August 25, 2012

Brain, Self, World - Being Human Is More Than A Reduction To Physics And Chemistry

Art by Mark David Dietz, used with permission

Is Reductionism Wrong? A Philosopher Weighs In by Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True blog, August 20, 2012
Reality Is Flat. (Or, Is It?) by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinionator, August 16, 2012
Anything But Human by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinionator, August 5, 2012
Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis And The Misrepresentation of Humanity by Raymond Tallis, 2011

Professor Jerry Coyne’s definition of “emergence” in the link above is the most narrow and incomplete I’ve come across. Emergent properties need not be consistent with (the same as) and therefore reducible to lower-level properties. Emergent entities and processes are dependent upon lower-level properties but they, in some important way, transcend them. See Stuart A. Kauffman, 2008, page 5 and "emergence."

Implying that Professor Polt is some kind of dualist is a diversionary accusation. Accusing Polt of denigrating science when he is in fact focusing his criticism on scientism, not science, is hyperbole. Calling Polt antiscientific, antimaterialist, and antinaturalistic is almost as shrill as the hue and cry of Christians when religion is criticized by agnostics and atheists. We are discussing science and its provisional knowledge, not religion and its dogma that the faithful consider to be unassailable.

It is true that the reductionistic analysis of volition, emotions, and other mental phenomena has begun to link these cognitive states to locations and circuitry in the brain. There is no question that these anatomical locations and their neural circuits produce these states, and that they cease to exist when the brain ceases functioning. However, the physio-chemical, developmental, and causal pathways between genes, brain matter, and cognitive states have not been mapped, even in rough form. Nor have neuroscientists produced an unequivocal, testable, and verifiable model of the mind and consciousness.  The likely reason neuroscientists have not is they deny intentionality and human agency, and see the mind entirely as a function of a material brain evolved from material processes.

More broadly, neuroscience has not definitvely linked genes and brain matter to ever more complex human thoughts such as ideologies and scientific theories, or complex activities such the social interactions between individuals and the interactions between variously defined groups, over time.

I do not share Professor Coyne’s optimism that the work of sociobiologists and neuroscientists will eventually lead to a detailed account of such causal pathways and maps for human individual cognition, or their vastly more complex ideas, or social interactions over time. Imagine, for example, charting or modeling the trillions of complex beliefs, values, and individual and collective interactions that preceded and resulted in the Allied victory over Germany and Japan in WWII, or those that led to the collapse of the USSR in 1991 being reduced to genetic chemistry, neural matter, and brain circuitry. I find such an accomplishment inconceivable despite my love of and confidence in science, and my usually boundless imagination.

August 8, 2012

Anything But Human - Genes And Brains Don't Behave, Humans Do

Reality Is Flat. (Or Is It?) by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, August 16, 2012.  Polt's rejoinder to comments he has received on the article below.

Anything But Human by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, August 5, 2012

Thank you, Professor Polt, for some clarity in the ever-intoxicating Nature-Nuture paradigm that is becoming increasingly dominated by sociobiology and neuroscience, especially in the minds of the American public.  I am beginning to think that philosophers are better at understanding and accepting the findings of paleoanthropologists than are biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists.  Perhaps it is what they choose to look at and emphasize when they seek understandings of Humankind’s physical and behavioral repertoire.  Looking at genes and brains links these to behavior.  Looking at ideas, beliefs, and values links these to behavior.  Humans behave.  Genes contain codes for building anatomical structures and processes, including neurons and brain circuits.  These, in turn, produce behavior.  What the genes and neurons do is not the behavior.  What humans do is the behavior.

The "nature" of Humankind is a story of our early ancestors' and modern humans’ ability to beat the poor survival odds our relatively feeble hominid anatomy gave and still gives us.  How? We beat the odds by exploiting language-based culture and sociality to a degree that allowed minimal dependence on our inherited primate anatomy and instincts.  Ultimately, this and the subsequent cultural and technological innovations that followed allowed us to move into, survive, and increase in numbers in environments far more arduous than the Pleistocene woodlands of East and Southern Africa. Grasslands, deserts, oceanic islands, tundra, snow and ice, all became habitable.  Why, because we carried behaviors out of the African woodlands, into the grasslands, then on throughout the rest of the world as soft- or hard-wire encoded scripts in our genes?  Because of neuronal and brain configurations and behaviors our genes orchestrated?  These arguments have not been proven to a degree that merits abandoning the cultural evolutionary model.

The emergence of a sophisticated linguistic-cultural adaptation among the hominids, one far more successful at diverse environmental adaptation and exploitation than the quasi-cultural adaptations of all other animals that have evolved with us, and all that it has led to since that emergence, is the crux of the story of Humankind during our brief time on Earth.  Reducing this unique achievement relative to all the achievements of all other forms of life that ever appeared on Earth to a secondary role below the vestigial animal instincts encoded in our genes and neurons, and how they drive or override our beliefs, values, and ideals, dehumanizes us and removes our responsibility for continuing to use culture to beat the evolutionary odds stacked against us.  Sociobiology and neuroscience have much to offer but their findings do not reduce emergent language-based culture and human agency to an epiphenomenon or mere behavioral expression of a more profound and truthful story residing in our DNA and neurons.

Dumb And Dumber - Brain Circuitry Versus Sociocultural Argumentation

Dumb and Dumber by George Lakoff, Foreign Policy, August 7, 2012

Linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff's point is a simple one - liberals go wrong when they use the term "low-information voters" for Americans who vote for Republicans, a party that, in fact, works to their disadvantage. Fine, point made.

Need he claim, like so many now on the neuroscience bandwagon, that "conservatives and liberals have different ideas of what is right: …they have different moral systems, each characterized by neural circuitry in the brain?" What, let's not discuss or debate our differential values and beliefs, let's take a look at our brain scans when we think about them? What, because certain configurations of the brain are detectable by scanners when one thinks one way or another we must therefore accept Lakoff's argument that liberals shouldn’t use or think of certain Republican voters as “low-information voters”? Please.

A simple, more demonstrable and therefore better argument is that the values and beliefs of liberals about what constitutes a “better” America are different from the values and beliefs of conservatives, and that liberals and conservatives differ in terms of what they value and use as bases for decision-making behavior such as voting. List the values and beliefs in two columns and compare them, critically. Then point out errors in liberal methods to persuade others of the merits of their values and beliefs, and ways liberals can do better. Period.

Brain circuit images don’t trump, prove, or disprove sociocultural explanations.