Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Another Promiscuous Neurotheologist Post (But This One Gets Shanked Into the Chomskyan Rough)

Go ahead and skip this video of Harvard Professor Marc Hauser, but if you do you'll miss out on a bit of Irony. It's 3 minutes, 40 seconds:

Getting back to trying to figure out how religion came about and how it related to moral thought, Hauser at Harvard and Prof Illka Pyysiainen (don't even ask about pronouncing his name) of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (and their teams) worked on this problem. The posited positions seem to have been that 1.)We can either think of religion as an adaptation that solved the problem of cooperation among non-genetically related peoples when the tribe got big enough; or 2.) Religion evolved as a by-product of pre-existing cognitive capacities.

Position #1 and its adherents seem to think that the Cooperation Model means there is no morality without religion, although there seem to be a few who like the Cooperation Model but shy away from this "hard" position about "morality" as we know it today.

Position #2 and its adherents see religion as merely one way of expressing one's own moral intuitions.

Note that both assumptions make religious experience a brain experience solely and do not address the existence of any sort of Gaseous Vertebrate of Astronomical Weight and Heft (or: gee ohh dee).

My "intuition" says that, if I'm forced to choose one of the two positions, I'd go with #2, because I grew up irreligious and yet seem to have a modern Industrialized World adult's view of morality that fits in well enough that I'm not ostracized or shunned or forced into exile. I have friends. I'm kind to strangers and my loved ones know I love them. I'm not writing this from a SuperMax prison, where I'm doing Life plus 900 years for some cartoonishly heinous act, like taking over a kindergarten and slitting the throats of all the bunny rabbits and making the kids watch it, and then raping Ms. Schoolmarm in front of little Francine and Billy and Jared and Sally. Or masterminding a secret terrorist bombing of Cambodia.

[Oh wait a minute: that second thing really was done by a guy who's not only not in prison, but he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Talk about Irony!]

Actually, I have no dog in that fight. I think all that will come of it are speculative narratives couched in as much social scientific study as the researchers can muster, the result being, depending on your proclivities, Just-So stories, or Edifying Discourse. I remain agnostic about the origin of religion but enjoy reading the attempts to travel in time to find the Origins. I take a pragmatist's view: what do I find good to think about?

A short precis of the Hauser/Pyysiainen paper appeared HERE. The paper was originally published in Trends In Cognitive Sciences on 8 February, 2010. Pyysiainen and Hauser looked at some plenitude of  studies on moral intuition and were impressed that people from many diverse religious backgrounds, and some people with no religious upbringing or affiliation? They all had no trouble in making moral judgments when faced with unfamiliar moral dilemmas. Ipso facto: people don't need a particular religious background in order to make sound moral judgments. And Hauser/Pyysiainen go to the position I'm guessing they had when they went in: religion emerged from pre-existing cognitive modules.

I thought Pyysiainen was appropriately conciliatory towards religion in his quote from the article in Science Daily: "However, although it appears as if cooperation is made possible by mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion, religion can play a role in facilitating and stabilizing cooperation between groups."

Hey, that's why these guys get the Big Bucks, eh?

The Kicker
Marc Hauser published this paper with his Finnish colleagues while, it turns out, Harvard was doing a five-year investigation on him, for charges of various academic frauds. Around six weeks ago, Harvard finally wrapped it up: Hauser - once an academic star, a favored lecturer at Harvard, prolific publisher, and one of John Brockman's Third Culturalists - was found guilty of scientific misconduct. He fabricated data, manipulated results in multiple experiments, and "conducted experiments in factually incorrect ways." He's no longer affiliated with Harvard. (See HERE for Harvard's findings, and HERE for Hauser's response to the Federal Office for Research Integrity's findings.

For a long and insider's fascinating take on this whole episode see Charles Gross's piece from The Nation from late last year. It seems a fairly rare event when the grad students helping the star Professor turn the Prof in. When they do, it often taints the grad students and makes their life as future scientific researchers very difficult, but this time it does not seem to have harmed the students.

                        Professor Chomsky, most influential linguist of the 20th century, and
                        I think, a bad influence on now-fallen Marc Hauser. Chomsky's
                        reaction to Hauser's resignation, which happened long before
                          Hauser was convicted of academic fraud, is HERE.

The Chomsky Connection
Even though I copped to picking the Hauser/Pyysiainen of the two choices (due to no formal religious upbringing), when I read the piece and saw Hauser's name attached, I had already read he was under a long investigation. And, to be honest, I had become quite biased against his stuff - which ranged over an impressively large biological/philosophical/psychological terrain - because I'd followed him initially as a Chomskyan, who believed in Cartesian rational modules in the mind that get tripped by being in this world and then Do Whatever.

(No talk about neurons or neural circuits or the embodied brain, that's for damned sure! Although, to be fair, I think Hauser would've loved to have seen Chomsky go for more neuroscience...or at least be more open-minded to primatological findings, but he simply could not. Chomsky would not. Why? Because then the syntactical walls come a' tumblin' down, the whole Idealized Universal Grammar schmeer gets canned when you must deal with The Continuum of chimps and birds and singing Neanderthals to neurons and real stuff. Not diagrams.)

