Tag Archives: Philosophy of Mind

Promiscuous Teleology

My Typical Superstitious Morning

I laugh at my mind constantly.  She (my mind) is so silly, so primitive, so deluded, so stubborn, so dull.  I mean, how many times have I told her something is not true or not so and yet she keeps coming back with the same perceptions and conclusions.  She is totally unruly.  Yet, I can not live without her.  She is also the source of all the great joys in my life.  Alas!

This above story happened earlier this week and is just one of thousands of examples of how unruly my mind can be.  You see, the bulb simply burns out and I look for someone to blame.  This story reveals how my mind is obsessed with “agency”.  She assumes somebody is behind everything !  This phenomena explains much of religious thinking.  And don’t think that if you are an atheist your mind is free of religious thinking.  It ain’t that simple.

A huge delusion that feeds religious thinking is to see “peopleness” were it doesn’t belong.  Atheists should not be deluded in thinking that just because they have declared themselves free of the gods and no longer deluded by such abstractions, that they are somehow magically free from the curse of peopleness.  OK, I will stop inventing terms.  Bruce Hood, in his book “Supersense: Why we believe the unbelievable” tells us the proper academic phrase for “the curse of peopleness” — “promiscuous teleology“.  “Teleology” is the explanation of phenomena in terms of goals or purposes, as if an agent (a person) is behind an event.  And you’ve got to love the nuances of the adjective, “promiscuous”!  For indeed, the mind goes overboard looking for someone to be responsible for all actions — even if the action is simply a light bulb naturally burning out.  Hood points us to  research that shows that children from a very young age see the inanimate world as alive and relating to them.  Piaget called this “egocentrism” to reflect this self-obsessed perspective.  Children are also prone to “anthropomorphism”, which means that they think about nonhuman things as if they were human.  Adults do the same.  Have you ever lost your temper at a chair that is in your way?  This illustrates how the mind-modules, which are used by religious thinking, are present from a young age and don’t disappear just because someone declares themselves free of the gods.  Two other fantastic books which illustrate anthropomorphism in our religious minds are:

I think what happened in this light bulb story is a variant of that notion of promiscuous teleology which itself is a child of anthropomorphism — two persistent superstitious modules in all of our heads.   Being cognition modules, they must have had or still have some adaptive advantage to exist.  I won’t explore that in this post, but I did touch on the selective advantages of superstitions in my post on “The Benefits of Pareidolia “.

Here, a bulb blows out — but who did it?  No one, of course.  It just finally wore out.  Such is the nature of bulbs.  And when these sort of bulbs die [note the anthropomorphizing language — see how pervasive the thinking is], they go out with a bang.  But now the mistake jumps in:  When the bulb blows, my mind tells me somebody caused it to happen, a person did it.  My mind searches for someone to blame.  It reaches to the most convenient and closest actor — my wife.  She did it!  She probably screwed it in loose or bought cheap bulbs.  Or maybe the darn kids did it by continually bumping the lamp when playing.

“Stop it !  Come on! ” I tell my mind, “I love my wife and kids, why are you attacking them?”  But my mind often has no mercy.  In her delusions, my mind just throws stuff together and tempts me to buy into her story – at least emotionally so.  She does not expect me to analyze what she offers me, she just want me to nod, agree and reflexively move on.

A Buddhist perspective

Buddhism’s primary practice is the honest observation of the mind.  It trains the practitioner to bravely observe one’s true nature — how one’s mind works.  “Bravely”, because what we see is not always pretty or noble.  Buddhism teaches respect for the mind but also offers ways to discipline the mind.  It lets us realize that the mind, while serving us constantly, also generates all sorts of delusions which cause many problems in life.  Observation is the first step in the Buddhist practice.  This task is difficult and is aided by other methods which help weaken the delusions.

Buddhism offers many approaches to cure our undesirable reflexes that lead to our unsatisfactory experience of life.  One, is to observe the illusion but not to feed it.  The practitioner strengthens her mind to resist following a particular unhealthy thought.  For instance, I see my mind accuse my wife and children of causing the bulb to go out and I chuckle at my mind, pat her on the back, maybe even give her a hug and move back into a more restful mind.  Another method is to spend time contemplating positive emotions and positive beliefs so that when negative emotions bubble up (like anger toward others), I readily have positive modules fired up ready to take over if I deem the anger irrational or unproductive.

