Vive La Difference 2023

Mentioned in the previous post I’d been re-reading / re-viewing Dan Dennett content since, as ever, I found myself defending what he really believes about human consciousness against those that dismiss him as some kind of illusionist, compatibilist, denialist. He’s actually an evolutionary systems-thinking realist like the best of us. There’s some determination amongst popular science and media to maintain mystique – secrets and mysteries to-be-unlocked and to remain so forever. It serves their agenda to deny real progress and agreement.

In fact science journalist John Horgan said as much quite explicitly, and not just to me:

Breath-taking cynicism, no? Agreeing truths about reality “don’t really matter” – what matters is the entertainment value of disagreement over mysteries? Well in the entertainment business maybe – thinking of you Brian Cox and Robin Ince and their ilk – but conflating quantum and consciousness “mysteries” as if one is a valid metaphor for the other is another dangerous part of the problem.

[Post Note: Whilst I’m beating-up John Horgan,
here his rant being critical of Skeptics (capital S).
I agree. Hat-tip Mark Hammonds

Sure, at a human scale, a lot of the gaps in and around QM don’t matter much – our everyday Newtonian Physics and Electronic Media will continue to function in blissful ignorance of what is really happening at the QM (or the cosmic gravitational) scale. The problem is that the competing QM interpretations and thought experiments leave candidate hooks for others with entertainment agendas to snag mystery onto other human-scale questions. Consciousness for example.

Consciousness – our conscious will and decision-making and how they’ve evolved to be the way they are for reasons of human fitness in the cosmic ecosystem – is probably the thing that matters most to humanity (and that ecosystem). And – paralleling Descartes’ thought – probably the least mysterious.

The same is true of human sex/gender differences, hence my title.

It is politic to deny gender differences when it comes to brains and minds – and to a large extent for good political reasons – equalities of human rights and opportunities – like all the other atypical neuro-diversities, the ones we don’t deny. But to deny the differences and choose not to understand them is ignorance.

I raise this here, because a couple of my previous references to “Vive La Difference” arose out of Dennett content, and as I noted above, my previous couple of posts had led to me re-viewing my Dennett content.

(Dennett is not alone amongst neuro-philosophers and neuro-scientists in acknowledging real differences. It’s always about the “so what?” question.)

My own concern is the evolutionary value in diversity – the “requisite variety” to use Stafford Beer’s systems thinking term – in enabling ongoing development of systems – living, human, ecosystems. To force common identity on all brains and minds, to deny their diversity in the name of equality, is human suicide. Amidst all the other diversity-denying madness around sex and gender at the moment, this is one important and far-reaching subtlety. We’ll be better of with a gene (and meme) pool containing both male and female brains (and minds) rather than some forced, sterile version of the one true human brain / mind.

That’s my “so what?” but what about Dennett?

I recorded before that Dennett was put on the spot by James Shaftsbury(?) asking him the direct question about gendered brain difference in a high-profile public and recorded presentation. The whole Royal Institution lecture is linked here, but I want to focus on that specific Q&A. Worth a watch (starting here at 9:34 in the Q&A and running for about 6 minutes):

Great preamble, question and answer. Dennett is very thoughtful and careful to give both the scientific and political angles of his answer due weight.

His “so what?” is tactical. He doesn’t deny the differences suggested. He suggests that on-balance there is more political risk than benefit in talking about them explicitly, so better not to highlight them (here). That’s a fair judgement in the light of previous (and current) political climates. I still maintain those doing science – and scientific philosophy – should not actually deny or fail to understand those differences. If I had findings to present, I’d certainly want to choose my audience.

The classic previous example referred to is Harvard University President Larry Summers speech in 2005 highlighting gender differences between academic areas. Here a report in the month afterwards into what he actually said, the reaction and his follow-up reasoning. Here a retrospective review from 2009 around what he did and didn’t say and the consequences for education policy. Note that nothing he said was false or badly motivated. It’s all about the “so what?”


Previously on Psybertron:


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