Monday, November 22, 2010

Yet Another Reason to Doubt the Relevance of Philosophy

Read this Globe and Mail article about the philosophy of mind.

If philosophers think the view that "The brain is not an organ of consciousness. … The brain has no cognitive powers at all" deserves anything more than a good horselaugh, this simply shows how irrelevant philosophy has become.

Our future understanding of cognition will come from neuroscience, not from Wittgenstein.

It's fun to read the comments, which are almost entirely negative.


Valhar2000 said...

Philosophy, much like religion, has been in constant and steady retreat in the face of the advance of science: time and time again, things that were "obviously" beyond the ken of the scientist, and therefore the proper province of the priest or the philosopher, have eventually surrendered to scientific inquiry.

Given this, I am not willing to bet anything on the ability philosophers to maintain their exclusivity in their current provinces.

Alexander Kruel said...

"Falsifiability, particularly testability, is an important concept in science and the philosophy of science. The concept was made popular by Karl Popper in his philosophical analysis of the scientific method." Falsifiability, Wikpedia

"There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination." — Daniel Dennett

"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." — Wittgenstein

One of the many functions of philosophy is to identify what questions one should ask and how to think.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


The issue for me is when philosophers intrude on science and make flat-out ridiculous scientific claims - such as what Hacker is quoted as saying. And still remain "respected" despite such nonsense.

Long ago, when I was a graduate student, I went to a dinner with a philosophy professor who was making similar claims about the brain. When I said, oh, so you think that someone thinks differently if their finger is cut off, he said, yes. I can only regard such claims as absurd. It's like saying that a computer is fundamentally different if you give it inputs on cards instead of a keyboard.

Alexander Kruel said...

@Jeffrey Shallit

I don't bother reading bad philosophy. The same can be found in science, just take a look at the recent study claiming that precognition is real. Many philosophers would just shake their heads about such blatant misuse of probability theory.

I'm neither philosopher nor a scientist. I'm often shocked at how derogatory scientist think about philosophy. The strength and value of philosophy lies in its freedom to pursue anything and fail. Who’s going to trace the unknown unknowns if not the philosophers?

Another reason why people study philosophy is to figure out how other people arrived at their wrong conclusions, what has changed so that we today know better and what this tells us about possible shortcomings of contemporary ideas. Learning from the failure of history and about our cultural evolution and the associated conceptual revolutions are some of the reasons to read what you might perceive as simply outdated.

Philosophy shows you that there is more to most things than meets the eye, but more often than not much less than you think. It shows you that even smart people can be completely wrong but that most people are not even wrong.

Take for example the fundamental premises of many researchers that a universal computing device can simulate every physical process and that we therefore should be able to reverse engineer the human brain as it is fundamentally computable. That is, intelligence and consciousness are substrate-neutral. If you accept the Church–Turing thesis that everything computable is computable by a Turing machine then yes. But is it really that simple? If you rather adhere to the stronger Church–Turing–Deutsch principle then the ultimate computational substrate might be one incorporating non-classical physics, e.g. a quantum computer. But what if there is even more to it? I'm not saying there is, but there is more to even the most ridiculous claims in philosophy than meets the eye. It's not that simple. And so that scientist can do their job without bothering too much about the nature of their field and their tools, philosophers do it for them.

“The philosopher is free by virtue of his or her otherworldliness, by their capacity to fall into wells and appear silly.” – Socrates

By the way, this link gives a short overview about a related concept and its perception by different influential people:

Alexander Kruel said...

Here is a great example on how philosophy can help dissolving questions and clear up confusion:

"People commonly debate whether social and mental conditions are real diseases. This masquerades as a medical question, but its implications are mainly social and ethical. We use the concept of disease to decide who gets sympathy, who gets blame, and who gets treatment.

Instead of continuing the fruitless "disease" argument, we should address these questions directly. Taking a determinist consequentialist position allows us to do so more effectively. We should blame and stigmatize people for conditions where blame and stigma are the most useful methods for curing or preventing the condition, and we should allow patients to seek treatment whenever it is available and effective."

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Good example - and that question is even examined by philosophers at my university - e.g., "How scientists explain disease" by Thagard.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

By the way, a quantum computer doesn't accept a different class of languages than a conventional computer, although it can probably accept some more quickly. So whether computation is "classical" or "quantum" won't affect that issue.

One Brow said...


You might disagree, but I see mathematics as much more akin to philosophy than science in terms of how knowledge is generated. When done well, both are trying create good models of our reality from which we can draw interesting questions and-or support and refurte determinaitons. when done poorly, any manner of partisan or crank can pick any sort of assumpitons to draw the conclusions they desire, following the conventions of the form but with devious intent.

