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Posted by Harvey on September 12, 2002 01:32:07 UTC

Hi Luis,

***H: ”Therefore, there should be some rules (called 'bridge rules') which perfectly determine our thoughts.” L: Considering how little we know about ‘mind’ I don’t think this is a completely evenhanded position – specifically, the requirement that any physical model of 'mind' be a portrait of “perfect determination.” At this early stage of neuro/physio/psych understanding it seems more than fair to allow the possibility that some of the processes that constitute ‘mind’ might conform to physical rules still unrecognized or misunderstood.***

I recognize that possibility. I'm not saying that bridge rules are an impossibility. What I'm saying is that if they exist they appear to be complex rules since they should account for our thoughts being affected by other thoughts. Obviously none of us is aware of any physical changes inside our brains. For example, are you aware that when you decide to watch television that actually what has occurred is that a few synapses have suddenly started firing (perhaps triggered by a probablistic quantum equation of the wavefunction of atoms in a particular synapse)? Of course not.

Just because the bridge rules are extremely complex doesn't mean they don't exist. There are, of course, many philosophical discussions concerning bridge rules and the like. What I want to do here is simply explain the challenges of extreme reductionism of mind to physical computational states of the brain (called functionalism).

***I think our ‘self-important’ biases tend to blind us from seeing the “Big Picture.” If one cannot keep this bias in check he might overestimate the conclusiveness of current scientific progress. But science is more progression, and less conclusion -- many seem to miss this crucial point.***

Science does not progress in a vacuum. Philosophical discussions often lead to the advance in science. It isn't always philosophers who are philosophizing in these cases, it is scientists who are often doing the philosophizing. It isn't uncommon to find scientists who buy into a certain sub-philosophy which leads to their pursuit of a certain model or theory. That's generally what is occurring among philosophers of the mind. The main purpose is to find scientific theories.

For example, in that Hilary Putnam book that I quoted to you last week ("the Threefold Cord", 2001), Hilary Putnam discusses why he rejects functionalism (he is, btw, credited with 'inventing' the functionalist model). For example, here is Putnam's reply to your objection:

"Thus, functionalism conceived of what it called an ideal psychological theory in a very strange way. No actual psychological theory has ever pretended to provide a set of laws that distinquish, say, the state of being jealous of Desdemona's fancied regard for Cassio from every other actual or possible propositional attitude. Yet this is precisely what the identification of that propositional attitude with a 'computational state' would do. Thus functionalism brought to the study of the m strong assumptions about what any truly scientific psychological theory must look like... There is no harm in speculating about scientific possibilities that we are not presently able to realize. But I came to see the possibility of an ideal psychological theory of this sort is nothing more than a 'we know not what'. No one has the slightest idea as to how one might go about constructing such a theory. No one has any conception of what such a theory might look like. One hears a lot of talk about cognitive science nowadays, but one needs to distinguish between the putting forward of a scientific theory, or the flourishing of a scientific discipline with well-defined questions, and the proferring of promissory notes for possible theories that one does not even in principle know how to redeem. If I am right, the idea of a theoretical reduction in this case - the reduction of the entire body of psychology implicit in our ordinary practices of mental state attribution to physics cum computer science - is without any clear content. One cannot make the unexplained notion of 'identity' of 'sense data' with 'functionally characterizs states of the brain' precise with the aid of the concept of the reduction of one theory to another if one has no idea of the nature of the theory to which we are supposed to do the reducing (and only a very problematic idea of what theory we are supposed to reduce)." [p.35]

I agree with Putnam that one of the tasks of philosophy (whether it be philosophers and/or scientists performing this function) is to define what we are supposed to be describing and framing a possible solution at least into something coherent. The notion of functionalism as a philosophical theory of the mind is fine, but before we bite into this hook, line, and sinker, we should at least consider the solution as it applies to the problem. This is how science makes most of its progress (not by the mistaken Baconian notion that science is somehow fully inductive and simply progresses without theories forming a sound basis by which to conceive of the problem and solution).

***Instead of recognizing the magnitude of our limitations we might marvel at our latest discoveries and dismiss any recent stumblings as mere exceptions. But this fallibility is the rule, not the exception, in my opinion (a disclaimer I've found I have to make forty-three times every time I address Harv).***

For every forty-three times Luis, I keep mentioning that you need to form a conception to even address the problem. These conceptions are necessarily limiting one's possible solutions. Sometimes such conceptions are detrimental (e.g., the concept of 'ether' to late 19th century physicists), and sometimes such conceptions are beneficial (e.g., the relativity principle to early Einstein's conception). We can all sit around and complain that our theories are fallible, but are they more fallible than 6th century B.C. theories? I think a major point of doing science is to make progress in our conceptual understanding of the world as it relates to our empirical claims which can be observed. However, prior to making valid empirical claims we have to be on a certain track (some call it the right track) which results in a successful theory capable of making valid empirical claims. It is simply a mistake to use a fallibistic concept of science and wave our hands in the air saying "we're all gonna die, all theories are fallible...". Such fallibistic approaches are never going to lead in the right direction.

