“Celestial Dream”

Eyes laid on the stars above, a cosmic web, celestial dream
Chalice of life and death I see, chaos and form, dualities be
I see the One, self-aware, consciousness within a stream
Entropy, masquerading there, to blackness from the beam
Fabric of space, broadening sea, declaring to all it’s feeling free

Imagination manifest, with cooling down, primordial stew
Was, is, the yet to be, amalgamate the temporal me
Transformation, condensation, forces know just what to do
Clouds of gas, the stars are born, matter’s bound with much ado
Animate Being, an intricate tree, diverse au naturel decree

Psyches springing up anew, it simulates, the thoughts of “I”
The sense of self, but how could it be? Because of the power, because of the qi
Magical ocean, twinkling tide, reflecting from below the sky
Creatures abound, predator prey, appreciate before we die
Limited life, though infinite being, an optimistic view is key

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The Experientiality of Matter

If there’s one thing that Nietzsche advocated for, it was to eliminate dogmatism and absolutism from one’s thinking.  And although I generally agree with him here, I do think that there is one exception to this rule.  One thing that we can be absolutely certain of is our own conscious experience.  Nietzsche actually had something to say about this (in Beyond Good and Evil, which I explored in a previous post), where he responds to Descartes’ famous adage “cogito ergo sum” (the very adage associated with my blog!), and he basically says that Descartes’ conclusion (“I think therefore I am”) shows a lack of reflection concerning the meaning of “I think”.  He wonders how he (and by extension, Descartes) could possibly know for sure that he was doing the thinking rather than the thought doing the thinking, and he even considers the possibility that what is generally described as thinking may actually be something more like willing or feeling or something else entirely.

Despite Nietzsche’s criticism against Descartes in terms of what thought is exactly or who or what actually does the thinking, we still can’t deny that there is thought.  Perhaps if we replace “I think therefore I am” with something more like “I am conscious, therefore (my) conscious experience exists”, then we can retain some core of Descartes’ insight while throwing out the ambiguities or uncertainties associated with how exactly one interprets that conscious experience.

So I’m in agreement with Nietzsche in the sense that we can’t be certain of any particular interpretation of our conscious experience, including whether or not there is an ego or a self (which Nietzsche actually describes as a childish superstition similar to the idea of a soul), nor can we make any certain inferences about the world’s causal relations stemming from that conscious experience.  Regardless of these limitations, we can still be sure that conscious experience exists, even if it can’t be ascribed to an “I” or a “self” or any particular identity (let alone a persistent identity).

Once we’re cognizant of this certainty, and if we’re able to crawl out of the well of solipsism and eventually build up a theory about reality (for pragmatic reasons at the very least), then we must remain aware of the priority of consciousness in any resultant theory we construct about reality, with regard to its structure or any of its other properties.  Personally, I believe that some form of naturalistic physicalism (a realistic physicalism) is the best candidate for an ontological theory that is the most parsimonious and explanatory for all that we experience in our reality.  However, most people that make the move to adopt some brand of physicalism seem to throw the baby out with the bathwater (so to speak), whereby consciousness gets eliminated by assuming it’s an illusion or that it’s not physical (therefore having no room for it in a physicalist theory, aside from its neurophysiological attributes).

Although I used to feel differently about consciousness (and it’s relationship to physicalism), where I thought it was plausible for it to be some kind of an illusion, upon further reflection I’ve come to realize that this was a rather ridiculous position to hold.  Consciousness can’t be an illusion in the proper sense of the word, because the experience of consciousness is real.  Even if I’m hallucinating where my perceptions don’t directly correspond with the actual incoming sensory information transduced through my body’s sensory receptors, then we can only say that the perceptions are illusory insofar as they don’t directly map onto that incoming sensory information.  But I still can’t say that having these experiences is itself an illusion.  And this is because consciousness is self-evident and experiential in that it constitutes whatever is experienced no matter what that experience consists of.

