At a certain point, science can be (is) part of the problem. At a certain point, science was (is) used both to create margarine, and to promote it over butter. At a certain point then I’ll take butter over science. Science is not an absolute good. When people are devoted to it as an absolute good, it’s a religion.
A friend said:
I know you are not like Pence, but being pro-science does not mean you have to be like Sam Harris. Science evolves and looks for answers and tests hypothesises and then they are checked and re-checked. It is the best method we have in the search for truth about things. You cannot cherry-pick science, but there are science with solid evidence and there is science with shaky evidence, which is not yet quite science.
Yes. I agree. It’s like writing. There is no sense in being anti-writing, or anti-science. But equally, there’s no sense in being reflexively pro-writing, or reflexively pro-science. Some writing, and some science, is lousy garbage (and does more harm than good), and some writing, and some science, is great. It’s the distinction that matters.
I know of course that many people are anti-science, like Mike Pence, for example. But personally, arguing with people who oppose science (or writing) by showing them the importance of science (or writing), I’m not interested in that. If you want to discuss the greatness of science with people who hate science, be my guest. I’d rather discuss the distinction between lousy and brilliant science, and between lousy and brilliant writing. Likewise, and this is a common misconception, writing and science don’t progressively keep getting better. At all times, throughout human history, there is great writing, and there is lousy writing, and great science, and hack science.
A lot of the writing done today, and a lot of the science done today, is done by hacks, paid by some industry with an evil agenda, pro-arms industry, pro-war industry, pro-oil industry, pro-nuclear industry and so on, pro-agribusiness and “food” industry.
I remember as a kid in Kentucky, before public opinion about smoking changed, for many decades there was a lot of science and a lot of writing paid for by the tobacco industry: paid professorships, university endowments, whole scientific departments paid for by the tobacco industry. This is true today for oil, for media, for armaments, for “international relations”, and for many other “sciences”.
Let’s not be like Mike Pence. Let’s not be anti-science. And let’s also not treat science as an absolute good. Let’s not make it a religion.
Here’s an antidote. Noam Chomsky’s talk, The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding, is the most beautiful and compelling of all his writing and talks, that I’ve seen. Let’s be aware of the limits of our thought and understanding, aware that we are, as we know from Darwin, biological organisms, not angels, and so as with all organisms, we are defined by (both physical and intellectual) scope and limits. Chomsky talks of this in detail, as he surveys the entire body of modern science and it’s development.
His language is dense and his voice is soft, so I corrected the automated google transcript, just for pure enjoyment, like butter: Chomsky’s review of the best minds of the scientific revolution, their ideas and questions, which remain unsurpassed in the centuries since. There is a level of clarity in their thought, together with clear self awareness of both the scope and limits of thought.
“The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding”
– Noam Chomsky
Youtube video: http://youtu.be/D5in5EdjhD0
We are extremely happy to have Professor Noam Chomsky with us
let me just say that he’s the most quoted
writer in academia alive. no
no comparison at all than anybody else and
I think it’s fair to say he is number one public intellectual in the world
so please, Professor Chomsky.
I’ll talk some about Isaac Newton and his
contributions to the study of mind,
He’s not known for that but I think a case can be made that
he did make substantial, indirect but nevertheless
substantial contributions. I’d like to explain why. There is a
familiar view that the early Scientific Revolution,
beginning, through the 17th century,
provided humans with limitless
explanatory power, and that that conclusion is established more firmly by
Darwin’s discoveries, theory of
Evolution. I have in mind specifically a
recent publication, exposition, of this view by
two distinguished physicist
philosophers, David Albert, and David Deutsch.
But it’s commonly held with many
variants. There’s a corollary. The corollary is
ridicule of what’s called by many philosophers mysterianism,
that’s the absurd notion that there are mysteries of nature
that human intelligence will never be able to
grasp. It’s of some interest
to notice that this belief is
radically different from the conclusions of the great figures who actually
carried out the
early Scientific Revolution. Also
interesting to notice how inconsistent it is
with what the theory of evolution implies and
has always been understood to imply since its origins.
And I’d like to say a few words about those two topics in turn
I’ll start with David Hume’s
History of England. There is of course a chapter on the
Scientific Revolution, and in particular on the crucial role of
Isaac Newton, who he describes as the
“greatest and rarest genius that ever arose for the ornament and instruction of the
And Hume concluded that Newton’s greatest achievement was that
“while he seemed to draw the veil
from some of the mysteries of nature, he showed
at the same time the imperfections of
the mechanical philosophy and thereby
restored nature’s ultimate secrets to that obscurity
in which they ever did and ever will remain.”
