# Halloween Horror: Rhetoric, ESP, and the Other Guy’s Zombie Army

What kind of evidence would it take to persuade you that ESP exists? We skeptics say it would take extraordinary evidence. And yet, were we presented with extraordinary evidence, chances are good we’d disbelieve it. That’s irrational, right?

Not necessarily.

Bayesian Prior-ities

We intuitively form initial estimates of how plausible a claim might be, estimates quantifiable as prior probabilities. When we’re reasoning correctly in a Bayesian fashion, we assign extraordinary claims very low prior probabilities. Not exactly zero, since a prior probability of exactly zero implies that no evidence, however great, could change our mind, and extraordinary shouldn’t mean impossible. But close enough to zero to count as zero for most purposes – although not when we’re asked to re-evaluate the claims themselves.

Classical statistics typically employs a null hypothesis and one alternative hypothesis to evaluate data. The human brain, though, can juggle multiple alternative hypotheses, with experience intuiting each alternative’s prior probability – a measure of its plausibility even before it’s tested against the data collected. Drawing prior probabilities from experience and correctly updating them in light of new evidence is the essence of Bayesian rationality.

When claims already comport with our experience, we naturally – and rationally – won’t disdain evidence supporting them. When a claim seems extraordinary to us, though, we trot out the demand “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

The seeming paradox – and evidence of our gross irrationality to those trying to convince us – is that we may persist in our disbelief even when given the extraordinary evidence we requested! Life teaches the sad lesson that people’s beliefs won’t necessarily converge when presented with identical evidence, but may, confoundingly, diverge further. Irrational! Identity-protective cognition! Motivated reasoning! Human perversity!

Not so fast. As physicist and Bayesian scholar ET Jaynes observes, this divergence may be entirely consistent with correct Bayesian reasoning on differing priors.

Evidence, or Reporting Errors?

Jaynes notes we rarely experience evidence directly. Instead, we rely on others’ reports of evidence. One possibility lurking in the back of our minds is that those reports contain reporting errors. What if they’re biased, perhaps through cognitive or publication bias? What if their data was (however inadvertently) cherry-picked? Might we suspect extraordinary evidence is only extraordinary because of experimental error? Might we even suspect deliberate deception?

Not only might we, but the more extraordinary reported evidence seems, the more we should suspect reporting error, and perhaps outright chicanery. It’s reasonable to suspect reports that “seem too good to be true.” Even in high-trust environments where suspicion of reporting error is low, when the likelihood of an extraordinary claim strikes us as even lower than the likelihood of reporting error, all that extraordinary evidence supporting the claim does is bolster our suspicion of reporting error, rather than persuading us of the claim.

Jaynes calls reporting error “deception,” even when it’s unintentional. In “Queer uses for probability theory,” a rollicking chapter in applied mathematics (fellow nerds may begin page 149 of this PDF), Jaynes discusses the famous Soal experiment in ESP and why “this kind of experiment can never convince” him of a person’s telepathic powers

…not because I assert [the probability of telepathic powers] = 0 dogmatically at the start, but because the verifiable facts can be accounted for by many alternative hypotheses, every one of which I consider inherently more plausible… and none of which is ruled out by the information available to me.

Indeed the very evidence which the ESP’ers throw at us to convince us, has the opposite effect on our state of belief; issuing reports of sensational data defeats its own purpose. For if the prior probability of deception is greater than that of ESP, then the more improbable the data are on the null hypothesis of no deception and no ESP, the more strongly we are led to believe, not in ESP, but in deception. For this reason, the advocates of ESP (or any other marvel) will never succeed in persuading scientists that their phenomenon is real, until they learn how to eliminate the possibility of deception in the mind of the reader.

Brains! Brains! (Zombie Hypotheses)

When extraordinary evidence is cited to support an extraordinary claim, the evidence may inadvertently resurrect a skeptical brain’s “dead hypotheses” instead, “dead” because the brain estimates their likelihood at near zero – but still not as close to zero as the estimate that brain assigns to the extraordinary claim. I call these dead hypotheses “zombie hypotheses,” since they spring back to life in the face of the extraordinary to feast on skeptical brains.

Jaynes observes zombie hypotheses attack even in high-trust environments, and even when the extraordinary claim is true and the evidence supporting it valid. Such zombie attacks have

…made us aware of an important general phenomenon, which has nothing to do with ESP; a person may tell the truth and not be believed, even though the disbelievers are reasoning in a rational, consistent way.

If zombie attacks occur even in high-trust environments among people of similar backgrounds, how much more likely are they in politics, where trust is lower, people’s backgrounds differ, and people routinely suspect the “deception” of not only innocent reporting error, but also of subterfuge?

Perhaps it’s no accident that political discourse often devolves into prompting the other guy to resurrect an army of zombie hypotheses, then concluding from the sheer number of zombies he summons that he must be crazy, flagrantly rationalizing, or both. Else why would he attack our reasoning with so many mythical monsters? That he may also be reasoning correctly, given his experience, and his zombie army might be evidence of this, is almost too horrible to contemplate.

“You and what army?” we’re sometimes tempted to demand of opponents. Their zombie army – the army of hypotheses they find more plausible than our claim, no matter how extraordinary our evidence – that’s who. Evidence cannot be interpreted except in light of prior beliefs. And because two people’s prior beliefs may differ

…probability theory appears to allow, in principle, that a single piece of new information D [D for “data”] could have every conceivable effect on their relative states of belief.

Data never absolutely supports or refutes any claim, but only supports or refutes it relative to all the other (“prior”) information we have. When our prior knowledge differs, the same data that supports a claim for one of us may refute it for another – maddeningly, without logical error on either side.

[D]ivergence of opinions is readily explained by probability theory as logic, and that it is to be expected when persons have widely different prior information.