Indeed, Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch appear to have talked Noam into co-publishing a paper on the origin of language when, after a lifetime of dodging the issue, Chomsky put his name to a paper on the subject, if only to stop the charges that Chomsky appeared to think that Language arose in an instant, like the Big Bang or Yahweh saying "Let there be light."

A large chunk of Hauser's now-gone academic career seems to have been to extend the Chomskyan model of thinking about linguistics to the realm of Evolutionary Psychology. Indeed, Hauser seems to have been quite gung-ho about Edward O. Wilson's "consilience" project, but claiming it for a sort of Cartesian/Chomskyan intellectual empire.

Now obviously, I've veered way off course from the topic of neurotheology and into the politics of academia, but I couldn't help it: the Irony was too much. Forgive me?

I could could on and on about Hauser and what I consider the 18th century view Chomsky has infected some of academia with (and longtime readers of the OG know I've typed a lot on Noam and I actually love the Man), but to suffice and for further delvings: see George Lakoff's talk on "Philosophy In The Flesh" and then some of his Third Culturalist's responses to Lakoff's 21st century ideas about the embodied human mind. This goes back to March of 1999. Notice Hauser's response, then skip down to see how Lakoff (Chomsky's bete noir in Linguistics; they loathe each other) responds to Chomsky acolyte Hauser's non-understandings.

[For some other blogspew: it could be argued that John Rawls has as much to do with "Nativist" ideas in academia as Chomsky does.]

One of Hauser's books was titled Moral Minds and I have not seen any data about his publisher removing the book from bookstore shelves, as was done to Jonah Lehrer when it was found he'd fabricated quotes about Bob Dylan in his book Imagine. But Hauser still plans to go on and publish in the field of evolutionary psychology/cognitive neurobiology. One article has his next book being titled Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste For Being Bad, and it should be...interesting. (NB: I refrained from using "Ironic" yet again!) In an article on the Hauser debacle in USA Today, of all places, I noted big-time primatologist Frans de Waal's worry that maybe much more of Hauser's data was cooked than what the investigators looked at. De Waal accuses Harvard of covering up too much for Hauser, possibly damaging the field of animal behavior...

A Head Test: How is Hauser different from Lehrer? And does knowing Hauser made up stuff, etc: does that change how you think of this particular paper on the origin of religion?

Going Out With Hauser
I will let Hauser's quote on morality from Science Daily carry this one out:

"It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although, as we discuss in our paper, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence."

Amen, Hauser. And have a good life.


Sue Howard said...

Fascinating (and funny) stuff - pretty much all of which is new to me (so I'll have to read the linked material, etc, before I comment further). Thanks again for this, Michael.

michael said...

Anytime someone found what I wrote funny it makes my day. Thanks, Sue.

Yea: I tend to go maybe too far with the links thing. I was out riding my bike and suddenly thought, "You link too much. No one will follow those links, and besides it detracts from your article by possibly sending someone away from your writing, and they probably get caught up in that link and move on to something else. Why do you link so much stuff?"

Maybe 'cuz when I was kid I read A LOT compared to most of my friends, and I'd share what I'd read and often I think they thought I was fibbing in order to sound "smart." Linking seems to have some sort of built-in-rhetoric of "I have support for what I'm trying to say here."

OTOH, maybe it stands in for footnotes? Yea, that's it: I'm a frustrated scholar. (Naw: too many links to Wikipedia...)

I will say this: in the link to the 1999 George Lakoff bit? If anyone wants to know more about the gulf between Chomsky and 18th century Enlightenment disembodied rationality vs. Lakoff's 21st c. epistemology: read the whole interview with Lakoff, where Brockman feeds him simple Qs. That link contains a very good primer on Lakoff, even though it's 13 yrs old and he's since gotten much more into mirror neurons and neural circuitry w/in the frame semantics/cog. ling. dealio.

Sue Howard said...

For me, the links are good - and not distracting, and probably necessary given my relative ignorance on some of the people/topics you mention.

Your book recommendations I've also found to be consistently very good. Nearly finished Kathryn Schulz's 'Being Wrong' (which I think is great) and about to start Bruce Hood's 'The Self Illusion', which looks as if it might be very interesting.

michael said...

I'm so glad you found the Schulz and Hood and the links helpful and not distracting.

Regarding links: I should modify what I wrote yesterday, because I have read some interesting article that was link-heavy and have clicked on one or more of the links and those links led me to other links, which led to other...all worthwhile and of interest, until I suddenly found myself on some far-flung page that had nothing to do with the "original" topic/article. But the adventure in reading was BRACING!

I've actually looked at my recent history and traced how I chose to read one link to another, and it seems revelatory of...something. How my mind works? How some people's minds work? How knowledge feeds on itself? How ideas connect in idiosyncratic ways?

It seems related to my reading of non-fiction books that contain indexes. I'm an index connoisseur, and can have some incisive things to say about any given index after 10 minutes of playing around with it.

When I pick up a non-fiction book and it doesn't have an index I feel let down. If the book's worth reading, I feel like doing an index myself - and have - but for the most part I really should be paid for the intense work of doing an adequate index.

Confession: often I'll sketch out indexes to works of fiction that I find particularly worthy.

OTOH, I read online in something like my habit of reading newspapers when I grew up: I don't expect links, but I often find them seductive, and I do enjoy that intellectual peregrination a good set of links can send me off to, as he ends his thought on multiple prepositions.