Monday, March 22, 2010

How do Neurons Know by Patricia Churchland


Blue Devil Knight said...

Footnote 13 is great.

Victor Reppert said...

I knew it. The Fodor-bashing quote.

Shackleman said...

What a strange, strange paper that was.

It's just...weird....hearing someone so highly regarded, deny their own existence, while at the same time expecting us to take her seriously.

This line was particularly amusing

" But does all of this mean that there is a
kind of fatal circularity in neuroscience
–that the brain necessarily uses itself to
study itself? Not if you think about it."

Irony. It burns.

It cannot be stressed enough how much the AfR weighs on this offering from Churchland.

Victor Reppert said...

Yes, of course this is in conflict with not just the AFR, but with a lot of what we think we know about ourselves. And yep, I think the whole mess is self-referentially incoherent.

On the one hand, the Churchlands are committed to listening to brain science and seeing what those disciplines have to tell us about what our cognitive enterprise is like. Interestingly enough you have a lot their fello naturalists, like Jerry Fodor, who aren't looking to brain science to provide much info on what our cognitive life is like. The reason is that there seems to be too big of a disconnect between our mental life as we know it through introspection and what science is going to come up with. There are people who say, yes, in some sense it is all material, but you shouldn't be too eager to throw over huge elements of what Sellars called the Manifest Image (as opposed to the Scientific Image), because to do that is going to undercut what we know about our mental life. So I guess there's a kind of promissory note put out there that the disconnect will go away someday, but an unwillingness to turn neuroscience into philosophy.

The Churchlands are the deadly enemies of people like Fodor, they think we have to start taking neuroscience seriously now, even if it means that we start thinking that we are dead wrong about having things like propositional attitidues like belief. So they are classed as eliminative materialists, eliminativists in the sense that they say that we have to be prepared to throw over our common-sense understanding of our cognitive life. It is typical to couch their position as the claim that there are no beliefs, but actually what they suggest is that as science develops on cognition, we may have to be prepared to drop the notion of belief. We may have better terms to use once brain science gets where it will eventually go. The problem that they face is precisely what you mentioned: that when they talk about all of this they use the langauge of common sense psychology. But it's not as if they're going to hit their heads and say "I never thought of that" if you point out to them that they are using prescientific language. I mean, what other language would you suggest they use? We don't have the scientific image mapped. So they may say "if you think about it" but they may think that, if they knew enough future neuroscience, they wouldn't talk like that. They routinely hit self-referential objections with a charge of begging the question.

My contention is that the disconnect between naturalistically acceptable talk about cognition and the common-sense talk (I did the mathematical question, and concluded such-and-such) is a logical disconnect, and that any reconciliation is bound to be based on some sort of confusion of categories. For starters, surely neurons don't know, even if things composed of neurons do know. Talk about neurons making predictions seems puzzling as well. What does that mean? If I say, "I predict the Lakers will win the NBA Finals this year", that doesn't make sense unless you attribute to me all kinds of states that are naturalistically illegal.

In fact, I have identified four dimensions of our mental lives which seem to be automatically excluded from base-level naturalistic accounts: intentionality, normativity, subjectivity and purpose. The divide between something that these terms can apply to, and that which these terms cannot apply, doesn't work. And being told "Aha, look at all the nifty stuff science is discovering about the brain! Surely this great divide will someday be crossed if we keep going on brain science!" doesn't wash. It is as if a lot of nifty maps of one side of the Grand Canyon can tell us how to get across the Grand Canyon. Bridging attempts, such as functionalism, appear to work, in my view, because we take out eyes off the ball and miss the category mistakes.

Victor Reppert said...

But this has been battled out numerous times on Dangerous Idea 2. Haven't been over there much lately, because I haven't done a lot of AFR stuff of late. There are also some very nice BDK/Doctor Logic vs. Darek Barefoot debates that were done around late 2007, when I was writing the Blackwell Companion entry on the Argument from Reason.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Shackleman perhaps you can point out the part where she denies her own existence.

J said...

Miss Churchland's hotsexy as only an eliminative-materialist aka neo-behaviorist can be. Time for some ...operant conditioning, dearies!

