Butter

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 understandingis 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

0:14

We are extremely happy to have Professor Noam Chomsky with us

0:18

let me just say that he’s the most quoted

0:22

writer in academia alive. no

0:25

no comparison at all than anybody else and

0:29

I think it’s fair to say he is number one public intellectual in the world

0:33

so please, Professor Chomsky.

0:43

I’ll talk some about Isaac Newton and his

0:46

contributions to the study of mind,

0:49

He’s not known for that but I think a case can be made that

0:53

he did make substantial, indirect but nevertheless

0:58

substantial contributions. I’d like to explain why. There is a

1:02

familiar view that the early Scientific Revolution,

1:07

beginning, through the 17th century,

1:10

provided humans with limitless

1:14

explanatory power, and that that conclusion is established more firmly by

1:19

Darwin’s discoveries, theory of

1:23

Evolution. I have in mind specifically a

1:26

recent publication, exposition, of this view by

1:31

two distinguished physicist

1:35

philosophers, David Albert, and David Deutsch.

1:38

But it’s commonly held with many

1:41

variants. There’s a corollary. The corollary is

1:45

ridicule of what’s called by many philosophers mysterianism,

1:51

that’s the absurd notion that there are mysteries of nature

1:56

that human intelligence will never be able to

2:00

grasp. It’s of some interest

2:04

to notice that this belief is

2:09

radically different from the conclusions of the great figures who actually

2:13

carried out the

2:14

early Scientific Revolution. Also

2:18

interesting to notice how inconsistent it is

2:22

with what the theory of evolution implies and

2:25

has always been understood to imply since its origins.

2:28

And I’d like to say a few words about those two topics in turn

2:32

I’ll start with David Hume’s

2:35

History of England. There is of course a chapter on the

2:40

Scientific Revolution, and in particular on the crucial role of

2:44

Isaac Newton, who he describes as the

2:48

“greatest and rarest genius that ever arose for the ornament and instruction of the

2:53

Species.”

2:54

And Hume concluded that Newton’s greatest achievement was that

3:02

“while he seemed to draw the veil

3:05

from some of the mysteries of nature, he showed

3:08

at the same time the imperfections of

3:11

the mechanical philosophy and thereby

3:15

restored nature’s ultimate secrets to that obscurity

3:19

in which they ever did and ever will remain.”

3:22

The mechanical philosophy of course was

3:26

the guiding doctrine of the Scientific Revolution, it

3:30

held that the world is a machine, a grander version

3:35

the kind of automata that stimulated the imagination of

3:40

thinkers of the time, much in the way that

3:43

programmed computers do today.

3:46

They were thinking of the remarkable clocks, the

3:50

artefacts constructed by skilled artisans,

3:54

most famous was Jacques de Vaucanson,

3:57

devices that

4:00

imitated digestion, animal behavior,

4:04

or the machines that you could find in the

4:07

royal gardens as you walk through, they pronounced words

4:12

when they were triggered, and many other such devices.

4:17

The mechanical philosophy wanted to dispense with

4:20

occult motions, neo-scholastic notions

4:26

of forms flitting through the air, or sympathies and antipathies,

4:30

and other such occult ideas, and it wanted to be

4:33

hard-headed to keep to what’s grounded in

4:36

commonsense understanding. And it in fact provided the criterion for

4:41

intelligibility from Galileo

4:44

through Newton and indeed well beyond.

4:48

Well its well known also that Descartes claimed

4:52

to have explained the phenomena of

4:55

the material world in such mechanical terms,

4:59

while also demonstrating that they’re not all-encompassing,

5:03

don’t reach into the domain of mind

5:07

(his view). He therefore postulated a new principle to account for what was beyond

5:13

the reach of the mechanical philosophy.

5:15

And while this too is sometimes ridiculed it’s in fact fully in accord with

5:20

normal scientific method.

5:24

He was working within the framework of substance

5:27

Philosophy, so the new principal was a second substance,

5:31

his res cogitans, And then there’s a scientific problem that

5:35

he and others faced: determining

5:38

It’s character, and determining how it

5:43

interacts with a mechanical world… that’s

5:46

the mind-body problem, cast within the

5:49

Scientific Revolution, and it’s a scientific problem.

