You are not your Brain: or, the problem with Reductionism

You are made up of atoms. That does not mean you are atoms. You have a brain. That does not mean you are your brain. Your thoughts are caused by patterns of neurons. That does not mean your thoughts are patterns of neurons. This mistake, “reductionism,” or reductive thinking, reduces everything to its’ component parts or causes. This mistake happens all the time, especially in the age of science. We have heard the mantra many times, usually with the pessimistic “nothing but” added on. We are nothing but apes, or brains, or emotions or whatever. But it’s wrong and deceptive; it limits are thinking, reduces our consciousness, impoverishes our experience, and constricts our horizons.

Plato and Aristotle recognized that there are different meanings to the word is, amare. For example when we say “I am atoms bouncing around in space,” that’s true. But it really means “I am composed of atoms bouncing around in space.” See the difference? Don’t confuse what you are with what you are made of.

Second, we confuse things with what causes them. For example some guy says to his wife: “My love for you is nothing more than chemical signals from my brain making me feel a certain way [or insert another scientific-sounding cause for emotions].” That’s not right. Love, of course, has many fascinating causes, but love is something different and larger than what causes it. It’s an experience beyond words. Faith too. Thunder is not lightening, yet lightening explains thunder.

We mistakenly reduce things into their properties too. God is love, said Paul. I agree. But that’s presumably just one of God’s properties, along with others. I am a father. I am smart. The philosopher Rene Descartes famously said “I think; therefore I am,” by which he meant the property of thinking proves the existence of a thinking being. He was right. On the flip side, Immanuel Kant famously said that existence is not a property. He was right.

Which brings us to the is of identity. When I say “I am,” it means I exist. Being, existence; that’s fundamental. This is the more mysterious one. When God said “I am who I am,” he meant it sorta like that; something like “I am the ground of all Being”. Similarly, when we say we have a mind or soul, we mean the soul is our ground of being, our changeless self, our highest form of is. I am Matt, a unique person that exists through time, space, and maybe even beyond that.

So, in the end, I am many things and you are many things, big and small: a brain, a body, a consciousness, a personality, a mind and a soul; memories, dreams reflections. I consider the brain hugely important, most important. But before we start reducing things into their lowest parts, let’s think. The problem with Reductionism is that, in its fever to explain things, it tries to explain things away; it confuses identity with causes, compositions, and properties. As Whitman said, “I contain multitudes: I am large.”

You are not your Brain: or, the problem with Reductionism

Testosterone Sucks. Why are Men Needed?

Women are better than men. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Look around dude. Historically, men have dominated women since the beginning, which still continues today. That’s bad enough. But women outmatch men on just about every moral indicator: crime rates, rape, domestic violence, murder, (“murders by women are so rare that they don’t even show up meaningfully in the crime statistics” p.78), ability to trust, giving, sharing, and empathy. Men are psychopaths, sociopaths, and serial killers. These are generalizations of course but they are true as such.

The explanation, according this this wonderful book by Paul Zak, is testosterone. It turns men into assholes, risk takers, sex fanatics, and punishers. To anyone who has entered a college bar, this should be no surprise. How many women hunters do you know? Predictable, as men get older they lose testosterone and get better.

Why Women are Better

Women not only have very low levels of testosterone, but they have an extra special hormone that promotes good behavior: Oxytocin. A multitasker, this hormone is released during sex, pregnancy, breast feeding, and whenever a person shows trust or goodwill. Oxytocin has been linked to many pro-social behaviors in many experiments (detailed in the book), mostly empathy and trust. Women are more empathetic, and empathy is the basis of all moral systems.

Why Men are Needed

The obvious answer is that men are needed to make babies (although with the advent of science that’s probably not true anymore). But more interestingly, testosterone has a nice side-effect: justice. Ironically, testosterone-filled men are needed to keep society in check, to judge and to punish wrongdoers. Natural selection allowed testosterone to hang on for this very reason. We are the enforcers and punishers of a functioning society (and the risk takers). Women, pumped with oxytocin, are too damn nice to punish people. It’s important to know that men do have oxyticin in smaller amounts, but the problem with that: testosterone actually cancels out oxyticin. So when testosterone levels are high, we actually enjoy punishing people for their transgressions, rather than cringing. Who shall throw the first stone?, said Jesus. Crack her fucking skull! shouted some dick.