The mechanical philosophy of course was
the guiding doctrine of the Scientific Revolution, it
held that the world is a machine, a grander version
the kind of automata that stimulated the imagination of
thinkers of the time, much in the way that
programmed computers do today.
They were thinking of the remarkable clocks, the
artefacts constructed by skilled artisans,
most famous was Jacques de Vaucanson,
imitated digestion, animal behavior,
or the machines that you could find in the
royal gardens as you walk through, they pronounced words
when they were triggered, and many other such devices.
The mechanical philosophy wanted to dispense with
occult motions, neo-scholastic notions
of forms flitting through the air, or sympathies and antipathies,
and other such occult ideas, and it wanted to be
hard-headed to keep to what’s grounded in
commonsense understanding. And it in fact provided the criterion for
intelligibility from Galileo
through Newton and indeed well beyond.
Well its well known also that Descartes claimed
to have explained the phenomena of
the material world in such mechanical terms,
while also demonstrating that they’re not all-encompassing,
don’t reach into the domain of mind
(his view). He therefore postulated a new principle to account for what was beyond
the reach of the mechanical philosophy.
And while this too is sometimes ridiculed it’s in fact fully in accord with
normal scientific method.
He was working within the framework of substance
Philosophy, so the new principal was a second substance,
his res cogitans, And then there’s a scientific problem that
he and others faced: determining
It’s character, and determining how it
interacts with a mechanical world… that’s
the mind-body problem, cast within the
Scientific Revolution, and it’s a scientific problem.
Well, it was for a time. The mechanical philosophy
was shattered by Newton, as Hume observed,
and with it went the notion of
understanding of the world that the scientific revolution
sought to attain. And the mind-body problem
also disappeared, and, I don’t believe has been resurrected,
lthough there’s still a lot of talk about it.
Those conclusions actually were pretty well understood
in the centuries that followed. They’ve often been forgotten today.
John Locke had already reached conclusions rather
similar to Hume’s. He was exploring
the nature of our ideas and he recognized, I’ll
quote him, “that body as far as we can conceive
is able only to strike and affect body and motion,
according to the utmost reach of our ideas,
is able to produce nothing but motion.”
These are the basic tenets of course of the mechanical philosophy
They yield the conclusion that there can be
no interaction without contact,
which is our common sense intuition.
And modern research and cognitive science has
given pretty solid grounds for Locke’s
reflections on the nature of our ideas.
It’s revealed that our
of the nature of bodies and their interactions, as
nowadays we would say in large part genetically determined,
it’s a lot, it’s very much as Locke described.
Very young infants can
recognize a principle of causality through contact,
not any other way. If they recognize
Causality, they seek a hidden contact somewhere.
those in fact appear to be the limits of our ideas,
Of our common sense, The
occult ideas of the scholastics,
or of Newton (Newtonian attraction), goes
beyond our understanding, and is unintelligible,
at least by the criteria of the Scientific Revolution.
Very much like Hume, Locke concluded therefore that “we remain
in incurable ignorance of what we desire to know about
matter and its effects. No science of bodies is within our reach.”
and he went on to say “we can only appeal to the
arbitrary determination of that all-wise agent
who has made them to be and to operate as they do
in a manner wholly above our weak understanding to conceive.”
Actually Galileo had reached much the same conclusions
at the end of his life. He was frustrated by the failure
of the mechanical philosophy, his ideal,
its failure to account for cohesion,
and attraction, other phenomena, and he was forced to
reject, quoting him, “the vein presumption of
understanding everything, or to conclude, even
worse, that there is not a single effect in nature
such that the most ingenious theorist can arrive at complete
understanding of it.” Actually Descartes,
though more optimistic, had also
recognized the limits of our cognitive reach, occasionally;
he’s not entirely consistent about this, but
rule 8 of the Regulae reads:
“if the series of subjects to be examined…
if in the series of subjects to be examined, we come to a subject of which our
intellect cannot gain a good enough intuition,
we must stop there and we must not examine the other matters that follow
but must refrain from futile
toil.” Specifically, Descartes speculated that the workings of
res cogitans, the second substance,
may be beyond human understanding. So he thought,
quoting him again, “we may not have intelligence enough
to understand the workings of mind.” In particular
the normal use of language, one of his main
concepts, he recognized that
the normal use of language has what has come to be called a creative aspect.