5:53

Well, it was for a time. The mechanical philosophy

5:57

was shattered by Newton, as Hume observed,

6:01

and with it went the notion of

6:04

understanding of the world that the scientific revolution

6:07

sought to attain. And the mind-body problem

6:10

also disappeared, and, I don’t believe has been resurrected,

6:15

lthough there’s still a lot of talk about it.

6:18

Those conclusions actually were pretty well understood

6:21

in the centuries that followed. They’ve often been forgotten today.

6:26

John Locke had already reached conclusions rather

6:30

similar to Hume’s. He was exploring

6:33

the nature of our ideas and he recognized, I’ll

6:36

quote him, “that body as far as we can conceive

6:40

is able only to strike and affect body and motion,

6:44

according to the utmost reach of our ideas,

6:48

is able to produce nothing but motion.”

6:52

These are the basic tenets of course of the mechanical philosophy

6:56

They yield the conclusion that there can be

7:00

no interaction without contact,

7:03

which is our common sense intuition.

7:06

And modern research and cognitive science has

7:10

given pretty solid grounds for Locke’s

7:15

reflections on the nature of our ideas.

7:19

It’s revealed that our

7:23

commonsense understanding

7:27

of the nature of bodies and their interactions, as

7:30

nowadays we would say in large part genetically determined,

7:35

it’s a lot, it’s very much as Locke described.

7:39

Very young infants can

7:42

recognize a principle of causality through contact,

7:46

not any other way.  If they recognize

7:50

Causality, they seek a hidden contact somewhere.

7:53

And

7:56

those in fact appear to be the limits of our ideas,

8:00

Of our common sense, The

8:03

occult ideas of the scholastics,

8:07

or of  Newton (Newtonian attraction), goes

8:10

beyond our understanding, and is unintelligible,

8:14

at least by the criteria of the Scientific Revolution.

8:18

Very much like Hume, Locke concluded therefore that “we remain

8:23

in incurable ignorance of what we desire to know about

8:26

matter and its effects. No science of bodies is within our reach.”

8:31

and he went on to say “we can only appeal to the

8:35

arbitrary determination of that all-wise agent

8:38

who has made them to be and to operate as they do

8:41

in a manner wholly above our weak understanding to conceive.”

8:46

Actually Galileo had reached much the same conclusions

8:50

at the end of his life. He was frustrated by the failure

8:54

of the mechanical philosophy, his ideal,

8:57

its failure to account for cohesion,

9:00

and attraction, other phenomena, and he was forced to

9:04

reject, quoting him, “the vein presumption of

9:08

understanding everything, or to conclude, even

9:12

worse, that there is not a single effect in nature

9:15

such that the most ingenious theorist can arrive at complete

9:19

understanding of it.” Actually Descartes,

9:22

though more optimistic, had also

9:26

recognized the limits of our cognitive reach, occasionally;

9:29

he’s not entirely consistent about this, but

9:33

rule 8 of the Regulae reads:

9:36

“if the series of subjects to be examined…

9:40

if in the series of subjects to be examined, we come to a subject of which our

9:44

intellect cannot gain a good enough intuition,

9:47

we must stop there and we must not examine the other matters that follow

9:53

but must refrain from futile

9:56

toil.” Specifically, Descartes speculated that the workings of

10:03

res cogitans, the second substance,

10:06

may be beyond human understanding. So he thought,

10:10

quoting him again, “we may not have intelligence enough

10:13

to understand the workings of mind.” In particular

10:17

the normal use of language, one of his main

10:21

concepts, he recognized that

10:26

the normal use of language has what has come to be called a creative aspect.

10:31

“Every human being

10:34

but no beast / machine

10:38

has this capacity to use language in ways

10:42

that are appropriate to situations but not caused by them.

10:45

(it’s a crucial difference) and to formulate and express

10:49

thoughts that may be entirely new

10:52

and to do so without bound,

10:55

maybe incited or inclined to speak in certain ways,

10:59

by internal and external circumstances, but not compelled to do so.”

11:04

Which is the way his followers put the matter, which was a mystery to Descartes, and remains

11:09

a mystery to us,

11:11

though it quite clearly is a fact.

11:15

Well Descartes nevertheless continued,

11:18

that “even if the explanation of normal use of language

11:21

and other forms of free and coherent choice of action,

11:27

even if that lies beyond our cognitive grasp, as it apparently does,

11:32

That’s no reason, he said, to question the authenticity of our experience.