Although we hope – and often find – that the more data we share, the more our beliefs converge, it’s logically possible for data sharing to drive two reasoner’s beliefs farther apart without either erring logically. Now, possible isn’t the same as likely. Many of us suspect this possibility is nonetheless extremely implausible. There’s something too morally lazy – or simply too horrifying – about supposing this possibility manifests often enough in real life to justify much human agreement.

Zombie hypotheses would be far less terrifying if they were just bad-faith hypotheses resurrected in order to deny reason. The real horror of zombie hypotheses, especially for political consensus, is not that they’re a defense mechanism against reason, but that they’re baked into what reasoning is.

Is There Hope?

Carl Sagan famously described the world of insufficiently-skeptical brains as demon-haunted. ET Jaynes suggests that skeptical brains, while perhaps not haunted by demons (though I suspect all brains are, more or less) are at least prone to zombie infestations. When mutually-skeptical minds are busy attacking one another with hordes of ungrateful undead, is there any hope? Any way to stop the zombies? Yes, at least sometimes. It was alluded to earlier:

For this reason, the advocates of ESP (or any other marvel) will never succeed in persuading scientists that their phenomenon is real, until they learn how to eliminate the possibility of deception in the mind of the reader.

Jaynes continues, citing a diagram illustrating that

the reader’s total prior probability for deception by all mechanisms must be pushed down below that of ESP.

Pushing a skeptic’s estimate of the total likelihood of “deception by all mechanisms” below his estimate of the likelihood of your claim means establishing trust. Many effective techniques for establishing trust rely on something other than “cold reason.” Some techniques are not even honest (the con in con-man is short for confidence, after all). Rhetoric, for example, need not be used honestly. Rhetoric aims to persuade, and while persuasion requires establishing trust, the very possibility that rhetoric works well enough at establishing trust that it’s useful for establishing unwarranted trust puts the trust-building power of rhetoric under suspicion. Few humans are immune to the blandishments of rhetoric from someone, but when someone strikes us as untrustworthy enough to begin with, the hypothesis that their rhetoric is a confidence trick is often very undead indeed.

In today’s political climate, it’s easy to believe that establishing trust often isn’t feasible. And there’s no guarantee that it must be – indeed there’s a possibility, however slight, that it might be logically impossible.

Jaynes is not the first to observe that high trust among scientists is what enables scientists to keep the zombie hordes at bay long enough for sharing data in common to forge knowledge in common. This process goes by simpler name, learning. Without trust, there’s little hope for even the most rational of arguments to produce learning.

This essay is based off an earlier draft, published just after Halloween last year.

Published in Science & Technology
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1. Inactive
Odysseus
@Odysseus

Nick H (View Comment):
Oh these are easily explainable. Dogs have a special connection to the Almighty, and that’s what gives them the special abilities needed to function as man’s best friend. Cats also have an otherworldly connection, but it ain’t heavenly.

Yes, even sceptics can get on board with that. And that’s speaking as someone who usually shills for the cats ;)

2. Contributor
@Midge

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
Now, I know that is tantamount to calling someone who has had these things happen to them deluded, and I am not doing that. They have not happened to me, and therefore I don’t believe in them.

I consider there to be nothing at all delusional about people having experiences science can’t explain. Indeed, it seems quite reasonable to me.

Most experiences don’t occur under circumstances where they’re measured scientifically. Much of the time, we are quite reasonably not really interested in the scientific explanation for them – we may be much more concerned, for example, with a moral or interpersonal concern. Even when we do consider it worth the cost to go out of our way to focus on scientific explanations and make the (possibly costly) measurements necessary to do good science, we can still screw up in manifold ways. And even when we don’t screw up, our scientific theories aren’t all complete.

(The gap between what science could say, with enough information, and how little it often does say can be is quite apparent in medicine, where, for example, you might have an earache and speculate, correctly, that it’s caused by one of three likely causes – allergies, a viral infection, or a bacterial infection. And yet it may be worth nobody’s time to try to figure out which cause it is, especially since treatment is basically the same no matter the scientific explanation of the cause.)

3. Member
Arahant
@Arahant

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
None of that is proof.

I didn’t say it was proof. There are studies that have been done. You are unimpressed. Fine. No problem. Nothing I have said in this thread was an attempt to prove anything to anyone. I have attempted to present alternative views.

But the way this whole thing comes off is like debating God with Atheists. As a believer, I say, yes, I understand, there is nothing that an Atheist would accept as objective proof. Religion requires faith of some kind. And Atheism is a religion, too, equally dependent on faith.

And the Atheist yells, “Nuh-uh!”

And I say, “Certainly it is. Atheism is a matter of faith. There is no scientific way to disprove that God exists”

And the Atheist says, “There are no old, bearded guys living in the sky!”

And I say, “Probably true, but that is not what God is. And you cannot prove that God does not exist, so Atheism is just another matter of faith.”

“Nuh-uh!” the Atheist says again.

“Of course it is,” I say, “An agnostic is honest enough to admit they don’t know. They don’t claim there is no God. They don’t claim there cannot be a God. They simply say they do not know. But an Atheist claims to know, and that is a matter of faith.”

I have no problem with you and Nick and anyone else who are skeptical. I’m skeptical in many ways myself. While I have theories about how various psychic phenomena might work, I don’t know how it works. (I believe many things I have experienced are of a non-normal nature and non-physical explanation, but I do not know.) I don’t know for certain how much of it can be explained by more mundane causes and by the working of our subconscious minds. I know that some of these events probably are explainable without extraordinary explanations. I also do not know the limits of any real psy power, if there are any.

