Arnold Kling  

What Would Robin Hanson Say?

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I continue to read The Blind Spot, by William Byers. On p. 137-138, he writes,


Until recently, the conventional scientific view was that mind could be reduced to brain, that the physical brain was primary phenomenon and the mind was merely an epiphenomenon. Yet, in recent years, evidence has emerged that the physical configuration of the brain is malleable and can change as a result of learning, thinking, and other mental activities--in short, that the mind can influence the brain...

The ultimate unity of the mind and nature is a complex one. It is not a unity of identity where you maintain that the brain and mind are identical. Nor is it a simple duality. It is an ambiguity.

My guess is that David Brooks would approve of this analysis, while Robin Hanson would not. Hanson sees whole brain emulation as a possible path to artificial intelligence. I see Byers as arguing against this, on the grounds that the mind cannot be reduced to the physical and chemical structure of the brain.

Byers afflicts the comfortable by emphasizing the role of ambiguity in science. Most people want science to play the role of resolving ambiguity. Byers argues that scientific progress comes from confronting and sometimes even embracing ambiguity--for example, the theory that an electron is both a wave and a particle. Thus, the role of ambiguity in science is....ambiguous.

It still looks as though I will recommend this book. If you're not a fan of David Brooks, don't be put off by my assertion that Brooks would enjoy reading it. Brooks would not write this sort of book. Where Brooks is playful with ideas, like a cat with a ball of yarn, Byers treats ideas more the way a dog treats a bone--gnawing away intensely.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Tracy W writes:

Yet, in recent years, evidence has emerged that the physical configuration of the brain is malleable and can change as a result of learning, thinking, and other mental activities--in short, that the mind can influence the brain...

I find it very hard to believe that until recently this was the conventional scientific view, unless by recently you mean "within the last 200 years". Physical injuries to the head can cause loss of memories (indeed, amnesia is a common trope in fiction), and the most plausible explanation for this is that the blow interfers with the process for writing the memories into the brain. In other words, the mind not only can, but does influence the brain, or at least it's jolly hard to think of a way to explain these facts without invoking this hypothesis.

stephen writes:

I don't see how this feedback loop between the mind and brain counts as evidence that the mind is anything other than the brain functioning. I would think that Robin (as he said to Russ) would say that we still haven't found anything else other than the physical stuff that is the brain....

In some ways the mind/brain relationship is analogous to the strength/muscle relationship. Just because using your muscles changes their shape, and therefore their capacity, does not mean that their ability to do work is supernatural, or whatever.

Robin Hanson writes:

WIth Tracy and stephen, I don't at all see how changeable brains suggest that the mind is more than the brain.

Mike writes:

Just by analogy, self-modifying source code does exist yet we don't consider the code separate from the machine.

James writes:
It is not a unity of identity where you maintain that the brain and mind are identical. Nor is it a simple duality. It is an ambiguity.

Great! In what ways would reality look different if that statement were true, rather than untrue? Oh, no different at all? Oh well.

RobertB writes:

"David Brooks would approve of this analysis, while Robin Hanson would not."

Off the top of my head, it's hard to think of 12 more damning words in the English language

Daublin writes:

Sometimes a point is destroyed by a bad example.

A better example in this case might be the flip flopping of certainty about stomach ulcers.

Philo writes:

"It is an ambiguity." What is that even supposed to mean? It sounds like the writer's confession that he is confused.

The malleability of the brain through experience provides no argument against materialism (as noted by Tracy W, stephen, Robin Hanson, and mike).

Curt writes:

While the point that the mind influences the brain probably does not argue against materialism, I think it should open up more interest in how we can 'train' the mind to make good changes in the brain.

In other words, we have little direct control over our brains (and in fact little conscious experience of the brain), we do have conscious experience of mind, and can attempt to gain more knowledge and control over how the mind influences the brain. However science has a hard time with mind since reports of mind are mostly subjective.

Urstoff writes:

Yet, in recent years, evidence has emerged that the physical configuration of the brain is malleable and can change as a result of learning, thinking, and other mental activities--in short, that the mind can influence the brain...

Well that's a complete non sequitur. The brain changes as a result of experience, therefore there is something other than the brain causing the changes. One does not follow from the other.

Not that physicalism is right, mind you; it's fairly hard to get a definition of physicalism that isn't either trivial or empirically false. But the simple fact that synaptic connections change as a result of activity in the brain is not good evidence that there is something over and above the brain that is causing the changes.

MichaelM writes:

Why do we need additional evidence that mind is a thing separate from just the brain?

We're presented with evidence every single second of every single day. Consciousness defies mere materialism. You need something a little more complex to really sort out what's happening.

I, personally, believe that consciousness and the brain (rather, some specific part of the brain) are one and the same thing, with both 'mind' and the representative object that shows up on our instruments (or, in front of your eyes if you're unlucky enough to see a cracked skull) as the 'brain' are themselves epiphenomena of a more fundamental reality, which we cannot have direct access to except within that small area which we think of as conscious experience.

The mind-body problem/the hard problem of consciousness is where science meets philosophy, and strict materialism is an attempt by positivist adherents to scientism to suborn philosophy to the needs of science, like the child enslaving the parent.

I'm with Robin Hanson that you could simulate a brain and out would come AI, but this isn't itself a proof of materialism. In fact, the way the epistemology of mind-body dualism works out, you can't have proof about these kinds of things. It scares the bejeesus out of those with a positivist mindset, but it really comes down to faith.

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