11:37

Quite generally he said free will, which is at the core of this,

11:41

“is the noblest thing we have and there is nothing we

11:45

comprehend more evidently and more perfectly,

11:48

so it would therefore be absurd to doubt something that we

11:53

comprehend intimately and experience within ourselves.”

11:57

namely that the free actions of men are

12:00

undetermined. “merely because it conflicts with

12:04

something else which we know must be

12:08

by its nature incomprehensible to us.”

12:11

Much like Locke he had in mind divine pre-ordination.

12:16

One of the leading Galileo scholars, Peter

12:19

Machamar observes that by adopting the mechanical philosophy

12:24

and thus initiating the modern scientific revolution,

12:27

Galileo had forged a new model of intelligibility for human understanding,

12:33

with new criteria for coherent explanation of natural phenomena.

12:38

So for Galileo, real understanding requires a mechanical model,

12:43

that is, a device that an artisan could

12:46

construct, at least in principle, hence intelligible to

12:50

  1. So Galileo rejected

12:53

traditional theories of tides, because

12:57

he said, “we cannot duplicate them by means of appropriate artificial devices.”

13:02

And his great successors adhered to these high standards of

13:06

intelligibility and explanation.

13:09

So it’s therefore quite understandable why

13:13

Newton’s discoveries were so stridently resisted by the

13:18

greatest scientists of the day. Christian

13:21

Huygens described Newton’s concept of attraction as an absurdity.

13:27

Leibnitz charged that he was reintroducing

13:31

occult ideas, similar to the sympathies and antipathies

13:36

of the much-ridiculed scholastic science.

13:39

And he was offering no physical explanation

13:43

for phenomena of the material world. And it’s important notice that Newton agreed

13:48

Very largely agreed. He wrote that “the notion

13:52

action at a distance is inconceivable;

13:55

It’s so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in

13:59

philosophical matters, a competent faculty of

14:03

thinking can ever fall into it.”  

14:06

(philosophical means what we call scientific)

14:09

By invoking that principle he said “we concede

14:13

that we

14:21

we do not understand the phenomena of the material world.”

14:25

So, and Newton scholarship recognizes that,

14:29

I B Cohen for example, or Deuxsterhaus, pick someone else,

14:33

points out that by the word “understand”

14:37

Newton still meant what his critics meant:

14:40

understand in mechanical terms, of

14:44

contact-action.

14:47

Newton did have a famous phrase which you all know,

14:51

the phrase, “I frame no hypotheses.” And it’s in this context that it appears.

14:56

He had been unable to discover the physical

15:00

cause of gravity, so he left the question open.

15:03

He said, “to us it is enough that gravity does really exist,

15:09

and act according to the laws which we have explained,

15:12

and abundantly serves to account for all the

15:15

motions of the celestial bodies, and of our sea,

15:19

the tides.” But while agreeing,

15:22

as he did, that his proposals were so absurd that

15:26

no serious scientist could take them seriously,

15:29

he defended himself from the charge that he was reverting to the mysticism

15:34

of the Aristotelians. What he argued was that his principles were not occult;

15:40

only their causes were occult. So in his words “to

15:45

derive general principles inductively from phenomena,

15:49

and afterwards to tell us how the properties of

15:53

actions of all corporeal things follow from these manifest principles,

15:59

would be a very great step in philosophy (in science), though

16:03

the causes of the principles were not yet discovered.

16:07

And by the phrase, “not yet discovered” Newton,

16:10

the word “yet” is crucial, Newton was expressing his hope

16:15

that the causes would someday be discovered, in physical terms,

16:19

meaning, mechanical terms. That was a hope that lasted right through the

16:23

nineteenth century. It was finally dashed by

16:26

twentieth century science, so that hope is gone.

16:31

The model of intelligibility that

16:34

reigned from Galileo through Newton, and indeed well beyond,

16:39

has a corollary: when mechanism fails,

16:42

understanding fails. So Newton’s absurdities

16:46

Were, finally, over time, just

16:50

incorporated into common sense

16:54

natural science. You study them in school today.

16:57

But that’s quite different from commonsense understanding.

17:01

So to put it differently, one long-term consequence

17:06

of the Newtonian revolution was to lower the standards of intelligibility for

17:10

natural science.

17:12

There’s the hope to understand the world, which did

17:15

animate the modern scientific revolution. That was finally abandoned.

17:21

It was replaced by a very different and far less

17:24

demanding goal namely, to develop intelligible theories of the world.