OK, I had no real intent to go into Buddhist solutions in this post, but I realized how central it was to how I viewed the above situation.  Don’t get me wrong, certainly there is no reason that a purely secular way of dealing with these insights could not be equally as productive.  But I do feel that working with the unhealthy aspects of our minds is best done intentionally.  And it is this intentional inner life that people often refer to as their “spirituality” or their “religion” or their “faith”.  I think this is one of the possible positive potentials of religions.

Sorry, this was a long-winded post, but if you made it this far, I have a few questions:  How do other religious practitioners reading this post work with such mundane emotions in their lives?  How do you pure secularists nurture your mental/moral culture?


  • Superstitious modules in the brain are present from a young age
  • “Promiscuous Teleology” and “Anthropomorphism” are just two examples of Superstitious Brain Modules.
  • Superstitious modules serve a function to the brain, but like all modules, they often are also misused to our detriment.
  • All religions capitalize on the Superstitious Brain Modules, but many of them also offer us methods to deal with their downsides.
  • Superstitious modules keeping working even in Atheists.  I am curious how we acknowledge them and use them.


Filed under Events, Philosophy & Religion


I was teaching a friend the amazing game of “Go” (“WeiQi” in Chinese). In the game, the principle of “life and death” is crucial, and my friend was having trouble seeing if his group of stones had the potential to live through a battle. I pointed out to him, that, in this game, a player must learn to look at the empty spaces and not just look the stones themselves.  Seeing-the-empty-spaces is a skill required to progress in WeiQi.  Below I give an example.

Here is an example puzzle:
White is to kill Black’s stones.
The untrained eye will only focus on
the Black & White stones
But the simplicity of the problem
is revealed when,  White looks at
Black’s empty spaces (red)
and ignores Black’s stones.

Being an accomplished trumpet player, my friend immediately understood and related this WeiQi principal to what he had learned about Jazz.  To illustrate, he told me a Jazz story — he carefully warned me that it may be apocryphal – but it makes the point.

Apparently, as a young hot shot, Wynton Marsalis was already technically an unsurpassed trumpet player who could play crazy runs and riffs. But one of his mentors, Stanly Crouch, told Marsalis that his Jazz was soulless. Crouch quoted Miles Davis saying, “Jazz is the notes you don’t play“.  Marsalis took his mentor’s teaching to heart and became one of the world’s most accomplished trumpet players.

This parallel between the Jazz principle of silence (notes-unplayed) and the WeiQi principle of seeing-the-empty-space was crystal clear to my friend.  I feel that a Meta-Thought informed both principles in my friend’s mind.  This seeing-the-empty-space idea is can be further illustrated as an element in the Japanese aesthetic principle of Wabi-Sabi.  My point is that seeing/hearing/feeling the empty space is a deep principle that informs diverse areas.  I call that deep principle “Meta-Thought”.

Another example of Meta-Thought happens in language.  I often, when speaking in English, I have ideas that pop into my head that first find expression in Japanese rather than English even though I am also speaking to an English speaker. I then have to struggle to get the idea out of Japanese and into English (which can look awkward 🙂  ).  Similarly, sometimes while thinking about a philosophical idea, a WeiQi pattern floats into my head to express the thought before I can put it into philosophical terms.  I remember when this first happened because I thought I was just daydreaming about WeiQi until I realized that my mind was floundering to express a Meta-Thought using WeiQi patterns.

In my vocabulary, “Meta-Thought” is what lies behind thought.  Meta-Thought  gives birth to expression.  Meta-Thought grabs vehicles to express itself while it is forming. Thus, the same Meta-Thought could be expressed in music, in WeiQi, in a computer program, in a sculpture, in a mathematical express or in a dance. People fluent in two or more creative expression styles often have that amazing experience of feeling the simultaneous expressions from a common Meta-Thought.  I think that the epiphany of Meta-Thought is captured in part of what E.O.Wilson’s wrote in his book, “Conscilience“.

