The Empty Brain

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (detail)
Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (detail)

The effects of the Cartesian view of human nature permeate our scientific thinking to an impressive degree. This is all the more a paradox since “the isolation of the mind from the body entails an isolation of the mind from the world” and hence the isolation of the knower from what he wants to know. The resulting representationalism and mechanism still pervade theoretic inquiry and in particular our scientific and philosophical understanding of ourselves. However, not only is the mode of discourse changing thanks to some philosophers and scientists, but the questions being asked are now pointing researchers to a new (yet, old) ontology.

In a recent Aeon essay, Robert Epstein laments the dominant information processing mode that shapes how we speak about the functioning of the human brain. Because the dualist and the materialist commonly share a mechanistic view of the human body, he quite rightly places René Descartes alongside Thomas Hobbes as early modern philosophic pioneers of a machine-like-metaphor for mind. Our modern metaphors have traded mechanical automata for silicon-and-electricity. Yet this is precisely the problem:

I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Humans, on the other hand, do not—never did, never will.

Epstein thus shows how we have doubled down on Turing’s prediction from over 60 years ago:

The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted. (Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” p. 442)

That is, not only do machines think but we are also thinking machines. As his essay points out, the turnabout was already in play thanks to the work of John von Neumann:

This kind of thinking was taken to its ultimate expression in the short book The Computer and the Brain (1958), in which the mathematician John von Neumann stated flatly that the function of the human nervous system is “prima facie digital.” Although he acknowledged that little was actually known about the role the brain played in human reasoning and memory, he drew parallel after parallel between the components of the computing machines of the day and the components of the human brain. (Epstein, “The Empty Brain”)

The criticism of von Neumann’s identification which Epstein makes was already anticipated by Charles De Koninck in the epilogue to The Hollow Universe, a short reflection in answer to Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” In his typical style, De Koninck quickly relates the epistemological monstrosity of mechanistic thought to the ontological muddle of a bundle-theory of the person and the resulting ethical implications of deconstruction the human person.

To pursue the rigour demanded by the bundle-of-events-and-computer-philosophy is to be led to this utter impasse. No questions can now be asked or answered; no statement made which is not a tautology; no mental act performed which cannot be matched by a machine. . . .  Every single one of us is a crowd of something or other. ‘I’ always stands for a bundle, like the pronoun ‘we’ in ‘We, the Cricket Club’. And everything else is Legion too. If a house could speak for itself, for example, without falling into the snare of mere linguistic convenience, it would say something like ‘We, the boards, bricks, mortar, nails, &c.’; while each board in turn would cry ‘We, the woodfibres, cells, &c.’; each brick in turn ‘We, the molecules of calcium, silica, &c. . .’, and so on, with not a think knowing where to stop. Besides, whether there is a ‘thing’, and a ‘where to stop’, are now distressingly meaningless questions (unless stated in language exhibiting how meaningless, and then quite unimportant). It is some consolation to note that even the old non serviam, if mere linguistic phenomena be ignored, is not quite emptied of its ego. If ‘ego’ is only a collective sign for a bundle of non-egos, there just isn’t anybody there to utter a defiance. . . .  In the order of operation . . . the new science asks man completely to renounce thinking as a power peculiar to him, and to persuade himself that he stands on the same level with his own tools, that is, of the complex tools called machines. (De Koninck, The Hollow Universe, “Epilogue: Reckoning with the Computers,” 120, 122–23, 124)

De Koninck declaims the dissolution of human individuals by our very theory about them (and hence ourselves—the ones making the theory). Our theory eliminates the thing making the theory because the theory shows us that the theory-making-thing hasn’t the unity or capacity to make theories. For a bundle of atoms to discover the atomic theory it must be more than a mere bundle. This self-referential failure is avoided by reconsidering the ontological character of what happens when we say our knowledge or skills change because our brain changes—or better, I would think, how we learn due to our brain changing (without a mereological fallacy). Thus, Epstein notes:

Misleading headlines notwithstanding, no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary. (Epstein, “The Empty Brain”)

There is no retrieval necessary because there is not a “thing” inside our head to retrieve. The brain is “empty” of such things.

