Sunday, November 15, 2009

NPR Examines Consciousness

An NPR series called "The Really Big Questions" has recently examined the question, "What Can the Animal Mind Tell Us About Human Consciousness?"

The people they interviewed included neuroscientist Christof Koch, ethologist Colin Allen, primatologist Frans de Waal, and philosopher Colin McGinn. Now, who do you suppose had the most moronic things to say? Take a guess.

No surprise, it was the philosopher. Whenever scientific subjects are discussed, you can count on some philosopher to chime in with something really stupid. McGinn made all sorts of dubious unsupported claims, like "There are very strong reasons to think that reductionism is not true". He said, "I think there are problems of principle. In the very project you're trying to understand how the phenomenological might arise from the organic, because we're trying to bring together two different conceptual schemes, two different types of knowledge we have of the world, knowledge which we derive from first person awareness of our own consciousness and then the knowledge we have of the physical world, and these two types of knowledge simply don't fit together." Luckily Christof Koch was there to answer some of this kind of fuzzy thinking.

Unfortunately, the interviewer, Lynn Neary, didn't help things out. Although it should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for even a few minutes that what we call "consciousness" is multifaceted, involving things like memory, planning, anticipation, modelling of the environment, and self-awareness, it took nearly half an hour before these ideas were brought out explicitly, and even after that, Neary persisted in conflating them. She seemed to want to have some very simple definition of what consciousness is before discussing it. Is it too much to ask that interviewers do a little homework before beginning their job?

If there's any consolation, at least they didn't interview Mario Beauregard.

20 comments:

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

It could have been worse. At least they didn't give the assignment to NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Haggerty.

Jeff Orchard said...

I often get the same impression from philosophers. They tend to spend inordinate amounts of time discussing history and definitions, then spend the rest of their time shuffling words. I can't seem to get much out of it.

Frank said...

At the same time, I feel that philosophy (proper philosophy, of course) is a crucial aspect of science, one in which too many scientists are lacking depth. So, we need to identify the really good ones. Can you recommend some?

Tim Kenyon said...

I didn't catch the explanation of exactly what was "moronic" about McGinn's remark. Obviously a lot depends on what he means by "reductionism"; quite a few related but distinct views travel under that label.

But even if the case were made that McGinn's statement is just daft, still the sweeping generalization about philosophers/philosophy is either silly or completely trivial. Silly, because it's at best based on anecdotal impressions and confirmation biases, and at worst is a generalization from the case at hand. Or trivial, because with enough people in any discipline, there will always be someone or other to talk nonsense about a particular topic. Are we to suppose that, say, computer science is somehow immune to a similar generalization about the reliable availability of some crackpot or other to spout off on practically any topic?

I don't say that McGinn is correct. But I do think that your rhetoric got hold of you, here, and sort of ran you off the rails.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Hi, Tim!

The moronic comment I had in mind was "I think there are problems of principle. In the very project you're trying to understand how the phenomenological might arise from the organic, because we're trying to bring together two different conceptual schemes, two different types of knowledge we have of the world, knowledge which we derive from first person awareness of our own consciousness and then the knowledge we have of the physical world, and these two types of knowledge simply don't fit together."

Hey - some of my best friends are philosophers! But when they talk about science they often seem to say silly things.

Blake Stacey said...

"Philosophy" as a field and a label seems to suffer some of the same problems as "artificial intelligence": when a topic in either area becomes particularly useful and well-understood, it's not philosophy or AI anymore.

Jeff Orchard said...

It seems to me like philosophers are trying to do math with words. There's logic there, I guess, but buried in a spaghetti of words.

Normativity said...

I have met a lot of scientists in my life. Many of them haven't received good training in philosophy (genuine philosophy, I mean). They are thus neither analytical nor insightful in discussing *fundamental* issues. For example, they often confuse different but related propositions, fight with the straw man, ignore the subtlety and complexity of questions, jump to a big philosophical conclusion beyond the evidence, and so on.

Mr. Jeffrey Shallit is one example. He probably doesn't know what reductionism is, what the arguments against reductionism are, and what the knowledge argument is. I see no evidence in Mr. Shallit's post that Colin McGinn is moronic or silly (probably because I'm a *non-naive* reductionist).

Ingo said...

"Now, who do you suppose had the most moronic things to say? Take a guess. No surprise, it was the philosopher."

There were two philosophers interviewed: Colin Allen and Colin McGinn. Thanks for playing.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Well, NPR said he was an ethologist. But you're right, I shouldn't have depended on Lynn Neary to get even this right.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Dear Normativity:

Let's chalk up the fallacies in your comment:

genuine philosophy, I mean: variant of the "No True Scotsman fallacy"

He probably doesn't know what reductionism is: claim presented without evidence or personal knowledge

Two in two paragraphs! Not bad.

P.S. Maybe you can explain the profundity of McGinn's comment "In the very project you're trying to understand how the phenomenological might arise from the organic, because we're trying to bring together two different conceptual schemes, two different types of knowledge we have of the world, knowledge which we derive from first person awareness of our own consciousness and then the knowledge we have of the physical world, and these two types of knowledge simply don't fit together."

Aaron Baker said...