As for my thoughts on physicalism, I came to realize that positing consciousness as an intrinsic property of at least some kinds of physical material (analogous to a property like mass) allows us to avoid having to call consciousness non-physical.  If it is simply an experiential property of matter, that doesn’t negate its being a physical property of that matter.  It may be that we can’t access this property in such a way as to evaluate it with external instrumentation, like we can for all the other properties of matter that we know of such as mass, charge, spin, or what-have-you, but that doesn’t mean an experiential property should be off limits for any physicalist theory.  It’s just that most physicalists assume that everything can or has to be reducible to the externally accessible properties that our instrumentation can measure.  And this suggests that they’ve simply assumed that the physical can only include externally accessible properties of matter, rather than both internally and externally accessible properties of matter.

Now it’s easy to see why science might push philosophy in this direction because its methodology is largely grounded on third-party verification and a form of objectivity involving the ability to accurately quantify everything about a phenomenon with little or no regard for introspection or subjectivity.  And I think that this has caused many a philosopher to paint themselves into a corner by assuming that any ontological theory underlying the totality of our reality must be constrained in the same way that the physical sciences are.  To see why this is an unwarranted assumption, let’s consider a “black box” that can only be evaluated by a certain method externally.  It would be fallacious to conclude that just because we are unable to access the inside of the box, that the box must therefore be empty inside or that there can’t be anything substantially different inside the box compared to what is outside the box.

We can analogize this limitation of studying consciousness with our ability to study black holes within the field of astrophysics, where we’ve come to realize that accessing any information about their interior (aside from how much mass there is) is impossible to do from the outside.  And if we managed to access this information (if there is any) from the inside by leaping past its outer event horizon, it would be impossible for us to escape and share any of that information.  The best we can do is to learn what we can from the outside behavior of the black hole in terms of its interaction with surrounding matter and light and infer something about the inside, like how much matter it contains (e.g. we can infer the mass of a black hole from its outer surface area).  And we can learn a little bit more by considering what is needed to create or destroy a black hole, thus creating or destroying any interior qualities that may or may not exist.

A black hole can only form from certain configurations of matter, particularly aggregates that are above a certain mass and density.  And it can only be destroyed by starving it to death, by depriving it of any new matter, where it will slowly die by evaporating entirely into Hawking radiation, thus destroying anything that was on the inside in the process.  So we can infer that any internal qualities it does have, however inaccessible they may be, can be brought into and out of existence with certain physical processes.

Similarly, we can infer some things about consciousness by observing one’s external behavior including inferring some conditions that can create, modify, or destroy that type of consciousness, but we are unable to know what it’s like to be on the inside of that system once it exists.  We’re only able to know about the inside of our own conscious system, where we are in some sense inside our own black hole with nobody else able to access this perspective.  And I think it is easy enough to imagine that certain configurations of matter simply have an intrinsic, externally inaccessible experiential property, just as certain configurations of matter lead to the creation of a black hole with its own externally inaccessible and qualitatively unknown internal properties.  Despite the fact that we can’t access the black hole’s interior with a strictly external method, to determine its internal properties, this doesn’t mean we should assume that whatever properties may exist inside it are therefore fundamentally non-physical.  Just as we wouldn’t consider alternate dimensions (such as those predicted in M-theory/String-Theory) that we can’t physically access to be non-physical.  Perhaps one or more of these inaccessible dimensions (if they exist) is what accounts for an intrinsic experiential property within matter (though this is entirely speculative and need not be true for the previous points to hold, but it’s an interesting thought nevertheless).

Here’s a relevant quote from the philosopher Galen Strawson, where he outlines what physicalism actually entails:

Real physicalists must accept that at least some ultimates are intrinsically experience-involving. They must at least embrace micropsychism. Given that everything concrete is physical, and that everything physical is constituted out of physical ultimates, and that experience is part of concrete reality, it seems the only reasonable position, more than just an ‘inference to the best explanation’… Micropsychism is not yet panpsychism, for as things stand realistic physicalists can conjecture that only some types of ultimates are intrinsically experiential. But they must allow that panpsychism may be true, and the big step has already been taken with micropsychism, the admission that at least some ultimates must be experiential. ‘And were the inmost essence of things laid open to us’ I think that the idea that some but not all physical ultimates are experiential would look like the idea that some but not all physical ultimates are spatio-temporal (on the assumption that spacetime is indeed a fundamental feature of reality). I would bet a lot against there being such radical heterogeneity at the very bottom of things. In fact (to disagree with my earlier self) it is hard to see why this view would not count as a form of dualism… So now I can say that physicalism, i.e. real physicalism, entails panexperientialism or panpsychism. All physical stuff is energy, in one form or another, and all energy, I trow, is an experience-involving phenomenon. This sounded crazy to me for a long time, but I am quite used to it, now that I know that there is no alternative short of ‘substance dualism’… Real physicalism, realistic physicalism, entails panpsychism, and whatever problems are raised by this fact are problems a real physicalist must face.

