A Guangzhou Story

This is a story that happened to my friend’s ex-roomate in high school, Ms. X[1], who has settled in the Capital of southern China, Guangzhou, lately.

Guangzhou Subway

On a platform of Subway station in Guangzhou

When Ms. X was commuting on the Subway the other day, she, like most of her fellow passengers, totally immersed herself in flipping her index over her smartphone. Unfortunately, she was too focused on the loop feeding the screen that she missed the gap between the train and the platform when she was alighting. In spite of regaining her balance quick enough, Ms. X found her mobile slipping from her hand and falling into the gap! No sooner did she come back to her senses to abandon a stupid idea flashing across her mind of retrieving the mobile by herself than she started looking for help. A moment later, a Subway staff showed up and assured Ms. X that they would help her look for her lost property but not until the train stopped service later that night. That’s why Ms. X took her leave, albeit reluctantly, and waited for the reply from the Subway staff.

Having waited throughout the night, Ms. X received no reply from anyone of the Subway (This is Mainland China after all. What else do you expect?). She decided to enquire after the progress of the search, if any, on the following day. In the beginning, Ms. X was told that an overnight search had been carried out but yielded no findings. While refusing to believe that the search would have turned out futile as the Subway staff said (you may know why Ms. X mistrust the Subway staff as you keep reading on), Ms. X insisted on watching the CCTV footage, which should have captured the incident and the overnight search, as recorded by cameras on the platform or she would report the case to the police. The management of the Subway, believing that there was nothing to hide or that its staff’s integrity was intact, disclosed the video recording to Ms. X as she requested (Wait a minute! What about the privacy of other passengers? Isn’t there any law or policy governs the public access to sensitive information, such as images collected from security surveillance? What if Ms. X was a hoaxer herself? Shouldn’t the Subway management have gone through the video footage themselves before disclosing it?).


Ms. X did lose her mobile as how she described and so was the search done accordingly…but not without success! The CCTV gave away a figure of a maintenance worker who happened to work in the proximity of the searching party and picked up an object beside the track and stealthily slipped that object into his pocket while his co-workers were fervently searching the area. Stunned by the image, the Subway management promised Ms. X that a “serious, solemn, meticulous, and impartial investigation” would be pursued and that her lost property would duly be returned once her mobile was recovered as well as the case against the worker’s misconduct was established. She was, however, asked not to go to the police in the meantime as the internal investigation was under way. Compensation for her loss was also offered for her “cooperation” of not making a headline out of the incident. Ms. X agreed reluctantly again.

The guilty worker, God knows where he heard about the investigation, decided to go all the way through without conceding his defeat. He was believed for planning to sell Ms. X’s mobile in a “black market” where stolen good could be traded. He even believed that he could outsmart everyone by trying to wipe out the record stored in the mobile that might identify Ms. X’s ownership. But, even though it was George W. Bush, the former President of the United States, who was hard in words, “They think they can hide, but they’re wrong!”, while he was trying to hunt down the culprits who were responsible for 9/11, it was our “Great Nation” that really lived up to his words. Unlike many pretentious patriots, Ms. X used no iPhone but a product of an emerging Chinese brand sponsored by national investment. Not only did the configuration, design, and capacity of Ms. X’s Chinese-produced smartphone rival those of an iPhone, its security settings and intelligence-gathering calibre should be equally powerful as many other western inventions, if not superior.


First of all, Ms. X had hooked up her smartphone with her account registered on the site of the mobile manufacturer. Even when she lost the phone, she could log in her account with her laptop at home and track the whereabouts of her mobile. That’s why she was so certain that her phone had been picked up by someone during the search at night. Not until she told the Subway staff about the built-in tracking device of her smartphone did the management of the Subway take her suspicion seriously. Not surprisingly, the tracking device showed Ms. X’s mobile ending up in a location that corresponded with the address of the maintenance worker who was seen picking up the object beside the rail on the CCTV.

The next obstacle posed by the mobile, which was indeed a “national pride”, against the worker was the screen lock. Given that the maintenance worker failed to unlock the screen, he couldn’t have deleted the stored data within. What’s worse was that after three failed trials in unlocking the screen, the camera of the mobile phone would capture the image of whoever has been trying to unlock the phone. No wonder the image of the greedy worker was locked on both counts: the all-pervasive CCTVs and the Chinese made smartphone!

A story like this while being told to children usually conveys a simple message that our greed will eventually bring us our own demise. But as we grow up, we become as complicated as our society itself, not to mention the society of a rapidly developing Chinese city, like Guangzhou. Although the moral of the story remains more or less the same, it is distressing to see the discrepancy between the penetrating surveillance being run under the auspices of the regime and the ignorance of ordinary working class, such as the maintenance worker in this story. While one may argue that a state is entitled to exercise her influence and control with cutting-edge technologies to maintain the social stability, I still find that only by feeding the people without educating them the value of why the state should be conferred the power of exercising constant surveillance over her people hard to accept. Although the maintenance worker should bear the consequence and liability for his greed and theft and deserve retribution, I still find him miserable in a sense that he was somehow betrayed by his own country which has never trusted her own people. Perhaps if he knew in advance what the smartphone he was coveting was capable of, he wouldn’t have submitted to his greed so easily in the first place. Perhaps what has been lost was not merely a mobile, but the integrity of and the basic trust between people, state-run corporations, and even the entire nation.

Or perhaps, just as the sayings common in Mainland China go, “it’s simply miserable to remain illiterate and poorly educated!” (「沒文化,真可怕!」)



[1] The story is based on a real incident. Because the Big Brother is probably watching, identities of the sources have been altered and covered. The author is, however, aware of the possible bias that may be embedded in the story since only one side of the narratives have been adopted. No access to official records made available by Guangzhou Subway was attempted, hence, no cross reference. Readers’ discretion is recommended.

We All Make Sense Before the Future – My reading of Homo prospectus

Homo Prospectus

Homo Prospectus (2016)

In the same vein as evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973) famously concluded, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, Martin Seligman and his colleagues (2016), self-proclaimed as “four horsemen” (Preface, xiii), ambitiously propose that nothing in human nature makes sense except in the light of our capacity in making prospection[1] as a treatise laid down in their Homo Propectus.

Martin Seligman being regarded as Father of Positive Psychology is no stranger to readers of self-help books while Roy Baumeister, one of the co-authors, has been known for his research in masculinity and the science of will power. The other pair on the reins are Peter Railton, a philosopher who has thought hard on moral realism, and Chandra Sripada, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist by training and a philosopher by profession. Despite the diversity of their respective areas of research, the four scholars have reached the same conclusion on the significance of prospection on humans’ survival and thriving as informed by decades of their research. Our extraordinary capacity in simulating the future, they argue, has distinguished us from other species by enabling us to trust others for reciprocity in the future which is a necessary condition that gave rise to human civilization and societies. The idea also fits well into Robin Dunbar’s (2012) social brain theory and other theories relating to altruism (e.g., Pfaff, 2015) and empathy (e.g., Baren-Cohen, 2011).

Hence, the true origin of Homo sapiens is the distinctive combination of an unprecedented capacity for anticipatory guidance and an unprecedented capacity to live and learn with others – capacities definitive of our ultimate subject matter in this book Homo prospectus socialis; more simply, Homo prospectus.” (Seligmen et al., 2016, pp.6-7)

The beauty of the hypothesis that our forward-looking ability is essential in securing success professionally, socially, and even psychologically lies in its explanatory and predictive power to help us make sense of puzzling human behavior that has haunted us for ages. For examples, the malleability of our memory is no longer a defect or shortcoming at all if it serves the purpose of learning to cope with multiple possibilities in our future. Its very flexibility and the constructive nature are, therefore, what the value of human memory is due. This idea somehow resonates with Bayesian model:

“Memory must be active and constructive, not passive and fixed – it must metabolize information into forms that are efficient and effective for the forward guidance of thought and action.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.15)


Robert Cialdini’s Pre-suasion (2016)

Other interesting examples raised in the book on how our default settings of making prospection constantly may have helped us learn and cope with challenges in our lives include the functions of our seemingly irrational intuition and impulsive emotional reaction. Of course, this is nothing new as many evolutionary psychologists and behavioural economists have been investigating the subject and exploring their role played in our decision-making (e.g., Cialdini, 2016; Kenrick & Griskevicius, 2013). Yet, what Railton and Baumeister revealed is an overlooked and underappreciated fact that the neurological pathways it takes to form an intuitive decision which is always intertwined closely with our emotional circuits are far more sophisticated and complex as well as much faster than we can ever imagine. In short, our intuition that our intuition is effortless is plain wrong. Neither has our intuition and impulsive reaction failed to consume our cognitive resources as exercising our rationality. We are not conscious of the formation process of intuition only because our brain runs in a model that is so “effective” and “efficient” that it saves us the trouble by presenting our intuitive mind in an “automatic mode” or “unmanned” state.

What strikes me as more interesting is Sripada’s insight into the purpose of learning served by “mind wandering”. Contrary to the bias skewed against our ever “wandering mind” which has been considered a subject to be harnessed, hence “心猿意馬” (“one’s heart is running amok like monkeys while one’s mind is galloping like horses”) in Chinese, Sripida cast away the spell and uncovered how mind wandering may help us learn with the support of neuroscientific evidence[2]:

Neural evidence tells a complementary story. Mind-wandering has been tied to the default mode network, a set of brain regions that are involved in episodic memory and imagination… This network was identified from observations of brain activation during prolonged functional imaging tasks. These tasks often provide for intermittent rest intervals, and it was noticed that during these rests, a network of midline and medial temporal lobe structures reliably turn on … These regions were dubbed the default network because their ongoing operation appears to be the brain’s default state of activity…It was subsequently shown that this network subserves mind-wandering activity…The overall picture, then, is that when nothing else is going on, people don’t simply ‘power down’ and let their minds go idle. Rather, they engage a network of brain regions specialized for a distinctive activity: churning out discursive trains of episodes from the past and prospections into the future. The question is: Why?” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.104)


“[W]e advance the view that mind-wandering is not (directly) for planning but rather plays a pivotal role in learning; it contributes to building a highly general ‘map’ of the world that can later be queried for whatever specific purposes a person happens to have. More specifically, our view sees mind-wandering as involving in a highly interesting and widely underappreciated process for facilitating certain kinds of learning: the process of repeated presentation of learning examples. We will argue that in the right sort of learning contexts, presenting discursive ongoing streams of learning examples can facilitate identification of the deeper hidden patterns. We call this the ‘deep learning’ account of min-wandering.” (Seligman et al., 2016, pp.105-6)


In short…consistent with the CLS [Complementary Learning System] model, the neurobiological evidence supports specialization in the hippocampus and neocortex: The hippocampus is optimized for the separation of representations and retention of detail while the neocortex is optimized for integration of representations and forming abstractions from the details.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.108)


“[T]he hippocampus repeatedly presents high-fidelity records of experience toe the cortical deep learning system.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.108)


A third line of evidence for the CLS model comes from human lesion studies. It has long been known that lesions to the hippocampus produce retrograde amnesia for declarative memories, especially for memory of autobiographical episodes. Interestingly, amnesia is often time-limited with memories from the more remote past spared…The CLS framework nicely explains this pattern. The neocortical system stores generalizations and statistical regularities from hippocampal inputs, resulting in partial redundancy and overlap in the mnemonic contents of the two systems. The formation of neocortical memory traces, however, is slow and iterative, and thus requires extensive time for consolidation. This explains why there is preferential sparing of remote memories with hippocampal damage; only those memories that have had sufficient time for neocortical stabilization and consolidation are spared. If the neocortex has not had time to extract patterns from hippocampal memories of relatively recent events, then there will be complete amnesia for these events.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.109)


Our extended CLS architecture…propose that episodic memory examples generated by the hippocampal system are consumed by a variety of neocortical deep learning systems. This requires widespread dissemination of these memory states; only if these episodic memory-based learning examples are widely disseminated can they be consumed by multiple disparate neocortical systems. This brings consciousness into the picture.

On the global workspace model, consciousness is a mechanism for accomplishing widespread dissemination of information to multiple consumer systems…Informational states that enter the global workspace are amplified and ‘broadcast’ rapidly across long-range recurrent cortico-cortico and cortico-thalamic connections…Such broadcast, it is claimed by defenders of workspace theory, is necessary for a state’s being consciously experienced, and according to some theorists, also sufficient. Because the extended CLS model proposes that episode memory examples from the hippocampal surface system are typically consumed by multiple, disparate cortical deep learning systems, we assume these hippocampal memory states use the mechanisms of global broadcast to be disseminated widely, and thus they are conscious.

After these refinements, we are now in a position to locate mind-wandering. To recap a bit, the extended model proposes that there’s a hippocampal surface system that stores sensorily rich and detailed episodic memories. There is also a neocortical deep system, which itself consists of a number of disparate conceptual learning systems, and the neocortical system requires an ongoing stream of learning examples. Using the mechanism of conscious broadcast, the hippocampal surface system delivers these examples to the neocortical system thereby driving deep learning (including generalization, explanation, abstraction, gist-finding, and social interpretation). Because the deep system requires interleaved inputs, the stream of examples from the surface system must vary in content and be drawn from the domain of interest in a semi-random way – it must meander in order to work. Mind-wandering is located within this architecture as the ongoing discursive series of episodic memory examples from the hippocampal surface system that are consciously broadcast to, and consumed by the neocortical deep system.

