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Cognition and the physical world studied as a system

This blog is for people who believe in Science. That is, those who are looking for the objective truth according to observation and evidence rather than for their own truth. 

If you're looking for Astrology, Spirituality, Religion, The Paranormal, or any ad hoc (non evidence-based) belief system, there is another lovely pub down the road, but this one only serves Science.

If you want to base your knowledge of The Universe on evidence alone, read on.

In Cognitive Science, we study only the brain and behaviour. In Physics, we study only the Universe outside the brain. In this blog, I talk about the brain and the Universe at the same time, and their interactions. 

The observer and the observed are sometimes regarded as a combined system in Physics, and that is how I treat the brain and the things that the brain perceives. To get to the truth, we will examine all the evidence from all of science, and not just the evidence from one academic discipline.

The study of science at present is a mash of evidence-based research built on thousands of years of magical thinking. As such, I have found that many scientists find my arguments genuinely terrifying, because they represent the unravelling of a reality on which everything is based. Otherwise sensible scientists have shouted me down or tried to suppress this work. I understand why.

However, trust me. The truth is better. If you’re game, so am I. 

  • Dan

1. History, Psychology and Magic

Magical thinking; ad hoc belief; selective cognition; the psychology of the sceptic

Magical Thinking

Since the Renaissance, Science has fought an uphill battle against magical thinking. Magical thinking, in the form of religion or spirituality, offers a simple, vague message that doesn't require complicated reasoning or specific, testable predictions. The type of belief that is not based on observation is called ad hoc belief.

Ad Hoc Belief

Ad hoc belief is when you decide to believe something without basing it on evidence (for or against). Religion, superstition, spirituality etc are all ad hoc beliefs.

Selective Cognition

They happen, perhaps, because the human attentional system is selective. You’ll find that if you’re at a football match, you can’t understand every conversation around you. You can’t even understand two at once without switching between them. If someone says your name, or mentions a “danger word” like “fire”, your attention will automatically switch to that conversation.

It’s a survival mechanism, a means of filtering for efficiency so we don’t get overwhelmed. The mind chooses what’s most survival-relevant and focuses on that.

In the same way, it’s possible that the reasoning system does the same thing. It reduces complex, multi-faceted phenomena to clearly identifiable and dealable-with units.

In fact, it’s very clear that we do this in favour of computational efficiency over reality. The mind will do anything to make things easy on itself.

When you ask a priest whether they believe that Jesus literally walked on water, you get a mixture of smiles and qualifications. So what do they actually believe in? It’s a unit, a computational certainty that reduces the number of variables in the equation of life.

Ad hoc belief - particularly that which deals with existential matters - is attractive because if we accept it, we can go about our daily lives without examining the terror we all face that our existence may be meaningless.

The psychology of the sceptic

About that terror, then. Many scientists hold that believers in religion and spirituality are simply desperate to believe that there is some intelligence or meaning to the universe, and this is undoubtedly true. It's wishful thinking. However, everyone has a psychology, even sceptics. They are as full of existential terror as the rest of us.

Insisting that there must be meaning just because you want it to be true is one way of dealing with the fear of death. There is another way of dealing with existential dread, though: that of the sceptic. What these sceptics are saying is not:

"We're all desperate to believe, so we kid ourselves".

What the're actually saying is:

"YOU'RE desperate to believe, so YOU'RE kidding yourselves. We're different - we're the realists, we are above all that. We're safe!"

They may be right, of course, but they're trying to feel separate by assigning vulnerability to everyone else. Both sides are trying to make themselves feel better, and that has very little to do with hard, complicated evidence.

We're all desperate to believe that there is meaning to our existence. Of course we are! However, here's the rub: the fact that we desperately want it to be true doesn't in itself mean that it's false. In Science evidence must determine what's true and false, whether it's comforting or not. Furthermore, evidence must determine what's true even if it's extremely weird or counterintuitive (strap in for Quantum Physics!). Neurocosmology is about the evidence, and it's not at all what the sceptics suggest.

Nihilism dressed as science

Until now, religion and spirituality have been the only systems to offer any suggestion of intelligence or meaning to the universe. This has led Science to react against superstition and belief, and to insist that anything even showing a sniff of meaning is wishful thinking, and that everything is simply somehow random (belief in randomness is itself a form of magical thinking - see later).

Meaninglessness, for want of a better umbrella term, is what many - if not most - scientists believe, but it is not what the evidence shows. Evidence points very strongly to something far more complicated and unexpected.

As it is complicated, it will take a lot of explaining, and you will need to understand one blog in order to go on to the next. If you are absolutely committed to basing all your beliefs (not just some of them) on evidence, then read on.

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