But I do have a problem when y’all tell me that it has all been disproven and cannot theoretically exist. That goes into faith on your part. You’re no longer skeptical at that point, you’re advocating a position of faith. I don’t even care if you do that, so long as you do so honestly. Otherwise, you’re just like the Atheist telling me that his religion is not an article of faith. Skepticism means agnostic, not Atheist.

Don’t demand that I prove anything. That’s not what I am here for.  You have not seen the proof you need? Fine. I accept that. But don’t tell me something has been proven that relies on fantasy or science fiction or comic book definitions. Yeah, I know there is no guy with a long beard up there in the sky.

4. Thatcher
Bryan G. Stephens
@BryanGStephens

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
Now, I know that is tantamount to calling someone who has had these things happen to them deluded, and I am not doing that. They have not happened to me, and therefore I don’t believe in them.

I consider there to be nothing at all delusional about people having experiences science can’t explain. Indeed, it seems quite reasonable to me.

Most experiences don’t occur under circumstances where they’re measured scientifically. Much of the time, we are quite reasonably not really interested in the scientific explanation for them – we may be much more concerned, for example, with a moral or interpersonal concern. Even when we do consider it worth the cost to go out of our way to focus on scientific explanations and make the (possibly costly) measurements necessary to do good science, we can still screw up in manifold ways. And even when we don’t screw up, our scientific theories aren’t all complete.

(The gap between what science could say, with enough information, and how little it often does say can be is quite apparent in medicine, where, for example, you might have an earache and speculate, correctly, that it’s caused by one of three likely causes – allergies, a viral infection, or a bacterial infection. And yet it may be worth nobody’s time to try to figure out which cause it is, especially since treatment is basically the same no matter the scientific explanation of the cause.)

I would love to have an ESP event. Heck, I’d love to have a profound spiritual event. Anything significantly transcendent. Based on 47 years of evidence, I don’t think my brain works that way, alas.

5. Inactive
Odysseus
@Odysseus

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
I choose not to believe in climate change because:

• It is clear the data is rigged, much like almost all ESP studies have been
• There are more scientists saying the data is not clear for anthropomorphic climate change than there are saying there is ESP
• There is a huge funding advantage for supporting climate change, there is no such advantage for not supporting ESP

1. Whilst I tend to agree that a lot of the data in climate research (temp records, both direct and proxy) have been in some sense “rigged”, I vigorously repudiate your claim that “almost all ESP studies” have been “rigged”. I don’t think you could reasonably come to that conclusion from the literature — in fact I think the reverse is true, that most (but by no means all) “debunking” has been deeply flawed, usually consisting of armchair ad hoc claims, frequently by people whose expertise is in other areas or by those who don’t do experiments but who are “professional debunkers” and have a financial interest in “scepticism” (it has been very profitable for some, and is generally viewed as reputation-enhancing). Since you are the one making the claim here, I think it’s up to you to show examples of “rigging” (or “academic fraud”).

2. Whilst (as you will be aware) the two major studies on climate change consensus are very flawed (or at least greatly disputed), nevertheless the pro climate-change consensus amongst scientists (not just climatologists) seems to be about 80%. It differs if you look at sub-groups (engineers, say), but there is a strong consensus. I don’t think many scientists actually know enough to have an opinion, but there we are. In “parapsychology”, the consensus that psi is established or “a likely possibility” amongst “elite scientists” was about 30% in a 1982 study. It’s impossible to make an apples-to-apples comparison between any of these surveys, however, because the methodology is so different (and so you may say I haven’t precisely addressed your comment as worded); however it’s interesting to note that a huge array of “elite scientists” (including many Nobel prize-winners) have, in the past, expressed a belief in, or willingness to accept the possibility of, psi. Nevertheless I don’t think any of this is relevant: one is an argumentum ad populum, another is an argumentum ad verecundiam.

3. There’s a massive negative incentive even to get involved in psi research (it’s career suicide), and the funding is almost non-existent. Where research does take place, it often has to happen outside of academia and/or is self-funded. Much the same is true with respect to climate scepticism.

6. Member
Arahant
@Arahant

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
I would love to have an ESP event. Heck, I’d love to have a profound spiritual event. Anything significantly transcendent. Based on 47 years of evidence, I don’t think my brain works that way, alas.

Try some ‘shrooms, dude, or so I hear, anyway. I never went that route.

7. Coolidge
J.D. Snapp
@JulieSnapp

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
I would love to have an ESP event. Heck, I’d love to have a profound spiritual event. Anything significantly transcendent. Based on 47 years of evidence, I don’t think my brain works that way, alas.

Try some ‘shrooms, dude, or so I hear, anyway. I never went that route.

They probably would’ve worked like Ritalin on you anyways. :P

8. Contributor
@Midge

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
I would love to have an ESP event. Heck, I’d love to have a profound spiritual event. Anything significantly transcendent. Based on 47 years of evidence, I don’t think my brain works that way, alas.

Try some ‘shrooms, dude, or so I hear, anyway. I never went that route.

They probably would’ve worked like Ritalin on you anyways. :P

Moral of the story is Arry should have tried Ritalin instead? ;-P

9. Member
Judge Mental
@JudgeMental

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
I would love to have an ESP event. Heck, I’d love to have a profound spiritual event. Anything significantly transcendent. Based on 47 years of evidence, I don’t think my brain works that way, alas.

Try some ‘shrooms, dude, or so I hear, anyway. I never went that route.

They probably would’ve worked like Ritalin on you anyways. :P

Moral of the story is Arry should have tried Ritalin instead? ;-P

Ritalin would make him explode like a mouse listening to rock ‘n’ roll.

