Why some neuroscientists call consciousness “the c-word”

by Yohan J. John

BradioAs a neuroscientist, I am frequently asked about consciousness. In academic discourse, the celebrated problem of consciousness is often divided into two parts: the "Easy Problem" involves identifying the processes in the brain that correlate with particular conscious experiences. The "Hard Problem" involves murkier questions: what are conscious experiences, and why do they exist at all? This neat separation into Easy and Hard problems, which comes courtesy the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, seems to indicate a division of labor. The neuroscientists, neurologists and psychologists can, at least in principle, systematically uncover the neural correlates of consciousness. Most of them agree that calling this the "Easy Problem" somewhat underestimates the theoretical and experimental challenges involved. It may not be the Hard Problem, but at the very least it's A Rather Hard Problem. And many philosophers and scientists think that the Hard Problem may well be a non-problem, or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein might have said, the kind of problem that philosophers typically devise in order to maximize unsolvability.

One might assume that as a neuroscientist, I should be gung-ho to prove the imperious philosophers wrong, and to defend the belief that science can solve any sort of problem one might throw at it: hard, soft, or half-baked. But I have become increasingly convinced that science is severely limited in what it can say about consciousness. In a very important sense, consciousness is invisible to science.

The word "consciousness" means different things to different people, so it might help to cover some of the typical ways its used. The most objective notion of consciousness arises in the world of medicine. We don't usually require a degree in philosophy to tell when a person is conscious and when they are unconscious. The conscious/unconscious distinction is only loosely related to subjective experience: we say a person is unconscious if they are unresponsive to stimuli. These stimuli may come from outside the body, or from the still-mysterious wellspring of dreams.

But the interesting thing about any "medical" definition of consciousness is that it evolves with technology.

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Fight the Bannonality of Evil

by Claire Chambers

In her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt argues that there is nothing in evil that is radical or lucid. Instead, she Hannah Arendtclaims, even the most extreme evil is senseless and banal. Amos Elon summarized Arendt's argument in terms that cannot but resonate with the current political circumstances in the United States: 'Evil […] need not be committed only by demonic monsters, but—with disastrous effect—by morons and imbeciles as well'. As Arendt writes about Adolf Eichmann, one of the Holocaust's prime orchestrators: '[he] was not Iago and not Macbeth […]. Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all'.

The world's new Orange Overlord, 45th President of the United States Donald J. Trump has gifted us too many irrational, muddled, and downright idiotic statements and actions over the last year for enumeration in this short blog post. To take just one example, on the first day of Black History Month, Trump seemed to believe that Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, was still alive. According to Trump, Douglass was 'an example of somebody who is doing an amazing job, who is being recognized more and more, I notice'.

Arendt was right to observe that the slide from thoughtlessness to evil is easy and smooth. A week before his Douglass gaffe, on Trump SpiegelHolocaust Remembrance Day 2017 Trump issued his executive order banning refugees from the United States for 120 days and from Syria permanently. Additionally, citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia) were blocked from entering for 90 days. What a way to commemorate the premeditated and industrial killing of six million Jews and 200,000 Roma by singling out refugees and a religious group for exclusion. Thankfully, Trump soon found himself struggling with implacable opposition from the US legal system and at the time of writing has been unable to execute his order.

Moreover, there was no mention of the Jews or anti-Semitism on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Trump's inept Press Secretary Sean Spicer later clarified that this omission was not regretted because the White House's intention was to 'acknowledg[e] all of the people' who died. Prince Charles responded by saying the lessons of the Holocaust are being forgotten. Yet these lessons are in fact being wilfully erased by Trump and his team.

