Saturday, March 28, 2009

Science, Philosophy, And The Mind

From Andrew Sullivan:
Philosopher Alva Noe:
Imagine that we find the Holy Grail of neurobiology, the patterns of neural activation that correlate perfectly with different events in our mental lives. We would still never understand or make sense of why those correlations exist. There is no intrinsic relationship between the experience and the neural substrates of the experience. We always need to look at what factors bring the two together. The environment, other people, our needs and desires -- all these things exist outside the brain and have to be seen as essential parts of our selves and consciousness. So we aren't just our brains, we're not locked inside our craniums; we extend beyond our skulls, beyond our skin, into the world we occupy.

This doesn't strike me as even mildly profound. In fact, it seems to be nothing but pointless hand-waving.

Of course one must take the stimuli we get from the outside world into account when delivering a full account of the physical processes that underlie consciousness. And so what? That doesn't mean we can't make sense of how our minds work. Why would it? Such an observation is no refutation of even the most hardcore physicalist reductionism, just a useful reminder that such a project involves more matter than what is contained within any individual human skull. At the risk of being excessively flippant: Duh.

Armed with nothing better than this kind of argument, I have difficulty imagining how much of the traditional philosophy of mind won't come crashing down as empirical science continues to expand its explanatory power regarding the functionality of the human brain/mind.


smoeller said...

I think you misunderstand Noe's project. As I understand it, he isn't claiming that consciousness is ineffable, mysterious, or incapable of explanation by scientific method. Rather, he's claiming that a complete account of the relevant neurological phenomena is a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding conscious experience. Insufficient, because one's conscious experience is not just the product of discrete events in the brain. It is, instead, the end product of a complex set of conditions that includes neurological phenomena, states in the rest of the body, various facts about the world external to the body, and the interaction of all these things. Mapping the brain's architecture and programming is the beginning, not the end, of a rigorous explanation of the process (on a strict account of scientific explanation). Almost anyone of any substance would agree with all of that, though perhaps only after vigorous cross-examination. (And I'd add that it's perfectly reasonable to think we'll reverse-engineer the architecture of the brain and create really impressive artificial intelligence, complete with artificial emotions, long before we have a rigorous account of why and how the neural architecture's interacting with the perceiver's body and the external world generates a particular conscious experience.) I gather that Noe's controversial additions are (1) the metaphysical claim that the conscious experience just is the interaction, and not the neurological phenomena that are necessary conditions for the conscious state's occurring, and (2) that the apparent unwillingness of neuroscientists and (most) philosophers of mind to accept the former is just a byproduct of reductionistic materialists' bizarre obsession with replacing the Cartesian homunculus with a neurological one. I think both claims are probably right. There's no need to identify the conscious experience with a collection of events that occur only within the body. And, better still, a kitchen sink metaphysics of consciousness is the best way to answer the Andrew Sullivans of the world, who are liable to say things like, "But you can't seriously tell me that the electric chill of a lover's touch, or the peaceful repose of a brisk spring morning, are parts of the brain, can you?" (The Andrew Sullvans are prone to hackneyed rhetorical excess.) Of course they aren't; but that proposition's being true is proof of very, very little. That said, I should note that think this entire discussion silly. Donald Davidson's anomalous monism didn't go nearly far enough. On any reasonable ontology, and any sensible account of causation, arguing about whether vulgar, physicalist reductionism is true (a hobby horse of yours) literally makes no sense because there's no good reason to categorize an event (or a quark, or what have you, ontology-wise) as "mental" or "physical" in the abstract. Talk of whether it does trades on the disconnect between folk accounts of conscious experience (which probably are best explained by the fact of an event's having neurological events as necessary conditions) and a rigorous ontology. One could, of course, point to the quarks and observe that they aren't soul-quarks, or something like that, but that would be pointless hand-waving. Defining a quark, or an event involving quarks, by its essential physicality is meaningless in a universe where literally everything that exists shares that property. Point being: That Andrew Sullivan would elide all this is to be expected. But I really do think these issues, and Mr. Noe, deserve fairer treatment.

smoeller said...

That should read: "That said, I should note that I think this entire discussion silly." Haste and regret are unfortunate cousins.

Anonymous said...

Also, this:

Not a big House fan I take it?