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[Neuroscience] Re: Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience

Matthew Kirkcaldie via neur-sci%40net.bio.net (by m.kirkcaldie At removethis.unsw.edu.au)
Sun Dec 3 18:48:10 EST 2006

In article <1165046646.702242.191720 At n67g2000cwd.googlegroups.com>,
 "jonesmat" <jonesmat At physiology.wisc.edu> wrote:

> Matthew Kirkcaldie wrote:
> > Gentlemen, please!
> Matthew, I'm quite sure I don't care for your tone!
> Just what are you insinuating?

I just hate conflict, especially between people who are passionate about 
a field I love as well.  Still, it's quite fun to lay into someone from 
time to time.  Take my tone as "mock dismay".

> > Surely you are arguing different points.  Isn't the "mereological
> > fallacy" a catchy term for the fact that the boundary of "brain" as the
> > source of behaviour is far blurrier than is typically acknowledged?
> Ok, I think that's a very optimistic way of rephrasing that term.
> You'll get no argument from me that the boundary between brain and
> behavior is fuzzy (actually, I don't think there's a boundary at all -
> that's sorta my point). And you give very nice, specific and well
> thought out, examples of how fuzzy the boundary is.
> But please remember that this discussion got started by specific
> reference to this recent book by Bennet & Hacker, "The Philosophical
> Foundations of Neuroscience".
> ...
> There are several
> reviews available. In those reviews, I learn that this book appears to
> be an attack on the *conceptual* foundation of neuroscience, and that
> this attack revolves around the term "mereological fallacy".

This is my disadvantage - you guys haven't read the book, but have read 
reviews ... my experience is limited to reading your impressions of 
reviews of the book!

> "Neuroscientific research that proceeds from CONCEPTUALLY FLAWED (my
> caps) premises is likely to yield INCOHERENT (my caps) empirical
> questions and answers that ESCAPE ILLUMINATION OF ANY KIND (my caps -
> couldn't resist - that last bit was sooooo dramatic)."

Is this the authors' hyperbole or the reviewers'?  I smell a straw man.  
Love books that suggest an entire community of intellects are missing an 
obvious point.

> Ok, so to summarize my first objection, I have the very strong feeling
> from reading the reviews that the authors are NOT paying much attention
> to the existing discipline of mereology itself, and are just
> appropriating high-fallutin' terms to sell books. That sort of pisses
> me off in general, and moreso if it's being used as a tactic to
> undermine confidence in a discipline that has actually had a lot of
> practical success in helping the human condition over the last 1.5
> centuries or so. You see where I'm coming from?

I do.  However I would acknowledge that I often make the error of 
referring to behaviour as a manifestation of the brain, and treating the 
body as meat and tools for the brain to use.

> It surely CAN be a mistake. The following show cases in which such
> attribution is nonsensical:
> Attribute = Reaching:
> Attribute = Running:

Clear, incontestable examples both.

> However, sometimes it makes perfect sense to attribute the same
> function to the part as to the whole, because that part IS the part of
> the whole that mainly performs the function:
> Attribute = Reaching:
> Reaching is an attribute of a whole person.
> I reached for the whisky glass. (valid - the whole person reaches)
> My hand reached for the whisky glass (VALID!)
> The latter is valid because the fact that reaching is an attribute of
> the whole person DOES NOT detract from the fact that reaching is ALSO
> an attribute of the hand, and in fact, when the whole person reaches,
> it is actually MAINLY the hand that is doing the reaching.

Gotta disagree here.  Try cutting your hand off and letting it reach for 
the whisky glass (perhaps understandable).  Too silly?  Try tying its 
arm to the body and getting it to reach.  Try anaesthetising the brain 
and getting the hand to reach.  Try covering the eyes and getting the 
hand to reach for the glass.

> Attribute = Running:
> Running is an attribute of a whole person.
> I ran to catch the bus. (valid - the whole person runs)
> My legs ran as fast as they could carry me (VALID!)
> The latter is valid for the same reason described above. Running is an
> attribute BOTH of the whole person, AND of the appropriate part of the
> person. There is NO FALLACY in making the attribution either way.

I wouldn't agree, on the basis of a similar argument.

> Now, consider these:
> Attribute = Feeling
> Feeling is an attribute of a whole person.
> I feel bad. (valid - the whole person feels bad)
> My stomach feels funny (valid or invalid?)
> Is "feeling" an attribute of a stomach? Aren't we committing a
> "mereological fallacy" by saying our stomach feels a certain way, when
> everybody from Wittgenstein to Bennet & Hacker tell us that only a
> "whole person" can display the attribute of "feelings"? I think most
> educated adults would say that the stomach is not really doing the
> feeling, rather their "mind" is doing the feeling.

Most would agree that the noxious sensations are arising from the 
stomach detecting problems with its contents and reflex co-ordination. 
The enteric nervous system is about the same mass of neural tissue as 
the forebrain, but we tend to completely disregard it as a partially 
autonomous entity.  Yet we have no control over its response to a 
vindaloo, or any conscious control over diarrhoea for instance.

> Most neuroscientists
> would probably say that the feeling is occuring "in the brain", and is
> being associated with the stomach via topological mapping of the
> stomach afferents onto the somatosensory cortex or whatever.

Possibly, but I don't think it's quite as cut-and-dried as you suggest - 
I reckon a specialist in the enteric nervous system would regard the 
conscious brain's component as incidental to the major processes 
occurring in the digestive system.

> On the
> other hand, my 6 year old son would probably be perfectly comfortable
> with saying that it was the stomach *itself* that had the feeling. As
> far as he's concerned, his stomach is telling "him" that he ate too
> much of Dad's lamb vindaloo.