The good news, of course, is that we can and do transcend these biological limitations. Too much testosterone must be kept in check, and the same goes with oxytocin (too much can lead to too much trust). It’s about balance. With knowledge, critical self-reflection, and love we can become better. Love can be learned, and it comes naturally for most of us.

Testosterone Sucks. Why are Men Needed?

What we mean when we say "it’s perfectly natural"

It’s completely natural. It’s totally natural. There’s nothing wrong with it. Do it.

From masturbation to racism, from organic food to free range cows, from shampoo to all-purpose cleaners, from beards to smoking pot, from home births to refusing vaccines, the word natural has been employed to convince people that something is okay because….it’s totally natural dude. Here is the magical formula:

x [behavior you like]   +   “is natural”   =   x is morally permissible/good

biological necessity

Masturbation. We say it’s natural because the human body practically requires it, especially during young adulthood. The evolutionary and biological forces are so strong that it would take an enormous amount of moral will power to not do it. Kant, a product of his times in this respect, actually produced a moral argument against it, saying that masturbation amounts to muddying up your imagination, using your mind as a means to an end. Suffice to say we don’t buy that argument, for good reason. In this case, the natural impulses far outweigh any moral arguments you can come up with, and the moral arguments are pretty weak. Leave it to the monks I say.

Sex. It’s perfectly natural for human beings to have sex with many people, and even for partners to be unfaithful. It’s so common that a zoologist, for example, would have to conclude that we are not in face a monogamous species after all but somewhere in the middle (explains our divorce rate). Yet, morally speaking, we do not condone sleeping around or cheating; not even close. Why? I think it’s because sex also happens to be a moral issue, not just a biological impulse. Both are real. In fact, the moral argument is strong, and the natural inclination is not so strong that we cannot defeat it. In other words, it’s in the moral sweet spot, in between natural inclination and moral inclination. Personally, this is how I harmonize my moral and biological natures: Sex is a special thing to be done with people you care about, and you should never cheat on your partner, ever. Just my opinion.

In fact, this really gets to the essence of morality. So many moral issues fall within the moral sweet spot: drugs, drinking, stealing, lying. They all involve natural impulse battling moral principle. Shout out to Kant for nailing it, among others.

knowing where it came from. 

Is “natural” food better for you? First of all, pretty much all the food we eat has been modified by human beings, so that has no meaning. Second, just because a food is processed or genetically engineered doesn’t mean its bad. Some people talk about “chemicals” as if they are bad things. If you like to grow corn and eat it, that’s great, but the food itself is no better than corn at the grocery store. I think the truth lies here: many frozen foods, packed with preservatives, have way too much sodium and other stuff. Also, if you don’t know what your food is made out of or where it comes from, there’s a chance its bad for you, or perhaps we could say even a tendency due to corporate greed with values profit over nutrition. Eat local. Also, fast food is obviously bad for you. We all know that by now.

Same thing with pot or mushrooms. The fact that you can grow it, or that it comes from the ground, has nothing to do with how bad or good it is for your brain and body. I’m guessing the jury is out: they are in fact bad for you. Stop rationalizing getting high and just get high. I make my own beer, but I certainly don’t rationalize getting drunk (I just do it).

the way it is

Racism. The main argument used for slavery was that the natural order of things required it; black people naturally are subservient animals and therefore should be treated as such, for their own good. Setting aside the factual errors, this is a very dangerous form of moral argument. You describe something in nature and then prescribe it as moral, as right, as the will of the Creator. This is a huge error, a category mistake. Scientific-types are especially prone. Just because something is does not mean that it ought to be. Simple as that. Morality challenges the status quo, demands improvement always. So even if black people were intellectually lower than white people at that time (due to slavery of course), then owning them does not follow. The moral question does not rely on such facts. Morality relies on principles, which hopefully are self-evident.

