Who is afraid of new ideas? The resistance of scientific journalism to brave and radical hypotheses. The case of Steve Ayan

In science, there are two kinds of new ideas: those that are objectively complex, and those that are simple but seem difficult primarily because they clash with entrenched assumptions and prejudices. Scientific progress is often delayed because the scientific community resists the latter because they challenge the established status quo. It is relatively easy to identify such simple ideas by examining how scholars or writers within the scientific world respond to a new proposal (I use the term scientific world in analogy with Arthur Danto’s art world, i.e. an institutional and socially structured system of beliefs). When a simple new idea comes to town, scholars committed to existing views tend to react against it. To confirm their prejudices, they often distort what they are afraid of to discourage others from considering it. Such an attitude, I contend, occur reliably and are very well illustrated in a review by a contemporary science journalist, Steve Ayan, which I will take as a paradigmatic example of such an attitude[1].

More generally, we can draw an analogy to the immune system, which responds to anything new and unexpected. In the cultural world, of course, we do not have viruses, but memes and new ideas. And the antibodies are represented by scholars and reviewers who feel charged with the task of defending the community on whose authority their intellectual lives (and occasionally their jobs) depend.

In the novel Das Glasperlenspiel (“The Glass Bead Game”, 1943), the German writer Herman Hesse describes an imaginary society ruled by scholars whose main goal is to maintain the existing status quo. To achieve this, they must eliminate all young scholars who show even the slightest hint of originality. They do this with good intentions (are not all dystopian worlds based on good will?), because the members of such a society are chosen based on their adherence to the existing conceptual framework. So how could they even consider someone who thinks differently? In Hesse’s world, the authorities are not stupid, they are aware that they always risk destroying original theories and that the price to pay for intellectual purity is stagnation, lack of progress, and being stuck in the morass of scholasticism.

Actually,  our current zeitgeist doesn’t see itself in these terms. After all, are not we descendants of Galileo, who courageously stood against ecclesiastical orthodoxy? Do not we all know the Royal Society’s motto “nullius in verba” by heart? Unfortunately, only insofar as the radical new hypotheses have already been sanctified by the scientific community and the media. It is easy to praise past intellectual heroes, and it is even easier to join the herd of current orthodoxy. To paraphrase Nietzsche’s famous metaphors, many are camels, few are lions, and even fewer are children.

It is amusing that new ideas often meet with complete incomprehension from their contemporaries. The hallmark of a conservative attitude is not simply the rejection of new ideas. Rather, it is the tendency to ridicule or misrepresent ideas that do not fit into the usual conceptual framework to which people are accustomed. The list of examples is endless. A popular example is the Copernican theory, which was considered too difficult for the human mind and remained largely mysterious to scholars and laymen alike for more than a century. From the publication of arguably the most important scientific work of Western civilization, “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,” by Copernicus in 1543 to Galileo’s “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” in 1632, nearly a century passed without any real understanding of heliocentrism. The inventor of thermodynamics, Ludwig Boltzmann, was not taken seriously by his colleagues and was severely attacked by the eminent physicist Ernst Mach. As a result, he took his own life just before his work was understood. Gregory Mendel sent Charles Darwin a book in which he gave evolution its first genetic foundations, and the great British scholar never opened it. Alan Turing was reprimanded by his dean, Charles Darwin III (the irony of history), for raising a subject that was not considered respectable enough – the subject was artificial intelligence. Alfred Wegener died looking for yet another proof of his theory of continental drift, because no geologist wanted to be caught dead with him. And so on. There are countless examples.

All too often, however, this recurring pattern is presented as though it were a thing of the past; something that is no longer possible today. Not at all. It is, in fact, a widespread attitude, and we have a very good example embodied in the work of a German science journalist whose approach I witnessed firsthand, Steve Ayan. As we will see, the example offered by Ayan might be a perfect case study: an allegedly unfathomable scientific problem (consciousness), an inadequate yet established conceptual framework (either neuroscience or cognitive science), a new and radical idea (more about this later), a defender of the orthodoxy (Ayan!).

