What a Difference 4 Years Make

Talking of Australian intellectals as we were very briefly in the previous post, by some spooky coincidence, I’ve been reading Bennett & Hacker “Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience” for the last couple of days. Hacker is P M S Hacker the Oxford philosopher, whereas M R Bennett is chair of physiology in Sydney.

Where to start ? I obtained this book something like 4 or 5 years ago – the bookmark is still a hotel key card from Jan 2005 – it was published in 2003. It was an obvious fit to my evolving agenda, but I found it pretty tough going, starting at chapter 1 and hoping to be enlightened. I didn’t get very far, though again it’s been with me several times in the “must try again if I get a moment” handful. It’s a 450 page, 250,000 word volume. Despite opening its covers a few times it was not until yesterday evening I noticed several things and started to make progress.

Firstly it is clearly a “reaction” to an overly scientific – reductionist – and popular approach to philosophy, against scientists particularly “brain scientists” and other “evolutionary biologists” over-reaching by believing they are explaining, even addressing and understanding philosophical problems in mind and consciousness.

Secondly, it is quite explicitly controversial – being a reaction to popular wisdom of our time.  The chapter index itself is 6 pages long – and I hadn’t noticed the explicit sub-headings addressing “objections” to current or recent scientists and philosophers in this space. You’ve met them here before – James, Crick, Nagel, Searle, Edelman, Sperry, Dennett, Damasio, Penrose, Chalmers and many more. In fact not only are there several chapters which discuss Searle and Dennett in the context of specific philosophy of mind issues, Dennett and Searle get a whole appendix each, devoted to “knocking down” their theses, conjectures and methods.

As an afficionado of Dennett’s work, I will have to take some time to reflect on what they have to say about Dennett, his “as if” intentional stance, and his “engineering” view of evolution, both genetic and memetic. I have to say I didn’t find Bennett and Hacker in the least convincing so far. (More on this another time – I’ve only read about 5% of this tome so far.)

Thirdly, as well as the cover blurb signalling controversy, there is an interesting foreword by Denis Noble, almost apologetic; opening with:

“This book was simply waiting to be written.” … and … “I must issue a warning that this book is highly controversial.”

The author’s emphasis. Further, Noble’s own view is:

Perhaps the problem for many scientists is to imagine what would happen if we abandoned the universality of the reductionist approach. For sure the nature of science would change. But so it should ! We would have to recognize that causation and explanation do not always run from lower to higher levels. And surely, at a time when we have already come to understand the extent to which causation runs in the opposite drection (higher-level states in biological systems even influence something as fundamentally low-level as gene expression), how can we possibly imagine that we will progress without recognizing the validity of explanations on all levels ? One of the criteria for determining the level at which explanation succeeds is to ask what can sensibly be ascribed at different levels. It does not make any sense to look for explanations at levels lower than that for the applicability of the relevant predicates.

This is particularly true of rational behaviour, including the use of language … We cannot, coherently, deny our own rationality. Otherwise we would have difficulty meaning what we say or being convincing in saying it … If we really could succeed in “reducing” rational behaviour simply to molecular or cellular causation then we would no longer be able to meaningfully express the truth of what we had succeeded in doing … such a complete explanation of mechanisms at one level does not necessarily explain what exists and happens at higher levels.

Sounds good to me, and I could not imagine (say) Dennett taking issue with that either. “Reductionism” is a hollow charge – surely people spend effort understanding the mechanisms in a lower level only in order to show that the higher level patterns and processes can emerge and be supported. Once that is established, causal explanations are provide in those levels, without any crass attempt to explain the higher simply in terms of the lower. I can’t think of a credible scientist or philosopher that would do that ? That would be “greedy reductionism” to draw on Dennett again – a straw man invented by critics, never a tool of the enlightened.

[Post Note 5 Aug : I have read on through several chapters but still find that despite the huge range of Philosophy of Mind subjects, and an excellent potted history of life and soul since Aristotle, the objections all really seem to be against the straw-man of reductionism – taking quite exclusive interpretation of “ways of speaking” as literal. Criticism based on narrow views rather than more inclusive views. – I’ll write more if anyone is interested, but this is looking like a dead end progress-wise. A good reference source though.