17:29

So as, such further absurdities as

17:33

say, curved space-time, or quantum indeterminacy were absorbed into the

17:38

natural sciences,

17:39

the very idea of an intelligible, uh,

17:43

of intelligibility, is dismissed as itself absurd.

17:47

For example by Bertrand Russell who knew the sciences very well.

17:51

By the late 1920s, he repeatedly

17:55

places the word “intelligible” in quotes

17:59

to highlight the absurdity of the quest.

18:02

And he dismisses the qualms of the founders, the great founders of the

18:07

Scientific Revolution,

18:09

Newton, others, dismisses them as,

18:13

their qualms about action at a distance, he

18:16

dismisses these as little more than a prejudice. Although a more

18:21

sympathetic, and I think accurate description would be,

18:24

that they simply had higher standards of intelligibility.

18:28

And if you look at the work of leading physicists, they

18:31

more or less say the same thing, so a couple years after Russell wrote,

18:36

Paul Dirac wrote a well-known introduction to quantum mechanics

18:41

in which says that “physical science no longer seeks to provide pictures of

18:46

how the world works, that is, a model

18:49

functioning on essentially classical lines,

18:52

but only seeks to provide a way of looking at the fundamental laws

18:56

which makes their self-consistency obvious.”

18:59

(So we want to understand the theories; we’ve given up trying to understand the world).

19:03

He was referring of course to the inconceivable

19:07

conclusions of quantum physics, but,

19:11

if modern thinkers hadn’t forgotten the past he could just as well

19:15

have been referring to

19:18

the classical Newtonian models and,

19:23

which were undermined by Newton

19:26

undermining the hope of rendering natural phenomena intelligible.

19:31

That was the primary goal, the animating spirit of

19:35

the early Scientific Revolution.

19:38

There’s a classic 19th century

19:41

history of materialism by Friederich Lange,

19:45

translated into English with an introduction by Russell.

19:49

Lange observes that “we have so accustomed ourselves

19:53

to the abstract notion of forces, or rather to a notion

19:57

hovering in a mystic obscurity between abstraction and concrete comprehension,

20:03

that we no longer find any difficulty in making one particle of matter

20:07

act upon another without immediate contact,

20:10

through void space, without a material link.

20:14

From such ideas, the great mathematicians and physicists of the

20:20

seventeenth century were far removed.

20:23

They were genuine materialists. They

20:26

insisted that contact, immediate contact, is a condition of

20:30

Influence. “This transition”,

20:33

he says, “was one of the most important turning points in the whole history of

20:37

materialism,”

20:38

(it) deprived the notion of much significance, if any at all,

20:43

And with materialism goes the notion of physical, of

20:46

body, other counterparts,

20:50

They have no longer any significance, and,

20:53

he adds that “what Newton held to be such a great absurdity

20:58

that no philosophic thinker could light upon it,

21:02

is prized by posterity as Newton’s great discovery of

21:06

the harmony of the universe.” Those conclusions are quite commonplace in the

21:11

history of science. So fifty years ago Alexander

21:15

Koyre, another great historian of science, and scientist,

21:19

observed that “despite his unwillingness to accept the conclusion,

21:24

Newton had demonstrated that a purely materialistic pattern of nature

21:29

is utterly impossible, and a purely materialistic or

21:33

mechanistic physics as well, his

21:37

mathematical physics, required the admission

21:40

into the body science of incomprehensible

21:43

and inexplicable facts imposed on us by

21:47

empiricism, that is by what we conclude from observations.”

21:52

Despite this recognition, the debates did not end,

21:56

So about a century ago, Boltzmann’s

22:00

molecular theory of gases, or

22:03

Chegulet’s structural chemistry, in fact even

22:07

Bohr’s atom, ones you all learn in school, these were only given an instrumental

22:11

interpretation

22:13

… Modern History of Chemistry, standard history, points out that

22:17

they were regarded as calculating devices, but with no physical reality,

22:23

And Newton’s belief that the causes of his principles were not

22:27

yet discovered, implying that they would be,

22:31

was echoed

22:36

by, for example, by Bertrand Russell

22:40

in 1927. He wrote that

22:43

“chemical laws cannot at present

22:46

be reduced to physical laws.” Much like Newton,

22:49

be hoped it would happen, and he expected that it would.

22:53

But that expectation also proved to be vain, as

22:56

vain as Newton’s. Shortly after Russell

22:59

wrote this, it was shown that chemical laws will never be reduced

23:03

to physical laws, because the conception of physical laws was erroneous.

