Concept representation
Posted: 09 May 2005 03:44 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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One last post from TYHTS, then I'm back to being known only as "homunculus." I didn't like my former name once I learned to pronounce it, though I can think of no greater natural beauty than its aural counterparts.

Ed has said that gman

. . . has been working on a resolution of knowledge representation in brain tissue (I think it's actually what he calls concept representation) and the sense of "understanding.'"

Since this sounds similar to what Sam Harris is working on, it would seem to deserve some attention. Here's how Sam's current work is described in the homepage of this website, under "About" [Sam]:

He is now completing a doctorate in neuroscience, studying the neuro basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. . . .

Gman, neurological concept representation is obviously problematic, particularly once conclusions become highly definitive, and if you have been successful in achieving results that seem positive, I would tend to wonder just a bit. But I hope you take my questioning with the positive spirit in which it's being posed. Although I have my doubts, I'm also confident that you have extensive explanations that will, if you choose to offer them, settle the questions I want to ask you. Who am I to worry about someone else's carefully structured research? I am no one. However, no one that I am, I understand that "concepts" simply don't exist on any kind of literal level. But I'm sure you're already very well aware of this fact.

I certainly hope no one here is seeking out brain sites containing "evil." I've heard that some of the more religious guys at Harvard have this goal mind. Obviously, evil is one of many terms that are backed up by inadequate understanding. In a previous posting, I wrote:

A recent New York Times article—“For the Worst of Us, the Diagnosis May Be ‘Evil’ ” (Feb. 6)—seems to treat "evil" as an entity complete with Platonic underpinnings. The article discussed various ways psychiatrists are trying to neurologically quantify evil in people's brains. This seems to me to be foolhardy and a futile waste of time, as an evolutionary approach treats evil as a concept with a survival purpose involving harm or potential harm. Seen this way, evil is something that will never be measurable, since only the people being threatened or harmed (or their allies) perceive the evil. Inevitably, "evildoers" rarely if ever see themselves as such and their motives are too subtly complex ever be detected in brain scans.

What we refer to as a concept, if it's reduced far enough, winds up being instead a vagueness. A typical concept is nothing more than a combination of mental forces dictated by emotion (extremely primitive) and already-structured equations, so to speak, designed to conform information onto specific routes. Although I applaud your attempt to ferret out such neuro detail, I can't imagine how "concepts" could possibly be stored or planted at discretely definable neurological sites—simply because there's no such thing, in a literal sense, as a concept, as most people assume to know it. Rather, when we refer to most concepts, we draw on structures that are extremely general and widely dispersed neurologically.

I'll be a little more concrete. Fundamentalists base their salvation on their faith, right? I've attempted in other threads, perhaps not with much success, to tease apart and unravel words such as "faith" and "belief." What sense does it make to examine mere words? The reason I go after certain words is because I know of no better method of examining the concepts that undergird those words. The fact that "belief" and "faith" have no sensible meaning in their current usage tells me that the concepts they describe are equally conflicted, and that users of such words fail to communicate anything containing rational sense.

Let's get even more specific. Say a Champion-type (saintly in every respect—no insult intended, friend. Your name has achieved some notoriety and is therefore illustrative) is told in no uncertain terms that some concept is true. This instructor, whoever he is, has Champ's undying devotion. He might be the local head pastor, but Champion seems to have an intellectual bent. Maybe it would take someone with more authority—say a popular Christian author, or nationally-renowned teacher within Champ's denomination. Champion listens to this person and accepts the concept without question as being in every sense "true."

Neurologically, what has taken place? Does some specific spot in Champion's brain contain the new truth? Of course not, because Champion has not actually digested the "truth" as being as literally true as he has previously digested the fact that he has X number of children and a wife named so-and-so. The latter concepts may well be rooted in discrete points on his brain. But storage of false facts (aka concepts reduced to literality) are more subtle. Of course, it's entirely possible that Champ "knows" the new information his mentor has given him in the same literally-valid sense that he knows that he has X number of children and is married to what's-her-name. But I suspect that he would need to be inhumanly constructed for such an occurrence to have taken place. He would need to have been transformed by the God of Champion's Bible to have resulted in such a miracle. Indeed, New Testament scripture describes miraculous mental inscribing to take place among believers. St. Paul and other New Testament authors were amazingly competent mind theorists for their time. But I'm digressing.