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So, I took off her blouse as she raised her arms
A trumpeter blared outside my window
She ran her fingers through my hair
I unclasped her bra

Trumpeter boomed a tune I’d heard before
“My husband will be angry if I stay”
Tip of my tongue touched her nipple
She unzipped my fly

“I should go back to my husband”
She sipped my scotch neat
Unzipped, the flame leapt
I kissed her nipples red

We savored the scotch as our lips met
My tongue trailed south from her nipples
No bush by the door bloomed
She straddled me on the king bed

My tongue brushed the door where no bush bloomed
She sighed as the epicenter shook
“Hey Hey Ho Ho: Trumpeter Must Go”
Arms raised, her hands waved double O

By Rafiq Kathwari/ @brownpundit/ rafiqkathwari.com

White Noise

by Elise Hempel

ScreenHunter_2602 Feb. 20 09.42I admit that Obama sometimes bored me. Not when he was fired up, almost singing, gospel-style, at a rally. Not when he was broadly smiling, affectionately joking with Joe Biden or being teased by Michelle. Not even when he was doing a serious interview with Steve Kroft, leaning forward with his hands together, deep-voiced. But during a press conference, fielding a random question – the long pauses for thought, the even longer, deliberate responses…. That's when I'd change the channel or walk out of the room for a snack. But no matter. I always knew that behind his ability to bore was a solid president, a decent man.

One afternoon last year, standing at the kitchen sink, I heard a low, almost-monotone, almost-mumbling voice that kept drifting here and there as it spoke, a voice that seemed to have no direction. I thought the radio was on in my partner's office, tuned to some daytime talk show, a soft-voiced FM deejay meandering, filling the air-space. But when I walked out of the kitchen I saw that what I'd been hearing was really the TV, a Trump rally my partner, Ray, had paused on in his channel-surfing. What I'd been hearing was really Donald Trump going on and on about something, changing from one thing to the next without transition, filling time and somehow having filled the venue with a crowd. How could anyone possibly stay awake at his rallies? (And, standing now in the living-room with the dish towel in my hand, staring at the television screen, is it possible that I noticed the possibly-paid spectators directly behind Trump turning their heads in distraction, shifting in boredom, laughing with each other about something, anything, besides what Trump was rambling on about?)

Steve Bannon has called Donald Trump "probably the greatest orator since William Jennings Bryan." (Huh?) And I've read a handful of articles that say that people like me just don't get it: Trump speaks in a language, with a style understood by only his fervent supporters. Might it really be that, as Donald Trump rambles, his supporters are hearing, through the static and "white noise," only the bits that catch their ear, that serve their needs and wants, as I do when I'm "wool-gathering" while my partner talks, my head finally turning when he says he'll watch tonight's real-life murder show with me, or as my dog does when, somewhere in the endless jumble of my baby-talk, I speak the word "bone" or "kitty" or "walkies"?

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Long Live The King

by Max Sirak

Happy Presidents Day, ‘Murica!!! King

Ah, nothing like a made-up holiday to honor the CEO of our oligarchy.

Mmmm…drink it in. It goes down jagged with a bitter and retching aftertaste. Which is good. It means we're of a like mind and among friends.

3QD is a bastion of thought. It's a place where words still mean things and facts still matter. It's a digital, international safe space for liberal sisters and brothers. It's a place to exchange ideas, gather, and garner support.

This last point is important. It's easy to look around today, become discouraged, and feel alone.

But we are not alone. We all have friends and loved ones who are fighting or flighting. I know I've spent a good amount of time recently trying to figure out what I can do to make things better. My quest has led to me to travel in time and look back. Today I'd like to share some of what I've found.

So – whether you're running away or ‘rastling to make the world a better place – here are some things I've learned over the last month.

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The Wedding Singer: Union Man

by Christopher Bacas

ImageI left a Texas college somewhere between my Sophomore and Junior years. My body and saxophone continued to attend for another year and half. Degree requirements unfulfilled, I eventually packed and left with some South Carolina buddies, padding my stereo and lps with tangled knots of dirty laundry. High on speed, we drove sleepless; taking a stealthy moonlight swim in a motel pool en route. After dumping stuff at my parents' house, we rolled on to New York City, then in its' early 80's menacing, funky glory. Greatness poured out of musicians everywhere, as Steve Wonder says "Jus' like I pitchered it". I was only visiting, though. It was all too scary.

