - it has to do with brain as compost bin, thoughts generated by the unconscious or fed into the unconscious as compost itself. What occurs in the bin is unconscious thinking; conscious thinking or ruminating on something would be analogous to deliberately turning the compost, aerating it, waiting until it is aged to perfection.

Developing a systematic thought process, for example a scientific approach to thinking, or a scientific process to test an idea to make sure everyone can feel "certain" about it, would be analogous to using the compost to grow something with. But the thoughts that end up as conscious tested thoughts, although they may have sprung forth with the help and support and nutrition provided by the compost, are no longer compost - they become living and growing ideas that belong out in the culture, seeding new thoughts.

OK, it needs work, but I think it's a start.


Unknown said...

So would it be fair to say that you are certain that it is very important to apprehend the world rationally?

Diane Jacobs said...

Hi Kent,
My opinion is yes.