[Neuroscience] Re: Need Help With Neuroscience-Related Article

ian.vitro via neur-sci%40net.bio.net (by ian.vitro At gmail.com)
Sun Jan 7 13:32:33 EST 2007

No, my last name isn't Vitro. But I do find it an amusing play on

I think Glen is right in many respects (although I do think Dennett has
some valid points about consciousness). By clinging to the idea of a
"mind," neuroscientists are making a fundamental semantic error. Mind
remains a crutch for neuroscience following arguments like 'knowing
Newton's theories of gravitation are wrong doesn't mean that they can't
be useful,' or some such. To take the argument further, we shouldn't
even be talking about "schizophrenia" or "depression," we should be
talking about dysfunction in physical substrates within the brain that
produce what we see as aberrant behaviour, or a "mental disorder." Mind
is sort of detrimental when it comes to thinking intelligently about
brain - no one really knows what schizophrenia or depression actually
is or how to treat it because they are broad categorizations of
potentially vastly different neural dysfunctions with similar
behavioural outputs. I guess if you set the bar high enough, scientists
shouldn't be talking about minds at all or you could take them as

Thing is that brains probably aren't really broken down into discrete
component parts. The fundamental unit of processing isn't one on/off
neuron. That's like saying the fundamental unit of the pocketwatch is a
single gear or spring. The key will be in understanding assemblies of
neurons and how they interact with other neuronal populations to change
information processing, motivational state, and subsequent behaviour.
There isn't a mind in there, or there shouldn't be. As Glen says, many
"modern" neuroscientists cling to the idea of some little guy called
the mind residing in various areas of the prefrontal cortex and limbic
system. This is a fundamental flaw of old-school beliefs about
ourselves, our minds, and the structure of the universe. It results in
not the blatantly unscientific question like "Who am I?"; but with more
pathological pseudoscientific questions like "Where is consciousness
located within the brain?"

This question is pathological because it seems like it has an answer.
But it's still running on the base assumption that there will be one
place in the brain and we can say "Yeah, there's consciousness on my
fMRI image, p < 0.05." This is, I think, the epistemological problem
Glen talks about, and rightly points out that most advances in
neuroscience are not guided by conceptual revolution. But conceptual
revolution is a long, difficult process and we'll have to wait a while
(sadly) in most realms. But as long as we cling to this serial
processing model we're not going to understand what goes on in our
brains to produce what we describe as consciousness. If we could ever
figure what exactly we mean by that word.