Back home in Pennsylvania, I practiced for the big leagues. A new local eatery, with a Vonnegut-inspired name, featured fine local musicians. I went by to sit in. A trumpet player, mostly legit guy,played as well; having fun after his lawyer day-gig. He noticed the shaggy tenor player blasting away with schoolboy enthusiasm. After talking down our city (as if I didn't know it was backwards), he encouraged me to join the Musician's Union and take advantage of their bookings. They could swear me in at the next meeting.

The Union office sat between a hat shop and barber on the town's western-running main drag.

Its' interior, one large room with beat-up office furniture and framed band photos. Our local hung tough as gigs, dues, and membership declined. Its' crown jewel, a community band, once led by Music Man-monikered Elwood Sprigle, remained strong. I introduced myself to the secretary, who smiled sweetly when told I attended the city high school. As the folding chairs around me filled, I barely looked up. The men, my father's age or older, ignored me. Roberts' Rules brought the meeting to order. After sad, monotone reporting on finances and the many bars and clubs using non-Union bands, the floor went to the business agent.

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Indian Literature in English After Arundhati Roy

Ulka Anjaria in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_2601 Feb. 19 17.17

Arundhati Roy

In June of 1997, on the verge of graduating from high school, I received an award for my study of foreign languages, a book wrapped in blue shiny paper. As I opened it, a small clipping from TIME slipped out—an article on an Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, whose novel was taking the literary world by storm. My prize was Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things (1997). I sat down to read it immediately.

On a visit to India the summer before, I had poked around bookshops desperately seeking out new fiction—something other than the requisite thin copy of Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1935) that seemed to be everywhere, dusty and unthumbed, the few books by Anita Desai and Gita Mehta, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve (1954), and a graying Sahitya Akademi translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Chaturanga (1916). This was 1997 and, unlike today, most of Mumbai’s bookstores were hidden inside luxury hotels, Indian literature meant Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster, and the bookshelves dedicated to India offered little more than old Lonely Planet volumes and coffee table books on the lives of the Maharajas. At age eighteen, I found Anand dry and Rushdie pompous. Desai and Mehta felt like they were writing for my parents’ generation. There was even something dull and unfashionable about the packaging of these books, most of which were published not in India but in England. Indian literature wasn’t cool—it was, somehow, embarrassing.

The God of Small Things changed all that. The idea that India could have a contemporary novel of its own, shorn of Anand’s unwieldy idioms or Markandaya’s awkward exoticisms, a novel whose writing style was new and fresh, whose irony and anger were youthful and contemporary, a novel that shouted rather than whispered, a novel by a young woman, was, to my mind, a revelation.

More here.

Woolly mammoth on verge of resurrection

Hannah Devlin in The Guardian:

4728The woolly mammoth vanished from the Earth 4,000 years ago, but now scientists say they are on the brink of resurrecting the ancient beast in a revised form, through an ambitious feat of genetic engineering.

Speaking ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week, the scientist leading the “de-extinction” effort said the Harvard team is just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant.

“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” said Prof George Church. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”

The creature, sometimes referred to as a “mammophant”, would be partly elephant, but with features such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood. The mammoth genes for these traits are spliced into the elephant DNA using the powerful gene-editing tool, Crispr.

More here.

A Battle for the Soul of Pakistan

Beena Sarwar in The Wire:

ScreenHunter_2600 Feb. 19 17.04I wonder if the bangle sellers outside the shrine are alive. I still have some chunky glass bangles I bought, bargaining more for the sake of it than to save money.

Did the woman bouncing a little girl on her shoulders, chanting and dancing to an inner beat before the drums sounded, go back last Thursday? Did they survive the blast?

