[Comp-neuro] Re: (3) A Matter of Religion

James Schwaber schwaber at mail.dbi.tju.edu
Sat Aug 23 16:44:13 CEST 2008

To borrow a phrase in very heavy use here at present "I'm Jim Schwaber 
and I approve this message [your post]".

The active world model concept of 'how brains work' is equally useful 
for understanding the data on processing of the visual scene (to replace 
the older idea of a passive serial mapping of the visual scene), and as 
you saw from my previous posts I think the best fit in general to what 
the evidence supports for 'how brains work'.

Your paragraph on reductionism is just right.

However, full disclosure: I no longer know what being a materialist can 
mean. It appears that the material world, when we drill down, eventually 
becomes stochastic processes involving networks of energy states - not 
something comfortably resembling "this here solid armchair". Rather it 
is time dependent energy - i.e. involving two interestingly defined 
terms. I suppose what you mean is to avoid Cartesian dualism, or 
spiritual mentalism, and I agree these are not helpful to our science.  
I have not reached any conclusions here but am flirting with how it 
works out to consider 'information' as fundamental (replacing 
'material'), and despite the overstatements am intrigued with CA - e.g. 
some of Wolfram's and others self organization-emergence ideas. Still, I 
am concerned that all these thoughts are useful conceptually, relevant 
to philosophy of science, but - what to build neural models of? 

You, Mehrdad and Jim made interesting remarks about what constitutes an 
individual and the core self, and the role of culture in forming the 
mind. More on this later.

Harry Erwin wrote:
> On 21 Aug 2008, at 22:43, James Schwaber wrote:
>> (3) A Matter of Religion
>> I am really struck by the forceful and repeated confessions of faith 
>> in this thread: we are materialists with every fiber of our body, we 
>> are certain the material world is well understood and the brain is 
>> part of it, reductionistic accounts are in principle complete, 
>> determinism makes freewill an illusion, and so on. My experience is 
>> that this faith is universal among us neuroscientists, and to a 
>> somewhat lesser extent biologists in general. We want to believe we 
>> are real scientists, just like physicists, and will prove it by 
>> mechanistic reduction of behavior and brain to physical-chemical levels.
>> It is my interesting experience that this faith is often not shared 
>> by physical scientists and philosophers of science - that this kind 
>> of hard reductionism/determinism may be passé, not considered a 
>> workable approach.  That is, a bottom-up, seamlessly 
>> mechanistic-deterministic account of all of nature is typically not 
>> considered a reasonable goal of science, e.g. given the limits we 
>> have hit in 20th century physics. In this context, a local account of 
>> some mental or behavioral or neuronal function in its own terms would 
>> be a success to the extent it was predictive-useful, but never taken 
>> as complete or eternally true.
>> Obviously this is a matter of faith, of 'religion'. I wonder if the 
>> faith of neuroscientists is inhibitory to how we consider how brain's 
>> work?
>> _______________________________________________
> My PhD research was in bat behaviour—bat echolocation and target 
> capture—where I studied how bats use sound to search for and capture 
> their food. Echolocation is a low data rate sense that requires a lot 
> of processing to make sense of stimuli, so a bat has to efficiently 
> ask quite specific questions of its acoustic environment. The process 
> of sound perception in bats and other animals is complex, using 
> internal neural representations only indirectly related to the sounds 
> the bat originally heard.
> Study of how bats do this has led to some interesting conclusions. For 
> instance, bats seem to live in an internal model of their environment. 
> This was first noticed by Möhres and Öttingen-Spielberg when working 
> with a bat that was accustomed to roosting in a cage in a room. The 
> researchers rotated the cage and eventually removed it, and noted that 
> the bat continued to behave in detail as if the cage were in its 
> original position.
> The bat lives in its world model and uses it to choose its behaviour. 
> Until forced to reorient, the bat continues to perceive the cage in 
> its original position. These points led me to emphasize cognitive over 
> behavioural models and have channelled my philosophical approach to 
> science.
> I am not a theoretical reductionist, which might be assumed from my 
> being a materialist. Reductionism claims that higher-level systems can 
> always be explained—that is ‘modelled’—in terms of lower-level 
> systems. For example, that the mind is reducible to neural network 
> activity; neural network activity can be reduced to biology; biology 
> to chemistry, and chemistry to quantum physics. The problem is that 
> you can’t do the modelling. The number of steps from each lower-level 
> model to the next higher-level is essentially infinite—for example, to 
> calculate the folding of a medium-sized protein from quantum mechanics 
> requires more computational power than the universe can possibly 
> contain. This is what Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen call ‘ant country’. 
> So to understand a higher-level system like the mind, you must develop 
> a theory—anchored in careful experiments—at the same level as the 
> mind. Anything restricted to reductionism is certainly infeasible and 
> likely to be impossible. Certainly, the protein folds, but you can’t 
> model it. I do the modelling, but it is 'cum grano salis.'
> I am also an enactive constructivist—I study embodied cognition (minds 
> in bodies)—not a behaviourist. Again, we need to unpack the 
> terminology. According to Wikipedia, enactive (or embodied) cognitive 
> scientists emphasize embodiment and action over passive internal 
> representations. The individual grows into the world—he has no 
> a-priori representation of the world, and has no core self separate 
> from the world. I reject behaviourism—the proposition that behaviour 
> can be explained without assuming internal mental states—and I also 
> reject Cartesian dualism—the proposition that mental phenomena are in 
> some respects non-physical. Again, my evidence is based on that 
> experimental work with bats.
> So to summarise, I am an experimental scientist, a materialist but not 
> a reductionist, and an enactive cognitive scientist, but not a 
> behavioural scientist or a dualist.
>> -- 
> "an academic who listens to pleas of convenience before publishing his 
> research risks calling into doubt the whole of his determination to 
> find the truth." (Russell 1993)
> Harry Erwin
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