samedi 26 septembre 2009
dimanche 20 septembre 2009
Tous les écoliers de ma génération se rappellent avec tendresse du dessinateur Barrigue. C’est qu’on ne saurait sous-estimer l’influence du caricaturiste dans la formation intellectuelle de millions d’élèves romands, bien avant que quiconque n’ait songé à muter quoi que ce soit dans un système qui marchait juste au poil et où les notes s’échelonnaient – en toute logique - de 0 à 10. Plus personne n’aura jamais de 10 désormais, et c’est bien dommage de perdre d’aussi bons élèves. Mais ne nous écartons pas du sujet. Barrigue, donc. Comment oublier ce génial inventeur, à qui l’on doit, certes, le fameux diagramme de Venn, mais surtout qui enchanta nos cours d’allemand grâce à ses touchantes illustrations des aventures de la famille Schaudi? On ignore pourtant que Barrigue à également dessiné les hypnotisantes lignes abstraites qui parsemaient le sol de nos salles de gymnastique, et qu’il fût non seulement l’instigateur du carnet journalier, mais surtout le génial créateur de l’acronyme “TE” pour Travail Ecrit. Cette invention permit de faire gagner 7.43 heures à chaque écolier de la région romande, sans parler des instituteurs qui ont de la sorte pu fournir 13.7% de travail en plus et toucher leur retraite anticipée avec une avance de 78.34 heures.
Mais assez pour la nostalgie. Qui ne s’est demandé ce que pouvait bien devenir notre espiègle pionnier des mathématiques amusantes ? Est-il au chômage, après avoir démontré un manque de gratitude certain en quittant son fidèle employeur Le Matin, soi-disant écœuré qu’il était par les constantes diatribes gauchisantes du quotidien révolutionnaire ? Ou alors en dépression chronique, ruiné par des investissements douteux auprès de ses amis banquiers qu’il pensait naïvement au dessus de tout soupçon ? En prison peut-être, légitimement dénoncé par des centaines de téléspectateurs, témoins consternés des abominables traitements infligés par l’humoriste à des pauvres bêtes sans défense sur une chaine de télévision clandestine ?
Non, rien de cela. Barrigue, tel un Siné bondissant hors de son poumon artificiel, nous revient avec un projet à la mesure de ses irresponsables intrusions libidineuses dans le curriculum de milliers d’écoliers romands (dont beaucoup étaient mineurs au moment des faits). Il s’agit d’un journal satirique romand. Un hebdomadaire, en plus. La chose s’appelle Vigousse, et se propose de ruer dans les brancards politico-économico-médiatiques de notre région d’ordinaire si majestueusement ronronnante.
Ça ne sortira qu’en décembre, mais d’ors et déjà on redoute le pire. De fait, la concurrence sera rude. C’est qu’on ne marche pas impunément sur les plates-bandes des comiques locaux, tel les désopilants Oskar Freysinger et Philippe Nantermod, dont la seule présence suffit à plier en quatre le plus neurasthénique des écologistes anarcho-libertaires. De même, comment rivaliser avec les savoureuses sautes d’humeur des Jeunes UDC Vaud ou les redoutables diatribes des Jeunes PDC ? Plus inquiétant encore, qui prétendrait voler la vedette au perspicace et gondolant Peter Rothenbühler, dont l’acuité des analyses le dispute à la finesse de son ironie ? Et comment oser s’attaquer aux grands de ce monde, alors que dans la seule région lémanique on dispose déjà des fins limiers télévisuels de Mise au Point et des infatigables écumeurs de terrain de L’Hebdo, qui sont passés maîtres, et depuis bien longtemps, dans l’art de la destruction méthodique de tout ce qui pourrait ressembler à de la pensée unique ou à du léchage de bottes ? Oui, une sacrée concurrence: tous autant de pourfendeurs de l’ordre établi qui occupent savamment le terrain de la grosse déconnade et du déboulonnage d’huiles prétentieuses, tout en bénéficiant d’une solide expérience dans l’éclatage en pleine gueule de la vérité qui dérange.
Et un seul petit Barrigue, certes armé de sa légendaire moustache frétillante et de son inséparable pipe fulminante, de s’improviser shooteur dans la fourmilière, dézingueur de tourneurs-autour-du-pot, et atomiseur d’empocheurs-de-bonus-en-rond ?
Et comment ! On s’emmerde tellement dans ce coin de coffre-fort verdoyant que n’importe qui serait prêt à soutenir, tel un Jean Sarkozy, à mort la première initiative venue visant à emmerder, ne serait-ce qu’à grands coups de mauvaise foi éhontée et de rumeurs invérifiées, cette petite coterie de potes réseautés jusqu’à l’os qui s’engonce de plus en plus confortablement dans sa comédie perpétuelle de fausses polémiques et de débats insipides.
Dès lors, il n’y a absolument aucune excuse : ABONNEZ-VOUS dès maintenant à Vigousse!