Why is mind-wandering so ubiquitous; why does it occupy nearly half of our waking lives? We theorize in the extended CLS model that the neocortical deep learning system is slow and that it learns only incrementally. If it is to extract useful generalizations, explanations, abstractions, gists, and interpretations, the hippocampal surface system must deliver a massive number of meandering memories. Thus, there must be an abundance of mind-wandering activity.

Notice, however, that though neocortical deep learning is ultimately valuable, engaging in it is rarely pressing. So the mind-wandering activity that drives neocortical deep learning should operate as a default activity. That is, it is an activity that should be conducted throughout ‘rest’ periods and when engagement with a demanding task is required, mid-wandering should be suspended, with an immediate resumption of mind-wandering as soon as the resting state resumes. The fMRI findings we discussed earlier, in which mind-wandering is subserved by the (appropriately named) default mode network, provides strong support that mind-wandering follows precisely his predicted on-and-off pattern.” (Seligman et al., 2016, pp.113-5)

No matter Spridida is correct or not, his view on mind-wandering has alleviated the burden of my guilt for always letting my mind drift away. Thank you!

Another “Big Question” addressed by Siripada and was brilliantly argued in terms of prospection is free will. Instead of following mainstream philosophical enquiries which focus on metaphysical existence of “free will” or confining the subject to a deterministic framework, Siripada has offered to address the question by considering our day-to-day psychological experience of “free will”. Two concepts, namely construction of options and latitude, were introduced as guiding posts in the subsequent study. How we create a sense that we really have options and can make our choices according to our preference matters, hence construction of options; so does the diversity of the choices we can make, hence latitude[3]:

We will argue that the distinctive mark of human freedom is latitude. Latitude refers to what agents have when the ‘size’ of their option set is large. For now, we can say an agent has more latitude when the number of distinct options in the option set is larger. A bit later, we will provide a more refined account of how to understand the ‘size’ of an option set.

Simple animals have sharply limited latitude. The candidate options they can mentally represent, and from which they can in turn select, are few and relatively fixed. At the other extreme, human agents have a truly colossal amount of latitude. Because humans are deeply prospective creatures with powerful imagined abilities, they can build option sets that are truly vast. As a result, humans can express themselves in countless ways. This latitude for self-expression is, we argue, the best answer to the comparative question of free will. It is the distinctive psychological feature that explains why humans, but not simpler animals, are free.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.193)


Our focus has…been on an important comparative question about free will that hardly ever gets addressed: What are the distinctive psychological factors that explain why humans are free but simpler animals are not? The answer, we claim, is latitude. Humans are deeply prospective creatures who have powerful abilities for option construction. Humans can, thus, build option sets that contain numerous and diverse opportunities for self-expression. It is because humans are unique in being able to roam far and wide in a vast space of options that humans are unique in being free.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.205)

In details, Siripada posited three distinctive features in human agents’ power of constructing options in the followings:

  1. Sequential plan:

Humans have the ability to form sequential plans, chains of actions linked in a coordinated way to achieve a goal. Plans are characteristically decomposable into parts, each of which achieves a proximal goal...” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.194)

  1. Extended time horizon:

The existing evidence suggests that nonhuman animals cannot represent goings on at points in time in the distant future. Some studies place the time horizon of nonhuman animals at just a few minutes; others allow that in some contexts, some animals might prospect as far as day…Humans, in contrast, can readily mentally represent events and episodes that are days, years, decades, and indeed millennia in the future, long after they as individuals, or even as a species, will have perished. The time horizon of humans appears to be essentially boundless.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.195)

  1. Metarepresentation:

[T]he ability to mentally represent one’s own psychological states.” (Seligmen et al., 2016, p.195)

The preceding two factors – sequential planning and extended time horizon – are enabled by a suite of other sophisticated capacities. Central among these are powerful abilities for prospective imaginal simulation; we can mentally project ourselves into temporally distant hypothetical situations. Indeed, there appears to be a set of interconnected brain regions, called the default network, specialized for this purpose…This is a network of regions in the brain’s midline and posterior lateral areas that have reliably been implicated in prospective thinking…as well as other cognitive tasks that involve projecting oneself into different times, places, situations, or perspectives…Areas of the default network have undergone extensive elaboration in the transition from mammalian ancestors to modern humans… The expanded abilities for prospective simulation thus enabled likely plays a key role in explaining why capacities for sequential planning are more powerful and our time horizon more distant.” (Seligman et al., 2016, p.195)


Think of options as lying in a multidimensional space. Each of one’s cares establishes a new axis. The position of an option along that axis is determined by whether the option satisfies, hinders, or is neutral with respect to the satisfaction of that care. The notion of divergence can be understood as distance between two options in this high-dimensional space…A diverse option set is one in which the options within it ar spread out and cover the space. That is, there is sufficient divergence between individual options that they are not all clustered within a tiny region.

We have proposed that the size of option set is based on the number and diversity of opportunities for self-expression that are contained within. Now we are in a position to say what latitude is. Latitude is not the size of the option set itself. Rather, it is something agents enjoy in virtue of the size of their option sets. Let us suppose a person’s selective processes are functioning properly. Given an option set that has already been constructed, these processes appropriately assign evaluative weight to the options and select for implementation those that are evaluated as best. Holding fixed this fact, suppose now we enlarge the option set over which these selective processes operate, either by increasing the number of options or increasing the diversity of options.  Even though the selective processes themselves have not change, the person’s latitude has changed. Latitude consists in the opportunities for self-expression that have grown due to the expansion of the option set.

Because of our uniquely powerful constructive powers, we humans build option sets of unravelled size. We correspondingly have unmatched latitude of self-expression. The view we are proposing mark of free will. That is, free will consists of having the latitude to express one’s self in numerous and diverse ways.

We have focused on powers to construct options as the distinctive basis for free will. Humans, however, also have uniquely powerful selective processes. That is, the processes that underlie our ability to assign evaluative weights to actions and implement those actions evaluated as best are also more advanced than those possessed by other creatures. One might object to the latitude view of free will by being too narrowly focused on the psychological processes that underlie option construction. Why not say that gains in sophistication of all the processes that subserve decision and action – the processes that subserve option construction as well as the processes that subserve option selection – contribute to freedom?

Our response to this objection takes note that agency is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Because of this, we have a rich and nuanced vocabulary for separately describing distinct ‘achievements’ of agency. For example, agents can be free, responsible, prudent, moral, virtuous, and so forth, and each of these terms picks out a distinct way that agency can go well. One important achievement of agency specifically concerns the functioning of selective processes. When these processes are made to function better (i.e., when evaluative weights are assigned to options in a way that better reflects their actual worth), we don’t say the agent is thereby more free; rather we say the agent is thereby more rational.

We agree with the objector, then, that humans uniquely possess advanced powers of option construction as well as option selection. We contend, however, that the greater sophistication of selective processes, and the more careful and nuanced assignment of evaluative weights hat this thereby enabled, is connected with a very specific achievement of agency: rationality. But if we want to know how humans differ from simpler animals in terms of freedom, it is not the selective processes that matter for this. Rather it is the constructive processes. The greater sophistication of human constructive processes and the greater latitude of self-expression that is thereby conferred are what distinguish humans from other animals in terms of freedom.” (Seligman et al., 2016, pp.200-1)

Given the importance of our future-oriented vision, Seligman is not unaware of problems that the malfunction of our prospection may bring. An example, which is of clinical relevance, is depression. As Seligman argued, contrary to Freud’s attribution of depression to individual’s past experience, the disorder may also manifest itself when our over-prospection backfires:

First and foremost we build upon Beck’s (1974) negative cognitive triad, which marked major theoretical progress in the study of depression. Beck postulated a negative view of the world, of the self, and of the future as the hallmark symptoms of depression, and suggested they were more than mere symptoms; they actually caused depression. We agree with this, and we further suggest that the negative view of the future is the first among equals in the triad.

Much research and therapy focuses on negative views of the …but negative views of the future may matter even more; we hypothesize that the entire cognitive triad may actually boil down to negative future-thinking. Certainly, it is depressing for people to believe that the world is no good, but that this will change dramatically for the better tomorrow, this is not nearly as disheartening. Sadness and dejection are understandable reactions to the belief that things will always be bad. The emotional reaction is not faulty here, but rather the representation of the future is. Beck posited that by helping clients to spot and change dysfunctional if-then simulations of the future, therapists can promote recovery and resilience. Targeting this part of the cognitive triad might be one of the most important interventions and the single most important target for further development.

This prospective framework also extends and enriches Abramson, Metalsky, and Alloy’s (1989) hopelessness theory of depression, which posits that hopelessness is sufficient for causing a subtype of depression, as well as MacLeod et al. (2005) and those of Miloyan, Pachana, and Suddendorf (2014), which point to the specific maladaptive problems in mental simulation that characterize hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior.

We see faulty prospection as a core underlying process that drives depression (and potentially contributes to a range of other comorbid disorders). We believe that prospection is not a mere symptom or correlate of depression, but rather the process that belongs front and center in the study of depression.” (Seligman et al., 2016, pp.282-3)

Despite his belief that human’s fault in prospection lies in the core of depression, Seligman knew better than giving any conviction that would close the case once and for all. He also pointed out that “poor prospection” would not account for all symptoms displayed by the depressed (Seligman et al., 2016). Like all good scientists, the authors the Homo Prospectus has only proposed, albeit ambitiously, a new paradigm for making sense of human nature and uniqueness. Whether their proposals will become a game changer in psychology and philosophy is yet to be seen. What is certain, though, is a lot more research will be initiated along the direction departed from Homo Prospectus in the future.

As far as my prediction would go,  I will keep track on what is going to come out from those subsequent researches and continue to write about it.



[1] The phrase is mine.

[2] Though a bit long, the reproduction of the text is justified by the completeness of idea it presents.

[3] Again, I cannot help copying a great portion from the book as to capture the totality of Sripida’s argument.


Baren-Cohen, S. (2011). The Science of Evil. Basic Books.

Cialdini, R. (2016). Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade . Simon & Schuster.

Dobzhansky, T. G. (1973). Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. American Biology Teacher, 35(3), 125-129.

Dunbar, R. (2012). The Science of Love and Betrayal. Faber & Faber.

Kenrick, D. T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013). The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think. Basic Books.

Pfaff, D. (2015). The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good. Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E., Railton, P., Roy, B. F., & Sripada, C. (2016). Homo Prospectus. Oxford University Press.

A Personally Correct Choice of Reading – Larry Feign’s A Politically Incorrect History of Hong Kong

First of all, it’s FREE!? That sounds a bit fishy, doesn’t it?


Wish Larry Feign would forgive me to reproduce his hallmark bootleg design above with not only a shrug, but a smile, too! Click on the image above for the link to download the book.

When a window that was advertising Larry Feign’s latest cartoon collection appeared amidst the newsfeed on Facebook, my immediate reaction was not much different from Rodman’s, my buddy who’s also a talented artist and has proudly garnered a kind of following in social media lately with his comic, “真係免費咁筍喎” (“It’s really too good to be true as getting a free copy!”).

After all, we, Hongkongers, have been fed up with various kinds of scam, especially after the handover in 1997 when we became subject to an array of swindles being carried out by fellow Mainlanders, despite the fact that the magical code “FREE” was still eye catching. Perhaps Larry knows us so well that he has a way of nudging us to buy whatever he’s trying to sell like a maverick insurance agent or, as I suspect, perhaps he is one of the Mainland swindlers himself who pretends to be a “Gwailo” (an expat or Westerner) as a foil commonly employed by perverts when dating those naïve “港女” ([HONGKong girls) who would fall for whoever sounds “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) in their profiles.

Lily_WongNext comes the question of who on earth this Larry Feign is? Excuse my ignorance, but, to be honest, I didn’t think I have heard anything about Larry much less his work until Lily Wong, one of the comic characters created by Larry, rang the bell when I googled him up and read his bio. Although my memory is a bit hazy, I remember that I had read a bit of the comic strip during my high school years and found it funny.  I just didn’t pay much attention to who her creator was back then. No sooner did my suspicion begin to vanish than I found Larry’s blooming reputation as an award-winning cartoonist with his work even appearing in The Economist, The New York Times, and South China Post rather impressive. Then I thought maybe I could give it a try. It doesn’t cost me a dime so far anyway.


A paper board erected in Admiralty, Hong Kong, during the Umbrella Movement / Occupy Central Campaign in September 2014 bearing an image of President Xi Jinping of PRC ironically holding a yellow umbrella which stands for Hong Kong democratic movement while the vertical banner reads “I want universal suffrage!”