10. Thatcher
Bryan G. Stephens
@BryanGStephens

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
I choose not to believe in climate change because:

• It is clear the data is rigged, much like almost all ESP studies have been
• There are more scientists saying the data is not clear for anthropomorphic climate change than there are saying there is ESP
• There is a huge funding advantage for supporting climate change, there is no such advantage for not supporting ESP

1. Whilst I tend to agree that a lot of the data in climate research (temp records, both direct and proxy) have been in some sense “rigged”, I vigorously repudiate your claim that “almost all ESP studies” have been “rigged”. I don’t think you could reasonably come to that conclusion from the literature — in fact I think the reverse is true, that most (but by no means all) “debunking” has been deeply flawed, usually consisting of armchair ad hoc claims, frequently by people whose expertise is in other areas or by those who don’t do experiments but who are “professional debunkers” and have a financial interest in “scepticism” (it has been very profitable for some). Since you are the one making the claim here, I think it’s up to you to show examples of “rigging” (or “academic fraud”).

2. Whilst (as you will be aware) the two major studies on climate change consensus are very flawed (or at least greatly disputed), nevertheless the pro climate-change consensus amongst scientists (not just climatologists) seems to be about 80%. It differs if you look at sub-groups (engineers, say), but there is a strong consensus. I don’t think many scientists actually know enough to have an opinion, but there we are. In “parapsychology”, the consensus that psi is established or “a likely possibility” amongst “elite scientists” was about 30% in a 1982 study. It’s impossible to make an apples-to-apples comparison between any of these surveys, however, because the methodology is so different (and so you may say I haven’t precisely addressed your comment as worded); however it’s interesting to note that a huge array of “elite scientists” (including many Nobel prize-winners) have, in the past, expressed a belief in, or willingness to accept the possibility of, psi. Nevertheless I don’t think any of this is relevant: one is an argumentum ad populum, another is an argumentum ad verecundiam.

3. There’s a massive negative incentive even to get involved in psi research (it’s career suicide), and the funding is almost non-existent. Where research does take place, it often has to happen outside of academia and/or is self-funded. Much the same is true with respect to climate scepticism.

Heh. So I am wrong for being a skeptic in one area, but right in the other.

I am skeptic across the board. Rather consistent, I would say. But then again, even if I am not, I am human.

11. Thatcher
Bryan G. Stephens
@BryanGStephens

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
None of that is proof.

I didn’t say it was proof. There are studies that have been done. You are unimpressed. Fine. No problem. Nothing I have said in this thread was an attempt to prove anything to anyone. I have attempted to present alternative views.

But the way this whole thing comes off is like debating God with Atheists. As a believer, I say, yes, I understand, there is nothing that an Atheist would accept as objective proof. Religion requires faith of some kind. And Atheism is a religion, too, equally dependent on faith.

And the Atheist yells, “Nuh-uh!”

And I say, “Certainly it is. Atheism is a matter of faith. There is no scientific way to disprove that God exists”

And the Atheist says, “There are no old, bearded guys living in the sky!”

And I say, “Probably true, but that is not what God is. And you cannot prove that God does not exist, so Atheism is just another matter of faith.”

“Nuh-uh!” the Atheist says again.

“Of course it is,” I say, “An agnostic is honest enough to admit they don’t know. They don’t claim there is no God. They don’t claim there cannot be a God. They simply say they do not know. But an Atheist claims to know, and that is a matter of faith.”

I have no problem with you and Nick and anyone else who are skeptical. I’m skeptical in many ways myself. While I have theories about how various psychic phenomena might work, I don’t know how it works. (I believe many things I have experienced are of a non-normal nature and non-physical explanation, but I do not know.) I don’t know for certain how much of it can be explained by more mundane causes and by the working of our subconscious minds. I know that some of these events probably are explainable without extraordinary explanations. I also do not know the limits of any real psy power, if there are any.

But I do have a problem when y’all tell me that it has all been disproven and cannot theoretically exist. That goes into faith on your part. You’re no longer skeptical at that point, you’re advocating a position of faith. I don’t even care if you do that, so long as you do so honestly. Otherwise, you’re just like the Atheist telling me that his religion is not an article of faith. Skepticism means agnostic, not Atheist.

Don’t demand that I prove anything. That’s not what I am here for. You have not seen the proof you need? Fine. I accept that. But don’t tell me something has been proven that relies on fantasy or science fiction or comic book definitions. Yeah, I know there is no guy with a long beard up there in the sky.

In psychology we say everything before the “but” is BS. You had me with the first paragraph. The rest of this is meant to cast me in an unflattering light, and does nothing to advance the thread.

People asserting that ESP exists and citing studies are not like discussions of faith. God cannot be proven and is always an item of faith. If we want to say ESP is the same as faith in God, then why site studies? You cannot have it both ways.

I have said why my scientific understanding of how the brain works undermines my belief. I had said why I don’t trust the existing studies.

12. Inactive
Odysseus
@Odysseus

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
Heh. So I am wrong for being a skeptic in one area, but right in the other.

I am skeptic across the board. Rather consistent, I would say. But then again, even if I am not, I am human.

Yes, I would say that you’re wrong in one area and right in another. I’d also suggest you’ve probably read a lot more about climate change from both sides than you have about psi research from both sides — based on our previous exchanges. It’s frustrating to me that, when having a discussion with someone who is clearly rational, and when trying to support my view based on what I think is rational argument, I can’t seem to get further than that you accept the scientific consensus against psi research and aren’t willing to go further.

Now, I do appreciate that we all have limited resources (time, energy, patience, etc.), but if your view does in fact come down to opposing psi because of the consensus (whilst refusing to consider reading any of the literature I suggested) but opposing climate change despite the consensus (based on specialist knowledge, you say), then I can’t help but think that your opinion on any given topic is merely a function of time, energy and patience… and not reason.

13. Member
Arahant
@Arahant

Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
The rest of this is meant to cast me in an unflattering light, and does nothing to advance the thread.