23:09

…uh, finally done in Linus Pauling’s

23:13

quantum theoretic account of the chemical bond.

23:17

And very much as in Newton’s day,

23:22

the perceived explanatory gap, as it’s now called

23:26

by philosophers, was never filled.

23:30

Today interestingly, just a few years ago,

23:34

we read of the thesis of the new biology,

23:38

that “things mental, indeed minds, are emergent properties of brains,

23:44

though these emergences are produced by principles

23:48

that we do not yet understand.” That’s

23:52

neuroscientist Vernon Mountcastle. He’s

23:55

formulating the guiding theme of a collection of essays

24:00

reviewing the results of what was called The Decade of The Brain,

24:04

last decade of the twentieth century. His phrase,

24:07

“we do not yet understand” might very will suffer the same fate as

24:13

Russell’s similar comment about chemistry, seventy

24:17

years earlier, or for that matter, Newton’s much earlier one.

24:23

In fact, in many ways, today’s theory of mind,

24:27

i think, is re capitulating errors

24:30

that were exposed in the nineteen thirties

24:34

with regard to chemistry, and

24:37

centuries before that with regard to core physics,

24:41

though in that case leaving us with a mystery, maybe a permanent one for

24:45

Humans,

24:46

as Hume speculated, actually asserted.

24:50

Throughout all this, and today as well,

24:54

we can optimistically look forward to

24:58

unification of some kind, but not necessarily reduction,

25:02

which is something quite different. Talk about reductionism is highly misleading.

25:07

It’s been abandoned over and over again in the history of science.

25:12

Seeking unification (is a) much weaker goal.

25:15

Sometimes, as in the classic case of Newton

25:19

and what he left “veiled in mystery”, that

25:23

may involve significant lowering of expectations and standards.

25:28

Well let me go back to the beginning, the exuberant thesis that the

25:32

early Scientific Revolution provided humans with

25:35

limitless explanatory power. When we look over the history, I think a

25:40

quite different conclusion is

25:43

in order. The founders of the Scientific Revolution were compelled by their

25:48

discoveries

25:49

to recognize that human explanatory power

25:52

is not only not limitless, but does not

25:56

even reach to the most elementary phenomenon of the natural world.

26:00

That’s masked by lowering the criteria of

26:03

Intelligibility, of understanding. Well

26:07

according, if we accept that much, as I think we should, a

26:11

less ambitious question arises, the goals of

26:15

science having been lowered to finding intelligible theories,

26:19

can we sensibly maintain,

26:23

(we can ask this), can we sensibly maintain

26:26

that humanly accessible theories

26:29

are limitless in their explanatory scope (it’s a much

26:33

weaker goal), and furthermore, does the theory of evolution

26:38

establish the limitless reach of human cognitive

26:42

powers in this narrower more limited sense?

26:46

Actually, if you think about it, the opposite conclusion seems much more reasonable.

26:50

The theory of evolution of course places humans firmly within the natural

26:54

world.

26:56

It regards humans as biological organisms,

26:59

very much like others, and for every such organism,

27:04

it’s capacities have scope and limits.

27:08

The two go together. That includes the cognitive domain.

27:12

So rats for example can’t solve,

27:16

say, a prime number maze. That’s because they lack the appropriate

27:20

concepts.

27:23

It’s not lack of memory or anything like that; they

27:26

just don’t have the concepts, so for rats

27:29

we can make a useful distinction between

27:32

problems and mysteries.

27:35

Problems are tasks that lie within their cognitive

27:40

reach in principle. Mysteries are ones that don’t.

27:43

(mysteries for rats; they may not be mysteries for us).

27:48

If humans are not Angels, if we’re part of the organic world,

27:52

than human cognitive capacity is also gonna have scope and limits.

27:56

So accordingly the distinction between problems and mysteries,

28:00

holds for humans, and it’s a task for science to delimit it.

28:07

Maybe we can, maybe we can’t; but at least it’s a formulable task,

28:11

and not inconsistent., It’s not inconsistent to think that we might be able to discover

28:15

the

28:16

limits of our cognitive capacities. Therefore, those who accept modern biology,

28:22

should all be mysterians, instead of ridiculing it,

28:25

because mysterianism follows directly from

28:29

the theory of evolution, and everything we scientifically believe about humans.

