Saturday, November 10, 2012

Morton Clarifies, though perhaps not in the way he’d intended

Thanks, Tim.

Let me explain.

He’s making an argument against neuro-eliminationism, and doing so by way of interpreting Ben Libet’s perplexing results. These are the experiments that go roughly like this. We monitor the brain waves of a person who’s asked to perform a simple action, like flip a switch. What we find is that there’s a blip in the brain waves some hundreds of milliseconds before the person has a conscious intention (indicated, I believe, by saying so) to flip the switch. What’s up?

We don’t know.

So far as I know, no one really does, though lots of philosophers have had lots to say about these results. And I don’t find those discussions illuminating. Eliminativists read the results one way, anti-eliminativists read them another way. So what?

If we don’t understand what’s going on, in neural terms, how can metaphysical discussion be meaningful? It’s rather like discussing the motions of the planets and stars without realizing that the earth moves about the sun and that, e.g. the Morning Star and the Evening Star are, in fact, the same being, the planet Venus.

There’s a lot of discussion like that these days. Some of the nonsense may well be elucidatory, but most of it is just plain old garden variety nonsense. While there’s no way to make a clear distinction between the two, I do think that if one has expended the effort to become familiar with the empirical territory—in this case, neuroscience—the—one is more likely to spout useful nonsense. So, don’t just read the philosophers or the pop neuropsych, read the scientific literature, at least at the level of Science or Nature, if not the more specialized literature, and find yourself a bench scientist who’s willing to discuss these things with you. As I said a couple of months ago, in a discussion of the philosophical excesses of Levi Bryant, call the plumber.

It's worth remembering that 150 years ago the French Academy stopped publishing work on language origins because the speculation far exceded available evidence and reasonable models. Sometimes we have to admit that we just don't know. No matter how important the subject is, if we don't know, then, really, we don't know. Further discussion is gibberish.


  1. No, I disagree. We don't know so the discussion is open, it's an empirical question and analysis is needed. But I do agree that some discussion is gibberish. Objecting the existence of emergent properties and feedback loops to the eliminativist programme is rather naif, to say the least;

  2. But if empirical evidence is scant, then discussion is rather pointless. If the question IS an empirical one, but we lack evidence, what's to discuss?

    There's a lot of discussion these days about the adaptive value of literature, and most of it is nonsense because we can't make any observations that bear on the issue. We can't go back in time and see what our ancestors were up to 250K or 500K years ago.

    As for the neural discussions, too much of it seems to be based on secondary and tertiary sources. I long ago decided it was more fruitful to read neuroscience than to read philosophical discussion of the brain and nervous system.

    If you're going to talk about feedback loops in the brain, for example, then you need to point out where they are or, at least, name the structures you're interpreting as feedback loops.

  3. The free play of metaphysical speculation can unveil presuppositions that come packaged with empirical results and suggest future empirical tests. Science is not how some positivistic models suggest based on collecting data and then elaborating theories, that is the bucket model. Discussion is often the generator of searchlights to find new observations we would never have found without the discussion. The Higgs-Boson was predicted long before it was observed. One of the few empirical predictions of Morton's version of OOO was that it was correlationist and so would never be found. The discussion preceding observation articulates the positions and clarifies the issues. I do not conclude that Morton was wrong to express a philosophical opinion over a scientific question. He had the honesty to say something very clear and precise. He was wrong, or so it seems, but scientists are wrong very often and there are so many of them that whatever happens you're likely to find at least one scientist who foresaw it. A philosophically erudite neuroscientist is one thing, a neurocentric positivistic neuroscientist is quite another.

  4. I suspect that we may disagree, Terry, but it's not obvious to me just where. I have in the past defended speculation as an essential mode of thought. I understand that ideas have to come from somewhere, and free speculation is a good source. Yet, I see a too much contemporary thought that I judge to be pointless. Some of it is pointless because it is just wrong, Bryant's comments on entropy for example. And in some cases my judgment is no doubt wrong; that is, discuss I judge to be senseless is in fact reasonable and useful.

    As I've said above, iterary Darwinism speculates about the adaptive value of literature. Those discussions aren't rendered pointless by misunderstandings of the sort that Bryant has about entropy. Rather, they're rendered because they implies mechanisms about which we know very little. To the extent that we understand those mechanisms, the discussion is couched in terms that are incommensurate with those in which the mechanisms are understood.