Even Neuroscientists have Dualistic Habits

Today I ran into a very fine 2014 article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (linked here) which shows how mind-body dualism is such a strong cognitive illusion that even people who know that mind and brain are the same (most neuroscientists), they still use dualistic language in describing functions of the brain. The authors of the article give a table of examples of the incorrect phrasings of many neuroscientist and then offer suggestions for more accurate expressions without using dualistic language.

If any readers would like to discuss, please make comments.

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Successful Reproduction & The Soul

An organism’s neurology evolves to help it successfully reproduce. To successfully reproduce, an organism must survive long enough to have offspring and for many organisms they must survive even longer to launch those offsprings into a life where they too can successfully reproduce.

The neurology of human beings starts in a big tangle of neurons that we call “the brain”. The brain then send tentacles throughout the body. And as we are just like other organisms, the human brain only cares about one thing — SUCCESSFUL reproduction, of which survival is only part of that, albeit a big part. Simplifying the various aspects in human life we get:
Survival –> Reproduction –> Nurture –> Death.

The human mind does not care for our happiness, our health, our insights or our understanding reality except to fulfill those steps.

The skills to accomplish those steps evolved in a way that at “good enough” — it has imperfect heuristics (quick useful methods) that can also create errors. For example, when walking through the woods and we hear rustling in the bushes, our first reflex is “agency” (a person or an animal or a spook) and only secondly do we relax and realize it was only wind or a falling branch. This agency reflex is often inaccurate but it can keep us alive, albeit a bit neurotic when it over fires. Optical illusions are also such phenomenas – our brain is good enough for most things we see, but we can set up images to trick it — to expose the flaws in its naturally evolving sloppy heuristics.

The illusion of agency is sometimes called a cognitive illusions of sight are called optical illusions. The funny thing about many illusions is that no matter how much we know we are having an illusion, we still can’t see correctly or even think correctly. One such troublesome illusion, albeit it perhaps a useful illusion, is what philosophers have called mind-body dualism — the idea that mind and the body (including the brain) are distinct and separable. This is the illusion that leads to the idea of a soul.

This post will serve as an intro to the next post, so I will pause here to allow any readers to challenge these generalizations in the comments.

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The Churning Mind Remembers

A blender can be a useful analogy for how our mind works. Imagine a blender 1/2 full of a slurry and chunks of unblendable colored pieces (like tough pieces of fruit). When the blender is on (when we are awake) consciousness is the stuff at the top of the blender. This superficial stuff (mainly driven by the sense organs) is the stuff we are aware of — the stuff we are conscious of. However, the churning stuff below is almost like dreams that are happening even when we are awake but which we are not aware of. In other words, though we think that we only dream while we sleep, we actually dream all the time.

Here are some examples of the usefulness of this model:

  • Daydreaming: Daydreaming is when our mind pulls away from sense perceptions (the surface stuff) and looks at the stuff below. Daydreaming is when your awareness drifts away from the world around you, to other parts of your constantly churning mind.
  • Suddenly remembering:I don’t know why, but I just remembered that I have to go and buy some avocados for this weekend’s party.” Or, “I don’t know why, but I just remembered three years ago when my former girlfriend told me that she wanted to break up.” Both of these memories are just hunks of fruit that churned up from the stuff constantly moving below the surface and came close enough to the surface for the person to be aware of them — to “remember” them.
  • Mood changes: Let me over simplify for convenience sake: “all thoughts are attached to feelings”. We don’t have pure thought which are unattached to emotions. Instead, it is best to think about having things called “thought-feelings”, not “thoughts”. The brain is a feeling thing.
    So with that in mind, imagine plowing through your normal day, with your attention only on the superficial movements of your senses, when a chunk of feeling-thought comes from below and close to the surface. It does not come close enough that you “remember” it, but it comes close enough that the feeling attached to that chunk can color our surface and change your mood unexpectedly. The result may be something like this: “I don’t know why, but suddenly I am sad.” Or, “I don’t know why, but suddenly I am feeling a bit insecure.” The reason we say “I don’t know why” is because we don’t understand how our own mind works.

Knowing how the mind works does not help us see through its illusion. Knowing is even not enough, because just like optical illusions, the illusion of self and mind are so strong that we can’t unsee the illusion, we can only understand it.

Related Posts:

  • The Will to Say “No”: addressing the spastic chunks that churn up
  • Many Selves: Our minds trick us to think we are ONE self, but that is wrong. Buddhists and mystics of all sorts, seeing through this illusion may claim therefore that their is “No Self”, but I think this phrasing is not as useful as instead, realizing that we are many selves.
  • Photos reveal the Illusion of Self: The last half of this post illustrates the power of illusions.

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Photos Reveal the Illusion of Self

The mind creates a cognitive illusion of self for all of us — it creates the “me” or “self” illusion. But “self” is a very useful illusion.

Part of what helps create the illusion of self is the illusion of “continuity of self” — we feel that we are the same person that we have always been. And part of that illusion is due to an illusion of memory — we feel we are who we’ve always been because we have memories to prove it. We feel we are the same person (the same identity, the same self) because we can remember always being this person.