I saw them one Thursday last April when I went to Sehwan Sharif with friends from India who were in Pakistan to attend a wedding. Every week, the day before the Muslim holy day, Friday, draws the most crowds at the Sufi shrines that dot the landscape across South Asia.

Devotees believe that you only go to the dargah – the shrine built over the grave of a revered religious figure – when you are “called” to do so. I have been “called” to Sehwan Sharif several times.

These Sufi dargahs are a symbol of the region’s syncretic culture – the unique blend of Islam with local cultures. It was the Sufi philosopher-poets’ teachings of peace and love that led to the spread of Islam in the sub-continent. It is what today’s hard-line Islamists who draw their stark puritan ideology from Wahhabi teachings, are trying to counter.

More here.

How a Ruthless Network of Super-Rich Ideologues Killed Choice and Destroyed People’s Faith in Politics

George Monbiot in Evonomics:

ScreenHunter_2599 Feb. 19 16.58The events that led to Donald Trump’s election started in England in 1975. At a meeting a few months after Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party, one of her colleagues, or so the story goes, was explaining what he saw as the core beliefs of conservatism. She snapped open her handbag, pulled out a dog-eared book, and slammed it on the table. “This is what we believe,” she said. A political revolution that would sweep the world had begun.

The book was The Constitution of Liberty by Frederick Hayek. Its publication, in 1960, marked the transition from an honest, if extreme, philosophy to an outright racket. The philosophy was called neoliberalism. It saw competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. The market would discover a natural hierarchy of winners and losers, creating a more efficient system than could ever be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impeded this process, such as significant tax, regulation, trade union activity or state provision, was counter-productive. Unrestricted entrepreneurs would create the wealth that would trickle down to everyone.

This, at any rate, is how it was originally conceived. But by the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, the network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly funded by multimillionaires who saw the doctrine as a means of defending themselves against democracy. Not every aspect of the neoliberal programme advanced their interests. Hayek, it seems, set out to close the gap.

More here.

“Old” Food Reduces Lifespan

Lydialyle Gibson in Harvard Magazine:

LyleWhat causes aging? “Scientists have been thinking about this question for centuries,” says Harvard professor of medicine Vadim Gladyshev. It sounds almost simple, but in fact it’s thorny and complicated, and although several theories have emerged—that organisms are “programmed” by nature to die, or that aging is the result of “hyperfunction” of biological activities, or that it’s controlled by genetics—there are as yet no settled answers. But a study published today in Science Advances, coauthored by Gladyshev, offers evidence bolstering one long-held theory: that aging is caused, at least in part, by molecular damage accumulating in the cells. “This damage is generated by nearly every cellular process,” he says—by the work of enzymes and proteins and the life-sustaining metabolic processes that occur at every level of complexity, from simple molecules and cell components to whole cells and entire organs. “So over time we have many, many ‘damage forms,’ millions or billions”—unavoidable byproducts of enzyme function, for example, or of protein-to-protein interactions, errors in DNA transcription or translation. “And as a function of age, they accumulate.” Eventually, it’s more than the body can cope with.

…“Aging is the most important biological question.” It is at the root of so many diseases. “Even if we eliminate cancer, for example, the effect would be minor, because of all the other diseases of aging: diabetes, Alzheimer’s, sarcopenia, cardiovascular disease, and so on and so on.” All of those maladies will still add up. “But if we can learn how to slow down the aging process, we can deal with all of those diseases at once. We delay their appearance. That’s why it’s important to study these fundamental questions, to ask: what is aging?”

More here.