“Every human being
but no beast / machine
has this capacity to use language in ways
that are appropriate to situations but not caused by them.
(it’s a crucial difference) and to formulate and express
thoughts that may be entirely new
and to do so without bound,
maybe incited or inclined to speak in certain ways,
by internal and external circumstances, but not compelled to do so.”
Which is the way his followers put the matter, which was a mystery to Descartes, and remains
a mystery to us,
though it quite clearly is a fact.
Well Descartes nevertheless continued,
that “even if the explanation of normal use of language
and other forms of free and coherent choice of action,
even if that lies beyond our cognitive grasp, as it apparently does,
That’s no reason, he said, to question the authenticity of our experience.
Quite generally he said free will, which is at the core of this,
“is the noblest thing we have and there is nothing we
comprehend more evidently and more perfectly,
so it would therefore be absurd to doubt something that we
comprehend intimately and experience within ourselves.”
namely that the free actions of men are
undetermined. “merely because it conflicts with
something else which we know must be
by its nature incomprehensible to us.”
Much like Locke he had in mind divine pre-ordination.
One of the leading Galileo scholars, Peter
Machamar observes that by adopting the mechanical philosophy
and thus initiating the modern scientific revolution,
Galileo had forged a new model of intelligibility for human understanding,
with new criteria for coherent explanation of natural phenomena.
So for Galileo, real understanding requires a mechanical model,
that is, a device that an artisan could
construct, at least in principle, hence intelligible to
- So Galileo rejected
traditional theories of tides, because
he said, “we cannot duplicate them by means of appropriate artificial devices.”
And his great successors adhered to these high standards of
intelligibility and explanation.
So it’s therefore quite understandable why
Newton’s discoveries were so stridently resisted by the
greatest scientists of the day. Christian
Huygens described Newton’s concept of attraction as an absurdity.
Leibnitz charged that he was reintroducing
occult ideas, similar to the sympathies and antipathies
of the much-ridiculed scholastic science.
And he was offering no physical explanation
for phenomena of the material world. And it’s important notice that Newton agreed
Very largely agreed. He wrote that “the notion
action at a distance is inconceivable;
It’s so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in
philosophical matters, a competent faculty of
thinking can ever fall into it.”
(philosophical means what we call scientific)
By invoking that principle he said “we concede
we do not understand the phenomena of the material world.”
So, and Newton scholarship recognizes that,
I B Cohen for example, or Deuxsterhaus, pick someone else,
points out that by the word “understand”
Newton still meant what his critics meant:
understand in mechanical terms, of
Newton did have a famous phrase which you all know,
the phrase, “I frame no hypotheses.” And it’s in this context that it appears.
He had been unable to discover the physical
cause of gravity, so he left the question open.
He said, “to us it is enough that gravity does really exist,
and act according to the laws which we have explained,
and abundantly serves to account for all the
motions of the celestial bodies, and of our sea,
the tides.” But while agreeing,
as he did, that his proposals were so absurd that
no serious scientist could take them seriously,
he defended himself from the charge that he was reverting to the mysticism
of the Aristotelians. What he argued was that his principles were not occult;
only their causes were occult. So in his words “to
derive general principles inductively from phenomena,
and afterwards to tell us how the properties of
actions of all corporeal things follow from these manifest principles,
would be a very great step in philosophy (in science), though
the causes of the principles were not yet discovered.
And by the phrase, “not yet discovered” Newton,
the word “yet” is crucial, Newton was expressing his hope
that the causes would someday be discovered, in physical terms,
meaning, mechanical terms. That was a hope that lasted right through the
nineteenth century. It was finally dashed by
twentieth century science, so that hope is gone.
The model of intelligibility that
reigned from Galileo through Newton, and indeed well beyond,
has a corollary: when mechanism fails,
understanding fails. So Newton’s absurdities
Were, finally, over time, just
incorporated into common sense
natural science. You study them in school today.
But that’s quite different from commonsense understanding.
So to put it differently, one long-term consequence
of the Newtonian revolution was to lower the standards of intelligibility for
There’s the hope to understand the world, which did
animate the modern scientific revolution. That was finally abandoned.