Looking at very old pictures of ourselves can reveal this illusion. When we look at old photographs, we can be startled because we do not remember that particular scene and often can not remember the feeling of who we were and what we thought about in those days. But this should not surprise us. The reason we are startled, or surprised at this is because of the strength of the illusion of self that our mind creates for us.

Can we see through this illusion of self? Rarely, if at all. Just like the arrow illusion below. Here the two line segments appear to be different lengths — longer on the bottom figure than on the arrow figure above it. No matter how hard we try, these lines will look like they have different lengths. Likewise, no matter how clearly we understand the illusion of self, it is rare that a person can actually stop being fooled by it.

So what are we to do? Well, as I said in the beginning, the illusion is useful. The illusion of self evolved in the human brain for a reason: probably to help us plan long-term and operate in groups effectively over long periods of time. Therefore we should not be disappointed that we are tricked by this and other mind illusions, they usually serve us well. However, there are rare times when seeing through this illusion that can be useful. Understanding the illusion (even if not seeing through it) can help soften some disappointments in our lives, and allow us to use softer approaches to others — to help us escape occasional mechanical reflexes.


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Umbrella Terms

“Islam” and “Christianity”, as umbrella terms, are actually not has helpful as you might imagine. Each religion has a huge variety of believers even within their many different sects. These sects (or “denominations” as Christians prefer to call them) can differ from each other so much as to make their shared name (“Christian” or “Muslim”) completely uninformative. We should not fall into this temptation of simplicity but instead, as the diagram below, remember that any given believer has a huge variety of thoughts, attachments and practices.

As a simple Christian example, compare Appalachian Christian Snake Handlers to formal urban Episcopalians. Values, expressions, economics, language and much more separate these folks from each other enough so that calling them both “Christians” or “believers in Jesus”, as telling you almost nothing important.

Likewise, as a simple Muslim example, compare lower-class Whirling Sufi Dervish Muslims in Turkey to the higher-class Wahhabi conservatives in Saudi Arabia. Sure, I can tell you they are both “Muslims”, but that tells you nothing of their real values, practices, lifestyles and/or politics.

So, as you can see in my diagram to the right, understanding the “varieties of believers” of any given religion helps us understands a religion. But ironically, it helps us also to understand that what is important about a believer is not their umbrella-term name, but the particulars about their world. I made the diagram above to illustrate how the umbrella term blocks us from understanding all these very important particulars (the rain drops).

Could a snake handling, absorbed-bouncing West Virginia snake-handling Christian have more important elements in common with a poor Turkish whirling Dervish than they do with their counterparts mentioned above? Are these types of small communities which are drawn to trance-inducing religious fervor best understood for that trait, or for their umbrella term. I contend that it is the constellation of practices, social networks, demographics and more that we need to really understand each other. Relying on broad terms like Christian or Muslim does these individuals injustice — though they may claim otherwise. But we do this because of the temptation of simplicity.

As to keep this post “short”, I supply links to supplement the above:

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The Temptation of Simplicity

The Temptation of Simplicity” is a phrase I use often to illustrate a major pitfall of human reasoning or of our non-reasoning. It is often much easier and more comfortable to believe a simple, grossly wrong explanation than a complicated, more accurate explanation. “Black and White Thinking“, also known as “splitting” in psychology, is similar. Splitting is where an individual forms extremes opposites views of a controversy: a virtuous self-preferred story and a straw man version of the opponent’s view. “Whole Package Thinking“, which I wrote about here, is also a form of the temptation of simplicity.

People often want to quickly categorize things as right or wrong. It is uncomfortable to suspend judgement. The practice of being comfortable with putting judgement on hold is what I call “Traffic Light Epistemology” (see this post). I also call it “A Nebulous Way of Knowing” (crediting David Chapman) (see this post).

But before I get too self-righteous about thinking complexly, it should be obvious that quick categorical judgement is often an adaptively adventageous skill. Sometimes it is better to judge quickly even if you risk the chance of being wrong. So for me, having both skills and discerning their use is important.

Readers: In the comments, give examples of where quick black and white thinking may be useful.

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Patterns: Islam & Christianity

This planned series of posts is primarily geared toward two audiences:

  1. Muslims who want to know a little more about Christianity
  2. Christians who want to know a little more about Islam

First, I must disclose my perspective as a non-believer in either of these religions. These posts are not meant to argue for or against either religion. Instead my goal, for both Muslims and Christians, is to illuminate the similar patterns of the human mind that created these religions.

It is my further hope that in doing so, both my Muslim and Christian audiences will soften the specialism, the exclusivism and the legalism in their religion, because I view these three traits as being the most dangerous aspects of any religion. Religion is an organizational form of thought like many others: political, economic, or social. But I am not solely critical of these forms of though. Religion, like governments, for example, can have both helpful and destructive elements. Here I am aiming at mollifying the harmful elements. I think comparative inspections can help us see our commonalities and possibly broaden our communities.