A nice summary of right-wing cog-sci. tho'.

Shackleman said...



Go play your gotcha games with someone else. I know you know EXACTLY that she denies that there is anything more to "us" other than the physical brain. And, I know that since you know this about her, that you can clearly and correctly see that that is the implication she's expressing throughout this paper Dr. Reppert linked to.

For some real entertainment, you can watch this video:

The first 40 seconds are enough to disabuse you of any notion that she does *not* deny the "self". If you stick out the video long enough, and if you're "awake" you'll find it hilarious, as I do, when she "reasons" to the notion that philosophers cannot solve problems using "reason". LOLOLOL. And she's even smug about it!

Shackleman said...

Dr. Reppert,

The problems eliminative materialists face are much bigger than of simple language barriers. Their position is self-referentially paradoxical, and there's no new language, or discovery, that can fix it.

They will *always* wind up saying something akin to

"I believe there are no beliefs".

They're stuck with this with no way out.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Shackleman: yawn all you want, it won't hide that you don't know what you are talking about.

For those interested in the facts about what Patricia Churchland things, perhaps read her work. It's funny actually, I remember being amost incredulous at how interested she was in the nature and basis of the self (when I was a grad student with her at UCSD). Indeed, she devoted a chapter to such work in her book Brainwise. You may not like her theory or whatever, but to say she doesn't think selves exist, and to act all cocky about it? You can call it a gotcha game, I call it getting basic facts about her position just wrong and restating them as if they are obvious.

I was actually starting to think you weren't full of it.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Just watched the video. You don't get it, sorry. Read one of her books and get back to us. Perhaps Brainwise.

Also, I don't see what is strange about skepticism of the usefulness of armchair musings of philosophers. I don't see what is strange about that. Look at the progress in philosophy compared to the sciences. It was funny we would meet each week for the 'Experimental Philosophy Lab' and the insignia of the group was an armchair with a line through it.

Shackleman said...


As if on queue, here you come with your internet tough guy crap, as usual. I don't get why you have such a hard on for me. I've never gotten personal with you so I just don't get it. But whatever, as long as you feel like a big man, I guess?

From the video:

Churchland: "The way the data are now, it's pretty clear there is only the physical brain. That we think and feel and make decisions is a result of physical processes in the brain. There is no, in addition to the physical brain, there is no non-physical mind, or soul, or spookie stuff"

What's not to get, BDK? It could hardly be any clearer.

Also from the video:

Churchland smugly *reasons*: "Bear in mind these are empirical questions. And the answer to the question, are there ways of thinking of ourselves that will have no purchase...the answers to those questions will come out of the science. It's not going to come as a result of a philosopher thinking long and deep in the hottub. It's not going to come out of a philosopher analyzing a concept and using pure reason. Because it's a question of fact".

I'm not in the least surprised that the irony and humor of this quote is lost on you.

Now, since I've admitted oh, about 1000000 times that I'm a layperson, I'm quite happy to admit that perhaps I've gotten the wrong impression from these quotes. I'm down with that. Tell me how. I'm open to learning my error. But, unless she didn't really MEAN the things she said in the video, then it's quite clear from the passages I've quoted that she denies "self" in any customary way one would define it. And it's quite clear that she REASONS all the day long, whilst denouncing reason. And it's quite clear that her eliminative materialism is doomed to end in self-referential failure. The AfR is a serious hurdle in her "nothing but the brain" position.

So, are you going to be a gentleman and show me, an open audience, how it is that I've gotten it all wrong? Or are you just going to continue to puff your chest out? If it's the latter, then I'll be ignoring further posts from you on this topic.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Shackleman: first the substance. She says "think and feel and make decisions is a result of physical processes in the brain". And you want to say this means she thinks these things don't exist. That is incorrect, and confuses eliminating X with explaining X in terms of something else.

That would be like concluding that temperature doesn't exist because we know temperature is the mean kinetic energy of molecules in a gas, or digestion can be explained by the activity of a bunch of enzymes. In both cases, the higher-level property (temperature and digestion) exist.

You have confused reduction (temperature-mean kinetic energy) with elimination (aether theory, phlogiston theory).

