Archive for the ‘Brain-Hate Watch’ Category

Your Brain is Reading This

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

What Bennett and Hacker call “the mereological fallacy” is the view that psychological predicates attributable to whole organisms may also be attributed to proper parts of organisms. It’s consistent with such a view that my cat may remember where the litter-box is in virtue of his brain’s remembering where the litter-box is. Bennett and Hacker’s hostility toward this view goes beyond merely thinking it false: they reject it as incoherent and nonsensical.

In contrast, I regard it as at worst mostly harmless, probably true, and thus far from incoherent. A lot of the difference between us likely hinges on differing views regarding the mutability of concepts and the scientific worth of conceptual analysis.

Let’s, however, indulge in a little analysis, especially of the concept of a fallacy. I regard fallacies as invalid arguments, and if there is an invalid argument form deserving of the title “mereological fallacy” it goes something like this.

1. a is F
2. b is a proper part of a
3. Therefore, b is F

You can’t plug just any old predicate in for “F” and expect 1, 2, and 3 to come out true. However, it’s fully consistent with this that there are some substitution instances whereby 1, 2, and 3 do come out true. Let a = Mandik, b = Mandik’s left foot, and F = in the Earth’s gravitational field.

There are lots of occasions in which 1, 2, & 3 come out true. Why not, then, regard occasions in which F is a psychological predicate as such occasions?

Consider some relevant analogies. If my computer crashes and investigation reveals that all of its parts are in working order except for the hard-drive, then no confusion ensues in saying that the hard-drive crashed. If my cat digests a meal and investigation of all his parts reveals that his stomach did most of the work, then no confusion ensues in saying that his stomach digests the meal. Medieval philosophers, concerned with the doctrine of bodily resurrection, used to engage in a priori speculations about how digestion worked. It seems silly to engage in such practices now.

It should, at a minimum, be regarded as an open question, not something ruled out a priori, that further investigation will uncover facts we may summarize as that the brain remembers, is conscious, has beliefs, etc.

Bennett, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker (2003). Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Berlin, Blackwell Publishing.

Bennett, M.R., D. Dennett, P.M.S. Hacker, J. Searle. (2007). Neuroscience and Philosophy. Brain, Mind and Language. N.Y., Columbia University Press.

Brain-Hate Link Roundup

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

There’s been some interesting bloggin’ on brain hate recently. Some notable entries:

There’s discussion here of some of Max Coltheart’s complaints about cognitive neuroscience. Quoted from p. 22 of Coltheart, M. (2004) (Brain imaging, connectionism and cognitive neuropsychology. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 2, 21-25.) is the following:

No amount of knowledge about the hardware of a computer will tell you anything serious about the nature of the software that the computer runs. In the same way, no facts about the activity of the brain could be used to confirm or refute some information-processing model of cognition.

Re: “The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations” by Deena Skolnick Weisberg*, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson,
& Jeremy R. Gray, there’s very nice discussion to be found here and here. Link to draft here.

From the article’s abstract:

Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) x 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

Why Brains?

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

Big Brain

Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

It seems to be an open question whether distinctively neural properties are essential to the instantiation of mental properties. One can buy into reductive physicalism and reject neural reduction bases in favor of chemical or thermodynamic reduction bases, just to name a few. Perhaps, then, systems that have no distinctively neural properties—no brains and no neurons—nonetheless have certain chemical or thermodynamic profiles that suffice for mentality. Perhaps. But I doubt it. I hope that I may be forgiven for being so brief about this, but I think there are three reasons (at least) for thinking that the physical reduction of the mental should be a neural reduction.

The first reason for believing in neural reduction is that no non-controversial examples of entities that implement consciousness or cognition exist without brains, or at least, neural networks. It is uncontroversial that alert human adults have mental states. It is also uncontroversial that they have brains. Things are much more contested for the brainless. While it is arguable that my laptop has mental properties, it is also arguable that it does not. It is also arguable, by the way, whether or not my laptop has neural properties. I do, after all, run neural network simulations on it (Mandik 2003). How many properties are literally shared by the simulation and the simulated? We need not settle this now. What is clear is that there’s controversy about the mental prowess of the brainless. And while some brain-havers may lack mentality (who knows what to say about the vegetative patients? (Begely 2006) ), there are no uncontroversial confirmations of mind-havers lacking brains. Let’s talk about the mind-having brain-havers a bit more under the heading of “reason #2 for thinking that the physical reduction bases of mentality will be neural.�

The second reason for believing in neural reduction is that there is no reason to doubt that that it is in virtue of their brains (or their brains plus something else) that creatures like us implement consciousness or cognition. Putting the parenthetical “plus something else� to the side for the moment, let us entertain briefly how unpromising non-neurocentric theories have been. Mental properties are had by organisms either in virtue of the whole organism or part and it is easy to see that it can’t be the whole organism. Amputees retain their mentality, and while my appendectomy doesn’t exactly count as an amputation, comparing its relative effect to one’s mentality to the potential effects of a lobotomy is like comparing nothing to something. That the seat of our soul is some proper part of us is old news, but the appendix never had a chance and the Aristotelian coronary hypothesis was rejected long ago. So much of what we know about where drugs need to go to go to work and what brain injuries impair what mental functions has tipped the scales pretty clearly in favor of neruo-centrism. But, must it be merely neuro-centric? Can’t it be exhaustively neural? Here we have to pause to consider various embodied, embedded, and externalist proposals for including the body and even chunks of the environment of the organism as part of the supervenience base of the organism’s mental properties. There are a couple of things to say about this. The first is that none of it removes the brain from the center of the story. The second is to echo Fodor’s (1989) suggestion that we individuate neural properties widely.

The third reason for believing in neural reduction is that no reductive research program has been as productive as neurocentric ones. One might even be so bold as to suggest that non-neurocentric reductionists have no research program at all. There have been, in recent decades, three major proposals that have been physicalistic without reducing mentality, a la behaviorism, to the behavior of whole organisms: classic computationalism, connectionism, and (certain versions of) dynamic systems theory. Classicism got wedded, in many people’s minds, to non-reductive physicalism, largely due to the influence of Fodor (1974) and Putnam (1967). Dynamic systems theory included proposals of a specifically neural character, (e.g. Freeman 1991) while others looked like warmed-over behaviorism (van Gelder, 1995). Either way, dynamic systems theory was confronted with some devastating objections (see Glymour (1997), Grush, (1997) and Eliasmith (2001) for a taste). The main point here, though, is not any knock-down refutations of non-neurocentric research programs. The point here is that neurocentric research programs have been massively productive both in theory and in application.

[From "Supervenience and Neuroscience"]

Update: Futher discussion of this post on Paul Baxter’s blog [link].