It was replaced by a very different and far less
demanding goal namely, to develop intelligible theories of the world.
So as, such further absurdities as
say, curved space-time, or quantum indeterminacy were absorbed into the
the very idea of an intelligible, uh,
of intelligibility, is dismissed as itself absurd.
For example by Bertrand Russell who knew the sciences very well.
By the late 1920s, he repeatedly
places the word “intelligible” in quotes
to highlight the absurdity of the quest.
And he dismisses the qualms of the founders, the great founders of the
Newton, others, dismisses them as,
their qualms about action at a distance, he
dismisses these as little more than a prejudice. Although a more
sympathetic, and I think accurate description would be,
that they simply had higher standards of intelligibility.
And if you look at the work of leading physicists, they
more or less say the same thing, so a couple years after Russell wrote,
Paul Dirac wrote a well-known introduction to quantum mechanics
in which says that “physical science no longer seeks to provide pictures of
how the world works, that is, a model
functioning on essentially classical lines,
but only seeks to provide a way of looking at the fundamental laws
which makes their self-consistency obvious.”
(So we want to understand the theories; we’ve given up trying to understand the world).
He was referring of course to the inconceivable
conclusions of quantum physics, but,
if modern thinkers hadn’t forgotten the past he could just as well
have been referring to
the classical Newtonian models and,
which were undermined by Newton
undermining the hope of rendering natural phenomena intelligible.
That was the primary goal, the animating spirit of
the early Scientific Revolution.
There’s a classic 19th century
history of materialism by Friederich Lange,
translated into English with an introduction by Russell.
Lange observes that “we have so accustomed ourselves
to the abstract notion of forces, or rather to a notion
hovering in a mystic obscurity between abstraction and concrete comprehension,
that we no longer find any difficulty in making one particle of matter
act upon another without immediate contact,
through void space, without a material link.
From such ideas, the great mathematicians and physicists of the
seventeenth century were far removed.
They were genuine materialists. They
insisted that contact, immediate contact, is a condition of
Influence. “This transition”,
he says, “was one of the most important turning points in the whole history of
(it) deprived the notion of much significance, if any at all,
And with materialism goes the notion of physical, of
body, other counterparts,
They have no longer any significance, and,
he adds that “what Newton held to be such a great absurdity
that no philosophic thinker could light upon it,
is prized by posterity as Newton’s great discovery of
the harmony of the universe.” Those conclusions are quite commonplace in the
history of science. So fifty years ago Alexander
Koyre, another great historian of science, and scientist,
observed that “despite his unwillingness to accept the conclusion,
Newton had demonstrated that a purely materialistic pattern of nature
is utterly impossible, and a purely materialistic or
mechanistic physics as well, his
mathematical physics, required the admission
into the body science of incomprehensible
and inexplicable facts imposed on us by
empiricism, that is by what we conclude from observations.”
Despite this recognition, the debates did not end,
So about a century ago, Boltzmann’s
molecular theory of gases, or
Chegulet’s structural chemistry, in fact even
Bohr’s atom, ones you all learn in school, these were only given an instrumental
… Modern History of Chemistry, standard history, points out that
they were regarded as calculating devices, but with no physical reality,
And Newton’s belief that the causes of his principles were not
yet discovered, implying that they would be,
by, for example, by Bertrand Russell
in 1927. He wrote that
“chemical laws cannot at present
be reduced to physical laws.” Much like Newton,
be hoped it would happen, and he expected that it would.
But that expectation also proved to be vain, as
vain as Newton’s. Shortly after Russell
wrote this, it was shown that chemical laws will never be reduced
to physical laws, because the conception of physical laws was erroneous.
…uh, finally done in Linus Pauling’s
quantum theoretic account of the chemical bond.
And very much as in Newton’s day,
the perceived explanatory gap, as it’s now called
by philosophers, was never filled.
Today interestingly, just a few years ago,
we read of the thesis of the new biology,
that “things mental, indeed minds, are emergent properties of brains,
though these emergences are produced by principles
that we do not yet understand.” That’s
neuroscientist Vernon Mountcastle. He’s
formulating the guiding theme of a collection of essays
reviewing the results of what was called The Decade of The Brain,
last decade of the twentieth century. His phrase,
“we do not yet understand” might very will suffer the same fate as
Russell’s similar comment about chemistry, seventy
years earlier, or for that matter, Newton’s much earlier one.