First, some background. In May 2021, I co-authored a philosophical nonfiction book in German with Anne Hashagen: “Ich denke, aber wer ist ich? Neue Antworten auf die alte Frage nach dem Sinn des Lebens” (in English: “I think, but who am I? New answers to the old question of the meaning of life), Büchner Verlag. It is a philosophical treatise on the nature of the ego, combined with reflections on the great question of the meaning of our existence. In the book we approached the subject in a way that is understandable to laymen, using my hypothesis of the Mind-Object identity (also known as “The Spread Mind”). The hypothesis is admittedly radical in that it undermines the traditional separation between subject and object and challenges our traditional anthropocentrism. Nevertheless, the book is empirically sound and logically consistent. The basic hypothesis has been discussed in several peer-reviewed journals (among which the highly ranked and respected American philosophy journal The Philosophical Review) and described in great detail in many books.

In December 2021, our book was reviewed by the popular Geman science magazine SPEKTRUM, more specifically by Steve Ayan who embodied the classic pattern to reject something that challenges the established view – first, misrepresenting it; second, avoiding a fair comparison; and finally doing his best to discourage others from reading it by means of mockery or personal judgments.

A preliminary caveat. Consciousness has not been explained at all by philosophy and science until today to the extent that the world-renowned David Chalmers has been using his famous expression “the hard problem of consciousness” for twenty years to refer to lack of any actual understanding. Previous attempts by neuroscientists and philosophers to explain it range from mathematically sophisticated but empirically untestable approaches such as Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory to esoteric ideas such as panpsychism. In short, there are a variety of concepts and one might be optimistic that a new hypothesis, such as Mind-Object identity, would be well received. As we shall see, this is not the case! And for a very good reason: all the other theories do not question the separation between us and the world. The other theories play safe inside the traditional conceptual framework of modernity that, in different fashions, accept a gap between the subject and the object, between representations and the world. The new theory does not. It moves from a radical identity between us and the world itself. And this step cannot be even considered by the orthodoxy and, thus, by Ayan. An enemy is at the gate of the citadel of science!

The first step, as we have seen in more famous historical cases, is misrepresentation. By and large, it is fair to mention that, while reviewing a book is at the discretion of the reviewer and judgment is largely a matter of taste (but a theory is not a movie and a scientific reviewer should not be a Youtuber commenting on the final season of Stranger Things), the reviewer is expected to provide a fair account of the ideas under scrutiny. In this case, though, it was revealing how persistently and consistently Ayan misrepresented the new theory. In his review, Ayan almost never referred to what we actually said, and systematically altered it slightly (one can wonder whether intentionally or not). Some examples: Reading his review, a layman might get the impression that we believe our brain is not necessary for consciousness. This is obviously nonsense and is nowhere stated in our book. The result of such a gross misrepresentation is that the reader gets the impression that our book is esoteric or simply “nonsensical.” We repeatedly emphasize in the book that brain processes are essential for the existence of our consciousness and that consciousness is a purely physical phenomenon. This is not denied at any point. My Mind-Object identity hypothesis is fully compatible with the results of brain research (which have been presented in detail elsewhere). Ayan makes the claim that “consciousness exists in the world,” which in his review sounds like a panpsychist gross distortion of our actual key hypothesis, namely that consciousness is a relative world made possible by our body/brain processes.

After the misrepresentation, the second step follows – avoiding a fair comparison. In his review, Ayan criticizes our book not because it is inconsistent with our individual experience and empirical evidence, but because it is about a model of consciousness that is inconsistent with the existing literature. Imagine to judge heliocentrism based on geocentrism. A new idea should not be contrasted with previous ones, but with the empirical evidence available, otherwise it will never have a chance to be fairly tested. So, is our book guilty of not repeating worn out models? Yes, Mr. Ayan, that is exactly how it is, but that should not be a shortcoming, but rather a virtue that distinguishes this work from the dozens of books that all repeat the same old ideas. It is never actually clear from his review what Steve Ayan himself believes, which is another strategy to avoid a fair comparison. In fact, what are the competitors of the new idea? While Ayan’s views allegedly stick to the mainstream, “scientific” concepts of consciousness, so far these are only unproven theories (like IIT, Integrated Information Theory). As if there were such a thing as a consensus on consciousness and the method of approaching it! Yet, there is no such thing as a scientific “mainstream” theory of consciousness. A perfect case of the clash between orthodoxy and novelty.

Mr. Ayan is the voice of orthodoxy, a modern Cardinal Bellarmine, a scientific Pharisee. Allegedly, he claims to seek out and praise new ideas, but in practice he does not really tolerate them because they undermine the foundation of his beliefs. Ayan is an example of the kind of orthodoxy gatekeeper we have described above. Moreover, he is in the perfect position to do so as a reviewer for a respected science magazine. He is an established representative of a cultural zeitgeist that reveres science but never really challenges the accepted preconceptions. When new ideas are presented, they must always originate within the core of authorized beliefs. As in the Church, the Scriptures cannot be added to or changed. No new revelation is considered. The sacred writings of science are hostages to the scientific community. Steve Ayan is a remarkable example of such an attitude – he does not even consider something that is not inscribed inside his current worldview.

