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Previous Topics - 2008

December 17, 2008

Souls vs. Cybernetics: Who Are You, Essentially? 

We usually experience ourselves as a unified subject, a self that feels, thinks and acts. A traditional explanation for this is that we are essentially souls or non-physical mental agents that control the brain and body. But modern neuroscience shows no evidence for such an entity, only a neurally-based cybernetic system that somehow constructs the sense of self. How do we decide between these very different explanations? Will the soul survive neuroscience, and if not can we reconcile ourselves to being neural constructions, not immaterial essences?


This just in: Body swap shows self is  a trick of the mind.

Serendip - Rene Descartes and the legacy of mind-body dualism - "By localizing the soul's contact with body in the pineal gland, Descartes had raised the question of the relationship of mind to the brain and nervous system. Yet at the same time, by drawing a radical ontological distinction between body as extended and mind as pure thought, Descartes, in search of certitude, had paradoxically created intellectual chaos."

Paul Bloom: The soul? It may be all in your mind - "Bloom has written that humans are 'natural dualists,' seeing our physical bodies as separate from our supposedly nonphysical minds and souls. It's a legacy in part of the great French philosopher René Descartes, a religious man who believed our thoughts survived the death of our brains, says Bloom. The problem, Bloom believes, is that this dualism is inaccurate. Brain science increasingly shows that 'the qualities of mental life that we associate with souls - memory, self-control, decision-making - are purely corporeal; they emerge from biochemical processes in the brain,' he wrote in a 2004 piece for The New York Times."

Paul Bloom: First Person Plural - "We used to think that the hard part of the question 'How can I be happy?' had to do with nailing down the definition of happy. But it may have more to do with the definition of I."

Thomas Metzinger: Self models - at Scholarpedia. "There is no such thing as a substantial self (as a distinct ontological entity, which could in principle exist by itself), but only a dynamic, ongoing process creating very specific representational and functional properties. Self-consciousness is a form of physically realized representational content."  See also the precis of his book Being No One: "What we have been calling 'the' a very special kind of representational content: The content of a self-model that cannot be recognized as a model by the system using it." See here about Metzinger's forthcoming trade book on consciousness and the self.

Galen Strawson on the problem of the self - a comprehensive consideration of the issues.

Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no self) - "According to the Buddha, what is normally thought of as the 'self' is in fact an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents known as "skandhas" ('aggregates', 'heaps'). The Buddha repeatedly emphasized not only that the five skandhas of living being are 'not-self,' but that clinging to them as if they were an immutable self or soul (ātman) gives rise to unsatisfactoriness (dukkha)."

Philosopher Nicholas Humphrey: A self worth having - “What kind of thing is of sufficient metaphysical weight to supply the experiential substrate of a self — or, at any rate, a self worth having? And the answer I'd now suggest is: nothing less than phenomenal experience — phenomenal experience with its intrinsic depth and richness, with its qualities of seeming to be more than any physical thing could be.”  

Jaron Lanier in response to Humphrey: “A 'Self' can be thought of as one part of a system which models, predicts, and to some degree directs the rest of the system within its environment. There are purported states in which human subjects are said to have lost some significant degree of self while retaining some significant degree of consciousness, including some forms of hypnosis, non-metaphorical (Haitian) zombiehood, and recreational drug use. I don't claim to be an expert on these phenomena, but I do think there's something to be lost if people think of their selves as merely being functional parts.” 

Alva Noe in response to Humphrey: “Hume famously denied that the self is anything other than a bundle of fleeting sensations, perceptions and images. There is no self, in the sense of a persisting Cartesian subject of thought and experience....What is a self worth having, in an evolutionary context? If Hume is right, and the self is just a bundle, then one can reasonably wonder why we need phenomenal consciousness for that.” 

See Nick Humphrey’s reply to his critics, since it goes further into what he means by a self.   



November 19, 2008

Feelings vs. Freedom: Is There a Right Not to Be Offended?

People sometimes deeply identify with their worldview and take offense when it’s criticized. In many secular societies, freedoms of conscience and speech trump any requirement to respect another’s fundamental beliefs, while in some religious societies such freedoms are limited or non-existent. This dispute is now playing out in the UN, where an amendment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been proposed to prohibit insults to religion. Should deeply held convictions be protected from ridicule? Or are there good reasons for all individuals and societies to agree that worldviews should be fair game for free speech?


UN resolution Combating Defamations of Religion.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Freedom of Speech.