Oh, j'oubliais: il y a des chances que j'en sois. Mais je vais quand même m'abonner, et vous devriez en faire autant. Sinon, vous êtes condamnés à vous faire tutoyer par les stagiaires du 20 Minutes, expulser par les internautes du site du Matin, fringuer par les copines d'Edelweiss, dépouiller par l'abruti à crête qui s'occupe de votre compte et crétiniser par les reportages régionaux de l'Illustré. Et vous ne pourrez pas vous foutre de leur gueule en retour, ni même vous en plaindre. Choisi ton camp camarade.
dimanche 6 septembre 2009
This I think will be the last installment of my “debate” with the owner of the blog called “Subversive Thinking” (ST). Quick summary: ST believes in the paranormal, I don’t. He was first outraged that I had the nerve to write a negative review of a book called Irreducible Mind, which argues that current neuroscience is entirely misguided because it cannot account for supernormal powers of the human mind, so he wrote some comments (later here) trying to explain why I am entirely misguided because I cannot account for supernormal powers of the human mind. Also, he doesn’t like my attitude at all, he thinks that irony, sarcasm and mockery should not be part of the discourse of a PhD student (and it got worse here). I responded basically saying that I think he is sanctimonious, self-righteous and altogether boring. Oh, and I also reduced to ashes each one of his “arguments”. But now, in his latest reply, he simply decided that I must be too stupid to understand his brilliance, so he gave up addressing any point of substantial interest. Briefly (or maybe not so briefly), here’s a list of the points I've made that ST doesn’t want to discuss:
- The “transmission” hypothesis is unwarranted because what some of the phenomena it claims to explain better than materialism have not been established as scientific facts at all, and all the rest fits just nice within the materialist “paradigm” (I use scare quotes because that word now belongs to the crackpot arsenal).
- Consciousness, spontaneous remission of cancer and the placebo effect are very bad examples of things that have been established as facts but have no scientific explanation yet. The comparison with some of the wildest contents of Irreducible Mind doesn’t hold.
- The “transmission” hypothesis doesn’t help understand what is actually known from neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (In fact, it’s probably the worst explanation to “explain” this huge set of data).
- Dualism per se is not an “explanation” at all for psychological modulations of bodily functions. Materialism, on the other hand, has no problem with that.
- Science works just fine, in fact incredibly fine, without alluding to anything paranormal.
- The “bundle of sticks” approach to build up the case for the paranormal is a misguided analogy. Tons of anecdotes and half-baked “research” cannot provide “cumulative evidence” of any kind. A better analogy is that of a pile of cards scattered around the floor and posing as a beautiful and coherent house of cards.
- The point I made by using the term GHOST STORIES was made exactly in the same way by Trevor Hamilton, in his rather sympathetic biography of Fred Myers, when he explained that some readers of Human Personality might be surprised to find in that book not only “evidence” for survival of the paranormal kind, but mostly rather mundane observations of psychological diversity.
- Irreducible Mind, by its very nature, claims that a few researchers knowledgeable of 19th century psychical research have it all right, while thousands of scientists around the world working from a materialist standpoint have it all wrong. ST “challenged” me to find evidence for this claim, and I provided a quote that said just that.
- ST claimed that I misunderstood the “transmission” hypothesis and went on to provide a summary as vague as what one finds in Irreducible Mind (or in James, for that matter). I then simply said that I have the same understanding of the idea that he has, only that I find the hypothesis useless and laughable.
- The “transmission” hypothesis, and Irreducible Mind, can only start to make some sense if one takes at face value the existence of the paranormal (or “psi”). But Irreducible Mind seems to pretend that the paranormal is not central to its argument, but merely adds value to, or reinforces the legitimacy of, the whole enterprise. I say that the paranormal, not medical wonders and quantum physics, is absolutely necessary for the “transmission” hypothesis. If there is no paranormal, then the “transmission” hypothesis becomes entirely useless. Now, the existence of the paranormal has not been established at all, whereas materialistic science has been making progress non stop in a much shorter amount of time. Therefore the “transmission” hypothesis is empty, and the appendix on evidence from parapsychology serves a rhetorical function to remind the reader that even if everything in Irreducible Mind can be explained in materialistic ways, there still exist other stuff that cannot be explained in these ways but that one has to take at face value. (I should add here that even if anything paranormal could be scientifically demonstrated, this would still not warrant the adoption of the “transmission” theory among scientists, but this is yet another story).
- Blaming academia’s “fear of psi” and dogmatic materialism for the widespread neglect of psychical research and parapsychology in modern science is akin to a conspiracy theory.
- Remote Viewing and Vedic astrology are off-topic, because they are not addressed, or even mentioned, in Irreducible Mind.
