One of the more famous phrases of Wittgenstein is the last proposition in
the Tractatus; "Whereof one cannot speak,; thereof one must be silent.".
The book; "Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience" by M.R. Bennett, and
P.M.S. Hacker Blackwell Publishing 2003 gives an excellent insight into
what Wittgenstein meant by the rather cryptic phrase above. This phrase
applies to what Bennett and Hacker find in the field of Neuroscience. In
the forward to the book (xiv) Denis Noble writes;
"The controversial nature of this book arises because the particular
reductionist philosophical position it criticizes is very widely held today
within the scientific community (and also by some well-known philosophers).
…"If we are conceptually confused, we will ask the wrong questions. The
authors illustrate this in detail with many examples."
So the forward rather succinctly summarizes the basic thrust of the whole
book in the above two sentences. For us on the left, this book is an
exciting addition to the debate in science about the mind. The debate has
been heated for sometime, with such polemical works as Pinker's "How the
Mind Works" in which Pinker attacks the strawdog of the blank slate in the
scientific community. The authors of "Philosophical Foundations of
Neuroscience" are from the Anglo analytical philosophy school. Thus one
author is a student of Wittgenstein. Their critical review of Reductionism
in Neuroscience however adds fuel to a left view of what is consciousness.
One of the most useful aspects of this book is the clarification the
efforts of the writers make toward such concepts such as Reductionism.
Reductionism is not a philosophy that has text books of philosophers
opining about. Rather Reductionism is the search for Universals in the
parts of the mind that most Neuroscientist apply with little critical
forethought to their projects. This reductionist project is described as
Cartesian by the authors and their point allows them to make strong
statements about nearly the whole range of the Neuroscientific
establishment. I mean strong statement by literally their writing such and
such persons, Crick, Dennett, Searle, the Churchlands, and on and on are
'incorrect'. This book then is extremely controversial.
Their key point is that the concept of 'mind' is confused and incoherent.
What they mean is that what we ascribe to minds or brains is actually a
description of the whole person. That minds do not think. A human being
thinks. A brain does not think, a person thinks. This conceptual
confusion leads the Neuroscientific establishment to commit a basic fallacy
mostly known as infinite regression or the error of the homunculous in the
brain. The authors use a technical term, mereology, chapter three, to take
on Crick, Edelman, Blakemore, Young, Damasio, Frisby, Gregory, Marr,
Johnson-Laid in this very error. Given the range of people being said to
be incorrect this is an absolutely astonishing claim indeed.
So many famous persons associated with Neuroscience are tarred by this
claim it seems that the whole of Neuroscience is being brought down at
once. The list of victims is not just individuals, but very famous claims.
If the mind as a concept is incorrect, then the 'theory of Mind' TOM is
equally false. This in itself is a major rupture in Neuroscientific theory.
On and on the criticism goes throughout the whole range of claims about the
brain, for example, emotions; Rolls, Damasio, LeDoux, James. The point
being from the Wittgensteinian view quoted above is that a concept; the
mind, is Cartesian. This has in common with the Marxist left an emphasis
on the 'concept' of the whole of society and the whole of social
connection. Therefore the thrust of the book opens up for debate in a
fresh way what consciousness is in society.
And what comes out of their work is establishment of clarity about a wide
variety of what understanding human consciousness entails. For example the
Eleminative Materialist claim that, Folk Psychology, as a concept, is
definitely clearly conceptually incoherent. I, for one, having been
following Neuroscientific research closely for some time have had my
received wisdoms badly shaken by reading this volume. I can now readily
understand what people mean by reductionism and the errors that must arise
from the Cartesian separation of the mind from the body. In the appendix,
two philosophers are examined in detail, and I can especially appreciate
from my instinct about Daniel Dennett the description of why the authors
believe Dennett is a Cartesian.
The authors clarify the different jobs that science does and philosophy.
What I find interesting about the clarification is the focus upon a concept
as what the work of philosophy does. This distinction is helpful in
understanding what is currently troubling Neuroscience.
What sort of implication does this have? For the Scientific community it
is the direct and clear criticism of the conceptual base of Neuroscience.
The book does not offer alternatives to the current established
reductionist concept. But one can look at the work in Language with new
eyes. In emotion theory etc, which are directly being implemented in
computer science at such important technological research centers as MIT.
The projects being funded in research and development through DARPA can be
criticized exactly for the direction and planning of the research based
upon the authors 'conceptual' framework. I can testify in my own case to
absorbing and taking seriously Theory of Mind, modularity of the mind, the
mind, the brain etc. and the hard realization that much of what one takes
as a given is up in the air and extremely faulty. This confusion is hard
to sort out. I can say with fondness for the many people I've argued with
over time in these areas that this book gives me much more grounding in
understanding what is being attempted.
Certainly many famous scientists like, Noam Chomsky, will have their
preferred view of consciousness deeply challenged. But other thinkers like
Stephen Jay Gould are worth taking an important second look at. Gould and
other like minded scientist have strongly argued against the concept of
inherited rules in the genetic material like Steven Pinker argue for. I
recommend this book as a good step toward dismantling an incorrect view of
human consciousness. Well written, clearly stated on a vast field of
thought. Thumbs up.