Beware the Magnevonian Myth!

In an earlier post, “Actions and events…” (at my FCA blog but also available here), I described three bodily motions (a., b, and c.), which, though they all look the same and produce the same effects, are not the same action at all. I claimed that intentionality, as a non-physical ascription of formal coherence, needs to be “layered” onto a., b., and c. (and onto all such scientifically observable realities), otherwise they are “behaviorally… and neurologically… indiscernible.”

A commentor on my blog disagreed, however, by saying, “…the [neurologically distinct] brain states would be discernible, not indiscernible. From one brain state we get swatting the fly and from the other we get waving.”

I believe preempted the commentor’s objection in an ensuing paragraph of the post to which he was reacting, but I did so too cryptically. So I will highlight my garbled answer from the earlier post, and then offer a better, fuller defense of what I meant by it. I said:

The critic that … [deploys purely neurological] descriptions of all behavior is oblivious to the fact that we can only imagine a coherent difference between the a., b., and c. actions at the neural level because we already know how those actions are formally (viz., teleologically) distinct. We know the brain phenomena will be different “on the inside” because we already know the actions in which they are involved are formally different “on the outside.” If, however, we strip away the explanations of the actions that I gave in listing them, they are effectively indiscernible.

I realize now (for the second round of reader responses) that I should modify the phrasing of my point about “indiscernibility.” I muddled things by using words in a way that appear to be contradictory. So, to clarify: …
The adverb is used to modify the act of discerning, not the physical structure of the motions and/or neural networks. Accordingly, I (in the above quote) spoke of an effective indiscernibility, though unfortunately that phrasing followed a reference to “neurological indiscernibility.” Despite this error, however, my point is that, viewed from a strictly behavioral and/or strictly neurochemical perspective, what we see happening in a., b, and c. are indiscernible without (surreptitious and ineluctable) reference back to what we already know is happening. Consider:

If you took the famous man on the street and played three video clips for him—of one and the same man, call him Alfred, doing a., b., and c., and/or showed three video clips of Alfred’s brain via an fMFRI for a., b., and c.—he would have no idea what he was seeing. You could, of course, instruct him that the fMRI clips displayed Alfred’s brain when he performed a., b., and c., but our man from the street would still need to know what those three visually intrinsically indiscernible motions were “about” (cue intentionality and teleology!) in order to begin to parse similar fMRI clips that he might be shown later. His pedagogy in brain images might be perfect, such that he could dictate Alfred’s daily happenings without seeing him, just by watching a streaming fMRI broadcast of Alfred’s brain (as he wore, say, an fMRI helmet). A sort of Neo for the Neuro-Matrix: he doesn’t even see code anymore, just what it means. Aye, there’s the rub: what it means. For at every turn, our Neuro-Neo he would be converting the fMRI lightshow images back into the formally distinct and metaphysically “autonomous” realities of human action.

The point, which still stands, is that the effective discernibility of physical occurrences hinges on a formal recognition of them (X, Y, Z, etc.), a discernibility, however, which is not to be discerned in the naked contents of identical motions and/or intentionally unfiltered neural flashes. (As always, unless I state otherwise, I am not using “intentional” in the sense of “purposive,” but of “ascriptively-being-about.”)

As far as explaining actions goes, there is nothing intrinsically discernibly useful for that purpose in the same class of skeletomuscular movements (viewed behaviorally), nor in the same class of neural flashes, since it is only by an act of intentional ascription (by the observer) that they have any reference to what is being observed on the macro-level. If our species saw only atoms, or had fMRI goggles from birth, we would still have to learn what those atomic swirls and synaptic light shows mean in terms of macro-reality and human behavior. In either case, whether it’s the macro-motions or (neural) micro-events of a., b., and c., we are just seeing a human physically perform some action for some purpose. We can and should speak of Alfred’s brain as unself-consciously and coherently as we speak about his hand or eye. Seeing a man “wave for X’s attention” may be more “interesting” (like all fads are) now that we have “an all new way” to “look into” humans, but once the novelty wears off, we are just seeing the same old same old: a hylomorphic entity dynamically informing its proper matter toward certain ends in certain formally coherent ways, in sensory connection with an intelligible environment. Unfortunately the fans of neuro-reductionism, the more everyday fMRI and the like become, the more everyday their allegedly novel explanations will become. Today’s scientific craze, like pop-up toasters or yore, is tomorrow’s… well, pop-up toaster.