The title of the giveaway is also appealing in his own right. A Politically Incorrect History of Hong Kong? Having experienced the political turmoil which had culminated in the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the unrest broken out in Mongkok in the beginning of 2016, we seem to be left with either yellow (pro-democratic and anti-Beijing) or blue (pro-establishment and Beijing) parties. Who else still gives a damn of what political correctness is? As how Larry puts it in the beginning of the book, it only depends on which side you’re taking? The winner’s or the loser’s or neither? Once our political orientation is formed, the idea and belief will take shapes and begin feeding on itself. As growing volume of research on our affective system shows, no real “correctness” of politics in terms of objectiveness would ever be achieved as long as our belief system is implicated.

So, I downloaded the book and gladly realized that I was wrong…It really is FREE! And so is Larry’s view on the history of Hong Kong, of the ups and downs the locals have experienced throughout the colonial age as well as the post-handover period, and of the struggles and love affairs that are still playing out everyday in such a tiny and yet beautiful city. Soon and sure enough, Larry’s signature wry humor and his penetrating observation of the quirks most Hong Kong people share in common displayed in his pictures and narratives began to win over my mind and heart. As Larry wisely illustrates, instead of hurriedly falling in love with “the dashing blue-eyed sailor”, I am sure readers in Hong Kong, like the Asian beauty depicted in the book, “who just happen for some reason” to read English will always fall for a great artist, like Larry Feign, who, like a high-ranking captain, would surely deliver us “a many splendid thing“.

The Rise and Fall of Attention – a Clinical Observation

Working MemoryAccording to Time-Based Resource Sharing (TBRS) model advanced by Pierre Barrouillet and Valérie Camos (2015), the “storage capacity” of our working memory “systematically varies as a linear function of the cognitive load of concurrent processing, a relation that we describe as the law relating processing to storage.” In plain language, we tap into the same reservoir of cognitive resources while performing various tasks at the same time. Our memory that is required to perform each task would inevitably compromised since the amount of cognitive resources, mainly manifested in our attention, have been diverted. A safe bet is that if you keep ruminating the meaning of TBRS as quoted in the beginning of this paragraph while reading what I’m going to say next, you probably won’t remember the story as much as you skip this paragraph altogether. In short, multitasking is not a good idea. Focused attention is better than being distracted.

WillpowerAlthough the theory does not sound too exciting or innovative as it resonates pretty much with what our conventional wisdom has informed us, its practical value seems to have been overlooked until substantial research focusing on working memory, executive function, and even will power emerged in the mid-twentieth century. As social psychologist Roy Baumeister, along with John Tierney (2011), concluds:

The experiments [on will power] consistently demonstrated two lessons:

  1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
  2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

“You might think you have one reservoir of self-control for work, another for dieting, another for exercise, and another for being nice to your family.  But the radish experiment showed that two completely unrelated activities – resisting chocolate and working on geometry puzzles – drew on the same source of energy, and this phenomenon has been demonstrated over and over.  There are hidden connections among the wildly different things you do all day.  You use the same supply of willpower to deal with frustrating traffic, tempting food, annoying colleagues, demanding bosses, putting children.” (pp.35-6)

In addition to controlling our thoughts, emotions, and impulses, we also draw the cognitive energy from the same reserve to control our performance: “focusing your energy on the task at hand, finding the right combination of speed and accuracy, managing time, persevering when you feel like quitting.” (Baumeister & Tierney, p.37) Knowing that our mind, like muscles, is subject to the affordability of our inner energy or brain food, derived from nutrients, prominently glucose among others, may help us direct our attention to whatever that really matters.

In reverse, distraction or anticipation of being distracted may work against our volition. An interesting example is captured by James E. Mitchell, psychologist who helped CIA develop the controversial Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs), in his latest work, Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America (2016).

Enhanced Interrogation

While being detained for interrogation, Abu Zubaydah, an al Qa’aida leader, not  surprisingly, refused to cooperate and kept breaking his chairs in protest. In response, Mitchell successfully manipulated Zubaydah’s attention:

Because Abu Zubaydah seemed intent on making a contest out of breaking the chairs, I knew asking him to stop would be more of a reward than a deterrent. Instead, I recommended using what in psychology is called a paradoxical intervention. The idea, based on the notion that people do things for a reason, is to prescribed more of the behavior you are trying to eliminate. It’s sometimes called reverse psychology.

“I reasoned that for the intervention to work, we needed Abu Zubaydah to believe that we had so many plastic patio chairs that we weren’t bothered when he broke them. I had the guards collect all the identical patio chairs we had on-site, but that wasn’t enough, and so we had fifteen chairs identical to ours brought to the black site. When we added the new ones to the ones we already had, we ended up with two stacks of identical chairs, both reaching from the floor to the high ceiling.

“The guards waited until the next time Abu Zubaydah started bouncing up and down in his chair. They then wordlessly carried the two huge stacks of chairs and placed them within his sight line just outside his cell door, prepositioning the chairs so that they would be handy the next time a broken one needed to be replaced. The guards turned up the two stacks of chairs from floor to ceiling and back down again. He covered his mouth with his hands and shook his head. The chair breaking stopped and never started again.” (p.26)

Lately a convict who is notorious for having committed a series of armed robberies with a history of escape from prison is lying on his death bed being grinded by terminal illness in one of the wards I oversee.  Despite his declining cognitive and physical capability, the convict struggled defiantly whenever nursing staff attempted to administer medicine and injection to him as if he was defying his own mortality by desperately exercising his choice however little he has been left with. The gentler the nursing staff persuaded him to calm down and let them finish their jobs, the harder the convict resisted; the more patience they displayed when urging the convict to loosen his grip, the harder the convict clenched his fist…

clenched fist handcuffedOnce I recalled the “paradoxical intervention” and the limited cognitive resources available for a person, I started urging the convict to hold his grip harder verbally in the midst of my colleagues’ voices telling him to let go his grip soothingly when I tried to unlock his hand with mine. Interestingly, it works! Having applied such techniques for several times, we found that the convict seemed to be exhausted while being bombarded by our simultaneously opposing orders but to let go his clenching fist to our pull. Besides, he stopped shouting vulgar words which he intended to enrage us shortly after we joined him to shout those words in unison…It looks like that he has overstretched himself in terms of attention. While focusing on disobeying our verbal orders deliberately, the convict failed to afford as much resource to stand our physical challenge

Perhaps it makes a good case for the theory positing that our divided attention for cognitive and physical activities is drawn from the same pool of cognitive resources. The predictive power of the theory has seemingly been validated in the loosening grip of the convict (N=1, the sample is ridiculously small to account for individual differences after all) once his attention was diverted to handle our confusing commands. And yet, like how all academic papers are to be concluded, further studies are needed to confirm the validity of such little clinical observation concerning the ebb and flow of our attention.

A Brief Case of Chance

Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”


 Why this quote becomes well remembered is, I believe, not simply because of Tom Hanks, who said so in one of his best movies Forrest Gump (1994), but rather that it may have held a grain of truth.

Had Gump not initiated a conversation with the lady, a complete stranger who was sitting next to him on a bench, by offering her his chocolates, we might not have reached this truism in the first place. However unlikely the odds of picking a particular piece from a multitude of chocolates in a pack may be, the probability still seems manageable given the limited volume the pack can hold. It would, however, become incredibly hard to predict the outcome while the denominator amounts to the population of entire humanity which has reached as much as 7 billion, much less the odds when two specific individuals are picked out at the same time. When it comes down to the moment when such chance event happens, the probability is somehow no more than either 1 or 0. Either that coincidence happens or it doesn’t.

To appreciate the probability as such cognitively is one thing while to marvel at the rarity of such coincidence after experiencing it personally is completely another. That’s what exactly happened at a weekend a couple of weeks ago.  After my shift was over that afternoon, I went down to HKU where my sweetheart, Beibei, was having class supposedly ended by 6 in the evening. It turned out that Beibei was excused earlier and we decided to grab some food in one of the restaurants we often visited in the neighborhood of the campus.

Upon reaching the end of the street that led to the restaurant, we saw a newly opened cooked food stall which immediately captured our attention and stimulated Beibei’s appetite with Beibei’s favorite, steamed rice-rolls. While we were waiting for our turn and ready to call our shot, I was aware of a smart-looking and apparently WEIRD (Western, Educated, industrialized, Rich, Democratic) gentleman who stood nearby and kept looking on as if he was mentally rehearsing how to make his call. Like Gump, it was, of course, so kind of me to enquire if the gentleman needed help (a wink). He did and was anxious to learn the substance of the options that were displayed in front of him. No sooner did he get what we ordered on his behalf, Shao Mai and fish balls (two sets of dim sum that are popular in Hong Kong), than he shared with us his story. He happened to be a law professor at Miami Law School who, together with his colleague, was leading the students he coached to compete in an Arbitration Moot Contest which would last for a week. It was his first day and first time in Hong Kong. Right after checking in his hotel, he couldn’t wait to explore the surroundings and came across us by PURE chance. We ended up having tea and a great time together at the restaurant for nearly TWO hours talking about laws, politics, history, travels, the Umbrella Movement (or Occupy Central Movement) of Hong Kong, and, of course, Donald Trump and his “Trumpland” policies….the further we talked, the more interest that we found we shared in common.

John Rooney, Beibei and Frank

(From Right) Prof. John Rooney, Frank, and Beibei

Beibei and I are certainly thankful and found such unexpected rendezvous with Professor John H. Rooney Jr., the complete stranger who turned out to be, amazing, and we are grateful to learn that such amazement and awe held for the coincidence is mutual. Unlike the lady who was reluctant to reciprocate when Gump tried to engage her for a conversation, John was so kind and generous to allow us to tap into his reservoir of knowledge and research, such as the history behind how slave trades brought Africans to Haiti in the beginning, and from where the Haitians later found their way to the Deep South in the US and settled there eventually; and besides, the nature of his profession and what international arbitration was all about…

What further impressed me about John was his impeccable manners that had somehow cost his dim sums that afternoon since he refrained from enjoying them in the restaurant as it was improper to consume any food other than that served by the restaurant. Despite his loss since the dim sums were no longer palatable while being cooled off after John’s return to his hotel, my respect for John’s character is well secured.

In the following week, we even had the pleasure to meet John’s colleague, Professor Sandra Friedrich, who had an interesting personality and of a vibrant disposition, and quickly befriended.  We also went on an evening excursion to Temple Street after a heartfelt dinner.


(From left) Prof. Sandra Friedrich, Prof. John Rooney, Beibei, and Frank dining at Temple Street

Even as knowledgeable and well educated as Sandra and John have been, I find them sharing one particular trait that is common among nearly all professionals who excel in their respective areas of expertise that I have come across: humility. Despite John’s casual demeanor, I can tell that he had listened attentively and carefully to whatever we were telling him. Not because what we said would be of any worth and value, but because John was so eager to learn and open to new ideas which is an essential component of “growth mindset” which has been featured in many psychology literatures, including Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016).


Checked in on Temple Street, Hong Kong

To put the whole episode in perspective, I was awestruck by how many “If”s must have been orchestrated to culminate in the crossing of our paths. What “if” I didn’t work on A-shift that weekend? What “if” Beibei didn’t leave her class early? What “if” we didn’t bother to stop by the cooked food kiosk? What “if” John never showed up? And what “if”….but among so many contingent elements, I am certain that we are thankful and grateful for the chance encounter with John and getting to know Sandra. It doesn’t take a dice or a lottery to determine how lucky we are, all we need is an open heart to embrace whatever life has to offer and what the future has in store for us. What “if” the lady had taken Forrest Gump’s offer seriously in the beginning? Perhaps the ending would have been drastically different for Gump as well as for the lady.


Farewell to John at HK International Airport

By the time when this post is out, John should be celebrating the birth of a little baby girl to his family on the other shore of the Pacific. Here come our congratulations as well as our warmest wishes to his family.

Once again, thank you, Sandra and John! And here is how I rest my case of chance.

My interpretation of The Interpretation of Murder

In defiance of an enormous amount of readings which had to be done shortly before last mid-term exam, I was indulging myself in devouring Jed Ruberfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder, which was supposedly only for leisure, as “reaction formation” to defend my sanity during the reading week.  The novel turned out to help me grasp the core Freudian ideas that we had gone through in class and compose my term paper.  Besides, Rubenfeld’s brilliant interpretation of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” mystery in terms of psychoanalytic tradition has even turned Oedipal Complex upside down. By setting his story against the background of Freud’s only visit with his protégés to America in 1909, Ruberfeld deftly illustrates his insight of psychanalysis and Shakespearean tragedy by embedding them within the closely-knitted plot in which Freud’s penetrating vision eventually led his follower, Stratham Younger, to solve a murder case that had never happened.

The Interpretation of Murder

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

Even when I reread it now a few days before my second term-paper is due (of course, not a single word has been committed to its completion so far), Rubenfeld’s interpretation of human nature on which Freud and Shakespeare have shed light still strikes me with fascination.

Rubenfeld portrays Stratham Younger, a well-bred American psychoanalyst who while receiving Freud and his entourage was appointed by Freud to solve a murder of a young lady implicated with erotic motives, as obsessed with psychoanalysis and Hamlet as himself.   In The Interpretation, Rubenfeld attributes his own thesis of the inner struggle that keeps haunting Hamlet to Freud’s and Younger’s different interpretation.