Oh, Bryan, don’t be silly. I would never bother doing that.

People asserting that ESP exists and citing studies are not like discussions of faith. God cannot be proven and is always an item of faith. If we want to say ESP is the same as faith in God, then why site studies? You cannot have it both ways.

What study have I cited in this thread? Don’t conflate what I say with what other people say. All that I have said is that I had experiences that I cannot explain easily without some form of psy. I have also been around people who had many, many more such experiences and have been studied, although I have no idea if that data has even been published. All that I have is anecdotal, and I know what that is worth.

I presented an analogy based on my observations of the conversation. Both you and Nick made assertions that there was no psy because if there were, it would be more widespread and known because it would convey Darwinian advantages. Like an Atheist who uses the “bearded man in the sky” definition of God, you are using a comic book definition of psy. That is fine by me, so long as you admit it and understand the costs involved.

I have said why my scientific understanding of how the brain works undermines my belief. I had said why I don’t trust the existing studies.

Fine. I’m not sure that I trust them, either. I’m not sure that I even trust my anecdotal evidence.

14. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

It seems pretty clear to me that the human mind doesn’t really function according to the Bayesian computational theory. For a couple of reasons, but the most important one being that while the mind can of course “compute” its primary activity seems to be perception and experience. And most beliefs are generated in this way.

There is quite a bit of evidence that human perception is approximately Bayesian, actually.

For example, our perception of optical and other illusions, our perception of pain, our ability to understand each others’ speech, and so on, show how sensitive our perception is to priors. So does, as I argue in the OP, our skepticism and mutual doubt. How optical illusions can appear to flip appears better-explained by us having a Bayesian (by which of course I mean approximately Bayesian) sensory system than anything else.

It is possible you’re conflating the computations the brain must perform to embody mind with conscious computation. I grant you that most brains are pretty lousy at conscious computation (arithmetic, solving an integral, etc), but that only suggests that the brain is structured with layers of awareness, with most of its activity happening outside conscious awareness (apparently, this is a pretty good way to structure advanced AI, too).

How do you think the brain embodies the mind without being a biological computer, I’m curious?

…where even the lunacy of epiphenomalism seems like “black magic .”

I am unsure what you mean by this? Are you criticizing scientists who describe consciousness as an epiphenomenon?

I’m pretty sure we’re speaking past each other because when you say perception you mean biology. When I say perception I mean qualia.

15. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

@aarong3eason, the big question for me is, what do you fear will be lost by gaining a better understanding of the mechanics of the brain as a “biological computer”?

Such understanding need not obviate other ways of understanding human experience. (It certainly doesn’t for me.) I know people (especially conservatives) worry that it might, but this worry still strikes me as puzzling.

What is the real worry?

If the worry is CS Lewis’s “men without chests”, for example, I don’t think better understanding of mechanical or mathematical realities causes that. I especially don’t think it causes that in those who are good at understanding the world that way.

I am not a great mathematician, nor a great composer, nor a great poet. I did manage to reach a level of proficiency in all three, though, that makes it clear none is a “heartless” activity. None is “passionless”. Nor does supposing, “My brain is doing approximately Bayesian things when I engage in these activities,” make the activities “heartless”.

Michael Polanyi wasn’t a positivist. His account of doing science (which I value greatly) reads to me like Jaynes without the math. Indeed, Jaynes’s acknowledgement that it is rational (in the Bayesian sense) that personal commitments (such as trust) inform our beliefs about even “objective” claims strikes me a way out of positivism’s problems.

I’m not afraid of any of it. I’m saying that it’s false and seems pretty useless for discussions about mind and epistemology. Neuroscience has almost nothing to do with Philosophy of mind. The more we understand about the brain doesn’t really have that much to do at all with the nature of mind. Because semantic content is completely irrelevant to this entire discussion. I think someone like Jeff Schwartz is doing interesting work with neuroscience and psychology but its still not directly relevant to Phil mind. And I’m fairly certain that even the “computing of the brain” is probably not actual computation either. I don’t know very much about neuroscience so I’m hesitant to make conclusions about statements concerning what the brain actually does. But I know enough to know that neuroscientists don’t know enough about phil mind to make statements about phil mind. The ones that do seem to be of the epiphenomenal variety which is a very poor theory of mind considering why most people hold to it.

16. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

It seems pretty clear to me that the human mind doesn’t really function according to the Bayesian computational theory. For a couple of reasons, but the most important one being that while the mind can of course “compute” its primary activity seems to be perception and experience. And most beliefs are generated in this way.

There is quite a bit of evidence that human perception is approximately Bayesian, actually.

For example, our perception of optical and other illusions, our perception of pain, our ability to understand each others’ speech, and so on, show how sensitive our perception is to priors. So does, as I argue in the OP, our skepticism and mutual doubt. How optical illusions can appear to flip appears better-explained by us having a Bayesian (by which of course I mean approximately Bayesian) sensory system than anything else.

It is possible you’re conflating the computations the brain must perform to embody mind with conscious computation. I grant you that most brains are pretty lousy at conscious computation (arithmetic, solving an integral, etc), but that only suggests that the brain is structured with layers of awareness, with most of its activity happening outside conscious awareness (apparently, this is a pretty good way to structure advanced AI, too).

How do you think the brain embodies the mind without being a biological computer, I’m curious?

…where even the lunacy of epiphenomalism seems like “black magic .”

I am unsure what you mean by this? Are you criticizing scientists who describe consciousness as an epiphenomenon?

I’m pretty sure we’re speaking past each other because when you say perception you mean biology. When I say perception I mean qualia.