- The argument that NDEs cannot be exclusively brain-based because they are too complex mental functions to be sustained by a dysfunctional brain begs the question. We do not know the minimal brain correlates necessary to uphold NDEs or consciousness, we do not know when NDEs happen exactly, and we do not know how really complex these mental states actually are. What is more, a dysfunctional brain still seems better than a nonfunctional brain, or at least there is no valid reason to imply that no brain activity is a better explanation for NDEs than bad brain activity.
- We still don’t know what scientists should do if there was a sudden requirement in mainstream science to accept the “transmission” hypothesis as true.
Ok, let’s turn now to what ST has decided to address in his latest (and last?) reply. Remember, ST is now mostly saying that I’m simply too stupid to understand his arguments. Let’s see what he says:
I challenge Dieguez to provide evidence of me claiming that "this particular theory is a logical conclusion of the available data". This is pure fiction.
I like challenges, but this is not one. I only have to quote him: “My argument is that the authors are not simply "assuming" their position, but (correctly or incorrectly) concluding (after the examination of the evidence for some anomalous phenomena) that the current neuroscientific paradigm is wrong”
It is true that he didn’t use the word “logical”, which allows him to obfuscate the issue by pretending that each and every use of this word has to derive from an extremely careful application of its philosophical or mathematical use. The problem is that I was merely talking here about the fact that any indeterminate and maximalist theory trying to account for “all the facts” is unwarranted as long as some of the “facts” are not really “facts” and that more parsimonious approaches are good enough to account for the facts that are facts. If one remains focused on the discussion at hand, no confusion is possible.
But because ST is so used to interact with promoters of woo-woo, it is inevitable that confusions will abound in a discussion with someone who simply uses plain language to explain why he disagrees with his delusions. The only explanation for that, of course, would be that such individual is ignorant, stupid or fearful. For example:
Dieguez's supreme ignorance of contemporary epistemology commits him to misread and misunderstand other people arguments, and reply to them with crude straw man.
As a clinician, I’ve had some experience of really unstable people entertaining the delusion that they are experts in philosophy, logic, politics and quantum physics. So I’m not really surprised that ST will resort to such fantastic displays of self-aggrandizement. The only thing I can say, for his own good, is that he’s not impressing anyone. Talking a lot about epistemology, logic, fallacies and so forth is clearly not his territory. Rather, his territory is a place where he can interview crackpots and maintain his grandiose delusion that somehow his superior mind will live forever in some kind of heaven. Patronizing snippets about “epistemology” or whatever are very often, in any conversation, off-target. Some persons should certainly not go there, unless they really want to look crazy.
Moreover, if I had a blog where I posted a sympathetic interview of Denyse O’Leary, I would also refrain from acting surprised when other people allude to the similarity of my arguments to arguments from the creationist gang. Now, if ST wants to distance himself from this political movement of dangerous crackpots, he should clearly say so. If not, then he’s a dangerous crackpot too.
After that, ST accepts that not everything discussed in Irreducible Mind are facts:
I'm not saying so silly thing as "everything that is described in IM are facts"
I fully agree. But then, what are facts, and what are not facts in Irreducible Mind? Seriously, what kind of over-encompassing theory should we expect from a book that purports to make a cumulative case with a wide assortment of facts, some of which turn out not to be “facts” after all? That was my point exactly, but ST apparently doesn’t mind walking in circles for a bit.
Then ST takes issue with a rather uncontroversial claim. I said that nothing in the universe is completely explained. His response is that his cell-phone and his pen are indeed completely explained. Let’s say this is correct, for the sake of ridicule I just love to grant some of ST’s points, and see what happens. So, in fact, pens have been completely explained in terms of physical laws. Science knows everything about pens. Everything. There once was an Institute of Pen Mechanics, but as soon as the scientists working there figured out the very last mysteries of this noble object, they decided to close down and have a beer. Note that ST seems to think that some objects of daily life are completely understood “in terms of known physical laws”. The ironic thing is that he is the one who needs non-physical laws to sustain his belief in the paranormal and his delusion of immortality. I don’t, and yet I don’t even claim that we know all physical laws in the first place. Go figure.
Then I asked a simple question: have ESP and survival been established in the same way that most findings from neuroscience have been established? Here is his response:
I'll reply to that with the words of skeptic Richard Wiseman: "I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven"
Ok, now I’m cornered. Richard Wiseman was quoted as saying that in an interview? The Richard Wiseman? But...but... what should I do now? With Michael Shermer accepting Vedic astrology, and now Wiseman remote viewing, I feel completely disoriented. Nevertheless, this does not, again, answer my question of why there is no mention at all of remote viewing in Irreducible Mind.
In any case, useless arguments from authority and name-dropping apart, my problem here seems to be that I don’t understand how science work:
Dieguez conflates interpreting the data in terms of non-materialistic hypothesis with "jumping to the conclusion of the soul of gaps". He doesn't understand that, for logical reasons, theories cannot follow logically from the data. Theories have to be constructed to account for the data and different theories could be compatible with the same data (and this is why, heuristical and methodological rules, like Occam Razor, simplicity, etc. have to be used to choose between competing theories that explain the same facts).
