Monday, August 27, 2007

Science, Philosophy and the Mind

I left for vacation (in Alaska) shortly after publishing my introductory post, and did not have access to the media I would normally look at to keep this blog current and relevant, nor to my reference materials on consciousness and cognitive science. But we're just getting started, and I have a few more preliminaries to add anyway, so perhaps it is just as well.

It is pleasant to see that I have had a couple of readers already, and certain issues that clearly need to be addressed have already been raised. So the first thing I want to do here is discuss the relationship betweeen philosophy and science in a very general way. This is not the place for an extended theoretical defense of my position; I merely state it so that readers have an idea where I'm coming from. I have referred to Wittgenstein and his position that there is a gap between the conceptual and linguistic tasks of philosophy and the factual and theoretical tasks of science. While my position on cognitive science and consciousness is partly informed by Wittgenstein's view, I do not subscribe to what might be a naive, or perhaps a correct interpretation of it. That is, I do not believe that science and philosophy are absolutely unrelated enterprises. My early college career was spent in scientific study, an interest I actively maintain, and I might note that Wittgenstein too had a lifelong interest in scientific developments (indeed the Tractatus directly reflects some of Hertz's ideas). But perhaps he believed that concepts are more distinct from facts than I do. I think concepts are very liquid, and conceptual truths, though they are not factual truths, are informed by our changing knowledge of the natural world. The way I would put the relationship is this: science can narrow down the range of possible conceptual truths, alter the course of philosophical investigation by closing off some lines of thought, and sometimes suggest new philosophical strategies by analogy with physical strategies (and this is not always a bad thing, though more on this later).

A common example of a scientific truth can be used to show what I am talking about. "Heat is the motion of molecules" is an example of what is usually called a scientific reduction from the macro to the micro level. Heat is a macroscopic physical phenomenon that has scientific application and is subject to measurement and scientific study. It was discovered that heat occurs if and only if, and to the extent that, there is motion at the molecular level, so that one can equate greater molecular motion with a rise in temperature. Thus one physical phenomenon was "reduced" to another. In this manner, (a) certain scientific speculation about the physical concept of heat was cut off; (b) since the concept of physical heat now had a new physical basis, the phenomenological concept of heat could no longer have exactly the same meaning it did before, or play the same role in philosophical speculation, or be confused with the physical concept (and if you don't think of "heat" as a philosophical concept, the same could be said at some point for "energy", though the reasons are more complex than this simple "reduction"); (c) a strategy for the "reduction" of philosophical concepts was suggested. Thus a scientific finding had a direct and permanent impact on philosophical speculation. Similarly, the study of light, color, and the biology of vision could not but have an impact on the way we talk about color, light, vision, or perception in philosophy. It would be madness to speculate about the nature of "colors" and simply ignore the scientific facts. Such discoveries continually alter the scope and direction philosophical speculation.

This applies to consciousness too. For example, it is known that certain areas of the brain control certain mental functions, and that consciousness itself is not evenly distributed throughout the brain. It follows ineluctably that consciousness is not equally dependent on every mental function. People can lose significant functionality in the area of memory, recognition, sensory awareness, linguistic capability, and other critical forms of intelligence and still be "conscious" in the sense we normally mean it. On the other hand, people with some forms of epilepsy can apparently have most or all of these functions intact and not be entirely conscious (e.g., not respond to ordinary stimuli) for a period of time. It follows that these functions do not entirely depend on consciousness. These again are scientific results, the ignorance of which would simply lead philosophy down blind alleys.

