Philosophy at Christmas – gawd bless us, *every one*.

Christmas – Philosophy for Everyone

Better Than a Lump of Coal

Fritz AllhoffScott C. Lowe

From the blurb:

From Santa, elves and Ebenezer Scrooge, to the culture wars and virgin birth, Christmas – Philosophy for Everyone explores a host of philosophical issues raised by the practices and beliefs surrounding Christmas. Offers thoughtful and humorous philosophical insights into the most widely celebrated holiday in the Western world Contributions come from a wide range of disciplines, including philosophy, theology, religious studies, English literature, cognitive science and moral psychology The essays cover a wide range of Christmas themes, from a defence of the miracle of the virgin birth to the relevance of Christmas to atheists and pagans

Art for Love’s Sake

Recent neurobiological research has shown that viewing art stimulates the brain in a way that mirrors the experience of romantic love. The study, conducted by Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroaesthetics at University College London, scanned and mapped the brains of participants who had been asked to look at a variety of paintings from such artists as Botticelli, Turner, Monet and Cezanne. It was found that experiencing art releases into the orbito-frontal cortex of the brain a significant quantity of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a biochemical associated with love, happiness and sociability, as well as drug use and certain psychological disorders.

The result comes at an ideal time for the art world in Britain, which has felt itself to be targeted by the extensive cuts in public spending. The correlation between aesthetic experience and happiness gives extra leverage in justifying the arts according to standards of public interest, a justification which normally consists in pointing out the economic benefits of the revenue which art institutions can generate. Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Stephen Deuchar, director of the arts charity Art Fund, said:

I have always believed art matters profoundly so it is exciting to see some scientific evidence to support the view that life is enhanced by instantaneous contact with works of art

Professor Zeki’s work in neuroaesthetics also stands to be of high value to the philosophy of art. This latest link between art and love is just one of many discoveries made by Zeki which coincide almost seamlessly with what artists and theorist about art have said for centuries, perhaps even for thousands of years. Plato, in his dialogue The Symposium, recounts a speech in praise of Love (Eros) made by Socrates which describes a journey of ascent from sexual love, through aesthetic appreciation of the body, to a spiritual love of the soul, arriving finally at the contemplation of the Platonic Form of Beauty itself. Continue reading “Art for Love’s Sake”

Does Nirvana Have a Neural Signature?

What are we looking for when we look at neurological studies of spiritual figures?

We are used to thinking of Siddhartha Gautama as having spent his life seeking to attain wisdom and the release from unwanted thoughts and passions. We are less used to conceiving of Siddhartha as having been in pursuit of a specific brain state; and yet, we might be curious as to whether or not the mental state of nirvana is a physiological possibility for us, and if so, what characterises it? What was the Buddha’s brain doing at the moment of enlightenment; what does the brain of an advanced buddhist monk do whilst the monk is nearing what we might term a pre-nirvana state?

Despite the fact that East has met West so many times in the last few centuries that they must detest being continually reintroduced to one-another, NYU researcher Zoran Josipovic (as the BBC reports) is continuing, as he has been doing for the past decade, to use fmri in order to study the neurological states of Buddhist monks. Yet in the last few years, he has advanced a compelling hypothesis. The human mind, as we know from experience, vacillates between total or near-total involvement in the external world, a state where we experience little or no self-awareness, to states that are self-conscious and self-aware to the fact that we may have little recollection of what was happening around us. Josipovic refers to these alternate kinds of experience as intrinsic and extrinsic networks.

Buddhist monks, whilst meditating, display a kind of neural activity that few, if any, non-meditating subjects have ever demonstrated: dual, equal, and simultaneous activity in the intrinsic and extrinsic networks. Of course, the relationship between these networks is by no means one of two distinct, unrelated systems– they work together to provide our ordinary, everyday experience of the world (an experience that involves some side-commentary and some focus or attention on the external world). The interesting aspect of Josipovic’s results is that, during meditation, no one system is dominant, which leads Josipovic to conclude that the resulting first-person experience is permeated both by a feeling of total involvement and oneness with the environment, and also with a self-awareness of being so utterly involved. The apparent contradictoriness of the description appears to us only because we have rarely, if ever, occupied this median neurological state.

