Wednesday, April 27, 2011

More Muddled Thinking about the Brain

If you can stand it, read this article by Raymond Tallis, entitled "What Neuroscience Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves".

There are a lot of confident assertions, all presented without any real evidence:

  • "It is unlikely that the gap between neuroscientific stories of human behavior and the standard humanistic or common-sense narratives will be closed"

  • "But there is nothing in the activity of the visual cortex, consisting of nerve impulses that are no more than material events in a material object, which could make that activity be about the things that you see."

  • "neural activity is not about anything and so can be neither correct nor mistaken"

  • "A consistent materialism should not allow for the possibility of memory, of the sense of the past"


And Tallis seems to have no understanding of what "information" is.

But most of the article seems to be gobbledygook. If Tallis were to try to come up with a rigorous definition of words like "about", he might make some progress. By his argument, it makes no sense to count tree rings to determine a tree's age, since tree rings are not "about" the age of the tree.

As Arthur C. Clarke noted, "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong."

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

So how old was Arthur C. Clarke when he made that note? :-)

KeithB said...

This guy definitely needs to read some Oliver Sacks. We learn more about the brain and consciousness when things go wrong!

Anonymous said...

Shallit,

You've written many stupid posts, but this takes the cake.

Tallis' essay is a thoughtful discussion of intentionality and other very real issues in the mind-body problem. These issues go back to Aristotle, have been the subject of countless books and articles, and are the subject of hot debate to this day. Any honest reader of this literature would admit that those who reject strong materialism have the better part of this debate.

You show no evidence of having the slightest clue about what Tallis is talking about. Stick to computer science; you don't know much about anything else, and you're too uninformed even to know that you're embarrassing yourself.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Thanks, Anonymous! Your devastating refutation of "strong materialism" has convinced me! Especially impressive is your long list of evidence in favor of your view.

Eohippus said...

C'mon Anonymous you've got Jeffrey on the ropes now!

Anonymous said...

Shallit,

Tallis provides evidence for the inadequacy of strong materialism to explain the mind. You just don't understand what he's talking about, because you're intellectually unserious about the issue.

Now, there's nothing wrong about not understanding an issue such as this-- it's complex-- but idiotically denigrating the arguments of people who do take the issue seriously makes you look like a fool, which is position you find yourself in quite often.

You have presented no rational arguments in favor of the adequacy of strong materialism to explain the mind.

How about this, Shallit: explain intentionality by merely invoking material and efficient causes. Omit formal and final causes (strong materialism denies them).

Write a blog post about your 'explanation' of intentionality. Let's see what insight you can offer that justifies your mockery of Tallis' essay.

My guess is that you don't have the balls or the smarts.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous:

Try reading Minsky's Society of Mind or Dennett, and come back when you've understood them.

Why do you think a failure to have a complete explanation for a phenomenon means we have to surrender to supernaturalism, dualism, or other isms for which there is no evidence?

Anonymous said...

You don't lack a complete explanation of intentionality, subjectivity, memory, etc. You lack any explanation.

My challenge stands. Discuss each of these issues in detail on your blog. Explain the mind materialistically as best you can. Try to refute Tallis, instead of just mocking him. When you've laid out your explanations, I'll reply to them.

Let's see what you've got.

AL said...

Tallis provides evidence for the inadequacy of strong materialism to explain the mind. You just don't understand what he's talking about, because you're intellectually unserious about the issue.

Actually, Tallis does nothing of the sort. Most of his arguments are your standard category errors and reification fallacies that are all too common from those who dismiss materialism (e.g. neurons aren't about anything and therefore can't be used to explain "aboutness"). The few points he does have are ones that any materialist would readily cede (e.g. we don't currently have an explanation), but don't actually entail the conclusion that it is impossible for materialism to account for the mind. Yes, we don't currently have a full and complete materialistic explanation for the mind, but it does not follow that it is impossible for such an explanation to exist. Employing that reasoning, we don't currently have a full and complete NON-materialistic explanation for mind either, but I don't see the dualists championing nihilism.

I've yet to hear a coherent definition of "non-material" that does not fail to distinguish non-material things from non-existing things, and for this reason alone, dualism is a non-starter, and not a default explanation we should all resort to if we can't figure out the material explanation.

AL said...

How about this, Shallit: explain intentionality by merely invoking material and efficient causes. Omit formal and final causes (strong materialism denies them).