In my analysis, I'm using the example of one fictional person (I've never actually met the person who posts under the name of Champion) because of the inherent drama of his story. But I could easily describe processes that universally occur with all people. Most may not be under quite the spell that Champion is, but we've all been hypnotized many times and indoctrinated variously. We all form our concepts in startlingly naive ways, and if we did otherwise, we would not be human. The way we mentally operate is inherent to who we are. You know the drill.

Here's what seems to take place: 1) Champion takes in a bit of information; 2) Due to the authoritative source of the information, Champion accepts it without question as being factual; 3) Champion simultaneously realizes that the information makes no sense in the real world (in other words, it's miraculous), and he chooses to ignore the impossibility of it because he's afraid of going to Hell to suffer an eternity in flames, or perhaps some other afterlife nonsense contributes to his expectations. He does not actually experience these feelings every time his authoritative source speaks to him, but his brain has become "wired up" to act as though he were actually feeling the fear, etc.
So the information is slotted (thanks, SkepticX and CanZen) into a part of the brain-mind that accepts fiction as being as good as fact. Where is this slot? Neurological specificity seems futile, since so many neuro areas need to be involved in this mind game of nonsensical "belief."

Illusion is a tricky thing. The closer it is examined by its host (i.e., Champion), the more likely it is to vanish, properly so. But if the illusion-concept-belief is supported and/or created by a variety of brain functions (rather than discrete sites), it would seem to have potential viability and permanence.

Does it even make sense to conclude that information could possibly reside at specific brain sites if the information in fact is made up of logic so tortured that it doesn't even qualify as a concept or belief?

Call it representation/support of faith, concept, belief, disbelief, notion—take your choice. Trying to objectify it in any ultimate sense—even by way of formidable PET scan technology—seems like a waste of a great deal of effort. If I'm mistaken about your implied intent, please reply with your insights or a description of positive results you've attained. Actually, I have no way of knowing what your intent is, and I have no antagonism whatsoever toward the area of your research—only respectful doubt. Previous research involving specific brain tissue sites that trigger autonomic response through probing is encouraging and inspires further examination. But I suspect that "concepts" are just not hard-wired enough to follow suit with what has been previously successful.

Summing up my critiquing question: If something that is said to exist doesn't actually exist, can it possibly be pinpointed in the brain in the way that it is mistakenly thought to be?

Dave

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Posted: 09 May 2005 05:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Ya but…...ya but, what about the holy spirt, who leads us and guides us into all truth? What about the word of God, which is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path?

Do not they bear witness to the truth? And what if the truth they give unto the believer conflicts with the logic presented by man? Who do I go with?

My heart and my head say there is a God, as evidenced by creation. Nobody pulled the wool over me. I inspect what anybody says and measure it by the Word. If it don’t line up, I don’t buy it. God already knows that man would think it foolish to use the cross and sacrifice as a way of saving the masses. But he’s not concerned. He’s God. We have to line up with him, not him lining up with us.

And God cares about each and every one of us, including you. So he will send Godly men to lead and guide the flock. And Godly influences to build up the faith.

So go ahead and dissect the mental processes all you want, the bottom line is all have come short of the glory and God and God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should have everlasting life, including you, my friend.

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Posted: 10 May 2005 05:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Dave,

Ed here.  Keep coming back to the science topic to see if anything is shaking! But haven’t been very inspired of late. Until I saw this.

I’ve just talked to gman to let him know about your post.  He apologizes but declines to engage at this time.  I’m afraid I’m not able to adequately anwser your question since I work in a very different area and only vaguely grasp what he is doing.  He did say, however, to keep your eyes on the neuroscience literature regarding the neural substrates of concept representation.  Apparently there are a number of people working on this and some papers are in the pipeline as we speak.  In the meantime he suggests you pick up the most recent copy of Discover.  There is an article about face recognition neruons that might surprise you.

Personally, I think your working definition of concept might be too narrow.  Everything that is encoded in the neocortex is or relates to concepts (as well as percepts).  And having a concept of something that isn’t real is no different.  Concepts are formed from lower level concepts, so I suspect many areas of the cortex are going to light up when a specific concept is envoked.

Another area you might want to investigate is constructionist theories about learning.  There are numerous neurobiological studies that support the cognitive psychological theories.  I think this would be a more fruitful approach to understanding how someone like Champ can come to believe myths to be true concepts.  But again, I’m not the one to explicate it!  Just my thoughts.  Sorry for what may be a less than satisfying response. G sends his best to those who have made serious attempts to discuss science, but still feels the signal to noise ratio is too costly to contend with.  Guess I’m just a glutton for punishment!

