Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the new Carl Sagan

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 14, 2011 in Science,Video

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Brice Gilbert February 14, 2011 at 11:19 pm

This season of Nova ScienceNOW has been really good. Just saying.

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D'Gisraeli February 15, 2011 at 2:42 am

The problem with reductionism is cynicism. We seek invariability, strong regularity. In love, relationships, society etc. To say all we are is our brains, is very contingent & transient. Would you like someone to fall in love with some one else? read his mind? Control him? try Neuroscience in a fascist/capitalist consumerism framework.
This isn’t comforting.
People lose identity and turn into faceless biological machines. I fail to see how this isn’t very cynical from where we stand, even if it is the truth.

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Citizen Ghost February 15, 2011 at 3:34 am

Tyson is terrific in his role as a leading educator and popularizer of science.

And it’s a good interview. I found his dismissal of Francis Bacon somewhat interesting. Tyson is clearly very knowlegable of this history of science – he reveres both Newton and Galileo, but seems to have little use for Bacon. Is this the classic disregard of the scientist for the philosopher? Is it the preference for the experiment over the theorist?

It’s somewhat ironic. Bacon’s writings were influential for popularizing the scientific method. He can be seen as a leading figure in promoting the understanding of science. Isn’t that what Tyson is?

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Bill Maher February 15, 2011 at 5:26 am

I guess that makes John Steward and Stephen Colbert the new Johny Carson. because they promote the hell out of Dr. Tyson.

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Bill Maher February 15, 2011 at 5:34 am

lol @ Steward

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Scott February 15, 2011 at 6:52 am

Thankfully, they recorded a song together with friends before Sagan died…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGK84Poeynk

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Silver Bullet February 15, 2011 at 6:54 am

I like Tyson, but I am tempted to say that he is no Sagan.

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Alex February 15, 2011 at 7:18 am

Ok – let’s put aside that this dude is a cornball, a bore, and a nerd.

Firstly, we already know that aesthetic experience floods the brain with dopamine so perhaps this is a little old. But look at the leap of logic:

1. He shows you a blank wall and tickle “that part of the brain” that correlates with aesthetic experience

2. He “bets ya” that you’ll like that blank wall.

3. This tells us that all emotion IS simply what get stimulated in the brain and what does not. And all belief sysems *that are not evidence based* would be triggered by simply what gets triggered in your brain and what does not.

OMG – this is horrible. Its the same old nonsense; neural correlates ARE all there is to conscious experience simply because – well – there ARE neural correlates to conscious experience. Not only that, but this then DOES not apply to *evidence-based* belief systems (e.g. whatever Tyson beleives). I guess *evidence-based* belief systems aren’t simply about what gets triggered in your brain?

This is weaksauce.

Worse – he doesnt *understand* what reductionism actually is. Reductionism isn’t about merely taking something apart in an attempt to understand how it works. His reductionism is his philosophical belief that the neural correlates of consciousness are all there is to consciousness.

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PDH February 15, 2011 at 7:28 am

The problem with reductionism is cynicism.We seek invariability, strong regularity. In love, relationships,society etc. To say all we are is our brains, is very contingent & transient. Would you like someone to fall in love with some one else? read his mind? Control him? try Neuroscience in a fascist/capitalist consumerism framework.
This isn’t comforting.
People lose identity and turn into faceless biological machines.I fail to see how this isn’t very cynical from where we stand, even if it is the truth.  

I just don’t understand this attitude. You can still do everything that you could do before, it’s just that you now you know a bit more about how you do it. How does that diminish us in any way?

I could just as easily say that belief in souls is cynical because then we’re just a blob of magic goo, possibly being overseen by an unelected, unkillable, all-powerful, dictatorial tyrant who can read our minds and torture us forever if he doesn’t like what he sees.

These biological machines are capable of producing great works of art, experiencing hitherto unfelt emotions, comprehending the remarkable universe in which they find themselves and who knows what else? The real truth seems to me to be orders of magnitude more wondrous than anything that people have been able to concoct over the years.