28:33

So the common ridicule of this concept,

28:37

right through philosophy of mind, what it amounts to is the claim that

28:42

somehow humans are Angels, exempt from

28:46

biological constraints.  And in fact far from

28:49

bewailing the existence of mysteries for humans,

28:54

we should be extremely grateful for it, because if there are no limits

28:59

to what we might call, say, the science-forming capacity,

29:02

it would also have no scope, just as if the

29:06

genetic endowment imposed no constraints on

29:10

growth, it would mean that

29:13

we could be at most some shapeless amoeboid

29:16

creature reflecting accidents of an unanalyzed environment.

29:21

The conditions that prevent a human embryo from

29:25

becoming, say an insect, or a chicken, those very same conditions,

29:32

play a critical role in determining that the embryo can become a human.

29:37

(you can’t have one without the other), and the same holds in the cognitive domain.

29:42

Actually classical aesthetic theory recognized that

29:46

there’s a relation between scope and limits.

29:50

Without any rules, there can be no genuine

29:53

creative activity, and that’s even the case

29:57

when creative work challenges and revises

30:01

prevailing rules. So far from establishing the limitless scope of human

30:05

cognitive capacities,

30:07

modern evolutionary theory, and in fact all of standard science,

30:12

undermines that hope. Now that was actually appreciated

30:16

right away when the power of the theory of evolution

30:19

came to be recognized. One

30:22

enlightening case is Charles Sanders Peirce,

30:26

his inquiry into what he called abduction,

30:30

which is rather different from the way the term is used today.

30:33

Peirce was struck particularly by a

30:37

striking fact that in the history of science

30:41

major discoveries are often made

30:44

independently and almost simultaneously

30:48

which suggests that some principal is

30:51

directing inquiring minds

30:54

towards that goal, under the existing

30:58

circumstances of understanding.

31:01

And something similar is true for early childhood learning.

31:06

So if you put aside the

31:09

pathology or extreme deprivation, children are

31:12

essentially uniform in this capacity and

31:16

they uniformly make quite astounding discoveries

31:19

about the world, going well beyond what

31:22

any kind of data analysis could yield.

31:26

In the case of language, it’s now known that that

31:30

starts even before birth. So a child is born with

31:34

some conception of what counts as a language

31:37

and can even recognize its mother’s language as

31:41

distinct from another language, both spoken by a

31:45

bilingual woman who it’s never heard before,

31:48

(there are some interesting distinctions determining how it works but,

31:52

it can be done at birth), and in fact even the first step of

31:57

language acquisition, which is generally sort of just taken for granted,

32:01

is quite a remarkable achievement. An infant has to

32:05

select from the environment, from

32:08

what William James called “the looming buzzing

32:11

Confusion”, the infant has to somehow select the data

32:16

that are language-related. That’s a task that’s a total mystery for any other organism,

32:22

They have absolutely no way doing it. But it’s a reflexively solved problem

32:26

for human infants, and so the story continues,

32:30

all the way to the outer reaches of scientific discovery.

32:33

)Well it may not be continuous, I’m not suggesting that. There’s probably

32:38

different capacities involved.) Rather like

32:41

Hume, Peirce concluded that humans must

32:45

have what he called an abductive instinct which provides

32:49

a limit on admissible hypotheses,

32:52

so that only certain explanatory schemes can be entertained,

32:56

but not infinitely many others, all compatible with available data.

33:02

Peirce argued that this instinct develops through

33:06

natural selection, that is, the variants that yield

33:10

truths about the world provide a selectional advantage, and are

33:14

retained through descent with modification,

33:17

(Darwin’s notions), while others fall away.

33:20

That belief is completely unsustainable.

33:24

It takes only a moment to show that that can’t be true,

33:27

And if you drop it, as we must, we’re left with a serious,

33:31

challenging, scientific problem, namely: determine the

33:36

innate components or our cognitive nature,

33:39

those that are employed in reflexive identification of

33:43

language-relevant data, or in another cognitive domains.

33:48

Take one famous case, the capacity of humans which is

33:53

quite remarkable, to, if presented with a

33:58

sequence of tachistoscopic presentations, just

34:01

dots on a screen, three dots on a screen,

34:04

presented with a sequence of these, what you perceive is a rigid object in motion.

34:11

Some of the cognitive principles are known, but not the neural basis for it.