Even somewhat long-term readers of my FCA blog (aka, souls in Purgatory) know I have written about the “mind-body problem” before, specifically in criticism of what I call neuribilism (neuro-, brain + ibi-, where). Neuribilism is, as I wrote in “Lower the bar…“, the claim that there is a one-to-one correspondence between human cognitive capacities and the structure of the brain. The problem with neuribilistic reductionism (or neuromania) is that, while it is portrayed as a supremely better form of explanation than the “folk theory” of action (i.e., purposive rational behavior), and while it is vaunted, in a devil-may-care way, as a radical, corrosive undermining of our feeble “traditional” patterns of thought, in fact it can easily be turned on its head and shown to be just as mysterious and provincial as good old folk psychology.

Let us imagine a race of beings—call them Magnevons—with eyes like fMRI’s, who see each other’s neural actions like we see each other’s limbs and bodies in action. Indeed, Magnevons can perceive neurochemical interactions and processes as subtly as any human can use language or people-watch in the park. They only perceive what we, for about four centuries, at least, have called primary qualities: extension, firmness, electromagnetic waves, etc., and deny the reality of what we (for about the same amount of time) have called secondary qualities: color, musical tone, fragrances, etc.

For centuries the Magnevons labor under the atavistic superstition that they (to take a few crude examples from Magnevonian folk psychology) display (neurologically) Q when they are hungry and Qq when they eat, P when they are in love and Pp when they copulate, T when they are angry and Tt when they murder, and so forth. Over time, however, a few brave skeptics scale the walls of folk philosophy and bring down the king of Magnevonian commonsense. They are the few, ahem, souls brave enough to argue that, in truth, Magnevons don’t Q when they are hungry, nor Qq when they eat, but, in truth, Magnevons “clutch their stomachs” (!) when they Q and “raise food to their mouths and chew” (!) when they Qq. What they are “really just” doing for all these “folk concepts” (i.e., A, Aa, B, Bb, etc.) is finding their fMRI displays subject to “bodily actions” at a “higher causal level.” What they are “really” seeing when they display C413, is

The new wisdom is immensely popular, not only because it is so novel and dashingly audacious and up-to-date, but also because it makes so much more sense of Magnevonian reality. The new wisdom, for instance, explains in crisp causal terms how (to Magnevons) invisible but theoretically evident “corporeal objects in the ‘external’ ‘superatomic’ world” impinge on Magnevons’ “bodies” (!) and thus, with perfect predictability, push and pull them, constrain and develop them, the wee Magnevons. Lost, in ignominy, is the old illusion that Magnevons can just use their “minds” and “mentally” manipulate their visible chemicals and neurons to achieve what they “want” to do. In its stead is the new insight that their “bodies” perform certain rationally intelligible operations in response to the presence and absence of certain physical stimuli. When they think they see “themselves” manifest this or that “brain state”, in fact, the Magnevons are instructed, they are but seeing the lawlike effects of “fingers on a piano,” an ear next to a radio speaker,” “moist lips kissing at dusk,” and the like.

The protests of “traditionalist” Magnevons are futile: willfully altering one’s brain chemicals and activating or suppressing one’s various neural networks are not real categories of explanation, since Magnevons are ceaselessly bombarded by “external” stimuli which mercilessly dictate how they “manifest” (in fMRI terms). “That is the real world, out there,” declare the new corporealists, “Your ‘inner’ world, driven by ornate ideas about parallel-neurology and chemical states, is but an illusion, imposed upon your ‘brain’ by the truly potent casues: bodies and objects. The macro-laws of objects predictably entail Magnevonian ‘mental manifestations’, not vice versa.” The icing on the corporealist cake is that the ever-new optical technology allows Magnevons to see, in real time, their “bodies” perform things they’d always thought were just the powers of their neurochemical personalities. Who could withstand such compelling evidence?