But in spite of all this, there is no reason to believe that these bits of knowledge we have acquired about the brain suggest that we are on the way - indeed, that there is a way - to "reduce" consciousness to brain function. It is still far from clear that we will at some point be able to speak about physical entities and processes, eliminating, without remainder, all chatter about minds, intelligence, thoughts, ideas, beliefs, desires, motives, imaginings, and the like. It is the fervent hope of materialists of all sorts that this should be the case; that "folk" psychological concepts should be at most a shorthand for talking about what we know to be neural occurences. The most sophisticated developments in cognitive psychology fall so far short of reducing anything that we don't even know what such a reduction would look like. For the most part, what they amount to is that when certain mental functions are performed, there is increased blood flow or electrical activity in certain parts of the brain. This is good for brain mapping, but not for figuring out what consciousness is. Extensions to these mappings are not much help either. For example, you can tell by mapping that some of the same regions light up when you imagine, remember, or dream of an object as when you encounter it first hand (have "knowledge by acquaintance" of it). We should hope that not too much money was expended on research that proves this, since most thoughtful people would have predicted something like it. But let it be granted that such discoveries are advances of some sort. Are they advances towards reducing the mind to brain functions? I don't see how. What is the path from this to eliminating the necessity of speaking of imagination when we talk of artistic creation or scientific theorizing, or even in theories of knowledge, language, or indeed consciousness? If we are to really believe in the cog sci program, we must think we are on a path which will eventually lead to the consignment of Kant's discussion of imagination, Peirce's discussion of belief, Locke's discussion of the will, or Wittgenstein's discussion of privacy, to the dustbin of quaint but terribly outmoded theories, whose truths (if any) can be better stated in terms of neural activity. As I said, some factual discoveries could sideline some avenues of discourse. But I see no reason to believe that a single important philosophical debate will be solved by cognitive science. The nature of consciousness as they are looking for it simply terminates in a physical or physiological description, never hooking up directly to any interesting philosophical theory or program. The scenario in which little by little we stop speaking of beliefs or conscious will, just as we (should have) stopped speaking of an anthropomorphic god, bodily humors, phlogiston, or the "elements" as air, fire and water, is a mere pipe dream of an overzealous scientific research program. There is neither scientific evidence nor philosophical reason to believe it. (I suppose it would be a cheap shot here to call it self-negating, since we would have to believe there are no beliefs to justify the eliminativist program!)

It seems that philosophers who support the cog sci program for consciousness are in the grip of an analogy like the following. Philosophers used to speculate about the physical world; little by little, philosophers themselves, and later on people who we identify as scientists, made discoveries that more or less replaced philosophical speculation with hard science. Similarly, philosophical speculation about consciousness will be replaced by some combination of neuroscience and computational theory, with perhaps some help from linguistics (a more scientifically credentialed enterprise than philosophy) and mathematics. But note that when someone asks, "how do earthquakes occur?" or "what are stars made of?", they are normally looking for one, and only one, kind of answer: a true description of a physical process. But when someone asks: "how can unconscious matter combine to create consciousness?", or "what is it to have the belief that tomorrow is Wednesday?", not to mention "what is artistic creativity?", they can be asking several different kinds of questions. Either they want a description of a chemical or neurological process, or a psychodynamic explanation as provided in contemporary post-Freudian psychology, or a philosophical discussion. Someone who is interested in one kind of explanation is going to feel cheated if they leave with another. Nor is this a sign of a primitive state of any of these disciplines. Any area of inquiry is in its infancy compared with some imagined state of it in the distant future, but it cannot be said that physics, psychology or philosophy are in their infancy in any absolute sense. "Folk" psychology and its philosophical development is not a poor stand-in for the knowledge we wish we had through neuroscience. I don't want to use the obvious phrase and call it a different "level of explanation", because that only sounds like grist for the Quinian mill, in which levels of explanation simply go away, or become "naturalized", as science develops. Think of it this way, instead: we already have, and have had for a long time, the ability to describe human action strictly in terms of mechanics and biochemistry. Instead, we still describe it in terms of motivations, will, desire, belief and the like. Why did the level of "reduction" already available to us not replace the outmoded talk involving mental terms? Hmmmmm.... I'm sure the physicalists have an answer, but prima facie, there's no reason to think the Next Big Step will be any more "eliminative" than the last.

