Saturday, June 05, 2010

Mind over matter?

There’s a piece in today’s Guardian Review by American author and novelist Marilynne Robinson, who bravely challenges the materialistic interpretations of the brain offered by the likes of Steven Pinker and E. O. Wilson. It is an extract from her book Absence of Mind. I say’ brave’ rather than ‘persuasive.’ I’ve got some sympathy for her criticisms of the way the pop neuro- and cognitive scientists try to explain the brain by ruling out of bounds those things that seem too intangible or difficult. And although Pinker makes a valid point by confessing that we have no reason to suppose the human brain is capable of understanding the resolution to some of the hard philosophical questions, Robinson is right to suggest that this, even if it is true, is no reason to stop asking them. (The likes of Pinker will probably be pulling their elegantly coiffeured hair out at the way Robinson casually makes Freud a part of mainstream science, but let’s put that aside.)

My main complaint is that the article is encrusted with what seems to be the characteristically clotted style of American academics of letters, which strives always to be artful at the expense of plain speaking. For example, in response to E. O. Wilson’s comment that ‘The brain and its satellite glands have now been probed to the point where no particular site remains that can reasonably be supposed to harbour a nonphysical mind’, Robinson replies: ‘To prove a negative, or to treat it as having been proved, is, oddly enough, an old and essential strategy of positivism. So I do feel obliged to point out that if such a site could be found in the brain, then the mind would be physical in the same sense that anything else with a locus in the brain is physical. To define the mind as nonphysical in the first place clearly prejudices his conclusion.’ The same point might have been made with less fuss had she simply said ‘But how can a nonphysical mind have a physical location?’

Here at least, however, her meaning is clear. But how about this: ‘What grounds can there be for doubting that a sufficient biological account of the brain would yield the complex phenomenon we know and experience as the mind? It is only the pertinacity of the mind/body dichotomy that sustains the notion that a sufficient biological account of the brain would be reductionist in the negative sense. Such thinking is starkly at odds with our awareness of the utter brilliance of the physical body.’ I have read this several times, and still doubt that I really understand any of it. Would a statement like this be permitted by an editor in a commissioned piece? I’d like to think not.

And isn’t it odd, after stating ‘What Descartes actually intended by the words "soul" and "mind" seems to me an open question for Descartes himself’, to simply sign the question off with ‘No doubt there are volumes to be consulted on this subject.’ Indeed there are – why not consult them? Better still, why not tell us what Descartes actually said? (For what it is worth, I think she is trying to complicate the matter too much. The soul, for Descartes, seems to me to be simply what motivates the body-machine: what puts its hydraulics and cogs and levers into particular motions. No big deal; except that it enabled Descartes to defend himself against charges of atheism.)

The standfirst of the piece (obviously not by the author) asks ‘What is meant by the idea of a soul?’ Robinson suggests that Pinker identifies the soul with the mind, which seems fair enough on the strength of the passage she quotes. Aristotle did likewise, at least as far as humans are concerned, for he said we are distinguished from other beings by possessing a rational soul. But then, Aristotle’s soul was always a thoroughly secular, quasi-scientific notion. All I can find as Robinson’s alternative is that the soul is ‘an aspect of deep experience’. I can see that this may be developed into some kind of meaning. She might also have usefully pointed out that this apparently deviates from the traditional Catholic notion of a soul as a non-physical badge of humanness that is slotted into the organism at conception.

But the least convincing aspect of the piece is the classic ‘just-as’ reasoning of the scientific dilettante. Robinson knows about quantum entanglement (sort of). And her point there seems to be ‘if we don’t really understand that, how can we think we can understand the brain/mind?’ But the hard thing about entanglement is not ‘understanding’ it (though we can’t claim to yet do so completely), but that it defies intuition. And please, no more allusions to the ‘quantum brain’.

Similarly, just as we don’t see a bird as a modified dinosaur (ah, do we not?), she argues that ‘there is no reason to assume our species resembles in any essential way the ancient primates whose genes we carry.’ Hmm… you might want to have another attempt at that sentence. Even if we allow that Robinson perhaps means it to apply only to aspects of brain, this is more a desperate plea to liberate us from our evolutionary past than a claim with any kind of reasoned support. ‘Might not the human brain have undergone a qualitative change’ [when the first artifact appeared], she asks? Well yes, it might, and some have called that change ‘hominization’. But this does not mean we lost all our former instincts and drives. It would doubtless have been catastrophic if we had. Even I, a sceptic of evolutionary-psychological Just So stories, can see this as an attempt to resurrect the specialness of humankind that some religious people still struggle to relinquish.

Pinker et al. will have little difficulty with this rather otiose assault.


JimmyGiro said...