International Ethical and Humanist Union: Vote on freedom of expression marks the end of universal human rights.

Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, on why The OIC does not speak for Muslims. 

Hilary Charlesworth: Resist attempts to dilute our rights – “Although it is clear that there has been inadequate attention given to understanding Islam in the West, the [OIC] resolution seems more intent on protecting religious ideas rather than individuals' right to religious freedom.”

Austin Dacey’s statement on Islam and Human Rights.

New York Times: Unlike others, U.S. defends freedom to offend in speech

National Center for Science Education: “The 1968 Supreme Court decision, Epperson v Arkansas, struck down antievolution laws such as that under which John T. Scopes was tried in 1925 in Tennessee. Noting that antievolution laws were passed because they offended certain religious views, the court wrote,  '... the First Amendment does not permit the state to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma....'"

 “[F]rom the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures.” From the Supreme Court decision in Burstyn vs. Wilson . See also

US comes out against UN resolution: “The issue is somewhat thorny for several E.U. members who have Holocaust-denial laws on the books. Muslim countries have referred to such legislation to justify the need for legal protection of Muslims against what they deem insulting attitudes and words. But the OIC’s willingness to equate defamation of religion with racism as well as the Danish cartoon flap prompted the Europeans to come closer to America’s position, a staunch defense of free speech based on the First Amendment.”

Edmund Standing: The Free Speech Deniers – on what he considers to be the mistake of criminalizing holocaust denial.

Blog from Norman Geras: “The liberal principle that we may interfere with the actions of another (only) to prevent harm to others does have its difficulties since, like many other conceptual boundaries, the boundaries of the concept of harm are fuzzy. But the principle, if it is one, that freedom of speech must be curbed to avoid offending people, is manifestly a qualification of the right of free speech that all but destroys the usefulness of the right. For there are no boundaries on what people can be offended by. Liberals favouring that particular qualification of the right should be put upon their mettle to say in what their liberalism consists. Offending people is sometimes wrong; but no one has a right against being offended and everyone has the right, accordingly, to give offence.”

The Open Interrogation of Faith, a review essay on The Secular Conscience by Austin Dacey.

Stanley Fish: There is no such thing as free speech.

Haroon Sidiqui: Free speech cannot be an excuse for hate – “People will always differ on what constitutes hate or where to draw the line on free speech. But most people would agree that free speech is not a licence to target vulnerable groups, let alone risk rupturing the common good in Canada.”

Letter: “There’s no such thing as free speech - and a good thing too. There are rather just degrees of tolerance, permissiveness and relative freedom, with boundaries, legal, social and cultural.”

Christopher Howse: Salman Rushdie taught liberals to hate Islam – “The secularist haters of Islam pretend that that they have a sacred principle of their own, which is freedom of speech, freedom to publish.” 

Mark Mike at the Calgary Herald: A bureaucratic, political and court addiction to speech suppression.

Wall Street Journal article on the Danish cartoon controversy.



October 15, 2008

Moral Politics: Are Liberals Missing Core Values? 

Despite having most human things in common, liberals and conservatives disagree sharply about politics and values. Why? Research by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that liberals have a narrow, individualist system of morality centered on equality and welfare, while conservatives add the values of group loyalty, respect for authority, and honor for what’s pure and sacred. Are liberals wrong to discount such values? Are there standards outside these divergent moral systems by which we could decide which is best?  If not, then how can liberals, or conservatives, be sure they’re in the right?


What Makes People Vote Republican?, by Jonathan Haidt at Edge.Org, plus commentary.

When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions That Liberals May Not Recognize, by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham.

Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality, by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham.

Haidt's page on moral foundations.

The Social Animal, op-ed by David Brooks, suggesting that conservatives, not liberals, are more individualist in some respects.

Moral Politics, by George Lakoff, contrasts the liberal and conservative mindsets and worldviews.

Empiricism and Equality: The Prospects for Enlightenment 2.0 at Naturalism.Org, includes an analysis of Haidt's descriptive and normative commitments.



September 17, 2008

Mental vs. Physical: Does Folk Metaphysics Get It Right?

The distinction between mental and physical is basic to commonsense conceptions of reality and a central concern of philosophy of mind. Where do our notions of mind and body come from, and are they justifiable? Are we natural born dualists, as psychologist Paul Bloom has suggested?  If so, is the split between mental and physical an accurate reflection of reality, or an artifact of how we're predisposed to represent it? 