In fact, in many ways, today’s theory of mind,
i think, is re capitulating errors
that were exposed in the nineteen thirties
with regard to chemistry, and
centuries before that with regard to core physics,
though in that case leaving us with a mystery, maybe a permanent one for
as Hume speculated, actually asserted.
Throughout all this, and today as well,
we can optimistically look forward to
unification of some kind, but not necessarily reduction,
which is something quite different. Talk about reductionism is highly misleading.
It’s been abandoned over and over again in the history of science.
Seeking unification (is a) much weaker goal.
Sometimes, as in the classic case of Newton
and what he left “veiled in mystery”, that
may involve significant lowering of expectations and standards.
Well let me go back to the beginning, the exuberant thesis that the
early Scientific Revolution provided humans with
limitless explanatory power. When we look over the history, I think a
quite different conclusion is
in order. The founders of the Scientific Revolution were compelled by their
to recognize that human explanatory power
is not only not limitless, but does not
even reach to the most elementary phenomenon of the natural world.
That’s masked by lowering the criteria of
Intelligibility, of understanding. Well
according, if we accept that much, as I think we should, a
less ambitious question arises, the goals of
science having been lowered to finding intelligible theories,
can we sensibly maintain,
(we can ask this), can we sensibly maintain
that humanly accessible theories
are limitless in their explanatory scope (it’s a much
weaker goal), and furthermore, does the theory of evolution
establish the limitless reach of human cognitive
powers in this narrower more limited sense?
Actually, if you think about it, the opposite conclusion seems much more reasonable.
The theory of evolution of course places humans firmly within the natural
It regards humans as biological organisms,
very much like others, and for every such organism,
it’s capacities have scope and limits.
The two go together. That includes the cognitive domain.
So rats for example can’t solve,
say, a prime number maze. That’s because they lack the appropriate
It’s not lack of memory or anything like that; they
just don’t have the concepts, so for rats
we can make a useful distinction between
problems and mysteries.
Problems are tasks that lie within their cognitive
reach in principle. Mysteries are ones that don’t.
(mysteries for rats; they may not be mysteries for us).
If humans are not Angels, if we’re part of the organic world,
than human cognitive capacity is also gonna have scope and limits.
So accordingly the distinction between problems and mysteries,
holds for humans, and it’s a task for science to delimit it.
Maybe we can, maybe we can’t; but at least it’s a formulable task,
and not inconsistent., It’s not inconsistent to think that we might be able to discover
limits of our cognitive capacities. Therefore, those who accept modern biology,
should all be mysterians, instead of ridiculing it,
because mysterianism follows directly from
the theory of evolution, and everything we scientifically believe about humans.
So the common ridicule of this concept,
right through philosophy of mind, what it amounts to is the claim that
somehow humans are Angels, exempt from
biological constraints. And in fact far from
bewailing the existence of mysteries for humans,
we should be extremely grateful for it, because if there are no limits
to what we might call, say, the science-forming capacity,
it would also have no scope, just as if the
genetic endowment imposed no constraints on
growth, it would mean that
we could be at most some shapeless amoeboid
creature reflecting accidents of an unanalyzed environment.
The conditions that prevent a human embryo from
becoming, say an insect, or a chicken, those very same conditions,
play a critical role in determining that the embryo can become a human.
(you can’t have one without the other), and the same holds in the cognitive domain.
Actually classical aesthetic theory recognized that
there’s a relation between scope and limits.
Without any rules, there can be no genuine
creative activity, and that’s even the case
when creative work challenges and revises
prevailing rules. So far from establishing the limitless scope of human
modern evolutionary theory, and in fact all of standard science,
undermines that hope. Now that was actually appreciated
right away when the power of the theory of evolution
came to be recognized. One
enlightening case is Charles Sanders Peirce,
his inquiry into what he called abduction,
which is rather different from the way the term is used today.
Peirce was struck particularly by a
striking fact that in the history of science
major discoveries are often made
independently and almost simultaneously
which suggests that some principal is
directing inquiring minds
towards that goal, under the existing
circumstances of understanding.
And something similar is true for early childhood learning.
So if you put aside the
pathology or extreme deprivation, children are
essentially uniform in this capacity and
they uniformly make quite astounding discoveries
about the world, going well beyond what
any kind of data analysis could yield.
