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.

7 comments:

The Tetrast said...

I surfed to your site by way of a blog search on "C.S. Peirce."

I then did a search on "brain scam" and it seems that you're not the only person with doubts about cognitive science in one connection or another.

It looks interesting, what you propose to do here. Granted, cognitive science won't solve philosophical problems. But why shouldn't it and its findings lend themselves to philosophical generalizations, or inspire them, or something like that? Sciences of matter and life have supplied grist for such generalizers as statistics and some areas of information theory, no?

Anton Alterman said...

Thanks, tetrast. Let me just mention that I left on vacation right after publishing the first post, so I could only do this autobiographical post, with a very general program. I think the angle will become clearer when I start putting more content up. My intent here is not to trash the study of brains, or neurology in general. After all, these sciences may someday help paraplegics walk, or autistic people function better. Moreover I think brain science is inherently interesting, and may, as you say, suggest new avenues for philosophy. My target is only the claim that brain science will provide us with an explanation of the mind that can replace philosophical discussion. This claim is offered in many forms by popular and sometimes not-so-popular sources. I think the claims are wrong and promote misconceptions, sometimes dangerous ones. That's the basis of what I want to say here.

The Tetrast said...

Then you clearly wish to avoid the particular "wet blanket" traps to which I was alluding. Of course, it's hard to be a critic without being a wet blanket in some connection, but it can be an acceptable or even positively desirable cost, depending on the connection.

I remember years ago I was knocking myself out trying to come up with an answer to the question "what is philosophy?" What are its siblings, what are its friendly cousins? etc. I wanted to classify it, systematically, in a way that related and distinguished its definitive characteristics with regard to those of other fields. I had become disenchanted with the answer that philosophy is the field where its nature or definition is itself a central problem. It occurred to me that in artificial intelligence (a field which about I knew and still know very little), one would want to tell the AI program what there is, give it an ontology or the capacity to develop one, and that also suited the research classification system which I was developing. So I did a search on ontology and computers, and boom, tons of stuff. I was and am outside of academe and I hadn't known of the use of the word "ontology" itself by computer people. It was like, bull's eye. I wasn't that pleased again till I looked up the phrase "inverse optimization." Anyway, what surprised me more was how surprised some old-fashioned philosophers have been by such an alignment -- in the back of their minds, are traditional classifications wherein philosophy comes long "before" any empirical science, maybe even "before" math, rather than, say, coming up alongside of human & social studies, but remaining within its own more general class, thanks to parallelism of subdivisions of classes, that sort of thing, making friendly cousins of otherwise seemingly disparate fields. (Of course, AI ontology and philosophical ontology are still different things, and AI itself is not properly some sheer subset of psychology in any sense.) Then I remember my first encounters with a cognitive science maven, who shall remain nameless. Brilliantly articulate, and given to insult. I avoided his insults somehow, and kept telling him he was wrong to see cognitive science as a _basis_ for philosophy and that it was unfair of him to expect philosophers to put all else aside to spend the time and effort to immerse themselves in it, but at the same time I told others (on peirce-l, then very active) that they could expect to be flooded with a tide of cognitive science enthusiasm, that it was not strictly and solely a fad, and that it could lead them to reexamine their philosophies and not always destructively. Outside of academe as I have been, little did I know that it was already (according to the things which you said) happening in terms of job criteria and all that! That academic funding and job stuff is outside my experience, so I don't always immediately appreciate it. The mantra "change is good" is not much solace in such a situation.

Here are a few questions before my little vacation ends and I get back to business, not that you have to answer them. A problem-based defense of philosophy -- based on the distinctive character of philosophical problems -- seems a hard row to hoe, when philosophers generally seem reluctant to really hash it out about what philosophy is or should be as a research field in any usual sense -- what are its sibs, is there a more general class of research of which it is part, what is the typical inferential character of distinctly philosophical conclusions? Is philosophy, or should it be, an applicational turn of deductive theory of logic, seeking to construct deductive formalisms for questions arising in often non-deductive settings (philosophy as "criticism of arguments")? Or instead does or should philosophy stand to deductive theory of logic, as statistical theory stands to probability theory? -- philosophy as estimating, extrapolating, interpolating, etc., not the parameters of a larger or total population but instead, say, the logical structure of a universe of discourse. Think of Socrates asking his interlocutors to say what the various virtues had in common, and his _not_ abstracting such a generalization into an independent object of interest for its own sake, in the sense of pulling up the ladder and rendering forgettable such particular cases as courage and justice. What other alternatives are there which might give philosophy a secure, clear, steady-going, and not-too-uncapacious place among research disciplines? (I've heard that the number of philosophy chairs is still shrinking.) And what sort of discipline are cognitive scientists and enthusiasts (those who don't want to just plain reduce philosophy to cognitive science) looking for and calling it "philosophy"?

N. N. said...

Anton (if I may),

I'm glad to have come across your blog as your program sounds very interesting. I am sympathetic to your cause, and will enjoy participating in the discussion.

Yours is another in a small but growing list of blogs on Wittgenstein's philosophy (see the blogroll at my blog). I am a graduate student in philosophy writing a dissertation on W's philosophy of language. I do some adjunct teaching at a local university, and this semester I'm teaching a course on philosophical anthropology. We're reading De Anima to Descartes, and then capping of the semester with a quick read of Concept of Mind.

I have been closely following the fallout from Hacker's (and Bennett's) Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. I hold out hope that it may turn out to be a significant event, and help stem the tide of confusion you are concerned to combat.

N. N. said...

By the way, do you mind if I announce your blog on mine?

Daniel said...

I'm not at all sure professional philosophers won't say that philosophy is basically useless "mental masturbation" and at least Cognitive Science, with all its warts and wrinkles, is doing something. I am pretty sure I have seen Fodor and Dennett both make that claim, actually, when objections against Cognitive Science are made: "Well, unless you have a better research program to replace it with, stop grousing uselessly."

I think Dennett said something to that effect in his debate with Hacker: that if Hacker is right that Cognitive Science is largely empty gassing, then that means that our hopes for a scientific treatment of psychological issues are doomed -- with the implication that this means the deathknoll of psychiatry, neurology etc., since the next big advances there are hoped to come from Cognitive Science. Which is how Hacker ends up being lobbed in with the Creationists.

Interesting blog idea. RSS subscribed to.

James Reynolds said...

I am currently of too lazy a disposition to offer anything substantial, but your post was passionate and eloquent. I've only just graduated from an undergradate philosophy course, and so my perspective will be different and more limited, but for what it's worth I sympathise - expressing the conceptual confusions thrown up by Cartesian Materialism (or 'theories' of consciousness in general) is a difficult enough task, only made doubly frustrating in a society where a vague, domineering picture of 'the scientific method' sets us on mental autopilot. Good luck, I will be following your blog.