If I had to sum up my position in three words they would be: isn’t this enough? If it is the truth then you already know what it’s like to live with it because you’re already doing it and have been throughout your entire life. Everything that humans have achieved and experienced has been achieved and experienced by biological machines. So quit hating on biology!

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Ryan M February 15, 2011 at 8:39 am

Okay everybody, I’d like a nice clean fight. No generic comments about how this blog is degrading in quality, and no making uniformed comments about theism, atheism, naturalism.

Let the arguments begin!

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Citizen Ghost February 15, 2011 at 9:55 am

Alex,

Tyson may, as you say, be a cornball, a bore and nerd…. but his framing of the approach for how neuroscience can tell us about aesthetic and emotional experiences is absolutely correct. It’s certainly one approach. In fact, that is exactly how experiments in neuroscience ARE conducted.

Its the same old nonsense; neural correlates ARE all there is to conscious experience simply because – well – there ARE neural correlates to conscious experience.

You might as well say that “nueroscience” itself is nonsense. Nothing Tyson has said implies that neural correlates are all there is to conscious experience. But the neural correlates are the things we can test. Remember, the experiment he’s proposed isn’t designed to answer the question, “What is conciousness?” It’s designed to understand various emotional states at the level of the brain.

If decades ago, someone has proposed doing an expermiment to learn what’s going on in the brain in response to states of anxiety,or mental illness would you say “Nonsense! That presupposes that conciousness is reduced to neural correlates.” Hopefully not. Because we’ve learned a great deal about human behavior as a result of such scientific studies.

I think your criticisms simply reveal the discomfort many people have about the role science may play in helping us to understand things like “love” and aesthetic considerations like “beauty.” It’s not just that they’re wedded to the supernatural (though in some cases, as with very religious people, it’s very much that). It’s that they fear this sort of scientific inquiry will squeeze all of the poetry out of life.

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Ein Sophistry February 15, 2011 at 4:18 pm

OMG – this is horrible. Its the same old nonsense; neural correlates ARE all there is to conscious experience simply because – well – there ARE neural correlates to conscious experience.

The problem, Alex, is that (as is the case with God), there seems to be nothing left for a superordinate, irreducible consciousness to do. While our neuroscience is presently incomplete, all current signs point toward neurophysiological mechanisms being entirely causally sufficient for the phenomenal experiences through which we know the world. Certainly, we’ve never observed anything like mental properties causally affecting the neurophysiology of the brain. One could, I suppose, argue that mental properties are independent and only affect other mental properties, but, apart from being unfalsifiable and in that respect question-begging, it leaves as a miracle how these two allegedly independent causal chains could be so systematically coordinated.

Now, some savvy and determined dualists (most famously David Chalmers) have attempted the audacious ploy of turning the causal impotence of mental properties into a weird vindication of their independent existence, arguing that their simultaneous self-evidence and superfluity makes them a mystery beyond the reach of third-person science (see Chalmers’ well-known Zombie Argument). But they’re trying to have their cake and eat it. They maintain that they have knowledge of their own “qualia”, but how, exactly, can one possess knowledge, self-evident or not, of something that cannot have any effect on the world? If you’re pleading epiphenomenalism to save an ontological hobbyhorse, you’re already conceding defeat in everything but name.

Worse – he doesnt *understand* what reductionism actually is. Reductionism isn’t about merely taking something apart in an attempt to understand how it works. His reductionism is his philosophical belief that the neural correlates of consciousness are all there is to consciousness

I fear you may be the one misunderstanding here. Reductionism in science is about intertheoretic relations first and ontological relations only consequently. All these philosophical attempts to adjudicate from the armchair on the ultimate ontological status of phenomenal consciousness are fun but ultimately silly. We don’t have any privileged, a priori access to some independent taxonomy of natural kinds. Science, in practice, grants ontological status to those entities required by its most empirically adequate theories.Think of this as a corollary to Yudkowsky’s exhortation to make our beliefs “pay rent.” Here, we make our posited existents pay rent by ensuring they participate in necessary ways in theories that systematically confer demonstrable explanatory and predictive power.