Dieguez needs to study a little bit more the logic of the scientific method. Maybe he'll learn something of this in his Ph.D studies.
It is true that the authors of Irreducible Mind don’t actually say that their approach is based on the “soul-of-the-gaps” argument. I’m the one saying this. I know that they would disagree with that assessment, just as thousands of lightweights like ST also would. But I’ve read the book, and it’s plain to me that resorting to (i) the “explanatory gap”, (ii) the incompleteness of current neuroscience and consciousness research (or more simply the fact that neuroscience is an ongoing science, not a finished set of principles and data), and (iii) GHOST STORIES, in order to vindicate the “transmission” hypothesis as set forth by an obscure poet of the 19th century, merely amounts to a “soul-of-the-gaps” argument. Occam’s razor is indeed welcome in this discussion, and once all this nonsense is carefully shaven, you get materialism. Can I haz my PhD now?
In the following, instead of addressing the many points that I have listed above, ST thinks that he can assert his superiority merely by finding “contradictions” in what I wrote. To do so, he quotes me as saying that one problem might be that we call parapsychology “controversial”, when this word should better be restricted to stuff that actually are controversial in scientific discussions (as opposed to stuff that are not “controversial”, but simply wrong, stupid, etc.). But, lo and behold! before I said that, I actually used the word “controversial” to refer to parapsychology! And even so, I was merely quoting from the authors of Irreducible Mind themselves! So yeah, ST totally pwned me. Except that I explicitly said that perhaps it is a mistake to call parapsychology also controversial. You see, correcting yourself becomes contradicting yourself when you’re read by experts in philosophy of science and epistemology, such as ST. And later, he will again triumphantly make the same point, because I actually re-used the word “controversy” in an analogy to creationism. Never mind that I used scare quotes precisely to make the point.
You see, scare quotes are a nice typographic device that allow one to say something while still... oh forget it. It’s actually my fault, really. I keep neglecting the fact that ST is totally impervious to the slightest use of irony. He’s a very rigid person, focuses a lot on irrelevant details and entertains delusions of being “subversive” and extremely smart. I thing there should be a diagnosis for that, before we can even dream of finding a cure.
So the last thing that ST cares to address in his tepid “reply” is my claim that he misunderstands what an argument from ignorance is. Yes ST, this one is tricky. I confess that my lack of intellectual powers prevent me from distinguishing an appeal to ignorance from an argument from ignorance. Or an argument from personal incredulity, from an argument from personal conviction. These are all subtleties that a philosopher with a PhD could surely disentangle with ease, even after a dozen beers. But not me. Surely ST’s supreme smart-assness could help here. But what was my point again? Oh yeah: “I can’t understand how a brain can produce a superb thing like the human mind, therefore the soul”. Call that what you want, I’ll go with argument from ignorance.
Let’s turn now to ST’s “conclusion” (quick summary: Dieguez is dumb):
After reading all of these fallacies, contraditions, abuses of logic, conceptual confusions, misrepresentations and atheistic obsessions with "creationists", I feel it's a waste of time to keep arguing this kind of things with Dieguez ... [he’s] simply intellectually unable and unprepared to discuss, on rational, honest, objective and factual terms, these questions. As shown above, he even can't understand the most simple and basic arguments, nor can draw fine conceptual distinctions, nor can think consistently. I have better things to do.
True, ST has much better things to do. Why should he waste his time with me, instead of, for instance, hanging around James Webster? This way, he could benefit from his expertise on the Scole “experiments”, which he thinks are genuine. It would be cool if he could share with a wider audience his experience of dancing lights and disembodied voices. Or why not interview Denyse O’Leary again, and ask her why god created the corpus callosum? That would be interesting.
Right, I’m done with this guy now. It was a little bit of an overkill, I know, but I had great fun. Now, I hope ST will excuse me, but I have experiments to run.
samedi 5 septembre 2009
- Critics have granted the transmission hypothesis, but said that what is being transmitted (a “pre-existing larger consciousness” or the “mother sea”) is too vague to even resemble our earthly “mundane consciousness”.
- The “mother sea” is thus not different from pantheism.
- James agrees that he has not been clear enough about this. He argues that it doesn’t matter, because anything goes anyway (“The plain truth is that one may conceive the mental world behind the veil [i.e. whatever it is that is being “transmitted” before it is actually “transmitted”] in as individualistic a form as one pleases, without any detriment to the general scheme by which the brain is represented as a transmissive organ” (his emphasis)
- In other words: sure, you can say that human personality does not survive as such, but as a vague, impersonal and indefinite cosmic soul that bears no resemblance to what our earthly passage was like. But I can say that it does.
- And there is something new now: not only the brain filters and transmits with its own constraints and limits the larger consciousness, but this very process is able to change the larger consciousness itself. It works both ways. An interesting point that is sadly not elaborated.
