Comments on “A malign modern myth of meaningness: cognitive “science””


"The “damage” section takes

Matthew's picture

“The “damage” section takes as an example Sam Harris’s justification for America’s wars in the Middle East, supposedly based on cognitive neuroscience as applied to Muslims. I take no position here on those wars. However, his ideas about how Muslim “beliefs” causally result in violence are ludicrous and harmful.”

Did you pick this up somewhere? Can you provide a link to your comments?

Not denounced yet

Sorry, no, I posted this placeholder just a couple days ago, because it’s pointed to from the nutrition pages.

Cognitive/Neuroscience Critique

James Hansen's picture

I’m very curious to here, at least in summary, what your criticism of neuroscience is, and where in particular the criticism is directed. I’ve seen your comments regarding the haphazard nature of cognitive science as a field composed of many disparate parts, but I’m not clear on what exactly your opinion is regarding the consensus view of the brain in relation to the mind. Thanks! :)

Cognitive neuroscience

Hmm… if by “the brain in relation to the mind” you mean the philosophical mind/body problem, I have no particular opinion. All available theories seem clearly wrong, and I don’t have any better alternative. (I wrote about that in “A philosophical zombie.”)

There’s lots of problems with neuroscience, but this page (when/if I get to write it) will be about the ways in which it has taken over, uncritically, mistaken ideas from cognitive science. Particularly, the representational theory of mind, but more generally the idea that “the mind” has a clear boundary (at the skull, more-or-less) and consists of stuff-in-the-head. The work by Andy Clark and others on “extended mind” is one small demonstration of what’s wrong with this.

I don’t object to mind/body physicalism; I think it’s probably confused and wrong in some sense, but as a methodological move in neuroscience it’s legitimate and (at our current stage of understanding) necessary.

Physicalism et al

James Hansen's picture

I think I understand your take on physicalism discussed in the link you provided. I’ve heard some people point out that, even when a mechanistic approach to cognitive experience is worked out, there still may be an issue of category. In other words, there may be no ‘Sam Harrisian’ junction from physical to mental, in which case we will (ironically) have to take Sam Harris’ advice and retain the subjective experience as distinct within scientific process.

Nevertheless, in much the same way you mentioned atheism as a given, I think physicalism is a given. There’s as much reason to believe in God as there is to believe in some form of Cartesian dualist etheric antenna. I very much agree that existing theories regarding mind/body are unsatisfying, largely because they don’t actually explain the phenomenon of experience but instead either invoke unsubstantiated magic or leave gaping holes (which lead to the zombie issue).

I wonder if you’ve come across the ‘Attention Schema Theory’ from Graziano at Princeton. If not, I recommend looking into it. It’s the first satisfying framework, complete with promising experimental data, I’ve come across to resolve this mind/body kerfuffle.

Probably a false dichotomy

I think physicalism is a given. There’s as much reason to believe in God as there is to believe in some form of Cartesian dualist etheric antenna.

If forced to choose between physicalism and Cartesian dualism, I would agree. However, I don’t take physicalism as a given, because I doubt those are the only choices.

Panpsychism has become recently popular, and I think that’s because many people reject the dualism/physicalism dichotomy and are looking for other alternatives. I find panpsychism implausible as well. But it shows that we can be skeptical about physicalism without endorsing dualism.

I think we can say “none of the above” for now, without having to advocate any specific alternative.

Attenti0n Schema

James Hansen's picture

Thanks again for your reply. I agree that this particular dichotomy may be questionable, and I do think panpsychism is a lazy alternative. Again, I’m curious if you’ve heard of Graziano’s work which I mentioned, because it resolves the issue quite well in my opinion.

In that framework (in short), awareness is a schematized model of one’s attentional state which we attribute to ourselves as well as others (probably by the same mechanism, hence social cognition). In this context, the attributes that philosophers impute are central to awareness (such as qualia or some kind of etherial texture) are descriptions of that very model of attention. To use an analogy, a white thing should appear physically like a conflagration of all colors, but the brain’s visual processing instead constructs a model of white in which it is colorless, in order to save resources and maximize utility. Likewise, a spacious quality of awareness would be useful to the brain so that it can conveniently delegate top-down control of attention (to give just one example).

