R.I.P. A Real Brainiac!

May 23, 2014

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Gerald M. Edelman, Nobel Laureate and ‘Neural Darwinist,’ Dies at 84

“There isn’t going to be any kind of theory of the brain that doesn’t involve elements of his ideas. The brain is never — never has been or ever will be — in the same state twice, and will never encounter the same environmental cues twice. What’s attractive about his model is that it tries to address that reality.”

From earlier posts:

I’m not going to go into a detailed account of Zen ideas or Edelman’s here, but one remark is cogent: He suggests that consciousness has no causal consequences – it does nothing!

 Edelman makes the important and emphatic point that the brain is not a computer. He is dismissive of artificial intelligence as it is practiced today, although he expects, eventually, that an artificial mind will be created…it just won’t be a machine!

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Gray Matter

March 22, 2012

Reading Eric Kandel’s wonderful book, In Search of Memory, I recalled the marvellous little Dan Reeder ditty from his first CD:

 

The book is fascinating, and even exciting.  As the Times reviewer noted: 

If there is another book that does a better job of demonstrating how biological research is done, or of telling the story of a brilliant scientist’s career, I don’t know it. Nor do I know one that better conveys the unique excitement that drives the success of research . . . or that gives a better descriptive narrative of the historical evolution of our understanding of mind

The fact that he seems to endorse the philosophical views of my undergraduate bête noir, Thomas Nagel, is a minor point.  (I skimmed ahead to find this out.  Maybe I’ll feel differently on a full reading.)

Kandel notes that memory is of two kinds:  the type that we use consciously (Who was the first president?); and the unconscious kind, e.g. remembering how to ride a bike after not doing it for years.  This was a very important discovery in neuroscience, and it has philosophical implications.  He notes that Gilbert Ryle, in 1949, discussed the two kinds of knowledge:  knowing what, and knowing how.  I wonder… are they really so different?  As Julian Jaynes  pointed out, a lot of what passes for conscious ratiocination, e.g. logic, is not that at all.

I also enjoyed reading Kandel’s discussion of Dr. Galvani’s landmark contribution to the foundations of a science of mind.


Anyone in there?

June 21, 2010

*Is is possible to be wrong about whether or not you are in pain?
*Can a colorblind person know what the rest of humanity experiences when it sees things?
*Can we ever know what it is like to be a bat?

People generally fall into one of two camps on questions of this sort: 

  1. These questions are idiotic, a waste of time, and only really strange and intellectually eccentric people care about them.
  2. These questions are fascinating, albeit strange, and by thinking about them we can start to understand the phenomenon of mentality.

The vast majority of people is in the first camp.  For better or worse, I have always been in the second.  This is the province of the Philosophy of Mind, the discipline that seeks, or pretends to seek clarity regarding our notions of what it means to be conscious, have a mind, be a sentient, perceiving being, and not to be a machine, a robot, or a zombie.   (The latter category of being is much in vogue today, among philsophers of mind.)

I know of no better guide through this morass than Professor Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University.  His 1991 book, Consciousness Explained is the best thing I have ever read on the topic.  His recent short book of lectures that revisits that earlier work, Sweet Dreams:  Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness is a great refresher on his ideas.  The word science is key:  Dennett is trying to use philosophy to clear away intellectual deadwood so that science may advance more rapidly.  He rejects the notion that philosophy has a primary role in formulating an explanation of consciousness, and for this he is labeled as reductionist, materialist, physicalist, mechanist, and several other more or less pejorative terms, some of which he is happy to accept, albeit with qualifications.

As a student of philosophy in college, I became disgusted with the narrowminded and dogmatic point of view that dominated the department, and I left to take a degree in art history.  One  intellectual luminary, who was my personal bête noir, Thomas Nagel, is the subject of frequent, sustained, and devastating criticism by Dennett.  Of course, I love that.  (Nagel’s essay, What is it like to be a bat? , is a “classic” in the field.)