— Galen Strawson, Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?
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While I don’t believe that all matter has a mind per se, because a mind is generally conceived as being a complex information processing structure, I think it is likely that all matter has an experiential quality of some kind, even if most instantiations of it are entirely unrecognizable as what we’d generally consider to be “consciousness” or “mentality”.  I believe that the intuitive gap here is born from the fact that the only minds we are confident exist are those instantiated by a brain, which has the ability to make an incredibly large number of experiential discriminations between various causal relations, thus giving it a capacity that is incredibly complex and not observed anywhere else in nature.  On the other hand, a particle of matter on its own would be hypothesized to have the capacity to make only one or two of these kinds of discriminations, making it unintelligent and thus incapable of brain-like activity.  Once a person accepts that an experiential quality can come in varying degrees from say one experiential “bit” to billions or trillions of “bits” (or more), then we can plausibly see how matter could give rise to systems that have a vast range in their causal power, from rocks that don’t appear to do much at all, to living organisms that have the ability to store countless representations of causal relations (memory) allowing them to behave in increasingly complex ways.  And perhaps best of all, this approach solves the mind-body problem by eliminating the mystery of how fundamentally non-experiential stuff could possibly give rise to experientiality and consciousness.

Substance Dualism, Interactionism, & Occam’s razor

Recently I got into a discussion with Gordon Hawkes on A Philosopher’s Take about the arguments and objections for substance dualism, that is, the position that there are actually two ontological substances that exist in the world: physical substances and mental (or non-physical) substances.  Here’s the link to part 1, and part 2 of that author’s post series (I recommend taking a look at this group blog and see what he and others have written over there on various interesting topics).  Many dualists would identify or liken this supposed second substance as a soul or the like, but I’m not going to delve into that particular detail within this post.  I’d prefer to focus on the basics of the arguments presented rather than those kinds of details.  Before I dive into the topic, I want to mention that Hawkes was by no means making an argument for substance dualism, but rather he was merely pointing out some flaws in common arguments against substance dualism.  Now that that’s been said, I’m going to get to the heart of the topic, but I will also be providing evidence and arguments against substance dualism.  The primary point raised in the first part of that series was the fact that just because neuroscience is continuously finding correlations between particular physical brain states and particular mental states, this doesn’t mean that these empirical findings show that dualism is necessarily false — since some forms of dualism seem to be entirely compatible with these empirical findings (e.g. interactionist dualism).  So the question ultimately boils down to whether or not mental processes are identical with, or metaphysically supervenient upon, the physical processes of the brain (if so, then substance dualism is necessarily false).

Hawkes talks about how the argument from neuroscience (as it is sometimes referred to) is fallacious because it is based on the mistaken belief that correlation (between mental states and brain states) is equivalent with identity or supervenience of mental and physical states.  Since this isn’t the case, then one can’t rationally use the neurological correlation to disprove (all forms of) substance dualism.  While I agree with this, that is, that the argument from neuroscience can’t be used to disprove (all forms of) substance dualism, it is nevertheless strong evidence that a physical foundation exists for the mind and it also provides evidence against all forms of substance dualism that posit that the mind can exist independently of the physical brain.  At the very least, it shows that the prior probability of minds existing without brains is highly unlikely.  This would seem to suggest that any supposed mental substance is necessarily dependent on a physical substance (so disembodied minds would be out of the question for the minimal substance dualist position).  Even more damning for substance dualists though, is the fact that since the argument from neuroscience suggests that minds can’t exist without physical brains, this would mean that prior to brains evolving in any living organisms within our universe, at some point in the past there weren’t any minds at all.  This in turn would suggest that the second substance posited by dualists isn’t at all conserved like the physical substances we know about are conserved (as per the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy).  Rather, this second substance would have presumably had to have come into existence ex nihilo once some subset of the universe’s physical substances took on a particular configuration (i.e. living organisms that eventually evolved a brain complex enough to afford mental experiences/consciousness/properties).  Once all the brains in the universe disappear in the future (after the heat death of the universe guarantees such a fate), then this second substance will once again disappear from our universe.