~ See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s (SEP) entry on dualism for a good overview of various distinctions between the mental and physical and their history. Here’s a quote describing some basic territory: 

Mental states are characterized by two main properties, subjectivity, otherwise known as privileged access, and intentionality. Physical objects and their properties are sometimes observable and sometimes not, but any physical object is equally accessible, in principle, to anyone. From the right location, we could all see the tree in the quad, and, though none of us can observe an electron directly, everyone is equally capable of detecting it in the same ways using instruments. But the possessor of mental states has a privileged access to them that no-one else can share. That is why there is a skeptical ‘problem of other minds’, but no corresponding ‘problem of my own mind’. This suggests to some philosophers that minds are not ordinary occupants of physical space. 

Physical objects are spatio-temporal, and bear spatio-temporal and causal relations to each other. Mental states seem to have causal powers, but they also possess the mysterious property of intentionality — being about other things — including things like Zeus and the square root of minus one, which do not exist. No mere physical thing could be said to be, in a literal sense, ‘about’ something else. The nature of the mental is both queer and elusive. In Ryle's deliberately abusive phrase, the mind, as the dualist conceives of it, is a ‘ghost in a machine’. Ghosts are mysterious and unintelligible: machines are composed of identifiable parts and work on intelligible principles. But this contrast holds only if we stick to a Newtonian and common-sense view of the material. Think instead of energy and force-fields in a space-time that possesses none of the properties that our senses seem to reveal: on this conception, we seem to be able to attribute to matter nothing beyond an abstruse mathematical structure. Whilst the material world, because of its mathematicalisation, forms a tighter abstract system than mind, the sensible properties that figure as the objects of mental states constitute the only intelligible content for any concrete picture of the world that we can devise. Perhaps the world within the experiencing mind is, once one considers it properly, no more — or even less — queer than the world outside it.

~ For alternatives to dualism that suggest how mind and body might be related, or reduce to one another, see the SEP entries on physicalism, functionalism, neutral monism and panpsychism, and see the Wikepedia entry on idealism. That the SEP doesn’t have an entry on idealism per se suggests that it’s not considered a live option by contemporary philosophers.

~ Paul Bloom’s essay at Edge.Org on how we might be Natural Born Dualists.

~ V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein’s paper on the Three Laws of Qualia.

~ G.E. Moore’s classic paper The Refutation of Idealism.

June 18, 2008

The Uncanny Effectiveness of Mathematics:
Is Nature Ultimately Quantifiable?

In 1960, the physicist Eugene Wigner wrote: “The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.” Why should mathematics be so successful in describing the natural world? Are we projecting our mathematical concepts onto nature, or is nature in some sense ultimately quantifiable? If it is, is that a reflection of some yet deeper fact about reality?

Some readings and quotes:

~ The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics, by R. W. Hamming:

"It was Galileo who said, 'The laws of Nature are written in the language of mathematics.' Newton used the results of both Kepler and Galileo to deduce the famous Newtonian laws of motion, which together with the law of gravitation are perhaps the most famous example of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in science. They not only predicted where the known planets would be but successfully predicted the positions of unknown planets, the motions of distant stars, tides, and so forth. Science is composed of laws which were originally based on a small, carefully selected set of observations, often not very accurately measured originally; but the laws have later been found to apply over much wider ranges of observations and much more accurately than the original data justified. Not always, to be sure, but often enough to require explanation."

"During my thirty years of practicing mathematics in industry, I often worried about the predictions I made. From the mathematics that I did in my office I confidently (at least to others) predicted some future events-if you do so and so, you will see such and such-and it usually turned out that I was right. How could the phenomena know what I had predicted (based on human-made mathematics) so that it could support my predictions? It is ridiculous to think that is the way things go. No, it is that mathematics provides, somehow, a reliable model for much of what happens in the universe. And since I am able to do only comparatively simple mathematics, how can it be that simple mathematics suffices to predict so much? "

"Mathematics has been made by man and therefore is apt to be altered rather continuously by him. Perhaps the original sources of mathematics were forced on us, but as in the example I have used we see that in the development of so simple a concept as number we have made choices for the extensions that were only partly controlled by necessity and often, it seems to me, more by aesthetics. We have tried to make mathematics a consistent, beautiful thing, and by so doing we have had an amazing number of successful applications to the real world."