34:16

Or, for example, discovering and comprehending Newton’s Laws,

34:20

or developing string theory, or solving problems of

34:24

quantum entanglement, or as complex as you like.

34:28

And there is a further task, that’s to determine the scope and limits of human

34:32

understanding.

34:34

Incidentally, some differently structured organism, some

34:37

Martian say, might regard human mysteries,

34:41

as simple problems, and might wonder that

34:45

we can’t find the answers, or even ask the right questions,

34:49

just as we wonder about the

34:52

inability of rats to run prime number mazes.

34:56

It’s not because of limits of memory, or other superficial

35:00

constraints, but because of the very design of our

35:03

cognitive nature, and their cognitive nature.

35:07

So actually of you think it through I think it’s quite clear that

35:10

Newton’s remarkable achievements led to a significant

35:14

lowering of the expectations of science, a severe restriction on the role of

35:19

intelligibility.

35:21

They furthermore demonstrated that it’s an error to

35:25

ridicule what’s called the ghost in the machine

35:29

(that’s what I and others were taught, at

35:32

your age, in the best graduate schools, Harvard in my case,

35:36

but that’s just a mistake.) Newton did not exorcise the ghost;

35:41

Rather, he exorcised the machine; he left the ghost completely

35:45

Intact, and by so doing he

35:49

inadvertently set the study of mind on quite a new course, in fact

35:53

made it possible to integrate it into the sciences.

35:57

And Newton may very well have realized this.

36:00

Throughout his life he struggled, later life, struggled,

36:04

vainly of course, with the paradoxes and

36:08

conundrums that followed from his theory, and he speculated

36:13

that what he called “spirit”, which he couldn’t identify,

36:17

but whatever it is, “might be the cause

36:20

of all movement in nature, including the power of

36:24

moving our body by our thoughts, and the same

36:28

power within other living creatures,

36:32

though how this is done, and by what laws,

36:35

we do not know. We cannot say,” he concluded, “that

36:39

all nature is not alive.”

36:42

Going a step beyond Newton, Locke suggested, Locke added,

36:47

that “we cannot say that matter does not think.”

36:51

It’s a speculation that’s called “The Locke Suggestion” in the history of philosophy.

36:56

So as Locke put it, “Just as God had added

37:01

to motion inconceivable effects,

37:04

it is not much more remote from our comprehension

37:08

to conceive that God can, if he pleases,

37:11

super-ad to matter, the faculty of thinking.”

37:15

Locke found this view repugnant to the

37:18

idea of senseless matter, but he said that “we cannot reject it

37:23

because of our incurable ignorance and the limits of our ideas”,

37:28

that is, our cognitive capacities. Having

37:31

no intelligible concept of matter

37:34

or body or physical, as we still don’t incidentally,

37:38

but having no such concept,

37:41

he said “we cannot dismiss the possibility of living

37:46

or thinking matter”, particularly

37:49

after Newton had undermined,

37:52

totally undermined, commonsense understanding, permanently.

37:57

Locke’s suggestion was understood, and it was taken up

38:01

right through the 18th century. Hume, for example, concluded that

38:06

“motion may be, and actually is, the cause of our thought and perception.

38:12

Others argued that since thought which is produced in the brain

38:16

cannot exist if this organ is wanting,

38:20

and since there’s no reason any longer to question the

38:24

existence is thinking matter, it’s necessary to conclude

38:29

that the brain is a special organ designed

38:32

to produce thought, much as the stomach and the intestines are designed to

38:38

operate the digestion, the liver to filter bile,

38:42

and so on through the bodily organs. So just as foods

38:45

enter the stomach, and leave it with new qualities,

38:50

so impressions arrive at the brain through the nerves,

38:54

isolated and without any coherence,

39:00

but the organ, the brain, enters into action;

39:03

it acts on them; it sends them

39:06

back changed into ideas, which

39:10

the language of physiognomy

39:13

and gesture, the signs a speech and writing,

39:16

manifest outwardly” I’m still quoting, “we conclude then

39:21

with the same certainty that the brain digests, as it were,

39:24

the impressions, that is,

39:28

organically it makes the secretion of thought, just as

39:31

the liver secretes bile.”  Darwin put the matter,

39:35

agreed with this, put the matter succinctly. He asked,

39:39

rhetorically, “why is thought, being a secretion of the brain,

39:44

more wonderful than gravity, a property of matter?”

39:47

a property that we don’t understand, but we just came to accept.