It takes centuries, but ultimately the spell is broken, the rainbow unweaved. Ultimately, the rubble of Magnevonian folk psychology—crowded with esoteric, gratuitous fictions like T-neurons and Qq-goals—is destroyed and swept away, leaving in its place a halcyon new world of rational truth: Magnevons have flesh and blood bodies which act in certain physically determined ways according to the higher laws of bodily needs and satisfaction.

This little fable is intended (“purposive” meaning!) to show how relatively provincial the neuribilist position–nay, obsession–is. It seems, from the perspective of our pet scientific methodology, that the reductive, neuribilist campaign just is the only thoroughgoing rational approach to action and causation. After all, just look at the fancy display monitor in the expensive new lab! Science speaks for itself! … Right?

Certainly, if we could observe people’s brains without them being “attached” to the people, we would have pristinely lucid neural dynamos subject to complete deterministic explanation and prediction. Indeed, a thoroughgoing neuro-reducitvist should, by my lights, stop talking about “his brain” or anyone else’s, and instead speak of “the brain’s me“. After all, on the neuribilist view, it’s just “the brain’s neurochemistry” in the driver’s seat of action and explanation. As the commentory himself wrote, “From one brain state we get swatting the fly and from the other we get waving [my emphasis added]” But why not just say that from swatting a fly we get one neural state and from waving we get another? The emphasis on brain states comes from the neuro-reductivists’s naive impression that real brains are just like the ones we study in neuro-labs, as if there were these things called brains that just churn out all kinds of wild brain states that result in hohum bodily behaviors. As if the brain states were ordered strictly in connection with their own self-contained chemicals fountains. This is the world according to crude old-school epiphenomalism. (Nay, I shall call it roving Krangism!)

In reality, however, the animal brain is immersed by the senses in the world of matter and dnymaic action, whereupon it finds itself, and its chemical fountains, formally and teleologically subject to the demands and aims of its corporeal “bearer.” The brain only does what it does because it is rooted in the body, which, in turn, only does what it does because it is immersed in the sensible world of intelligibile reality. Hence, we do not “get” the agent’s actions from the overflow of its brain fountains; quite the contrary: we get those fountains as tools–organs, in the classic sense of the word–of the agent-in-the-world. The neuribilist, therefore, is allowed to keep up his wild goose chase for the mythical exact locations of exact actions. Sadly, however, it is a wild goose chase down a rabbit hole, since, by his own logic, all such “human endeavors” are but the random effects of a chemical sponge in a living ossuary atop a spinal pedestal, vainly trying to catch a glimpse of itself apart from anything like a self.

By contrast, as I wrote before at FCA in “A no-brainer…“, for a thoroughgoing Aristhomist,

…the Self… is not in the brain! On the contrary: the brain is in the self! Notice I do not say the brain is the self. The self is… that greater whole that transcends and orders the lesser parts. The self… does not “use” these parts like some detached repairman surveying a workbench. The truth is that the person acts and, in metaphysical but not temporal turn, the parts of the self act in their appropriate ways.

But again, in contrast, according to neuro-reductionism, given what we know about these chemicals and those chemicals, in conjunction with these and those physical parameters, of course we could predict a live brain’s performances as easily as we can predict an air bubble’s movement up and down in a straw as we “drink it up”. But this is only because the parameters for such tiny neurochemical microcosms are so elementary (by definition), that our understanding of them is identical to our predictions of them. Consequently, if humans, let alone microbes, were as elementary as neurochemical clumps, we would be able to understand and predict them as well as we do brain reactions. There is, alas, an inverse correlation between metaphysical potency and scientific predictability. The more active (in the Thomistotelian sense) a thing is, the more it defies a predictive understanding. Thus, insofar as He is pure Act, God is beyond all reduction to our pet explanations: He is pure freedom, which means He is utterly free to love.