Why would materialists have to deny formal and final causes? I mean aside from the trivial fact that most of us wouldn't let our science, let alone our philosophy, be framed in this sort of dated Aristotilean "four causes" fashion. A materialist can accept both formal and final causes without agreeing with the non-materialist (who champions a concept he cannot define) that such things are the result of non-material processes.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous:

I guess you didn't see the part about Minsky and Dennett. Come back after you've read them.

Joshua said...

One also has paragraphs like

This claim refers to fully developed intentionality and not the kind of putative proto-intentionality that may be ascribed to non-human sentient creatures. Intentionality is utterly mysterious from a material standpoint. This is apparent first because intentionality points in the direction opposite to that of causality: the causal chain has a directionality in space-time pointing from the light wave bouncing off the object to the light wave hitting your visual cortex, whereas your perception of the object refers or points from you back to the object. The referential “pointing back” or “bounce back” is not “feedback” or reverse causation, since the causal arrow is located in physical space and time, whereas the intentional arrow is located in a field of concepts and awareness, a field which is not independent of but stands aside from physical space and time.

which is just silly. I'd have to wonder if this invididual posits the same problems of intentionality with robots that are designed to learn to navigate environments and then accomplish specific tasks, or very weak AI that learn to play computer games. I suspect that in those cases, the author would see straight off why this apparent backwards arrow isn't mysterious at all.

The problem here seems to be twofold: First, the author is thinking of minds almost as irreducible ontological units with "mind" as an almost Platonic term. Second, this term only applies to really smart things.

jeffrey said...

Hey, first anonymous, your view is very interesting. I have read Tallis, Dennett, and Minsky and I will defend Dennett contra Tallis at length although I think Dennett's position is somewhat problematic. I will do it politely without ridiculing Tallis or other anti-materialists. When we reach a conclusion we can present it here but for a serious fair discussion let's do it in email. Awaiting your reply.

jeffrey said...

A few questions (for AL and anonymous). Each of you talk about explanations. What do you mean by "explanation". Is this a primitive term or can it be reduced to other terms? It seems like it is an intentional term, so I assume it can be reduced to non-intentional terms as a materialist would require.

AL: you have "yet to hear a coherent definition of "non-material" that does not fail to distinguish non-material things from non-existing things, and for this reason alone, dualism is a non-starter".

Could you please provide us with references to some of the best attempts to define "non-material" so we can check them to see if they really are incoherent? It seems that numbers are fairly good examples of non-material, but since the issue here is mentality, perhaps he could limit the incoherent definitions to "mental", Also, could you provide definitions of "material" that are pretty well agreed upon, given that "material" is also a fairly undefined term in this discussion? (Are the discussants aware of, I wonder, Barbara Montero's and similar work in this area?)

Anonymous: you ask us to explain intentionality without final cause (whatever that is -- can you define it?)
And what is wrong with this explanation:
evolution through natural selection?

A bit more detail. Big bang, stars,
planets, primordial soup, bigger
molecules, replicators, replicators that
do better via protective coating and
metabolism (call this life), life that
develops very rudimentary perception-action cycles (like moving along a light gradient that correlates with nutrition richer locations), the proto-representation that works for this stage splits into two, and each side can be now influenced by other possible desirable actions that use the perception or other
perception that can helpfully produce
action. And on from there with plausible
steps all along the way until something
that can do anything we can do.

I'd suggest, instead of Dennnet, Ruth
Millikan, such as her first major work,
Language, Thought, and Other Biological
Categories.

(I ended with her idea of "intentional
icons" splitting into "imperative" and
"indicative" intentional icons above).

Michael Baldwin said...

Prof Shallit, whilst it is true that contemporary neuroscience has shown substance dualism to be undoubtedly false, your reductive physicalist account is entirely unwarranted by the evidence.
I currently hold tentatively to a property dualistic account of the mind, though I am open to non-reductive physicalism. Indeed, the majority view in the philosophy of mind is clearly non-reductive physicalism. I think it would be unwise of you to characterise anyone who does not buy your reductionistic account of the mind as ridiculous, it is far more rational than the faith you have in ultra-physicalism.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Michael:

Do you agree with Tallis that "neural activity is not about anything and so can be neither correct nor mistaken" or that materialism cannot allow for "the possiblity of memory"?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I note that Michael and Anonymous never bothered to respond.