Indeed, every age has invisible boundaries that become visible only to succeeding generations. In this regard, the American philosopher Alfred N. Whitehead wrote in his prophetic book Science and the Modern World: “When you criticize the philosophy of an age, do not direct your attention primarily to the intellectual positions whose proponents feel it necessary to defend explicitly. There will be some basic assumptions that are unconsciously presupposed by the adherents of all the different systems within the epoch. Such assumptions seem so obvious that people do not know they are assumed because no other way of representing them occurs to them.” Such
assumptions are precisely the ones that need to be criticized and that the establishment or its supporters do not like to see challenged and this criticism is never taken into consideration by Ayan’s review.

Since we present a new view in which meaning has a relative nature, as in the case of relative velocity. But this solution is indigestible to Ayan, who adheres to the traditional postmodernist view that the world is meaningless and that we are cast into our mortal existence, creating subjective meaning with no real connection to the world. For Ayan, such a postmodernist edge is not negotiable. Any alternative is thus guilty of endorsing a kind of naive moralism based on esoteric, ill-defined hypotheses. It is sad that Ayan considers “meaning” to be a purely subjective and therefore arbitrary concept. But who can blame him? He thus joins a large number of current authors, such as Yuval Harari, for whom the meaning of life is a man-made, fictional construct, nothing more than a narrative. Our book vehemently opposes this one-sided view of the subject of meaning, without falling into the opposite error of imposing an absolute order of values. Is it too much to ask that Ayan reads (and possibly understands) our book before commenting on it?

Our goal was to write a book that addressed existential questions for both the layman and the expert – a challenging task. The radical thesis, of course, is that meaning is real because we, that is, our “I,” are also real. We are not abstract streams of information in brains, but physical processes taking place in the world, revolving around our bodies thanks to the neural and sensorimotor causal hub of our bodies. Our hypothesis offers a way out of the neuronal version of Plato’s cave. We reject the notion – so popular today, from movies like The Matrix to the recent book Being you by Anil Seth – that the world we perceive is just a virtual illusion created in the brain. And we do this using a logically consistent hypothesis and a wealth of empirical evidence gathered by neuroscientists themselves. Should not we be given a chance? Apparently not. Ayan – in a rather Pilatesque fashion – prefers to appeal to readers’ judgment after misrepresenting the new hypothesis. The second step is in full swing, of course. No fair comparison with the actual problems.

Finally, the third step consists in discouraging readers from even taking a glance at the new idea by means of mockery and other rhetorical devices. At the onset, Ayan deploys an ironic headline (“Is Mainstream Science Wrong?”) to imply that we question neuroscientific findings in our book. Nowhere is this the case, we never question the authority of neuroscience in dealing with neural activity. Like the aforementioned Alfred N. Whitehead, we question the untested hypotheses that systematically bias contemporary science in the study of consciousness. For instance, we criticize the popular idea that consciousness emergences as the “Genie of the lamp” out of neural activities regardless of the abysmal lack of any evidence of its existence inside the brain. Famous theories such as IIT (Integrated Information Theory) have thrived on such a belief and they basically describe our consciousness as an “information cloud” in our brain. It should be mentioned that theories like IIT are currently receiving a lot of attention, but so far they have zero empirical support. Moreover, theories like these basically represent a hidden dualism in the spirit of Kant or even a form of neo-animism (indeed, they often sympathize with panpsychism).

My co-author Ann Hashagen and I strongly believe that this should not be the case. That is why we have written a book whose main goal is to introduce the layman to the existential advantages of a radical new hypothesis about consciousness – i.e. the Spread Mind, which holds that our consciousness of an object is the object itself. According to such a view, consciousness is no longer prisoner of the brain, but rather is one with the world we live in. Our experience is proposed to be nothing more than a collection of relative objects. The traditional view is not so far, after all. Neuroscientists maintain that our experience is nothing more than a collection of neural processes. What options is closer to our empirical evidence – relative objects or neural processes? This is what Ayan should address but he doesn’t.

