Thursday, January 03, 2008

Mr. Brain looks for an idea

Earlier I made mention what I call "the brain fallacy." To illustrate the point further, I once saw a presentation by Paul Churchland in which, to ridicule certain Fodorian models of folk psychology, showed a cartoon which showed "Mr. Brain" going through a large card file to find an idea. Again, it doesn't follow from the fact that you are using brain-talk that you really have a naturalistic account. Sometimes when people talk about what the brain does I want to say 'Interesting fellow, Mr. Brain. Remarkable what he can do."

The point I want to emphasize here unless the mental states are really analyzed in physical terms, the fact that the word "brain" was used is not to make the analysis genuinely naturalistic. In fact, I could agree with attributions to claims about the brain and then turn around and deny that the brain functions mechanistically. I think that whatever is non-mechanistic in us does actually occupy space, and so I could, on some definitions, be regarded as a materialist!


Blue Devil Knight said...

I am having trouble understanding this "fallacy."

If someone successfully unpacks intentional notions into brain speak, reducing the intentional to neural-functional, there is no fallacy. You might think it can't be done, but if it could, there would be no fallacy. Hence, you must be saying that it is illegal to sneak in intentional properties in one's putatively objective mechanistic description of how the brain is operating. Is that right?

If so, everyone agrees (even arch enemies Fodor and Churchland). And it doesn't have to be brains. There's also the oft-abused quantum mechanics fallacy, the water flow fallacy, etc.. The good philosophers don't do this, or at least are very conscious of the problem and the whole point of their enterprise is to give an account of mental properties without invoking further mental properties. Carrier might be sloppy in this (I'm not sure I haven't read him), but he isn't exactly Dretske (despite his own claims to the contrary).

I don't like the term 'brain fallacy', as it will mislead people into thinking that it is a "fallacy" that intentionality/mind can be explained in neuronal terms. This is not what you mean, unless my first paragraph above is wrong.

In my previous response to the Feder piece, for instance, I didn't use any intentional notions when describing songbird learning, but I describe empirical research for which representational properties are useful hypoteheses and for which it is not at all hard to imagine how they could be naturalistically implemented. Dretske has worried about this more productively than anyone.

Victor Reppert said...

No, no, I don't mean to suggest that it's a fallacy to say that intentionality can be accounted for in terms of the brain. And I don't think I've caught you committing it. I had Carrier in mind, though at one point in my discussion with Parsons in Philosophia Christi he said, well, why can't we just take your description of rational inference and just say that it is something you do with your brain. Well, that may be the answer in the back of the book, (if I'm wrong), but a much longer story has to be told.

I think a lot of people think attributing something to the brain just solves the problem, when it doesn't.

Anonymous said...

it's like the god-of-the-gaps fallacy.

Atheists love to ridicule the claim that "Goddidit."

Well, theists will ridicule the claim that "braindidit."

Victor Reppert said...

I'm not ridiculing the claim that the brain might have done something. What I am objecting to is using brain-talk without really providing good reason to suppose that there is a good naturalistically acceptable analysis of the brain's activities. Surprisingly, I think that Searle may be guilty of it--Searle accepts all sort of arguments that ought to drive him out of materialism and then tries to escape those conclusions by saying that these "mental" properties can be attributed to the brain, so everything is OK after all. Just keep reminding yourself "there is no Mr. Brain."

Anonymous said...

then I shouldn't of used the word 'ridicule.' Nonetheless, I'm with you on the fallacy and it's like a god-of-the-gaps fallacy. Materialists employ it much like the theists they accuse of using a god-of-the-gaps type argument.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Well, theists will ridicule the claim that "braindidit."

I totally agree. There is no good evidence that mental activity supervenes on neural activity. I hope you ridicule your neurologist when a family member comes down with alzheimer's, depression, or parkinson's. Tell 'em "Oh, the braindidit. LOL. That's the brain fallacy."

Victor Reppert said...

But those neurological explanations are not braindidit explanations. They are far more specific, of course. That's not what I am objecting to. Maybe the problem, as you suggest, is with the name of the fallacy. It's not meant as an attempt to criticize neuroscience in general.

David L said...

Out of the blue, I am moved to comment that i have for many years fretted over the nature of mind and matter, and have managed only to come perhaps slightly nearer to understanding the ( er.. ) matter.

what I have found interesting is that behind the poles of thought, ( all is explained by mechanical brain activity .. or that it CANNOT be ) I think there may be some basic point of difference which the opposing parties do not seem to be able to comprehend, let alone share.

As if this hidden starting assumption inevitably blinds us to the truth .. which truth i suspect more and more is beyond our full comprehension.

The direction of the truth I think will be that by the time you have understood the 'natural / physical / causal ' world sufficiently to explain how a physical neural net can BE an 'experience', you will have so changed the concepts of science that it will no longer be purely material.

Sorry. I don't wish to go further , but it seemed right to say just now.

regards David L.