In the case of language, it’s now known that that
starts even before birth. So a child is born with
some conception of what counts as a language
and can even recognize its mother’s language as
distinct from another language, both spoken by a
bilingual woman who it’s never heard before,
(there are some interesting distinctions determining how it works but,
it can be done at birth), and in fact even the first step of
language acquisition, which is generally sort of just taken for granted,
is quite a remarkable achievement. An infant has to
select from the environment, from
what William James called “the looming buzzing
Confusion”, the infant has to somehow select the data
that are language-related. That’s a task that’s a total mystery for any other organism,
They have absolutely no way doing it. But it’s a reflexively solved problem
for human infants, and so the story continues,
all the way to the outer reaches of scientific discovery.
)Well it may not be continuous, I’m not suggesting that. There’s probably
different capacities involved.) Rather like
Hume, Peirce concluded that humans must
have what he called an abductive instinct which provides
a limit on admissible hypotheses,
so that only certain explanatory schemes can be entertained,
but not infinitely many others, all compatible with available data.
Peirce argued that this instinct develops through
natural selection, that is, the variants that yield
truths about the world provide a selectional advantage, and are
retained through descent with modification,
(Darwin’s notions), while others fall away.
That belief is completely unsustainable.
It takes only a moment to show that that can’t be true,
And if you drop it, as we must, we’re left with a serious,
challenging, scientific problem, namely: determine the
innate components or our cognitive nature,
those that are employed in reflexive identification of
language-relevant data, or in another cognitive domains.
Take one famous case, the capacity of humans which is
quite remarkable, to, if presented with a
sequence of tachistoscopic presentations, just
dots on a screen, three dots on a screen,
presented with a sequence of these, what you perceive is a rigid object in motion.
Some of the cognitive principles are known, but not the neural basis for it.
Or, for example, discovering and comprehending Newton’s Laws,
or developing string theory, or solving problems of
quantum entanglement, or as complex as you like.
And there is a further task, that’s to determine the scope and limits of human
Incidentally, some differently structured organism, some
Martian say, might regard human mysteries,
as simple problems, and might wonder that
we can’t find the answers, or even ask the right questions,
just as we wonder about the
inability of rats to run prime number mazes.
It’s not because of limits of memory, or other superficial
constraints, but because of the very design of our
cognitive nature, and their cognitive nature.
So actually of you think it through I think it’s quite clear that
Newton’s remarkable achievements led to a significant
lowering of the expectations of science, a severe restriction on the role of
They furthermore demonstrated that it’s an error to
ridicule what’s called the ghost in the machine
(that’s what I and others were taught, at
your age, in the best graduate schools, Harvard in my case,
but that’s just a mistake.) Newton did not exorcise the ghost;
Rather, he exorcised the machine; he left the ghost completely
Intact, and by so doing he
inadvertently set the study of mind on quite a new course, in fact
made it possible to integrate it into the sciences.
And Newton may very well have realized this.
Throughout his life he struggled, later life, struggled,
vainly of course, with the paradoxes and
conundrums that followed from his theory, and he speculated
that what he called “spirit”, which he couldn’t identify,
but whatever it is, “might be the cause
of all movement in nature, including the power of
moving our body by our thoughts, and the same
power within other living creatures,
though how this is done, and by what laws,
we do not know. We cannot say,” he concluded, “that
all nature is not alive.”
Going a step beyond Newton, Locke suggested, Locke added,
that “we cannot say that matter does not think.”
It’s a speculation that’s called “The Locke Suggestion” in the history of philosophy.
So as Locke put it, “Just as God had added
to motion inconceivable effects,
it is not much more remote from our comprehension
to conceive that God can, if he pleases,
super-ad to matter, the faculty of thinking.”
Locke found this view repugnant to the
idea of senseless matter, but he said that “we cannot reject it
because of our incurable ignorance and the limits of our ideas”,
that is, our cognitive capacities. Having
no intelligible concept of matter
or body or physical, as we still don’t incidentally,
but having no such concept,
he said “we cannot dismiss the possibility of living
or thinking matter”, particularly
after Newton had undermined,
totally undermined, commonsense understanding, permanently.
Locke’s suggestion was understood, and it was taken up
right through the 18th century. Hume, for example, concluded that
“motion may be, and actually is, the cause of our thought and perception.