"...the simplicity of mathematics has long been held to be the key to applications in physics. Einstein is the most famous exponent of this belief. But even in mathematics itself the simplicity is remarkable, at least to me; the simplest algebraic equations, linear and quadratic, correspond to the simplest geometric entities, straight lines, circles, and conics. This makes analytic geometry possible in a practical way. How can it be that simple mathematics, being after all a product of the human mind, can be so remarkably useful in so many widely different situations?"

~ The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, by Eugene Wigner:

“However, it is important to point out that the mathematical formulation of the physicist's often crude experience leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena. This shows that the mathematical language has more to commend it than being the only language which we can speak; it shows that it is, in a very real sense, the correct language.” 

“We have seen that there are regularities in the events in the world around us which can be formulated in terms of mathematical concepts with an uncanny accuracy.”

“The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.”

Reply to Wigner and Hamming, by Jef Raskin:

"As evolution shaped the trout’s form for survival, so did evolution build mental abilities on the logical shape of the world."

~ Statement by Michael Heller, winner of the 2008 Templeton Prize:

"When contemplating the universe, the question imposes itself: Does the universe need to have a cause? It is clear that causal explanations are a vital part of the scientific method. Various processes in the universe can be displayed as a succession of states in such a way that the preceding state is a cause of the succeeding one. If we look deeper at such processes, we see that there is always a dynamical law prescribing how one state should generate another state. But dynamical laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations, and if we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about a cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the Great Blueprint of God’s thinking the universe. The question on ultimate causality is translated into another of Leibniz’s questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (from his Principles of Nature and Grace). When asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes.”

~ Philosophy of mathematics in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, see also sub-entries on Godel's mathematical Platonism and Quine's mathematical naturalism.

~ Philosophy of Mathematics in Wikipedia.

~ Mathematics and Reality, by David Valdman:

“In order to really grasp our reality, one needs to shed his potentially corrupt sensory data and any preconceived notions no matter how obvious seeming. All our experiences and observations are results of the interaction between our minds and bodies with an underlying reality, but if there were a way to bypass that interaction and reach the underlying reality directly only then would we grasp the essence of what is out there. We must literally study reality from the perspective of a rational inanimate object—a rock with reason—ignoring our internal reality and focusing only on the external. This requires a physics stripped of the physical. It requires mathematics.”

~ Quote from Douglass Hofstadter:

[Certain people] have an instinctive horror of any "explaining away" of the soul. I don't know why certain people have this horror while others, like me, find in reductionism the ultimate religion. Perhaps my lifelong training in physics and science in general has given me a deep awe at seeing how the most substantial and familiar objects of experience fade away, as one approaches the infinitesimal scale, into an eerily insubstantial ether, a myriad of ephemeral swirling vortices of nearly incomprehensible mathematical activity. -  Douglas Hofstadter, "Reductionism and Religion," reply to John Searle in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1980 (emphasis added). Quoted by Goetz and Taliaferro in Naturalism.


May 21, 2008, 7:30-9:30 pm

Behavioral Economics: How Rational Are We?

The relatively new science of behavioral economics, along with its sub-discipline neuroeconomics, suggests that we might not be classically rational creatures who reliably maximize our own well-being. We might in some cases act against what would seem to be our best interests, and we might not even know clearly what those interests are. Is there a way to get a rational grip on rationality itself, and if so, how might this change our priorities?


The Marketplace of Perceptions - covers lots of ground in behavioral economics and its application to politics, advertising, markets, third-world development and group conflict. 

What’s It Worth to Ya? - brief, on the neural basis for decision-making, suggesting that there might be brain mechanisms that translate specific types of rewards into a common basis for comparison.

If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming – the human brain evolved to respond to immediate, salient threats. 

Behavior Tech: Creating the Norm of Environmental Altruism - explores the possibilities for exerting global self-control.

Cash With a Catch – op-ed by Bob Herbert on using cash as an incentive in behavior change.

In Praise of Peer Pressure – on social norms marketing.

Dynamic Choice - from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Sometimes a series of choices do not serve one's concerns well even though each choice in the series seems perfectly well-suited to serving one's concerns. In such cases, one has a dynamic choice problem. Otherwise put, one has a problem related to the fact that one's choices are spread out over time." See Breakdown of Will below.


Breakdown of Will, by George Ainslie – a tour of the motivational paradoxes generated by “inter-temporal bargaining” between our present and later selves. There may be no stable strategy to maximize achievement of our own interests. 

