Neuroscience and Philosophy:  Brain, Mind, & Language by Bennett, Dennett, Hacker, and Searle

I was really excited about this book.  The realm of cognitive neuroscience, which I’ve been long interested in, attempts to pin together psychological concepts and functions with neural anatomy.  However, the entire field of study is criticized by some philosophers as being fundamentally in error.  That it has made a logical fallacy in ascribing these functions to the brain and much of the current working being done is nonsense (not meaning poorly done, but literally not making sense).

Bennett and Hacker lead the anti cognitive neuroscience stance.  The crux of their argument is that the definitions of psychological concepts cannot be directly extended to the brain, that the semantic labels created for mental processes cannot translate to the neuronal scale.  An individual person thinks, but only a brain cannot think.  An individual person guesses, but only a brain cannot guess.  These sorts of arguments.  There is one inspired passage I very much enjoyed:

So, it is true that psychologists…have extended the concepts of belief, desire, and motive in order to speak of unconscious beliefs, desires, and motives.  When these concepts undergo such analogical extension, something new stands in need of explanation.  The newly extended expressions no longer admit of the same combinatorial possibilities as before.  They have a different, importantly related, meaning, and one which requires explanation.

Very interesting insight.  Simple, but it’s powerful to be spelt out so clearly:  that when we scale down psychological concepts to the cellular scale, a new level of analysis is needed.  But here’s the kicker:

The relationship between an unconscious belief, for example, is not akin to the relationship between a visible chair and an occluded chair—it is not “just like a conscious belief only unconscious,” but more like the relationship between sqrt(1) and sqrt(-1).

This is a wonderful analogy, demonstrating the oversimplification of language and the complexity of reality.  Simply put, he states that constructions of consciousness cannot be directly translated to the unconscious, because though similar in phrasing, they are dissimilar in existence.  Another great quote:

…the correlation between [neuronal] firing and features of the perceptional field is not a conventional but a causal one.

Hacker writes this to mean that the act of seeing, for example, isn’t related to neurons in the visual cortex (and the rest of the pathway) firing, but seeing is our visual neurons firing.

The imprecision of the language used to describe neuroscience, in combination with “neuronal maps” that aren’t truly maps, paints neuroscience in an awkward light.  I thought that Bennet and Hacker had an interesting argument. Until Dennett and Searle essentially tell him to just shut up.

They don’t really defend against the criticism, but reframe it in the context of broader nonscientific investigation to say that “yes, we are a little loose with our language and borrow concepts, but it is a productive and effective paradigm, and while we use these foreign concepts now, they are used in a metaphorical sense, and we continuously break down these abstract psychological concepts into the discrete and quantifiable, ever reducing any homonculi and misattribution” (my paraphrasing).

It’s not so much a refutation of the argument, more rather a refutation that the argument matters.  And by the end, I was inclined to agree.  It is unproductively nitpicky to limit the language of neuroscience to action potentials and synapses.  Metaphorical language is employed to effectively describe the overall processes of the brain.  And while perfect precision of the language is a helpful reminder of just how vast and complex the brain’s functioning is, it’s not something that is conducive to discussion and comprehension.


One thought on “Neuroscience and Philosophy:  Brain, Mind, & Language by Bennett, Dennett, Hacker, and Searle

  1. Pingback: part 2: noticing that language is not perception | power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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