Well, as to whether McGinn's comment was "moronic": he may be right or wrong, but our knowledge of the physical world (clearly mediated by the senses) and our knowledge of our own consciousness (not nearly so obviously involving the senses) certainly have a very different "feel." I understand that you can give a materialistic account of self-consciousness by saying that we become aware of ourselves first as physical beings by means of our senses and then create an abstract notion of consciousness separate from our physical selves. Saying that, however, doesn't change the subjective quality of the experience for me; I still intuit my consciousness as "a thinking thing" rather than some sort of abstraction, pretty much the way Descartes did.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Aaron:

I don't think that was what McGinn was driving at. Perhaps that quote is not representative enough of what I thought was moronic - but if you listen to the program in its entirety - in particular the exchange between McGinn and Koch - it is clear that McGinn thinks the entire quest to explain the brain is wrongheaded and doomed from the start. Why, exactly, is not clear to me. But that's what he thinks.

Of course, if we - as I eventually expect we will be able to do - learn enough to be able, say, to stimulate parts of the brain in such a way that, say, any specific vivid memory, such as a 1970 Ford Mustang, is brough up in the mind of the person whose brain is being stimulated - then I think it will be very hard for McGinn to say that the "two types of knowledge simply don't fit together".

Similarly if we - as I eventually expect we will be able to do - are able to build a complete simulation of some mammal's brain, so that it responds in exactly the same way as the mammal being modeled - then it will be very hard for McGinn to maintain what he is claiming.

Since neither of these possibilities are logically or logistically ruled out, I think his pessimism is moronic.

I suppose at least we can be grateful he didn't utter the sine qua non of fatuous philosophical trump cards: that it is a "category error" to do what neuroscientists want to do.

Aaron Baker said...

Fair enough. I haven't listened to the program yet.

Anonymous said...

"The garbage spouted by philosophers about science is only exceeded by the idiocies spouted by scientists about philosophy."

Thankfully we have Jeffrey Shallit, who is undoubtedly amongst the greatest (internet) thinkers of our day. He points out for instance the "no true scotsman" fallacy in Normativity's post. Excellent job Professor! Of course, that's not really the no true scotsman fallacy, since to be so would require Normativity's implicitly asserting a redefinition of "philosophy" when all he meant to say was that sophists (I mean brilliant thinkers) like yourself frequently fail to realize reductionist claims like "there is no mind" (just for an example) are self-defeating and meaningless. But wait that's philosophy, which is just "shuffling words."

Of course, how dare Normativity point out that the good Professor "probably doesn't know what reductionism is!" This is surely the fallacy of "presenting a claim without evidence or personal knowledge!" Of course, that's not a logical fallacy, that's just "a lousy argument." And Normativity is probably justified in presenting it since Professor Shallit didn't seem to understand what "phenomenology" is and its relationship to "the world as it is" or a whole host of other philosophical concepts he could have discovered the "profundity" of if he only opened up your basic "Introduction to Philosophy" book. And in any event the good professor could have simply looked up the definition of reductionism and explained why he understands it, thus proving Normativity wrong, and his failure to do so makes him look like he really has no idea what the hell he's talking about after all. But he is, after all, a scientist. And science, after all, is always right about everything, and anything it doesn't talk about just doesn't matter. And therefore Professor Shallit must simply be right, and anything he thinks is a "moronic thing to say" must just be a moronic thing to say.


Good job Shallit! There's an argument you can use to avoid any nasty criticisms from moronic philosophers in the future!

Miles R. said...

I have not listened to the program, and McGinn is not one of my favorite philosophers, but I think I am sufficiently well acquainted with his work to say that Jeffrey Shallit has failed to point out anything stupid in the utterance that he quotes. Shallit says in a comment posted above:

> Of course, if we - as I eventually expect we will be able to do - learn enough to be able, say, to stimulate parts of the brain in such a way that, say, any specific vivid memory, such as a 1970 Ford Mustang, is brough up in the mind of the person whose brain is being stimulated - then I think it will be very hard for McGinn to say that the "two types of knowledge simply don't fit together". >

To suppose that it has not occurred to McGinn that scientific research could establish correlations between states of the brain and states of consciousness, or that McGinn denies the possibility of establishing such correlations, is ludicrous. For over a hundred years, philosophers have assumed that such correlations can in principle be established (though they have advanced divergent views of the nature and meaning of such correlations -- e.g., whether it is between states as types of event or merely between individual occurrences), and grappled with the question whether the two items thus correlated can intelligibly be identified, and if so, how. To assert that the two items are identical undertakes the burden of explaining how two radically disparate forms of description, the psychological and the physical, can be true of the same item.

McGinn takes the view that this burden of explanation cannot be discharged. His position may or may not be rationally credible; I don't accept it myself. But to assume that there is no conceptual problem in the matter is naive and ill-informed.

As I said, I have not listened to the broadcast, and it is possible that McGinn did not explain himself very well. But for Shallit to say that his utterance is "stupid" just because he has failed to understand it is as fatuous as the ignorantly dismissive comments that creationists make about evolutionary biology.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

To assert that the two items are identical undertakes the burden of explaining how two radically disparate forms of description, the psychological and the physical, can be true of the same item.

Why do you feel that there is some scientific or philosophical difficulty there? I must be stupid - because I don't see that it presents the slightest problem.

Miles R. said...

For instance, one problem is to explain how the physical item can have the psychological characteristics; e.g., why some buzzing of my neurons should be experienced by me as a certain sensation. Relating the nervous event to other bodily events is no problem; the problem is how any such event can have the particular experiential quality that it has.

There is a good survey of issues in the article "Consciousness" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Well, this sounds like the qualia "problem". Perhaps I am stupid - but I've never been very impressed by that "conundrum" either. Dennett seems to have disposed of it, as far as I can see.

Anonymous said...

Why don't we just listen to the program, which was designed to inspire a lay audience to think about these issues. Or are they just too moronic to matter?