Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Virtues of Neuroscience; Enlightenment and Extinction, Part 2

The Virtuous Brain (always working for the benefit of itself?)

In the beginning of Enlightenment and Extinction, Brassier weighs neuroscience against the manifest image. Brassier finds the manifest image as a subtle theoretical construct that we can understand as our original pre-scientific understanding of the world always and already. We can understand the manifest image more specifically in the Heideggerian concept of Being, and Derrida's insistence of asking what the question of the question is. Both of these gestures are theoretical constructs that put the ontological question in the hands of a sphere that can't be accounted for. We rely on our original "seeing of the world" when trying to understand this pre-scientific sphere. In phenomenology, we rely on our first-person perspective to understand the world independent of the scientific understanding of the world that this manifest image would like to discredit for not understanding an ostensible wholly other that always and already happens to being. Brassier follows the argument of Paul Churchland that attempts to annex the manifest image to the scientific image. Instead of seeing the pre-scientific world as something that precedes science's understanding of the world, the pre-scientific world can be accounted for in the 3rd person by the observational disposition of scientific work. Both Brassier and Churchland are critical of the mysterious realm that post-Kantian philosophy would like to ascribe to this experience. Instead they find a less mystical, and more specific understanding of being before being in the neurocomputational alternative where we observe the kinematics of cognition through brain activation patterns and the synaptic structure that permits neurons to pass on electrical signals to other cells or neurons. In the last post we discussed Brassier relying on and privileging this "hard science" over the mystical proclivities of philosophers. While Brassier commends Churchland's work of eliminative materialism for showing that our common sense conception of psychological phenomena is wrong and naive (folk psychology), he finds problems with the metaphysical descriptions (virtues) he gives to brain patterns that were to annex the manifest image of consciousness. Brassier commends the reductionist gestures of eliminative materialism for showing that folk psychology is incapable of understanding "meaning" and "pre-scientific intuitions," but wonders if these ideas of "meaning" and "meaningfulness" are concepts that need to be called into question in the first place. Where Churchland will find cognitive science as being able to answer these questions, Brassier wonders if these are questions to even ask in the first places because they're at an absolute distance from knowledge. With Churchland's enthusiasm for the vector activation understanding (PVA) of consciousness comes an idealism. Churchland ascribes virtues to the brain and how it functions ostensibly independent of our linguistic formulations about ourselves as beings of consciousness without realizing that he's borrowing the terminology of folk psychology to make these claims. Brassier will take him to task for this in order to humble the hypostatic gesture of neuroscience that doesn't realize its borrowing gestures. Brassier wants to take Churchland's eliminative materialism further than Churchland took it to de-representationalize the neurocomputational model away from this hypostasis, or metaphysics of consciousness if you will. The virtues of the brain that Churchland thinks represent brain processes aren't virtues, but something below the linguistic and representative realm. To "understand" this, we first need to understand what the brain is not doing; being a virtuous substance.