The only way around this (as far as I can tell) is to posit that the supposed mental substance had always existed and/or will always continue to exist, but in an entirely undetectable way somehow detached from any physical substance (which is a position that seems hardly defensible given the correlation argument from neuroscience).  Since our prior probabilities of any hypothesis are based on all our background knowledge, and since the only substance we can be sure of exists (a physical substance) has been shown to consistently abide by conservation laws (within the constraints of general relativity and quantum mechanics), it is more plausible that any other ontological substance would likewise be conserved rather than not conserved.  If we had evidence to the contrary, that would change the overall consequent probability, but without such evidence, we only have data points from one ontological substance, and it appears to follow conservation laws.  For this reason alone, it is less likely that a second substance exists at all, if it isn’t itself conserved as that of the physical.

Beyond that, the argument from neuroscience also provides at least some evidence against interactionism (the idea that the mind and brain can causally interact with each other in both causal directions), and interactionism is something that substance dualists would likely need in order to have any reasonable defense of their position at all.  To see why this is true, one need only recognize the fact that the correlates of consciousness found within neuroscience consist of instances of physical brain activity that are observed prior to the person’s conscious awareness of any experience, intentions, or willed actions produced by said brain activity.  For example, studies have shown that when a person makes a conscious decision to do something (say, to press one of two possible buttons placed in front of them), there are neurological patterns that can be detected prior to their awareness of having made a decision and so these patterns can be used to correctly predict which choice the person will make even before they do!  I would say that this is definitely evidence against interactionism, because we have yet to find any cases of mental experiences occurring prior to the brain activity that is correlated with it.  We’ve only found evidence of brain activity preceding mental experiences, never the other way around.  If the mind was made from a different substance, existing independently of the physical brain (even if correlated with it), and able to causally interact with the physical brain, then it seems reasonable to expect that we should be able to detect and confirm instances of mental processes/experiences occurring prior to correlated changes in physical brain states.  Since this hasn’t been found yet in the plethora of brain studies performed thus far, the prior probability of interactionism being true is exceedingly low.  Additionally, the conservation of mass and energy that we observe (as well as the laws of physics in general) in our universe also challenges the possibility of any means of causal energy transfer between a mind to a brain or vice versa.  For the only means of causal interaction we’ve observed thus far in our universe is by way of energy/momentum transfer from one physical particle/system to another.  If a mind is non-physical, then by what means can it interact at all with a brain or vice versa?

The second part of the post series from Hawkes talked about Occam’s razor and how it’s been applied in arguments against dualism.  Hawkes argues that even though one ontological substance is less complex and otherwise preferred over two substances (when all else is equal), Occam’s razor apparently isn’t applicable in this case because physicalism has been unable to adequately address what we call a mind, mental properties, etc.  My rebuttal to this point is that dualism doesn’t adequately address what we call a mind, mental properties, etc., either.  In fact it offers no additional explanatory power than physicalism does because nobody has proposed how it could do so.  That is, nobody has yet demonstrated (as far as I know) what any possible mechanisms would be for this new substance to instantiate a mind, how this non-physical substance could possibly interact with the physical brain, etc.  Rather it seems to have been posited out of an argument from ignorance and incredulity, which is a logical fallacy.  Since physicalism hasn’t yet provided a satisfactory explanation for what some call the mind and mental properties, it is therefore supposed by dualists that a second ontological substance must exist that does explain it or account for it adequately.