This is stuff she has written about in pretty much every book (except the computational brain which is more technical). If you truly want a lay introduction to all this, read Brainwise.

And please, cut the silly theatrics, you poor poor victim. lol

Shackleman said...

BDK: "She says "think and feel and make decisions is a result of physical processes in the brain". And you want to say this means she thinks these things don't exist. That is incorrect, and confuses eliminating X with explaining X in terms of something else."

You've confused her premise for her conclusion. Here, I'll quote the conclusion for you again since you've missed it...again.

"There is no, in addition to the physical brain, there is no non-physical mind, or soul, or spookie stuff"

I'd want to misrepresent that too if I were you. The consequences and implications of selves-as-brain-processes are certainly troubling.

I've shown the full in-context quote and it's clear, "self", according to her, is an epiphenomenon of the brain. And she's clear in several works of hers that what we think of as "selves" doesn't really exist outside of PHYSICAL processes in the brain. If you want to complain about my semantics have at it. I won't stop you.

So, Patricia Churchland exists not as a "person" or "soul", no. Patricia Churchland exists as a brain-process. Besides bloviating, you've done nothing to show otherwise.

"And please, cut the silly theatrics, you poor poor victim."

Awe, what's the matter? You don't like it when someone points it out to you when you're being the proverbial internet-tuff-guy? It's what you do, man. If you don't like it, then take a look in the mirror and change it.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Lightning is nothing but electrostatic discharge of a certain sort. That doesn't mean lightning doesn't exist.

Same confusion as I already pointed out, between reduction and elimination. Explaining X in terms of other stuff doesn't eliminate X.

Yes, she thinks psychological things like selves, consciousness, mental representations, and thoughts are neuronal (or more accurately, reducible to the neuronal), but that doesn't mean she thinks they don't exist.

If you don't get it with my lightning analogy, read her book as I can't make it any clearer than that. She is quite explicit about this in everything she writes.

For instance, she wrote (in the article what should we expect from a theory of consciousness):
"One difficulty, according to the skeptics, is that if consciousness is reduced to neuronal activities, then we are landed in the absurd position of saying that my pains, tastes and so forth are not real. (Searle, 1993).

"This worry is, in my view, based on misinformation concerning what reductions in science do and do not entail. The short answer to the topic question, therefore, is "No: pains will not cease to be real just because we understand the neurobiology of pain." That is, a reductive explanation of a macro phenomenon in terms of the dynamics of its microstructural features does not mean that the macro phenomenon is not real or is scientifically disreputable or somehow explanatorily unworthy or redundant."

Hopefully that convinces you that, as exegesis, you have gotten her all wrong. That's been her position her entire career. Maybe it's partly her fault you misunderstood, as she was being provocative with her "nothing but" phrase.

If you wanted to make a good argument, you could say she is wrong that pain will be reduced at all. That would be a different argument, and you'd be on much thicker ice at that point. That's the tack people take that understand these issues (e.g., Chalmers, Victor, Fodor, all the other antireductionists about mind).

Mind you I'm not defending reductionism here, just defending her against claims that she thinks there is no self, which is patently false, and obvious to anyone who has read her stuff.

Brainwise, excellent book for its clarity and you'd get a better handle on these issues.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Note in the quote that you think makes your point she says there is no nonphysical mind. She never, ever, has said there is no mind. That is one common way to misinterpret their position. She isn't a dualist is all that means.

OK this is a time sink done. Brainwise if you really are interested in these issues.

Shackleman said...


The spirit with which you offer your latest is appreciated.

I have always been careful (after my initial quip in this thread) to qualify my position saying, *as would be traditionally defined*, Churchland denies that the "self" exists. Yes, she admits that we "experience" something that can be described as a self, but she's's not really a "self" as we would normally use the term at all. It's just a byproduct of brain function.

I have an interest, and I trust your conclusions since this is your field of expertise, so I will read Brainwise. Thanks for the suggestion. But I've read a bit more than a bit of what's available from her on the internet and I think I have a pretty good understanding already and so my position (sans your misunderstandings/misrepresentations of it) for now remains unchanged. Perhaps after I read it I will better understand the cause of my error in understanding her. Or, perhaps I'll be better armed to show you your errors.