Mind Neuroscience

Mind: Put “neuro” in front of an abstract discipline and poof! – it becomes nonsense

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Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

In a recent review of Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, by MD neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, British journalist Robert McLuhan quotes Tallis on the current fad for identifying changes in brain function that are associated with thoughts and feelings as the explanation for those feelings.

There are repeated references to new disciplines with the prefix ‘neuro-‘ or ‘evolutionary’: neuro-jurisprudence, evolutionary economics, evolutionary aesthetics, neuro-theology, neuro-architecture, neuro-archeology and so on. Even philsophers – who should know better, being trained, one hopes, in scepticism – have entered the field with the discipline of ‘X-phi’, or experimental philosophy. Starry-eyed sages, for example, have invented ‘neuro-ethics’, in which ethical principles are examined by using brain scans to determine people’s intuitions when they are asked to deliberate on the classical dilemmas.

It is somewhat as if blushing was thought to be the cause of embarrassment. Yet … that is exactly what many such researchers believe: You feel embarrassed because you blushed, which is a purely physiological reaction. Because natural selection created a tendency to “attribute,” you experience attributing the blush to the fact that you have just spilled your coffee onto the birthday cake on display. There is no mind involved, except as a serious of illusions generated by neurons.

McLuhan puts it like this,

Cognitive psychologists delight in demonstrating how our decisions are often influenced by stimuli of which we are unaware: we act in response to concealed triggers, not for the reasons we believe we act. You may think you gave spare change to that beggar out of a moral sense of duty, but actually you did it because the nearby bakery was sending out a delicious smell of fresh bread, which stimulated feelings of generosity. Brain scans give powerful new authority to this line of reasoning. While the experience of having free will feels real, it’s actually an illusion.

(Paranormalia, July 06, 2011)

The mind and free will are the chief targets for deconstruction. Some think that’s because – if they exist – the new “neuros” theories could be rejection for failing tests of logic and evidence, and we could thus choose to reject them as the morally correct course.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

9 Replies to “Mind: Put “neuro” in front of an abstract discipline and poof! – it becomes nonsense

  1. 1
    Barb says:

    “While the experience of having free will feels real, it’s actually an illusion.”

    No. No, it’s not. And why would I give anything to a beggar when my ‘selfish genes’ only want what’s best for me?

    Seriously, evolutionists, make up your minds. You can’t have it both ways.

  2. 2
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Yet again someone misreads Dennett.

    *sigh*

    No free will is not an illusion. Tallis agrees, and so does Dennett.

    So why does Tallis think that Dennett is wrong? Dennett isn’t the one saying that free will is an illusion. That would be Libet or someone.

    Has anyone read Dennett on Libet?

    Why is it so hard to grasp the possiblity that to be a materialist (as Dennett is) does not require one to be a reductionist? And why, even if one thinks the two are incompatible, do people continually charge those of us who claim not to be reductionist – including people like Dennett who write long books about how reductionism is false – of being reductionist? And, bizarrely, of denying free will?

    It’s totally bizarre!

    An illusion is the perception that something is the case when it is not.

    Free will is not an illusion. We really can decide what to do next, after weighing up as many pros and cons as we care to. That’s what our brains are good at. It’s what all those clever little neural networks do.

    We really are pretty free (with a few limitations, like control of our reflexes, and what we do when we are asleep).

    What is more, we have are free to exercise volition – will.

    And we know a lot about how the brain accomplishes this.

    The trouble is that as soon as you suggest that the brain accomplishes it, for some reason people start arguing that that means you are not really free!

    Whose brain is it! Someone else’s or your own?

    [/rant]

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    Elizabeth Liddle:

    Why is it so hard to grasp the possibility that to be a materialist (as Dennett is) does not require one to be a reductionist?

    Because it does?

    What else is there? Emergence? What is that? How do you measure it? It follows some other laws than the laws of physicals and involves some other chemicals than the ones we are all familiar with?

    What’s the immaterial entity that you’re proposing to have arisen from matter in motion?

    So let’s start simple. Give us something which cannot be explained by physical laws. The existence of life perhaps?

    Did life “emerge” from the chemical soup?

    You’ve already told us you think there’s nothing mysterious about self-replicators. You even intend to program one. So no emergence needed there.

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    Elizabeth, what is emergence? Is it when non-physical things “emerge” from physical things?

  5. 5
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Mung, I think you’ve inverted my point, for some reason.

    I don’t think there is anything that does not arise from physical laws. I thought I’d made that clear.

    But organisations and systems have properties that are not the properties of their constituent physical parts.

    There is nothing mysterious about this. I’ve several times given the example of an ocean wave, which is the property of an interface. Is an interface “material” in your view? It’s instantiated in two materials – water and air, but the interface is neither. It is not water, it is not air, but the location where one stops and the other starts.