other meanings

Sometimes natural means “normal.” When kids are bad, for example, or act out occasionally, we console parents: “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly natural at that age…”. My wife told me that lawns are not natural. Well, certainly they are normal. But what she meant was that lawns are dead zones, they don’t promote growth; that not having a lawn is better for nature (flowers, water, butterflies, life). Makes sense to me. Marketing campaigns use the word “natural” simply to sell stuff. Factually it means nothing, it’s a fad. Philosophers in the past used the word “natural religion” to describe religion without the Bible, sans revelation–supposedly the religion a person would come to “naturally.” In sports we call someone a “natural” when they possess talent at a very young age. Then we’ve got the crazy anti-vaccine people and the home-birth people, who usually are rich, white, privileged folks who apparently think that modern medicine is unnatural or wrong or whatever. I’ll end there.

What we mean when we say "it’s perfectly natural"

Book Review: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

Different people. Different values. Can’t we all just get along?

Pro-lifers yell “Right to life!” Pro-choicers yell “women’s right to choose!” End of discussion, right? This book is an attempt to solve that problem. From conservatives to communists, from Jews to Jehovah Witnesses, we need a way to make decisions together — especially about public policy — if we are to get along. We need a “metamorality,” a universal language, a “common currency,” says the philosopher/neuroscientist Joshua Greene. We need an ethical code that transcends each particular ethical code.

And his answer is…drumroll please….utilitarianism! (I can feel your excitement). A moral philosophy invented by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 1700’s, utilitarianism is amazingly simple: maximize happiness and reduce suffering, as much as possible. That’s it. Instead of talking about rights, principles, commands or duties, perhaps we can all agree on this one thing: happiness is good; suffering is bad. Act accordingly.

Can we agree on that?

Probably not. That’s why the book is 300+ pages. And still, probably not. Nice try though., right?

As for me, I must say, I am convinced…in theory at least. This book has fundamentally changed some of my opinions. This is one of the most important books I have read this year, perhaps in my entire life. It has certainly brought together several intellectual strains that have been floating around in my head for decades now; specifically, Kant and John Stuart Mill. Kant I named my son after. Kant’s morality is a strict, rule based, “no exceptions” kind of system (never lie, never kill, never cheat, never steal). You can think of it as a religious ethics with a rational foundation. Kant also didn’t think that happiness was the most important thing (Mill did). John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, founder of Utilitarianism, I have admired from a distance. His system, as I mentioned, is very simple: morality has one rule: in all your actions, reduce suffering the most and maximize happiness the most impartially (counting yourself as only one person). It’s hard to disagree with that. Finally they come together in a harmonious embrace. This book says that Kant is right and Mill is right, depending on which context you find yourself in. Within groups, Kantian morally works the best. Which means that when dealing with your family, friends, and church, you should be a strict Kantian. Never cheat on your wife. But when it comes to dealing with “others,” with global issues, public policy — then you should put on your utilitarian hat and start calculating, weighting, crunching the numbers. Sometimes you have to break an egg for the greater good.

I was so blown away by this conclusion, I emailed the author and told him so. He emailed back right away said “that makes it all worthwhile.” Whether you hate utilitarian thinking or not, this book is amazing on many different levels: brain science, psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. A bright, interdisciplinary guy and a good writer.


The end of the book, which is supposed to apply the theory to actual cases (conflicts between groups), is very deflating and depressing. He only talks about abortion in detail, and that discussion was painfully abstract and intellectual (after making a strong case for pro-life and pro-choice, he falls on pro-choice). You can tell he is trying to make everyone happy. Does he really expect normal people to be able to philosophize in this way? The tree is good, but not its fruit. It almost feels like he built up all my expectations, and then, at the end when it really counts, he quits. Utilitarianism, which on the face is very simple and powerful,  ends up being very complex, abstract, and subtle – a puff of smoke. Worse, his version of utilitarianism ends up being very close to what everyone already believes: punishment is good, inequality is okay (some), buying presents for your kid is good, capitalism is just fine. All things that, on the face of it, are not utilitarian. The message, at the end of the day: just be a little less selfish, a little more altruistic, okay? He even calls himself a hypocrite at one point for not being a “true” utilitarian. C’mon Greene, where’s your balls? That’s why I have such respect for guys like Jesus or Gandhi. They set the bar extremely high and put their life into it, they make no excuses and make no accommodations for the morally weak. They say: love your enemies. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it goes against human nature and how our brains are wired. Do it anyway. And they did. And you can too.