In an attempt to understand what keeps Hamlet’s vengeance towards his father killer, Claudius, at bay, Rubenfeld projects widely adopted view to Freud’s understanding of the question:

Claudius has done only what Hamlet himself wanted to do. “Thus the loathing which should drive him on to revenge’ – to quote Freud – ‘is replaced in him by self reproaches, by scruples of conscience.’  That Hamlet suffers from self-reproach is undeniable.  Over and over, he castigates himself – excessively, almost irrationally.  He even contemplates suicide.  Or at least that is how the To be, or not to be speech is always interpreted.  Hamlet is wondering whether to take his own life.  Why? Why does Hamlet feel guilty and suicidal when he thinks of avenging his father? No one in three hundred years had ever been able to explain the most famous soliloquy of all drama – until Freud.

“According to Freud, Hamlet knows – unconsciously – that he himself wished to kill his father and that he himself wished to replace his father in his mother’s bed, just as Claudius has done. Claudius is, therefore, the embodiment of Hamlet’s own secret wishes; he is a mirror of Hamlet himself.  Hamlet’s thoughts run straight from revenge to guilt and suicide because he sees himself in his uncle.  Killing Claudius would be both a reenactment of his own Oedipal desires and a kind of self-slaughter.  That is why Hamlet is paralyzed.  That is why he cannot take action.  He is an hysteric, suffering from the overwhelming guilt of Oedipal desires he has not successfully repressed.” (p.132)

On the contrary, Younger who stands for Rubenfeld’s own view reflects:

‘Last night,’ I said, ‘I solved To be, or not to be.’

‘Oh people have been trying to solve it for centuries. But no one has, because everyone has always thought that not to be means to die.’

‘Well, there’s a problem if you read it that way. The whole speech equates not to be with action: taking up arms, taking vengeance, and so on.  So if not to be meant to die, then death would have the name of action on its side, when surely that title belongs to life.  How did acting get on the side of not being? If we could answer that question, we would know why, for Hamlet, to be means not to act, and then we would have solved the real riddle: why he doesn’t act, why he is paralyzed for so very long.  I’m boring you, I’m sorry.’

‘You aren’t in the least. But not to be can only mean death,’ said Nora. ‘Not to be means’ – she shrugged – ‘not to be.’

I had been reclining on my side. Now I sat up. ‘No. I mean yes. I mean, not to be has a second meaning. The opposite of being is not only death.  Not for Hamlet.  To not be is also to seem.’

‘To seem what?’

‘Just to seem…The clue has been there all along, at the very beginning of the play, where Hamlet says, Seems, madam? Nay it is. I know not ‘seems.’ Think of it.  Denmark is rotten.  Everyone ought to be in mourning.  He, Hamlet, ought to be king.  Instead, Denmark is celebrating his mother’s marriage to, of all people, his loathsome uncle, who has assumed the throne.

‘And what most galls him is the feigning of grief, the seeming, the weaning of black by people who can’t wait to feast at the marriage tables and disport themselves like animals in their beds. Hamlet wants no part of such a world.  He won’t pretend.  He refuses to seem.  He is.

‘Then he learns of his father’s murder. He swears revenge.  But from that point on, he enters the world of seeming.  His first step is to put an antic disposition on – to pretend to be mad.  Next he listens in awe as an actor weeps for Hecuba.  Then he actually instructs that players on how to pretend convincingly.  He even writes a script for them himself, to be played that night, a scene he must pretend is anodyne, but that will actually reenact his father’s murder, in order to surprise his uncle into an admission of guilt.

‘He is falling into the domain of playing, of seeming. For Hamlet, To be, or not to be isn’t to be, or not to “exist.” It’s “to be, or to seem”; that’s the decision he has to make.  To seem is to act – to feign, to play a part.  There’s the solution to all of Hamlet, right there, in front of everyone’s nose.  Not to be is to seem, and to seem is to act.  To be, therefore, is ‘not to act.’  Hence his paralysis! Hamlet was determined not to seem, and that meant never acting.  If he holds to that determination, if he would be, he cannot act.  But if he would take arms ns avenge his father, he must act – he must choose to seem, rather than to be.’

‘All action is acting. All performing is performance.  There’s a reason these words have double meanings.  To design means to plan, but also to deceive.  To fabricate is to make with skill, but also to deceive.  Art means deception. Craft – deception.  There is no escaping it.  If we would play a part in the world, we must act.  Say a man psychoanalyzes a woman.  He becomes her doctor; he assumes a role.  It isn’t lying, but it is acting.  If he drops that role with her, he assumes another – friend, lover, husband, whatever it is.  We can choose what part we play, but that’s all.’” (pp.299-301)


At last, Rubenfeld even tip the entire Oedipal Complex over:

In fact, given my interpretation of To be, or not to be.  I dared to think I finally had upended the whole Oedipus complex.  Freud was right all along, yes, he had held the mirror up to nature, but he had seen in it a mirror image of reality.

“It’s the father, not the son. Yes, when a little boy enters the scene with his mother and father, one party in this trio tends to suffer a profound jealousy – the father.  He may naturally feel the boy intrudes on his special, exclusive relationship with his wife.  He may well have half want to be rid of the suckling, puling intruder, whom the mother proclaims to be so perfect.  He might even wish him dead.

“The Oedipus complex is real, but he subject of all its predicates is the parent, not the child. And it only worsens as the child grows.  A girl soon confronts her mother with a figure whose youth and beauty the mother cannot help resenting.  A boy must eventually overtake his father, who as the son grows cannot but feel the churning of generations coming to plow him under.

“But what parent will acknowledge a wish to kill his own issue? What father will admit to being jealous of his own boy? So the Oedipal complex must be projected onto children. A voice must whisper in the ear of Oedipus’s father that it is not he – the father – who entertains a secret death wish against the son but rather Oedipus who covets the mother and compasses the father’s death. The more intensely these jealousies attack the parents, the more destructively they will behave against their own children, and if this occurs they may turn their own children against them – bringing about the very situation they feared.  So teaches Oedipus itself.  Freud had misinterpret Oedipus: the secret of the Oedipus wishes lies in the parent’s heart not the child’s.” (p.325)


Despite the seriousness Rubenfeld has taken Oedipal Complex, he has not failed in producing scenes that gave a dramatic touch.  Here comes a joke when Freud was enquired after the nature of psychoanalysis by a Mrs. Banwell, an attractive lady who was one of the guests in a social dinner, he replied:

‘What women want,’ Freud replied to her question, as the guests took their seats at a table shimmering with crystal, ‘is a mystery, as much to the analyst as to the poet. If only you could tell us, Mrs. Banwell, but you cannot.  You are the problem, but you are no better able to solve it than are we poor men.  Now, what men want is almost always apparent.  Our host, for example, instead of his spoon, has picked up his knife by mistake.’

All heads turned to the smiling, bulky form of Jelliffe at the head of the table. It was so: he had his knife – not his bread knife, but his dinner knife – in his right hand. ‘What does it signify, Dr. Freud?’ asked an elderly lady.

‘It signifies that Mrs. Banwell has aroused our host’s aggressive impulses,’ said Freud.

‘This aggression, arising from circumstances of sexual competition readily comprehensible to everyone, led his hand to his wrong instrument, revealing wishes of which he himself was unconscious.’

There was a murmur around the table.

‘A touch, a touch, I do confess it,’ cried Jelliffe with unembarrassed good spirits, wagging his knife in Clara’s direction, ‘except of course when he says that the wishes in question were unconscious.’ His civilized scandalousness elicited a burst of appreciative laughter all around.” (p.194)


In addition, Rubenfeld has as well captured the very rationale behind women’s obsession with beauty in a smart remark made by Clara Banwell (Mrs. Banwell), the mastermind behind all the conspiracies happened in the story:

‘Well, since you force me, gentlemen,’ said Clara, ‘I’ll confess our secret. Women are men’s inferiors.  I know it is backward of me to say so, but to deny it is folly.  All of mankind’s riches, material and spiritual, are men’ creations.  Our towering cities, our science, art, and music – all built, discovered, painted, and composed by you men. Women know this. We cannot help being overmastered by stronger men, and we cannot help resenting you for it.  A woman’s love for a man is half animal passion and half hate.  The more a woman loves a man, the more she hates him.  IF a man is worth having, he must be a woman’s superior; if he is her superior, part of her must hate him.  It is only in beauty we surpass you, and it is therefore no wonder that we worship beauty above all else.  That is why a woman,’ she wound up, ‘is her greatest peril in the presence of a beautiful man.’” (p.196)


        Wonder if such an insight is derived from the Tiger Mom with whom Rubenfeld is sharing his life with?

Mind and / or Brain

Despite the time lag between the publication of Mario Beauregard’s Brain Wars (2012) and David A. Lieberman’s The Case Against Free Will (2016), the authors of both books, while being read side by side, seem to have engaged in an electrifying debate as if they have had each other’s views in mind before writing for and against an age-old question about whether our thoughts, volition, emotion, and behavior are governed by an immaterial mind that is separate from our physical bodies as Cartesian dualism suggests (Beauregard); or whether our behaviors and mental processes, even without our knowing most of the time, are determined by our genes and environments (Lieberman).  When presenting their cases, both Beauregard and Lieberman acknowledge what the latest scientific developments and discoveries have informed us of the nature of our “mind”: both amass their arsenals from some of the same psychological experiments and load against each other with the same findings; both acknowledge the importance of neuroplasticity in explaining humans behavior; both address the implication of brain imaging and neuroscience; both ascertain the values and the crucial role played by the unconscious in our lives; both look forward to validating their own claims by further breakthroughs that Quantum Mechanics promises…and yet neither of them agrees each other’s a priori position in the least.  The further they argue, the more frequent their views intertwine as if the alignment of each author’s point forms the base on either side of a double helix which keeps spiraling infinitely.  Having read them like an mRNA performing “transcription”, I am going to “translate” them by juxtaposing Beauregard’s and Lieberman’s arguments which hopefully attract feedbacks from those who take the question of free will as seriously as I do.

Keep your mind open: Determinism vs. Free Will

Before presenting his case, Lieberman starts by redefining “determinism” in terms of genetics and epigenetics:

Determinism says that our behavior is determined by two causes: our heredity and our environment.  Heredity refers to the genes we inherit from our parents, while environment refers not only to our current environment but also to the environments we have experienced in the past – in effect, to all the experiences we have had from the time we were born.  Determinism, in other words, says that our behavior is entirely determined by our genes and experiences: if we knew every gene and every experience a person had, then, in principle, we could predict exactly what they would do at every moment in time.” (p.4)

As though he has predicted that such an emboldened statement would certainly warrant disagreement, Lieberman hastens to add that the catch occurs in the phrase “in principle”:

[T]hat knowing a law doesn’t always mean that we can use it to make predictions…Suppose you were flipping a coin and watching where it fell on a table.  You would have to know exactly how high above the table the coin was released, with what force, with what angular spin and so on.  When scientists say that something is lawful, they are saying that some set of initial conditions completely determine the outcome, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can predict that outcome.” (p.4)

He further addresses the opposing view invoked by those who “willfully” believe in free will:

In contrast, the doctrine of free will asserts that it is impossible, even in principle, to predict behaviour.  There are many different versions of free will – theologians and philosophers have debated its nature for centuries – but the essential idea is simple: that we possess some inner force or will that allows us to control our actions.  Our genes and environment may push us in certain directions, but ultimately we are free to choose which of the available paths we will follow.” (p.5)

Having laid the ground work, Lieberman “determines” to construct an edifice upon determinism:

And yet the thesis of this book is going to be that our behaviour is determined.  The basis for this claim is a revolution that has been taking place in psychology, leading us towards a new understanding of human behaviour.  So far it has been a quiet revolution, but it could prove one of the most important since Galileo, Darwin, and Freud…These revolutions fundamentally altered our understanding of what it is to be human, no longer at the centre of the universe but only one animal species among many, driven by irrational forces of which we had no awareness.

“And now we may be on the brink of yet another revolution.  It has been taking place largely out of public view, in psychology laboratories around the world.  Its implications, however, are profound.  It is telling us that just as we lost our belief that we are at the centre of the universe, we may also be losing our claim to stand aloof from the material world, to rise above the laws of physics and chemistry that bind other species.  Our behaviour, it suggests, is just as lawful, just as determined, as that of every other living creature.” (pp.5-6)

“And that is what I hope to do in this book, to convey a sense of how psychological research has been gradually providing us with a new understanding of human behaviour.” (p.6)

With what is being said, Lieberman produces an algorithm to show why he has concluded that our behavior MUST be lawful, hence determined:

[N]ot that our behavior might be determined but that it must be.  This claim is based on two assumptions:

  1. Our brains control our behavior;
  2. As with any biological system, the brain’s operations obey the laws of physics and are thus entirely lawful.”

“If these assumptions are right – if the brain determines behavior, and its activities are lawful – then the behavior it produces must also be lawful.” (p.81)

The ultimate test of determinism will not be whether we can predict everything but whether we see the kind of progress that the assumption of lawfulness implies.