Unknown said...

I agree with XiXiDu, not all philosophy is bad. There are crackpots out there to be sure, but crackpots are present in every field, so that should not be sufficient grounds to dismiss the enterprise.

Neuroscience needs philosophy of mind. A research program has to begin with the right questions, and a bit of a priori armchair reasoning that is the domain of good philosophy can be useful to that end.

John Stockwell said...

Philosophy is its own discipline with
its own standards and issues.

There are many aspects of philosophy,
such as the notions of metaphysics
which are useful.

I would say that the article actually
has some merit.

First of all, what exactly is "consciousness"? It seems to me that it is a sort of secularized notion of "soul". Which, bluntly put is the notion that animals and humans have "little men" on the inside of them working their bodies like a puppet master working a puppeteer.

What do we mean by 'cognitive powers" or cognition?

What we really want to know is how the brain works, and how it is that organisms interact with the world in
a way that implies that we have a model of the world in our heads in some fashion.

Alex said...

"One of the many functions of philosophy is to identify what questions one should ask and how to think. "

Oh. In my ignorance, I just referred to that as "curiosity".

John Pieret said...

I think Dan Dennett might be a bit chuffed at the notion he is irrelevant. As long as science relies on logic that isn't as simple as "If A = B, then B = A," philosophy will be relevant to science. Picking out an apparently bad example of philosophy (it's a Globe and Mail article, after all, and who knows how well whatever Hacker was trying to say was represented?) isn't going to change that.

Anonymous said...

I had exactly the same opinion of philosophy when I minored in it twenty years ago. It was fun, the exploration was engaging, but far too many subjects and questions (concsiousness, mind and body chief among them) were explored without the data that was so obviously needed.

Logic, and to a lesser extent ethics, are still areas where philosophy is very relevant, but logic is so far from the general conception of philosophy that it probably shouldn't count.

Eamon Knight said...

John: I think you have the definition of "chuffed" backwards (or else I totally don't get what you're saying). And the Mop & Pail used to be a much better paper...a long time ago.

Re philosophy: The one I read the most (our mutual friend, the albino gorilla from Down Under) persuades me that philosophy is worth doing -- but then his work is informed by actual science. They key seems to be to start by understanding what is actually going on in the real world, rather than trying to determine reality by playing word games, or going like, "Oh wow, a qualium! Far out!".

Miranda said...

"If philosophers think the view that "The brain is not an organ of consciousness. … The brain has no cognitive powers at all" deserves anything more than a good horselaugh, this simply shows how irrelevant philosophy has become."

Why didn't you write, "this simply shows how irrelevant THEIR philosophy has become."?

cody said...

Concerning any suggestion of non-physical phenomena playing a role in consciousness I think it's best to quote A.C. Grayling, "if you want to investigate the relationship of consciousness to matter, and in particular the brain, just take a heavy blunt instrument and bash yourself over the head and see which bits of thinking you can no longer do."

Miranda said...

Cody, all Grayling would be able to prove with that head-bashing is that there's a relationship of consciousness to matter, as his quote says. He would not be able to demonstrate that non-physical phenomena plays no role in consciousness.
In other words, I don't think it's best to quote Grayling.

cody said...

Of course you're right Miranda, but you do realize that no experiment has (or even can!) "demonstrate that non-physical phenomena plays no role" in anything, right?

Aren't "non-physical phenomena" outside the realm of physical investigation by definition? Which begs the question, how does one establish the existence of that which is defined as having no physical presence?

Arguing that consciousness can't be purely physical—because we don't or can't understand it, or it seems too mysterious or complicated—expresses wishful thinking, a lack of knowledge concerning our biology, computer science and evolution, and a misunderstanding of how science works.

Which is the same under appreciated but glaring problem with both the ID/creationist notion of irreducible complexity and the fine-tuning argument! In every case the claim implicitly asserts that science already knows all it will ever know about the phenomena in question!

I might not know how a car works, but that doesn't put "an un-probe-able realm" on equal footing as "a factory." Or Zeus & Maxwell's equations.

Anonymous said...

Professor Shallit, I think you're being a bit unfair in the scope of your criticism. The guy quoted in the article is indeed ridiculous, but there are many philosophers I find quite insightful: Bertrand Russell, David Hume, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Peter Singer, Judith Jarvis Thomson, A. J. Ayer, and many others.

Thoughts said...

I would go further and say that it will be a step forward in our physical understanding of the world that will explain mind. (See New Empiricism). Metaphysics is just cosmology masquerading under another name.

Miranda said...