Ian Vitro

Glen M. Sizemore wrote:
> IV: Hi,
> As a grad student with boatloads of neuro training, I could put in more
> than 2 cents worth. As Glen says, there's a good deal of hyperbole
> here.
> GS: Hi Ian (I doubt that "Vitro" is your last name).
> If you read further, though, you will see that I hedged somewhat. Although
> not many people who could be called "neuroscientists" would argue that they
> are investigating the question "Who am I?" (some would though), it is clear
> that neuroanatomy and neurophysiology are unfulfilling until we relate these
> disciplines to behavioral facts, and some of those behavioral facts involve
> complicated human behavior - behavior that some (but not me) would say
> necessitate a "self" (or an "executive") etc. It is when these sorts of
> issues are raised that neuroscience is, almost thoroughly, committed to a
> dualistic epistemology. No one argues that there is a non-physical stuff,
> but the simple substitution of "brain" for "mind" has preserved the old
> mentalistic epistemology.
> IV: The article talks mostly about work from the 19th century, which
> we've largely moved beyond in many respects.
> GS: Have we? I would argue, as did Skinner, that most of what is new in
> neurobiology has come about, not by some conceptual revolution, but by
> breakthroughs in other fields like physics and engineering (fMRI), genetics
> (knockouts), biochemistry (highly selective blockers and agonists), etc. I
> believe that the original article, as naïve as it is, captures this
> sentiment: we are still simply correlating location of critical circuits and
> behavior, without explaining how the physiology mediates behavioral
> function. And the reason is, I believe, partly because "we" have adopted a
> conceptual structure that is, to put it bluntly, totally screwed up. That
> conceptual base consists of a dualistic epistemology. Again, to put it
> bluntly, we were once comfortable with an indwelling entity that pulled some
> of the strings that make behavior happen, and "we" are still comfortable
> with such indwelling entities that live in places like the hippocampus and
> PFC.
> IV: The subsequent ones
> address modern research, but I couldn't access them to give a breakdown
> on any one in particular.
> Most modern neuroscientists are not concerned about "Who am I?" in
> their research.
> GS: I have questioned this statement to some extent.
> IV: We try to limit ourselves to questions we can answer if
> we want to make progress at a scientific level. But it is arguable that
> questions such as this drove early neuroscience research. In Phineas
> Gage's time (the accident was 1848) most of the world consisted of
> confirmed dualists, and the study of mind and brain were only just
> starting to coincide thanks to the work of men like Broca, Wernicke and
> Hughlings-Jackson later in the 19th and early 20th  centuries.
> There are indeed dualists within modern neuroscience and the philosophy
> of neuroscience. Check people like Hameroff & Penrose (we can't imagine
> how consciousness might work, so it must be really complicated and
> involve some equally complicated branch of science - I know! Quantum
> physics!) and Frank Jackson (and the concept of qualia); who seem to
> believe that whatever the mind is, it consists of a physical portion
> and some other portion which is affected by unmeasurable, unknowable
> forces. Even some respected scientists, Sir John Eccles for example,
> emerge as dualists under close scrutiny.
> GS: I have suggested that, in contrast to what you say, that the dualism is
> widespread. Indeed, I argue that it is nearly ubiquitous when one considers
> what is important, i.e., the epistemological stance.
> IV: I am personally a staunch monist (see Patricia Churchland, bless her
> heart; and Daniel C. Dennett for arguments supporting this side).
> GS: Both of these people miss the point. I'm most familiar with Dennett who,
> IMO, is an absolute idiot.
> IV: Problem is that once you start talking about "self" and consciousness,
> you start getting uncomfortably close to what people might think of as
> a soul. And a lot of people aren't willing to let go of that concept
> (and they might be right for all we know), and thus feel that some part
> of the mind continues forever as a soul, and therefore some part of the
> mind must be non-material. My personal feeling is that, like
> creationism, this has no place in a science classroom or experimental
> reasoning, but it needs to be debated.
> GS: Once again, the issue is not ontology, it is epistemology.
> IV: The analogy of "software" comes from the view of the mind as a
> non-physical aspect of the brain, or at least implies that it exists.
> It is a fairly common one, and I really don't like it because of the
> clear dualist implications.
> GS: Good for you! A step in the right direction.
> IV: I like the metaphor offered by the monists
> that describe consciousness as an "emergent property" of the brain.
> Like in nanotech or computer simulations of pattern recognition, large
> groups of information processing units seem to spontaneously
> self-assemble to maximize efficiency, some philosophers think something
> similar occurs in brains using neurons and glia, and their
> multitudinous electrical and chemical interactions.
> GS: This also misses the point. The issue is, I believe, how such phenomena
> are to be understood at the behavioral level, for it is this level that
> "contains" what must be explained, and it is here that neuroscience has been
> corrupted by mainstream psychology.
> IV: To be honest, we still have some scientists and philosophers debating
> dualism. However, dualism includes by definition a component
> inaccessible through the material realm, and thus unmeasurable to
> science. Because science concerns itself with the physical and
> material, it shouldn't try too hard to incorporate dualism into its
> theories.
> GS: Again (in case the horse is not yet dead), the issue is not
> ontological - it is epistemological.
> Cordially,
> Glen
> "ian.vitro" <ian.vitro At gmail.com> wrote in message
> news:1168010498.654280.104060 At i15g2000cwa.googlegroups.com...
> > Hi,
> >
> > As a grad student with boatloads of neuro training, I could put in more

More information about the Neur-sci mailing list