Friday, January 18, 2013

Criticism of _Athene's Theory of Everything_

Criticism of _Athene's Theory of Everything_:

Part 1:

"The human brain is a network of approximately 100 billion neurons."
Its interesting that he didn't mention the number of connections. Each neuron has thousands of connections to other neurons. So, the more interesting number to ponder is the number of connections between neurons, which is on the order of 700 trillion.

Note that as we create new ideas, we are creating new connections. So the more we solve problems, the more connections we make.

Its interesting to me how neuroscientists focus on neurons and neuroplasticity but not on philosophy.

"Different *experiences* create different neural connections which bring about different emotions."
Notice that he says experiences. What does he mean by that? It seems that he's saying that one's experience is only a result of one's environment. But that is false. One's ideas play a causal role too, and a more important one. And more importantly, one's ideas also plays a causal role in the manifestation of his emotions.

"And depending on which neurons get stimulated, certain connections become stronger and more efficient, while others may become weaker. This is what's called neuroplasticity."
This is true, though I don't think its important. Whats happening is that when an axon has a signal pass through it, that stimulates a response that causes more mylen sheath to be added to the axon. Mylen sheath acts as an electric insulator allowing for the signals to pass through faster.

The reason I think its not important is that it relies on exterior factors rather than on one's free will. It hints at the idea of habits and how habits form. And that habits can change. And it implies that habits can be hard to change, because of this extra mylen sheath effect. But the reality is that with better philosophy, one can change his habits more effectively, more effortlessly, more quickly.

I'd like to say something that is consistent with the author's explanation. He says that we can get good at what we put effort in. This is true, but not always, and his explanation doesn't explain why sometimes it doesn't work. And the reason it can't explain that is his explanation is void of philosophy.

He's saying that our talents are created by us -- that we are not born with them. I agree. But why this is true the author doesn't explain.

We are born with zero talent. All we have is the capacity to guess and criticize. (More on this later.)

As we live, we create interest in things. And those interests are the reasons for which we spend time thinking about those things.

And the more we think about something, the more we are solving problems in that field. From as far back as I can remember, I was interested in knowing how the world works. From as far back as my mom can remember, she was interested in knowing how to express people and the world in art (drawing, painting, etc.). So with years of thinking (aka problem solving) about our interests, we improved our skill (aka talent). We were not born with talent. We created talent.

"Specific neurons and neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, trigger a defensive state when we feel that our thoughts have to be protected from the influence of others."
(Side note: Sounds like Cognitive Dissonance theory, which is fundamentally flawed.)

That implies that a brain chemical causes this defensive state. But that is false. The cause is one's ideas. And if a person has certain bad ideas, then the norepinephrine gets triggered.

"If we are then confronted with differences in opinion, the chemicals that are released in the brain are the same ones that try to ensure our survival in dangerous situations."

Again this only happens with people who have the bad idea that these situations are bad. They fear the experience of having a conflict of ideas. Why do they fear that? The author doesn't explain. They fear it because they lived a life of conflicts of ideas (aka disagreements) that didn't end well. They disagreed with their parents and their parents coerced them to conform, rather than trying to persuade them. If one lives his whole childhood like this, he doesn't have much knowledge about how conflicts of ideas (aka disagreements) should be approached, and how they can be pleasant, even sought after for fun. Note that I do it for fun. I post my ideas knowing that some people will disagree and those disagreements are fun to me because it leads to me learning something new -- e.g. some new perspective that I've never thought of before. Sometimes the hair on my arms stands when I learn something new.

The reality is that the only difference between me and others is our philosophy (aka worldview). Anybody can learn this philosophy and thus change his attitude towards conflicts of ideas (aka disagreements).

"In this defensive state, the more primitive part of the brain interferes with rational thinking and the limbic system can knock out most of our working memory, physically causing 'narrow-mindedness'. We see this in the politics of fear, in the strategy of poker players or simply when someone is stubborn in a discussion. No matter how valuable the idea is, the brain has trouble processing it when it is in such a state. On a neural level, it reacts as if we're being threatened, even if this threat comes from harmless opinions or facts that we may otherwise find helpful and could rationally agree with."

