Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The merelogical fallacy in neuroscience

J Exp Anal Behav. 2005 Nov; 84(3): 683–692. 
PMCID: PMC1389787

Naming Our Concerns about Neuroscience: A Review of Bennett and Hacker's Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience

Reviewed by David W Schaal
M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker 
Philosophical foundations of neuroscience. 
2003. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.


Bennett and Hacker use conceptual analysis to appraise the theoretical language of modern cognitive neuroscientists, and conclude that neuroscientific theory is largely dualistic despite the fact that neuroscientists equate mind with the operations of the brain. The central error of cognitive neuroscientists is to commit the mereological fallacy, the tendency to ascribe to the brain psychological concepts that only make sense when ascribed to whole animals. The authors review how the mereological fallacy is committed in theories of memory, perception, thinking, imagery, belief, consciousness, and other psychological processes studied by neuroscientists, and the consequences that fallacious reasoning have for our understanding of how the brain participates in cognition and behavior. Several behavior-analytic concepts may themselves be nonsense based on thorough conceptual analyses in which the criteria for sense and nonsense are found in the ways the concepts are used in ordinary language. Nevertheless, the authors' nondualistic approach and their consistent focus on behavioral criteria for the application of psychological concepts make Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience an important contribution to cognitive neuroscience.
Keywords: cognitive neuroscience, conceptual analysis, dualism, mereological fallacy, reductionism

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I've not even read the review, much less the book under review, but the notion of a merelogical fallacy makes sense to me. It reminds me of some observation that Sydney Lamb, the linguist, makes early in Pathways of the Brain  (p. 1):
Some years ago I asked one of my daughters, as she sat at the piano, "When you hit that piano key with your finger, how does your mind tell your finger what to do?" She thought for a moment, her face brightening with the intellectual challenge, and said, "Well, my brain writes a little note and sends it down my arm to my hand, then my hand reads the note and knows what to do." Not too bad for a five-year old.
Lamb goes on to suggest that an awful lot of professional thinking about the brain takes place in such terms (p. 2):
This mode of theorizing is seen in ... statements about such things as lexical semantic retrieval, and in descriptions of mental processes like that of naming what is in a picture, to the effect that the visual information is transmitted from the visual area to a language area where it gets transformed into a phonological representation so that a spoken description of the picture may be produced....It is the theory of the five-year-old expressed in only slightly more sophisticated terms. This mode of talking about operations in the brain is obscuring just those operations we are most intent in understanding, the fundamental processes of the mind.
I agree with Lamb whole-heartedly. My impression is that most of the neuroscientific effort goes into getting observations – using some really cool technology, too – but when it comes to thinking about what's going on, the inner child just takes over – and a rather dim one at that.

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I am now blitzing my way through the review. Schaal's remarks on memory are cogent. For example:
An outcome of the authors' reasoning is a reconception of modern “memory systems” approaches, according to which different types of memory are “stored” in different locations in the brain. For example, episodic memory (which concerns remembering of the context and sequence of events one has experienced) has repeatedly been shown to depend on an intact hippocampus, and procedures that result in episodic memory alter the firing pattern of populations of hippocampal neurons (see Eichenbaum & Fortin, 2005). These facts lead some to conclude that the hippocampus is critically involved in the storage of episodic memories. About this conclusion the authors remark: “It may be that the retention of certain synaptic connections and the creation of certain recurrent firing patterns are a necessary condition for one to be able to recall something—but that is all” (p. 170). The referent of the term, “episodic memory,” is the behavior-in-context that indicates that an animal has retained what it has learned, not the neural events that make the retention possible (neural events which it is the task of neuroscience to discover).

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