4 May 2014

Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, by Scott Weems (Basic Books)
Humour: A Very Short Introduction, by Noël Carroll (Oxford)

Trying to explain a joke has long been considered a paradigm of pedantic futility. That hasn’t stopped thinkers through the ages erecting vast and subtle theories of comedy. But none of them had brain-scanners. Perhaps cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems can explain once and for all why Louis CK is funny and David Cameron isn’t.

Very early on, the book’s ultramodern tone is set. We are invited to agree that no one could ever have properly known anything about a complex sociocultural phenomenon before lab volunteers started being rolled gently into fMRI tubes. “Humour has some very clear ingredients,” Weems says, “ones that science is just now beginning to reveal.” That sounds exciting. Let’s see what they are. When people in scanners found certain cartoons funny, Weems explains, various parts of their brains increased in activation, and those parts are associated with the “dopamine reward circuit”. What does this reveal to us about the nature of humour? Sweet FA, unless it had never occurred to you that it is pleasurable to be amused. The “dopamine reward circuit”, according to other studies, also gets a jolly workout from cocaine, chocolate and video games. So: nothing new about humour here.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

11 February 2013

Does the cosmos have a purpose? Is it us?

It was an idea long consigned to the dustbin of scientific history. ‘Like a virgin consecrated to God,’ Francis Bacon declared nearly 400 years ago, it ‘produces nothing’. It was anti-rational nonsense, the last resort of unfashionable idealists and religious agitators. And then, late last year, one of the world’s most renowned philosophers published a book arguing that we should take it seriously after all. Biologists and philosophers lined up to give the malefactor a kicking. His ideas were ‘outdated’, complained some. Another wrote: ‘I regret the appearance of this book.’ Steven Pinker sneered at ‘the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker’. The Guardian called it ‘the most despised science book of 2012’. So what made everyone so angry?

The thinker was Thomas Nagel, the book was Mind and Cosmos, and the idea was teleology.

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.

19 December 2012

Genes, Cells and Brains, by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose

We have outsourced the job of interpreting ourselves to the modern life sciences. The decoding of the human genome will tell us who we really are, pledged the gene-merchants. Brain scans will tell us who we really are, swore the neuro-hustlers. And what did we get? We got suckered. It turns out that humans have roughly as many protein-encoding genes as a fruit fly, and that fMRI scanning is still such an inexact art that a team of satirical neuroscientists have demonstrated significant “brain activity” in a dead salmon.

This fascinating, lucid and angry book by the sociologist Hilary Rose and the neurobiologist Steven Rose (they are married) boasts abundant targets and a lethally impressive hit ratio. They decry the entrepreneurialisation of science – “wealth creation is now unabashedly formalised as the chief objective of science and technology policy” – not least because it actually impedes science. (“PhD students can work for months on a project only to find that they cannot continue as they have run into a patent.”) They lambast the “armchair” theorising of evolutionary psychology, with its ungrounded assumption that we have “stone-age minds in the 21st century”. They scorn the “neuromyths” sold to the educational establishment, with the result that schoolchildren become the unwitting subjects of uncontrolled experiments in applying alleged lessons from animal psychology to the classroom.

The book performs in high style the necessary public service of recomplicating the simplistic hogwash hysterically blasted at us by both uncritical science reporters and celebrity scientists.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

8 November 2012

On the history and future of human enhancement

In The Matrix, one of the machines’ sharp-suited kung-fu enforcers, Agent Jones, is standing over Neo on a rooftop, about to kill him. Jones looks down and sneers: “Only human.” Arguably it is something like this contempt for the merely human — or a kind of embarrassment at it — that has driven humans themselves, over the millennia, to pursue self-enhancement. For a long time now, indeed, few of us have been “only human” in the sense of getting through life solely on what biology has given us. Spectacles, contact lenses, dental crowns and implants, pacemakers, running shoes — all these are technological improvements to the capacities of a human body, and thus enhancements. Even clothes, adopted according to the Bible after a moment of Edenic shame at what is “only human”, are enhancements, enabling us to live in hostile climates. Now, improvements in cognitive pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering and hi-tech prostheses enable some to dream of a future of accelerating species enhancement, reaching a point where we will have become — what? Übermenschen; cyborgs; post-humans? Or just better versions of ourselves?

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.

6 September 2012

The neurovision wrong contest

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism — aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash — and it’s everywhere. Continued →

21 April 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer (Canongate)

How did Bob Dylan write “Like a Rolling Stone”? The pop-science writer Jonah Lehrer wasn’t there, but he pretends to know anyway. Inspired by Dylan’s own description of “vomiting” forth the song’s lyrics, Lehrer peers inside the singer’s 1965 skull and announces confidently that the “right hemisphere” of Dylan’s brain was combining “scraps” or “fragments” of existing songs and poetry in a “mental blender”, before spitting out a set of “lyrics that make little literal sense”.

Strange, because “How does it feel / To be without a home” and so forth makes a fair amount of literal sense to me. Continued →

26 June 2010

Living in the End Times, by Slavoj Žižek (Verso)

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has an admirable form of reply to the near-continuous dribble of attacks on him, whether from the bienpensant liberals he so enjoys provoking, or even, as last year in the conservative American magazine The New Republic, a crazed and borderline illiterate review alleging that Zizek was a “fascist” and also anti-Semitic. He simply writes another book. Continued →

7 November 2009

The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen (Allen Lane)

Humans are often misled by abstract nouns of their own making, and sometimes the bamboozlement can last centuries or more. Because one can say the word “justice”, one might conclude that a singular thing or essence called “justice” actually exists. And so one could spend a life trying to figure out what this abstract animal called “justice” really is, and fail to pay much attention to problems of justice in the world.

The eminent professor and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has chosen for his deeply interesting synthesis of political philosophy, economics, and “social choice theory” a title that might at first appear rather bland, but it is holding two opposing ideas in a kind of dynamic stasis. Half the implication is indeed that it is possible to spend too much time on justice-as-a-mere-idea. But the other half is an insistence that justice-the-idea could be reengineered to work better as a basis for “practical reasoning”, such that it might improve the world. Continued →