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Posted: 10 May 2005 06:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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So the information is slotted (thanks, SkepticX and CanZen) into a part of the brain-mind that accepts fiction as being as good as fact. Where is this slot? Neurological specificity seems futile, since so many neuro areas need to be involved in this mind game of nonsensical “belief.”

Oh boy, this is way out of my depth, but I have an observation to contribute.  As a result of living around folks like the champ, my thoughts, based upon many observations, is that the response engendered when their “beliefs” are questioned is akin to “fight or flight.”  This leads me to conclude that somehow the threat has become hard-wired to the second most primitive part of the brain.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I don’t think it is a higher brain function at all, but the conditioning is much, much deeper.  Intellect has nothing whatever to do with it, and I base that on the quickness of the response, in person, of course.

Again, I have no background, training, or experience in the field.

Holy spirit, indeed!

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Posted: 10 May 2005 07:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Next, science is going to say that the brains of believers are pre-wired for belief in God, or something like that. Or that our brains have a pre-disposition to cognitive belief in God.

That way they can accomplish several things: one-a backhanded patronizing compliment because there are so many millions of believers; two-a theory as to explain why we believe (therefore, it is all brain wiring and not the work of the holy spirit and the scripture was not responsible for building up faith). I see it coming a mile away.

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Posted: 10 May 2005 07:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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[quote author=“TheChampion”]Next, science is going to say that the brains of believers are pre-wired for belief in God, or something like that.

No way to heaven for born heathens

Issue 2492 of New Scientist magazine, 26 March 2005, page 20
 
HOW religious you are as an adult depends at least partly on your genes, a study of twins suggests. Past studies have found that children tend to mirror the religious beliefs and behaviour of their parents. Now a team led by Laura Koenig at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis has shown that the influence of environmental factors wanes in adulthood, while genetic factors become more important in determining how religious a person is.

The team asked 169 pairs of identical twins and 104 pairs of fraternal twins born in Minnesota, all male and in their early 30s, how often they and their family went to religious services, prayed and discussed religious teachings compared with when they were growing up. While the identical twins’ behaviour remained similar in adulthood, greater differences emerged between fraternal twins as they aged (Journal of Personality, vol 73, p 471).

“That would suggest genetic factors are becoming more important and growing up together less important,” says team member Matt McGue. “Maybe, ultimately, we all decide what we’re most comfortable with, and it may have more to do with our own make-up than how we were treated when we were adolescents.”

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Posted: 10 May 2005 07:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Quote: “That would suggest genetic factors are becoming more important and growing up together less important,” says team member Matt McGue. “Maybe, ultimately, we all decide what we’re most comfortable with, and it may have more to do with our own make-up than how we were treated when we were adolescents.”

The ultimate key buzzwords in most scientific are always, would suggest, maybe, could be, might have been, etc., etc. Everytime I watch science programs on cable they always use the buzzwords. The question is, how much do we know for sure-brass tacks? I think, not much.

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Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matt 11:28-29

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Posted: 10 May 2005 07:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Hey Salerio, that was pretty interesting info, by the way.

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Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matt 11:28-29

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Posted: 10 May 2005 09:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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Ed, thanks for the quick reply. It really does come down to how we define concepts. My concerns are Wittgensteinian in the sense that I fear those who are able to make scientific sense out of illusion. I can picture future district attorneys relying on brain-scan technology to save money otherwise spent on gathering evidence. Such a future will surely come to be, and I only hope we are extremely cautious about defining concepts behind words such as “evil,” “intent,” “believe,” and many others.

I also realize that this forum is no substitute for peer review. Unfortunately, lots of scientists these days like to bypass peer review and go directly to popular media, who have no way of knowing how to interpret validity in the results of esoteric studies. I’ll just trust that both Sam and gman practice highly ethical research.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
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Posted: 10 May 2005 09:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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What I would be curious to know, is if there are neuro-biological differences between beliefs (concepts, precepts, etc.)  that are “imported” from the worldview of parents and role models, and beliefs that are arrived at on one’s own.  I would further be curious to know if these differences (if they exist) are universal, or if they are experienced only by some of the population.

I have a sneaking suspicion that inasmuch as certain types of belief turn out to be gene-linked traits, the mechanism has to do with this equivalency of belief (or not).

