Thursday, May 27, 2021

Models of the Mind @ 3 Quarks Daily [fundamentally a work of philosophy]

I’ve got a new post at 3 Quarks Daily: To Understand the Mind We Must Build One, A Review of Models of the Mind – Bye Bye René, Hello Giambattista. The book is by Grace Lindsay, a computational neuroscientist at University College London. The book is about mathematical models being used to understand the brain and is written for a general audience. Thus, which it is about math, you don’t need to know much math in order to understand and enjoy it. And that’s a good thing for me, as I have little training in math beyond high school. But I do have well-developed mathematical intuitions that I’ve developed from years of reading technical material and interacting with people who have math skills that I lack.

However, I see the book, and to some extent reviewed it, as a work of philosophy, though not philosophy as it exists in philosophy departments. I’m using the word in a different sense, one that I did in fact pick up from a philosopher, Peter Godfrey-Smith. In this view philosophy is a way of making sense of the world in the broadest possible conspectus. That is what philosophy was in the ancient world, but as we developed and accumulated knowledge, philosophers became specialists of various kinds, some became social and behavioral scientists, others became natural scientists, while still others practiced a humanities discipline. Philosophy itself became a humanities discipline, and, as such, became narrowly focused.

But we still need to be able to make sense of the world, all of it, in some way or another. And so in the last several decades we have seen intellectual specialists of one sort or another write books for a general audience – Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Stephen Mithen, Jared Diamond, Stephen Hawking, and Murray Gell-Mann come to mind, but there are many others (see my recent post on John Brockman’s Third Culture). While these books may be directed at the general audience, I suspect that they are written to serve their authors’ need to see how things fit together. That is to say, they are written out of philosophical hunger, if you will. As such, they are works of philosophy in this extended sense.

It is in that sense that Models of the Mind, is a work of philosophy. I might even hazard the assertion that it betokens a new philosophy of mind, but that might confuse it with the philosophy of mind that exists in philosophy departments. If I did that I’m afraid I’d be asking the little word “new” to do an awful lot of work. Maybe Lindsay took a course in the philosophy of mind at some point, maybe she even reads around in it, but this book certainly didn’t come out of the questions raised in that discipline.

Where does this book come from? Look at the subtitle, How Physics, Engineering, and Mathematics Have Shaped Our Understanding of the Brain. That’s where it comes from. That is to say, it doesn’t come from any one, two, or three, or even five or eight academic disciplines. It comes from many and none. I see this book as part of a larger intellectual development, one not well-defined (which is probably a good thing), that will replace the traditional philosophy of mind, and a few other disciplines as well, with a more adequate approach to understanding the mind and the brain.

The most fruitful conversations about mind and brain have been those between students of neural wetware, on the one hand, and software and hardware (digital and analog) on the other. It is time to liberate those conversations from constraints imposed by our Cartesian legacy. That, in effect, is what Lindsay proposes. And that is how I framed my review.

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