I should say more about epiphenomalism. This is the theory of Mind that there are such things as mental states, in other words because these philosophers understand the difference between semantic content or qualia and physicality they believe that mind supervenes on matter. So the brain does something and that produces what happens in our minds. Most of them hold to this position for something like the problem of cartestian causation. This is the idea that because Descartes defined Mind and Matter in such harshly opposite terms there is no way they could interact with each other. And so the vast majority of neuroscientists have even rejected the very moderate theory of epiphenomalism. Daniel Dennet is one of these guys. Read his conversation with Searle from the 90s to see some of what I’m arguing. The complete reductionist position vis a vis Dennet and most contemporary atheists is patently false. Because the illusion of qualia is itself qualia so they need to be at least epiphenom  on pain of logic. But the epiphenom position actually concedes the Cartesian problem as false so the whole point is defeated. I’ll do a post and maybe we should record a podcast episode on this.

17. Contributor
@Midge

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
I’m saying that it’s false and seems pretty useless for discussions about mind and epistemology.

We might be at an impasse here. You believe what I’m talking about to be false and useless (and also perhaps boring). I am unsure of why what you’re talking about should be true, useful, or interesting. We are both using English words, but perhaps speaking different languages.

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
Neuroscience has almost nothing to do with Philosophy of mind. The more we understand about the brain doesn’t really have that much to do at all with the nature of mind.

That would seem to be a weakness in our understanding of the nature of the mind, then. We’re embodied creatures. Brain and mind ought to have something to do with one another.

18. Contributor
@Midge

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
And I’m fairly certain that even the “computing of the brain” is probably not actual computation either. I don’t know very much about neuroscience so I’m hesitant to make conclusions about statements concerning what the brain actually does. But I know enough to know that neuroscientists don’t know enough about phil mind to make statements about phil mind.

I can believe it’s possible to get quite far in cognitive research without learning to make statements in phil-mind-ese acceptable to phil-mind-ese-ers. But I’m unsure what that has to do with the judgment that “the ‘computing of the brain’ is probably not actual computation either.” What kind of “computation” do you mean where you judge the brain likely falling short?

19. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
I’m saying that it’s false and seems pretty useless for discussions about mind and epistemology.

We might be at an impasse here. You believe what I’m talking about to be false and useless (and also perhaps boring). I am unsure of why what you’re talking about should be true, useful, or interesting. We are both using English words, but perhaps speaking different languages.

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
Neuroscience has almost nothing to do with Philosophy of mind. The more we understand about the brain doesn’t really have that much to do at all with the nature of mind.

That would seem to be a weakness in our understanding of the nature of the mind, then. We’re embodied creatures. Brain and mind ought to have something to do with one another.

I think it’s useless and false regarding phil mind. It might not be regarding neuroscience. I don’t know enough about neuroscience.

They have something to do with each other. But I’m like 99% sure you’ve been equivocating brain with mind. Maybe on accident. But you can’t understand the brain or the mind if you think they’re the same thing.

20. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
And I’m fairly certain that even the “computing of the brain” is probably not actual computation either. I don’t know very much about neuroscience so I’m hesitant to make conclusions about statements concerning what the brain actually does. But I know enough to know that neuroscientists don’t know enough about phil mind to make statements about phil mind.

I can believe it’s possible to get quite far in cognitive research without learning to make statements in phil-mind-ese acceptable to phil-mind-ese-ers. But I’m unsure what that has to do with the judgment that “the ‘computing of the brain’ is probably not actual computation either.” What kind of “computation” do you mean where you judge the brain likely falling short?

I agree. But the problem is neuroscience like all contemporary science believes metaphysics is an impossible discipline. And so they flounder in an intellectual ghetto making all manner of philosophical claims based on science that is uninformed by philosophy. If they would stick to the bare facts I wouldn’t be critical but they refuse to be responsible and continually refer to mind when they mean brain.

Since I think with my mind I don’t undestand what it would be like to compute as a computer does. My computations are full of semantic content. Though it is hard to see the semantic content in 1+1=2 at least I know what that is. A computer has no knowledge of 1+1=2, it simply does it. In fact a computer doesn’t even know that it is doing it at all. It doesn’t comprehend 1+1 it just does 1+1. And I just don’t see how the brain, a piece of matter could compute 1+1. Obviously it’s not logically impossible since computers are also matter but the brain does not seem like the kind of thing that computes. This is where my lack of knowledge concerning neuroscience comes in. But based on what little I know it seems as if when the mind does certain things certain areas of the brain are active. But the computation is happening in the mind. It’s just that for whatever reason this or that bit of grey matter activates when I compute. And if that area were hurt I might not be able to compute anymore. They clearly are related but I don’t understand how.

21. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
And I’m fairly certain that even the “computing of the brain” is probably not actual computation either. I don’t know very much about neuroscience so I’m hesitant to make conclusions about statements concerning what the brain actually does. But I know enough to know that neuroscientists don’t know enough about phil mind to make statements about phil mind.

I can believe it’s possible to get quite far in cognitive research without learning to make statements in phil-mind-ese acceptable to phil-mind-ese-ers. But I’m unsure what that has to do with the judgment that “the ‘computing of the brain’ is probably not actual computation either.” What kind of “computation” do you mean where you judge the brain likely falling short?

I agree. But the problem is neuroscience like all contemporary science believes metaphysics is an impossible discipline. And so they flounder in an intellectual ghetto making all manner of philosophical claims based on science that is uninformed by philosophy. If they would stick to the bare facts I wouldn’t be critical but they refuse to be responsible and continually refer to mind when they mean brain.

