It has been almost exactly 15 years since Bennet and Hacker published their seminal work “Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience.” In that modern classic they first described the mereological fallacy and discussed its implications for neuroscience (circa 2003). This logical position grows naturally out of the philosophical tradition of Wittgenstein and, in my view, represents the most coherent and comprehensive deconstruction of the arguments of cognitive neuroscience ever published. In the book they methodically, through example after example, exposed and described in great detail the logical contradictions at the core of some of the most mainstream. At a high level and greatly simplified, the mereological fallacy shows the logical contradictions that arise (are inherent in) when assigning states of consciousness to a part of a being rather than to its whole. Specifically they demonstrated that attempting to locate consciousness in parts of the brain is doomed to failure. Logic dictates that a brain, while necessary to the condition of consciousness, is not alone sufficient to be IN a state of consciousness. The impact of that book on my own beliefs was seismic and the field was thrown into an uproar. As you might imagine having one’s entire life work exposed as based on logical contradictions did not sit well with many. (Interesting but I hadn’t thought about the parallels with the field of ‘machine learning’ , another logical contradiction, until just now. I need to come up with a name for this particular fallacy of modern computer science)
It seems that at least some of today’s neuroscientists have failed to learn the lessons B&H taught. Contrary to what Dr. Barrett might claim in her book your brain is not capable of “adding stuff from the full photograph into its vast array of prior experiences….” , only a human being with a (mostly) fully functional brain and nervous system is. Your brain also does not have a “vast array of prior experiences” or actually any prior experiences, or any experiences at all, you do. Only a living being (human being in this case) with a (mostly) functioning brain and nervous system is capable of having experiences. Moreover it is not the neurons in your visual cortex that link the blobs into shapes that aren’t actually there, you do. Only a human being (and perhaps some intelligent non human animals or even some insects) with a (mostly) functioning brain and nervous system is capable of perceiving that linked together blobs are actually recognizable shapes. While functioning neurons in your visual cortex are a requirement for you to be able to do this, the neurons cannot do it without your (the full human being you) participation in the process. Incidentally, the mereological fallacy provides some of the strongest support for my belief in an absolute requirement for embodiment for any future “artificial intelligence”, though that is a complicated and difficult argument and not for this post. It also provides an interesting window for discussing some thorny and, theoretically at least, plausible modern medical procedures such as full human head transplantation, an issue I have written about previously.
Dr. Barrett is not alone in her crimes against logic in neuroscience. If you read any of the technical or popular literature in the field you will find that those two examples are only the tip of iceberg when it comes to claims about what the brain is supposedly able to do. The brain can taste, eat, dream, sleep, imagine, etc. In fact, given how impressively capable our brains reportedly are it is a wonder we (human beings) are needed at all.
I have not read Dr. Barret’s book so I cannot say how damaging her apparently rampant commission of logical fallacies is to her arguments, but I will say I was and continue to be surprised by the high amount of attention this book has received. Mostly, because this idea of the brain as “constructor” or
“simulator ‘ of our reality has been around in philosophy since before philosophers even new what a brain was, and in modern times has been a position of many philosophers and neuroscientists as well. My point here is not to respond to Dr. Barrett’s position in the book and, not having read it, I have no idea how strong or weak her arguments are to support it. Supposing that her position is the correct one, the one thing I can say for certain is that it is not our brains that are ‘simulators’ of our reality, it is ourselves.
Another interesting discussion would be the impact of the correctness of this theory on the Simulation hypothesis. If we are already simulated beings in a simulated reality would it make any difference that we are also ‘simulators’ of the simulation itself. For instance at first blush it seems to weaken the probability of SH1 for it would mean the Simulators ‘programmed’ the simulation in such a way as to make ourselves also do exactly what they have already done, ‘simulate reality for us’. That seems a very odd thing to do. Perhaps it is a way for the simulators to hide the reality of the simulation from us? Since all of our experiences are simulated internally we will never’see’ the reality of the simulation for what it is. Interesting indeed. Incidentally that is another great example of of the core weakness of SH1, the too good to be true problem. Need a reason why your particular theory of neuroscience is a correct, I guarantee I can find support in some version of SH1. The only limits are those of the imagination.