It would be fair to ask at this point: Just what would you require, Mr. Alterman, before you would be ready to say that such a reduction is at hand, or at least conceivable in the ordinary progress of scientific investigation? Fair enough; here is one answer: I would like to see someone describe, in purely mathematical and physical terms, what it means for two people to have the same thought. That is, take Fred and Freida, and say they each have a simple thought, like "I have to take out the trash", or "I believe my cat is bigger than your ocelot" or "Billy just learned how to do long division". These are not such complex thoughts. So what I want is to know what it would mean, or what sort of program could possibly explain, how to provide a physical-mathematical description of these thoughts such that by examining the brains of Fred and Freida we would discover an instantiation of exactly that unique, purely physical, and completely general description. (In the old lingo, I want a physical reduction of token-token identity.) In my opinion, we are not just far from having a program of this sort; we cannot even conceive what it would mean to have this kind of reduction. But without it, we do not have an eliminative materialist theory of consciousness; nor, to put it more bluntly, a physicalistic theory of consciousness of any sort. And it is not that we do not have it in the sense that we do not have a molecular transporter; we can at least conceive of what a molecular transporter would be and do, if not how it would accomplish its task. We cannot conceive of what a physical reduction of consciousness would be; what would a general neural correlate of "learned long division" be like? Where would we begin to look? The thought is just spooky, not even on the agenda of science. And my position is that it never will be, and that it involves deep misunderstandings.

This is not an anti-scientific view; nor, as you might guess, do I subscribe to some post-Cartesian form of substance dualism. "Dualism" is a bad word as long as it is associated with substances, or processes, or any form of parallelism whereby the "mental" happenings are conceived as analogous to the "physical" happenings: the brain is doing its work, and the "mind" (mysteriously conceived) is doing its work, and the two are somehow doing it together, but are not one and the same thing. This rationalist program is way too tired, not to mention theistically inspired, for me to take seriously. (There are other forms of rationalism, such as the kind promoted by Llinas, and somewhat supported by research, that locates fixed structures and assumptions in the mind as a result of evolutionary choices. This is a different sort of discussion, which I will not pursue right now.) Playing around with the word "substance" to make it fit something that is not conceived of as being constituted by rocks, water, burning hydrogen, subatomic particles, or other recognized physical substances is just a path to confusion. Substance dualism is a non-issue; yet consciousness is real, and yet not "reducible" to physical objects and processes. This is the paradox we have to address.

So why am I not a materialist? Is there a third way? Here I must revert to Wittgenstein, who dealt with his sort of confusing antinomy dozens of times, all to little avail, as evidenced by much of the writing on consciousness. Take, for example, his discussion of the "if-feeling", where he accepts the idea that there may be such a feeling, but rejects the notion that it somehow "accompanies" the word or thought. Then is it the word or thought itself? No. Then it merely accompanies it, or course? No. Then it doesn't exist, it is a mere error? No. Well, what then? Well, there is a feeling, but it is not an it! In the same way, Wittgenstein denied that there are mental processes. In the same sense that he said we should reserve the term mental "state" for something like depression or anger, not the belief that today is Monday. In the same sense that he asked if there was a something in the beetle box, and said no, there is not a something there, and not a nothing either! It seems that no matter how many times Wittgenstein discussed these kinds of confusions, no matter how many thousands of philosophers read them, the same inane dichotomy is posed again and again as it you can make some philosophical hay out of it. You're not a dualist? You must be a materialist! There are either two things there, or there are not two things there, and you say there are not two things there, so you must be a materialist, QED!

What seems to be the problem here? I think it is "how high the seas of language run"; it is people trying to piece together a theory of consciousness and finding it is "like trying to repair a spider web with your bare hands". "Heat" is a much simpler concept than "thought" or "awareness" or "sensation". It has one very strong usage, and if there are others, they can be sidelined when we give a very strong reductive explanation of the central usage. When we talk about "heat" what we are normally, literally talking about can be fully described as "the motion of molecules". When we talk about "thought" or "attention" or "imagination", what is it that can be fully described by a very strong theory of the motion of neurons and fluids? Who has an answer as to what the "it" is here that can allegedly be so described? No one. This is why, perhaps, Varela and his followers focused so hard on having a phenomenology to reduce, before actually trying to do a reduction to neurology. The point has almost completely escaped the Churchlands and most other cog sci types. But once we have the phenomenology - and Husserl is not a bad place to start, though not a complete program either - what do we have? An "it" that can be "reduced"? I don't think so. We have a phenomenology, and we have the scientifically motivated assumption that sensory facts have physical explanations, but we are far from having any valid reason for thinking that the "phenomenology" has a directly corresponding physical basis. This is where Varela and his school are wrong. Having a phenomenology (or a "phenomenological language", of the kind Wittgenstein once sought and others have actually developed) will provide interesting connections at the macro level between various neural processes and mental phenomena. They might be much richer than anything we have today. But again, the gap between that and a reduction of the mental to the physical is light years wide.

