Sunday, November 30, 2008

Paul Gross eviscerates David Berlinksi's latest book. I have to say, of all the writers on the Discovery Institute's payroll, Berlinski to my mind is the most depressing. His Tour of the Calculus was a wonderful book. Since then, it is as though he was replaced by some horrible simulacrum. He must truly believe his readers and fans (at Commentary and other conservative magazines) are so stupid that none will make the effort to fact-check his assertions.

5 comments:

Mike Flynn said...

It seems to me from the evisceration that Gross has a scientist's understanding of history and religion; i.e., a simplistic one. He quotes Berlinski, whom I have not read:
We cannot reconcile our understanding of the human mind with any trivial theory about the manner in which the brain functions. Beyond the trivial, we have no other theories. We can say nothing of interest about the human soul. We do not know what impels us to right conduct or where the form of the good is found.

and comments:
Now, it is no surprise that trivial (scientific) theories of brain function won't help us to understand "the manner in which the brain functions." But Berlinski adds that there are no theories of brain function that are not trivial. Thus he dismisses all brain science ... and dismisses all the cognitive sciences .... Almost daily they produce surprising results on "the manner in which the brain functions." Does Berlinski know better?

But what Berlinski seems to have written (leaving polemic aside) is that brain science has told us almost nothing about the mind. Gross pulls a switch, equating "brain" with "mind." He does this without qualm, since he later contends that "science" has not "shown" that a soul exists. The hidden default is that material existence is all there is because that's all science can handle.

Put the contention differently. If we have explained the physics of vibrating reeds and the motions of air columns in cylinders, have we said anything non-trivial about Mozart's Clarinet Concerto? Undoubtedly, the acoustics of clarinets are fascinating, as well as the mathematical ratios of chords, but from the point of view of music it hasn't said anything very important.

I don't know if that was Berlinski's intention; I tend to avoid polemics except for amusement. But methinks history, music, religion and the like are simply beyond the scope of the physics, and the ultimate error is when atheists (and creationists) try to draw metaphysical conclusions from material science.

John Farrell said...

Hi Mike,
Thanks for reading. That's a good point (Gross's presupposition that the mind can be explained purely by functions of the brain). But I'd take someone like John Searle a lot more seriously on the subject of mind and cognitive science than Berlinski. His collection of review essays, the Mystery of Consciousness, I thought was excellent.

Mike Flynn said...

Searle is good. Berlinski I do not know. But the Chinese Room is a little like confusing the TV show with the TV set. The historian John Lukacs had a nice comparison reflecting on a passage in Tolstoy -- I don't have the quote in front of me -- in which Tolstoy contends that one does not understand what makes a railroad locomotive move until once has understood steam and pressure and gearing and condensers... To which Lukacs adds, nowhere does he mention the engineer in the cab.

I think Dr. Gross has made a similar confusion. Steeped in a methodology that may =only= consider material causation, he confuses the fact that he can only see material causation with the nonexistence of other sorts of things. This is a little like confusing the handshake with the friendship or the footprints with the journey. This overlooks the fact that Berlinski (in the passages Gross quoted) was talking about something else, undreamt of in his philosophy. Well, no one ever discovers a star with a microscope; not a microbe with a telescope. The methods we use set boundaries around what we can learn.

Deuce said...

I've not read Berlinski's book, though I've read the part Mike quotes before, and I've seen Berlinski say similar things in other avenues before. At least in the part Mike has quoted, I think that Berlinski is right and Gross is flat-out wrong (and confused to boot).

Berlinski says that all theories of how the brain works are trivial. This seems to me obviously correct. That a theory is trivial doesn't mean it's entirely useless, just that it captures only a very small part of the story.

I assume that the three of us consider the reality of 1st-person consciousness, and its immateriality, to be self-evident. I think it's also evident that the soul/mind/consciousness, however it works, is closely tied with the brain in some way, and vice-versa.

This means that in the true and full accounting of how the brain works, whatever that accounting is, the mind must play a central and integral part. However, in all our scientific accounts of how the brain works, the mind isn't mentioned at all. Which is to say, they don't really tell us how the brain works. How does that not render them trivial?

And, if indeed the ground rules of science do state that science cannot consider non-material entities or non-empirical phenomena, then scientific theories can *never* take the mind into account, which means that scientific theories of how the brain works must *always* be trivial. Again, I don't see what's the matter with admitting that. Trivial doesn't mean totally useless.

Berlinski isn't "dismissing" cognitive science as Gross accuses him of doing here. He's attacking the hubris of a number of scientists who believe that their methods have explained, or will shortly, everything about the human person and the universe, when in fact their scope is very limited, and the explanations they've come up with quite trivial compared to the whole picture.

And it seems to me that Gross is simultaneously missing the point and providing an example of that hubris.

John Farrell said...

I assume that the three of us consider the reality of 1st-person consciousness, and its immateriality, to be self-evident. I think it's also evident that the soul/mind/consciousness, however it works, is closely tied with the brain in some way, and vice-versa.

This means that in the true and full accounting of how the brain works, whatever that accounting is, the mind must play a central and integral part. However, in all our scientific accounts of how the brain works, the mind isn't mentioned at all. Which is to say, they don't really tell us how the brain works. How does that not render them trivial?


Deuce, well said. But that's putting the horse before the cart, is it not? I always understood cognitive scientists to be studying the brain in order to find out how the mind (the ultimate object) is, in effect, 'caused' by the brain. This is, of course, a pre-supposition that the mind can be explained in material terms, and I agree with you and Mike that you, and I, and Mike are ultimately something more than the functioning of our brains.

But I don't find it trivial to study how the brain works, with a view to understanding the mind better--particularly in those medical cases where changes in the brain alter the personality, to the point where one must ask, what happened to the mind I used to know in that body, or worse, why has that mind changed into someone I no longer know or can trust?

To the extent that Berlinski's provocative dismissal of cognitive science and its theories are to suggest we should not waste our time trying, which is what I take him to mean, I applaud Gross for taking him to task.