A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert A. Burton, 2013

skeptics-guide-to-the-mindOur Superscanner can only record the presence of an unconsciously mediated intention in one of two ways—as part of the brain’s baseline activity, or as a discrete neural pattern that stand out from the baseline.  If the former, it won’t be detectable.  If the latter, we won’t be able to recognize the pattern for what it is (we have neither objective nor descriptive access to unconscious intentions).  Either way, unconscious intention is beyond the reach of neuroscientific inquiry.  145

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Burton argues that there are inherent limits to what humans can learn from neuroscience.  It’s not a lack of technology or scientific creativity that’s holding us back—the nature of consciousness, especially the secretive nature of the unconsciousness mind, will forever leave some questions about the mind outside of the domain of empirical science.

The primary tool we use to investigate the human mind is the human mind itself.  All the flaws of our mind will necessarily cloud our investigations into consciousness, in the same way that a foggy microscope literally clouds our view of microbes.  We must accept that our tool is flawed, and no matter how clever we become we can never completely compensate for the way that the mind skews investigations.

Some of the “mental sensations” that are key in scientific inquiry (the sense of understanding, the sense of doubt, the sense of confidence in a belief) are involuntary.  These sensations simply appear, outside of and separate from conscious reasoning.

Even if we think a theory or argument is convincing, we cannot choose to feel convinced by it, in exactly the same way that a paranoid schizophrenic cannot choose to feel in his bones that no one is following him, even if mountains of evidence allow him to think he isn’t being followed.

His claims that some things are—and will remain—outside the domain of science is convincing.  The subjectivity of consciousness (perhaps its defining feature) will by its nature elude scientist pursuit.

However, I come away feeling that I should have read his other book, On Being Certain, as I found his discussions of involuntary mental sensations much more interesting than his debunking of exaggerated or unfounded claims about consciousness.  He describes these sensations:

Take a look at your hands.  Though you have no doubt that these hands are yours, this determination doesn’t require any conscious deliberation.  This feeling of ownership is pure sensation, no different from feeling the weight of the book that you’re presently holding in your hand.  18-19

The ways that these sensations color our perceptions without our knowledge is intriguing and horrifying.  He speculates that miscalibrated mental sensations may be responsible for a skeptical or know-it-all disposition, and may even cause severe mental illness, such as paranoid schizophrenia (too certain of unfounded beliefs) and obsessive-compulsive behavior (too uncertain of obvious truths).

Ideas per Page:1 5/10 (medium)

Related Books: Free Will by Sam Harris

Recommend to Others: Not unless already interested

Reread Personally:  No, read On Being Certain first


One [process] is exclusively mechanical and without any associated feeling tone—the comparison of Sam’s face with all other faces previously stored in memory.  The other is purely subjective sensation—the feeling of recognition.  10

…thought—the calculation—has no feeling tone.  Our entire experience of these calculations comes via separate feelings that accompany them into consciousness 11

All behavior is the execution of some motor plan.  32

Just as the feeling of recognition is the involuntary sensation announcing a good match between a perceived image and a stored image, causation is the involuntary sensation that arises out of the subliminal prediction that B is likely to follow from A.  46-47

If each of us has his/her own innate ease or difficulty with which a sense of causation is triggered, the same data may generate different degrees of a sense of underlying causation in its readers.  50

…the less than perfectly reliable mind will always be both the mind’s principal investigator and tool for investigation.  51

Conscious thought is the equivalent of typing a few directions into your brain’s search box.  64

…the question of how something arises from nothing… isn’t resolvable, has some inherent logical flaw, is a problem of semantics, or is a fundamental paradox arising out of the way that our visual cortex creates our “mind’s eye” worldview.  76

We cannot step back from mental sensations; they are the very means with which we judge our mental states.  79

Rather than viewing contrary opinions as arising solely from devious motivation, gross stupidity, or a host of psychological maladies, we might also consider their physiological underpinnings. 80

But any cognitive process is composed of two components: the actual computations and the sensory experience—the sense of understanding—that arises from these computations.  88

The entire puzzle of whether or not computers understand would disappear if you accepted that understanding is a mental experience dependent on a mental sensory system.  As computers lack such human sensory systems, no one should expect understanding to be present.  89

The mind isn’t a specific entity; it is a placeholder for descriptions of different levels of phenomena arising from quite different types of mechanisms without obvious causal links.  93

If our individual minds have emergent properties not found in the underlying brain cells, is it possible that further properties (higher levels) of mind can arise from the collective action of individual minds?  More specifically, what if there is an inherent biological component to group dynamics that makes the notion of an individual mind inaccurate or incomplete?  95

Within hours locusts are transformed from solitary, finicky plant-eaters to marching, swarming, marauding cannibalistic devourers of their brethren.  98

…this shift from solitary to gregarious behavior could be initiated by tickling a tuft of hairs located on locusts’ hind legs—the same region that comes into contract with other locusts when they are in close proximity. 99

We all experience a sense of self, agency, effort, choice, and causation—involuntary mental sensations that collectively create a sense of both having and making choices.  It is unimaginable that without these feelings, we would ever dream up the idea of free will any more than a tree contemplates the meaning of heartbreak.  All philosophical positions about free will emanate from an inbuilt desire to explain an involuntary sensation.  No matter how profound our thinking might be, we are saddled with the built-in paradox of automatic and “hardwired” mental states telling us that we are free to choose and act on every whim while science tells us that all actions have antecedent physical causes.  195

Once you become an accomplished pianist, you no longer need to be aware of the individual elements collectively necessary to play a particular piece.  …which translates into a lessened likelihood that these areas will light up on functional imaging scans.  201

Equating intelligence with wisdom is not wisdom; it is hubris.  It is an attempt to isolate and spotlight one aspect of the mind—intellectual prowess—and make that into the defining feature of a man.  I have to say, at the risk of being unnecessarily cynical, that equating intelligence with wisdom is a spectacularly self-serving way of converting one’s own presumed intellectual horsepower into the role of moral superiority.  It is this thinly disguised self-congratulatory posture that prompts some scientists to presume that they have the inside track in determining moral values, establishing a “theory of everything,” or arguing that “philosophy is dead.”  212

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


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