At most, I think it will eventually be recognized that while the desired reductive theory of consciousness is a worthy goal, it is not a practical program and may never be. I myself am not ready to concede that it is a worthy goal, but even if one does that, it hardly justifies the collapse of philosophy of mind into cog sci programs, as described in my previous post. Nor does it mean that brain research programs should be defunded (except to the extent that they are morally obnoxious, as in their treatment of human or non-human subjects - a matter for a different sort of blog). It means that philosophy should finally put aside the Russellian and logical positivist paradigm of philosophy following "the model of science"; though Russell at least distinguished between scientific method and results, suggesting we follow the former. Today's philosophy programs, ever-conscious of trendy bandwagons that might attract funds and build national reputations, have attempted to follow, and indeed even produce, the results. This is a rejection of philosophy itself, and an embarrassment to the profession. Once again, if this blog has even a small impact in altering this self-abnegation, I will consider it a success.

I expect to have one more preliminary post before I get current and start examining some recent results. This will be on the position that is most identified with the opposition to physicalistic monism, the idea that there is "something it is like" to have a paricular form of consciousness, that this is perspectival or subjective, and that it therefore cannot be stated in the objective language of materialism, or at least we have no idea how that would be done. If it were that easy to undermine the materialist line, the battle would have been won long ago. Unfortunately, this response is itself fundamentally flawed, for much the same reason that materialism itself is flawed. But I will get to that soon. Lastly, I will just mention that I expect to be reviewing the philosophical literature on consciousness and commenting on it as appropriate as long as I keep up this blog, so that hopefully, eventually, it will become clear where I stand not only on cog sci but on the philosophical debate as a whole.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Philosophy and the Brain Scam

Hello, folks. My name is Anton Alterman, and I am starting this blog to provide an ongoing commentary and forum for discussion on the issue of the mind-body problem, with particular focus on efforts to solve it by way of cognitive science. I have not yet worked out all the settings for this blog so let me just do a quick bio and then move on to some philosophical points to set the tone for what is coming up.

My interest in philosophy and psychology goes way back, but my professional studies began in 1989 at the CUNY Graduate Center. I entered a Master's/Ph.D. program there, completed my course work in 3 years (while working full time as a computer professional, which I still do). Two years later I had completed my comprehensive and language exams, and a year after that finished my thesis proposal. I had been interested in Wittgenstein since taking an undergraduate philosophy course at Northwestern University in the early 1970's; Ed Sankowski was the professor. After the course I found a cheap copy of On Certainty in a university bookstore, and though I can now say that I barely understand what he was up to, it sparked a lifelong interest in Wittgenstein, the mind, and knowledge. I tried to read the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations on my own, but without a background in the work of Russell, formal logic, or positivism, I found them daunting.

At the GC I returned to the study of Wittgenstein through course work with Arthur Collins, Juliet Floyd, Charles Landesman and others. But my main influence at the time was Marx Wartofsky, who had little patience with Wittgenstein. He did, however, spark in me an almost equal interest in the pragmatists, particular C.S. Peirce and WIlliam James. In a book by a contemporary Wittgenstein scholar I found a reference to a lengthy Wittgenstein manuscript (it was background material for what became the Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology) in which there was a discourse of more than 100 pages focusing on William James's ideas. I thought this presented a perfect opportunity to do some original scholarship and also interest Marx in directing my thesis, and wrote a proposal for a study of the connection between Wittgenstein and James.

Unfortunately this proved to be both too large and too small a topic. There was a lot of work on it already, though not on that manuscript. It was probably a mistake not to have focused just on that; instead, I began to explore the entire relationship and all the secondary literature on it. Before I had completed much of this work, Marx passed away, and I began to work with Arthur Collins. I had become disenchanted with the pragmatism connection, and he had no interest in it; moreover, I had begun to think that I had some insight into Wittgenstein that could be the subject of a different sort of thesis. To make a very long journey into a trip to the candy store, in 2000 I successfully defended my thesis on Wittgenstein, which now focused on the 1929 manuscripts and his phenomenology. So far I have only tried to publish a rewrite of one central chapter, without success; but I expect it will eventually be published in some form. I have published some other pieces, which I won't go into right now.