The Harlem Renaissance’s New Chapter

John Williams in The New York Times:

BookBlack History Month this year brings with it a significant addition to the history of African-American literature: “Amiable With Big Teeth,” a “lost” novel by the notable Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay. In 2009, Jean-Christophe Cloutier, now an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, was working toward his Ph.D. at Columbia University when he came across a double-spaced manuscript that appeared to be by McKay among the archived papers of Samuel Roth, a publisher who had often found himself in First Amendment battles. When The Times reported on the manuscript’s authentication in 2012, the writer and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. said McKay’s lost novel was important, in part, for the way it extended our view of the Harlem Renaissance, which “continued to be vibrant and creative and turned its focus to international issues” as the 1930s progressed.

“Amiable With Big Teeth” — with a subtitle equal to its wonderful title (“A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem”) — is about a group of activists in that neighborhood who banded together to support Ethiopia against Mussolini’s occupation. In their introduction, Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards call the book a “caustic, even overtly polemical, depiction of the complex Harlem political landscape in the mid-1930s as it shifted in the shadow of international events.”

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)

Writing in the heat of crisis


Caryl Emerson in the TLS:

Perhaps the first thing a reader senses about a crisis-narrative is where the writer stands in time. Either the speaking voice has survived and can look back, or else it is caught on the cusp of the unfolding event. This is the difference between a memoir and a diary entry, the recollection of a dream and the experience of nightmare. In this anthology, Boris Dralyuk attempts a bold thing: to confirm us within the belly of the beast, to push us up against its heartbeat, all the while challenging the received notion that the Russian Revolution produced little literary art of lasting value in its early years. The work of fourteen poets and thirteen prose writers – some famous, others forgotten, several famous for other things – is sampled strictly within a two-and-a-half-year period, from the February Revolution that ended the Romanov dynasty to late 1919, the turning point of the Russian Civil War. The literature produced during these thirty-two months was without perspective, full of potentials and unclear about actuals. In his opening remarks to the prose section, Dralyuk notes that “fictional treatments of the upheaval are hard to find” because what was happening “was too real, too immediate to lend itself to fictionalization”. Verse and expository prose, with their intonations of “direct engagement”, seem more compatible with the revolutionary temperament than the more leisurely composition of stories. But such formal distinctions matter less than we expect. Both verse and prose in this book partake heavily of fable, parable, liberation rhetoric, ecstatic vision – modes that operate beyond literary genre, outside time, and that strive towards a truth prior to either history or fiction.

Thus narrowed and blind-sided, freed from tragic consequence, the paradoxes of 1917 emerge even more unanswerable. Revolutions bring bloodshed and impoverishment, but this one was to bring peace and plenty: an end to the Great War, to all war. As Mikhail Kuzmin writes in his poem “Russian Revolution” (1917): “No sentinel, policemen, pickets, / as if there never had been any guards or guns . . . . It’s like telling a starving man, ‘Eat!’ / And him replying. ‘I’m eating!’ with a smile”. The present-tense verb is proof that we are on the cusp; as-if becomes is. Most revolutions aim at political regime change, but this one saw itself enacting universal all-human change. As Alexander Blok insists in 1918, its music must be greeted with “every cell of your body”. The body politic is my body, your body. Politics becomes intimate; deeply private lyric poets create great civic verse. Blok’s masterworks from 1918, “The Twelve” and “Scythians”, very famous poems in outstanding new translations here, show the anthology at its eschatological best. Blok’s pretensions are millennial and stretch out over a continent, but the reader is left with palpable close-up images, the face of “slit-eyed” Eurasianism and marauding Red Guardists blessed by Jesus Christ. As the revolutionary capital is sanctified by its native poets it is cursed from the margins. The Georgian Symbolist Titsian Tabidze (1895–1937) contributes a lyric, “Petersburg”, that celebrates the sinking of the Bronze Horseman, the corpses of sailors bobbing in the Neva, and chaos swallowing up the city. Poetry rejects the well-plotted story and transmits moods: of exhilaration, of destruction, of eating this very minute after a long fast. Life gains in its savour and death loses its sting. Indeed, why die at all? As Mayakovsky bellows forth in “Our March” (December 1917): “Hey you there! Yes, you, Great Bear! / Demand we be taken to heaven alive”.