    Now, one word that people often use for such things (which are perfectly real, and perfectly explainable in terms of physics) is that the are “emergent” entities. The are dependent for their existence on things with mass, but they are not themselves material.

    Same with any pattern – I mentioned a snowflake the other day. The pattern is perfectly explainable in terms of physics, but the pattern itself is neither water molecules nor air molecules – it’s the arrangement that they take up under certain conditions.

    And in neither of these two cases can the phenomenon be “reduced” to molecules. If you “reduce” either an ocean wave or a snowflake to the materials that interface, and leave out the interface, then you have lost the phenomenon. In other words, the snowflake and the ocean wave have properties that are not those of the materials that interface to make them.

    Indeed, an ocean wave can be travelling in a different direction to either the air above or the water below.

    That is what I mean when I say that the idea that materialism is necessarily reductionist is false. If we reduce things to the properties of their parts we omit the properties of the things themselves. Our description fails, not because we have left any matter out but because we have left out the properties not of the matter, but of the pattern.

    And I’d say (to make a huge leap) that the properties of the self – of people, of me, go way beyond the properties of any of my constituent parts, whether it is my neurons, my molecules, my atoms, my hadrons, my leptons, my strings (or whatever).

    My neurons cannot decide to write this post, but I can. That does not mean that “I” did not arise from the firing patterns of my neurons (I did), but that the “I” that so arose has properties that extend far beyond them.

    In my more spiritual moments, I’d say that the universe itself has properties that go far beyond its constituent parts, and one of those properties, extraordinarily, is the property of being able to bring forth life, intelligence and love.

    And there’s my creator God 🙂

    I just don’t need faith to believe in it – it’s just there, staring me in the face.

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    Elizabeth Liddle:

    I’ve several times given the example of an ocean wave, which is the property of an interface.

    So you believe that a wave is something that only occurs at the interface between air and water?

    And this can’t be explained strictly through fluid dynamics? Physics and chemistry?

    Now, one word that people often use for such things (which are perfectly real, and perfectly explainable in terms of physics) is that the are “emergent” entities.

    So waves “emerge” because of the interface of air and water? Always? Say there’s an underground earthquake. That doesn’t cause waves?

    In what sense is a wave a “property” of the interface of water and air?

  7. 7
    Mung says:

    Elizabeth, in what sense is a wave a “property” of the interface of water and air?

  8. 8
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    I didn’t say that, did I? (I might have done, I guess, sometimes my typing fingers have a mind of their own…)

    What I recall saying, and what I meant to say, was that the interface has properties (wave properties) that are neither those of the water nor those of the air.

    It has amplitude, frequency and precession.

  9. 9
    Mung says:

    Elizabeth Liddle:

    It [a wave] has amplitude, frequency and precession.

    Are those are the properties of a wave, my dear? It’s the wave that is supposed to be the property.

    Mung: Elizabeth, in what sense is a wave a “property” of the interface of water and air?

    I didn’t say that, did I? (I might have done, I guess, sometimes my typing fingers have a mind of their own…)

    Here’s what you wrote. It was in this very thread (@5):

    But organisations and systems have properties that are not the properties of their constituent physical parts.

    There is nothing mysterious about this. I’ve several times given the example of an ocean wave, which is the property of an interface. Is an interface “material” in your view? It’s instantiated in two materials – water and air, but the interface is neither. It is not water, it is not air, but the location where one stops and the other starts.

    So you’ve said that there is an “interface” which is “instantiated” in two materials, water and air.

    The interface, which you say is instantiated in water and air, is neither water nor air. You say the “interface” is a location. The location where water stops and air starts (or vice versa).

    Frankly, I regard all of that as meaningless gibberish. Hand-waving. A typical tactic of yours. As Ilion says, many words little real content.

    But you can unpack it for us if you wish. But the fact remains, you said it.

    What I recall saying, and what I meant to say, was that the interface has properties (wave properties) that are neither those of the water nor those of the air.

    How do you expect us to communicate if you do not say what you mean (and mean what you say)?

    Shades of Alice in Wonderland.

    So the interface has the same properties that a wave has?

    So let me try to state all the issues I have here:

    1.) A wave has properties that neither air nor water has.

    2. A wave is what exists at the location where air starts and water stops (or where water starts and air starts).

    3.) A wave is not water, nor is a wave air.

    4.) A wave is immaterial.

    Now surely most or all of these sound absurd to you, and you most now object that you could never stated such absurdities, but how else do you explain what you said?

    Perhaps the following will assist you:

    http://www.engineering.uiowa.e.....sprop.html

    Now if you will stop saying silly things, I will stop pointing them out, and perhaps we can move on to have a meaningful conversation.

    But do do this you might have to resist the urge to just fire off a response consisting of the first thing that comes to mind.

    And please note, that you still have not explained how emergence results in immaterial entities.

    An ocean wave is certainly not immaterial, nor is it non-physical.

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