The Robot’s Rebellion, by Keith Stanovich – can we escape the biological biases of genes and the cultural biases of memes to discover our true interests as autonomous individuals? Reviewed briefly here.

Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics the Ethics, by Gary Drescher – chapters on Newcomb’s Problem and the Prisoner’s Dilemma test intuitions about rational choice in the context of some mind-bending philo-scientific investigations.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein; related article: A nudge in the right direction – suggests we might be better off accepting some outside help in making good choices. Libertarians raise immediate objections…

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely, reviewed here.


April. 16, 2008

Mystical Experience: A Direct Reflection of Reality?

In some religious traditions, the true nature of existence is thought to be revealed in mystical experience. How might we evaluate this claim? Are some experiences indubitable reflections of the reality outside our heads? If so, how do they grasp the world?  If not, might there still be non-cognitive reasons to seek out mystical experience?


Barry Boyce in Shambala Sun - Mind, Matter or God?:

"Wilber concludes by disputing the bright line that most of the new atheists draw between science and spirituality. 'Science is empirical,' he says, 'but empiricism refers to that which is experiential, which is narrowly defined in science as that which can be proven using the senses and their extensions, such as microscopes. Interior realities cannot be seen with a microscope, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot be confirmed through evidence. They just require a broader form of empiricism. If you follow the injunctions in Zen, if you perform the experiments properly, you will get the illumination. You will find the data, the experience. Contemplative spirituality is a kind of interior science.'"

 Meera Nanda on Trading Faith for Spirituality: The Mystifications of Sam Harris:

"At their peak, meditative experiences invariably bring about a feeling of having touched something far deeper and far more real than what is normally experienced by the five senses in our ordinary lives. And this conviction itself becomes a source of validation of the of the objective reality of what they have seen: what they see in their minds, they assume, must exist outside. Vision gets fixed into metaphysical systems built on super-sensory entities and processes. The experience of losing the boundaries of one's ego, the feeling of having transcended time and space, gives the feeling of becoming one with the universe, of "seeing" the entire macrocosm in one's own mind. It is not a coincidence that the teaching of Vedanta - "Thou art That" - has been interpreted by so many as implying that I (the enlightened one) am Brahman, that I am the universe, that my mind is the mind of the entire cosmos and by controlling my mind, I can control the cosmos. Contrary to Harris's attempt to rationalize it, the mind-matter unity has been the metaphysics underlying the search for paranormal powers and extra-sensory perceptions. It is not a coincidence that rational mystics like Harris who subscribe to the thesis of mind being an element of matter end up making excuses for paranormal phenomena such as ESP, near death experiences (see p. 41)." 

Paul Campos - Evidence can't shake your faith if your faith excludes it as evidence:

"Dawkins is a true believer, and for the true believer literally everything is evidence for the truth of his belief. For example, Fish points to St. Augustine's advice when confronting something that appears to contradict Christian belief: the phenomenon should be subjected 'to diligent scrutiny until an interpretation contributing to the reign of charity is produced.' That is, Augustine's first principle of sound interpretation is that an interpretation is sound if it confirms the truth of the Christian faith."

Stephen Law on Religious Experience and Mystical Experiences:

"What is it like to be a true believer? For many, it’s something like a perceptual experience – like just directly seeing that there’s an orange on the table in front of them, say."

Thomas Metzinger on Can there be a first-person science of consciousness?:

“The actual benefit I had from undergoing this episode [a lucid dream] as a researcher was that it shattered many of my theoretical intuitions about consciousness, for instance that the vividness, the coherence, and the crispness of a conscious experience is any indicator of the fact that you are really in touch with reality. Apparently, what we call “waking up” is something that can happen to you at any point in phenomenological time…”

“Many bad philosophical arguments concerning direct acquaintance, infallible first-person knowledge and direct reference are based on an equivocation between epistemic and phenomenal immediacy: from the fact that the conscious experience, e.g., of the color of an object, carries the characteristics of phenomenal immediacy and direct givenness it does not follow that any kind of non-mediated or direct kind of knowledge is involved.”

Naturalism.Org on the validity of first person data:

"...from a philo-scientific perspective, the claim that some intuitions or experiences wear truth on their sleeve and can’t be second-guessed is to let the tail of data wag the dog of theory."




CFN philosophy cafe in the news:  A Boston Globe article on philosophy cafes in Boston, including the former Davis Square Philosophy Cafe, is here.  


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