I agree. But again, its one's ideas that causes that "defensive state".

"But when we express ourselves and our views are appreciated, these 'defense chemicals' decrease in the brain and dopamine neurotransmission activates the rewards neurons, making us feel empowered and increasing our self-esteem."

Again that is true *if and only if* one has the idea that causes that -- namely the idea that social acceptance is important. Note that I do not have a goal of social acceptance. If people like me (aka my ideas), then we can be friends, coworkers, etc. If not, then we don't need to be friends/coworkers. And I have no negative feelings if that happens.

"Our beliefs have a profound impact on our body chemistry, this is why placebos can be so effective. Self-esteem or self-belief is closely linked to the neurotransmitter serotonin. When the lack of it takes on severe proportions, it often leads to depression, self-destructive behavior or even suicide."

Notice the author admits that our ideas (aka beliefs/values/philosophy/worldview) have a profound impact on our body chemistry. He's right, but I don't think he understands this well (as evidenced by the fact that he didn't mention this previously with respect to whether or not our ideas cause us to create the "defensive state").

"Social validation increases the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain and allows us to let go of emotional fixations and become self-aware more easily."

No. That only happens with people who have the idea/belief/value/worldview/philosophy that social validation is important.

To summarize, this is my understanding of the causal chain:

(1) A person is presented with a string of words and other body language and facial expression (that he has not yet interpreted).

(2) He thinks about those words (aka interprets them). Most of this processing is subconscious and inexplicit.

(3) If (2) resulted in the understanding that there was a disagreement AND if the person has the anti-rational meme that disagreements are bad and will end badly, then his brain fires neurochemicals that causes it to enter the defensive state. And this is what people experience as emotion.

(4) If (3) resulted in the defensive state, then the brain is now less capable of rationality while the brain is still in that defensive state.

Part 2:

Athene takes brain scans of his subjects and generalizes to the entire human population, implying that *all* people have this mirror neuron effect in *every* social situation. Its a parochial mistake. One that he's making because he doesn't know that all emotion/thought/behavior is theory-laden.

He says that the brain scans indicate that a person has an emotion before the person is conscious of it. Judging from the fact that he juxtaposed this idea with the previous one about mirror neurons, I think he's using this as his reasoning for his explanation that we are not in control of our emotions. But his reasoning is flawed. I agree that the subconscious does its work before serving its result to the conscious (consistent with his brain scan findings), but that does not imply that the conscious is not capable of changing the subconscious. So, we *are* in control.

Consider this. A person is born to parents that are not skilled in conflict resolution -- so conflicts in this family routinely end in yelling and negative emotion. This child is *conditioned* to react to conflicts with negative emotion, because that is what he experienced his whole life.

People who are conditioned in this way will react to conflicts with negative emotion. And people who are not conditioned that way, will not react with negative emotion.

In the future, people will be raised by parents who are highly skilled in conflict resolution -- so conflicts in these families end well, i.e. no yelling and no negative emotion. These children will not be conditioned to react to conflicts with negative emotion. They'll instead have a positive attitude towards conflicts -- one of optimism that conflicts will end well.

But even before that future, people who are conditioned in this way can change their conditioning. After changing their conditioning, these people will not react to conflicts with negative emotion. They'll be optimistic that each conflict will end well. They are so good at conflict resolution that they seek it out for fun, e.g. by publicly posting quotes by authors that many people disagree with.

Humans have the capacity for reason. We have the capacity to choose to change our conditioning, and to create/learn the necessary methodological knowledge to do it. Other animals do not have this capacity. They can only *be* conditioned by their masters -- in the case of domesticated animals -- or by the members of their social groups -- in the case of wild animals.

Part 3 through 5 (not done yet)


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