A good one for today from way back in August of 2016, almost exactly one year ago. I was still deep in my Wittgenstein obsession but also really interested in cognitive neuroscience and neurophilosophy. I am still a Witt super fan and still have a deep fascination with neuroscience and neurophilosophy but I just have not had the inclination to think or write about either topic in quite some time. Hopefully that will change someday soon. Until then enjoy this blast from the past. As a special bonus I post a reply to a question from my favorite Czeck and intellectual heavyweight Martin Rezny. I am not certain but this may have been the very first time Captain Rez commented on something I had written. It was quite an honor. I really hate to brag but my response is actually very, very good.
More Comments on Cognitive Science and Neurophilsophy — A Response to Burgos and Donahoe’s First Rebuttal of Bennet and Hacker — Crypto Cartesianism in Neuroscience
I happened to just now stumble across a paper from 2006 by Burgos and Donahoe http://www.behavior.org/resources/179.pdf that presents a short review and rebuttal of some of the key positions staked out by Bennet and Hacker in their seminal work, heavily influenced by late Wittgensteinan so-called ordinary language philosophy, The Philosophical Foundations of Modern Neuroscience. While still speaking in mostly admiring tones of the book, B&D refute three key positions they ascribe to B&H. I do not have the time or energy to address each objection but I do think their first objection is slightly off target.
To summarize very briefly B&D argue that the charge of “crypto-Cartesianism” lobbed at many modern cognitive scientists by B&H is not supported by a close reading of what Descartes actually believed regarding the relationship of soul to body. I have discussed the mereological fallacy in many other posts so don’t intend to rehash its core concepts but a working knowledge of what that fallacy says is necessary to understand the case made by B&D.
B&H say that the crypto-Cartesianists now running wild in modern cognitive science have replaced the traditional soul-body dualism espoused by Descartes with a similar, and just as muddled, dualism between mind/brain and body. From this standpoint it is all too often easy to slide headlong into the mereological fallacy when designing experiments and/or running them, and/or interpreting data from them or even just talking about them, that take this brain/body dualism as a core tenet. Most often B&H would say the dualism at the heart of many modern neuroscientists works is left unspoken and unacknowledged. I would wager in fact that if you flat out asked these modern researchers the question, do you believe in dualism, a portion would answer in the negative, even as their own works clearly rest on acceptance of exactly that assertion. For purposes of this essay I will take the sometimes unacknowledged dualism of most modern cognitive neuroscientists as a given. Of course today the favored term is materialism not dualism. I would further wager that the vast majority of modern neuroscientists, and even all scientists in general, asked if they believe in materialism the answer would be in the affirmative. To sum up Cartesian dualism treats the soul and body as separate, modern dualism (materialism or crypto-cartesianism ala B&H), regards the brain and body as separate. Further in materialism a persons consciousness and conscious and unconscious activities can be reduced to the brain or neural correlates thereof.
Finally we get to the heart of B&D’s rejection of B&H’s problem with this line of reasoning. First they argue that Descarte does not actually commit the mereological fallacy because it is not at all clear that he believes the soul is a part of the body. At at least not in the same sense as modern materialists view the brain as a part of the body. For Descarte’s the soul was eternal the body was not. For modern cognitive neuroscientists the brain and body are mortal. When the body dies so does the brain. Interestingly, and a topic I intend to address in a later essay, the converse is not always true at least for the laymen. A person can be “brain dead” yet still considered alive.
So the case against the crypto Cartesians fails because Descartes did not actually believe what B&H claim he does ergo B&H’s arguments against modern cognitive neuroscientists that rest on this assumption fail. While I can appreciate the merits of this line of attack I think it ultimately misses the mark. While it is true that the mereological fallacy specifically talks about “parts” and “wholes” the precise meanings of each of these terms is never expounded. To attempt to precisely define them would be at odds with late W’s and B&H’s entire project. Specifically B&H never imply that to be considered a part of something that part needs to exist concomittedly for all time. In fact they never speak of temporal considerations when discussing the implications of the mereological fallay. For that matter they never really attempt to define what counts as a whole. Is a one armed man whole? What about a limbless man? What are we to make of the theoretical case of head transplantation? (See another essay by me for my thoughts on this).
- I’m done…more later maybe
My response — Also a very good one, not as per usual.
Thanks for taking the time to read my post. It is such a technically challenging field to write coherently about especially as a non-expert. Moreover probably 99% of people could give two shits. That’s ok by me. I like thinking about the hard problems and then spouting off bullshit. You pose a very difficult question and one that touches on many areas of philosophy. I can sort of speak to the materialist/scientific claims regarding the brain and body. What you are asking about requires deep knowledge and expertise in the realms of metaphysics, religion, ethics (maybe), and others. I simply don’t feel equipped to even begin to know how/from where to approach them. The idea of sense perception being somehow illusory or false goes back to almost the very beginnings of western philosophy with Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. Eastern philosophical traditions have struggled with similar questions though I am even less well versed in those. Usually I only talk about philosophical topics through the lens of a recognized “expert” philosopher(s) in the particular field I am writing about. So many of the great minds of western thought, ancient and modern, from so many different traditions (analytic, phenomonological, materialist, realist, animist, behavioralist, existentialist, etc.) have addressed this very issue at length from different perspectives. It feels like everything that can be said already has.
For once than I will step out of my typical comfort zone and try to give my own analysis without the crutch of leaning on the works of anyone else. Already I betray myself though. The very first sentence says I will give an “analysis”. A highly loaded word that suggests a scientific or analytic approach. Moreover I imply in that same sentence that I believe I am capable of contributing something above and beyond what so many have already said. Even the idea that saying something is the appropriate way to think about this brings biases and inherent implications to the table. Maybe doing something would be a better way to go. Wittgenstein himself said “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” though the later LW would dispute this assertion. Additionally in sentence one I refer to my “own” self. This suggests I believe I truly exist at least from my point of view. If I believe I exist any discussion of the nature of sense experience will be framed from that perspective. And so down the rabbit hole we go until eventually we throw up our hands. Is sense experience illusory or real? How do we define “real” or “illusion”? For that matter how do we define “sense” or “experience”? What defines a definition? How is it to be explained? By metaphor, analogy, something else? The way one answers inevitably colors our response to the question at hand. I have struggled with the sensia/qualia/real/illusion problem since I first became fascinated by the field of philosophy. Eventually I arrived at the same conclusion Wittgenstein did, the question itself is nonsense. There is no right or wrong answer. There never can be, it is a logical impossibility. It cannot be proven true or false. One might as well ask is gggbbttyyu real or is bghhjyyy illusion. It simply makes no sense to ask and even less to try and answer. The best we can do is clarify the question. Reframe it in a way that does make sense. Using ordinary language, logic, and generally accepted (by the vast majority of sane conscious beings) axioms ask different but similar questions. Over time the hard, seemingly intractable problem of the reality/unreality of sense experience melts away. Our language evolves, our science and technology advances, and that nonsense question dissolves into many other answerable questions. Eventually our new language/science/technology provides the answer and a new nonsense question is posed.
Over and over again that cycle goes. Unlike Wittgenstein I see great value in the nonsensical. I believe that humankind’s ability to ask questions, to think, to speak outside the bounds of sense is one of the key drivers of our continuing mental evolution. When nonsense ends so does the evolution of consciousness itself. When we can answer every question precisely, say about everything that it is true or false, right or wrong, define all terms, then we will have become like a God.
Until then keep asking the hard questions and hooray for nonsense!