Beware Of “Equally Possible”

26 Nov


A friend of mine posted on Facebook this video of an anti-science screed at a TEDx talk. It was all the usual suspects of confused thinking about consciousness and related anti-science rants. The first thing, though, that stood out was the paradox of just how anti-science this talker was and he was speaking at a TED talk (it was especially funny listening to how much he hates science while using a microphone to speak to the audience).

Anyway, around the 10 minute mark, he juxtaposes the reductionist view of consciousness with the woo-view of consciousness:

And, you know, that leads me to ask ‘what is death?’ Our materalist science reduces everything to matter and materalist science in the West says that we are just meat. We’re just our bodies. So when the brain is dead, that’s the end of consciousness, there is no life after death, there is no soul, we just rot and are gone.


The brain’s involved in [consciousness] in some way, but we’re not sure how. It could be that the brain generates consciousness the way a generator makes electricity. If you hold to that paradigm then of course you can’t believe in life after death. The generator’s broken; consciousness is gone.

But it’s equally possible that the relationship — and nothing in neuroscience rules it out — that the relationship is more like the relationship of the TV signal to the TV set. And in that case when the TV is broken, of course the TV signal continues. And this is the paradigm of all spiritual traditions.

In my post where I analyzed Newcomb’s Paradox, I juxtaposed two explanations for the evidence at hand: That Omega really was a perfect predictor, or that he never puts $1 million in the second box. Both explanations are equally possible, so in that case the deciding factor is the prior probability. And in the case of consciousness, if two explanations are equally probable, then the prior probability has to lead you to vastly favor reductionism.

By way of analogy, let’s say that someone is on trial for murder. The prosecution has evidence that the killer was in the apartment. He has no alibi. There are signs of forced entry, burglary, and the killer’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon; a kitchen knife found in the apartment. The defense tries to claim that the victim’s roommate’s fingerprints are also on the kitchen knife, so they claim it’s “equally possible” that the roommate killed the victim.

With all of the evidence presented, the defense’s counterargument is patently ridiculous. But this is exactly the same logic that the presenter at this TEDx talk is engaging in when he claims that it is “equally possible” that consciousness is the result of a sort of TV signal analogy. If the TV set/signal analogy is true, then we have to rewrite just about everything we know about evolution, biology, chemistry, physics, thermodynamics… science as we know it is almost completely wrong. And he’s basing his conclusion that all of science is wrong on the evidence he received in a vision while on a hallucinogenic drug that is guaranteed to make his intuition run amok. And before taking a highly hallucinogenic drug, he had been primed to think he would encounter a supernatural being.

Sorry writer-dude: I’m gonna stick with science.

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Posted by on November 26, 2013 in Bayes, cognitive science


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