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 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

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Research scientist (Ph.D. micro/mol biology), Thought middle manager, Everyday junglist, Selecta (Ret.), Boulderer, Cat lover, Fish hater

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