Others argued that since thought which is produced in the brain
cannot exist if this organ is wanting,
and since there’s no reason any longer to question the
existence is thinking matter, it’s necessary to conclude
that the brain is a special organ designed
to produce thought, much as the stomach and the intestines are designed to
operate the digestion, the liver to filter bile,
and so on through the bodily organs. So just as foods
enter the stomach, and leave it with new qualities,
so impressions arrive at the brain through the nerves,
isolated and without any coherence,
but the organ, the brain, enters into action;
it acts on them; it sends them
back changed into ideas, which
the language of physiognomy
and gesture, the signs a speech and writing,
manifest outwardly” I’m still quoting, “we conclude then
with the same certainty that the brain digests, as it were,
the impressions, that is,
organically it makes the secretion of thought, just as
the liver secretes bile.” Darwin put the matter,
agreed with this, put the matter succinctly. He asked,
rhetorically, “why is thought, being a secretion of the brain,
more wonderful than gravity, a property of matter?”
a property that we don’t understand, but we just came to accept.
Its therefore rather odd to read today what I
quoted before, the leading thesis of the decade of the brain, that
ended the last century, namely that “things mental,
indeed minds, are emergent properties of brains.”
Mountcastle’s summary. Strange to read that,
because it was commonplace in the eighteenth century, so is not clear why
an emerging thesis, and many other
prominent scientists and philosophers have
presented essentially the same thesis as…
I quote some contemporary examples, “an astonishing
hypothesis of the new biology,” “a radical new idea in the philosophy of
mind”, “the bold assertion that mental phenomena are
entirely natural and caused by the neurophysiological activities of the
opening the door to novel
promising inquiries”, “a rejection of
Cartesian mind-body dualism” and so on.
All of these reiterate,
in virtually the same words, formulations of
centuries ago. The traditional
mind-body problem, having become unformulable,
with the disappearance of the only coherent
notion of body, again physical, material, and so on.
So for example, Joseph Priestley’s conclusion,
eighteenth century, that “properties termed mental
reduce somehow to the organical structure of the brain.”
An idea incidentally which he developed in quite interesting ways,
an idea which was stated in different words,
less detailed, by Hume, Darwin, many others,
and almost inescapable it would seem, after the collapse of the mechanical
Well with the belated revival of ideas that were reasonably well understood
and are direct conclusions of Newton’s discoveries,
we’re left with scientific problems about the theory of mind,
They can be pursued in many ways like other questions
of science, maybe with an eye to eventual unification, whatever form it may take,
if any. That enterprise renews a task that
Hume understood quite well. He called it the investigation of
the science of human nature, the search for “the secret
springs and principles by which the human mind is
actuated in its operations, including those parts of our knowledge that are
derived from the original hand of
nature.” so what we would call, genetic endowment,
Hume of course is the arch empiricist,
but also a dedicated nativist
(It’s supposed to be the opposite of empiricism)
and had to be because he was reasonable.
This inquiry, which
Hume compared in principle to Newton’s, had
in fact been undertaken in quite sophisticated ways by
English neo-Platonists, in work that
directly influenced Kant.
There’s a contemporary, in contemporary literature there are other names for
this; it’s sometimes called
naturalization of philosophy, or epistemology
naturalized, or sometimes just cognitive science.
But in fact it’s the direct
consequence of Newton’s demolition of
the idea of grasping the nature the world,
and inescapable. So let me just summarize
briefly. I think it’s fair to conclude that the hopes
and expectations of the early Scientific Revolution
were dashed by Newton’s discoveries, which
leaves us with several conclusions. One
conclusion, actually reinforced by Darwin,
is that while our cognitive capacities may be vast in scope,
they are nonetheless intrinsically limited.
Some questions that we might like to
explore may well lie beyond our cognitive
reach; we may not even be able to
formulate the right questions. The standards of success
may have to be lowered once again, as has happened before,
very dramatically with the collapse of the mechanical philosophy.
And another conclusion is that the mind-body problem
can safely be put to rest, since there is no
coherent alternative to Locke’s suggestion.
And if we adopt Locke’s suggestion, that opens the way to the
study of mind as a branch of biology, much like the
study of the rest of the body (the body
below the neck, putting it metaphorically).
A great deal has been learned in the past half century of
revival of traditional concerns of the early Scientific Revolution and
the Enlightenment but many of the
early leading questions have not been answered,
and may never be. Thanks.
thank you very much
We’re going to open for questions and
commence right away.