Monday, July 19, 2010

Have neurosciences something to tell (to non-Neuroscientists)?

I am no expert in Neurosciences, but since Neurosciencists start expanding the scope of their discipline and propose to ground Neuro-Linguistics, Neuro-Economics, Neuro-Literary Criticism and so on, it makes sense to ask whether it makes sense to use the data they present us, and the underlying theories. The question urges in particular, while dealing with the theme of the subject, where interesting analysis have been offered by Neuroscientists or by philosophers heavily depending on Neuroscientific data, such as Paul and Patricia Churchland and Thomas Metzinger.
A first perplexity is purely methodological: often neuroscientific data are debated as if they were subject-independent conclusive evidences. As if their interpretation did not depend on a background theory, as if there was nothing one could argue against them. A friend suggested me that the ones who uphold these theses with such certainty have studied "maths mistaking it for philosophy", that is, they are not trained to critical thinking beyond that applied within the precinct of Natural Sciences. If a theory succeeds in not violating Natural Scientific laws, then it is sound –better, it is not even a theory, it is a fact.
A further point is the following: even if the Neurosciences were absolutely right in describing the brain, how does this affect our understanding of ourselves? Th. Metzinger nicely puts it in the Acknowledgments of his Being No One:
This book has a long history. Many people and a number of academic institutions have supported me along the way.
The introspectively accessible partition of my phenomenal self-model has it that I first became inflected with the notion of a "self-model" when reading […] but doubtlessly its real roots run much deeper.
Metzinger might be right or wrong, but the shift of terminology in the second sentence sounds awkward, as if I would at once start using here formal logic or the Nāvya Nyāya language to develop my argument. Hence, in Vico's terminology, it might be true, but it is not certain, that is, it cannot be communicated, it will never be part of what we can debate about, exactly because it is not "introspectively accessible". From the point of view of our introspection, it is just as non-influential as the account of how respiration occurs. We need to breath, but to know the chemical aspect of it does not change either our breathing, or our experience of it.


ombhurbhuva said...

The simple answer would be that we are still interested in the thought of Aristotle even though he held that the function of the brain was the cooling of the body. We don't know how the neuronal traffic is at one and the same time thoughts, emotions and fancies. Some would say that such identity is not intelligible. Aristotle in De Anima first offered the notion of causal closure which is still current. This is an interesting question about which neuro-science of its nature has nothing to say or if it does chance an answer has moved into the realm of philosophy.

elisa freschi said...

Well, the Neuro-sciences answer (often implicit) seems to me quite akin to the Carvaka claim that consciousness emerges from the gross element just like the power to intoxicate emerges from grapes (and/or other non-intoxicating things). In other words, Neuro-scientists assume that consciousness is nothing but a characteristic evolution has devised as the most efficient tool to rule XYZ. Hence, it is the causal result of our neurons' movements. On top of that, they add that –once the neurons' movements have been analysed and explained, there is nothing left to do –which is what I can't agree upon. Better, I cannot even understand how can one feel satisfied with it.

VS said...

If we understand how and why we breathe, we have a choice to exercise control and to enrich the very act. If there is a 'spot' in the brain which recognizes the 'self' then understanding how it functions may help us to enrich the concept considered so vague.

elisa freschi said...

Very good point, VS. However, I guess that we can understand how to control our breath if we focus on its phenomenology (say, through the theory of prāṇas), rather than if we study the chemical peculiarities of oxygen, etc. Similarly, I can't see how the functioning of neurones could enhance my understanding of myself, whereas this is constantly enhanced by my pondering about interesting questions. What about you?

VS said...

Your question contains the answer. :o) As we understand the chemical reactions, we are able to provide the right mix of gases to the person who requires external support. We know what could happen if we hyperventilate. Similarly, if we recognize the neurons for determining 'self' and their input and output connections, we could understand much more about ourselves.

elisa freschi said...

Dear VS, if we know which gaz we need to inhale and so on, we can appropriately heal someone else. From a first-person perspectie, however, knowing the cell-respiration process does not change the way I inhale or exhale, etc. Similarly, to know about neuronal processes is extremly important, for instance, in order to operate on brain-cancer ill people. My point is that, however, does not modify at all our first person perspective on self-consciousness. Does it, in your opinion?

skholiast said...

Elisa: "From a first-person perspective, however, knowing the cell-respiration process does not change the way I inhale or exhale, etc. Similarly, to know about neuronal processes ... does not modify at all our first person perspective on self-consciousness. "

One might guess that the difference is in something like the mode of knowing. I have read Joshua Greene assert that while we all (or rather, "we scientists") "know" the soul is dead, we haven't got the kind of gut-feeling, closure-bringing knowledge that comes from having "seen the body;" this is what he tries to accomplish by showing the pulleys and ropes of moral thinking.

this strikes me, perhaps only because I've just been writing on it, as the inversion of the various assertions one reads in the Brahmanas: "he who knows thus" during such-&-such a yajna, attains immortality; if you know these equivalences, say that the fire "is" Agni or that Prajapati "is" the sacrifice, you yourself (the texts say) accomplish something like the great work of the alchemists.

Whatever may be the truth or falsity of either the modern or the ancient claim, I would argue that knowing something about a system is an intervention in the system. In short, it really does change things for me to know that my anger, for instance, is an emotional reaction and not some logical conclusion that any right-minded person would share. This may or may not allow me to steer it, but it means my emotion is now at least subtly different than before.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Skholiast,
I will comment on your blog as far as Prajāpati is concerned. In short, both in Prajāpati's case and in your anger's one, we are talking about a sort of 'transformative knowledge', a knowledge having acquired which, one is more deeply aware of oneself/of the true nature of the world, etc. What I am claiming here is that any biochemical notion, though extremly interesting, has no such transformative power. It might be true or false, but it remains external to our inner lives. Just like, I would guess, the sudden revelation of being a brain in a vat would not make "mark" stop loving his "mother".

To put it crudely: would the knowledge of which neurones are active during your anger-attack modify it?

skholiast said...

I don't know-- if it were clear that I were a brain in a vat, I might indeed find all my previous loves and hates called into question. This seems to me to be a close (albeit cartoon-like) approximation to transformative knowledge-- if I know that the 'objects' of my emotions are just projections or illusions, those emotions now have no raison d'etre.

However, I agree that in principle there is knowledge and knowledge-- and I think the whole western tradition also agrees. I think what Metzinger and Greene and others are arguing for is that this neuroscience can be such a transformational knowledge. In fact it is clear to me that this informs their motives, since they pursue it so doggedly, not just out of a desire to know which chemical does what, nor even to know how to cure such-&-such a condition, but because they want to have done with "the soul." They are in hot pursuit of a new picture of what it means to be a human being. In this they are not so unlike those who prophecy intelligent machines in the next 50 years or less.

I do not know that I believe neuroscience can serve in this way, but I think it's clear that some do.

I'll look forward to hearing from you on the Brahmanas. I haven't got the expertise you have, but of course that won't keep me from trying to guess at intelligent questions.

elisa freschi said...

Well, I also don't know. But Metzinger writes that he appreciates the company of Paul and Patricia Churchland, etc., thus showing that in his everyday praxis (including the foreword of his Being No One) he does considers himself as a 'self'.
Whatever one's contradictions, however, you are probably right. I never thought about it that way, but they might think of Neurosciences as a sort of transformative knowledge (however naive this might sound to me).

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