The Chicago Philosophy Meetup Message Board › Philosophy and Neuroscience

Philosophy and Neuroscience

Ivan
user 12130423
Group Organizer
Buffalo Grove, IL
Post #: 24
The philosophers we've been studying have explored philosophy through introspection. My claim here is going to be that a scientific understanding should replace introspection in much of our philosophical discussion.

We only become philosophers after doing a lot of informal ontology, epistemology and phenomenology. We start studying philosophy with a library of things, abstractions, experiences and methods. This general knowledge gives us the basis for our philosophical introspection.

Wittgenstein reflects on how we use language, finding that naive beliefs about how language works are quite wrong; from the perspective of introspection, Wittgenstein persuades us that atomic theories of meaning don't work. Likewise, Kant is careful and thorough. Based on introspection, Kant catalogs the kinds of experiences we think are possible, and what we can conclude from them.

While this all sounds like fundamental philosophy, I'm going to argue that it has a flaw. Introspection is simply not very reliable. The resolution to the problem lies in neuroscience and psychology.

"Neuroscience?!!" I hear you yell, as you spit out your coffee. "You can't invoke a contingent element of our scientific ontology to trump phenomenology!"

There are certain things that our brains do below the level of consciousness. This is not a controversial scientific fact. Among these things is an ability to abstract and recognize aspects of our experiences. We can't see from introspection precisely how we learn to recognize rabbits. Yet, we're quite confident that we can't learn to see rabbits without sensory input. Something in our brains is analyzing sensory input, automatically finding familiar patterns, and forming concepts around those patterns.

Neuroscience is showing us how the brain does this recognition and abstraction. Artificial brains can learn to recognize patterns in the same way we do, creating characteristic output states that correspond to concepts.

Given that this inference and abstraction is taking place at the biological level, what should we expect from an introspective philosophical analysis?

We should expect that, upon introspective analysis, concepts don't ultimately reduce to sensory raw inputs. There's a non-conscious layer between low-level concepts and sense data that introspection cannot penetrate. We're not aware of rabbits in virtue of conscious assembly of color patches. We recognize rabbits in a subconscious process, and then the results of this process are reported to consciousness, alongside those color patches.

In the linguistic parallel to visual recognition, we can expect that the meanings of words that we recognize will be as fuzzy as shape concepts our to visual recognition system, and that their recognition will be context-sensitive. We should expect that some concepts are neurological "answers" without clear questions (e.g., what is "The Good"?). Meaning is no more atomic upon introspection than is vision. Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations are just what we would expect if a mind is the result of an auto-associative neural network.

How about qualia? Qualia is a complex topic, but it may be founded on a faulty premise. Those who hold up qualia as a barrier impenetrable to science may have a confused expectation about what we should expect under our prevailing scientific models. Implicitly, philosophers who think qualia are relevant to the physicalist debate seem to think that if qualia were physical phenomena, then an accurate physical model would predict subjective experience. Of course, this prediction ability seems extremely far fetched to us. You don't believe that I can write a scientific description of what happens to your brain as you eat a bologna sandwich, and that you would have the subjective taste experience in response.

While it seems somewhat reasonable to disclaim this possibility, this doesn't have much of a bearing on whether qualia are ultimately physical phenomena. If qualia are generated by physical brains in a supervenient and reductive fashion, it does not follow that I will be able to pull off the bologna sandwich effect just by having you read some equations. This was never in the cards under physicalism.

Obviously, a philosopher wants to say that introspection and experience are our primary inputs. I know what I think, feel and experience, and neuroscience and physics seem remote in comparison. In the case of Wittgenstein, for instance, it seems unsporting to use scientific facts to make what was once a pure philosophical argument. After all, scientific facts are contingent whereas philosophical facts are not. Nevertheless, it is, in actuality, both sporting and superior to use science to make these sorts of arguments. The reason for this is that introspective arguments are just weak scientific arguments. Just like science, introspective arguments make use of examples and abstractions from our experiences. The difference is that introspection is less reliable.

Research in psychology tells us that what we believe about ourselves from introspection is often false. The agency we think we have doesn't really exist. We rationalize our past decisions. And our memories are more like a game of telephone than like videotape. So why should introspection be the best way forward in philosophical analysis?