‘But how can a nonphysical mind have a physical location?’

If she wrote that question via a computer, then she would have been very close to the answer before her.

The software is the 'mind', and the hardware is the 'brain'. Just as a PC can handle different programmes, yet still be the 'same' PC; so a brain can have different thoughts, whilst still being the same brain, albeit with a few synaptic modifications.

The analogy is understood when you realise that the software is not physical, yet performs via the physical PC. And it should be appreciated that some software can effectively enhance itself by 'autoprogramming', if that's a word, such as google, which changes its own database in accord to the aggregate of internet users.

Organic brains must have evolved the capacity to self programme, which hypothesis would suggest that there is an inherited 'instruction set' for this process to occur.

Simple animals, like lizards, would have virtually complete preprogrammed instruction sets; whereas advanced animals, like birds, would have a more reduced instruction set, that allows them to modify by learning. But they can only modify their minds if their physical brain has the capacity to change in accord to memory.

In conclusion: no soul here Ma'am, just blood n guts.

Edward said...

Enjoyed this bit of writing. Thanks Philip.

Tom Chatfield said...

‘What grounds can there be for doubting that a sufficient biological account of the brain would yield the complex phenomenon we know and experience as the mind? It is only the pertinacity of the mind/body dichotomy that sustains the notion that a sufficient biological account of the brain would be reductionist in the negative sense. Such thinking is starkly at odds with our awareness of the utter brilliance of the physical body.’

I think that I understand this - she means that most philosophy is unreasonably prejudiced against biological explanations of mind, because it assumes that no purely biological account of the phenomenon of mind could ever adequately explain the mind's complexities, even though we're perfectly happy to explain the vast complexities of the physical body in purely biological terms.

The real problem here is the circularity of most of the argument. She's saying it's important to be open to the idea that a "sufficient biological account of the brain" could theoretically explain all the complexities of mind. Well, yes: the word "sufficient" assumes that. A biological explanation that managed to explain everything sufficiently would, indeed, explain everything sufficiently.

So all she really means is that it's wrong to declare that "mind" is so complex that it's inherently possible to explain in biological terms - and that assuming a mind/body dichotomy unhelpfully enshrines this prejudice.

I think we could probably get it down to 10 words or less if we kept trying.

And yes, as a commissioning editor, I'd have thought hard about how to change an awful lot of the words in there...

Philip Ball said...

Thanks Thomas, this is sort of what I'd figured (and I agree with your assessment of the article's overall message). I'm just puzzled why anyone would imagine we know what is being implied by 'reductionist in the negative sense' (when does she consider reductionism to be positive), or indeed 'the utter brilliance of the physical body' (yes, our bodies are clever, though mine is now far from brilliant, but the point is what?). There is an epidemic of this sort of writing. I'm currently working through Mary Baine Campbell's "Wonder and Science", and recently read Barbara Maria Stafford's "Artful Science" - both full of fantastic stuff, but both terrified to offer a simple statement of what anyone said or did. Do these people actually think in this language, or labour endlessly to turn their simple thoughts into such convoluted and oblique phrases? One sort of hopes for the latter, for how otherwise would they ever manage to buy a packet of biscuits?

Unknown said...

In principle science will be able to solve life's mysteries, even the mystery of consciousness. Part of the mystery is the fact that the mind is not "nonphysical". It is based on a tiny hidden universe of structures which are too small to see. Maybe this is the reason why it is so hard to accept that the mind is simply what the brain does. The mind arises from extended structures, from the connections between countless neurons that form our memories. In the words of Henri Bergson one could say: memory is the matter of the mind.

It is a bit ironic that this concealment allows us to identify ourselves with a single (nonphysical) self. Only if a system doesn't have the slightest idea how it works it can develop a form of self-awareness. We will eventually solve the problem of consciousness, but the feeling of self-awareness will remain mysterious. Even in the future Philosophers will wonder if they really exist. Am I some momentary accident of being or an individual result of a long history of personal experience? Do I really exist or am I only the shadow of my own appearance?

William said...

I am reminded of...

"There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read—something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damned thing and my eyes were coming out—I couldn't make head nor tail of it. I figured it was because I hadn't read any of the books on that list. I had this uneasy feeling of, "I'm not adequate," until finally I said to myself, "I'm going to stop, and read one sentence slowly so I can figure out what the hell it means."

So I stopped at random and read the next sentence very carefully. I can't remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: "The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels." I went back and forth over it and translated. You know what it means? "People read."

Then I went over the next sentence. And I realized that I could translate that one, also. Then it became a kind of empty business. "Sometimes people read. Sometimes people listen to the radio." And so on. But written in such a fancy way that I couldn't understand it at first. And when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it."

From 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!'