October 22, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Mind Matters

The conundrum of how reasoning could have emerged by an undirected evolutionary process persists.  Atheists and materialists are convinced that natural selection is up to the task, while theists strongly disagree and use human rationality as evidence for creation by an intelligent source (usually God).  Perhaps a few recent findings can illuminate on the options.

  1. Smarter than your average bear:  PhysOrg reported on work by psychologists and computer scientists at University of Georgia that concluded: “New research shows people are better at strategic reasoning than was thought.”  Experiments with video games of strategy apparently showed that recursive reasoning – the ability to foresee an opponent’s moves and plan accordingly – is well-established in the human mind.  “This so-called recursive reasoning ability in humans has been thought to be somewhat limited,” the article began, “But now, in just-published research led by a psychologist at the University of Georgia, it appears that people can engage in much higher levels of recursive reasoning than was previously thought.”  In fact “they do it fairly easily and automatically” according to the head of the Georgia Decision Lab at UGA.  No attempt was made to explain how evolution produced this ability.
  2. Smart vegetarians:  Toss out the image of cavemen ripping meat with their teeth over the fire.  “Stone Age humans liked their burgers in a bun,” an article on New Scientist announced.  What this implies is that human ancestors alleged to have lived 30,000 years ago had the smarts to grind flour.  Researchers at the Italian Institute of Prehistory and Early History in Florence examined grindstones in Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic, looking for signs of plant material – and found evidence of flour making, “a complex process involving harvesting roots, then drying, grinding and finally cooking them to make them digestible.”  That takes foresight, learning from experience, and well thought out procedures.  “The reason Palaeolithic humans were thought to have lived solely on wild meat, says [Anna] Revedin, is that previous plant evidence was washed away by overzealous archaeologists as they cleaned the tools at dig sites.”  She claimed hers was the “first time anybody has tried to find vegetable material on” the grindstones.
  3. Smart jewelers:  A debate over the chic of Neanderthal jewelry is going on, according to New Scientist.  An Oxford team claims that Neanderthal ornaments were really made by modern humans.  Another researcher at University of Bordeaux, though, disagrees, still thinking that other sites show sophistication in Neanderthal taste.  Reporter Michael Marshall perpetuated a stereotype by concluding whimsically, “I would suggest settling the debate with the enthusiastic use of hefty stone clubs, but that would be positively Neanderthal.”
  4. Smarter than paleoanthropologists:  500,000 years ago, human ancestors like Heidelberg Man were supposed to be emerging from the fog of animal instincts.  New Scientist reported that a fossil specimen found in Spain with a distorted pelvis indicates that the 45-year-old hunter-gatherer would have been too hunchbacked and in pain to support himself.  The researchers at the University of Madrid argue that this shows his compatriots cared for him, even though he had no way to help contribute to the survival of the fittest; “it implies a level of social support, and that he was valued by his contemporaries.”  Were values and charity already well-developed half a million years ago in the evolutionary timeline?
  5. Smarter than the herd:  Are humans just lemmings who will follow the herd over a cliff?  There’s no doubt that crowd behavior has a certain attraction for many people, but that can apparently be switched off by the force of will, according to an article on PhysOrg.  An Oxford team performed a study of Facebook behavior (a good place to look for herd instinct).  How much did users react to social influence about whether online apps became flops or hits?  “Users only appear to be influenced by the choices of other users above a certain level of popularity, and at that point popularity drives future popularity,” the article said, supporting the herd mentality, but it’s not always so simple.  The data for the study contained no information on individuals, for one thing, and as a researcher cautioned, “we simply don’t know whether this marks an important difference between offline and online behavior, or whether more detailed and comprehensive data from offline contexts will identify similar collective behaviour in settings that do not involve online environments.”