This isn't to declare Wittgenstein and Kant to be incorrect. I think that they are both at least mostly correct. All of the branches of philosophy have coalesced around a scientific, reductionist worldview. This view does not contradict the phenomenological aspects of life, but meshes with it well. Science helps us build a better understanding of the phenomenology that underlies the work of philosophers like Wittgenstein and Kant. How much better? I think we're more certain about the basics of unconscious neural processes than we are in most philosophical arguments.

I'm not being scientistic here. I'm not saying that science is philosophy, or that science needs no philosophical support. Rather, I'm saying that in the holistic web of knowledge, science is well-supported philosophically, and that science provides the best raw data for further philosophical analysis of language and consciousness.
Thrashionalist
user 8545736
Chicago, IL
Post #: 29
A principal difference between at least you and me is that I take philosophy to be a search for wisdom, not mere knowledge. The distinction I mean to invoke with this choice of terms: "wisdom" concerns what is best, and is the kind of thing embodied by a person who is to all accounts living well. "Knowledge", by contrast, can be pursued in a much more fragmentary fashion. Knowledge is more of a cognitive possession, while wisdom is the way a good person is.

Obviously, if one is intellectually inclined, being smart is a natural ally of wisdom. I don't want to break any of my oaths with the community of calculating brains. So my reaction to neuroscience is more of disinterest than of disagreement. I suspect that several core members of the group feel the same way.
jerry
user 10146331
Chicago, IL
Post #: 8
I disagree with many of the specifics, although I agree with your overall statement, that "scientific understanding should replace introspection in much of our philosophical discussion". On the other hand, "Novalis also defines philosophy as a science of science; it explores the conditions for the study of nature, human nature included." Therefore, I am saying that science is philosophy and philosophy is science (to the best trained).

I think what you mean by "neuroscience" above is really "cognitive science", a specific approach/philosophy to thinking.

For example, you said: " Introspection is simply not very reliable. The resolution to the problem lies in neuroscience and psychology."

I would argue that the resolution lies in consideration of nature, which includes morphology as much as neuroscience and psychology. Such difficult concepts like qualia can then be conceptualized as things that you and I can measure and look at, at the same time, so as to work out any disagreements. "Only everybody knows the truth".
Erik C.
ErikChristianson
Chicago, IL
Post #: 101
Ivan:

I grant your entire argument, and I can only continue my reply after that by asking a question I am borrowing from Kierkegaard: where are we going?

I'll introduce a bit of science fiction, but not because I think will always be a fiction, but because I do not think it is yet actual.

All scientific discovery should be able to proceed on the basis of some machine we set up that (perhaps builds another machine to) carry on experiments and calculations and continue to learn in a manner consistent enough with human understandings such that we can comprehend the results (even if it requires huge efforts - but maybe understanding the results is needless in this case if the technological advances also continue in such a manner). Perhaps we will have a place still in oiling the gears, as it were. Maybe we can even upgrade ourselves to be of the same capacity as our machines.

I do not suggest this possible future in order to paint a depressive picture. It is good to have our science advance, and why get in the way of whatever the best means may be? Additionally, why should we make our jobs harder than they need to be? If my only responsibility was to do a bit of maintenance on a machine (that did maintenance) from time to time, and this was sufficient to contribute to science, then I would be relieved to have the free time to introspect. I do not think I will live long enough to see this paradise on earth come into existence, but I can hope.

Wait. Why am I still introspecting, and what about? Well, assuming my metal parts do not interfere with the "constitution of my faculties", I'll still have to deal with myself the way I am today, or even the way I would have had to deal with myself a thousand years ago (if I were alive then).

When I ask, "where are we going?", concerning science, I see all sorts of opportunities (going on indefinitely) for improvement of conditions for being who I am, and changing the kind of being I am quantitatively; however, I do not see potentialities for changing the kind of being that I am qualitatively. I take it to be possible to change what kind of being I am qualitatively - the first examples of such changes that come to mind are birth and death - rather I think such qualitative changes do not maintain continuity with that which changes (me) and so do not admit of evaluation until they occur.

When I ask the same question for philosophy - not in your sense of philosophy, but in mine - I see the indefinite opportunity to keep myself open to the kind of precarious being that I am, and in preventing myself from losing touch with the kind of being I am and what is. I do not see myself going anywhere, or making any advance similar to science or technology. If I did describe what kind of advance I would experience, it would just be the advance of the history of my actual living, and the changing conditions that come along with that.