To me, Meta-Thought is the complex relationships of impressions and feelings that create our thoughts — it is the EN of thought.

Why write about this? I think Meta-Thoughts also inform our theologies and philosophies.  Thus, though two people may have different theologies or philosophies, with careful observations we can sometimes reveal similar Meta-Thought informing both of these apparently diverse expressions. For me, the principal of Meta-Thought is key to fruitful religious dialogue.  Even in the extreme,  I feel that an Atheist and a Theist could each have very similar Meta-Thoughts informing large swatches of their apparently contradictory worldviews.

Note:  I am sure others have said something like this before me and so I have probably made up a term when I don’t need to.  So if the reader knows of these, please let me know.  In linguistics, perhaps my “Meta-Thought” is similar to the concept of Mentalese and in Philosophy of Mind, perhaps it is similar to the Language of Thought Hypothesis.  I am, however, not at all familiar with all  subtle analytic pros and cons of these positions.  My Meta-Thought metaphor is simple but it has served as a good model for me to understand my mind.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion, Science

Cognitive Mysticism



A phrase to describe my beliefs popped to mind today — “Cognitive Mysticism“.  Well, being only two common words, and lots of writers out there, I am sure these two words have been put together before so please excuse me if someone has grabbed them and given them their meaning before me, and please indulge me.

Religious mystics are generally despised by the orthodox in their home religion.  The orthodox value creeds, doctrines and right thinking.  The Mystic values relationships and being.  The mystic’s first offense, a social one, is to deny the need the religious specialists or traditions to communicate to their god.  The Mystic’s second offense, a philosophical one, is to hold doctrines as suspect — Mystics questions the power of language to capture that truth of the encounter with the divine.

I too question authority (while understanding it’s usefulness in the lives of others) and hold that beliefs are merely anchors for our web of life with no more substance than the function they serve.   Our webs of belief capture far deeper realities than the words that string them together.   These deeper realities are our relationships — relationships to ourselves, others and the world we live in.

Cognitive mysticism allows me to dialogue with other faiths without, at times, a need to challenge their treasured assumptions.  If I want to help a person change their way of relating to their world I can still look to change their web while still preserving many of their cherished beliefs.  I can take pleasure in just making them a better version of themselves while they do the same to me.
Related Posts:

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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Defining Religion: a syndrome model


“Religion”: a syndrome definition

A) Religion must offer ALL FIVE of these:

  • Highly valued source(s) Of Knowledge & Authority
    • Living People: Shamans, Priests, Mystics, Ministers, Rabbis …
    • Recorded Texts: ancient and/or modern
    • Tradition: oral, behavioral, institutional
  • In- Group Social bonds
    • Encourages in-group cooperation
    • Offers friends, potential mates, business partners, helpful neighbors
  • Behavioral Norms: ways to teach or reinforce morals, social roles/rituals, gender roles…
    • Threatens penalties for those not obeying rules
    • Sets how to associate with nonbelievers or apostates
  • Promises of a Better Afterlife
    • a better hereafter: either in Heaven (or at least not hell), a better reincarnation, Nirvana, a good life in the Spirit-world etc.
  • Suggest or promise benefits in this life
    • Improved health or total healing
    • Status, security, money,  jobs, prosperous family, abilities
    • Improved personality: ability to overcome hardship, to help others, happiness
    • Improved relationships
    • Special experiences: happiness, bliss, unity, peace, love, forgiveness…
    • Psychological comfort

B) Religion must also have at least two of the below:

  • Spirits: Discuss a supernatural cosmology of spirits, angels, demons, gods etc.
  • Taboos: Defines taboo and pollution issues
  • Explanations of the Unknown:  Offers explanations for what is felt to be otherwise unknowable information: creation myths, origin histories
  • Apocalyptic Visions:  Doomsday scenarios and/or drastic changes coming in the future
  • Narratives:  Offer story telling as a means of offering meaning and bonds. Myths.
  • Rituals:  Offer rituals to satisfy the side of humans seeking safety in order and repetition.  Ritual are used to reinforce the other aspects of the religion.