I have seen Dennett on TV, and read opinion pieces of his in the NYTimes, and he has a tendency towards pugnacious and aggressive humor, but he has a right to it.  The people with whom he’s arguing need shaking up.  And he’s right!  At times, as when he discusses atheism, he seems a bit of a crank, but that too is probably a result of arguing with mystics who think they are scientists.  If the arguments of his critics seem, as he presents them, to be utterly ridiculous, that’s because they are.  The bigger question is why they continue to be revered as sophisticated philosophical investigators.

These books are not for those seeking an introduction to the topic, and if you are not familiar with the arcane and involved history of these questions in the philosophical literature, you will find them tough going.  Sorry, but I don’t know any books that do fit that bill.


Sensation!

February 2, 2010

But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of  compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience . . . In short,  all the materials of thinking are derived either from our outward or inward sentiment: the mixture and composition of these belongs alone to the mind and will. 

 
Time was, I liked to knock the English empiricists hard, love them though I might.  Nowadays, I think they, especially Mr. David Hume, had it just right as far as the Theory of Knowledge, aka epistemology goes.  Consider this article (Abstract Thoughts?  The Body Takes Them Literally)  in the New York Times today.  It’s all about how we don’t just “think” with our brains, where all our linguistic nattering goes on, but with our bodies.  Indeed, our brains treat many abstract concepts quite concretely, as instances of physical activity, translated into linguistic metaphor. 

As Hume would say, our most abstract ideas spring, eventually, if you trace them back far enough,  from genuine physical sensations.  As the psychologist Julian Jaynes remarked in an earlier chapter of his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

… the relation between an analog map and its land is a metaphor.

That is, just as a paper map relates to the actual terrain as a linguistic metaphor to reality, so too do our abstract ideas relate to physical reality and sensation.  (Maps are not as cut and dried as you might think, either!)  Our ideas are, in the end, analogs, a notion that would have made Plato vomit, I think.

BTW, I most certainly do not recommend Jayne’s book, although the first chapter or two are masterful descriptions of what thinking is actually, as opposed to what epistemologists like to pretend it is.  He was, however, a very creative fellow.


The Mind is Not a Computer

February 25, 2008

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I have just begun reading a fascinating book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge by the Nobel Laureate, Gerald Edelman. I wish that this book had been around thirty years ago when I was stuck in the philosophical quagmire known as “analytic philosophy of mind.” This would have been my Bible! As it was, I could only struggle on my own, a single undergraduate, towards a point of view that was pretty much rejected as irrelevant by the philosophic “giants” by whom I was being taught.

Edelman makes the important and emphatic point that the brain is not a computer. He is dismissive of artificial intelligence as it is practiced today, although he expects, eventually, that an artificial mind will be created…it just won’t be a machine! The mechanistic metaphor is so deeply embedded in our intellectual culture that this notion seems far fetched, wacky, at first if you are the type of person who has been seriously contemplating the riddles of consciousness. For many, the computer has seemed to be the best, if not the perfect model on which to draw for explanations of mentality.

In his book, right up front, Edelman makes the point that the brain, which is the primary seat of mind, is nothing like any machine. It is not like any machine humans have ever have, or would ever think of designing. To call it a machine, however poetically, is to do violence to the facts of biology and neuroscience. Why?

A computing machine runs on a clock – tick – tock – tick…each click of the microprocessor (that’s what all those GHtz specifications in the sales sheets are about, the clock speed of the central processor) sets up the machine to do another teeny part of the programmed algorithm…in order…in sequence. The brain has no such clock. It is massively parallel and massively redundant. The same result can be reached through an infinitude of computing paths. Not only that, the results of the previous activity-state, change the current state and future results. (When we train, we force a groove as it were, into our brain so that something, mental activity, physical motion of a certain sort, becomes easier, unconscious…) No machine behaves this way or is even conceived of to behave this way.

So, the machine metaphor is inadequate, and unecessary, for explanations of mind and consciousness. What a relief!