“A closely related point involves one of the most common objections of determinism – namely, that everyone’s behavior is different.  If behavior is lawful, how is it possible that we all behave differently? One way to understand this is by analogy to snowflakes.  It is said – and I have no personal reason to doubt this – that every snowflake is different.  If so, does this mean that the formation of snowflakes isn’t lawful? No.  In fact the formation of snowflakes is entirely lawful.  Snowflakes are crystals, and the laws governing the formation of crystals are well understood.  But if the process is always the same, why is the outcome different every time? Because weather conditions during the formation of each flake differ.  As the temperature drops and crystals begins to form, they are blown around by the wind, and as the temperature and humidity change, so too does that shape of the snowflake, The formation of a flake is an entirely lawful process, but the outcome will differ because the conditions will differ as the flake forms.” (p.82)

In sum, the claim that behavior is lawful does not imply that we should be able to predict everything everyone does every moment of the day.  If there are underlying laws, thought, there should be some element of predictability, and our ability to predict should increase as our understanding of these laws grows.” (p.83)

On the other side of the stage stands Beauregard making ready to fire by first conjuring the spirit of towering figures in the history of psychology as his expert witnesses from whom interesting analogies spelt out:

By the beginning of the twentieth century, this materialist view dominated science.  Nonetheless, some philosophers and scientists resisted the materialist trend.  In 1891, Oxford philosopher Ferdinand Schiller proposed that matter is not what produces consciousness but what limits it.  In 1898, William James – the father of American psychology – pointed out the fact that scientists can only measure correlations: when brain states change in a certain fashion, mental states change too. The fact that mental functions are disturbed when the brain is damaged does not prove that the brain generates mind and consciousness.

“Using an elegant analogy…James explained what he meant: when white light passes through a prism, he said, the prism allows it to be broken up into all the colors of the spectrum.  The prism is not itself the source of the light, but it permits us to see the light differently.  In the same way, the brain may permit, transmit, and express mental events and conscious experiences that have their source elsewhere.  It does not produce them.  James felt that this hypothesis could also account for the effects of drugs and brain damage.

“To date, a number of scientists and thinkers have sued an updated form of James’s analogy to illustrate the mind-brain relationship: equating ‘mind’ with ‘brain’ is an illogical as listening to music on a radio, demolishing the radio’s receiver, and thereby concluding that the radio was creating music.” (p.10)

To land his first blow against skeptics who challenge the existence of “free will”, Beauregard has also recruited Wilder Penfield, whose meticulous labor helped identify sensorimotor cortex, as his aide:

Penfield performed brain mapping in over a thousand patients during the course of a few decades.  He discovered that most of the time, electrical stimulation of the brain elicits rudimentary sensations or motor responses; very rarely, it elicits hallucinated images or scenes.  Strikingly, Penfield’s patients were always able to discriminate between mental events they had willed and those that were evoked by the electrical stimulation.  For instance, if an electrode applied over the motor area of a patient’s brain induced a simple hand movement, the patient would tell Penfield, ‘I didn’t do it.  You made me do it.’ At the end of his scientific career, Penfield concluded that higher mental functions – such as consciousness, reasoning, imagination, and will – are not produced by the brain: mind is a nonphysical phenomenon interacting with the brain.” (p.11)

So does Beauregard believe:

Mental activity is not the same as brain activity, and we are not ‘meat puppets,’ totally controlled by our brains, our genes, and our environments.  Indeed, our minds and our consciousness can significantly affect events occurring in the brain and body, and outside the body.  We do have these immensely important capacities, and it is time for science to begin taking them seriously.  But for this to happen, science – and all of us – must change the lens through which we view reality.” (p.209)


To draw his opponent out to a battlefield within a scientific framework, Lieberman presents evidence which he draws from discoveries in genetics, environmental studies, and above all, psychological experiments that reveal how our unconscious may determine our thought and behavior without our awareness.  One example is particularly amusing since it bears a cautionary message to those government officials who have taken the negative impact of lead lightly:

Lead is yet another substance that can seriously damage the brain – it kills neurons.  It is plausible, therefore, that exposure to high levels of lead would have serious consequences for behaviours such as aggression, and there is now considerable evidence that this is so.”

“Perhaps the most startling evidence on the link between lead and crime, however, has come from ground-breaking research by Rick Nevin.  To introduce it, we’ll start with a question: Why did crime in the USA began to increase dramatically in the 1960s and reach a peak in the early 1990s? And why was there then an almost equally dramatic fall? Criminologists came up with a variety of explanations.  At one point, for example, it was widely believed that the fall in crime in New York City was due to new methods of policing, such as zero tolerance of small crimes (e.g. braking windows).  However, similar reduction were observed in other US cities that did not implement this policy, and the fall actually started four years before the policy was put in place.  So why the inexorable rise over decades and then the sharp decrease?

“According to Nevin, the answer was simple: lead.  The biggest source of lead in post-war America was leaded gasoline.  Its sales increased substantially after the war, then began to fall in the 1970s as leaded gasoline was gradually replaced by unleaded.  If the change in lead levels and the change in violent crime over time is plotted, the shape of the two curves is almost identical. If a 23-year lag is introduced, so that the start of the lead increase is shifted so as to start in the same year as the start of the crime epidemic, then the two curves overlap almost perfectly…This close resemblance made it look as if the changes in lead levels could be responsible for the changes in crime, but why the 23-year lag before lead had an effect? Part of the answer, of course, is that one- and two-year olds don’t commit violent crimes; if lead was creating a tendency towards crime, it would be unlikely to manifest itself until the children were much older.  It is not possible to say why the lag was exactly 23 years – why not 20 or 25? – but the evidence of a substantial lag is not as surprising as it might first appear.” (pp.23-4)

There is, of course, a crucial difference between lead and vinyl LPs – research has shown that lead is a potent neurotoxin which can seriously damage regions of the brain, especially those involved in impulse control and aggression.  There is thus good reason to think that lead might affect crime.  Nevertheless, Nevin recognized that the overlap in the two curves did not prove a causal relationship, and so to test his hypothesis further he then examined the relationship between lead and crime in other countries (e.g. Canada, France, Italy, and Finland).  If the overlapping data in the USA were just down to chance, we would not expect to see this relationship in other countries.  But Nevin found that the pattern was almost exactly the same in every country he examined.  In the case of violent assaults and rape, lead exposure accounted for between roughly 80-95 per cent of the year-to-year variation in these crimes in every single country.

“A paper by Jessica Reyes took this correlation even further.  She discovered that the rate at which leaded gasoline was phased out varied in different American states.  If lead causes crime, we should expect to see corresponding differences in the rate at which crime changed in these states, and that is what she found.  If lead was phased out sooner in a state, then violent crime began to fall sooner; if the change was delayed, so too was the change in crime.  All of these data are correlational, none of them prove causation, but the uniformity of the correlation is striking. The relationship even exists at the level of neighbourhoods: some neighbourhoods within a city have much higher lead levels than others, and crime rates closely mirror these differences.  Wherever you look, crime levels seem to track lead levels.” (pp.24-5)

“There has been a long discussion, and, because some of the data are correlational, we cannot be absolutely certain that exposure to lead causes crime.  The correlation, thought, is very strong and very consistent, and, when combined with known facts about the toxic effects of lead on the brain, very plausible.  If Nevin is right, he has discovered a remarkably simple explanation for the otherwise baffling rise and fall of crime over decades, and for the substantial differences in crime between neighbourhoods that in all other respects look identical.  We are used to thinking about the causes of crime in terms of social factors – poverty, unemployment, unwed mothers and so on – but exposure to lead may be more important than any of them. If so, one counterintuitive implication is that the most cost-effective way to reduce crime even further might not be more police or more prisons but the removal of residual lead from the environment.” (pp.25-6)

To meet his opponent on the same scientific ground, Beauregard starts by giving examples of eerie placebo and nocebo effects which, drawn from clinical observations and numerous experiments, have been found in those who, Beauregard argues, were healed or getting worse physically purely because of their beliefs which could never have been a product of their brains but might eventually reshape their brain structures .  For those who are not familiar with both terms, Beauregard also enlightens us with the nature and origins of both terms:

“Placebo is a Latin expression that means ‘I will please,’ It appeared in the Bible following Saint Jerome’s mistranslation of the first word of the ninth line of Psalm 116.  Instead of translating the Hebrew ‘I will walk before the Lord,’ he wrote, Placebo Domino in regione vivorum (‘I will please the Lord in the land of the living’).  In fact, the first placebos were people, not pills.  In the Middle Ages, when professional paid mourners waited for Vespers for the Dead to begin, they often changed the ninth line of Psalm 116 and so were called ‘placebos’ to describe their fake lamentations.” (pp.20-1)

Unfortunately, the administration of an inert placebo does not always elicit this self-healing capacity.  It can sometimes lead to unpleasant and undesirable symptoms.  This is called the nocebo effect, and it can happen when our expectations of treatment are negative rather than positive.” (p.31)

The term nocebo (Latin for ‘I will harm’) can also be used whenever symptom aggravation follows negative beliefs and expectations without the administration of any inert treatment.  This term was originally invented to distinguish the detrimental or distressing effects of a placebo from its beneficial, therapeutic effects.  As with placebo effects, nocebo effects are influenced by the patient’s perception of the treatment.” (p.32)

Having cracked open the stronghold of classical science by pointing out its limitation in explaining the efficacy of placebo and nocebo effects, Beauregard carries on to examine established benefits of biofeeding and neurofeeding which has been widely adopted to modify behavior of the paralyzed, children with ADHD and autism, and even to enhance the performance of athletes.  All of the cases quoted seem to show that bodily functions, such as heartbeats, brain waves, and sensation of pain, can be controlled “intentionally” and “arbitrarily” which cannot have been possible without a priori condition of having “free will”.

Believing his audience has been warmed up, Beauregard summons the relics of much wilder phenomena that, including focuses of psi studies, such as extrasensory perception (ESP), telepathy, precognition, seemingly have been exorcised from mainstream scientific arena.  After reviewing a number of meta-analyses on experiments which were conducted to explore such phenomena, Beauregard believes that the significance of some of the results might have rejected the null hypotheses that those phenomena existed by chance.  They have been, he argues, underestimated.  That’s why he believes:

Our minds can be extremely powerful – far more powerful than we thought only a few decades ago.

“The effects of the mind and mental abilities are not limited to the confines of the body.  For instance, psi studies show that we can sometimes receive meaningful information without the use of ordinary senses and in ways that transcend the habitual space and time constraints.  Still other psi research demonstrates that we can intentionally influence – at a distance – not only random number generators but living organisms, including human beings.” (p.208)

The argument is then followed by a number of anecdotes of near-death and out-of-body experiences in which those who had had such experiences reported what they had seen during the experiences that amazingly collaborated with other eye-witnesses’ accounts on objects or events that the “nearly-dead” or “zoning-out” persons shouldn’t have been able to know.  Given the temporary shut-down of heart and brain medically, these people, Beauregard argues, become the living evidence of the existence of immaterial “mind” and “free will”:

NDEs (Near-death experiences) studies show that people…can have veridical perceptions – corroborated by independent witnesses – during OBEs (Out-of-body experiences) triggered by a cardiac arrest.  These perceptions concern events that occur while the heart is not functioning.  We know that the activity of the brain ceases within a few second following a cardiac arrest.  Given this, the findings of NDE research strongly challenge the idea that mind is ‘only’ a product of brain activity, giving rather more credence to the view that mind may be dependent on the brain ‘much as a radio transmission is dependent upon a receiver and broadcast unit.’ Additionally, the mystical (or transcendental) component of NDEs occurring during a cardiac arrest supports the idea that the brain usually acts as a filter that prevents the perception of what could be dubbed other realms of reality.  This aspect of NDEs also corroborates the idea that we are more than our physical bodies.” (p.208)

Lieberman, however, does not budge.  To him, the tall tales that Beauregard has told are no better than superstition and that they only serve as a circular argument:

It is a bit like the medieval belief that people who behaved strangely were possessed by demons – the strange behavior was attributed to demons, but the only evidence for the existence of demons was the strange behavior.” (p.153)

Then Lieberman gives chase and produces his trump card of conundrums given rise by split-brain patients:

In a classic experiment, Michael Gzzaniga showed split-brain patients two pictures, one to each hemisphere.  The left hemisphere saw a picture of a chicken claw, while the right saw a picture of a snowman.  Gzzaniga then showed both hemispheres four pictures and asked them to point to the one which they felt best related to the picture they’d seen earlier.  The hemisphere that had seen the chicken claw used the hand it controlled to point to a picture of a chicken, while the hemisphere that had seen the snowman used its hand to point to a snow shovel.  Gazzaniga then asked the patient to explain why he had pointed to each picture.  The left hemisphere controls speech, and the patient was easily able to explain why, having seen a chicken claw, he pointed to the chicken.  However, this hemisphere had not seen the snowman and had no way of knowing why the other hand had pointed to the snow shovel.  Instead of just saying he didn’t know, however, he provided an explanation: ‘Oh, that’s easy…you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.’” (p.146)

– In the first months after her operation, Vicki found shopping torture.  She would reach for something she wanted with one hand, only to have the other hand intervene to stop her.  Shopping was sometimes a two-to-three-hour nightmare.  This problem dissipated over time, as the two halves of her brain seemed to come to a modus vivendi, learning to cooperate.