- This is confessedly based on nothing but thin air: “[I]n transmitting it [the larger consciousness operating in the “reality behind the scenes”]- to keep to our extremely mechanical metaphor, which confessedly throws no light on the actual modus operandi- one’s brain would also leave effects upon the past remaining behind the veil; for when a thing is torn, both fragments feel the operation”.
- In any case, this would allow, in the present scheme, for human personality, personal memories etc. to survive on the other side.
- Sure, says James, that’s more like pre-existence or reincarnation than the Christian notion of immortality. (a notion that returns at the end of the essay when he writes that, after death, one "resumes" his "unrestricted condition")
- Everything is therefore compatible with “brain-function theory”, and we shall survive forever with our own personality and memories. Well, we shouldn't be surprised if James is merely making stuff up here. This is the spirit of the entire essay that follows.
- Here is how James starts: basically, organizations, institutions and academia inevitably distance themselves from their initial goals and the needs of the public which they were supposed to represent: human immortality is one such need, but it has been hijacked by the institution of the Church.
- After mistaking the gender of the very person who invited him for the talk, James proceeds to say that a “University official” like him might not be the best person to provide what the listeners of a lecture on immortality might want to hear. He says he’s still unsure about the issue.
- "Prophets" might be more appropriate for a talk like that.
- James mentions an interesting-looking book: Alger’s “Critical history of the doctrine of a future life” (1864, 914 pages, 75$ on Amazon, contains a list of 5000 references to writings on the afterlife)
- The topic of immortality must be an interdisciplinary enterprise. James thus accepts to be part of it, as “a mere professional psychologist”. The speech can start.
- He wants to address two points: his replies to two modern objections to the doctrine of immortality. The first one is “the absolute dependence of our spiritual life, as we know it here, upon the brain”. Right away, by saying “as we know it here” James unashamedly begs the question. We don't "know it" anywhere else than here.
- (the second point, to be addressed near the end of the essay in a much shorter way, pertains to the alleged overpopulation of the afterworld, were immortality true).
- James obviously grants the success of “physiological psychology”. Disorders and intoxication of the brain lead to changes in “the quality of our ideas”. There is even strong evidence for localizationism (or in modern terms, modularity).
- There are primary sensory areas, but also higher integrative (or secondary, or intellectual) areas. Flechsig, of course, is mentioned, although his work is primarily anatomical (based on painstaking brain dissections of foetuses, newborns, babies, infants and adults), and his application to “paralytics” and “criminals” was a bit stretched, (yet still incredibly prescient). Wernicke’s work is also mentioned, but not elaborated. This is unfortunate, Wernicke's ideas on the "somatopsyche" and "transitivism" were also astonishingly prescient of current work on the body schema and mirror neurons.
- James says that much of these speculations about brain functions are dogmatically held in academia, as a misplaced enthusiasm that Eccles and Popper will later call "promissory materialism”. But he grants the most extreme kind of phrenological thinking for the sake of his upcoming argument. He even underlines it: “Thought is a function of the brain”. Here James is basically saying that whatever is theory will be, it would be unassailable by any data from brain science. It’s basically saying that there is no way to refute it.
- James then asks if, considering this dependence of consciousness and thought on brain function, one should give up any hope of survival after death (or even of “heaven”): answering in the positive is displaying “the puritanism of science”. Rhetorically, he asks if it would be incoherent to answer in the negative.
- What follows is interesting. He confesses in a footnote that, much to his surprise, he was unable to find a clear example or quote of a scientist explicitly denying immortality purely on physiological grounds (although he would have sworn he had read many such passages). The accusation of the strawman fallacy looms around. But there's nothing to be worried about, James continues anyway (the second point of his lecture is also an obvious strawman: he doesn't quote anyone who ever explicitly claimed that heaven would be overcrowded if immortality were true).
- Nevertheless, James proceeds to say that there is one kind of functional dependence [of consciousness upon brain function] that does not preclude the possibility of survival. The materialist (or “physiologist”) simply has been unable to imagine or consider this special form of dependence (although he just said that he was unable to find a single quote of a “physiologist” holding the conclusion he denounces. Ironically, James later quotes from someone, WK Clifford, who denies immortality not based on “physiological grounds”, but on a subtype of the transmission hypothesis, the so-called “mind-stuff” hypothesis - the topic and title of the aforementioned chapter VI of Principles).
- There follows a long footnote were the alternative to the “production” theory is set forth (one wonders why the most important point of the lecture should be buried in a footnote): “…one cannot see more than two really different sorts of dependence of our mind on our brain: Either (1) the brain brings into being the very stuff of consciousness of which our minds consists; or else (2) consciousness pre-exists as an entity, and the various brains give to it its various special forms.” Now if (2) is true, “there are, again, only two ways of conceiving that our brain confers upon it the specifically human form. It may exist (a) in disseminated particles; and then our brains are organs of concentration, organs for combining and massing these into resultant minds of personal form. Or it may exist (b) in vaster unities (absolute “world-soul”, or something less); and then our brains are organs for separating it into parts and giving them finite form.”