However, we have still changed due to what we learn; a new skill innovates our person in some way. Aristotle compares the mind or nous to a hand: “It follows that the soul is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms and sense the form of sensible things.” (De Anima, III.8) That is, the hand is the tool par excellence, for every tool befits the hand and the hand calls for any tool in advance. So also the intellect becomes the forms of the things that we know and our senses become the sensible forms of the things that we sense—as Aristotle famously says in the same chapter, “it is not the stone which is present in the soul but its form.” (Of course, poems and skills are more involved . . .)

Yet this is surely primitive talk of how the mind or the eye work. This is the same mysterious gabbing about occult qualia and ghostly intelligible species so roundly mocked by the founders of modern science and their philosophical vanguard.

But the Philosophy-schooles, through all the Universities of Christendome, grounded upon certain Texts of Aristotle, teach another doctrine; and say, For the cause of Vision, that the thing seen, sendeth forth on every side a Visible Species (in English) a Visible Shew, Apparition, or Aspect, or a Being Seen; the receiving whereof into the Eye, is Seeing. And for the cause of Hearing, that the thing heard, sendeth forth an Audible Species, that is, an Audible Aspect, or Audible Being Seen; which entring at the Eare, maketh Hearing. Nay for the cause of Understanding also, they say the thing Understood sendeth forth Intelligible Species, that is, an Intelligible Being Seen; which comming into the Understanding, makes us Understand. I say not this, as disapproving the use of Universities: but because I am to speak hereafter of their office in a Common-wealth, I must let you see on all occasions by the way, what things would be amended in them; amongst which the frequency of insignificant Speech is one. . . .

And therefore of absurd and false affirmations, in case they be universall, there can be no Understanding; though many think they understand, then, when they do but repeat the words softly, or con them in their mind. . . .

All other names, are but insignificant sounds; and those of two sorts. One, when they are new, and yet their meaning not explained by Definition; whereof there have been aboundance coyned by Schoole-men, and pusled Philosophers. (Hobbes, Leviathan, I.1, 4)

Perhaps, however, it is now we modern philosophers who are puzzled.

Indeed, the representationalism that accompanied mechanistic theories of mind (dualist or not) persistently shaped the course of cognitive science until recently. The work of James Gibson on ecological theories of perception is an exception. Epstein points out Anthony Chemero and his work on embodied cognition as another exception. In an article discussing Gibson’s theory, Chemero raises the problem of ontology directly:

The primary difference between direct and inferential theories of perception concerns the location of perceptual content, the meaning of our perceptions. In inferential theories of perception, these meanings arise inside animals, based on their interactions with the physical environment. Light, for example, bumps into receptors, causing a sensation. The animal (or its brain) performs inferences on the sensation, yielding a meaningful perception. In direct theories of perception, on the other hand, meaning is in the environment, and perception does not depend on meaning-conferring inferences; instead, the animal simply gathers information from a meaning-laden environment. However, if the environment contains meanings, then it cannot be merely physical. This places a heavy theoretical burden on direct theories of perception, a burden so severe that it may outweigh all the advantages to conceiving perception as direct. This is because direct theories of perception require a new ontology, one that is at odds with today’s physicalist, reductionist consensus that says the world just is the physical world, full stop. (Chemero, “An Outline of a Theory of Affordances,” 181)

What exactly is the “new ontology” required? How can “meaning” be transferred from environment to brain? How can such a meaning exist in matter?

Perhaps the new ontology is a rediscovered and rephrased version of something rather old. The “meaning” of a thing—its logos—is its form. The “spiritual change” present in the sense organs and esse intentionale of the medievals (along with the theory of relations, sensible and intelligible forms, common natures and universals, etc.) perhaps differ only in terminology when it comes to the realities that Gibson, Chemero, and other “wholistic” (their term is “ecological”) cognitive scientists are trying to capture.

All questions for another day.


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