Monday, October 20, 2014

Most Philosophers Have Nothing Interesting to Say About The Brain


If you want to understand the brain, look to neuroscience. Most philosophers (unless they have some decent neuroscience training*) have simply nothing of interest to say. The reason why is that (a) their speculations were not tied to any physical models and (b) their claims were often so vague or incoherent they could not be verified and (c) when the claims were more precise, there was rarely an effort to prove or disprove through experimentation.

Instead, philosophers gave us time-wasters like the "Chinese room argument" (still taken seriously by some very smart people, which I find astonishing) and the silly and overblown early anti-AI claims of Hubert Dreyfus (who actually got awards for his work).

Of course, it's going to be really hard to understand how the brain works. That's because the immense complications of the brain did not arise through intelligent design -- which would have given us nice discrete subsystems that interact in controlled and efficient ways -- but rather through the rather higgledy-piggledy bricolage of billions of years of evolution.

Nevertheless, we're making some small progress in understanding the brain and the mind and the mind-body problem and perception and memory and awareness and "understanding" and consciousness and free will, and other conundrums that have baffled philosophers for thousands of years. For example, read Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis. The tools philosophers used -- until recently -- were simply too puny to get anything reasonable done.

When you read a philosopher on the brain or the mind, look for the warning signs. Here's one: do they treat things like "consciousness" and "understanding" as a binary property -- that something either has or doesn't have? Or do they explicitly recognize that these could lie on a continuous (or at least variable) spectrum? If the former, beware.

If reading Crick is too much work, you can also show up today, at the University of Waterloo, to hear my colleague Jeff Orchard speak on "Computing Between Your Ears".

* For philosophers who really do have something to say, look at, for example, the Churchlands.

11 comments:

Jeff Orchard said...

Thanks for the plug, Jeff.

lukebarnes said...

Go on ... indulge yourself. Write a blog post titled "Exactly what's wrong with the Chinese room argument." I'd love to read it.

MNb said...

The funny thing is that this also applies to the free will debate. We simply should wait for neuroscience formulating a satisfying model and then check if there is still room for it with a meaningful definition.
Of course we can bet and I bet there will be room left, but I am quick to admit that I tend to lose such bets.

Pseudonym said...

Surely it's the job of the modern philosopher to use this information to address questions like what should constitute "responsibility" in a legal context.

(That, and to come up with new fields of human endeavour which will eventually graduate into science, engineering, or other disciplines.)

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Well, to start with, Luke, philosophers don't have any good, precise definitions of the terms used in Searle's Chinese room, such as "understanding", "intentionality", "meaning", "consciousness", and "mind". We are supposed to be content with our folk understanding of these terms, while at the same time manipulating them as if they were formally defined the way terms are defined in physics and mathematics.

Without such definitions, no wonder they're mired in confusion.

Dennett's takedown seems pretty devastating and conclusive to me.

geoffrobinson said...

And yet someone seems to think they are writing a post and is interacting with the comments. Can't shake the illusion, can you?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Hi, Geoff!

What "illusion" are you speaking of precisely? If you look at my post, the word "illusion" is not used?

Maybe you should read what I said, and not what Michael Egnor thinks I said. He's not very good at understanding things, I find.

MSEE said...

Hi Jeffrey:

I have a rule for my own posts to not make them personal for the sake of gentlemanly debate style.

But I feel like bending the rule just a teensy bit with a scenario. Suppose someone asked: "Jeffrey is there a love in your life?" assuming you maybe have the right definition to answer. Or maybe even "Dad you know I love you right?"

Would you come back with "sorry but without a definition of that word, I find myself mired in confusion right now."

Jeffrey Shallit said...

MSEE: Surely there is a difference between everyday conversations and the kind of logical and rigorous reasoning philosophers are said to engage in.

John Davison said...

Just thought I would throw in that neither creationism nor an atheistic understanding of evolution have made much sense to me. The issue is whether, at the big Bang, and the gradual evolution of material life that followed, there was conscious intelligence involved or not. Scientists seem as prone as religionists to take hard stances on this which are not based on anything more than personal prejudice.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

On the contrary, the lack of belief in "conscious intelligence" involved in evolution is based entirely on lack of evidence, not prejudice. We know many mechanisms by which evolution proceeds and there is no evidence at all that these mechanisms are insufficient.