Unfortunately, because of the lack of any proposed mechanism for the second substance to adequately account for the phenomena, one could simply replace the term “second substance” with “magic” and be on the same epistemic footing.  It is therefore an argument from ignorance to presume that a second substance exists, for the sole reason that nobody has yet demonstrated how the first substance can fully explain what we call mind and mental phenomena.  Just as we’ve seen throughout history where an unknown phenomena is attributed to magic or the supernatural and later found to be accounted for by a physical explanation, this means that the prior probability that this will also be the case for the phenomena of the mind and mental properties is extraordinarily high.  As a result, I think that Occam’s razor is applicable in this case, because I believe it is always applicable to an argument from ignorance that’s compared to an (even incomplete) argument from evidence.  Since physicalism accounts for many aspects of mental phenomena (such as the neuroscience correlations, etc.), dualism needs to be supported by at least some proposed mechanism (that is falsifiable) in order to nullify the application of Occam’s razor.

Those are my thoughts on the topic for now.  I did think that Hawkes made some valid points in his post series — such as the fact that correlation doesn’t equal identity or supervenience and also the fact that Occam’s razor is only applicable under particular circumstances (such as when both hypotheses explain the phenomena equally, good or bad, with one containing a more superfluous ontology).  However, I think that overall the arguments and evidence against substance dualism are strong enough to eliminate any reasonable justification for supposing that dualism is true (not that Hawkes was defending dualism as he made clear at the beginning of his post) and I also believe that both physicalism and dualism explain the phenomena equally well such that Occam’s razor is applicable (since dualism doesn’t seem to add any explanatory power to that already provided by physicalism).  So even though correlation doesn’t equal identity or supervenience, the arguments and evidence from neuroscience and physics challenge the possibility of any interactionism between the physical and supposed non-physical substance, and it challenges the existence of the second substance in general (due to it’s apparent lack of conservation over time among other reasons).

Neuroscience Arms Race & Our Changing World View

At least since the time of Hippocrates, people began to realize that the brain was the physical correlate of consciousness and thought.  Since then, the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and several inter-related fields have emerged.  There have been numerous advancements made within the field of neuroscience during the last decade or so, and in that same time frame there has also been an increased interest in the social, religious, philosophical, and moral implications that have precipitated from such a far-reaching field.  Certainly the medical knowledge we’ve obtained from the neurosciences has been the primary benefit of such research efforts, as we’ve learned quite a bit more about how the brain works, how it is structured, and the ongoing neuropathology that has led to improvements in diagnosing and treating various mental illnesses.  However, it is the other side of neuroscience that I’d like to focus on in this post — the paradigm shift relating to how we are starting to see the world around us (including ourselves), and how this is affecting our goals as well as how to achieve them.

Paradigm Shift of Our World View

Aside from the medical knowledge we are obtaining from the neurosciences, we are also gaining new perspectives on what exactly the “mind” is.  We’ve come a long way in demonstrating that “mental” or “mind” states are correlated with physical brain states, and there is an ever growing plethora of evidence which suggests that these mind states are in fact caused by these brain states.  It should come as no surprise then that all of our thoughts and behaviors are also caused by these physical brain states.  It is because of this scientific realization that society is currently undergoing an important paradigm shift in terms of our world view.

If all of our thoughts and behaviors are mediated by our physical brain states, then many everyday concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making can take on entirely new meanings.  To illustrate this point, I’d like to briefly mention the well known “nature vs. nurture” debate.  The current consensus among scientists is that people (i.e. their thoughts and behavior) are ultimately products of both their genes and their environment.

Genes & Environment

From a neuroscientific perspective, the genetic component is accounted for by noting that genes have been shown to play a very large role in directing the initial brain wiring schema of an individual during embryological development and through gestation.  During this time, the brain is developing very basic instinctual behavioral “programs” which are physically constituted by vastly complex neural networks, and the body’s developing sensory organs and systems are also connected to particular groups of these neural networks.  These complex neural networks, which have presumably been naturally selected for in order to benefit the survival of the individual, continue being constructed after gestation and throughout the entire ontogenic evolution of the individual (albeit to lesser degrees over time).

As for the environmental component, this can be further split into two parts: the internal and the external environment.  The internal environment within the brain itself, including various chemical concentration gradients partly mediated by random Brownian motion, provides some gene expression constraints as well as some additional guidance to work with the genetic instructions to help guide neuronal growth, migration, and connectivity.  The external environment, consisting of various sensory stimuli, seems to modify this neural construction by providing a form of inputs which may cause the constituent neurons within these neural networks to change their signal strength, change their action potential threshold, and/or modify their connections with particular neurons (among other possible changes).