Since I think with my mind I don’t undestand what it would be like to compute as a computer does. My computations are full of semantic content. Though it is hard to see the semantic content in 1+1=2 at least I know what that is. A computer has no knowledge of 1+1=2, it simply does it. In fact a computer doesn’t even know that it is doing it at all. It doesn’t comprehend 1+1 it just does 1+1. And I just don’t see how the brain, a piece of matter could compute 1+1. Obviously it’s not logically impossible since computers are also matter but the brain does not seem like the kind of thing that computes. This is where my lack of knowledge concerning neuroscience comes in. But based on what little I know it seems as if when the mind does certain things certain areas of the brain are active. But the computation is happening in the mind. It’s just that for whatever reason this or that bit of grey matter activates when I compute. And if that area were hurt I might not be able to compute anymore. They clearly are related but I don’t understand how.

And to be clear I think your writing is not boring. Bayesian seems boring to me. But you have peaked my interest which is actually a testament to your writing.

22. Member
Judge Mental
@JudgeMental

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
And I’m fairly certain that even the “computing of the brain” is probably not actual computation either. I don’t know very much about neuroscience so I’m hesitant to make conclusions about statements concerning what the brain actually does. But I know enough to know that neuroscientists don’t know enough about phil mind to make statements about phil mind.

I can believe it’s possible to get quite far in cognitive research without learning to make statements in phil-mind-ese acceptable to phil-mind-ese-ers. But I’m unsure what that has to do with the judgment that “the ‘computing of the brain’ is probably not actual computation either.” What kind of “computation” do you mean where you judge the brain likely falling short?

I agree. But the problem is neuroscience like all contemporary science believes metaphysics is an impossible discipline. And so they flounder in an intellectual ghetto making all manner of philosophical claims based on science that is uninformed by philosophy. If they would stick to the bare facts I wouldn’t be critical but they refuse to be responsible and continually refer to mind when they mean brain.

Since I think with my mind I don’t undestand what it would be like to compute as a computer does. My computations are full of semantic content. Though it is hard to see the semantic content in 1+1=2 at least I know what that is. A computer has no knowledge of 1+1=2, it simply does it. In fact a computer doesn’t even know that it is doing it at all. It doesn’t comprehend 1+1 it just does 1+1. And I just don’t see how the brain, a piece of matter could compute 1+1. Obviously it’s not logically impossible since computers are also matter but the brain does not seem like the kind of thing that computes. This is where my lack of knowledge concerning neuroscience comes in. But based on what little I know it seems as if when the mind does certain things certain areas of the brain are active. But the computation is happening in the mind. It’s just that for whatever reason this or that bit of grey matter activates when I compute. And if that area were hurt I might not be able to compute anymore. They clearly are related but I don’t understand how.

I have to be crazy to get in the middle here, but: the hardware is the brain, the software is the mind.  The mind is what the brain does, or if you will, the software it runs.

23. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
And I’m fairly certain that even the “computing of the brain” is probably not actual computation either. I don’t know very much about neuroscience so I’m hesitant to make conclusions about statements concerning what the brain actually does. But I know enough to know that neuroscientists don’t know enough about phil mind to make statements about phil mind.

I can believe it’s possible to get quite far in cognitive research without learning to make statements in phil-mind-ese acceptable to phil-mind-ese-ers. But I’m unsure what that has to do with the judgment that “the ‘computing of the brain’ is probably not actual computation either.” What kind of “computation” do you mean where you judge the brain likely falling short?

I agree. But the problem is neuroscience like all contemporary science believes metaphysics is an impossible discipline. And so they flounder in an intellectual ghetto making all manner of philosophical claims based on science that is uninformed by philosophy. If they would stick to the bare facts I wouldn’t be critical but they refuse to be responsible and continually refer to mind when they mean brain.

Since I think with my mind I don’t undestand what it would be like to compute as a computer does. My computations are full of semantic content. Though it is hard to see the semantic content in 1+1=2 at least I know what that is. A computer has no knowledge of 1+1=2, it simply does it. In fact a computer doesn’t even know that it is doing it at all. It doesn’t comprehend 1+1 it just does 1+1. And I just don’t see how the brain, a piece of matter could compute 1+1. Obviously it’s not logically impossible since computers are also matter but the brain does not seem like the kind of thing that computes. This is where my lack of knowledge concerning neuroscience comes in. But based on what little I know it seems as if when the mind does certain things certain areas of the brain are active. But the computation is happening in the mind. It’s just that for whatever reason this or that bit of grey matter activates when I compute. And if that area were hurt I might not be able to compute anymore. They clearly are related but I don’t understand how.

I have to be crazy to get in the middle here, but: the hardware is the brain, the software is the mind. The mind is what the brain does, or if you will, the software it runs.

I don’t see how that’s relevant to anything being said here unless you’re trying to say you’re an epiphenomenalist. I’m some kind of substance dualist or some kind of hylomorphist.

24. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

I have to be crazy to get in the middle here, but: the hardware is the brain, the software is the mind. The mind is what the brain does, or if you will, the software it runs.

I don’t see how that’s relevant to anything being said here unless you’re trying to say you’re an epiphenomenalist. I’m some kind of substance dualist or some kind of hylomorphist.

Sorry I always forget how the quote function works. I don’t have much more to say except that epiphenomenalism is almost certainly false. If it is true then these things: free will, moral responsibility, rationality, knowledge, and even thought itself. In other words its a bad theory.

Anyone who is interested to discuss this stuff is welcome to do a podcast episode with me, there’s a lot of misinformation about Philosophy of mind floating around.

25. Contributor
@Midge

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
They have something to do with each other. But I’m like 99% sure you’ve been equivocating brain with mind. Maybe on accident. But you can’t understand the brain or the mind if you think they’re the same thing.

What are the right words to say, then, to somebody who speaks “philosophy of mind” but not cognitive science to differentiate “mind” from “brain”.

I have to be crazy to get in the middle here, but: the hardware is the brain, the software is the mind. The mind is what the brain does, or if you will, the software it runs.

