Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Yohan J. John on the Brain/Mind Problem


In his latest two posts from the frontiers of neuroscience Yohan J John

streetlight

and:

homunculus

appears to be entertaining methodic doubt in the first and methodical doubt in the second. The very method itself or the assumption that brain events are consciousness is questioned: that ‘the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile’ (Pierre Canabis) and the more we get to know about this neuronal traffic the closer we will get to the core question of how the identity of brain and mind is effected. Is this not searching under the streetlight of immediate apparent facts? No amount of this evidence will bring one to an understanding of how the one is the other. Metaphysical analysis can eliminate epiphenomenalism or occasionalism etc but the ‘thinkability’ of brain/mind identity remains in doubt.

The methodical doubts involve the ordered, systematic application of the principle of identity in the area of phrenology, improving your brain power and other nostrums. Writing on what we now consider the daft theory of the homunculus he reflects that we ought to rein in our scorn for the little chap may still be lurking in our modern theory:


The homunculus picture can also be discerned in the idea of the genome as a "blueprint" for the organism. Before modern genetics arose at the turn of the 20th century, some scientists (the "preformationists") proposed that the sperm contained a miniature version of the future organism. Modern scientists laugh at this causal passing-of-the-buck, but conceptually, a miniature person is not really that different from a miniature blueprint of a person.

Yohan J John’s, there’s a triple barreled name, has written an informative and witty brace of articles on the hard question.

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Various formulations of the brain mind problem:
brain/mind formulas

14 comments:

john doyle said...

Searching under the streetlight is an odd analogy, inasmuch as no actual light shines on the in-situ brain. Even the perception of light within the visible spectrum relies on neural transmissions and cortical activities occurring in total darkness.

ombhurbhuva said...

John:
Is the connection/relation/identity between consciousness and cerebral events a discoverable thing? The empirical attitude towards this problem is analogous to searching under the streetlight. No analogy is global. The focus is on a single aspect which in this case is the method as such.

On the other hand your objection may be ironic. Pointing out that there is no light in the cortex is a demonstration of the methodic error.

john doyle said...

I'm not sure how reliable will be the reconstruction of the thought sequence leading up to my comment, Michael, but here goes: Neuroscience isn't the only light shining on mind and thought. There have been many other lights, all of which are still shining: legend, introspection, meditation, philosophy, anthropology, psychophysics, S-R behaviorism, cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, genetics, ecology, and so on. The neuroscience light has been deployed only recently relative to rest, so those who cluster under that particular light "because that's where the light is" maybe ought to look around a bit more. As YJJ points out in that second article, the blind investigators of different parts of the elephant can compare notes. And it's not as if the lights shining into neural activity have been there waiting for people to look under them. The invention of very sophisticated lighting systems was required. And it's not as if those lights just happened to illuminate brains. They were constructed specifically and intentionally in order to look into neural structure and function, because none of the other lights could penetrate that particular region of conceptual darkness. And dark it is, not just metaphorically but physically. Comment ensued.

Do you regard looking under multiple lights, and rigging up new lights to illuminate corners of the vast dark areas, as erroneous? Or does error come from spending too much time investigating under a single light source, or for that matter from spending too much time marveling at the darkness?

ombhurbhuva said...

John:
What you are saying about the many sources of light is correct. I was following Yohan J. John on the neuroscience side of things and what I took to be the focus on an assumption that the brain secretes consciousness in some manner or other. Thus there arises the search for neural correlates of consciousness. The dark area is the question: What is the nature of the human such that brain activity is in some manner concomitant consciousness? Is this even an intelligible question? All the various ways of lighting the problem of brain mind ‘connection’ have this mystery hovering in the background. That does not mean that I think they are not worth their candle power. They definitely are.

For those who have had some experience of elusive phenomena such as precognition and clairvoyance the anchoring of human awareness in the body/mind complex must be an incomplete account.



john doyle said...

I see your point. Future information could still be comprehended in the usual ways; the question is how that information is obtained. Certainly the ordinary understanding of time's arrow would need to be altered. If the foreknowledge entails some means of mentally transporting oneself into the future, then bodily explanations are inadequate. Alternatively, if someone positioned in the future is transmitting the information back down the timeline, then reception of that information would have to be deemed extrasensory per current empirically-based understanding of space-time. And the usual operation of cause-effect would come into question if future events are causing mental activity in the past.