- So he summarizes: “There are thus three possible theories of the brain’s function, and no more… (1) the theory of production; (2a) the theory of combination [“the mind-dust or mind-stuff theory”]; (2b) the theory of separation [“specified more particularly as the transmission theory”].
- Next he laments that the “production theory” is actually seldom formulated “very distinctly”. But he goes on to quote Cabanis at some length, and also a bit of Spencer, Büchner, Luys and Percival Lowell. Well, it seems to me that the "production theory" was addressed distinctively enough by Lange, La Mettrie, d’Holbach, Vogt, or Soury along the years. Or even Lucretius, for god's sake. Probably James wasted too much time reading the GHOST STORIES of his friends at the SPR.
- He gives several examples of “production” in nature (steam, light, power), but says that there are also instances of “releasing or permissive function”, as well as “transmissive function”, in nature. Examples of "releasing function" are the trigger of a crossbow, and the hammer falling upon a detonating compound. A prism and the keys of an organ have a "transmissive function".
- So, at last, here is the thesis: “when we think of the law that thought is a function of the brain, we are not required to think of productive function only; we are entitled also to consider permissive or transmissive function. And this the ordinary psychophysiologist leaves out of his account”. (his emphasis). Of course, one wonders immediately how James is so sure, then, that “steam”, “light” and “power” are good example of “production”. Why can’t there be a larger, pre-existing, cosmic "light" operating behind the veil of boring, mundane, earthly light? I guess that's because that would be a ludicrous and useless hypothesis based on zero evidence, not even worth considering. But that would be a too obvious cue.
- So his first argument to defend the “transmission” theory, unsurprisingly, is that "common sense" and "philosophy" are already used to the idea that “the whole universe of material thing (…) [could] turn out to be a mere surface-veil of phenomena, hiding and keeping back the world of genuine realities”. Indeed, no idea is more widespread than the delusion positing that for everything in the real world, there is a spiritual and truer double somewhere in a second world. For French readers, I recommend the entire works of philosopher Clément Rosset, who has spent his career basically trying to examine this craziest of all notions (starting with Le reel et son double, 1976; see also this interview in English that I just found)
- Once you accept this idea, of course, you’re bound to detest the banality of the real world. But James is an awesome writer, and he can wax more lyrical than that (quoting this well-known verse from Percy Bysshe Shelley):
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity
- Ok, so the world as we know it, and the human brain, is a “dome”, and normally this "dome" is opaque to the “full super-solar blaze” (whatever that is). But this opacity can vary under certain circumstances, thus letting “certain beams pierce through into this sublunary world”. The beams, of course, are consciousness. How does that work? Well, “the veil of nature can grow thin and rupturable enough for such effects to occur”. Examples of such “gleams (…) of the absolute life of the universe” are: “glows of feeling, glimpses of insight, and streams of knowledge and perception” that “float into our finite world”. Brilliant, I’m almost convinced. What else he’s got? Evidence, perhaps?
- No, an analogy! These always work well in psychical research. James had no radio or TV set, so he must go with a low-tech analogy: “…as the air now comes through my glottis determined and limited in its force and quality of its vibrations by the peculiarities of those vocal chords which form its gate of egress and shape it into my personal voice, even so the genuine matter of reality, the life of souls as it is in its fullness, will break through our several brains into this world in all sorts of restricted forms, and with all the imperfections and queernesses that characterize our finite individualisties here below”. We’re getting closer now, all we need is some evidence.
- Let’s turn back to the brain. This organ can find itself in all kinds of states, accordingly “the barrier of its obstrusiveness may also be supposed to rise and fall” (just like the entire universe of James’ glottis). James will later discuss how sensory thresholds, the big thing in the newly born science of experimental psychology (or psychophysics), is somehow relevant to the point he’s trying to make.
- In the meanwhile, he explains what happens when we die: “when finally a brain stops acting altogether, or decays, that special stream of consciousness which it subserved will vanish entirely from the natural world. But the sphere of being that supplied the consciousness would still be intact; and in that more real world with which, even whilst here, it was continuous, the consciousness might, in ways unknown to us, will continue”.
- All this of course is quite hypothetical (to use a euphemism). James is merely saying that immortality, even when we accept that the brain is the organ responsible for our current earthly personality, is not impossible. That’s thanks to the “transmission” hypothesis. But in any case, it’s not really clear why survival should be synonymous to immortality (meaning eternity) in the first place. But that’s probably the least of the problems with such reasoning.
- You see, the materialist is just neglecting this brilliant alternative. As such, James must "insist on the illogicality of a denial based on the flat ignoring of a palpable alternative". One unfortunate consequence of this attitude, is that it makes people sad: “How much more ought we to insist, as lovers of truth, when the denial is that of such a vital hope of mankind!” Indeed. These are the very scientists who deny many other “vital hope[s] of mankind”: humans cannot flap their arms and fly around, they cannot control the weather at will and they cannot travel through time. Damned scientists!