That being said, it is a mistake to accept a theory as correct without empirical claims that are validated. However, there is a huge gulf between a theory being validated and a philosophy being asinine. We construct reasonable answers by developing plausible models. We should even rate our models by the likely degree that they appear to be true. This is what Putnam is doing with functionalism (which has somehow largely become the assumed-to-be-correct answer of cognitive science). If we hold these kind of assumptions, it can prevent us from seeing the correct concepts which lead to better scientific theories (which is what 'ether' did to late 19th century scientists).

***By way of example, some would happily paraphrase Uncertainty thus: “at a given point, infinitesimal processes are beyond exact, mechanistic descriptions. . . but everything else is perfectly deterministic.” This approach should not hope to achieve much, scientifically.***

I'm not sure what you mean. Are you talking about a different interpretation of the UP or the statistical implications of Schrodinger's time evolution equation? Most physicists treat the UP as an inherent limitation in nature (e.g., the UP is used to explain tunneling, virtual particles in QED, etc). If quantum events are indetermistic (and all events are deduced from them), then the problem of causation raises its ugly head. There are potential answers to these problems, but I merely wanted to mention that these are problems that must be addressed. The whole notion of 'bridge laws' acting as an explanation to physical events is challenged. These notions should be thought out (no pun intended).

***”such an explanation is counterintuitive since this is not how it feels at all. . . I do think that some type of holist answer is required in order to rescue a physicalist project.” If such a thing as “emotional syllogism” existed, I think you might be right on the money here. However, it seems you’re appealing to logic, and I cannot see how you can hope to rationally press the point that “what feels right is right.” The requirement "in order to rescue a physicalist project" is not the condition in which "physicalists" find their ideas; this is a problem you perceive with “physicalism.” It doesn't feel good to Harv. . . but why should this concern anybody but Harv?***

Who are you talking to? You take all of this way too personal. Luis, it is okay to question how a physicalist answer is possible to the philosophy of the mind. This is not some fundamentalist religion where Church elders and their cohorts must quickly stiffle heresy talk by saying "The requirement in order to rescue the Trinity doctrine is not the condition in which Trinitarians find their religion; this is a problem you perceive with Trinitarianism. It doesn't feel good to Harv... but why should this concern anybody but Harv?"

I personally think that some form of the physicalist program is correct, but I think based on the evidence I've seen, that this answer is holistic based. I'm leaning to a self-organization answer - I think that is a better approach to a successful theory of the mind than the approach taken by functionalists.

***Some form of self-preservation has allowed humans to thrive/excel/evolve. Now that we recognize our own mortality, this self-preservation has become a desire for holism.***

Well, there's many desires. For example, there are desires to reduce everything to material and psychological necessity in order to satisfy one's psychological need for self-autonomy. Self-autonomy is usually a healthy reaction to our need to seek independence in the world, but it can be destructive when it leads individuals to rebel and lead unhealthy lifestyles (the degree of this need usually shows up in teenage years). Teens might experiment and 'rebel' by using drugs, music, beliefs, etc.

***I think that we are so far from understanding thought that arguing against a physical model for it by enlisting known physical laws is a bit like Neanderthal Man arguing the moon doesn’t exist because no one could ever jump that high.***

True, but why not put more emphasis in physicalist models that are holistic in nature? Why the scoofing of holism simply because it implies that the world is not necessarily reducible according to some strict interpretation of past reductionist approaches? The degree of holism is, as I see it, the issue of debate. A completely holist theory is probably outside the comprehension of science, but there are intermediate holist approaches (e.g., self-organization) which might approximate popular reductionist concepts (e.g., molecules are an 'entity' that is an approximation of quantum particles, etc). If we treat 'thought' as an emergent property, I think we will go further in the eventual science of thought.

***Science builds from its own toolbox, but it also continuously improves and adds to this toolbox. Forgetting this point may confine the otherwise sharp mind to the throes of philosophical indulgence.***

I would agree with this except I would add that much of what passes for science is actually progressive philosophical indulgence. It is not wise to remain at pure philosophical indulgence, otherwise little is accomplished. Analytic philosophy has overall done a good job at focusing on issues where progress of some type is possible. When progress stops (i.e., it turns into a he/said - she/said discussion), then it's best to pursue other endeavors. It is often uncommon to see philosophers move into other philosophical interests when they have lost the philosophical trail.

Warm regards, Harv

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