Saturday, 26 January 2013

Policing the border between sense and nonsense

Peter Hacker has long been a strident critic of reductionist neuroscience, and the assimilation of the person/mind to the brain. In this short essay, he considers the purpose of philosophy and how it differs from science.   Where science seeks to distinguish between empirical truth and falsehood (both problematic ideas in themselves), philosophy, he says, seeks to distinguish sense from nonsense.  A flavour of his thinking about contemporary claims about mind and brains can be found after the jump.

I particularly like this quote:

Let me give you a simple example or two: When psychologists and cognitive scientists say that it is your brain that thinks, then, rather than nodding your head and saying ‘How interesting! What an important discovery!’, you should pause to wonder what this means. What, you might then ask, is a thoughtful brain, and what is a thoughtless one? Can my brain concentrate on what I am doing – or does it just concentrate on what it is doing? Does my brain hold political opinions? Is it, as Gilbert and Sullivan might ask, a little Conservative or a little Liberal? Can it be opinionated? or narrow minded? – What on earth would an opinionated and narrow-minded brain be? Just ask yourself: if it is your brain that thinks, how does your brain tell you what it thinks? And can you disagree with it? And if you do, how do you tell it that it is mistaken – that what it thinks is false? And can your brain understand what you say to it? Can it speak English? – If you continue this line of questions you will come to realise that the very idea that the brain thinks makes no sense. But, of course, to show why it makes no sense requires a great deal more work.
Along with the nonsense of brains "seeing", "feeling" or "thinking", we might notice the uncritical use in some fields of similar terms for machines.  The computer "knows" or "sees" this that or the other.   Knowing, perceiving, feeling, and similar "mental" predicates surely can apply only to the kind of sentient being that has an experiential basis.

Hacker is a Wittgensteinian, and it shows in his sensitivity to the way that language use underpins all understanding.  If you like this, you might also like Gilbert Ryle (lampooned here by one of his ex-students).

Hacker's papers are available here.  Neuroskepticism is becoming rather popular, even among those who love neuroscience.


  1. "Just ask yourself: if it is your brain that thinks, how does your brain tell you what it thinks? And can you disagree with it?"

    I think you CAN disagree with your brain - or at least one part of the brain can attempt to override the other parts. For example when your brain is overactive, trying to solve too many problems at once, you can tell it to shut up (i.e. meditate). Getting intoxicated ("insensible") is another way to disagree with one's brain.

    1. I suppose I agree that one can "disagree" with one's brain; the two examples that I think of are when you're tired and want to sleep but cannot, or when you're sad and want to think about something else but dwell.

      At the same time, however, I strongly oppose the notion that "my brain" might think one thing while "my self" thinks something different. I would argue that, while consciousness may consist of more than just the biology of the brain, any such components must complement the biology in a literal sense. Thus the so-called "disagreements" between mind and brain would not only "contribute" to consciousness, but actually make it more complete.

  2. For those interested, on the other side of the fence there is Daniel Dennett's rebuke of Bennett & Hacker's (2003) 'Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience' entitled 'Philosophy as Naive Anthropology'. Dennett argues that Bennett & Hacker's piece 'is an ambitious attempt to reformulate the research agenda of cognitive neuroscience by demonstrating that cognitive scientists and other theorists, myself among them, have been bewitching one another by misusing language in a systematically "incoherent" and conceptually "confused" way'. In Dennett's piece, he agrees with some of their main themes of criticism - "in particular their claim that there are unacknowledged Cartesian leftovers strewn everywhere in cognitive neuroscience and causing substantial mischief". There is also consensus with both parties on their hatred of the term 'qualia'. However, as always with Dennett then arrives the more severe criticisms. Whether you agree or disagree, it's always interesting to take a look at rebukes to a certain thesis and even responses to them. Read Dennett's full rebuke accessed by the link below