I don’t see how that’s relevant to anything being said here unless you’re trying to say you’re an epiphenomenalist. I’m some kind of substance dualist or some kind of hylomorphist.

Sorry I always forget how the quote function works. I don’t have much more to say except that epiphenomenalism is almost certainly false. If it is true then these things: free will, moral responsibility, rationality, knowledge, and even thought itself. In other words its a bad theory.

I think there’s something missing in your reply. Are you trying to say that, if the mind is physically an epiphenomenon, then the mind cannot morally be a creature in its own right, and that therefore other moral creatures like free will, responsibility, rationality, knowledge, and thought, cannot really exist?

If we’re asking the question, “How is the mind physically implemented?”,  “It’s implemented as the ‘software’ of the brain” seems like a good physical analogy. That doesn’t mean, though, that the mind is morally unimportant or nonexistent.

The word “epiphenomenal” could be considered a pejorative moral judgment as well as a physical description, but I don’t see why it has to be. We live physically embodied lives. That must mean that somehow, the mind is physically embodied. Perhaps it is embodied as an epiphenomenon arising from the brain. That doesn’t make the mind morally unimportant in its own right. All it does is make the embodiment worth studying, especially since the mind is morally important.

26. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

What are the right words to say, then, to somebody who speaks “philosophy of mind” but not cognitive science to differentiate “mind” from “brain”.

Mind and brain are the correct words to use to differentiate mind and brain.

27. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
I think there’s something missing in your reply. Are you trying to say that, if the mind is physically an epiphenomenon, then the mind cannot morally be a creature in its own right, and that therefore other moral creatures like free will, responsibility, rationality, knowledge, and thought, cannot really exist?

Epiphenomenonalism is the view that mind supervenes on matter in a one way relation. If this is true then the best account we can have of free will is so soft that it seems to be the exact same as materialism. I guess there is a non dualistic account of free will from a philosophical position…at this point I do not understand that view but I’m willing to give it a chance. But it can’t be robust free will. Along those lines maybe we don’t lose all those things immediately but they certainly lose their actual meaning, that is what we mean when we say knowledge etc. and become shadows of their former selves. But I’m only willing to give the soft free will view a chance logically. I think materialism does entail complete and total determinism. I have no idea how it wouldn’t.

Also the mind is not a physical epiphenomenon according to epiphenomenalism. The view is supposed to “protect” mental states and is a greatly reduced form of dualism. But it’s a philosophical disaster and so there don’t seem to be many proponents because if matter can effect mind then why can’t mind effect matter? And Schwartz has provided evidence (and we all intuitively see and know that we do this every day, even the mere belief in free will increases human freedom etc) that the mind affects the brain. So most “philosophers” are completely reductive which is patently and demonstrably false.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epiphenomenalism/

28. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

If we’re asking the question, “How is the mind physically implemented?”, “It’s implemented as the ‘software’ of the brain” seems like a good physical analogy. That doesn’t mean, though, that the mind is morally unimportant or nonexistent.

The mind isn’t physical. I don’t know what you mean by “software of the brain.” Get really stupid with me because I know almost nothing about computers. As a VG fan we refer to hardware as the game system and the games as the software. Does that align with your analogy? If so I have no idea how that’s analogous. There is no semantic content within either software or hardware. The mind actually contains things that the brain cannot contain. Things like meaning and knowledge.

29. Inactive
A.C. Gleason
@aarong3eason

The word “epiphenomenal” could be considered a pejorative moral judgment as well as a physical description, but I don’t see why it has to be. We live physically embodied lives. That must mean that somehow, the mind is physically embodied. Perhaps it is embodied as an epiphenomenon arising from the brain. That doesn’t make the mind morally unimportant in its own right. All it does is make the embodiment worth studying, especially since the mind is morally important.

Yes we have bodies. But no it does not follow from that that the mind is physically embodied. It follows from that that mind and body can and do interact. If by embodied you mean simply what I have just written then fine. But it actually wouldn’t be embodied at all if it arises from the brain because it has nothing to do with the brain. If it is an epiphenomena it is dependent on the brain for its existence. And yes that would mean that mind is completely morally unimportant because it is a result of physical processes and nothing more. Which would mean it is physically determined by definition.
The only way it would be morally important is regarding pain. So if something feels pain you wouldn’t want to cause it pain, but since your mind has no ability to affect your body then you have no control over what you do or who you hurt so…tough, that’s just life.

30. Contributor
@Midge

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
But it actually wouldn’t be embodied at all if it arises from the brain because it has nothing to do with the brain.

Are you saying the mind has nothing to do with the brain? Then how is it that brain states affect mind states?

What are our brains for if not to physically manifest our minds in our bodies?

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
There is no semantic content within either software or hardware.

When you keep making this assertion, what are you trying to say? How are you measuring semantic content in order to say that software (for example) has none. For example, the following statement

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
The mind actually contains things that the brain cannot contain. Things like meaning and knowledge.

suggests that meaning and knowledge could not then be part of the algorithms that make up software, even though algorithms can act as if they know X, or as if Y has meaning. Yet machine learning  exists.

Do you have an argument for why machine learning cannot be real learning? Why the meaning a machine learns to assign to Y, or the knowledge it learns of X, cannot be “real”? (And if so, does your argument apply to all biological life except for humans – that is, are insects and dogs permitted to be viewed as performing biological “machine learning” which is nonetheless not “real learning”; while humans are the only creatures capable of “real learning”? – and are therefore somehow not permitted to perform biological machine learning?)

A.C. Gleason (View Comment):
And yes that would mean that mind is completely morally unimportant because it is a result of physical processes and nothing more.

You appear to be the one making the moral judgment that something made manifest by a physical processes cannot also have moral import.