  • On one occasion, another patient attempted to strike his wife with his left hand and the right grabbed it to stop him.
  • One of the most interesting patients was a boy named Paul. He was almost unique in having a fully developed linguistic capability in both hemispheres, making it possible for each half to answer questions.  When his right side was asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, he said he wanted to be a racing driver.  When his left side was asked, the reply was draftsman.  On another occasion in a conversation about politics, his left hemisphere said that he liked Nixon while the right hemisphere said that he didn’t – two entirely separate personalities sharing one body.

“Findings like these are fascinating in themselves, but they also pose a devastating challenge to dualist conceptions of free will which assume that mind and body exist in separate realms.  In the dualist view, we have one mind, and it is the fact that it exists outside the physical realm that means it can live on after we die.  If the mind exists outside the body, though, it is very, very difficult to understand how splitting the brain also seems to split the mind.” (p.147)

But it is exactly this materialistic approach to neuroscience that enrages Beauregard.  Instead of confronting the split-brain issue, however, Beauregard tauntingly remarks on how some neuroscientists have mistaken brain imaging data:

In brain imaging studies, correlations – statistical measures of association – are established between the cerebral regions activated and changes in the mental activity of the individuals being scanned.  Such correlations do not allow neuroscientists to make causal conclusions.  In the case of our fMRI studies, this means that we cannot affirm that the activation in the various regions identified was actually the cause of the spiritual experiences reported by the nuns and the NDEs (Near-death Experiences).

Obviously, these brain imaging studies cannot prove or improve the existence of a ‘Higher Power.’ Certain researchers and journalists have argued that the fact that spiritual experiences are associated with neural correlates suggests that such experiences are merely delusions – ‘nothing but’ brain activity.  This is a mistaken view, equivalent to assuming that the painting you are contemplating is an illusion because it is associated with identifiable brain activity in the visual portion of your brain.” (pp.198-9)

As if to add insult to injury, Beauregard recounts the disputed and unsettled case of “God Helmet” with which he ridicules many materialistic scientists for being afraid of discovery that may run contrary to their established world-view, hence shaking their positions:


Michael Persinger

Michael Persinger is a controversial neuroscientist working at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.  This self-proclaimed atheist materialist has proposed that small, transient, electrical seizures within the temporal lobes can account for OBEs (Out-of-Body Experiences), visitations by spiritual entities, alien abductions, religious experiences, and mystical vision. Persinger also speculated that it is possible to experimentally induce spiritual experiences by stimulating the temporal lobe with weak electromagnetic currents.  This hypothesis led to the creation, in the early 1980s, of the ‘Koren Helmet’ (after its inventor, Stanley Koren, a colleague of Persinger’s).  This modified snowmobile helmet contains magnetic coils placed over the temporal lobes.  The coils are designed to stimulate electromagnetically this part of the brain.  Journalists began calling this device the ‘God Helmet’ after it appeared in several TV documentaries.

God Helmet

God Helmet

“Since the 1980s, Persinger and his colleagues have conducted a series of studies, using this apparatus, to test the hypothesis that spiritual experiences can be triggered by temporal lobe stimulation.  In one of those studies, weak, pulsed electromagnetic fields (not much stronger than the ones generated by a cell phone or a computer monitor) were applied over the temporal area for twenty minutes while participants – psychology students – were wearing opaque goggles in a very quiet room.  Another group of students was expected to a sham field condition – that is, they were not exposed to an electromagnetic field, although all participants were instructed that they might be.  Under the influence of the electromagnetic fields, two-thirds of the participants reported a ‘sensed presence’ – the sense that someone else was with them.  But 33 percent of the control (sham field) group also reported a sensed presence to a ‘spirit guide’ or a deceased member of the family.

“A few years ago, a research team at Uppsala University in Sweden, led by psychologist Pehr Granqvist, attempted to replicate the work of Persinger and his colleagues.  The Swedish team used Persinger’s equipment and consulted Persinger’s collaborator Stanley Koren to make certain that conditions for replication were flawless.  Granqvist and his co-workers ensured that their experiment was a double-blind by using two experiment conductors who were not told about the goal of the study.  The first experimenter interacted with the participants while the second experimenter switched the electromagnetic fields off or on without advising either the first experimenter of the participant.  In this way neither the participants nor the experimenters knew who was being expose-d to the electromagnetic fields.

“Study participants included eighty-nine undergraduate psychology and theology students.  They were told that the study sought to examine the influence of weak electromagnetic fields on experiences and feeling states.  Participants were not aware that there was a sham-field (control) condition.  So the researchers could evaluate the impact of personality traits on the results, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire after they completed the experiment.

“No evidence was found for an effect of the weak electromagnetic fields.  Personality traits – in particular, suggestibility – were the best predictor of the outcomes of the study.  Of the three participants who reported strong spiritual experiences, two were members of the control group.  Of the twenty-two who reported ‘subtle’ experiences, eleven were members of the control group.  Those participants all scored high on the suggestibility trait.  Granqvist and colleagues attributed their findings to the fact that they had used a double-blind, randomized, controlled procedure.  They also argued that Persinger’s team’s studies were not really double-blind, since the persons conducting the experiments knew what sort of results to expect.  The Swedish researchers also concluded that psychological suggestion was the best explanation for the results of the investigations headed by Persinger.

“As expected, Persinger contested the findings of the Uppsala research team. He contended that they did not use the helmet properly or for an adequate period of time.  Granqvist rejected these arguments by saying that Persinger had agreed to all the details of the stimulation procedures.

“The brief descriptions of the experiences reported by the participants in Persinger’s studies bear very little resemblance to genuine spiritual experiences by applying weak electromagnetic fields over the temporal lobes.  Such a conclusion should not come as a surprise given that studies involving direct electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes in epileptic patients have failed to produce spiritual experiences.  As a matter of fact, direct electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes very rarely elicit any mental response, such as sensations, images, thoughts, and emotional feelings.  This does not mean, however, that that the temporal lobe is not implicated in the neural mediation of the spiritual experiences.” (pp.192-5)

With this example, Beauregard reasserts:

The scientific evidence you have read about…makes two things clear: scientific materialism is just plain false, and we humans are not powerless, biochemical machines…We are no longer at the mercy of Big Pharma: in many instances we can willfully choose to positively influence our health and mental functioning by being aware of our thoughts and emotions, and by training our brains.
“Scientists, free of the materialist box, are now invited to embark on research into the whole gamut of psi phenomena, expanded and altered consciousness, and spiritual experiences.
” (pp.213-4)

But, Lieberman has not given up just yet.  He also has a word to say about how science should work and satirically accuses those who try to reap what they expect by manipulating conditions in experimental designs or cherry-picking what result that may fit their theories:

Let’s…suppose that we have two plots of corn, but…we’ll assume that each plot contains a variety of kinds of corn.  And let’s further suppose that one plot has excellent soil and the other has terrible soil.  Because all the plants in the good plot have the same soil, any variation in their heights can only be due to the differences in their genetic makeup; the soil will have no effect.  Similarly, because all the plants in the second plot will have the same poor soil, any variation in their heights will again be due to solely to their genes.  If we calculated heritabilities for each plot, they would be 100 per cent in both cases; soil would appear to have no effect.  And yet if we compared the two plots, it would be immediately obvious that soil quality is hugely important: corn planted in enriched soil would grow far higher than corn planted in poor soil.  The problem is that if we restrict our attention to corn grown in just one environment, the environment will appear not to matter.

“The same is true for personality.  If children all grow up with exactly the same kind of parenting, parenting will appear not to matter, even if it is actually crucial.” (p.71)

With his response to behaviorist William MacDougal’s argument over an acquittal of a murderer whose heinous behavior was genetically predisposed and coupled with environmental triggers that made his killing inevitable, Lieberman does not only make a sound defence of determinism but also speaks of enlightenment that deterministic view may bring us:

The problem is that MacDougall is confusing determinism and fatalism.  Fatalism says that your fate is sealed before you are born and there is nothing you can do to alter it.  Kismet, it is written; there is a bullet with your name on it.  Determinism says nothing of the kind.  According to determinism, it is your behavior which is determined, not events.  If someone fires a gun at you, it is not inevitable that the bullet will hit you – if you have time to duck, it will miss.  The future is not preordained; if you change your behavior, your future will also change.

“The distinction between determinism and fatalism can be difficult to grasp – MacDougall was one of the most eminent psychologists of his time but still found it elusive – so it may be worth some repetition.  Determinism says that your behavior is determined; it does not say that your behavior has no effect or cannot alter the course of events.  Even if your choices are determined, they still matter; depending on the circumstances, they may profoundly alter the course of your life.

“Though MacDougall’s misunderstanding of determinism was extreme, there is a real difficulty here.  If our choices are determined, doesn’t this mean that there’s nothing we can do the change them, and thus that we really are helpless? In large measure, this is a problem of perspective.  From the standpoint of an omniscient God, the outcome of your deliberations are predictable, and in this sense there is nothing you can do to change the path you are on.  From the individual’s perspective, though, that is not at all the case.  Suppose you were a student facing an exam and had to decide whether to study for it or go out with friends.  You don’t know what your genes and experiences are going to lead you to decide; all you can do is think about the decision, weigh the consequences of the two options, and choose the one which seems best to you.  And your weighing of the options will matter – people who spend time thinking about a decision often reach different conclusions than those who don’t.  So, not being omniscient, you just have to do the best you can.  It is worth thinking, it is worth trying; doing so will give you the best chance of achieving your goals.

“So, determinism does not mean that we are helpless.  Indeed, in some respects, determinism implies a greater capacity to control over destinies.  Consider McDougall’s example of trying to prevent the outbreak of a new world war.  To the extent that people have free will, there is nothing we can do to change their behavior; no matter what environment we try to arrange, they will still do exactly what they want.  Insofar as behavior is determined, however, by changing the environment we have the possibility of changing that behavior.  If we want to prevent a war, it is determinism that gives us the strong grounds for thinking that our planning and striving might actually succeed.” (pp.151-2)

Lieberman also discusses the pragmatic aspects of determinism in resolving legal dilemma such as criminality concerning a murderer who is low in MAOA genes and has a history of childhood abuse which may implicate his inevitable deviance:

“If you believed in determinism, what would you do?

The short answer is that you might still send him to prison, but it would be on practical grounds rather than moral ones.  Determinism does indeed say that people who commit crimes do so because of their genes and experiences, and thus there is no point in blaming them for acts they could not avoid.  However, you might still send someone to prison for practical reasons.  You might send a murderer to prison because he could not commit further crimes while incarcerated, or because the punishment of a prison term might change his future behavior, or because sending him to prison might act as a deterrent to others.  Within determinism, there are still many reasons why you might send someone to prison; determinism simply removes one reason: that the person is bad and deserves to suffer.

“To explore the implications of this view further, suppose a wife was repeatedly abused by her husband, that over the years he sadistically dominated and beat her, often requiring her to go to hospital for her injuries. One day she decided that she had had enough, and began to plot how she could obtain a gun to kill him. She finally managed to obtain one, shot him and was convicted of murder. (Because she had acted with premeditation rather than on the spur of the moment, she could not claim a provocation defence.)

“Suppose we knew, with certainty, that if released she would never commit a crime like this again.  And suppose we further knew what imprisoning her would not act as a deterrent to anyone else in the future.  Would it really be right to send her to prison if it would not prevent any future crime? According to determinism, the answer would be no.  She had suffered for years; there would be no point in adding further to her misery.” (p.157)

Besides, Lieberman does not think adopting deterministic view will deprive human of his dignity or ethical values since all such constructs are products of evolution and developed through natural selection.  Altruism, law and moral codes will still prevail as long as they ensure humans’ survival.

On the contrary, Beauregard’s vision of morality composes of grander dimension which he draws from brain imaging performed on those who were praying, meditating, and even having mystical experiences (MEs):

I agree with Henri Bergson and Aldous Huxley that our usual states of brain activity produce a filter function that generally renders us unaware of the Ground of Being.  The neuroscientific studies presented…suggest that alterations in electrical and chemical activities in the brain are necessary for MEs (mystical experiences) to take place.” (p.204)

“MEs, especially of the introvertive kind, teach us a number of crucial things that fly in the face of the scientific materialist worldview. These experiences tell us that contrary to appearances, we are not encapsulated within our brains and bodies and separate from each other but, rather, ‘organically’ connected with all others and with everything in the entire universe.  Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, one of the founders of transpersonal psychology, notes that the experience of the farther reaches of the human psyche reveals that mind and consciousness are fundamental features of all existence, and they are closely intertwined with the physical world.  MEs also suggest that just as the drop of the ocean is the ocean itself, we are part of an infinite cosmic intelligence that pervades everything in the whole universe, beyond time and space.