Book Review: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

to my fellow Believers: evolution is true. Move on.

If you believe in God, you do not need to worry about evolution. I’ve spent most of my life thinking about religion and science, so trust me. It’s all good. Or, don’t take my word for it. Here is Charles Darwin himself on evolution: “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume [Origin of Species] should shock the religious feelings of any one.” In fact, here’s my best advice to any religious person who worries about evolution: go read Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. You might be surprised. I read it. I loved it. As a religious person myself, it made a ton of sense to me, it gave me another way to think about God. Just please read it – or stop having an opinion about it.

I would like to stop here. It’s really not worth the effort. The overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is that evolution by natural selection is true (they disagree on the details). Scientists are real people like you and me. There is no conspiracy here. Can we please just accept it, be humble, and move on? That should be enough. Why waste our breath.

Okay, fine. Let’s play on.

I suppose it’s a little more complicated than this. In all honesty science does make us change our religious beliefs sometimes. And that can be hard for some people. Smart theologians, like Augustine, were well aware of this. They said you should never read the Bible as a scientific text. That solves the problem before it starts. So if the Bible implies that the sun moves around the sun, then stop reading it as a book about astronomy; treat it as a metaphor (or myth, or just disregard it…they obviously didn’t know that back then, c’mon give them a break!). With evolution this is no exception. If you believe that God created human beings in one instant – as if we just popped into existence like some ghost or something – if you believe that, then you probably have to reconsider. Human beings were created very slowly on this earth, over millions of years. We adapted, mutated, procreated, changed, and fit into our habitat the best we could. We all have common ancestors, we all share roots, we are all connected to animals, to life, to everything. That’s how God chose to do it, and it’s amazing if you think about it. Like the heliocentric theory, it’s humbling.

Consider this: Evolution is a beautiful system that you could thank God for (I do)

We wouldn’t be here if not for evolution! Evolution is a system whereby the species that are best fit for a particular environment survive. If you believe in God, then you believe that God “thought up” the system, engineered it, guided it, made its’ laws. If you don’t believe in God, then evolution stands on its own. No harm in that, right? But let’s be clear: evolution allows species to adapt and thrive. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty smart to me, pretty wise from a survival standpoint. Let’s just say that if it wasn’t this way, if survival depended on blue eyes or short legs instead, the endangered species list would be much, much longer. We would’t be around to enjoy our huge brains.

Evolution says we came from monkeys!
Well, apes actually. Chimps and Bonobos are our cousins. The point is that we all come from common ancestors, a tree of life with probably one trunk – which means we all probably came from a single-celled organism. God made us from dust, and to dust we go, right? I find it humbling that we came from animals. The moral message is clear: respect animals, respect life, respect the earth. Again, when moral principles are practically written into nature, as discovered by science, we should probably be thanking God.

But Richard Dawkins says…
Don’t listen to him. He’s dumb (as a philosopher, not as a scientist).

Doesn’t evolution paint a bloody picture of nature?
Animals that are not fit to survive tend to die out, yes. And animals fight over resources. I suppose you could call that harsh. But how could it be any other way? The earth is finite, resources are finite. Luckily human beings have the ability to transcend this. “Blessed are the meek, the downtrodden,” says Jesus. We don’t need to kill our weak, or let them die. Because we have morality. However, we are not off the hook just yet. There is something to this. God is all powerful. Could He have made a better system? Perhaps. Something to think about at least.

to my fellow Believers: evolution is true. Move on.

Let me convince you that a tree doesn’t make a sound

If a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  After you’re done laughing, let’s think about this. This is not a stupid question: it brings up fundamental questions that are still fundamental, even for scientifically minded people.