Not that the mundane reductionist can be bothered with such flights of fancy. “Science proves,” he claims, “that X [i.e., some neural impulse which results in some bodily event b(X)] is simply what a human’s brain will do when Y [i.e., some other neural impulse causally antecedent to X] happens. It’s been demonstrated countless times in the lab.” Presumably, therefore, we can secretly know that when we see Alfred perform b(X), he is also “unwittingly” performing X and, further, that he also “unwittingly” had Y occur in his head. And so the picture seems complete, and completely deterministic.

Unfortunately, however, what gets left out of this seemingly complete portrait is Alfred himself. We may now know that a sudden flash of bright light and a huge booming sound cause Y in a human brain, and that Y (i.e., a certain aural-retinal stimulus in response to bright, loud surprises) in Alfred’s brain causes X, and that X, in turn, causes him to Xb (that is, fall to his knees and evacuate his bladder)—but we still have no idea why the flash and boom happened. So, as soon as we view Y, X, and b(X) in the larger world of objects, agents, and actions, our perfect grasp of why Alfred Xb–namely, since Y ⊃ (X ⊃ b(X))–just gets stretched out by one order of magnitude in the theoretical system and thereby becomes only one clue among others, as opposed to the defining key to b(X). As J. R. Lucas says on page 60 of The Freedom of the Will (Oxford University Press, 1970),

“It is always possible, as every child knows, to ask a further ‘Why?’ at the end of every explanation. And even if we have expanded an explanation to be a complete explanation, it is still possible to put the whole explanation in question. Given a purely deductive explanation, we may ask why the rules of inference should be what they are, and then when given a meta-logical justification, ask for further justification of that: the tortoise can always out-query Achilles.”

Lucas’s point brings our, first of all, the transcendental freedom of reason as the keystone of human freedom; as St. Thomas writes in De Veritate 24, 2, resp., “totius libertatis radix est in ratione constituta [the root of liberty, whole and entire, is constituted in reason]”. Second, Lucas’s point reminds us that only an infinite explanation, amenable to being asked “Why?” as a mother is open to a child, can truly satisfy the human mind. But I digress.

Even though we don’t know why the flash and boom happened, we do know something important, something we have always known: b(X) happened because Alfred got the piss scared out of him. We simple “folk” already knew that such flash-and-boom stunts cause people to fall down and, easily enough, wet themselves. So, when our betters “enhance” the “explanastory” for us by telling us that “what we already knew” (i.e., the falling and peeing) is “really just” Y three steps removed, they are taking an eruditely convoluted road to saying, “Apparently, when people fall down and soil themselves, it causes them to b(X). And apparently, when people have loud, bright shocks, they Y in their heads and then they b(X) in their pants.” At which point, which explanation you favor is more or less an aesthetic choice. A free aesthetic choice, to boot.

One Response

  1. You seem to be arguing against a pretty austere eliminativism. Unless I’m mistaken, that view is not really the dominant view either in the philosophy of mind or in cognitive science. Am I mistaken?

    For what it’s worth, I think the early stuff about ‘indiscernibility’ is beside the point. There’s no reason why we couldn’t tell from looking only at the neurobiological level that A,B, and C are somehow different. We could perhaps even tell quite a bit about how they’re different. The important point is that we don’t really have the vaguest idea what A, B, and C really are unless we have some idea of the agent’s purposes, and we can’t (at least not in any way that current neuroscience can supply) figure *that* out by looking solely at the neurobiological level.

    These debates are beginning to get pretty boring. It’s pretty clear that eliminativists and strong reductionists don’t have sufficient reasons for their views, but it’s also clear that their rejection does not entail dualism or any sort of weird, anti-naturalistic conclusions. If the arguments here manage to go beyond where they’ve been for the last 10 years or so, somebody let me know. Otherwise, I’m going to continue on in confident possession of my mental capacities.

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