Causal Constraints

This combination of genetic instructions and environmental interaction and input produces a conscious, thinking, and behaving being through a large number of ongoing and highly complex hardware changes.  It isn’t difficult to imagine why these insights from neuroscience might modify our conventional views of concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  Prior to these developments over the last few decades, the brain was largely seen as a sort of “black box”, with its internal milieu and functional properties remaining mysterious and inaccessible.  From that time and prior to it, for millennia, many people have assumed that our thoughts and behaviors were self-caused or causa sui.  That is, people believed that they themselves (i.e. some causally free “consciousness”, or “soul”, etc.) caused their own thoughts and behavior as opposed to those thoughts and behaviors being ultimately caused by physical processes (e.g. neuronal activity, chemical reactions, etc.).

Neuroscience (as well as biochemistry and its underlying physics) has shed a lot of light on this long-held assumption and, as it stands, the evidence has shown this prior assumption to be false.  The brain is ultimately controlled by the laws of physics since every chemical reaction and neural event that physically produces our thoughts, choices, and behaviors, have never been shown to be causally free from these physically guiding constraints.  I will mention that quantum uncertainty or quantum “randomness” (if ontologically random) does provide some possible freedom from physical determinism.  However, these findings from quantum physics do not provide any support for self-caused thoughts or behaviors.  Rather, it merely shows that those physically constrained thoughts and behaviors may never be completely predictable by physical laws no matter how much data is obtained.  In other words, our thoughts and behaviors are produced by highly predictable (although not necessarily completely predictable) physical laws and constraints as well as some possible random causal factors.

As a result of these physical causal constraints, the conventional perspective of an individual having classical free will has been shattered.  Our traditional views of human attributes including morality, choices, ideology, and even individualism are continuing to change markedly.  Not surprisingly, there are many people uncomfortable with these scientific discoveries including members of various religious and ideological groups that are largely based upon and thus depend on the very presupposition of precepts such as classical free will and moral responsibility.  The evidence that is compiling from the neurosciences is in fact showing that while people are causally responsible for their thoughts, choices, and behavior (i.e. an individual’s thoughts and subsequent behavior are constituents of a causal chain of events), they are not morally responsible in the sense that they can choose to think or behave any differently than they do, for their thoughts and behavior are ultimately governed by physically constrained neural processes.

New World View

Now I’d like to return to what I mentioned earlier and consider how these insights from neuroscience may be drastically modifying how we look at concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  If our brain is operating via these neural network dynamics, then conscious thought appears to be produced by a particular subset of these neural network configurations and processes.  So as we continue to learn how to more directly control or alter these neural network arrangements and processes (above and beyond simply applying electrical potentials to certain neural regions in order to bring memories or other forms of imagery into consciousness, as we’ve done in the past), we should be able to control thought generation from a more “bottom-up” approach.  Neuroscience is definitely heading in this direction, although there is a lot of work to be done before we have any considerable knowledge of and control over such processes.

Likewise, learning seems to consist of a certain type of neural network modification (involving memory), leading to changes in causal pattern recognition (among other things) which results in our ability to more easily achieve our goals over time.  We’ve typically thought of learning as the successful input, retention, and recall of new information, and we have been achieving this “learning” process through the input of environmental stimuli via our sensory organs and systems.  In the future, it may be possible to once again, as with the aforementioned bottom-up thought generation, physically modify our neural networks to directly implant memories and causal pattern recognition information in order to “learn” without any actual sensory input, and/or we may be able to eventually “upload” information in a way that bypasses the typical sensory pathways thus potentially allowing us to catalyze the learning process in unprecedented ways.