Before indulging in The Matrix hypothesis and talking about how the external world doesn’t exist, I’m going to start with what’s not controversial. First, animals perceive the world differently than humans (some drastically different). Second, among humans there is variation (due to various physical and psychological causes). Conclusion: the external world and the world we actually perceive are two different things. It is interpreted, processed, constructed, measured–by our sense organs and brain. In other words, the diagram above is a fiction; we do not see an exact copy of the tree “out there”; our eyes are not giant gaping windows that “let the tree in” so to speak. Naive Realism is false. Again, not controversial so far.

And if you’re still not convinced that your eyes are playing tricks on you and that your sense organs are all sacks of shit, consider two more facts: (1) sense organs evolved (like everything) and thus survival are their main concern–truthful representation of the external world is not necessary their concern at all. Whether you see the berry as white or red, all it cares about is what works. As Williams James would say, the truth is what works. For us believing folk, a nice way to put it would be: God made you so that you would survive rather than be an astrophysicist–be happy He did. (2) sense organs detect change more than anything. Vision is not like a video camera that is always recording everything like a faithful steward, not even close.  Not to mention that memory, state of mind, personality, beliefs, language, societal norms–they can all affect the way we perceive things, literally. Let’s stop here.

Representational Realism

So what is happening here? Most common sense people will say there is a physical tree “out there”, made of physical stuff (atoms) having certain fundamental properties: size, shape, texture, mass. Those properties are “really out there” and our sense organs pick up on them the best we can. Okay, cool. But notice color is not on that list. Green is nothing more than the way light reacts with our retina/brain. Color is not “out there,” light is. The tree has the potential to be perceived as green and brown when light bounces off it and hits our eyeballs, that’s all. This isn’t controversial either. Qualities like color, heat, loud, bitter, the smell of a fart–they are all quasi-real, in limbo, secondary, dependent. I hope you feel the world crumbling. Color seems pretty fucking real to me thank you very much!

Enter the Idealists

Some people just scrap the whole idea of an external world altogether. We don’t need it. When I’m dreaming, I see green trees, I move through space, I eat cake, I cry (hell, I even have sex and ejaculate sometimes). All in the mind, mental, not caused by physical objects. There is no external tree causing my perception of a tree in the dream. So why can’t reality be the same way? Well, it can. The Matrix, although improbable, is possible. We could all be “plugged in” right now. Descartes imagined a powerful Evil Demon that might be tricking us, pulling this fake reality over our eyes just for the hell of it. George Berkeley simply replaced the external world with God. God doesn’t need physical matter, a useless middle man, when He can just implant sense experiences directly to our mind. We are living in God’s dream, God’s mind; God holds up reality. As a believer, this is a very tempting position to take. There is a simplicity to it, sort of. Kant replaced the external world not with God, but with an unknowable world, a foundation, a world that causes our perceptions but one we can know nothing about–except that it must exist.

So does a tree make a sound if nobody is there to hear it? No. Or, sure, God hears it. Or, the question itself makes no sense. That’s really the point here. What do we mean by a tree, after all? Green, brown, particular shape, particular feel, particular smells, etc. A tree is nothing but a group of sense experiences or possible sense experiences, therefore to talk about an unperceived tree makes no sense at all. To be is to be perceived in some way. Yes a tree has size, shape, texture, and mass. All those qualities are real. But notice those qualities, just like color, are qualities we perceive the tree to have. They are real because we perceive them, simple as that. Yes we can say the tree is made of atoms, but that just means if we look in a microscope we see it’s made of smaller stuff, and smaller stuff, etc. We can speculate about what’s really “out there,” but all we really have is our perceptions, all we have access to is the end product (in my diagram above, it’s the thought bubble). We can only look at the world through eyes, smell the world through noses, and feel the world through touchers. We cannot float above our body and brain to see what the world really looks like when nobody is looking at it. Human reality is human reality. There is something out there, but who knows what that is? Perhaps it’s really a pink, squishy ball that’s causing my perception of a green, hard Sugar Maple. As long as we all perceive the tree, nobody cares.

Let me convince you that a tree doesn’t make a sound