Three Pound Brain

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Tag: tu quoque

Egnor Confounded

by rsbakker

Once again, in midst of all the ad hominem nonsense coming from the Trump-Newscorp-Combine, we find another theorist, this time neuroscientist (and creationist) Michael Egnor, embracing an ad hominem dismissal of eliminativism on the Mind Matters podcast, which has been partially transcribed and posted under the title, “Why Eliminative Materialism Cannot Be A Good Theory of Mind.”

Where Trump hews to what is called the ‘abusive ad hominem,’ Egnor espouses the tu quoque, the argument that intentional eliminativism is self-refuting because eliminativists themselves use intentional terms. This is essentially the same argument my old highschool girlfriend’s mother would use to refute my atheism: every time I uttered the word “God” she would cry, “See! You believe in Him!”

The same way God doesn’t have to exist for the term “God” to do a tremendous amount of work, terms like “beliefs” or “reasons” and so on don’t need referents to do a tremendous amount of work.

The story is a good deal more complicated than this when it comes to intentional idioms, of course: one needs to explain, among other things, why so many theorists run afoul this particular confound. But the tu quoque, as applied against eliminativism, at least, is every bit as bankrupt.

Enter Egnor:

[Identity Theory has] been discarded because its logical nonsense. Every attribute of the mind, reason, emotion, perception, all of those things are completely different from matter. That is, one describes matter as extensions in space; one describes perceptions and reason and emotions in completely different ways. There’s no overlap between them so mental states can’t be the same thing as physical states. They actually don’t share any properties in common. They’re clearly related to one another in important ways but they’re not the same thing.

Eliminative materialists go one step further. They actually say that there are no mental states, that there is only the brain. Which is kind of an odd thing to say because what eliminative materialists are saying is that their ideas are mindless.

How can you have a proposition that the mind doesn’t exist? That means propositions don’t exist and that means you don’t have a proposition.

Let’s go through this sentence by sentence…

[Identity Theory has] been discarded because its logical nonsense. Simply not true. Identity Theory has fallen out of favour because, like Egnor, it possesses no compelling account of intentional phenomena. As we shall see, the “logical nonsense” here belongs entirely to Egnor.

Every attribute of the mind, reason, emotion, perception, all of those things are completely different from matter. Because, Egnor thinks, these things are exceptional, somehow distinct from the natural world as we have come to understand it. It’s important to keep in mind who’s making the more extraordinary claim here: The eliminativist is saying intentional properties only seem exceptional, much the same way celestial properties once seemed exceptional, because we lack perspective. Egnor is say they really are exceptional.

That is, one describes matter as extensions in space; one describes perceptions and reason and emotions in completely different ways. Yes, heuristically, in source insensitive ways. How else are humans supposed to understand themselves and one another? Given the astronomically complicated nature of the systems involved, our ancestors had to rely on hacks to communicate facts pertaining to their brain states, which is to say, ways to report brain states absent any knowledge of brain states. Egnor, on the other hand, would have us ignore this rather obvious cognitive dilemma, and argue that in addition to brains, we also evolved this secondary, exceptional ontological order, the extension of our intentional vocabulary.

There’s no overlap between them so mental states can’t be the same thing as physical states. They actually don’t share any properties in common. There’s (almost) no overlap between them because intentional cognition is heuristic cognition, a system that neglects the high-dimensional facts of the systems involved, relying instead on cues systematically related to those systems. Those cues appear to possess an exceptional nature because we lack the metacognitive resources required to high-dimensionally source them, to intuit them as belonging to nature more generally. Given biocomplexity, its hard to imagine how it could be any other way.

They’re clearly related to one another in important ways but they’re not the same thing. And this, of course, is the million dollar question, the one that ecological eliminativism, at least, actually answers. Egnor would lead us into the exceptionalist labyrinth, and brick up all the exits with his fallacious tu quoque.

Eliminative materialists go one step further. They actually say that there are no mental states, that there is only the brain. Which is kind of an odd thing to say because what eliminative materialists are saying is that their ideas are mindless. Intentionalists are forever telling eliminativists what they “really mean.” Intentional cognition is mandatory: we simply have no way of reporting biological systems short its heuristic machinations. But one can agree that the hacks belonging to intentional cognition are mandatory without likewise asserting that intentional exceptionalism is mandatory. As with “God,” I can assert that “mind” is a useful hack in certain cognitive situations without automatically asserting that minds (as Egnor theorizes them) are real.

