Wisdom Page Updates
This Month's Highlights
Included in this month's issue of the Wisdom Page Updates are:
- Editorial: Brains, Wisdom, and the Evolution of Consciousness
- Online Course on the Virtues: Compassion
- Book Review - Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt - Reviewed by Tom Lombardo
- Book Review - Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch - Reviewed by Tom Lombardo
- Update on West Side Salon for Philosophy and the Future
- Wisdom Research at the University of Chicago - Irony, Optimism, and Zen Wisdom
Wisdom Page and Futurodyssey Archives
Brains, Wisdom, and the Evolution of Consciousness
In the recent June issue of Wired
magazine there is a provocative article on contemporary efforts, involving colossal financial and computer investments, to create comprehensive models and real time technological simulations of the human brain (See "The $1.3B Quest to Build a Supercomputer Replica of a Human Brain"
by Jonathon Keats). Aside from such initiatives promising the eventual scientific knowledge and technological know-how to rectify various brain disorders--if we can understand how the mechanisms of the brain work in sufficient detail we can fix the dysfunctions--we should also be able to experimentally introduce various design improvements in the system as well, such as increased memory capacity and thinking speed. As Francis Bacon argued "knowledge is power," and if we understand how the brain works as demonstrated through working simulations of it, we can make it work better.
, in particular, expresses the hope that through increased scientific understanding of nature (in this case the brain) and scientifically grounded technological know-how (building functional brain simulations) we should be able to "transcend" our present bodily limitations (which, of course, include present capacities of the typical functioning human brain) and advance our powers and abilities along multiple dimensions, including those grounded in our neurological systems.
I am not going to criticize such scientific and technological goals; in fact, I support them, for humans have always tried to improve themselves, using whatever resources and know-how they possessed at that moment in time. It is our very nature, as self-conscious and self-evaluative beings, to attempt to make ourselves better. The ongoing challenge, though, is determining WHAT is better, especially when we address our mental capacities, which our physical brains support. What would be a better human being? What would be a better human mind? Surely not simply more memory or faster processing speed. Since time immemorial we have debated and fought over various ideals regarding what an improvement in the human mind would be.
We cannot bury our heads in the sand on this issue. In the past, we have attempted to improve ourselves, and in the future, we will undoubtedly continue to do so, increasingly empowered by science and technology. What I have to add to the debate is a matter of focus. Where we should aspire to the goal of self-improvement is in ethics, and if advances in science and technology provide knowledge and capacities toward this end, it would be regressive and foolish to reject what they have to offer (See "The Future Evolution of the Ecology of Mind").
This is where wisdom comes in. Over the years I have come to the conclusion (a conclusion that is open to revision or further development) that the concept of wisdom provides a holistic and comprehensive ideal for our individual development and future collective evolution. The human mind is a multi-faceted reality (including thoughts, emotions, motives, perceptions, memories, and self-awareness) and if we are going to talk about improving the mind we need to address all its basic features and capacities. Wisdom, indeed, is a multi-faceted psychological capacity, incorporating the cognitive, emotional, motivational, and behavioral--it fits the bill as a sufficiently holistic ideal. We may need more smarts, but we also need more hope, love, and courage--all of which are features of wisdom.
Of special note, we need an ideal of self-improvement that focuses on our ethical character. It is clearly not enough to become simply smarter; we need to become more ethically evolved. Wisdom provides an ethical anchor for our further evolution.
In general, wisdom is both the means and the end of our ongoing journey of self-improvement: We should use wisdom in guiding our actions toward self-improvement (especially including scientific research and technological implementation), and we should aspire toward the qualities of wisdom as the central ideals of our further self-improvement.
What about consciousness, wisdom, and the brain?
So, if we want to tinker with our brains, then how do we create brains that support or allow for wiser minds? (See Stephen Hall's Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience
.) And what would it mean to guide with wisdom the methods and direction of our neurological research toward this end?
One of the great puzzles of existence is consciousness. What is it and how does it fit into nature? I have recently reviewed in the Wisdom Page Updates two contemporary books on consciousness: Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos and Christof Koch's Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Even Jim Holt's new book (reviewed in this issue as well) on the mystery of why is there something rather than nothing addresses in depth the issue of consciousness. It is clear that the mystery of consciousness is relevant to the more encompassing mystery of existence (See "The Ecological Cosmology of Consciousness.")
With all the ongoing research on the brain, one of the central goals of such research is to understand the connection between the brain and consciousness. This is a central question in Koch's book. See also Antonio Damasio's book Self Comes to Mind
, which came out a couple of years ago, for another informative exploration of this topic.
It seems to me that when we talk about self-improvement, a central feature of this quest is the evolution of human consciousness. We are indeed conscious beings with physical brains (and bodies). Consciousness is at the core of our existence--of what and who we are. This is what we want to improve or evolve--our consciousness.
I am totally in resonance with Koch that consciousness can be investigated through science and that consciousness is part of nature. In spite of numerous claims to the contrary, it seems to me that consciousness manifests itself within a physical body within a physical world. There are no disembodied conscious minds. (My view on this is neither physical reductionism nor supernatural transcendentalism.) In my mind, understanding the brain is essential in our quest to understand consciousness.
