July 24, 2006

The Edge of Wisdom

„Katra gudrība, kas ir augstāka par Tavējo, šķiet dumja”
“Every wisdom that is higher than yours will seem foolish”
/Rev.Juris Rubenis, in Latvian/

It’s always good to keep in mind the above sentence when we rush to judge others’ views. Especially the worldview that are in a conflict with your own.

Tracing V. Ramachandran and mirror neurons on the net, I have stumbled across a rich collection of ideas formulated (mostly) by exceptionally strong intellects. The site is www.edge.org and it defines itself as a mouthpiece of the “third generation intellectuals”. A layman like me would immediately wonder who those people are. The “about” section on Egde.org defines the “third generation” as accomplished scientists who care about the fundamental problems of society and knowledge, and who are ready to actively engage in educating and challenging the seeking public. So far so good.

A first pick from the surface of Edge.org indeed delivered fascinating and “ideaful” reading. I’ve read through a part of the World Question Center – a collection of short essays by highly accomplished intellectuals on specific provocative topics (each year features its own question). Here are just a few that I’ve liked the most:

For physicists, I recommend a short answer of Philip W. Anderson to What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? (World question’05), which makes a very important point. It is best understood in the context of “The Theory of Everything” by Laughlin and Pines, but also needs to be balanced against an educated pro-string opinion, like Leonard Susskind’s Dangerous idea (World question’06).

Two comments from a different sphere address the “dangerous questions” we were recently discussing with some of my friends: an honest look at the problems of democracy as a state-organizing principle by Haim Hariri, and a perspective on the weaknesses of the free will concept by Clay Shirky.

However, after my first excitement started to wane, I’ve noticed a strange and unpleasant bias of the Edge. The emphasis on “the empirical world” in the very definition of the site is quite ok – after all, if you gather the representatives of the natural sciences, how else would you define their methodology? Positioning the third generation as antagonistic to the “monopoly of literary intellectuals” sounded a bit strange, but given my ignorance in such a topic, could still be absolutely neutral. But then in several places I came across the painfully familiar “evolved-not-designed” emphasis… High correlation between the list of Edge contributions and the signatories of the latest Humanism manifesto just confirmed my suspicion – the famous “prejudice against any prejudice” of rationalism seems to be an entry requirement for Edge.org contributors.

Sadly enough, the illnesses of modernity “science-implies-atheism” and “religion-implies-ignorance” penetrate even the most intellectually refined communities. 

July 21, 2006

Mirror neurons and the Girardian perspective

If some idea is true it will remain so no matter which way you are approaching it.

An article in Scientific American Mind which I happened to pick up yesterday on a bus from Jerusalem, immediately made me remember this old truth. Let me share with you what has stricken my imagination.

Let us start from afar. There is a deeply fascinating and thought provoking perspective on Christianity and its influence on the Western culture (not a simple topic, is it?) that has been evolving from the works of a French philosopher Rene Girard and a catholic theologian James Alison. Some of my friends are very fond of, I would even say, deeply in love with the Girardian "mimetic theory" and the way it reconciles Christianity, social science, psychology and evolution. The "mimetic theory" is a great topic in itself, but what I was reminded of by the SciAm article was the key axiom of the mimetic theory. Let us formulate it like this:

"Human beings are able to replicate the desires and behavior of other people in an extremely efficient and fundamental way".

There has been a very diverse and solid evidence for this mimetic (from the word imitation) ability of human spirits, but so far it was coming from the realms of psychology, social science, literary analysis and the like.

What I have learnt from SciAm is that in 1996 three Italian neurophysiologists have discovered (initially in monkeys!) an explicit neural mechanism for mirroring others' actions. They were recording electric activity of specific neurons of a monkey who was used to picking raisins from the ground. One day a researcher (Leonardo Fogassi) entered the room and casually picked up a raisin himself. To his astonishment and disbelief those specific neurons in monkey's brain have fired exactly the same pattern as they generate when the monkey takes the raisins herself. After much more research and thinking they confirmed the existence of such "mirror neurons" in a series of scholarly peer-reviewed papers.

As David Dobbs (SciAm article author) puts it, "...this finding means we mentally rehearse or imitate every action we witness, whether it is a somersault or a subtle smile. It explains much about how we learn to smile, talk, walk, dance or play tennis. At a deeper level, it suggests a biological dynamic for our understanding of others, the complex exchange of ideas we call culture, and psychosocial dysfunctions ranging from lack of empathy to autism".

We might take a step further and recall the human soul's capability of being "an image of God". According to Girard and Alison, it is this very ability which makes us both sinners and saints. It is the one which locks us in cycles of violence and scapegoating, but also paves the way for unlimited growth and fulfillment in Chirstlikeness.

I have a strong feeling that, by giving an explicit explanation to the fundamental mimetic ability of humans, the recently discovered "mirror neurons" add a crucial piece to the puzzle of the human soul.

If you feel interested in these ideas, here are some good (to my taste) links about the theology of James Alison, and about mirror neurons and their impact on culture.