“In mystical states of consciousness, we can transcend the illusory boundaries of our ‘little self’ and experientially connect – within the innermost level of the psyche – with this intelligence, the Ground of Being, which is our ‘true self’.  During such states, the drop realizes she is the ocean.  In the conclusion of this book, I present an emerging model of reality that goes far beyond the materialist worldview to encompass the drop and the ocean as part of the same boundless world, making sense of what dogmatic materialists call nonsense.” (pp.204-5)

Quantum Question and Unconscious

In an attempt to bring the classical scientific deterministic view to its head, Beauregard bids for quantum theories to his aide:

Fortunately, the scientific enterprise (as a method, not as materialist ideology) allows for all of these possibilities, and infinitely more.  Materialist science, based on the classical Newtonian physics, took science out of the Dark Ages, showing us a world no one had ever seen before.  Now there is another heretofore invisible world for us to see, one that the dogmas of materialist science obscure but that is brought into focus by the discoveries of quantum physics.

“Toward the end of the nineteenth century, it became obvious that classical physics was limited; it was just not able to explain certain phenomena at the atomic level.  The acknowledgment of these limitations led to the development of a revolutionary new branch of physics called quantum mechanics (QM), which smashed the scientific materialist worldview.  In the words of theoretical physicist Amit Goswami, QM is ‘a new paradigm of science based on the primacy of consciousness…The new paradigm resolves many paradoxes of the old paradigm and explains much anomalous data.’

Quantum equation

Quantum Equations

“The work of QM has effectively dematerialized the classical universe by showing that it is not made of minuscule billiard balls, as drawings of atoms and molecules would lead us to believe.  QM has shown that atoms and subatomic particles are not really objects – they do not exist with certainty at definite spatial locations and definite times. Rather, they show ‘tendencies to exist,’ forming a world of potentialities within the quantum domain.  Werner Heisenberg, winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics, explained, ‘The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real, they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.

“The quantum world appears different from the physical world, but some elements may sound familiar. For example, a central feature of QM is called the observer effect: particles being observed and the observer – the physicist and the method used for observation – are linked, and the results of the observation are influenced by the observer’s conscious intent.  This effect implies that the consciousness of the observer is vital to the existence of the physical events being observed.  In other words, QM acknowledges that the physical world cannot be fully understood without making reference to mind and consciousness.

“In QM, the physical world is thus no longer viewed as the primary or sole component of reality.  Most contemporary physicists agree with Wolfgang Pauli – one of the founders of QM – that the physical and the psychological, physis and psyche, should be recognized and embraced as distinct but complementary aspects of one reality.  Regarding this issue, the mathematician and physicist John von Neumann raised the possibility that mind and consciousness constitute not an emergent property but rather a fundamental component of the universe.  Regardless of whether it is the case, QM teaches us that we must consider mind and consciousness if we are to reach a more adequate conception of nature and reality.

“Nonlocality (or nonseparability) – which Albert Einstein memorably referred to as ‘spooky actions at a distance’ – is another remarkably discovery of QM.  This concept is based on entanglement, the instantaneous connections that persist between particles (such as photon, electrons) that interacted physically and then become separated.  These connections remain even if the particles are separated by enormous distances (for instance, billions of light-years).  This counterintuitive aspect of nature has been demonstrated experimentally in a number of labs since the beginning of the 1970s.  Nonlocality and entanglement suggest that the universe constitutes an undivided whole.” (pp.208-211)

Indeed, Beauregard, in his and Denyse O’Leary’s earlier book The Spiritual Brain (2007), has already argued that synaptic activities between our neurons could only make sense in terms of quantum physics:

The Spriitual Brain

The Spiritual Brain

This area of physics, quantum physics, is the study of the behavior of matter and energy at the subatomic level of our universe.  Briefly, the synapses, the spaces between the neurons of the brain, conduct signals using parts of atoms called ions.  The ions function according to the rules of quantum physics, not of classical physics.

“What difference does it make if quantum physics governs the brain? Well, one thing we can dispose of right away is determinism, the idea that everything in the universe has been or can be predetermined.  The basic level of our universe is a cloud of probabilities, not of laws.  In the human brain, this means that our brains are not driven to process given decision; what we really experience is a ‘smear’ of possibilities.  But how do we decide between them?” (p.32)

One quantum mechanics discovery that may help us understand how we decide is the quantum Zeno effect.  Physicists have found that if they observe an unstable elementary particle continuously, it never decays – even though it would almost certainly decay if it were not observed.  In quantum physics, it is not possible to separate the observer entirely from the thing observed.  They are part of the same system.  The physicists are, essentially, holding the unstable particle in a given state by the act of continuing to measure it.  In the same way, experiments have shown that, because your brain is a quantum system, if you focus on a given idea, you hold its pattern of connecting neurons in place.  The idea does not decay, as it would if it were ignored.  But the action of holding an idea in place truly is a decision you make, in the same way that the physicists hold a particle in place by deciding to continue to observe it.” (p.33)

Not only can we make decisions by focusing on one idea rather than another, but we can change the patterns of neurons in our brains by doing so consistently…According to the model created by H. Stapp and J. M. Schwartz, which is based on Von Neumann interpretation of quantum physics, conscious effort causes a pattern of neural activity that becomes a template for action.  But the process is not mechanical or material.  There are no little cogs and wheels in our brains.  There is a series of possibilities; a decision causes a quantum collapse, in which one of them becomes reality. The cause is the mental focus, in the same way that the cause of the quantum Zeno effect is the physicists’ continued observation.  It is a cause, but not a mechanical or material one.  One truly profound change that quantum physics has made is to verify the existence of nonmechanical causes.  One of these is the activity of the human mind, which…is not identical to the functions of the brains.” (pp.33-4)

To strike back, Lieberman argues:

There are two points to note about this conclusion.  The first is that although quantum physics does suggest a level of unpredictability in the universe, it does so within the context of mathematical formulae that describe that universe in remarkable detail.  In our particle example, the theory does say that we can’t be certain whether a particle is at location X, but equally it says that the probability of its being there is 0.70 – not 0.69, not 0.71 but exactly 0.60.  So one of the many paradoxes of quantum theory is that it predicts uncertainty with absolute certainty.

“More importantly, even this limited level of uncertainty exists largely at the subatomic level, not at the macroscopic level of visible objects.  If a physicist held a bowling ball in their hand and then released it, neither they nor we would have any doubt about the outcome, and if [Niels] Bohr (one of quantum theory creators) were there, we can be pretty sure he would keep his toes well out of the way.  It may well be that there is a fundamental level of unpredictability at the subatomic level, but that has not prevented scientists from using the laws of physics to transform our world.” (p.163)

Besides, Lieberman cautions us of the power of unconscious which may delude us to think that we have free will or have a mind that is free from any predetermined factors.  Feeling free, he argues, does not mean that we “are” free.  As Spinoza famously remarked, “Men believe that themselves to be free simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes thereby those actions are determined.”  The interplay between conscious and unconscious may shed a light on why we have that kind of feeling of being free:

The claim here is not that conscious processes are unimportant but rather that they rest on a massive foundation of unconscious processing.  When we decide we like someone, or choose pancakes for breakfast, our choices feel free, but this stems at least in part from our lack of awareness of the unconscious processes that have guided them.

 “One way to think about the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious is by analogy to one computer (consciousness) supervising a large bank of specialized minicomputers.  Each minicomputer processes an enormous amount of data – billions of neurons conveying information from each of the senses and from memory – and then feeds its interpretations of this data up to consciousness. (‘That’s a fly on the table’; ‘Be careful, this situation feels dangerous.’) And the main computer can ask the minicomputers for more information if it needs it. (‘How much money do I have in my bank account?’) The minicomputers, though, only pass on their conclusions; the main computer has no inkling of all the processing that went on to generate them.

“The main computer clearly plays a critical role in this system – it integrates all the information it receives in order to generate a plan of action – but it is based on a massive amount of processing at a lower level that is hidden from view, and each step in thought itself lawfully guided by the preceding steps.

“One final point. Our feeling of possessing free will is particularly strong in situations where we have great difficulty in making a decision and mentally go back and forth between the options.  Suppose, for example, that you can’t decide whether to buy apple pie or chocolate fudge cake at a bakery.  You stand transfixed in front of the display cabinet, first thinking about one, then the other, then the first.  It feels as if you could go either way; the choice is really open.  Another way to think about this situation, though, is that when two options are similar in attractiveness, we think about one, feel its reverberations in our subconscious as we remember past experiences of it, then think about the other and feel its echoes, possibly bring in separately stored information about the choices (calories, cholesterol) until the margin between the two choices widens sufficiently that we finally opt for one.  Interestingly, rats appear to do the same thing. When a rat is trained in a maze where there are two paths open to it, one leading to food and the other not, after several experiences in the maze it will pause at the point where the two paths diverge, look first one way, then the other, then back to the first, and so on, until it finally makes a decision.  This behviour is so pronounced that it has actually been given a name: vicarious trial and error.  When we hesitate between two choices, first imagining one, then the other, we may be doing exactly the same thing as the rat in the maze.  The choice feels free because at any moment in time we have the impression we could go either way, but in fact we are retrieving stored information until one option finally seems clearly better than the other.” (pp.148-9)

In addition, Lieberman anticipates attack from other front, chaos theory, and reacts thereof:

First, chaos theory does not apply to all systems – as we’ve already noted, the path of a bowling ball is not exactly chaotic.  Second, chaos theory does not deny the lawfulness of nature.  Quite the contrary: the theory assumes lawfulness. It was through the analysis of these laws that chaos theorists were able to identify the hypersensitivity of some complex systems to initial conditions.  In other words, chaos theory is not a challenge to lawfulness but rather a warning that in some lawful situations precise prediction is difficult.  And as with quantum theory, the existence of limits to predictive accuracy has not stopped scientific advance.  Weather, for example, is a prime example of a chaotic system, and our ability to predict the weather will never be perfect, but that has not stopped meteorologists from steadily improving the accuracy of their forecasts.” (p.164)

The more important point in the present context, though, is that adopting either theory would not save free will.” (p.164)


Different though their views may have been, both Beauregard and Lieberman have painted a rosy picture according to their own positions.

Beauregard envisions:

Together with exciting possibilities of the quantum universe, this evidence tells us that it is time to enlarge our concept of the natural world to reintegrate mind and consciousness.

“This emerging scientific model of reality – this new paradigm of what is possible – has far-reaching implications.  Perhaps most important, it fundamentally alters the vision we have of ourselves, giving us back our dignity and power, as humans and as scientists.

Last but not least, the new paradigm fosters positive values such as compassion, respect, and peace.  By emphasizing a deep connection between ourselves and nature at large, it also promotes environmental awareness and the preservation of our biosphere.

“When mind and consciousness are recognized as one, we are again connected to ourselves, to each other, to our planet, and to the universe.

 “A great shift in consciousness has begun, bringing with it a profound transformation of our world.” (pp.213-4)

To argue otherwise, Lieberman anticipates that thorough understanding of determinism will be the only way to set us free:

Finally, we’ve suggested that the implications of determinism are not as dire as they might first appear.  If behavior was determined, this would not mean that we would be helpless – on the contrary, determinism implies a greater potential for changing our behavior.  If we lack strong willpower, there isn’t much we can do about it, but insofar as behavior is determined by the environment, then by changing that environment we can change that behavior.

“Nor would a belief in determinism eliminate morality. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have engrained in us feelings of empathy for people in distress and a hatred of injustice.  These powerful emotions would not suddenly disappear if people began to believe in determinism.

 “In sum, there is compelling evidence that our genes and experiences powerfully influence our behavior.  Is this determination total? The evidence that our brains control our behavior suggests that the answer might be yes.  Our brains determine what movements we make, what thoughts we have, even whether we are conscious at all.  If the brain’s operations are lawful – if the firing of neurons obey the laws of physics – then the behavior produced by the brain must also be lawful.

 “In the words of one critic, a belief in determinism ‘would require a revision…of our understanding of what it means to be human’ (Charney, 2008).  If that revision led to greater tolerance and sympathy for others, though, and a greater focus on how we can change the environment to improve people’s lives, might it be a revision devoutly to be wished?” (pp.169-170)


Character Sketch

As this semester is drawing to a close, Professor Geoffrey Blowers, who is teaching Personality Psychology course, asked us to write a paragraph of ourselves starting with our names while giving a lecture on George Kelly’s theories.  Given the shortness of time, neither were we able to complete the task in class, nor Professor Blowers required us to.  He, however, asked each one of us to speak out the first sentence we wrote in turn.  Having found the exercise quite fun to start with, I decided to pick up where it was left off after class.  The more I wrote, the closer I examined how I thought of all the notable theorists the course has covered this semester.  I might as well share it here for everyone’s interest.


Professor Blowers

Frank, unlike Oscar Wilde, has no wit to declare while being asked to produce his character sketch at such a short notice.  Besides, Frank finds his ‘self’ being eternally intangible and elusive, yet always fascinating and inviting exploration that he can hardly conclude its nature in a few words.  That’s why he keeps reading, thinking, searching online, and taking psychology courses believing that they may unfold parts of the picture to him if not entirely.  The more he reads, though, the more confused he becomes since the dimension of the subject keeps changing as if it is a shifting target. 