> More to the point, suppose that, like my son, we decide that saying "my
> stomach feels funny" LITERALLY means that the stomach itself is
> "experiencing a funny feeling", and that it is trying to tell us
> something about what we ate, and that we shouldn't eat anymore of that
> until the feeling goes away. Is this "mereological fallacy" going to
> lead us down the wrong path? Are we going to lose anything by
> attributing this property (feeling) of the whole animal to just one
> part of the animal? To paraphrase from the quote above, are we going to
> proceed from conceptually flawed premises (e.g., the stomach feels
> something) to yield incoherent empirical questions (e.g., if I eat any
> more vindaloo, will I get the runs?) and answers (e.g., yes, I'll
> probably get the runs, so I better not eat any more vindaloo) that will
> escape illumination of any kind (I can only assume this would be the
> state of not knowing whether we had the runs or not)?
> No! That's utterly absurd. If your stomach "feels funny" after you eat
> vindaloo, it's probably the best possible idea to stop eating the damn
> curry. Mereology aside, this "fallacious" attribution is NOT going to
> lead you astray. Quite the opposite.

I really can't quite figure out the point you are making here.  I'm not 
being deliberately obtuse, but rather I would like it more explicit - do 
you mean that your son's attribution of the feeling to the gut is a 
partial fallacy but a useful one?  Or that the adults seating the 
feeling in the brain are more accurate, or less, or that both points are 
valid?  Who's making the "fallacy"?  or are they both making similar 
"fallacies", equally usefully?

Again, not trying to irritate you, just didn't quite manage to take in 
the central point of this bit.

> [Let me now make it perfectly clear that I personally do not believe
> there is any such thing as eating too much curry - curry is a gift from
> God - my son has not yet had this epiphany, but I'm working on it]

Fully with you there.

> Attribute = Thinking
> Thinking is an attribute of a whole person.
> I think I'll have another whisky. (valid - the whole person thinks)
> My striatum thinks I should have another whisky, but my frontal cortex
> thinks I should go talk to that girl. My medial amygdala thinks I
> should hurry up and go talk to that girl as soon as humanly possible!
> Unfortunately, my cerebellum thinks I should just stay in my seat to
> avoid falling over and making a fool of myself. My frontal cortex sees
> the logic in that, but amygdala is, as usual, being very persistent.

I really don't know whether we can separate influences that cleanly - of 
course the damage'n'dissociate paradigm has shown how the balance can be 
shifted, but I would go a long way to avoid implying that the bits of 
the brain are experiencing separate wishes.  If I was pushed I would say 
that the extrinsic and intrinsic activity was triggering different 
responses in different regions and that behaviour would end up as some 
mesh of this activity.  I don't think any of those regions could act 
independently though.  Instead I would think of them as offering up 
different variations on responses to the state of the external world, 
based on different inherent characteristics and responsiveness to 
different types of inputs. The "conflict" would be experienced post-hoc 

I don't know if this represents a different view from yours though.  
I've certainly said things like "we want to behave a certain way but the 
frontal cortex intercedes," but I would admit that they are fallacious 
when subjected to scrutiny.  Do they colour my conceptual view?  I hope 
not, but it might be how I "really" see it except when I am chastised 
into being rigourous.

> Anyway, I think I've illustrated various cases in which mixing
> attributions among the part and the whole can either be a totally
> stupid thing to do, or a totally fine thing to do, or an ambiguous
> thing to do.

I would say that you can attribute different factors in the response to 
different components of the system - for instance the vindaloo 
experience causes action potentials in particular C fibres, and it also 
causes changes in the co-ordinated activity of gut smooth muscle and 
secretions, and it causes activity changes in vagal afferents, and 
neurons in the NTS, and insular cortex, and frontal regions, and in 
immediate feeding behaviour and future curry selection.

These are all responses of the organism to the stimulus - I'd say that 
all of them are intimately entangled in each other - the gut wouldn't 
bother responding in that way if it didn't usefully influence gross 
whole-organism behaviour; behaviour wouldn't be influenced if it didn't 
alleviate gut sensations, "cognitive states" wouldn't be generated 
unless they were of use to dealing with and preventing such experiences 
(e.g. we are unaware of similar large-scale co-ordination and activity 
in the course of digesting a non-noxious meal).

So I would have to say that separating the response / experience / 
feeling / reaction by body parts *does* seem to be fallacious.  However 
I wouldn't write a book and proclaim that as a deep insight that somehow 
every other scientist in the field has missed.

> I conclude that simply the fact that attributions are sometimes mixed
> like this in neuroscience IS NOT necessarily a damning fallacy. And it
> is most definitely not a "mereological" fallacy unless one can derive
> the appropriate mereological formal proof, as I argued previously. I
> conclude, as I said at first (just before I was accused of having my
> head and both legs up my ass), that no "mereological fallacy" has in
> fact been committed by neuroscientists.

Well, I think some of them certainly have.  It's a type of thinking 
which is plausible but erroneous, in fact I would say that the entire 
"strong AI" discipline rests on this kind of erroneous attempt to 
isolate thought from its physical substrate.  Depends what you call a 
neuroscientist perhaps.

> Oh, damn. I almost forgot that I'm supposed to be "insufferably
> arrogant", and use a lot of "ad hominem" arguments and gratuitous
> invective. How's this:
> Piss off, you wanker!
> (did that sound at all convincing?)

Plain-text cripples irony, but I do hope we're on the same side here!

Cheers, MK.

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