Nevertheless, Ayan repeatedly applies the three steps (misrepresentation, no fair comparison, mockery). About another key issue, whether our view implies some kind of panpsychism (it does not!), Ayan blatantly misdescribes the content of our book. In fact, nowhere do we claim that consciousness is “merged” with an object, as Ayan claims we do. We do not use the word “merge” anywhere in our book. Once again, Ayan puts the Spread Mind theory in a nonsensical corner. In contrast, we have clearly stated in our book that consciousness consists of the relative world, i.e., all the objects, people, things that we experience in the course of our lives with our body/brain and that our body/brain enables as a frame of reference. After all, our consciousness must be something! And why should not it be a world of objects as they occur in our lives, rather than a bunch of neurons trapped in the depths of a brain? Are not they both physical entities? Choose the one that makes more sense! He commits the straw man fallacy. He mocks the caricature of our ideas he himself has created.

For Ayan, science is committed to an article of faith for which there is as yet no empirical evidence, namely that consciousness must be “in the brain.” All other options must be discarded. However, there is no conclusive evidence for this idea, apart from the investment of neuroscience in the search for consciousness inside the brain. Neuroscience keeps repeating that our perception of the world is a kind of reliable hallucination and that our experience of the world is therefore different from the world (does not this remind you of Kant’s noumenon/phenomenon dichotomy?). And yet this is precisely where our radical new idea comes in – what if there were no separation between experience and existence? In fact, the spread mind theory addresses illusions and hallucinations very well as cases of unusual perception, turning the traditional hallucinatory view of perception on its head. For a more detailed reading, we recommend my book (The Spread Mind, OR Books, 2018). It’s a real shame that Steve Ayan while admitting he does not understand the Spread Mind theory, at the same time calls the theory “mumbling nonsense”. He is welcome to do so, but he should first try to explain what he thinks is the “correct” or better explanation for the phenomenon of consciousness? Since there is no definitive (or even provisional) empirical theory of consciousness, what gives him the certainty (and authority) to call our approach nonsense?

Admittedly, we have tried to keep the theoretical exposition of the theory as short as possible – only nine pages. Ayan criticizes us for being too brief, and uses various rhetorical devices to reject a theory that is set forth elsewhere in great detail over hundreds of pages (e.g., in my book mentioned above). After all, there are already thousands of published pages devoted to the details of Spread Mind Theory, and an interested and curious reader can find all he needs (https:\\riccardomanzotti.com , for one). But thank you, Ayan, for counting the nine pages of the chapter on Spread Mind Theory. Our book was not intended to be a detailed elaboration of Spread Mind Theory (see the book “Spread Mind” by Manzotti mentioned above), but a popular, philosophical non-fiction book about the “I” and the meaning of our existence.

At the end of his review, Steve Ayan concludes, “The book seems intended to stimulate new, objective thinking – but those who use their minds are constantly frustrated by a flood of grandiose but elusive concepts. In such cases, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham spoke of “nonsense on stilts”. One might also say that some theses are so obscure that they are not even wrong.” I am pretty sure that the reader can now easily see the strategy of the gatekeepers of orthodoxy. When something challenges your view, you misrepresent it and then accuse it of being nonsensical. This is intellectually highly dishonest. What is not even wrong here is not our book, but Ayan’s presentation of it.

We are sincerely sorry that Steve Ayan was unable to develop an understanding of the basic idea of Spread Mind theory. All the more because it is a simple new hypothesis that would deserve some consideration. As a matter of fact, lay people, who are not committed to a specific view, have no trouble grasping the essentials of the theory fairly quickly. The only way to find the boundaries of an intellectual cage is to push against its bars – namely, by proposing radical new ideas that challenge existing prejudices and offer solutions to supposedly unsolvable puzzles. When this happens, naysayers can choose between two different strategies: one fair and one dishonest. The fair strategy is to understand the new idea and then address the available empirical evidence and its logical consistency. But if you do that, you have opened the door of the intellectual citadel to a possible intruder. There is a risk of betraying the existing beliefs to which one owes a debt of gratitude. This is risky. The only alternative is the dishonest strategy Ayan exploited: compare the new idea with old assumptions and if it not compatible, attack it. And then, misrepresentation, unfair comparison, and mockery.

The Italian Alessandro Manzoni wittily remarked that “the authority of a scholar who asserts what people already know cannot be overestimated.” One may wonder if, in today’s cultural world, many journalists and popular writers follow such a principle in order to attract a captive audience and avoid being criticized for their original ideas that are off the beaten path. In this regard, Italians have a saying “people do not want change those ideas that are necessary for their own position.”

References

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