Reduction, then, is first and foremost a matter of capturing the regularities described by one theory in the conceptual and relational network of a broader theory. For consciousness, this would mean some sort of neurophysiological theory that capable of explaining all the systematic relations within our phenomenal experience and between it and the world—to such an extent that one could predict a subject’s phenomenal experience on the basis of what’s going on in his/her brain. Paul Churchland has made a bold (and testable!) attempt at doing just this using a neurocomputational model of color qualia. You may find his paper here: http://web.gc.cuny.edu/cogsci/private/Churchland-chimeric-colors.pdf

An important (but apparently difficult) thing to understand about this kind of intertheoretic reduction is that it is vindicative, not eliminative. When a theory reduces smoothly, our confidence is increased that it got things essential right, at least within its limited scope. It’s when a theory fails to reduce that the threat of elimination looms. Now, this failure to reduce may be due to a genuine ontological divide, or (more parsimoniously) it could be because either it or the reducing theory (or both) are radically wrong. Most real world cases are intermediate, with the reduced theory needing to be tweaked a bit before it can be successfully integrated. This is typically because the reduced theory is older and informed by a more restricted set of data; its success tends to wane as it’s generalized beyond the bounds of its initial explanatory scope.

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Rob February 15, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Alex, who we all know is a dipshit and reliably posts the stupidest comments, began his comment by poisoning the well against Tyson. Talk about weaksauce.

(for cl only: imagine a winky at the end of my comment)

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PDH February 15, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Great post, Ein and thanks for the link to that Churchland paper. There is now a blue circle (hopefully not permanently) floating before my eyes.

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Steven R. February 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm

I just don’t understand this attitude. You can still do everything that you could do before, it’s just that you now you know a bit more about how you do it. How does that diminish us in any way?I could just as easily say that belief in souls is cynical because then we’re just a blob of magic goo, possibly being overseen by an unelected, unkillable, all-powerful, dictatorial tyrant who can read our minds and torture us forever if he doesn’t like what he sees.These biological machines are capable of producing great works of art, experiencing hitherto unfelt emotions, comprehending the remarkable universe in which they find themselves and who knows what else? The real truth seems to me to be orders of magnitude more wondrous than anything that people have been able to concoct over the years.
If I had to sum up my position in three words they would be: isn’t this enough? If it is the truth then you already know what it’s like to live with it because you’re already doing it and have been throughout your entire life. Everything that humans have achieved and experienced has been achieved and experienced by biological machines. So quit hating on biology!  

Yes, thank you for that. It’s what I’ve always wanted to say but never quite figured out how to say it.

BTW, to everyone here, please ignore Alex. The guy has made it obvious that he is here to troll (his many posts include accusing Luke of plagiarism even though he clearly cited his source, arguing that starvation is a great way to die, and now, just making lame remarks like “weaksauce”) and not have an honest discussion. Great points that were made in response to him but his only objective is to distract from regular discourse. Of course, he’ll deny it. All good trolls do.

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Alex February 16, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Citizen – I love neuroscience. I have many books on the subject – neurplasticity in particular. I just don’t like people who are not neuroscientists, prostituting neuroscience to do bad philosophy or metaphysics, which is what Tyson is doing. Finding neural correlates is all fine and well. Saying that that is *all there is* to any given experience is not a neuroscientific claim though. I’m not uncomfortable at all with aesthetic experience or love having neurochemical bases. Indeed, it is obvious that they would and do and I even pointed that out in my post. Of course it is fascinating that we can understand the physico-chemical substratum to our most cherished behavior. If anything, as a theist, I welcome the fact that underneath our values lies yet more complexity and order, not simply some intangible notion only captured in poetry. Who reads poetry anymore anyway?

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Alex February 16, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Erin – great post. Given the sophistication of your response, I want to take some time to read it again, make sure I comprehend it, gather my thoughts, and respond later. Thx for sharing your thoughts.

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svenjamin February 17, 2011 at 11:30 am

All hail Neil Degrasse Tyson.

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