Finally, for religion-free folks (atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularist or whatever you call yourself), these simple posts may offer a different way of looking at religion. The classic, over-simplified way of understanding a religion is simply to think of religion as a list of beliefs. Beliefs are important, but I do not look at beliefs in terms of being simply either true or false. I instead look at the function of our beliefs — how they interact with our personality, our environment and history. The truth of religious beliefs is what most people argue and debate about, but in doing so, they hugely misunderstand the nature of the human mind and our behavior and our rhetoric. They misunderstand the nature of religion itself.

This is an ambitious goal, and like many of my other series I may end it very early, but even this introduction in itself says enough to give me a degree of satisfaction. To keep it going, however, it will help to have constructive or inspiring comments. So, let me know your thoughts, doubts and criticisms.

PS: I will explain the meanings of the header for these posts later, if you haven’t already guessed it.


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“Bone” and Beyond

Two years ago, pre-covid, my daughter and my sweetheart took me out to a Spanish restaurant. One of the items we tried was “ossobuco” which google translate tells us is “braised veal” but more specifically, it is veal (calf) shank (lower leg around the tibia) braised (the meat is seared and then cooked in a broth as you see below) with vegetables, white wine and broth. Wheew, a long explanation, but ossobuco was delicious and I had a wonderful time with my two favorite women.

Milanese Ossobuco (“bone hole”)

And, as you can see by the diagram above, that dish revved up my nerdy linguistic brain. In Italian, “ossobuco” really just means “bone [osso] with a hole [buco]” because when cut into pieces, the calf’s shin bone has a hole in the middle (for the marrow). And that marrow offers the addition flavor to the broth of this fine dish.

I decided to explore “osso” which resulted in my diagram above showing how the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) word “*ost” evolved and spread over time — ending up “osso” in Italian, “bone” in English and “astkhwan” in Persian. So in this world, many apparently-different words are simply the result of slow gradual changes from the same root word. This evolution of language reminds me of the similar interconnections of apparently disparate religions due to their common root sources.

Note: For more fun, see my post and diagram on IndoEuropean languages here.


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Hinduism’s Religious Literature

Understanding a religion is difficult. The most important place to start is to realize that there are as many types of Hinduism, Islam and Judiasm as there are types of Christianity. Believers in any given religion may tell you that there are “core beliefs” or that their version is the only true version, but the former is wrong, and the later is merely political rhetoric. Every religion comes in many flavors. And in our case today, there are many types of Hinduism with many different types of believers.

Because of all that complication, starting with religious literature may be a good beginning as many religious traditions have sacred literature. But as my diagram above illustrates, sacred literature is only a small part of that religion.

In this Mahabharata series we will use the myths discussed in the Mahabharata to explore other aspects of Hinduism, but the Mahabharata can only take us so far in understanding Hinduism, much like the Bible can only take us so far in understanding Christianity.

I made the top diagram to illustrate some of the components needed to deeply understand most religions. Of course, you can get a flavor of a religion by knowing just a few components. Indeed, probably most believers in any religion really only know a few components. To be an adherent (a follower, a believer), it is not necessary to understand one’s own religion, it is usually enough just to claim it as your own.

Below I made another diagram categorizing the major texts of Hinduism. Hopefully this image and the one above show how the Mahabharata is just one small element of Hinduism.

Finally, here is another diagram I made which gives a timeline of Hindu religious literature in comparison to other sacred literature. Remember, many ancient texts are the recording of much more ancient oral traditions. And oral traditions, in an age of no technology, meant that stories varied from area to area. The person writing it down can choose to either record differing stories or to try and homogenize them. The sad thing about the written traditions, is that these myths can then become fossilized — they stop changing and morphing and the religious specialist often try to tell us that they have been the same forever, and are accurate stories and not campfire myths.


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In chapter 1 of Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata (see other posts here), we are told “When a man dies, he can, if he has earned enough merit, enter the paradise of the gods located high above the clouds.” So what is this “merit”?

In many religions, building up merit can get you blessings in this life or get a better afterlife. In this life merit can help protect your health and safety, make you money or make your loved ones prosper. In the next life, you need merit to get into heaven, or in re-incarnation religions, it helps you have a more fortunate rebirth.

“Merit” is like a gold star the elementary teachers give their students when they are good. You can get religious “merit” in many ways: doing good things, following rules, by preforming rituals and more. In God-religions, god(s) determines if you get merit. In Hinduism, the cosmic-karma-machine (my term) calculates what merit you get.

In Christianity, “merit” is ostensibly ignored. Christians believe that all they have to do is believe in Jesus and invite him into their life, and that by doing so their god grants them a free ticket to heaven no matter how bad they’ve been in this life. Well, not all Christians believe that totally. For instance, Catholics feel that a “good Catholic” should do all the sacraments (rituals) like baptism, communion, confession and such in order to secure a good life in heaven. And even Protestants think that “true Christians” will naturally do good things, and that those good things (“their fruits”) are how other Christians can know if that person has truly accepted Jesus as the supposed ruler of their lives.

So as you can see, no matter how you spin it, “merit” is important in almost all religions in some form or other. In other words, religions use the idea of merit to make their believers behave proper — do what they want. And the Mahabharata will teach its listeners the perils of ignoring one’s duties and the benefits of accruing merit.

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