Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Evolution of a "Third Culture"

In a blog entry I wrote early last year on the Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker and his essay "The Moral Instinct", I expressed my great admiration for a whole generation of world class scientists who have ably taken on the task of speaking not just to their peers but also the wider audience of curious non-specialists. We increasingly live in an age where serious study of the social sciences and even the humanities have to account for the findings of cutting edge neuroscience, cognitive biology, cosmology and other scientific disciplines if they are to be taken seriously.

Edge Foundation has an excellent website devoted to the promotion of the "Third Culture" which in their own words "consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are." What recently took me to the site were six video interviews posted there with eminent intellectuals asking them about the progress of the Third Culture (the term is derived from a 50 year old lecture titled "The Two Cultures" by the English physicist C. P. Snow who bemoaned the serious gulf between scientists and literary intellectuals).

While on this topic I must mention the delightful profile of the pioneering Univ. of California, San Diego behavioral neurologist, Vilayanur Ramachandran in the May 11th, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. It is frustrating that this excellent profile by John Colapinto is not available online to non-subscribers so I cannot link to the full article. Suffice to say that I would highly recommend finding the article and reading it. Ramachandran comes across as a brilliantly innovative scientist with a fascinating biography, a warm and quirky personality and a passion for problem solving and the communication of ideas. The profile describes his ingenious solution to the problem of pain in phantom limbs using a simple mirror therapy. In a blog on the New Yorker site, Colapinto provides a fascinating description (including photos) of how the mirror therapy works by tricking the mind. Atul Gawande also wrote about this therapy in his New Yorker article called "The Itch" which I blogged about here.

To get a first hand flavor of Ramachandran's genius and his engaging lecture style here is his talk entitled "A journey to the center of your mind". He gives several extremely interesting examples of how the brain works (including the phenomenon of phantom limb pain).

Photo: Vilayanur S. Ramachandran (from the TED website)

November 1st, 2009 update:

Ramachandran dazzles in this video interview below hypothesizing how the problem of consciousness is likely to be explained. He believes that the potential explanation lies in some unique trajectory of human neurological evolution and that qualia (conscious knowledge of a sensation) and awareness of self are linked phenomena.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Justice Souter Retires

After 19 years, Justice David Souter has decided to leave the bench at age 69. Linda Greenhouse in today's Sunday Times, has an admiring portrait of the somewhat eccentric, reclusive and scholarly New Hampshire jurist who even as he was ill at ease in the public aspects of his office was intellectually very well equipped to be an associate justice.

For years now, Justice Souter had come to be seen as a reliable vote on the side of the court's liberal justices and despite being acknowledged as a keen intellect, his tenure on the court will likely be seen as unexceptional. Unlike a Scalia, he was not an icon for any particularly staunch philosophical view of constitutional interpretation. He did not occupy a pragmatic (sometimes indecipherable) middle in the way of Kennedy which makes him the obsessive focus of court watchers in every close case. And unlike Justice Brennan (whom he replaced) he was not a coalition builder with any penchant for shaping close opinions that could garner a majority for his preferred outcomes. Instead, Justice Souter will most likely be remembered as an independent-minded elder Bush appointee who upset Republican expectations of a reliable conservative vote for Scalia and surprisingly reaffirmed the constitutionality of the court's previous abortion decisions in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).

An excerpt:
This pattern gave rise to a widespread view of Justice Souter as a misfit or a loner, not quite in touch with modern life. But to focus on his eccentricities — his daily lunch of yogurt and an apple, core and all; the absence of a computer in his personal office — is to miss the essence of a man who in fact is perfectly suited to his job, just not to its trappings. His polite but persistent questioning of lawyers who appear before the court displays his meticulous preparation and his mastery of the case at hand and the cases relevant to it. Far from being out of touch with the modern world, he has simply refused to surrender to it control over aspects of his own life that give him deep contentment: hiking, sailing, time with old friends, reading history.