The resolution here is essentially that there is no ‘qualia as such’, and yet we are not ‘zombies’. This also negates Chalmers easy/hard dichotomy, which I see as yet another inheritance of postmodern influence on cognitive science (via psychology -> German idealism etc). Most people I’ve spoken to who don’t like this framework (where awareness is an reflexively-attributed model of attention) seem to dwell in the ‘mystery of qualia’ by insisting upon the existence of an essential self. Nonetheless, I’m eager to hear other perspectives, which is why I reached out to you. I love your bloggings, by the way, keep up the good work!

Graziano's work

Thanks, no, I don’t know it. I’ve read a brief description just now. It sounds interesting as neuroscience. It doesn’t, based on the brief summary, sound like it solves the philosophical problem. That problem seems to be a conceptual issue, for which no sort of scientific evidence or explanation can be relevant. It’s not actually “a problem” for which “a solution” could exist. It’s a confusion in the way we’re thinking about the issue, which could only be “dissolved,” not “solved,” by replacing the fundamental concepts with ones that better reflect the reality.

Solve et Coagula

James Hansen's picture

Hmmm… I thought I addressed this philosophical issue by, through conceding that the argument is based upon false assumptions, pointing out that ‘qualia as such’ doesn’t exist. I saw that you mentioned this view (in reference to Dennett) in your Philosophical Zombie piece. I’m not, however, clear on where your confusion comes from.

Dismissing subjectivity all together is clearly Nihilistic, but attributing it to an essential self is Eternalistic. The former is an attempt to de-materialize existence, while the latter imputes that the universe owes us some inherent meaning. So, subjective experience does exist, but only as a self-reflexive description of process. Prior to imputing subjectivity as such, there is only ‘movement of mind’, and therefore no Self.

A lot of confusion regarding the mind/body problem reminds me of the case where, while watching a magic show, one refuses to accept that the trick is an illusion, while still seeing logically how that could be the case. The mechanistic description of the magic trick can be clearly conceived, and yet, because the illusion has some imputed reality to it, one insists that there’s something other than the working of the magician at play.

I Redact my Attack

James Hansen's picture

I should say… I’ve since looked at this exchange and feel that I was making a common mistake by in some way conflating science and philosophy as fields. This is an obviously popular trend among the more analytically-oriented that I don’t wish to echo. I see where you’re coming from now David, and just wanted to say that much of my response centered around fixating on naturalistic science as if the philosophical dialogue behind this topic were irrelevant, which I think is a mistaken bias common to many scientists.

I have nothing constructive

Andrew Blevins's picture

I have nothing constructive to say except that I’m a fan of your writing and hope you’ll finish this section soon. One of my undergraduate majors was in cognitive science, and I’ve been looking for good sweeping criticisms of the field. If convincing, these might help me rule out the option of going to grad school for neuroscience or cognitive psych or some other “cognitive” study. The idea seems faintly ridiculous but I’ve had a hard time explaining why.


Cognitive science

Thanks! Unfortunately, this isn’t close to the front of the writing queue, and I wouldn’t expect to finish it for a couple of years at minimum.

Generally, the argument is that these disciplines mainly look at minds/brains in isolation. This leads to unresolvable problems (such as the nature of intentionality and how mental representations refer).

In fact, minds/brains are in constant high-frequency interaction with their situations (bodies, physical environments, other people). If you start from situatedness and interactivity, you get a very different picture of what minds are and how they work and how they relate to brains.

There is some work being done along those lines, and I think it may be worthwhile. In fact, mainstream neuroscience may be worthwhile too, although I think it’s massively overhyped, and can’t deliver on what some people promise for it. It’s interesting as biology; it mostly can’t address questions about “what is it to be human,” as some people would like.

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