  6. Smarter than computers:  Another study on CAPTCHA (see 09/14/2008) has appeared.  The basis of this technology to discern human identity on computers (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) is the human gift of pattern recognition.  We can read cursive handwriting, even when messy – a task that gives a computer headaches.  Researchers at the University of Buffalo are trying to extend CAPTCHA to biometric signals such as hand gestures that could be used to activate devices in smart rooms, elderly living facilities, airports and other transportation venues.
  7. Smarter than philosophers:  Heavy-duty thinkers may want to analyze and critique a new theory of rationality by Philip N. Johnson-Laird published in PNAS, who said in his introduction, “The theory predicts systematic errors in our reasoning, and the evidence corroborates this prediction.  Yet, our ability to use counterexamples to refute invalid inferences provides a foundation for rationality.  On this account, reasoning is a simulation of the world fleshed out with our knowledge, not a formal rearrangement of the logical skeletons of sentences.”  That may leave a number of questions begging in the shadows.
  8. Smart about mental health:  The mind-body problem is aggravated by the recognition of mental illness and mental decline with age.  An article on Live Science may encourage those growing older (who isn’t?) to get off the couch and take a hike.  A study at the University of Pittsburgh suggests that the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease could be delayed, maybe for months or years, by walking about a mile a day.  In the end, though, we all know that gray matter that did so much thinking and reasoning during our lives is destined to turn to dust.  What then?
  9. Thinking about smartness:  What makes humans so special?  Robert Sapolsky, neurobiologist and primatologist at Stanford, shared his thoughts on Live Science.  Is it just quantity of neurons over quality?  After all, “Animals may share characteristics with humans such as politically motivated aggression, empathy and culture, but humans take them to a level without parallel among animals,” reporter Jeremy Hsu said, describing Sapolsky’s views.  Do we just have more of the same?
        It can’t be, if an article at PhysOrg draws the right metaphor: “Neurons cast votes to guide decision-making.”  According to neurobiologists at Vanderbilt University, “our brain accumulates evidence when faced with a choice and triggers an action once that evidence reaches a tipping point.”  Yet the experiments were done with monkeys, which humans would like to believe do not have reasoning minds like our own.  This is one of many experiments trying to draw links between “psychological processes and what neurons are doing.”  But then, if a better analogy is a logic circuit, who programmed the circuitry?
        Sapolsky is not worried about neurobiology reducing our humanness to mechanistic stuff.  For one thing, even if it could, “explaining everything in purely mechanistic terms would not diminish our appreciation of classical music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach or the sight of a leaping gazelle.”  For another, “Every time neuroscience comes up with an answer, it’s attached to 10 new questions, and nine of them are better than the original,” Sapolsky said.  Maybe just thinking about thinking helps answer the question.

Filmmaker Luis Nieto claims that “A well-trained monkey could do my job.”  Interviewed for New Scientist, Nieto explained why he made Capucine, a documentary shot by capuchin monkeys.  His experience led him to believe that creativity is just an illusion; it is free association, an ability innate to primates.  Monkeys have consciousness, they have sophisticated relationships with humans, and even excel at morality: “With Capucine I learned something about animals: they never lie.”  Since his job could be done by a well-trained monkey, he thinks “Maybe film-makers will soon compete for jobs against monkeys.”  That may have to wait till they invent cameras, projectors, editing equipment, sound stages, theaters, agents, directors, critics, award ceremonies and paparazzi.

This food for thought is delivered fresh by Creation-Evolution Headlines, which encourages you to think critically about each claim, evaluate the evidence, use your power of choice, exhibit honesty, and thereby prove that materialism is hopelessly incapable of explaining what you just did.  For if truth and honesty are not illusions, but really exist, which must be true to carry on this discussion, they refer to things that are timeless and universal – things in the conceptual realm that, expressed in language with semantics or meaning (which, according to our uniform experience always have an intelligent cause), can be rationally inferred to have an intelligent cause that is likewise timeless and universal.  Or, more succinctly, in the beginning was the Word (John 1:1-14).

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