Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Consciousness

The mystery of free will

Brian Gallagher writes: In The Good Place, a cerebral fantasy-comedy TV series, moral philosophy gets teased. On YouTube, the show released a promotional video, “This Is Why Everyone Hates Moral Philosophy,” that gets its title from a line directed at Chidi, a Senegalese professor of moral philosophy who suffers from chronic indecision: The pros and cons of even trivial choices have long paralyzed him. We see him, as a precocious

The power of seeing what is not there

In a review of Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s, Out of Our Minds: A History of What We Think and How We Think, Philip Marsden writes: Wallace Stevens called it ‘the necessary angel’. Ted Hughes thought it ‘the most essential bit of machinery we have if we are going to live the lives of human beings’. Coleridge described its role a little more vigorously: ‘The living Power and prime Agent of all human

The interoceptive turn is maturing as a rich science of selfhood

Noga Arikha writes: In 1926, Virgina Woolf wrote about how, when one is ill: All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane – smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or

Like humans, ravens mirror the distress they witness in others, study suggests

Katherine J. Wu reports: Seeing someone else suffer a big disappointment can have a pretty damaging effect on your own morale. That’s definitely the case with people—and it might be true for ravens, too. New research suggests that, like humans and many other mammals, common ravens (Corvus corax) can read and internalize the emotional states of others. In the study, published today in the journal PNAS, ravens watch their friends

The value of attention and the cost of giving it away

Franklin Foer writes: I can say definitively now that I faltered in pursuit of my New Year’s resolution. My self-improvement project for the year was to read a fresh poem every morning, before glimpsing the accumulation of unresponded email and lifting the lid off Twitter. My purpose, when I explained it to my wife and kids a few hours before midnight, was to ritualistically remind myself of emotions other than

Descartes was wrong. ‘A person is a person through other persons’

By Abeba Birhane According to Ubuntu philosophy, which has its origins in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not a person. People are born without ‘ena’, or selfhood, and instead must acquire it through interactions and experiences over time. So the ‘self’/‘other’ distinction that’s axiomatic in Western philosophy is much blurrier in Ubuntu thought. As the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it in African Religions and Philosophy (1975): ‘I am

How the body and mind talk to one another to understand the world

By Sarah Garfinkel Have you ever been startled by someone suddenly talking to you when you thought you were alone? Even when they apologise for surprising you, your heart goes on pounding in your chest. You are very aware of this sensation. But what kind of experience is it, and what can it tell us about relations between the heart and the brain? When considering the senses, we tend to

Frans de Waal embraces animal emotions in ‘Mama’s Last Hug’

Sy Montgomery writes: The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She

The blind spot of science is the neglect of lived experience

Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser, and Evan Thompson write: The problem of time is one of the greatest puzzles of modern physics. The first bit of the conundrum is cosmological. To understand time, scientists talk about finding a ‘First Cause’ or ‘initial condition’ – a description of the Universe at the very beginning (or at ‘time equals zero’). But to determine a system’s initial condition, we need to know the total

A resonance theory of consciousness

Tam Hunt writes: Why are some things conscious and others apparently not? Is a rat conscious? A bat? A cockroach? A bacterium? An electron? These questions are all aspects of the ancient “mind-body problem,” which has resisted a generally satisfying conclusion for thousands of years. The mind-body problem enjoyed a major rebranding over the last two decades and is generally known now as the “hard problem” of consciousness (usually capitalized

‘Self-aware’ fish raises questions about mirror test

Elizabeth Preston writes: A little blue-and-black fish swims up to a mirror. It maneuvers its body vertically to reflect its belly, along with a brown mark that researchers have placed on its throat. The fish then pivots and dives to strike its throat against the sandy bottom of its tank with a glancing blow. Then it returns to the mirror. Depending on which scientists you ask, this moment represents either

The unexamined inner lives of insects

Lars Chittka and Catherine Wilson write: René Descartes’s dog, Monsieur Grat (‘Mister Scratch’), used to accompany the 17th-century French philosopher on his ruminative walks, and was the object of his fond attention. Yet, for the most part, Descartes did not think very highly of the inner life of nonhuman animals. ‘[T]he reason why animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they

Could consciousness all come down to the way things vibrate?

What do synchronized vibrations add to the mind/body question? agsandrew/Shutterstock.com By Tam Hunt, University of California, Santa Barbara Why is my awareness here, while yours is over there? Why is the universe split in two for each of us, into a subject and an infinity of objects? How is each of us our own center of experience, receiving information about the rest of the world out there? Why are some

Octopuses on ecstasy reveal genetic link to evolution of social behaviors in humans

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine: By studying the genome of a kind of octopus not known for its friendliness toward its peers, then testing its behavioral reaction to a popular mood-altering drug called MDMA or “ecstasy,” scientists say they have found preliminary evidence of an evolutionary link between the social behaviors of the sea creature and humans, species separated by 500 million years on the evolutionary tree. A summary

Peter Tse: Free will — essence and nature

 

We are more than our brains

Alan Jasanoff writes: Brains are undoubtedly somewhat computer-like – computers, after all, were invented to perform brain-like functions – but brains are also much more than bundles of wiry neurons and the electrical impulses they are famous for propagating. The function of each neuroelectrical signal is to release a little flood of chemicals that helps to stimulate or suppress brain cells, in much the way that chemicals activate or suppress