Neurons science commentary

For crying out loud, forget Daniel Dennett already!

science commentary

For crying out loud, forget Daniel Dennett already!

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
by T. Nelson

D avid Gelernter wrote a long, thoughtful, long, long, and articulate article this week in Commentary called “The Closing of the Scientific Mind” criticizing the view of Daniel Dennett, and science in general, that subjectivity does not exist.

“Man is only a computer,“ writes Gelernter, “if you ignore everything that distinguishes him from a computer.” He calls this anti-subjectivism, and says it is a form of closed-mindedness in science not to have succeeded in understanding it.

As an aside, the fact that the Internet makes it so much cheaper to write long, long, long articles clearly has some drawbacks. Against this trend is the vast number of articles, which pressures one toward brevity. So I will try to be brief.

I highly recommend the article, mainly because of Gelernter's literary skill, but he's way off base in his criticism of science. He doesn't fully appreciate that when you theorize it's just as important to ignore stuff you don't understand as it is to explain what you do.

That's not to say there isn't any closed-mindedness in science today. But what's really going on here is not closed-mindedness, but the process of science insulating itself from the unknown. It's not a failing, but an essential part of science: to block off discussion of something that cannot be understood until some way is found to penetrate it.

Outsiders may not recognize it as such, but science needs this protective mechanism. Speculation must be avoided to prevent us from wasting time studying things we're not yet ready or equipped to understand. Subjectivity is one of those topics. Quantum mechanics is another. The prevailing idea in physics is that we are not equipped to understand why the equations that describe matter at the smallest scale do what they do, and until we get more knowledge it's best not to create false concepts. They might satisfy our curiosity, but they would lead us down the dark path to M theory, or maybe something even worse.

Gelernter defends Thomas Nagel, who criticized the theory of evolution for not explaining subjectivity in his book Mind and Cosmos. But Nagel's criticism of Darwin, while perhaps not deserving all the criticism that was leveled against it, was like blaming Newton for not explaining Alcubierre's warp drive.

Look what happens when the protective mechanism is bypassed: we get people talking about how the mind operates like quantum mechanics. The idea that the mind is some sort of quantum computer has gotten a lot of press, and still has many proponents in physics. It has been largely rejected by the neuroscience community, not because they're closed-minded, but because they recognize that quantum effects are several orders of magnitude too small to affect neurons.

To understand how mental computation works, neuroscientists also have to ignore subjectivity, emotion, and all that other mental stuff that makes us feel like we're in a particular place at a particular time. Not because, as Dennett claimed to believe, it's all an illusion, but because trying to fit it in to our theory would just create an Aristotelian hodgepodge, where we create circular definitions that sound plausible but can't be extended. Eventually these theories would have to be overthrown, at great effort.

Even Nagel, as Gelernter admits, “awaits ‘major scientific advances, the creation of new concepts’ before we can understand how consciousness works.” But when Gelernter says we can't make progress until we understand what subjectivity is, he's overlooking an important philosophical point. We can't begin to study it until we know what it's not. Only then can we understand which pieces are needed to study subjectivity. The way science makes that to happen is to cocoon it away until we have the appropriate tools. And despite what we may think of Daniel Dennett's extreme reductionism, he's actually helping us with that.

See also:

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America must evolve

Government is too big

The five thousand (and counting) words we are not allowed to say

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jan 01, 2014