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Thursday, 13 July 2006

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Ray Davis

Scott, you didn't drive me away! I'm right here, man!

Except I gotta go to work now. More later; I like the approach you're taking here a lot -- given its cultural importance there's not nearly enough serious criticism of popular science as a genre, and your proposed formula doesn't sound at all dismissive to me.

Alex Leibowitz

"Picture in your mind the face of Marilyn Monroe. Ready? You just used your fusiform gyrus. (219)"

Doesn't "fusiform gyrus" just mean a "form that pours out images"? Through a brain-scan, I suppose, you realize that the "fusiform gyrus" always lights up when you ask the subject to picture Marilyn Monroe. Of course, you don't know that it's called the "fusiform gyrus" when you start out. You suppose this only after you notice the correlation -- and then you name this area of the brain "that which pours out images". Then someone can come along and explain the process to me, saying, "You just used your fusiform gyrus". But what does that mean, that I "used" it? It seems to me kind of like saying, "Whenever you push that button, and only when you push that button, Song X plays" -- but it doesn't explain by what mechanism the button plays Song X -- and I don't know how it could. How could you ever "see" that sort of thing? The best you can do is say that certain patterns in the brain correlate to certain experiences by way of "meaning" -- but you can't use the same technique to explain what "meaning" is because you would end up saying, "Well whenever this pattern occurs in the brain, we conclude that it means there is meaning".

Alex Leibowitz

So what someone is going to do is explain, I hope, "No Alex, you've got it all wrong! It's not through correlation of patterns with experiences that we come to these conclusions at all!"

Scott Eric Kaufman
The best you can do is say that certain patterns in the brain correlate to certain experiences by way of "meaning" -- but you can't use the same technique to explain what "meaning" is because you would end up saying, "Well whenever this pattern occurs in the brain, we conclude that it means there is meaning".

This is a notoriously tricky problem, and a sure way to prod a couple of neuroscientists into a quarrel. They can't even come to a consensus as to whether consciousness is epiphenomenal or not. That said, neuroscientists can explain more than mere correlation; they can talk about the nature of the electrical and biochemical interaction which distinguishes one process from another, even if they're localized in the same area of the brain. I think they can avoid the circularity you point out here by simple empiricism. Another way to say that is humanities types (and humanistically-inclined scientists) tend to ask too much of evidence, and too early. (Thus the problem with Pinker identified above.) We want an infant science to enable us to produce claims we can only reasonably expect from a mature one; hence, the lack of sophistication relative to psychoanalysis, &c.

Rich Puchalsky

Alex, is the problem that you think that your thoughts are created by your soul, or something like that? Because if you grant that thoughts are created by biochemical / electrical impulses flowing along nerves, then you have to accept that eventually neurologists will generally trace out which areas of the brain they come from.

The mechanism in "if you push a button, Song X plays" is not mysterious. Even if you know nothing about the particular box playing the song, you have to accept that an engineer who knows the technology involved could trace out the mechanisms at each step of the chain from button press to song playing.

Since human beings designed and built song-playing boxes, this is not really a good example. The difference is that we didn't design and build brains, and we don't really know large parts of how they work. But we will, presumably, unless science stops working as it has. It seems like you have duplicated in technology the in my opinion very poor theological argument about "the god of the gaps".

Alex Leibowitz

Rich --

I hope you don't think my dislike of science is a sin! Or worse something irrational! Surely it's something we can get to the bottom of, something to which we can assign an explanation and through the use of properly devised antidotes (I almost said anecdotes), correct. I find my propensities disturbing also -- it isn't pleasant to be on *this* side of the argument, especially when the neo-empiricists are winning the day!

But there *is* something strange going on: namely, consciousness is conscious of itself. How can that be? And I think the song-box example works if you keep in mind that it isn't *pushing the button* that causes the music -- there's some other process hidden inside the box.

But then there's another issue, which is: how the vibrations get translated into the experience of music? Now there's a simple side to the problem, as I think about it, which is that you can devise a symbol scheme that represents vibrations in the air and "write" that on a disk. Then you just need a media that translates the symbols back into vibrations.

But the ear needs to translate the vibrations into experience, and that seems to me to involve the emergence of consciousness from something purely material. That is to say (I'm thinking out loud here, so do forgive the convolution) when I'm conscious of a record playing, I'm conscious of more than just the sounds I hear -- I also am conscious that I hear those sounds. That, I think, is more difficult to explain.

And I don't believe in God, nor am I vouching for the immortality of the soul, so I have no overt interest in advancing a theology.

Scott Eric Kaufman
That is to say (I'm thinking out loud here, so do forgive the convolution) when I'm conscious of a record playing, I'm conscious of more than just the sounds I hear -- I also am conscious that I hear those sounds. That, I think, is more difficult to explain.

That, however, is something that can be explained via the mental module theory of contemporary cognitive science. You have a selective attention, certainly, but you have one module which converts the raw phonetic material of spoken language into phonemic data you recognize as language; another which apprehends the aural patterns in the music you're listening to; not to mention a whole slew of others doing other things entirely—prioperception of your body's spatial orientation, &c. These modules have to run simultaneously; the queston cognitive scientists quarrel over is whether consciousness precedes them, or whether it's produced by them. It's an important question, but also one which matters less than you think, since ever there you're employing a fuzzy notion of what constitutes "consciousness." It's reflexive and not, say, deliberative; and those systems work differently (as evidenced by the fact that people who've suffered brain damage which impairs their ability to process reflexives still retain all other higher cognitive functions).

Alex Leibowitz

I suppose my question is what the meaning of "conversion" is in this case?

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