So long as I maintain an interest in openness to the way things are, I am not merely sifting through the debris of experimental results, but witness to the concrete demands that set themselves up for me entirely apart from my desire to control and manipulate the world (this desire must itself be established in us). These demands that set themselves up occur whether or not I am looking at or for them, and they occur at a level below where science happens: when we are scientific we are already set up by these demands that have set themselves on us. This is what philosophy is for me, and also what guides my reading of the history of philosophy.

I fail to see any conflict between these outlooks that we have, and the demand to control our world and to conduct experiments actually do set themselves upon us whether we care to see how or why. There are concerns between us in one case, however, and that is whenever one demand that has established itself in us attempts to conceal its origin, and to set itself up as an established a priori world view - the "a priori world view" is just the establishing of this or that world view, not a model.

We should ask ourselves where we are going, and this question has to be asked by each person - it cannot be handed off to a machine, even if a machine can ask the question for itself. When asking this question we should be open to the demands that any following realizations may make on us to change direction or stay on course, and we should practice being attentive and open to these demands.
Ivan
user 12130423
Group Organizer
Buffalo Grove, IL
Post #: 25
Thrashionalist, can you give me an candidate or example of something that would constitute wisdom? And would this wisdom constitute knowledge?
Thrashionalist
user 8545736
Chicago, IL
Post #: 31
One kind of wisdom, which I find it very stimulating to think about these days, is the understanding of how and when to cooperate with other people. This requires technical competence, in the form of understanding human psychology, language-games, and social rituals. But it also requires a voluntary disposition to be cooperative, in the trust that this is a productive disposition to have. A person would form the resolution to be cooperative in light of the demands they have encountered in the task of being themselves, over time.

To give you another - speed and accuracy in judging where a train of thought will lead. This might sound like mere technical competence, but it won't if I append the following expansion: speed and accuracy in assessing the value of a train of thought, based on predictions about where it will lead.
jerry
user 10146331
Chicago, IL
Post #: 9
Christianson: You said, " All scientific discovery should be able to proceed on the basis of some machine we set up that (perhaps builds another machine to) carry on experiments and calculations and continue to learn in a manner consistent enough with human understandings such that we can comprehend the results (even if it requires huge efforts - but maybe understanding the results is needless in this case if the technological advances also continue in such a manner). Perhaps we will have a place still in oiling the gears, as it were. Maybe we can even upgrade ourselves to be of the same capacity as our machines."

What does this mean?


jerry
user 10146331
Chicago, IL
Post #: 10
Thrashonalist: You said, " A person would form the resolution to be cooperative in light of the demands they have encountered in the task of being themselves, over time."

Very nice! :)

"I was only trying to live my life in accordance with the principles which sprang from my own true self. Why was that so very difficult?" Hesse
Erik C.
ErikChristianson
Chicago, IL
Post #: 102
Jerry:

I didn't mean anything esoteric by this. What I meant was that a neural network, designed in the right way, and with the right inputs, could function like a human brain; such a network could also have many advantages over a human brain. Such networks could be used to continue the work of science without human assistance.

I could also mention that there are, in fact, human brains right now carrying on the work of science completely without my assistance. My proposed scenario is not different in kind from our current situation, then, save for the fact that no homo sapiens would need to carry on the work of science.

The elements of human experience, such as qualia, consciousness, &c, that are thoughtlessly disputed as impossible for a machine can be ignored here, since the result of the science would be the same.
jerry
user 10146331
Chicago, IL
Post #: 11
Christianson:

When you say you "don't mean anything esoteric by this", but then you say the following about your expectations, this is why it's important to study nature. How do you know your suppositions here is correct? If you see a neural networked system that can make mistakes like we do and remember a list of 7 numbers, can you scale that to relevant dimensions that include replacing you at your job?

You also say that "I could also mention that there are, in fact, human brains right now carrying on the work of science completely without my assistance. My proposed scenario is not different in kind from our current situation, then, save for the fact that no homo sapiens would need to carry on the work of science."

So, here, you make a connection between what you imagined, which is, that human brains of the standard to which they can replace you at your job can be built, to supposing about other stuff, like robots doing science.

Then you say, "The elements of human experience, such as qualia, consciousness, &c, that are thoughtlessly disputed as impossible for a machine can be ignored here, since the result of the science would be the same."

So, you've dismissed the importance of requirements for previous knowledge and such under the context of your imagination that we can create robots that can replace you at your job. That is, what you say is real.

What if we can't build robots that do this? What if the constraints on building brains is beyond us to create? How do you know? What if I say you don't know?
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