How to Define “Religion”

Attempts to give a simple, universal definition of  religion are doomed because the word is used in a great many ways. So here I am offering a more complex definition of religion.  And this just a definition that is meant to capture the use of religion when we talk about most of the religions you have heard of and even the ones anthropologists talk about. My approach is to define religion in much the same way as medicine defines syndromes.

In medicine, the notion of a “syndrome” is used to capture human disorders which we don’t yet fully understand. Psychiatry, an area of medicine wrought with incomplete knowledge, has most of its diagnoses in terms of syndromes. Let me show your an example of Psychiatry’s syndrome definition of “Panic Attack” as list in the DSM-IV:

Panic Attack:

Must have all of these:

  • Intense fear or discomfort
  • Developing Abruptly
  • Peaking within 10 minutes

Must have at least 4 of these:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Chills or hot flushes
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feeling of choking
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Palpitations or tachycardia
  • Paresthesias
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Sense of impending doom
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking

So you see, for some internal state to qualify as a panic attack it has a few conditions it must meet and then it may or may not have a certain number of other traits.  Thus, two people’s panic attacks could be qualitatively incredibly different experiences and still called “panic attacks”.

Likewise, I think we should be able to build a syndrome for religion which allows for a wide variety of religious experiences but still is not so nebulous as to be meaningless.  The definition I put together above is just my fumbling at what a syndrome definition of  “religion” would look like.  What should I add, or subtract — please help me build this.   Also, perhaps others have done this already — please let me know.


  • Picture: HT: “DirtBrothers“: An Archeology web site
  • One of my favorite books on “What is Religion?” is:  “Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought” by Pascal Boyer.
  • See other “Word!” posts, here.
  • I last updated this definition in February 2019.


Filed under Cognitive Science

Beliefs as Circuit Components


Geiger Counter

Geiger Counter

  • Beliefs are like electronic parts.
  • Each belief can serve several functions depending on relationships.
    (e.g., a capacitor can serve as a filter, blocking DC or it can damp changes in voltage.)
  • Beliefs have relationships to other beliefs and to the outside world (people, activities etc).
  • Using the same beliefs, we get get very different outputs, depending on connections.
    (e.g., imagine a radio and Geiger counter made from similar parts)
  • Using very different beliefs, we can get very similar output/functions. (e.g., a video tape player vs a dvd player)
  • This is how I view beliefs whether those beliefs are the web of beliefs in an atheist or a theist.
  • I care about the output.
  • I care about the relationships and connections
  • I care about the particular belief only secondary to output and relationships, and even then, more in an academic way.
  • As I wrote earlier, beliefs are always linked with emotions, so they play hugely in the mix too.
  • geiger_schematic

    Small Radio

    Small Radio

    Thus, I do not buy into the reductionist model of dissecting each belief and figuring out its individual, unconnected truth value as being meaningful in evaluating a person.  The object is greater than the sum of its parts, because those parts are in relationship.  This view must be common and have a name — can someone help me name it?  I just thought of the analogy tonight.  Before I was using the analogy of beliefs as clothing.  But I like this one better (for now ! smile).

Notes:  Here are some related posts on beliefs:


Filed under Cognitive Science

Darwin’s Signature for Sale: $125

darwin's signature

Believing that a person has something inside–an essence–that makes them what they are is called “Essentialism”.   Essentialism is often accompanied by the belief that this “essence” somehow can rub off on things that person touches or where that person lives — that their essence is contagious.  Such essentialist thinking plays a huge role in our superstitious/religious minds.

Many atheists would be excited to purchase a signature of Charles Darwin for the price I listed above.  They may frame the signature in their house or office.  They would love to show it to their friends.  All this because part of their mind buys into “Essentialism”.  Signatures of Richard Feynman, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould and many others may be equally exciting.   In a similar way an Atheist may boast of having met and shook hands with Margaret Atwood, Steven Pinker, James Randi, Daniel Dennett, or Lance Armstrong.

Being an atheist, being a free thinker or being an agnostic does not protect you from the many deep seated cognitive illusions in the human brain.  You are inescapably human.   Sure, we can try to discipline our minds to avoid these illusions, but then you could not have as richly enjoyed sharing Darwin’s signature, of attending a lecture by Richard Dawkins, or of meeting Steven Hawking.