How can you have a proposition that the mind doesn’t exist? See above.

That means propositions don’t exist and that means you don’t have a proposition. No, that means I’m employing a hack that works quite well in certain problem-solving contexts. Cognitive neuroscience, unfortunately, isn’t one of them, as Egnor’s utter inability to solve any of the problems of consciousness and intentionality attest.

For me, the most egregious thing about the post lies with Mind Matters, not Egnor. They actually quote William Ramsey’s excellent SPEP article on eliminativism, but they remain utterly mum on the devastating critique Ramsey provides of tu quoque counter-arguments such as Egnor’s. If I argue that intentional terms have no extension, that only various metacognitive confounds make it seem that way, then arguing that my position is absurd because I use intentional terms clearly begs the question. It is, to use Egnor’s phrase, logical nonsense.

No results found for “cognitive psychology of philosophy”.

by rsbakker

That is, until today.

The one thing I try to continuously remind people is that philosophy is itself a data point, a telling demonstration of what has to be one of the most remarkable facts of our species. We don’t know ourselves for shit. We have been stumped since the beginning. We’ve unlocked the mechanism for aging for Christ’s sake: there’s a chance we might become immortal without having the faintest clue as to what ‘we’ amounts to.

There has to be some natural explanation for that, some story explaining why it belongs to our nature to be theoretically mystified by our nature, to find ourselves unable to even agree on formulations of the explananda. So what is it? Why all the apparent paradoxes?

Why, for instance, the fascination with koans?

Take the famous, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Apparently, the point of pondering this lies in realizing the koan is at once the questioning and the questioned, and coming to see oneself as the sound. For many, the pedagogical function of koans lies in revealing one’s Buddha nature, breaking down the folk reasoning habits barring the apprehension of the identity of subject and object.

Strangely enough, the statement I gave you in the previous post could be called a koan, of sorts:

It is true there is no such thing as truth.

But the idea wasn’t so much to break folk reasoning habits as to alert readers to an imperceptible complication belonging to discursive cognition: a complication that breaks the reliability of our folk-reasoning habits. The way deliberative cognition unconsciously toggles between applications and ontologizations of truth talk can generate compelling cognitive illusions—illusions so compelling, in fact, as to hold the whole of humanity in their grip for millennia.

Wittgenstein, and the pragmatists glimpsed the fractionate specialization of cognition, how it operated relative various practical contexts. They understood the problem in terms of concrete application, which for them was pragmatic application, a domain generally navigated via normative cognition. Impressed by the inability of mechanical cognition to double as normative cognition, they decided that only normative cognition could explain cognition, and so tripped into a different version of the ancient trap: that of using intentional cognition to theoretically solve intentional cognition.

Understanding cognition in terms of heuristic neglect lets us frame the problem subpersonally, to look at what’s going on in statements like the above in terms of possible neurobiological systems recruited. The fact that human cognition is heuristic, fractionate, and combinatory means that we should expect koans, puzzles, paradoxes, apories, and the like. We should expect that different systems possessing overlapping domains will come into conflict. We should expect them in the same way and for the same reason we should expect to encounter visual, auditory, and other kinds of systematic illusions. Because the brain picks out only the correlations it needs to predict its environments, cues predicting the systems requiring solution the way they need to be predicted to be solved. Given this, we should begin looking at traditional philosophy as a rich, discursive reservoir of pathologies, breakdowns providing information regarding the systems and misapplications involved. Like all corpses, meaning will provide a feast for worms.

In a sense, then, a koan demonstrates what a great many seem to think it’s meant to demonstrate: a genuine limit to some cognitive modality, a point where our automatic applications fail us, alerting us both to their automaticity and their specialized nature. And this, the idea would be, draws more of the automaticity (and default universal application) of the subject/object (aboutness) heuristic into deliberative purview, leading to… Enlightenment?

Does Heuristic Neglect Theory suggest a path to the Absolute?