More here.

Global Citizens, National Shirkers


Dani Rodrik in Project Syndicate:

Last October, British Prime Minister Theresa May shocked many when she disparaged the idea of global citizenship. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she said, “you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

Her statement was met with derision and alarm in the financial media and among liberal commentators. “The most useful form of citizenship these days,” one analyst lectured her, “is one dedicated not only to the wellbeing of a Berkshire parish, say, but to the planet.” The Economist called it an “illiberal” turn. A scholar accused her of repudiating Enlightenment values and warned of “echoes of 1933” in her speech.

I know what a “global citizen” looks like: I see a perfect specimen every time I pass a mirror. I grew up in one country, live in another, and carry the passports of both. I write on global economics, and my work takes me to far-flung places. I spend more time traveling in other countries than I do within either country that claims me as a citizen.

Most of my close colleagues at work are similarly foreign-born. I devour international news, while my local paper remains unopened most weeks. In sports, I have no clue how my home teams are doing, but I am a devoted fan of a football team on the other side of the Atlantic.

And yet May’s statement strikes a chord. It contains an essential truth – the disregard of which says much about how we – the world’s financial, political, and technocratic elite – distanced ourselves from our compatriots and lost their trust.

Start first with the actual meaning of the word “citizen.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a legally recognized subject or national of a state or commonwealth.” Hence citizenship presumes an established polity – “a state or commonwealth” – of which one is a member. Countries have such polities; the world does not.

Proponents of global citizenship quickly concede that they do not have a literal meaning in mind. They are thinking figuratively. Technological revolutions in communications and economic globalization have brought citizens of different countries together, they argue. The world has shrunk, and we must act bearing the global implications in mind. And besides, we all carry multiple, overlapping identities. Global citizenship does not – and need not – crowd out parochial or national responsibilities.

All well and good. But what do global citizens really do?

More here.

Notes on the Global Condition: The Global Dollar & The Dollar World

Adam Tooze over at his website:

Trump and the possibility of Trump may have brought down the curtain on American hegemony, but American power remains. Nowhere is this more evidently the case than with regard to the global currency regime. The dollar not only remains but is more than ever the anchor of the global financial system. The Economist has an excellent piece on the resulting risks, which draws on an important new paper by Ilzetki, Reinhart and Rogoff (Yes! Them again).

As The Economist puts it: “TRUMPISM is in part an expression of American exhaustion at bearing burdens it first took up 70 years ago. Donald Trump has moaned less about the dollar than about shirking NATO allies or cheating trade partners. Yet the dollar standard is one of the most vulnerable pillars of global stability. And the world is far from ready for America to ditch its global financial role. Unlike other aspects of American hegemony, the dollar has grown more important as the world has globalised, not less. … America wields enormous financial power as a result. It can wreak havoc by withholding supplies of dollars in a crisis. When the Federal Reserve tweaks monetary policy, the effects ripple across the global economy.

The dollar is central as an anchor for other currencies that are pegged to it. It is central as the currency in which key commodities like oil are priced. It is the main currency in which countries hold their reserves. It is the main currency of international lending.

What the Ilzetki, Reinhart and Rogoff paper allows us to do is to track the ebb and flow of the dollar’s functioning in the global economy over time and across space.

In the years after 1945 when the US was overwhelmingly the dominant economy in the world with a share of global output of 28 %, the dollar was also the lead currency with the currencies of 75 % of world economy (measured in GDP terms) anchored to the dollar. Since then America’s share of global output has declined to 18 % and in the 1970s the share of global GDP anchored to the dollar fell to 45 %. But since the 1970s the share of currencies anchored to the dollar increased again, reaching 75 % in 2015. This is what analysts mean when they say that we live in the era of a second Bretton Woods, created not by design but by the unilateral anchoring of other currencies to the dollar.

More here.