- Thankfully, people like James are not so narrow-minded: “My words ought consequently already to exert a releasing function on your hopes”. And that’s all that matters, really. Even more than, say, evidence.
- Oh, but that’s coming, too. Indeed, evidence would be good at this point. As James aptly put it, everything he has claimed until now (“the abstract notion that our brains are colored lenses in the wall of nature, admitting light from the super-solar source, but at the same time tingeing and restricting it”) has “a thoroughly fantastic sound”. Yes, that’s a nice understatement. Moreover, “isn’t the common materialistic notion vastly simpler”? Then he shoots himself in the foot by asking: “Is not consciousness really more comparable to a sort of steam, or perfume, or electricity, or nerve-glow, generated on the spot in its own peculiar vessel?” But why shouldn’t these examples turn out to be the result of some “transmissive function”, too? He doesn’t care, only human consciousness and the hope of immortality are relevant here.
- His defense is that materialism is merely based on “mere concomitant variation”. This is the usual gambit of the over-educated crackpot: correlation is not causation. (Except that sometimes it is, but never mind that.) You might find all the evidence you want of brain-mind correlations, still “all talk about either production or transmission, as the mode of taking place, is pure super-added hypothesis, and metaphysical hypothesis at that”. And we don’t want to go all metaphysical, don’t we?
- What follows is the unsurprising argument that, watch out, we don’t know yet how on earth brains can produce consciousness! Making the claim that they do, is akin to saying that “thought is “spontaneously generated” or “created out of nothing”. Therefore, well, pretty much anything goes.
- Although it might sound a little bit childish, James does not hesitate to provide the following advice to his adult audience: “All that one needs to do (…), if the ordinary materialist should challenge one to explain how the brain can be an organ for limiting and determining to a certain form a consciousness elsewhere produced, is to retort with a tu quoque, asking him in turn to explain how it can be the organ for producing consciousness out of whole cloth. For polemic purposes, the two theories are thus exactly on a par.” Exactly on the same par. Et toc! As we say in French, from the kindergarten onwards, but usually not for too long. Well, that was easy. But still not evidence.
- We're getting there. But there is still more creative writing before. Not only the transmission and the productive hypotheses are exactly on the same par, but the transmission one turns out to be superior. That’s a contradiction, yes, but it doesn’t really matter because the stakes are so high. Hope! How could anyone argue against the hopes of one's fellow human beings?
- So why is the transmission hypothesis superior to plain materialism, then? Well, not because we know how it works: “Just how the process of transmission may be carried on, is indeed unimaginable”. Fine, that's honest enough. But that doesn’t prevent James from making formidable claims about the “mother sea” and the “universe”, because, you see, there exist some evidence that can “encourage [his] belief”. Evidence! Finally! So, what evidence exactly?
- Oups sorry, nope, still no evidence here. James prefers - ever trading his hat of psychologist for his haut-de forme of philosopher when convenient -, to mischievously revert the accusation of violating Occam’s principle: “Consciousness in this process does not have to be generated de novo in a vast number of places. It exists already, behind the scenes, coeval with the world. The transmission theory not only avoids in this way multiplying miracles, but it puts itself in touch with general idealistic philosophy better than the production theory does”. And he adds this wonderful gem: “It should always be reckoned a good thing when science and philosophy thus meet”. I’m not quite sure, but this might well be the stupidest argument ever made by an otherwise smart person. In any case, it certainly is a good theory that needs only one miracle, as opposed to those that need several ones. And I ask you: how could materialism ever be reconciled with idealistic philosophy? That’s not going to happen, therefore materialism is not idealism. QED.
- Finally, James decides to turn to some evidence. Recall that for the moment, the transmission theory according to James is merely a logical possibility that stands in accordance with some metaphors, with common sense and with idealistic philosophy. This seems utterly hopeless, but fortunately there is more: “It [the "transmission" theory] puts itself also in touch with the conception of a “threshold””. For this he quotes at some length in an interminable footnote Fechner (pioneer of psychophysics, or modern experimental psychology, or psychophysiology, together with Weber and Wundt, who are not mentioned). These scientists tried to formalize the fact that some sensations do not make their way to consciousness, while others do, depending on a host of circumstances. This was just, and continues to be, great science. But James takes it all for himself, to defend the petty idea that humans never die: “This rising and lowering of a psychophysical threshold exactly conform to our notion of a permanent obstruction to the transmission of consciousness, which obstruction may, in our brains, grow alternately greater or less”. Why yes, that’s so obvious! It’s unfortunate that James does not mind to spell out the details of how exactly this works. So I will try. Let’s take the tactile modality and the classic two-point discrimination task. Depending on the spatial interval between the two pinpricks and the part of the body that is being stimulated, subjects might report one or two sensations. According to James, then, this is the case because the tactile stimulation somehow lowers or raises the “opacity” of the brain/dome separating the mother sea of cosmic consciousness from our earthly experiences. Or maybe it’s the other way round. We’re lucky that no more than one miracle is needed for this to happen. In any case, if any believer in "transmission" reading this has a better way to explain this, he's welcome to make his case right here. I'll be curious.