I suppose… so long as we keep in mind that ‘Absolute’ means ‘abject stupidity.’ I think we’re better served looking at these kinds of things as boundaries rather than destinations.

Dismiss Dis

by rsbakker

I came across this quote in “The Hard Problem of Content: Solved (Long Ago),” a critique of Hutto and Myin’s ‘radical enactivism’ by Marcin Milkowski:

Naıve semantic nihilism is not a philosophical position that deserves a serious debate because it would imply that expressing any position, including semantic nihilism, is pointless. Although there might still be defenders of such a position, it undermines the very idea of a philosophical debate, as long as the debate is supposed to be based on rational argumentation. In rational argumentation, one is forced to accept a sound argument, and soundness implies the truth of the premises and the validity of the argument. Just because these are universal standards for any rational debate, undermining the notion of truth can be detrimental; there would be no way of deciding between opposing positions besides rhetoric. Hence, it is a minimal requirement for rational argumentation in philosophy; one has to assume that one’s statements can be truth-bearers. If they cannot have any truth-value, then it’s no longer philosophy.” 74

These are the kind of horrible arguments that I take as the principle foe of anyone who thinks cognitive science needs to move beyond traditional philosophy to discover its natural scientific bases. I can remember having a great number of arguments long before I ever ‘assumed my statements were truth-bearers.’ In fact, I would wager that the vast majority of arguments are made by people possessing no assumption that their statement’s are ‘truth-bearers’ (whatever this means). What Milkowski would say, of course, is that we all have these assumptions nonetheless, only implicitly. This is because Milkowski has a theory of argumentation and truth, a story of what is really going on behind the scenes of ‘truth talk.’

The semantic nihilist, such as myself, famously disagrees with this theory. We think truth-talk actually amounts to something quite different, and that once enough cognitive scientists can be persuaded to close the ancient old cover of Milkowski’s book (holding their breath for all the dust and mold), a great number of spurious conundrums could be swept from the worktable, freeing up space for more useful questions. What Milkowski seems to be arguing here is that… hmm… Good question! Either he’s claiming the semantic nihilist cannot argue otherwise without contradicting his theory, which is the whole point of arguing otherwise. Or he’s claiming the semantic nihilistic cannot argue against his theory of truth because, well, his theory of truth is true. Either he’s saying something trivial, or he’s begging the question! Obviously so, given the issue between him and the semantic nihilist is the question of the nature of truth talk.

For those interested in a more full-blooded account of this problem, you can check out “Back to Square One: Towards a Post-intentional Future” over at Scientia Salon. Ramsey also tucks this strategy into bed in his excellent article on Eliminative Materialism over on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. And Stephen Turner, of course, has written entire books (such as Explaining the Normative) on this peculiar bug in our intellectual OS. But I think it’s high time to put an end to what has to be one of the more egregious forms of intellectual laziness one finds in philosophy of mind circles–one designed, no less, to shut down the very possibility of an important debate. I think I’m right. Milkowski thinks he’s right. I’m willing to debate the relative merits of our theories. He has no time for mine, because his theory is so super-true that merely disagreeing renders me incoherent.

Oi.

Milkowski does go on to provide what I think is a credible counter-argument to eliminativism, what I generally refer to as the ‘abductive argument’ here. This is the argument that separates my own critical eliminativism (I’m thinking of terming my view ‘criticalism’–any thoughts?) from the traditional eliminativisms espoused by Feyerbrand, the Churchlands, Stich, Ramsey and others. I actually think my account possesses the parsimony everyone concedes to eliminativism without falling mute on the question of what things like ‘truth talk’ amount to. I actually think I have a stronger abductive case.

But it’s the tu quoque (‘performative contradiction’) style arguments that share that peculiar combination of incoherence and intuitive appeal that renders philosophical blind alleys so pernicious. This is why I would like to solicit recently published examples of these kinds of dismissals in various domains for a running ‘Dismiss Dis’ series. Send me a dismissal like this, and I will dis…

PS: For those interested in my own take on Hutto and Myin’s radical enactivism, check out “Just Plain Crazy Enactive Cognition,” where I actually agree with Milkowski that they are forced to embrace semantic nihilism–or more specifically, a version of my criticalism–by instabilities in their position.