I should mention that before I completed my thesis I began teaching part time at Baruch College, CUNY. I started out in the usual manner teaching Intro and Ethics courses. Fortunately, in some ways at least, the faculty at the time recognized that I had a pretty robust background in a variety of areas, and eventually assigned me courses in aesthetics, modern, contemporary, and19th century philosophy, and the philosophy of technology. I continued in this position for eight years, after which changes in the administration led to a parting of ways. At that point, issues in my personal life also encouraged me to take a break from teaching and pursue other tasks and interests. The break continues... how long, I do not know right now.

While at the GC I studied not only Wittgenstein but the entire gamut of contemporary analytic philosophy. I took or audited courses with some of the leading lights in the philosophy of mind and language, including Jerry Fodor, David Rosenthal, Steve Schiffer and Jerrold Katz. In general I found myself in sharp disagreement with them on many issues, not least how to do philosophy in general. But my disputes with them did not prepare me for what I would face after completing my thesis and searching for a fulltime teaching position. What I did not realize as I stepped into those turbulent waters was that in the 11 years since I had begun my graduate studies, a virtual tidal wave of cognitive science had swept through academia, swamping every traditional approach to the philosophy of mind and replacing it with a kind of discipline that was not, so far as I could tell, philosophy at all. There I was, with exceptional grades, excellent references, superior teaching evaluations, some minor publications, an impressive list of conference papers, and a thesis that I sincerely believed had corrected longstanding misconceptions about Wittgenstein and pointed to a comprehensive interpretation of his philosophy - and could not so much as obtain an interview, much less a job! What was going on?

After a number of comments from well known and unknown philosophers, ranging from the subtle to the extremely blunt, what was going on became painfully clear. Jobs in the philosophy of mind and language were no longer available to anyone who did not profess to be doing cognitive science. At the same time, Wittgenstein had become so much a part of the philosophical tradition that hardly a school lacked a major figure who wrote about Wittgenstein or acknowledged his influence. Consider names like Hilary Putnam, John McDowell, Stanley Cavell, Kendall Walton, Paul Horwich, Michael Dummett, Jaakko Hintikka, Crispin Wright... even Daniel Dennett asserts that WIttgenstein was a major influence! Add to that a large number of people who direct much of their energy to Wittgenstein - people like Cora Diamond, David Stern, P.M.S. Hacker - and the tremendous number whose interests may lie elsewhere but still publish interpretive books and articles, apply Wittgenstein's ideas to literature or other fields, or write critiques of his work, and it is clear that academic philosophy is laced with Wittgensteinian discourse. Nevertheless, virtually no one is being hired in the philosophy of mind or language if they profess to be Wittgensteinian or even have their primarily field of expertise in Wittgenstein. (I believe there may be a partial exception with regard to the philosophy of mathematics, but since there are few scholars or hiring opportunities in this area it is hard to say.)

Why is this he case? Why do philosophers across a very wide spectrum profess interest in Wittgenstein, but almost without exception refuse to hire Wittgenstein scholars to positions in the philosophy of mind and language? There may be a variety of answers, but one simple fact stands out boldly. Wittgenstein was perhaps the leading exponent of the view that philosophical problems cannot be solved through scientific investigation. The "cannot" is a logical cannot: philosophical issues are conceptual issues, not issues of factual knowledge or ignorance, and are therefore simply closed to scientific investigation. This may seem a strange position for one who wrote early on that the correct thing to do in philosophy would be to state only "the propositions of natural science", not to mention one who later held that there are no specifically philosophical problems.
We can clear up the misunderstandings generated by these positions another time; the point here is that whether because or in spite of them, the later Wittgenstein surely believed that no such thing as "cognitive science" was going to provide "solutions" to any "philosophical problems".

Now, whether Wittgenstein would have agreed or not, I take it that if there is such a thing as a philosophical problem, the mind-body problem certainly qualifies as the essential entry in this category. More effort has been expended on it, with fewer convincing results, than on virtually any other problem in intellectual history. It is with the hope of solving this (alleged) problem that universities are extending named chairs and large salaries to philosophers who profess to be doing cognitive science, many of them with their own theories to peddle, and an arm's length list of publications. The hope, or chimera, of being the owner of the key research that finally tells us how the brain is related to the mind, whether we have free will, consciousness or intentions, how we implement the computational paradigm, and the like - this is what drives academic research in the philosophy of mind today.