But again, on this point I come back to wisdom, for it seems to me that wisdom provides a holistic ideal for the self-improvement and evolution of consciousness. Wisdom is a multi-faceted capacity of holistic consciousness. In scientifically studying the brain--and the whole body and nature as well, for the brain is integrated with the body and the body is embedded within nature--what we hope to understand is how all the different dimensions of human consciousness are realized in the natural world. And in looking for an ideal to capture evolving holistic consciousness, wisdom is the key. We want to evolve wisdom.
So yes--let's embrace transhumanism and efforts to technologically simulate the human brain. But while we are at it, we should aspire toward transcending to wiser states of consciousness and work toward understanding how to enhance our brains (and our bodies as well) to provide the necessary physical support systems to realize such goals.
Online Course on the Virtues:
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.Dali Lama
Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.
Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.
Continuing our online course on the virtues, This month we study compassion
, concern for others made apparent as our regret for their suffering. The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Become aware of opportunities to practice compassion every day.
* * * *
The course includes Instructions for contacting the instructor. In addition, the Wikiversity platform encourages your participation in improving the course. Comments on each page are welcome on the accompanying "Talk"
page, accessed via the "Discuss" tab.
We want to hear from you.
If you are interested in participating in a forum of active students to discuss assignments and share your thoughts, please let us know and we will work to provide a space for that. Also, we would like to be able to provide conscientious students a completion certificate at the end of the course, but we have not yet decided how best to assess completion. What are your ideas?
We certainly hope you continue to enjoy this tour of the virtues.
Book Review - Why Does the World Exist?
by Jim Holt
Reviewed by Tom Lombardo
Why Does the World Exist? is exceedingly clear and well written. It is philosophically engaging and highly informative. And it artistically weaves together a personal narrative and quest with a deeply intellectual and highly abstract inquiry. All told, Why Does the World Exist? is one of the very best popular philosophy books I have ever read.
If any question were to be identified as the ultimate or most basic puzzle in the philosophical study of being or existence (ontology), it would probably be "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and this puzzle is the focus of Holt's book. If you really think about question, which Holt's book definitely provokes the reader into doing, it is a puzzle that can (and should) send one's head spinning.Read the Review
Book Review -
Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch -
Reviewed by Tom Lombardo
Christof Koch is one of the leading figures in the study of brain and consciousness. His most recent book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, has a lot to say about recent ideas and research in the study of the brain, and is also quite revealing about the conscious content of the mind of Christof Koch -- his personality, his hopes and anxieties, his goals and professional dreams.
A valuable, up to date examination of the scientific and philosophical dimensions of understanding consciousness, free will, and the brain. Also, a revealing portrait of how the writer's scientific ideas and research have influenced his life.
Update on the West Side Salon for
Philosophy and the Future
Beginning in April I started hosting a new philosophical dialogue group that meets roughly every two weeks on Tuesday evenings from 6 to 8 pm. The location is Sun City Grand, Chaparral Center, Navajo Room, 19871 Remington Drive, Surprise, AZ. Locations may vary for later meetings.
The title "Philosophy and the Future" is intended to cover a very broad range of topics, including all the general issues of philosophy, such as wisdom, the philosophy of mind and consciousness, ethics, and cosmology. On the "futures" end of things, included are the future of science and technology, the human mind, and human society and culture; science fiction scenarios about the future; and space travel and exploration. Often we will weave together philosophy and the future.
The first two months we have been discussing new books under the general theme of "Consciousness and the Cosmos," including Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, Christof Koch's
Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist and David Brin's science fiction novel Existence.
Future meetings will frequently (though not always) take the form of selecting out other new books (in either philosophy or the future) and discussing them. The next books are the list are: Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?, Ray Kurweil's
How to Create a Mind, and Lee Smolin's Time Reborn.
This coming meeting, July 16th, we will dive into Holt's book--an excellent and thought-provoking read--which addresses the question of "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Holt's book surveys a number of scientific and philosophical answers to this ultimate question.
There will be a $5.00 nominal charge for attending Salon meetings through the entire remaining spring and summer. If you are interested in attending, you can register online
. If you don't get to registering before attending a meeting, come and we will work something out.
Email me at email@example.com if you have any questions.
Wisdom Research: University of Chicago
Irony, Optimism, and Zen Wisdom
Essays and research reports in this month's issue of
Wisdom Research at the University of Chicago
focus on irony, including an article on Socrates' use of irony, and an article on "cognitive optimism versus Zen wisdom." One can read the articles and subscribe to the regular newsletter on the website
Beginning this fall, I began publishing two newsletters: the revitalized and redesigned
Wisdom Page Updates and
Futurodyssey (the monthly publication of the
Center for Future Consciousness). So readers can view earlier issues, both newsletters now have
That's it for this month: My editorial on "Brains, Wisdom, and the Evolution of Consciousness," the online course on virtues focusing on compassion this month, book reviews on the brain and consciousness and the mystery of existence, an update on my Philosophy and the Future Salon, and ongoing wisdom research at the University of Chicago. Thanks for reading the Updates.
Special thanks to my wife, Jeanne Lombardo, for editing every month all the material I write for inclusion in the Updates.