39:52

Its therefore rather odd to read today what I

39:56

quoted before, the leading thesis of the decade of the brain, that

40:00

ended the last century, namely that “things mental,

40:04

indeed minds, are emergent properties of brains.”

40:08

Mountcastle’s summary. Strange to read that,

40:12

because it was commonplace in the eighteenth century, so is not clear why

40:15

It’s

40:15

an emerging thesis, and many other

40:19

prominent scientists and philosophers have

40:22

presented essentially the same thesis as…

40:25

I quote some contemporary examples, “an astonishing

40:28

hypothesis of the new biology,” “a radical new idea in the philosophy of

40:33

mind”, “the bold assertion that mental phenomena are

40:37

entirely natural and caused by the neurophysiological activities of the

40:41

brain

40:42

opening the door to novel

40:46

promising inquiries”, “a rejection of

40:49

Cartesian mind-body dualism” and so on.

40:53

All of these reiterate,

40:56

in virtually the same words, formulations of

40:59

centuries ago. The traditional

41:03

mind-body problem, having become unformulable,

41:07

with the disappearance of the only coherent

41:10

notion of body, again physical, material, and so on.

41:15

So for example, Joseph Priestley’s conclusion,

41:19

eighteenth century, that “properties termed mental

41:23

reduce somehow to the organical structure of the brain.”

41:26

An idea incidentally which he developed in quite interesting ways,

41:30

an idea which was stated in different words,

41:33

less detailed, by Hume, Darwin, many others,

41:37

and almost inescapable it would seem, after the collapse of the mechanical

41:41

philosophy.

41:43

Well with the belated revival of ideas that were reasonably well understood

41:48

centuries ago,

41:50

and are direct conclusions of Newton’s discoveries,

41:54

we’re left with scientific problems about the theory of mind,

42:00

They can be pursued in many ways like other questions

42:03

of science, maybe with an eye to eventual unification, whatever form it may take,

42:09

if any. That enterprise renews a task that

42:13

Hume understood quite well. He called it the investigation of

42:18

the science of human nature, the search for “the secret

42:22

springs and principles by which the human mind is

42:26

actuated in its operations, including those parts of our knowledge that are

42:31

derived from the original hand of

42:33

nature.” so what we would call, genetic endowment,

42:37

Hume of course is the arch empiricist,

42:41

but also a dedicated nativist

42:44

(It’s supposed to be the opposite of empiricism)

42:48

and had to be because he was reasonable.

42:51

This inquiry, which

42:55

Hume compared in principle to Newton’s, had

42:58

in fact been undertaken in quite sophisticated ways by

43:02

English neo-Platonists, in work that

43:05

directly influenced Kant.

43:09

There’s a contemporary, in contemporary literature there are other names for

43:13

this; it’s sometimes called

43:14

naturalization of philosophy, or epistemology

43:18

naturalized, or sometimes just cognitive science.

43:21

But in fact it’s the direct

43:25

consequence of Newton’s demolition of

43:29

the idea of grasping the nature the world,

43:33

and inescapable. So let me just summarize

43:37

briefly. I think it’s fair to conclude that the hopes

43:40

and expectations of the early Scientific Revolution

43:44

were dashed by Newton’s discoveries, which

43:47

leaves us with several conclusions. One

43:50

conclusion, actually reinforced by Darwin,

43:53

is that while our cognitive capacities may be vast in scope,

43:58

they are nonetheless intrinsically limited.

44:02

Some questions that we might like to

44:05

explore may well lie beyond our cognitive

44:09

reach; we may not even be able to

44:13

formulate the right questions. The standards of success

44:17

may have to be lowered once again, as has happened before,

44:21

very dramatically with the collapse of the mechanical philosophy.

44:26

And another conclusion is that the mind-body problem

44:29

can safely be put to rest, since there is no

44:34

coherent alternative to Locke’s suggestion.

44:38

And if we adopt Locke’s suggestion, that opens the way to the

44:42

study of mind as a branch of biology, much like the

44:46

study of the rest of the body (the body

44:50

below the neck, putting it metaphorically).

44:53

A great deal has been learned in the past half century of

44:57

revival of traditional concerns of the early Scientific Revolution and

45:02

the Enlightenment but many of the

45:06

early leading questions have not been answered,

45:09

and may never be. Thanks.

45:33

thank you very much

45:34

We’re going to open for questions and

45:37

commence right away.

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