- More evidence please! Ah, at least here is something more serious here: “The transmission theory also puts itself in touch with a whole class of experiences that are with difficulty explained by the production theory”. Like what? “I refer to those obscure and exceptional phenomena reported at all times throughout human history (…) namely (…) religious conversions, providential leadings in answer to prayer, instantaneous healings, premonitions, apparitions at time of death, clairvoyant visions or impressions, and the whole range of mediumistic capacities, to say nothing of still more exceptional and incomprehensible things”. Who’s quoted here? “The “psychical researchers”, with Mr. Frederic Myers at their head”. Indeed, it is now easy to see how the transmission theory is superior: “All such experiences, quite paradoxical and meaningless on the production theory, fall very naturally into place on the other theory”. So there we are all over again. Unfortunately, just like the authors of Irreducible Mind, Myers doesn’t spell out the details, and doesn’t make any predictions that could be tested scientifically. I have some questions though. For instance, under what kind of circumstances does the “lowering of the brain-threshold” let through the cosmic consciousness to produce “instantaneous healings” rather than “premonitions”? How does that work? Are such breakthroughs obligatory, or does it happen sometimes that the “brain-threshold” is lowered and nothing mysterious happens? Why are the claims of mediums so boring, when they could have access to the entire "reservoir" of universal consciousness? Oh, and why is the evidence so disappointing and ambiguous for all these phenomena anyway, when they should be entirely obvious and all over the place if the "transmission" theory were right? Also, is it a coincidence that brain disorders and fraudulent behaviour tend to produce very similar phenomena than those listed by James? Why should that be the case, if the theory were true? Finally, what if the evidence for these phenomena turns out to be entirely, or even mostly, negative, one after the other? At which point does the “transmission” theory become, from being superior, inferior to the “production” theory? Someone please answer these questions, instead of simply saying that I'm narrow-minded, ignorant, fearful or that I'm going to hell. Someone do the job already.
- Ok, so we’re basically done here. James admits that his last point (about paranormal phenomena), far from being the coup de grace that some contemporary writers (well, bloggers mostly) take it to be, is likely to be rated not very high by his audience. But hey, the “transmission” theory still has “the advantage of not conflicting with a life hereafter”. And really, that’s all one needs.
- James then devotes some lines to acknowledge a few predecessors, or what he takes to be predecessors, on the “transmission” theory. These are the “great orthodox philosophic tradition”, Kant, and FCS Schiller (that’s Ferdinand, not Friedrich Schiller). Schiller was sort of a James’ copycat, author of Riddles of the Sphinx. The quote selected by James and reproduced in another lengthy footnote is interesting in that it summarizes exquisitely the whole of the “transmission” idea. It’s all in one page, and it even ends with NDEs: “[the transmission theory] will also serve to explain (…) the extraordinary memories of the drowning and the dying generally”. James assures us that Schiller’s account of the theory is “much more complex” than the one presented in his lecture, so maybe I should go read that book instead. In any case, I find it interesting that the very same argument of the “life review” in the drowning was made by Henri Bergson in his presidential address to the SPR in 1913. Bergson’s version of the “transmission” theory is actually much smarter than James’ or Myers’. His approach doesn’t deal so much with GHOST STORIES and behavioural wonders, but is actually based on neuropsychological data. (The problem is that he misuses this data: he over-generalizes, selectively picks up what he finds convenient, makes stuff up at times and generally stretches the significance of some case reports way too far). But still, his ideas were very smart, and he foresaw many future crucial developments in modern theories of memory, embodiment and language. I shall write about Bergson one of these days.
- Back to James. He concludes his “objections” to materialism by saying that he doesn’t want to discuss exactly what it is that survives when we die. Will we be just the same on the other side, with the same memories, personality and so forth? Of will we be meshed into our “original source”, the “great reservoir” where our “unrestricted condition” resumes and become altogether unrecognizable? He says that that wouldn’t be so bad (but obviously he realizes that this is not really what people hope for), but anyway he doesn’t want to enter these “higher and more transcendental matters” “upon this occasion”. Yeah right Bill, like on other occasions you would have more to say on the topic. Well, after all why should he stop making stuff up just now? He could go on forever.
- If you made it this far, you might remember that James wanted to address two arguments. Well, the second one is so stupid that I will only summarize it as follows: if everybody that ever lived had a soul, then heaven must be heavily crowded by now, and even more so if we grant immortality to those “repulsive” “Chinamen” (here James disturbingly calls his audience a bunch of racists and self-righteous bigots, which they presumably were as they allowed him to finish his talk), but that is not the case because heaven actually expands with each new soul that enters it. QED.