"Of course you're right Miranda, but you do realize that no experiment has (or even can!) "demonstrate that non-physical phenomena plays no role" in anything, right?"

And of course, this time you're right, too, Cody.

Unknown said...

Cody, all Grayling would be able to prove with that head-bashing is that there's a relationship of consciousness to matter, as his quote says. He would not be able to demonstrate that non-physical phenomena plays no role in consciousness.

Yes he can. Which role or roles do non-physical phenomena play in consciousness? Memory? Learning? Emotion? "Qualia?" And which, if any of these (or any other "role" you care to name), will survive in whole or part with physical brain damage? And if the answer is none, then what does it mean to say non-physical phenomena play a "role" if you are just going to abuse the word "role" to the point that it essentially means its opposite?

Richard Wein said...

Jeff, I think the majority of philosophy is misguided, and much is outright lousy. But there is some good philosophy around too. You just have to be very selective. Unlike science, good philosophy rarely commands the support of a consensus of philosophers. So you can't just refer to the consensus view. You have to do the hard work of sorting the wheat from the chaff for yourself.

Some philosophers do recognise the contiguity of science and philosophy, taking what's come to be known as a "naturalized" approach to philosophy which attempts to be more like science. Others, however, persist in the misguided view that philosophy is separate from and even above science, which leads to the mumbo jumbo about "scientism" that we so often see.

"Our future understanding of cognition will come from neuroscience, not from Wittgenstein."

It depends on just what you mean by "cognition". Most of what philosophers are concerned with revolves around the phenomenon of human language. And I don't think neuroscience on its own will be able to explain why we utter one sentence rather than another. That's a higher level phenomenon that requires a higher level explanation, in which the concept of meaning plays a central role. Explaining the meanings of words at the level of neuroscience would be analogous to explaining the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo at the molecular level. I'm not saying that scientists (including neuroscientists) can't analyse the meaning of human language. But when they do they'll be doing work which is much more like what good philosophers currently do.

Regarding consciousness, I suggest that the main problem is not to explain what causes it, but to understand what the word means. The rest of empirical enquiry is concerned with explaining observed phenomena. But consciousness is not an observed phenomenon. It is (in some sense) observation itself.

I do think that any answer to the problem of consciousness will involve the kind of thinking that's more familiar to (some) philosophers than to scientists. But it will need to be scientifically informed too. I think Dennett's work on the subject is along the right lines.

ADHR said...

I think the G&M misrepresented Hacker fairly badly. It's hard to get a grip on what he's trying to say in just a few paragraphs, though -- he writes tomes, not books. Given his strong inspiration by Wittgenstein, he (more or less) holds that a number of problems facing philosophy, science, etc. are pseudoproblems caused by confusions of language. So, the critique of neuroscience is driven in part by a concern that neuroscientists are wasting their time, trying to solve problems that admit of no real solution.

Chalmers is given very short shrift. I don't think the author really understood what he's talking about -- which is unfortunate, as The Conscious Mind is interesting. It's probably best taken as a challenge -- Chalmers would be happy to concede the science can solve the hard problem, I think, but he just can't see how it's possible. (And then someone like Dennett comes along and calls the hard problem a pseudoproblem.)

Dennett comes through a little clearer at the end there, although it's still pretty garbled. His views on consciousness are more complex than presented, but he does view consciousness as a thoroughly biological phenomenon, explainable in biological terms. (Whether his particular way of pulling that off works is a separate question.)

Most cutting-edge philosophy of mind is scientifically-informed. But there is a strong thread of trying to figure out which questions make any sense for scientists to even try to investigate. As has been pointed out already in this thread (and Kant and Sellars showed pretty conclusively, IMHO), you can't do empirical work without some a priori background. The interesting philosophical point, then, is what a priori background we should use, and why.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


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Anonymous said...

I'll start by saying that I am not a real philosopher - indeed, I often criticize philosophy. I'm a mathematician.

I'm not impressed by that Globe and Mail article. It mangles what David Chalmers says, so the chances are that it also mangles what Peter Hacker says.

I don't know what Hacker intended, but I don't see the problems you do in what he is quoted as saying. There's a current fad that says that the brain is the thinking organ, the brain is a computer, the brain generates consciousness. I take Hacker as expressing skepticism about that modern reductionist fad. Skepticism is basic to science, so scientists should welcome skeptics.

Anonymous said...

Hacker is a Wittgenstein acolyte who probably knows nothing and cares less about science. Chalmers has made a career being a contrarian about consciousness against the naturalistic philosophical mainstream. Neither represents "philosophy" in any general sense. I would recommend Dennett's "Sweet Dreams" as a book that better represents where most philosophers are on the subject of consciousness.