21 December 2009

Things Only a Skeptical Brain Can Know

The human brain is expensive to maintain, and over time forced the complete reshaping of a woman's pelvis due to its large size at birth. The adult brain is approximately 3 pounds of fatty tissue that consumes 50% of the carbohydrates you ingest every day. If something happens to your brain -- such as head trauma, degenerative disease, or stroke -- your brain can change in ways that make you a different person.

Biomedical science is devising ways to work around brain damage and to mitigate the effects of brain diseases. It is a short step from correcting brain damage to augmenting the power of normal brains. Do human scientists, psychologists, and philosophers understand the nature of human consciousness well enough to know how best to augment the human brain? There are many ways we might approach the problem.

One problem of human consciousness is how slow it is. It takes anywhere from 0.25 to 0.50 seconds for the conscious mind to acknowledge what the unconscious mind already "knows." Accelerating the mind's conscious awareness would bring many positive rewards in high-risk, real time dynamic situations.

Another problem with the human brain: only a few people are intelligent enough to understand the technology and science that advanced human societies depend upon. Most people are far too stupid to acquire the concepts, and to work their way through the chains of logic to reach the "heights of understanding." Making humans "smarter" and more competently capable of complex thought patterns would be a great help in many ways.

But perhaps the greatest problem with human minds is the laziness and lack of curiosity and skepticism when faced with the ideas and theories that they are taught. Children believe what they are told by their parents and teachers, until some of them reach a rebellious stage where they disbelieve what they are told. But that "rebellion" is just as reflexive as the earlier blind trust. In universities, late adolescents revel in their freedom from their early childhood shackles of mind and body, and become easy marks for their professors. Blind reaction in one direction leads to blind trust in another.

It is easier to believe (or reflexively doubt) than to reason out a problem for oneself. An adult brain is barely matured at age 25 or 30 before it begins to slow down. If it has not acquired healthy habits of skepticism, curiosity, and independent thought by that time, it will be almost impossible to learn them.

Popular delusions that should be doubted by healthy skeptical minds, include the impending shortage of crucial materials, and the impending destruction of the Earth by anthropogenic climate catastrophe.

But those are easy delusions to dispel, for the healthy skeptical mind. There are many other, more difficult popular delusions that may take more thought because they lie closer to the center of one's self-concept and identity. If one learns healthy curiosity and skepticism, all paths lead to the center of one's own ego.

Skeptics do not believe or disbelieve, at least not without enormous mental effort to exclude other possibilities. Only a fool will "believe" what he cannot know. An honest religion will admit as much. Honest believers admit their own foolishness. Dishonest believers go on jihad and attempt to beat non-believers into submission, or otherwise eradicate all disbelief.

What can a skeptical brain know? Knowledge is multi-leveled, and of variable quality and robustness. A true skeptic understands more about knowledge than a believer, since a believer is unwilling to undergo the process of testing, falsifying, proving a hypothesis. But that is only a starting point.

Intelligence and wisdom (the appropriate use of knowledge) are two different things.  When intelligent people devote themselves to the polemical defense of an unsupported hypothesis (a belief from faith), the arguments they frame may be complex and superficially convincing.  But how deeply are they capable of building their support?  That is the question.  How long does it take them to get to the issue of falsifiability?  Or do they avoid falsifiable arguments altogether?

To a true believer, his religion is unfalsifiable.  It is circular, tautological, based upon the simplest of "knowledge", and essentially unshakable.  This is true whether the religion is spiritual, political, economic, or "scientific."   A true believer will run away from questions of data, and data reliability.  A skeptic lives in the land of data and data testing.

Skepticism is based upon the (sometimes compulsive) need to break through from one level of knowledge (or ignorance) to a higher level of knowledge (or level of lesser ignorance).  In the world of the honestly curious, the burden of proof is always on the "believer" in the battle between skepticism and belief.  Anyone who adopts a different assumption for reasons other than playing the devil's advocate, is either ignorant, mindless, or unscrupulous.   The skeptic knows this, which explains a great deal of the skeptical stamina in the face of holy inquisitions and the burning of the heretics.

Addendum:  This alarming (alarmist) analysis of the near future of the US contains a great deal of information in the form of graphs, links, multiple personal analyses, etc.  (via The Survivalist Blog)   If you have some time to test your skeptical powers, look for problems with the author's data, arguments, conclusions, and recommendations.  As it deals with "the coming food crisis" it should be a problem that persons of most political and religious beliefs can grapple with -- without creating cognitive dissonance or a crisis of conscience.


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Blogger Sojka's Call said...

While I can agree with some of what you say (believing AGW is for sheep), the skeptic in me has a hard time with not believing in impending shortages of some crucial materials (e.g. oil).

Looking at the link you provided at the end to the forecast of impending food shortages, there were definitely reasons to be skeptical of his analysis. He predicted the same thing last year, does not analyze food production of Canada and Brazil, does not play devil's advocate with his data/argument, and, most importantly to me, does not ask anyone who is part of the commodity markets their opinion. There are lots of smart people in the commodity markets who are very skeptical of government projections, and, in fact, could care less what the gov't says. They would be all over this in a second if there was any validity to his argument. While the commodity markets are forecasting some modest increases in food prices in certain sectors (corn, meat, orange juice) there are no doomsday scenarios being painted.

Thanks for another good post.

Monday, 21 December, 2009  
Blogger al fin said...

It is better not to "believe" in something like a coming oil scarcity. Much better to assign the item a probability level that is subject to change on receipt of newer and better information.

Humans think in "stories" or "narratives". Politicians, novelists, and journalists have benefited from that quirk of human minds for centuries and longer.

Peak Oil makes a good narrative if you do not look too deeply. Just like "global cooling" in the '60s and "global warming" in the '90s made good narratives.

The media needs a crisis every day to sell advertising. Politicians need a crisis every so often to get voters to the polls and donours to their dinners. Crises are wrapped in narrative to make them more compelling. Always watch out for that.

Tuesday, 22 December, 2009  
Blogger Sojka's Call said...

I agree with you on the word "believe" and its connotations and the effect on ones thinking. From years of doing data compilation and analysis the best way to present conclusions and recommendations was to put a statistical probability on the projected outcome.

Of course, this becomes difficult with many subjects we deal with, but, does not change the fact the best way to keep our own perspective is that in cases where we don't have enough hard data or a model we can still put a best-guess probability on a possible outcome.


Tuesday, 22 December, 2009  
Blogger al fin said...


Your analysis of the "food crisis" article is quite sound.

Another problem I had with the man is that he couldn't seem to get it clear in his own mind whether he had already relocated to Russia, or whether that was in his future. Very slippery.

What kind of fool relocates to Russia for the economic opportunities? A fool who had better be prepared to pay a lot of bribes for as long as he plans to stay.

Wednesday, 23 December, 2009  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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