Stangely enough, it is not a new perspective. It is one that was already denigrated by J.S. Mill in the mid-19th century, and which popped up again and more or less pooped out in the 1940's and 1950's (not least due to the influence of the Philosophical Investigations and Ryle's very Wittgensteinian book The Concept of Mind). It has virtually no actual successes in terms of solving any identified philosophical problems; nor is there even the least agreement among those who profess to be engaging in this research as to how one would recognize a successul solution if it presented itself. If it is not a correct approach, it is arguably the most extensive and profound example of the confusion that Ryle called a "category mistake" in the history of Western intellectual life. If so, the fact that it has so far prevented me from obtaining a fulltime academic position is really of very minor consequence compared with the destructive impulse it has engendered in our cultural moorings as a whole. For in my view, this perspective is continually foisted on us from many sides, be it the reporting in the New York Times Science Section, or the claims of robotics and AI, or the legal arguments that now clog the courts in cases where murderers and rapists are said to have acted not on their own recognizance but from neural mechanisms beyond their control. (I am not here denying that there may be some such legitimate arguments in individual cases; I am pointing to a general trend of attempting to exonerate virtually any violent criminal by virtue of underlying neurophysiological mechanisms.) Thus, though a personal motivation to start this blog certainly exists, it would not be of interest to do so but for the much wider and perhaps insidious influence of the cognitive science viewpoint in our intellectual and cultural life.

My intention, therefore, is to examine the claims and applications of cognitive science with respect to the mind primarily as they are represented in the press, the blogoshpere, and other popular forums. I will occasionally engage with philosophical discourse in this area, but it will not be my main focus. Nevertheless, and almost needless to say, I expect that the arguments I take up in this forum will apply more or less directly to one or more philosophical perspectives in cognitive science (or rather, attempts of cognitive science to present itself as philosophy). In this regard, I should say up front that there are two points of view that I will not pretend to take very seriously, regardless of their popularity. One is the view that the notion of a "mind" or "consciousness" as it is popularly understood is simply a gross illusion, or erroneous folk "theory", that will be eliminated once a proper scientific understanding of the brain is obtained. That such positions are taken seriously is a very sad comment on contemporary analytic philosophy; to which many more sad comments could be added, and may be in the course of this blog. Roughly, my response is that people who don't believe there is such a thing as a "mind" have no business trying to "reduce" it (what "it"?) to brain functions, and ought to just go about their business studying axons and dendrites and neurotransmitters and leave us alone. The subject of the mind-body problem is the mind, just as the subject of the problem of gravity waves is gravity; not the "elimination" of gravity by studying real things like particles. If your solution to the mind-body problem is that there is no mind to be a problem, then thank you for your input, your job is done, and please report to the lab.

The other position I will not take seriously - though perhaps slightly more so than the first - is that philosophy itself is simply an empty intellectual exercise, and even if cognitive science is wrong, it is better than mere mental masturbation. This perspective certainly won't be articulated by any working philosophers, but is a reaction of the student body and general public that sustains the more respectable academic opinion that science will answer many of the traditional questions of philosophy (yes, even ethics and aesthetics). The possible responses to this view are much more involved than I can get into now. If philosophy is a useless endeavor, why are scientists trying so hard to solve our problems for us? Why do scientists from Mach to Einstein to Stephen Pinker feel such a compulsion to express their scientific views in philosophical terms (usually, though not always, quite naively, and with little thought to the problems and contradictions their philosophical views entail)? Why do artists, legal scholars, linguists and historians, people with very concrete tasks to accomplish, delve deeply into philosophical literature and attempt to contribute to it? The fact is that you can't take a significant step in any intellectual enterprise without encountering, and in some manner solving, philosophical problems. They are the rivers, the bogs, the deserts, the vines and the weeds that challenge us when we try to move forward; and until the planet of our intellect stops growing altogether, and every road is paved and straight, they will never go away, but present themselves in new guises and contexts. This is why it is worthwhile to pursue the cognitive scientists, meet them on their own ground, observe what they think they are doing, and respond for the benefit of our intellectual development. I hope to accomplish a small part of this here.