(1)  Bruce Hood’s new book “SuperSense” discusses this phenomena in an excellent chapter called, “Could You Wear a Killer’s Cardigan?”

(2) OK, I photoshopped that framed signature.  I trust that everyone realizes that I am not selling a signature.  Sorry if anyone was tricked to visiting and reading by my pic — OK, I am a fibber, I am not sorry !  Smile.

(3) Word on the street is that Dawkins’ new book talks about Essentialism too.   This concept is essential in understanding our religious minds.  OK, that does it, I am going to Amazon to order now !


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Sobriety Quote War

whirling_dervishMy view of mind, beliefs and life claims that false beliefs can still be used well and serve what people of diverse views agree to be good.  Thus not all religion is bad, not all religious practice is bad and perhaps at any given time a wrong belief does more good than a correct belief.

This simple paragraph seems to split the blogging atheist community into two camps.  On my recent “What are Beliefs” post,  some colleagues argued against my position.  To accent their point, a poignant quote by George Bernard Shaw was put forward.  So I have decided to put together a little quote war below.  The “Sober Camp” are the hyper-rationalists (who believe that wrong beliefs are always bad because they always lead to bad outcomes)  and the “Drunk Camp” emotive-rationalists (my camp, and yes, I made up that word, who belief emotions and beliefs are always linked and that the emotional life is as important as the mental life – perhaps, at times, more important.)  In a later post, I shall enjoy writing more about alcohol.

“Sober Camp”:  Hyper-Rationalists

“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact than a drunken man is happier than a sober one”
-George Bernard Shaw(Irish literary Critic, Playwright and Essayist. 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature, 1856-1950)

Strength of mind rests in sobriety; for this keeps your reason unclouded by passion.”
-Pythagoras (57- 495 BCE)

“Drunk Camp”:  Emotive-Rationalists

“To the sober person adventurous conduct often seems insanity.”
-Aristotle(Ancient Greek Philosopher, Scientist and Physician, 384 BCE-322 BCE)

“Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy, absent-minded. Someone sober will worry about events going badly. Let the lover be.”
-Jalal ad-Din Rumi(Persian Poet and Mystic, 1207-1273)

“The problem with some people is that when they aren’t drunk, they’re sober.”
-William Butler Yeats(Irish prose Writer, Dramatist and Poet. 1865-1939)

“The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour.”
-William James(American Philosopher and Psychologist, leader of the philosophical movement of Pragmatism, 1842-1910)


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Beliefs: What are they?

From Whence Beliefs

This model captures these ideas:

  • Beliefs are tools to reinforce actions
  • Beliefs are often created by our actions
  • Beliefs are often determined by our dispositions
  • Actions are often belief-independent
  • Emotions inform all beliefs
  • It is usually our desires that form our beliefs and not our beliefs that form our desires.

Below are my other key ideas about beliefs which can’t be seen in this model, but which I illustrated in another model at my “Many-Selves, No-Self” post;

  • Inaccurate beliefs can be useful/good
  • Old beliefs do not disappear – they persist
  • We can hold multiple contradictory beliefs

Beliefs are central to all conversations about religion.  Heck, they are important to politics, science, family — everything.  So I imagine it may be useful to see if we agree on the nature of beliefs before we discuss them.

Here is my recent quick attempt to illustrate how I visualize beliefs.  Now I know that professional psychologists and philosophers have already created models but I am not going to let that stop me from embarrassingly illustrating my crude thoughts — for how else am I going to learn?  But if you do have links to the visual attempts of others, please let me know.
Related Posts:

The trick in illustrative models is to keep them simple enough metaphors (as all models are metaphors) to capture your main thoughts and avoiding to much of a clutter, yet subtle enough to capture many of the obvious complexities of reality.

I will explain the details later, but was hoping I could get a few comments prior.  And meanwhile, I wanted to test how homemade .jpg shows up on the blog.  Smile !


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Changing your beliefs

The Edge.org posed the question:

What have you changed your mind about?  And why?