Sigmund Freud

While reading Freud, unconscious being spoken of as a real entity was buried deep beneath everyone but Freud’s detection as if it remained hidden under the canopy of his beard.  Each thread of the hair, like dreams and slips of tongue, might hopefully lead us to the unconscious deep once groomed properly.  When it didn’t budge or ended up in a tangle, the beard must be plucked out hair by hair until the repressed substance was uncovered.  It (psychoanalysis) was painful and by no means pleasant.  Neither was a happy ending guaranteed after the repression was removed.  Even Freud himself never shaved, the jaw cancer lurked behind his beard still took its toll.  It seemed that his obsession to tragedies from which he drew all his Oedipal fantasy had not freed him from Fate but tragically hastened his own demise.  Besides, usually only man grows beard, right? Frank wonders if Freudian beard fits on female chins as well.


Carl G. Jung

Jung, on the contrary, attempted to break free from all kinds of complex throughout his life, including the one with Freud, and sought reconnection or reconciliation with what he termed as “Self” as if no one had ever realized its significance although Frank found Jung’s idea reverberating much with Buddhist notion of “enlightenment”, “awakening”, and “realization and reunion with the ultimate reality” which had been practiced well before Jung’s times.  Unfortunately, every break in Jung’s life ended up with more complexes than anyone could resolve.  Not until the notebook he kept to himself made accessible in print as The Red Book did his readers get a glimpse of the other side of his “self” apart from that portrayed in his MDR.  Frank was not sure if “individuation” was a good idea, but he was sure that “himself” should have been much simpler than Jung’s.


Alfred Adler

With sympathy for Alder’s physical deformities, Frank found Adler easy to identify with.  Having been brought up somewhat like an underdog himself under the shadow of his academically and professionally bright elder brother, Frank endeared himself with Adler’s inferiority complex immediately after he read his life.  What keeps Frank inferior psychologically still is the fact that Alder was a real psychologist, and he is not!  To compensate the absence or the inability to grow beard with which so much passions could be repressed, Karen Horney, whose name Frank couldn’t help making perverted association (“Horny”, huh?), appealed to her beloved female audience with her reframing of psychoanalysis as well as her exemplary sexual (mis)conduct.  But Frank could never have been born the other way round, could he? Horney, except for her name, unfortunately failed to make him click.  She was eventually buried in Frank’s mind with a coffin, named feminism.

Karen Horney

Karen Horney

Frank had come thus far to learn that every one of these individuals ranking high on either side of the Hall of Fame within psychoanalytical circle had his or her own conundrums to brood.  Ironically, the solutions they offered which were supposedly catered for themselves individually did not work out as fine as they had expected or for everyone else.  Yet their quest of “self” lived on.

Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm’s idea of turning love into art, which required practice and hard work, offered Frank momentary bliss.  Eventually he believed that he had found something workable and worth working on.  However, the everlasting upbeat undertone anointed by Fromm’s religious upbringing presented a problem.  The language Fromm employed somehow resembled evangelical Christians’ with which Frank found a bit hard to reconcile.  On the other end, computational measurements emerged and were followed by a package of traits which Kelly eventually incorporated with his techniques which looked like peeling onions.  Of course, the experience, just like peeling the onions, would make one cry once the person who underwent such a procedure realized his own imperfection.  At this point, Frank did not find Kelly’s approach much different from Freud’s hair-plucking analysis.  The circle seemed to have come a full round.

George Kelly

George Kelly

Nonetheless, Frank is still as curious as another classmate, who started her character sketch by saying so, about what is in store for him on his quest of himself in the personality course.  He has not found his answers just yet.

Science in their minds

       Having read three books authored by three established scientists, a geneticist, a neuroscientist, and a biogeographist, lately, I was impressed not only by their passion for what they were pursuing but also what they shared in common of how science should be done.  Let’s hear what they say in their own words:

     From David Suzuki’s The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for our Sustainable Future:

The Legacy

“But science, that wondrous achievement of the human brain, obliterates wonder and awe, the sense of the sacred or the profane, when it focuses on parts of nature – a powerful methodology called reductionism.  This approach assumes that the cosmos works like an immense machine, a ‘clockwork mechanism’ whose secrets can be revealed by examining the parts and then piecing them back together.

      “But in focusing on the parts, we lose all sense of the whole, and today we know that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  That’s because when combined, the pieces interact, and properties emerge from their interaction that cannot be anticipated from the characteristics of the individual parts.  So, for example, the properties of atomic hydrogen and atomic oxygen cannot be used to anticipate the ‘emergent properties’ exhibited by their combination in a molecule of water.

     “I realized the limitations of reductionism in 1962 when I read Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, which examined the ecological ramifications of DDT and other pesticides and galvanized the global environmental movement.  Her book taught me that in focusing on parts of nature, in examining them in controlled conditions in flasks and growth chambers, we study artifacts, grotesque simplifications of the real world, scrubbed of the context of the weather, climate, and seasons, devoid of variations in temperature, humidity, and light.” (pp.58-9)

In his review of how current cognitive neuroscientists might have fallen into the same trap of mistaking unvalidated premises as a priori in interpreting brain imaging data, Robert G. Shulman, a renowned bioimaging expert who once worked with Francis Cricks, also addressed the importance of the falsifiability of science and the danger of splitting the integrity of the discipline into fragments:

Brain Imaging


“[Karl] Popper argued that the definition of science depends upon its ability to formulate revolutionary hypotheses that can ultimately be falsified by experiment.  For Popper science was distinguished by its ability to disprove hypotheses; falsifiability distinguished science from non-science.” (p.33)

After recounting his experience of working with Francis Cricks, one of the scientists who discovered and decoded DNA, Shulman illustrates how inductive science is to be done:

These examples illustrate the generating powers of a hypothesis, treated deferentially and skeptically in an inductive science based on the fluid interaction of hypothesis and observation.  They emphasize the dynamic nature of proposing explanations of a phenomenon that can be abandoned when the hypothesis is disproven or strengthened when it is supported by experiments.  Inductive science chooses questions to answer (how is the sequence of amino acids in a protein determined by the DNA sequence?); then proposes a hypothesis for an answer (DNA is read three base-pairs at a time serially, and the introduction of a chemical that looks like a base-pair will cause all downstream triplets to read incorrectly); then tests this prediction by experiments.  After continuing experimental support, the hypothesis determines the next questions to be asked.  This procedure is generally recognized as the essence of good science.  The process of moving systematically from one issue to the next, while maintaining a creative tension between skepticism and insight, is what makes science so exciting.” (p.30)

As if a prophet depicted in the Old Testament, Shulman does not lose sight of the danger lurking behind the current scientific enterprise, neuroscience in particular, and cautioned against the invalidity yielded by deductive approach in conducting scientific researches:

Deductive science can be identified as studies conducted and conclusions reached by assuming the validity of hypotheses that have not been validated by experimental tests.” (p.36)

By quoting John Hogan from his The End of Science, Shulman remarks that many of the neuroscientists claim to “have spanned the ‘Explanatory Gap’ which is the ‘inability of physiological theories to account for psychological phenomena.’ Or, as he concluded in admiration of the detailed research in the field: ‘mind-scientists excel at taking the brain apart, but they have no idea how to put it back together.’” (pp.38-9)

Yet, most importantly:

The empirical question for functional imaging becomes not where mental activities are localized in the brain, but whether it is possible to identify brain activities that are necessary for the human to perform observable behavior.” (p.55)

Following William James’s warning that naming something does not mean that we have found it to be real in any useful way, neuroscience should not seek to find brain activities that explain the cognitive concepts that psychology in Western culture assumed were part of nature.  Nor is there reason to believe that differently formulated assumptions about the nature of mental processes, such as networks, or a more accurate use of language or a theory of brain connectivity will be any better fused with brain activities.  Complementarity, introduced to reconcile the loss of causality at the quantum level, proposes that the totality of our understanding is based on the observations made from different perspectives.” (p.69)

Analogously, the task of neuroscience is not to answer questions about brain function posed by philosophers or cognitive psychologists, but rather to measure what we can and cannot say about brain activity.” (p.69)

Shulman also challenges the validity of applying statistics to translating the imaging data as evidence of inferring mental functions or localization:

The connections claimed between postulated psychological modules and the measurable brain volume elements of voxels, when fitted by statistical parametric mapping interpretation of experimental data, can be supported only by the statistical probability that the observed correlations are not due to chance.  Support for the objective brain model of cognitive psychology was claimed when a localized brain response to a particular input is unlikely to be a chance occurrence.” (p.83)

In his groundbreaking exploration of how humans have evolved along with other species depending on our geographical conditions, Alexander H. Harcourt does not miss the chance of extrapolating his idea of science in his latest publication, Humankind: How biology and geography shape human diversity:


Science is a groping toward understanding.  Science is a process of collecting evidence to test whether the current explanations are correct – or, rather, might be correct.  Science is all about coming up with reasonable explanations about the world that can be shown to be wrong (this is called being falsifiable).  It is a means, more than an end.

     “Scientists are still gathering information, working out what it tells us, and disagreeing quite a lot of the time.  But if the new data and ideas prove to be better than the old, then the old will eventually disappear.  Eventually most of us come to the same view, as we gather enough information and agree that some interpretations have fewer problems than do others.  Sometimes we have knowledge.  We know the earth is round.  We know we evolved.  But we are usually working toward knowledge.  Additions, tweaks, alterations, and rejections of current ideas will continue throughout this process.” (p.13)

The difference between real science and “Just so story”:

The question here, though, is not whether predators kill humans at all ever, but whether predators affect where humans lived or live in the world.  The late Alan Turner argued that hominins will have found it difficult to get into Europe in large numbers until about half a million years ago.  That was not because large Pleistocene carnivores previously prevented them from entering, but because not until then did Europe’s large-bodied scavenging carnivores largely disappear, so leaving the carcasses for us.  That is, if the hominins could avoid being killed by the predators that produced the carcasses.

     “An interesting idea, certainly.  But how do we test it? The problem with scientifically testing ideas concerning human evolution is that much of it is a one-time event.  Science finds it difficult to do anything with one-time events.  We pejoratively, but with some good reason, call hypotheses based on them ‘just so’ stories.  With no other test available for what it is we are trying to explain, we can make up any story we like regarding the event.  That is why when we try to understand humans, comparisons with similar situations in other animals are so important.” (pp.227-8)

More on scientific models:

In exploring possible causes of something, we can put the known data into a model and see what the model tells us regarding the associations between measures of cause and measures of effect – humans and climate on the one side, extinctions on the other.  Alternatively, we can make predictions of what we should see in the data were one cause operating.

     “Chris Johnson chose this second route to enlightenment.  He tested a prediction from the hypothesis that human hunting caused the extinctions.  We humans are a terrestrial species that in open country can move far and fast.  We prefer to go after large-bodied species.  And we do our hunting largely in the daytime.  Therefore, he induced, terrestrial, large-bodied species in open habitat should have been at most danger from us.  Small-bodied nocturnal species in woodland should have been relatively safe.  In a survey of extinctions in the four major continents and Madagascar, Johnson indeed found that after accounting for body size and rate of reproduction (large-bodied and slowly reproducing species are more likely to go extinct, whatever the cause), the open-country terrestrial species were more likely to have gone extinct than the woodland arboreal species.  It is difficult to see how a changing climate would have produced this result.” (p.238)

The various explanations for differences between the sexes in the likelihood of dying in different situations – physiologically tough women, different jobs, chivalrous men, unchivalrous men, different living conditions – now need to be tested to discern the better explanations in each case for the contrast between the sexes.  That is how science works.  We make an observation that women have different anatomy and physiology than do men.  We come up with an explanation about conservation of energy that works in other contexts, namely contrasts between regions in anatomy and physiology.  We see another set of data that seem to confirm the explanation – women survive better than do men when short of energy.  But then we think of alternative explanations – differences between the sexes in the sort of work they do, or social chivalry of men.

“So now it’s back to the drawing board.  We need to produce a way of distinguishing the ideas, the hypotheses.  But that is for the future.  All we can say at present is that the current information on contrast between the sexes in likelihood of death when food is short fits the hypothesis that contrasts in metabolism and anatomy affect how fast we use up our bodily energy, which results over evolutionary time in differences in metabolism and anatomy between peoples from different environments.  IF the explanations of the contrasts between the sexes turn out to be correct, then the fact that they work in this context strengthens the original biogeorgraphic hypotheses for the Bergmann and Allen effects across regions.” (p.124)


David Suzuki’s Insight


So glad to listen to David Suzuki’s presentation in Ideas at the House where he emphasized what was the most important aspect in tackling natural catastrophes, be they climate change or human-made disasters, was not “technological, economical, or social”, but “psychological”.

To view what he said, please visit: David Suzuki in Ideas at the House: Hope for the Planet

Susuki’s story of persuading a CEO of a corporation with our indispensible dependence on air, water, fire, and earth is particularly brilliant and reminds me of the tenets of ecopsychology.