Furhermore, I must check the history of any debate involving Dennett responding to these critics – I wouldn’t surprised if his recent emphasis on “reductionism doesn’t have to be greedy” and “determinism is OK” were developed to address these ?]

[Post Post Note, 13 Jan 2011. Recently found that Dennett did respond and now obtained  Now read and reviewed Bennett, Dennett, Hacker & Searle – “Neuroscience and Philosophy” here. Cover blurb quote from Akeel Bilgrami of Columbia Uni:

“If you can get sworn and unrestrained philosophical enemies such as Dennett and Searle to join forces against you, you must be … the controversialists of our time.”

Linked in a recent reference to Hacker and Wittgenstein, incidentally about blaming, creating enemies, in debate with opponents.]

Vilayanur Ramachandran

Read and recently re-read “The Emerging Mind” originally prepared as the 2003 BBC Reith Lectures byVilayanur Ramachandran – Rama to his friends aparently.

First time through (the book) I was initially disappointed (as ever) but in fact the book of 5 lectures is a gem. I was initially put off by his early suggestion that studying neurological syndromes “had largely been ignored” as a means of acquiring insights into normal brain functions. My experience of much research reading is that this is become the standard means to understand brain functions from the study of individual “malfunctions”. I even suggested it had become a meme in itself, although clearly normal science often proceeds by observing narrower variables within wider controlling conditions. Anyway, Rama is no different to many others in presenting such examples from his case-book. Edelman, Zeman, Austin, Sacks, Wegner, Damasio to name a few.

Where he is different is in being brief, engaging and witty – a great place to start for anyone sceptical or ignorant of real evidence of neural correlates of conscious and subconscious mental behaviour.

Several specific things I liked.

Some very simply presented stats, glossary and physical brain anatomy.

A good debunking of the idea that Libet had shown free-will to be illusory. Wegner and Blackmore take note.

A very powerful, physically and phonetically symbolic, case for the complete evolution of spoken language – leaving Chomsky well behind and building where Pinker leaves off.

“Apologetic” but necessary use of “meta” level concepts – supervisory / control levels of free-wont etc – perilously close metaphorically to the old homunculus idea or the “Cartesian Theatre”. Apologetic, because “meta” terms are often associated with woolly-thinking arm-waving social scientists he says – but clearly well-founded enough for this eminent scientist to use them.

“Apologetic” use of apt Indian mystical  metaphors. They might not sound scientific but to this eminent scientist they fit the observed facts.

A tremendous stock of notes and references to reading others – many I already have. As Sacks joked with Rama previously “The real book is in the end-notes.”

A hugely optimistic proposition that neuroscience is the new philosophy, and that the only sensible view of anything is the evolutionary one. Needless to say Dennett figures highly in the notes and references. [Post Note : Must review Hacker and Bennett “Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience”].  He also suggests:

“No enterprise is more vital to the well being and survival of the human race [than understanding the human brain]. This is just as true now as it was in the past. Remember that politics, colonialism, imperialism and war all originate in the human brain.”

‘Twas ever thus. So apart from taking a wider view of “the brain” as part of a wider physio-chemical human information processing system – see Damasio and somatic markers earlier – not much to disagree with. A wonderful little resource.

Millennium Project

Interesting seminar from FIATECH by Jerome Glenn of The Millennium Project – trans-institutional think tank on forecastsing preparing for the future. (See the 15 challenges).

Maturing technology possibilities and the highest level sustainability and ethical conflict agenda presented in a business environment. eg genetic engineering of self-organizing (new) lifeforms anyone ? (See previous Josephson link.) A positive up-beat can do aproach rather than a crisis and desperation message.

Ethics top of a list of 10 most significant “beneficial elements” for the next 20 years. And “bi-modal” issues where people generaly see split decision between only two options – excluding middles – as well as the already fashionable democratization of information and associated technologies – collective intelligence as an “emergent property”.

Wow – perhaps these guys are getting it ? Must follow-up.