Self-introspection and confessions of change are very useful.  Before listing some of confessions of the great thinkers at The Edge, let me confess some of my own changes of belief over the years:

  • Acupuncture is an amazingly powerful medical treatment –> NOT
  • Homeopathy works –> NOT
  • Christianity is the answer and Jesus is the way –> NOT
  • Marxism is the answer for the world –> NOT
  • Belief is an all or nothing thing –> NOT

If you get a chance below, please tell us what you use to believe but don’t now.

Now for the Greats !  Hopefully some will want to go to the site and read the details:

  • Memory is stored once –> Memory is constantly recreated.
    Joseph LeDoux, neuroscientist
  • Analogies can explain anything –> NOT
    Piet Hut, astrophysics
  • Perception is useful to the extent it is veridical –> Perception is useful because it is NOT veridical
    Donald Hoffman, cognitive scientist
  • Cultural relativist –> NOT
    Timothy Taylor, archaeologist
  • Mathematical Platonist –> NOT
    Keith Devlin, mathematician
  • Newborns are blank slates –> NOT;  Sexual Orientation is natural –> NOT
    David G. Myers, social psychologist
  • Adult brain does not make new neurons –> Does too !
    Robert Sapolshy, neuroscientist
  • The machinery that allows humans to learn language is “special” –> NOT
    —  Gary Marucs, psychologist
  • Quantum reality is timeless –> Time is real
    Lee Smolin, physicist
  • Science guaranteed ethical behavior  –> NOT
    Ken Ford, physicist
  • Sex Differences are socially constructed –> True but biology is huge
    Diane Halpern, Psychologist
  • Laws of physics are immutable –> NOT
    Paul Davies, physicist
  • Rational thinking would eventual eradicate irrational thinking and supernatural beliefs –> NOT
    Marco Iacoboni, neuroscientist
  • Skepticism is primarily an intellectual virtue, whose goal was truth –> Nope, it is used as a weapon
    Rupert Sheldrake, biologist
  • I once trusted in the wisdom of Nature  –> Mother Nature is not our Friend
    Sam Harris, neuroscience
  • Scientific literature is respected and builds  –> New scientific ideas can be smothered with silence
    Robart Shapiro, chemist
  • I should trust the consensus of experts in disciplines outside my area of expertise  –> Much of scientific opinion and even more of medical opinion fall into the murky area circumscribed by a lack of adequate knowledge about the processes at hand.
    Paul Ewald, biologist
  • I use to believe and prove the Paranormal  –> Now I prove it false
    Susan Blackmore, psychologist
  • I used to believe that you could find out what is true by finding the smartest people and finding out what they think.  –> However, the most brilliant people keep turning out to be wrong.
    Randolph Nesse, psychiatrist

Note:  This is only a partial list stripped of their interesting essays. Here is a link to the book version if you don’t like reading on-line.  The Edge has also written on other questions — see here.   My previous post lists samples of answers to the question, “What do I believe that I can not prove?”.


Filed under Critical Thinking, Philosophy & Religion

Hyper-rationalist Zeal !

Watching-the-rabbleHyper-rationalists feel that, as a commenter on Athiest Nexus wrote, “… [we] want our beliefs to be as accurate as possible — regardless of whether they are comforting or not!”

I am not sure I agree with this. Our beliefs exist in a complex ecological system — the mind. Our beliefs are not isolated entities but come in huge clusters. Let’s say that in a given cluster you have several irrational beliefs but you are not in touch with these beliefs (they are reflexive and unquestioned and unconscious). Now let’s say that in the same cluster you have another irrational belief which you are somewhat in touch with and that this belief is comforting in that it counteracts the negative impacts of the other irrational beliefs. So it you do away with this one belief, you will have unnecessary suffering. Sure it would be nice to fix the whole bunch of them, but mental change rarely happens that way.

Straightening out beliefs is very important when problem solving in a rather scientific way, but otherwise, when we operate on the ecology of our beliefs or on the beliefs of others, we might want to be cautious, slow and gentle with tampering when the belief is comforting and doing no real immediate harm. Accurate is better but happiness sometimes trumps !

Related Post: Web of Beliefs

BTW, I loved this picture from Dawkins’ Coming Out site – unrelated to the post, but wanted to put it up !

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Filed under Cognitive Science