Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Some reflections on how the mind works

Fed up with the current state of Philosophy of Mind, and how every “neuroscientist”, or even worst “neurolinguist”, “neurophilosopher”, “neuromoralist” or whatever fancy term they have coined these days seems to be eating the lunch of good old fashioned “armchair” thinkers? Well, so am I and I think it’s time to strike back.

Let’s start with some much needed clarifications. The moment you make human mind the subject of your study, you forsake the term “Science” to describe your work, as I explained in this recent post (Of Science, Philosophy of Science and Pseudoscience). You are studying chemical reactions between molecules that happen to be living (maybe within a brain, or constituting a functional unit called “neuron”? Fair enough, you are a (somewhat odd, given the constraints of your field) chemist. Do you use a complex apparatus that shows what areas of the brain have a higher flow of blood when performing certain tasks (aka fMRI)?  You are like some kind of engineer trying to deduct what was the intent behind a complex system (like feedwater in a combined cycle plant) by measuring the electrical consumption of an isolated pump… you may find all sort of interesting correlations, but good luck with getting the overall picture. Are you performing some ludicrous “experiment” where you ask young university students (characterized by their WEIRDness, or the fact they are predominantly White, Educated, from a Industrialized, Rich and Democratic Country, which makes them highly Unrepresentative of humanity as a whole) to perform some trivial task while you measure the performance of something apparently quite unrelated? Then you are a somewhat limited (because of the puny numbers typically involved) statistician, nothing to do with Science again. Are you “modeling” the behavior of some bit of organic matter (a cell, a neuron, a whole organism, an entire ecosystem) and its interactions with the help of a computer? You are a more or less glorified programmer (and please, spare me the awful term “computer science”, using computers has as much to do with science per se as using a balance, a ruler or a mass spectrometer… sorry, but knowing a syntax, which can be argued is the ultimate contingent construct, is just the opposite of knowing universal truths).

So if you tinker with how the brain works, you are at best an engineer (nothing wrong with that, I myself being one), and you have some claim to be conducting non-basic scientific work (although I suspect most of the basic science regarding how the brain works has already been sorted out, and what is left is adding heuristic rules to better predict some macroscopic effects out of the aggregation of individual reactions… unless you believe in some wishy-washy “emergent” properties, of which we will have more to say later). And if you busy yourself with how the mind works you are (drum roll please)… at best a philosopher, at worst (like most nowadays) a charlatan. Again, nothing wrong with that, either (I consider myself both, and am proud of it), but please, please don’t try to fool the poor unsuspecting public pretending your talk of universal grammar, memes, emotional intelligence, the role of the amygdala in emotions, the prefrontal lobe (which seems to be active in goddamn everything the five pounds of gooey matter seem to do!) or the existence of a “module” specifically evolved to identify arrows pointed to the left is somehow scientific.

Not that I’m arguing that it is unsound (not all of it at least), or that it is useless (far from it!), or even that it is somehow untrue. If I read Griesbach’s Textual criticism of the New Testament I may find his hypotheses brilliant, useful and mostly true, without pretending they are any kind of Science. What I’m trying to say is there are many ways of knowing (of interrogating reality, and filtering the tentative answers we may arrive at), and Science is only one of them, admirably suited for some fields, and totally unsuited for others.

And my contention in this long and (as usual) rambling post is that the methods of Science are valid to speak about the gooey matter (as about any matter whatsoever), but not so much to talk about what purportedly that matter “generates”, namely ideas, feelings, perceptions (that require a perceiver), intents, values, and all the dreamy stuff that takes place “inside our heads”. I know, I know, supposedly all that stuff, it has been proved beyond any doubt, is a creation of the particular combination of neurons, electric currents, free floating ions, ganglia and all the rest that resides inside our skull, so it stands to reason that both things (the gooey matter and the mental features that depend on it) are essentially the same. Any attempt to treat them differently would be laughed off the room and labeled as “dualism”, which has been disproved along with the belief in fairies (by jolly, even a staunch Christian like Polkinghorne proffers to embrace what he calls “dual aspect monism”). Maybe, maybe not. So let me stake my position here: Monism, the belief that there is only one kind of “really existing reality”, namely matter (which can be, more or less, weighted and measured, hence its Cartesian and old fashioned denomination of res extensa), is an unnecessary reduction of a (slightly) more complex reality. Sorry Mr. Damasio (and Dennett, which expressed it more clearly and more brilliantly before), if Descartes made indeed an error, it was not his dualism. And monism is wrong due to its unability to tackle two fundamental problems:

·         The existence of “ideas” (of which mathematics gives us the best instances: to take a most obvious example the number Pi “exists” as really, forcefully and undeniably as the planet Pluto –which by the way does not exist any more, now being labeled a planetoid, but I don’t want to go in the shales of the denotative theory of language and the second Wittgenstein-, and saying Pi is just the product of different configurations of neurons inside different skulls just misses the point that although the neurons and the skulls are different, the number is exactly the same, beyond anybody’s ability to spell it completely)
·         The existence of qualia (a word the neurobabblers detest as much as I do the expression “political science”), or the nature of the link between the perceptions we are conscious of and the physical nature that originates them, also known as “the hard problem” (as per David Chalmers) or the “astonishing hypothesis” (Francis Crick), it being so hard and so astonishing that some philosophers, rather than renouncing (or at least questioning) their monism have preferred to wish it away and declare there is nothing to explain, as we have no consciousness anyway and we are but zombies with the illusion of being conscious (Dennett devoted a full book, Consciousness Explained –which I enjoyed a lot, by the way, although I disagreed almost with every single word written in it- to dispel that “illusion”)

So to finish for today, Monism is wrong, there are other elements to reality apart from matter, and the scientific method, as much as I love it, may not be the most adequate approach to explain some of them. The interesting question, of course, is how many types of “really real” thingies are there, and how do they interact. But even hinting at the answer is going to require another post (or a whole long chain of them).

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