If we are one day able to more directly control the neural configurations and processes that lead to specific thoughts as well as learned information, then there is no reason that we won’t be able to modify our personalities, our decision-making abilities and “algorithms”, etc.  In a nutshell, we may be able to modify any aspect of “who” we are in extraordinary ways (whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing is another issue entirely).  As we come to learn more about the genetic components of these neural processes, we may also be able to use various genetic engineering techniques to assist with the necessary neural modifications required to achieve these goals.  The bottom line here is that people are products of their genes and environment, and by manipulating both of those causal constraints in more direct ways (e.g. through the use of neuroscientific techniques), we may be able to achieve previously unattainable abilities and perhaps in a relatively miniscule amount of time.  It goes without saying that these methods will also significantly affect our evolutionary course as a species, allowing us to enter new landscapes through our substantially enhanced ability to adapt.  This may be realized through these methods by finding ways to improve our intelligence, memory, or other cognitive faculties, effectively giving us the ability to engineer or re-engineer our brains as desired.

Neuroscience Arms Race

We can see that increasing our knowledge and capabilities within the neurosciences has the potential for drastic societal changes, some of which are already starting to be realized.  The impact that these fields will have on how we approach the problem of criminal, violent, or otherwise undesirable behavior can not be overstated.  Trying to correct these issues by focusing our efforts on the neural or cognitive substrate that underlie them, as opposed to using less direct and more external means (e.g. social engineering methods) that we’ve been using thus far, may lead to much less expensive solutions as well as solutions that may be realized much, much more quickly.

As with any scientific discovery or subsequent technology produced from it, neuroscience has the power to bestow on us both benefits as well as disadvantages.  I’m reminded of the ground-breaking efforts made within nuclear physics several decades ago, whereby physicists not only gained precious information about subatomic particles (and their binding energies) but also how to release these enormous amounts of energy from nuclear fusion and fission reactions.  It wasn’t long after these breakthrough discoveries were made before they were used by others to create the first atomic bombs.  Likewise, while our increasing knowledge within neuroscience has the power to help society improve by optimizing our brain function and behavior, it can also be used by various entities to manipulate the populace for unethical reasons.

For example, despite the large number of free market proponents who claim that the economy need not be regulated by anything other than rational consumers and their choices of goods and services, corporations have clearly increased their use of marketing strategies that take advantage of many humans’ irrational tendencies (whether it is “buy one get one free” offers, “sales” on items that have artificially raised prices, etc.).  Politicians and other leaders have been using similar tactics by taking advantage of voters’ emotional vulnerabilities on certain controversial issues that serve as nothing more than an ideological distraction in order to reduce or eliminate any awareness or rational analysis of the more pressing issues.

There are already research and development efforts being made by these various entities in order to take advantage of these findings within neuroscience such that they can have greater influence over people’s decisions (whether it relates to consumers’ purchases, votes, etc.).  To give an example of some of these R&D efforts, it is believed that MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans may eventually be able to show useful details about a person’s personality or their innate or conditioned tendencies (including compulsive or addictive tendencies, preferences for certain foods or behaviors, etc.).  This kind of capability (if realized) would allow marketers to maximize how many dollars they can squeeze out of each consumer by optimizing their choices of goods and services and how they are advertised. We have already seen how purchases made on the internet, if tracked, begin to personalize the advertisements that we see during our online experience (e.g. if you buy fishing gear online, you may subsequently notice more advertisements and pop-ups for fishing related goods and services).  If possible, the information found using these types of “brain probing” methods could be applied to other areas, including that of political decision making.

While these methods derived from the neurosciences may be beneficial in some cases, for instance, by allowing the consumer more automated access to products that they may need or want (which will likely be a selling point used by these corporations for obtaining consumer approval of such methods), it will also exacerbate unsustainable consumption and other personal or societally destructive tendencies and it is likely to continue to reduce (or eliminate) whatever rational decision making capabilities we still have left.

Final Thoughts

As we can see, neuroscience has the potential to (and is already starting to) completely change the way we look at the world.  Further advancements in these fields will likely redefine many of our goals as well as how to achieve them.  It may also allow us to solve many problems that we face as a species, far beyond simply curing mental illnesses or ailments.  The main question that comes to mind is:  Who will win the neuroscience arms race?  Will it be those humanitarians, scientists, and medical professionals that are striving to accumulate knowledge in order to help solve the problems of individuals and societies as well as to increase their quality of life?  Or will it be the entities that are trying to accumulate similar knowledge in order to take advantage of human weaknesses for the purposes of gaining wealth and power, thus exacerbating the problems we currently face?