Otherwise the mind-brain problem doesn't seem intrinsically intractable. Do the bird's wings secrete flight? Does the detection of electromagnetic waves by retinal cells secrete vision? Does water placed in the freezer secrete ice? Do causes secrete their effects? The empirical scientific presumption is that conscious activity, like everything else, is caused, even if the full causal apparatus cannot be specified. I think this is more a methodological presupposition than a metaphysical one -- uncaused events are beyond the scope of systematic observational investigation. But then again determinism has been around longer than modern science, and a lot longer than neuroscience.

ombhurbhuva said...

John:
Does the bird’s wings secrete flight? That is a question I must refer to Jonathan Livingstone Seagull.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Livingston_Seagull

In the instances that you mention the causal nexus is demonstrable. Lesion literature seems to show identity but the creation of new neural pathways by stroke victims suggests that the memory is out there, whatever that means, and finds a way to express itself. Bergson in Matter and Memory is a proponent of a version of this view. He was also interested in Psi and that I suppose must leave him in exterior darkness for the majority of the neuroscience community.

john doyle said...

My knowledge of brain science is sparse, but as YJJ notes the field has moved beyond the phrenology-like idea of very localizable mappings of specific neurons onto specific mental functions toward more distributed patterns of activation. So too with memories, which aren't stored so much as assembled as needed. If one component has been compromised, the others have to cobble something together with whatever parts are handy.

Regarding cause-effect, some philosophy of mind people seem to think that, if consciousness is caused, then it doesn't exist. E.g., those studies where the subject's brain area for tapping a finger lights up on the scan milliseconds before the subject decides to tap -- some interpret this finding as evidence that consciousness merely records after the fact actions that the unconscious brain has already performed. But isn't it clear that, without the instruction and the intent, little or no tapping would occur? A more consistent interpretation is that intentionality isn't limited to consciousness, that intent also influences unconscious brain and motor activities.

Even if thinking could be described without remainder in terms of neural function, there's still the thinking-about has to be included in the explanation. Thinking helps people function in the world: that's why and how it evolved -- its ecological cause. Intentionality too. Even if my intention to get to Lynchburg VA by 11 a.m. tomorrow is caused by my wife's insistence that we go visit her parents, I wouldn't get there in time if I didn't set in motion a cause-effect cascade that makes likely my arrival at the destination on time. Jonathan Livingston Seagull might be able to take a more direct route, but I'm more likely to meet the deadline.

ombhurbhuva said...

Libet came up with the idea that dualists interpreted as your brain acting before you consciously decided on a course of action. The ghost in the machine had to be woken up to decide that it would do what it already was doing. It’s exasperating when you are told by someone to do what you are already doing but to have that internalised is vexing. Is the self like a stream of consciousness novel rambling on, commenting on the action. ‘Do you see that, that’s the kind of person I am?’.

The phenomenon of blindsight is a puzzle for the psychologist. That capacity never reaches the internal adjudicator. Very strange.

The mindfullness vogue has I think hidden in it its own self-destruct mechanism in the Theravada/vipassana version. Thus hearing a bluebottle buzzing we repeat inwardly ‘bluebottle buzzing’. Overlaying consciousness with consciousness we give up commentary as boring and futile and go into mindlessness also known as old -time yoga.





john doyle said...

While living/dying with us my Alzheimer-addled father was in the moment. No memory, no anticipation. "What is this?" he'd ask over dinner, referring to the salt shaker; we'd tell him; he would nod. A minute later: "What is this?" Salt shaker. Repeat again and again. Once he exclaimed, completely out of context, "Nostradamus."

I hope Kenzie expressed appreciation for your suggestions about what to do while in Galway. She and her traveling companion had a fine time there. They visited the cliffs twice; several times she has wondered audibly at her own hubris or stupidity at stepping out to the edge in order to take a selfie. She found the Irish lads poetic. "Ach, can I dream about you at least?" some fellow said to her and her friend Joy as they passed a pub.

ombhurbhuva said...

John:
Yes she did of course. That lad must have been an Irish homosexual who preferred women to beer.. Your Dad, a hard station. You mentioned that he was failing on your blog before some years ago. That’s a long time in that caring role. My best wishes,
Michael

john doyle said...

He's passed, some time ago now, a blessing even more for him than for us.

ombhurbhuva said...

I thought you were referring to a present situation. A release for both of you and a return to memories of happier times.

You probably have 6 novels written by now. How is that going?

john doyle said...

Since early February I've been writing something that's gotten quite long, though I'm still not sure what it is. Hypothetical fictions written to an imaginary audience -- that's the guiding light if there is one. It's good to see that you've kept the blog vital -- any other writings?

ombhurbhuva said...

Glad to hear that you are writing away. My efforts can only be described as graphomania; filling notebooks which are never read again. The blog is like messages in a bottle which I enjoy pitching into the sea.