We know that some people are more traditional than others.  We know that some people (such as myself) manage to turn their backs on indoctrination, and replace large sectors of their worldview.

I strongly suspect that this division of belief modes is an evolved trait.  After all, if everyone believed what they were told, and never questioned it, there would be no progress.  On the other hand, if everybody questioned everything, nothing could ever be established long enough for there to be progress.

I am, however, very glad that people are taking the time to honestly investigate these things.  It is becoming increasingly clear to me (and to others, I suspect) that if people want to thrive in modern times, we need to be able to recognize those aspects of our behavior which stem from our biology, but are no longer being helpful, and set them aside.  Understanding exactly how our biology works is the first step.

-Matt

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Posted: 10 May 2005 12:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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How many would like to see Faith, as it is commonly practiced, become or be recognized as vestigial?

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Posted: 10 May 2005 06:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Please bear with me on this, I am not quite up to par but I agree with Matt and others there is basic biology at work here, I am just not sure its a cognative issue.  As a woman, I think I might be more aware of the effect of biology on my own thought processes. 

Looking at all the irrational gauntlet of human emotion, love, hate ect…I would tend to put spirituality right up there as a basic human emotion that affects people in different degrees.

Love is blind, hate is blind, faith is blind….

So genetic predispostion coupled with a hitherto non identified chemical reaction causing intense feelings that short circuit logic and reason with a feeling of certainty in belief?  What would be the link here with survival?

Anyway, just thinking that arguing with Champ about his beliefs is just as futile as arguing with one of my college friends about the guy she was “in love” with being so very bad for her.  She also became pissy and defensive, and despite concrete evidence to the contrary, persisted with her irrational emotional state for some time.  This leads me to believe that the basic emotion isn’t fear, although the reaction when challenging these emotional based beliefs is definately fight or flight.

I know science has identified chemicals in chocolate that can bind with receptors that minic the emotion of being in love.  I know many of our new treatments for mental illness are based on the chemistry of the brain and neuron receptors.

What if spirituality and faith based belief are very similar to the emotion of love?  Hormonal, triggered, pleasurable, illogical, with all humans having either more or less of the capacity to feel this emotion based on genetic predisposition and enviromental influences?  After all they have been screaming “God is Love” for about 4 centuries now. 

I think anything that fails to take into account the emotional context of faith misses a huge aspect of what might be taking place in the brain.

Excuse me if you all already knew this !!

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Posted: 10 May 2005 09:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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[quote author=“TheChampion”]
The ultimate key buzzwords in most scientific are always, would suggest, maybe, could be, might have been, etc., etc. Everytime I watch science programs on cable they always use the buzzwords. The question is, how much do we know for sure-brass tacks? I think, not much.

Champ,

This is the only intelligent thing you have ever said on this website. You realise that we do not know all the answers, all we can do is come up with suggestions to be tested. You seem disappointed that science does not provide the answers, so you have decided to dismiss it in favour of the certainty of religious mythology. You clearly have a strong intellectual need for closure that overrides your need for the answer to make any sense.

How about a few less buzzwords (‘holy spirit’, ‘god’s word’, ‘eternal damnation’) from you and a little more humility in the face of all we don’t know about the world?

Not that I care, one way of another, just wanted to acknowledge your unintentioned logic. Please don’t respond with a bible quote, you’ll kill the moment.

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Posted: 11 May 2005 04:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Folks,

I got this email from g late yesterday.  I guess he does care about you guys!

PS I changed the moniker to hide my true identity!!!

Ed

I thought there were some very serious ideas posted on that board, but my impression is that most of the serious posters had more of a philosophical bent than a scientific one.  Thats ok of course. We need all rational thoughts. But I just didn’t get a sense that there was much real interest in *pursuing* the science as just talking about it.  I posted a reading list once and, as I recall got very little traction with it.

Anyway, if you are still posting you might pass on to those who are interested that if they are really wanting to explore the philosophy of mind angle I’d recommend the recent book (very accessible I think) by John Searle, “Mind: A Brief Introduction”.  He explores the philosophical issues involved in representation (memories, intentionality, etc.) as well as supports the neurobiological scientific program for explicating consciousness, intentionality and the like.

I’d also recommend that the board introduce a “Philosophy” topic and then subdivide it into areas like philosophy of mind, neurophilosophy (e.g., the Churchlands’ work), philosophy of religion even.  That might be a more topical venue for many of the “seeker” type posts.

You have my permission to share this with the board.
g

So I did!

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