However, we might also wonder: do we tend to over-estimate the experiential exoticness of advanced states of meditation? Is it possible that the feelings of tranquility and oneness enjoyed by advanced meditators are not so experientially different from our own, but merely prolonged? Why do we expect Buddhist monks to feel and experience the tenets of their philosophy, rather than merely to affirm them and find comfort and resilience within them? Are we filling the heads of Buddhist monks with fictional, super-states of consciousness?

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New issue of Philosophy Compass out now! Vol. 6, Iss. 4

The latest issue of Philosophy Compass is available on Wiley Online Library

Ethics

Recent Work on the Ethics of Self-Defense (pages 220–233)
Tyler Doggett

History of Philosophy

Ancient Skepticism: Overview (pages 234–245)
Diego E. Machuca
Ancient Skepticism: Pyrrhonism (pages 246–258)
Diego E. Machuca
Ancient Skepticism: The Skeptical Academy (pages 259–266)
Diego Machuca

Mind & Cognitive Science

Phenomenal Concepts (pages 267–281)
Pär Sundström

Philosophy of Religion

Logic and Divine Simplicity (pages 282–294)
Anders Kraal

Teaching & Learning Guide

Teaching & Learning Guide for: Essentialism (pages 295–299)
Sonia Roca-Royes

War is Reason Free From Passion

When we imagine robotic combatants, we naturally expect that they will be modelled on ourselves. Ancient Crete, for example, had the bronze, xenophobic robot Talos, who indiscriminately hurled missiles towards all foreign ships. Talos had autonomy, the power to reason (however dimly), and the power to determine his own behaviour. But most importantly, behind the face of Talos was a single agent, an agent modelled after a human subject.

But as the Economist reports, BAE systems, in conjunction with several UK universities, has put forward a vastly different intelligence model for our future robotic warriors. Eschewing full-fledged autonomy, the individual combatants are designed to pool information about the environment, potential targets, and available resources, and then arrive globally on a course of action; individual robots may also ‘bid’ to avail themselves of resources, but the allocation of resources Continue reading “War is Reason Free From Passion”

The Pursuit of Happiness

David Cameron has recently announced and, due to widespread scepticism, defended the coalition government’s decision to introduce a national £2m government funded ‘happiness-index’, to gauge the happiness of the British people.  The Office for National Statistics is to formulate questions for a household survey, to be carried out up to four times a year.  Cameron has previously hinted at such an ambitious project.  In 2005, soon after becoming Conservative leader he said: “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – General Well-Being”.

One could dismiss the government’s happiness-index proposals as woolly, blue sky thinking, politically calculated to coincide with the continuing instability of the Euro Zone, the winter student riots or the new year VAT rise.  Alternatively, one may insist quite the reverse – that these factors render the proposals an even more Continue reading “The Pursuit of Happiness”

Why Some People Will Never Forget a Face

AT&T Laboratories Cambridge

How does the brain process information? In particular, is the cognitive portion of the brain divided up into a number of task-specific ‘modules’, each of which are devoted to a specific task, or is the brain constituted by (one or many) processing units which are flexible in their operation? Modularists, as those in the former camp are called, often appeal to a form of argument which makes use of the idea that certain cognitive characteristics appear to be dissociable from others, such that certain individuals can excel, or struggle, in distinct tasks in ways not necessarily related to the complexity of the task, or proportional to their general intelligence. To this end, Williams Syndrome and – at the other end of the spectrum – SLI are invoked to support a modular conception of language faculties, and autism is sometimes (questionably) invoked in support of the view that the capacity to deploy a theory of mind is modular.

Face-recognition is another commonly-cited, and perhaps less-controversial, candidate for being a modular system. Continue reading “Why Some People Will Never Forget a Face”