"Churchland is perfectly explicit in explaining why he considers the PVA paradigm of cognition to be 'better' than its folk-psychological rivals, and he proposes a precise formula for gauging theoretical excellence. Global excellence of theory is measured by straightforwardly pragmatic virtues: maximal explanatory cohesiveness vis-a-vis maximal empirical heterogeneity purchased via minimal conceptual expenditure." For Churchland, there is a "better" way for understanding consciousness than others, specifically the PVA neurocomputational model instead of the manifest image which we talked about in regards to Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy. Churchland asks us to move in the direction of pragmatism instead of trying to look for some universal truth in cognitive activity. In other words, he wants us to use a pragmatic theoretical model when explaining the brain. The put it more simply, the brain for Churchland is to be explained via the basic principle of Occam's razor; pragmatism's venerable grandchild. Now, what are these pragmatic virtues that are found in Occam's razor that define the ambitions of neuroscience (broadly speaking of course)? "In what sense precisely are theoretical virtues such as simplicity, unity, and coherence necessarily concomitant at the neurological level with an organism's reproductively advantageous behavior? Churchland simply stipulates that the aforementioned virtues are already a constitutive feature of the brain's functional architecture without offering anything in the way of argument regarding how and why it is that neural network's learned configuration in synaptic weight space is necessarily constrained by the imperative of unity, cohesion, and simplicity." The pragmatic virtues we are referring to then are "simplicity, unity, and coherence." To be as straightforward as possible, the brain is simple, coherent and unified because its behavior is in the service of advantageous reproduction. We will see later on that the idea of consciousness as reproductively advantageous is problematic. This will crumble the idea of the structure of consciousness being pragmatic because we will see it having no end, making our imputations of virtues upon its phenomena null. Churchland simply asks us to follow a pragmatic model with the idea in mind that this is more "beneficial" towards understanding consciousness. Essentially it's more beneficial to see consciousness as beneficial. But where do these beneficial pro-reproductive concepts come from? If they don't come from folk-psychology alone, they belong to a history of metaphysics that would like to see things simply and in a unified manner. But is this not a predilection of the ontology of literature? This is what Brassier takes Churchland to task on. "In order to make a case for the neurocomputational necessity of superempirical virtues, Churchland would need to demonstrate that the latter are indeed strictly information theoretic constraints intrinsic to the vector coding process, as opposed to extrinsic regulatory considerations contingently imposed on the network in the course of its ongoing interaction with the environment." How's it possible to say that the superempirical virtues of pragmatism operate in the brain without having a lexicon of pragmatic concepts to be able to execute this description? This lexicon of pragmatic concepts are the luxury of a historical world already developed. If Churchland were to play Hegel and find these specific pragmatic virtues as the development of the world into the recognition of itself (as a pragmatic one), then he would somehow have to contend with the fact that folk-psychological concepts for instance are more prevalent than pragmatic ones which he finds inferior to the nuerocomputational explanation. The problem is not in the neurocomputational explanation of consciousness itself. The problem is in attaching virtues to this model. The problem is really in saying "this model is better than this model," not because the neurocomputational model may be a superior model for understanding consciousness, but because many different descriptions and methods are available to an explanation of consciousness regardless of which model's enthusiasts think their model is "true." Brassier will want to lead science into not saying that it's a better model than a folk-psychological model of consciousness for example. It doesn't matter for the science of consciousness that there are other approaches towards the understanding of consciousness. Once it feels that it's in competition with something it ought to already knows it's not in competition with, then it will apply virtues to its method in order the strengthen its legitimacy. This justification of course ought not to be in the mind of the pure observational scientist. The question of this ever being possible needs to be asked (Derrida would be an obvious reference as someone who would say this is absolutely not possible). The more we move on in this text, the more we will gain a sense in which Brassier can or cannot operate as a pure observer. For now, "The trouble then is that in arguing that simplicity, unity, and coherence are constitutive functional features of the brain's neuroanatomy, Churchland is but one slippery step away from claiming that brains represent the world correctly as a matter of evolutionary necessity, i.e. that they necessarily have 'true' representations. Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of claim that Churchland had swore to abjure: 'Natural selection does not care whether a brain has or tends towards true beliefs, so long as the organism reliably exhibits reproductively advantageous behavior.'" The problem again is in finding the brain as a "reproductively advantageous" organ. This is a true belief. What Churchland is erroneously saying is that natural selection does not care if a brain has true beliefs, as long as it has one true belief in being reproductively advantageous. So then, natural selection does care towards the belief in reproduction. There will be ample time in the next post to show how this is not the case (the belief in "Nature" being "reproductively advantageous"). The problem now is imputing belief to an organism that doesn't operate in beliefs a contrario to the human being who has developed beliefs in the manifest image in order to describe phenomena on its own terms. As we stated in the past post though, Brassier will need to explain how consciousness is able to come up with something like the manifest image instead of consciousness operating under the auspices of the neurocomputational model. In other words, how does the figurative explanation of phenomena (via lingustic formation through western philosophy through German idealism) happen by way of observation of the neurocomputational model? Is this a question that can be answered by the neurocomputational model? Is this a question to be answered at all? To be clear though, Brassier isn't saying that it's not possible to give a linguistic formulation pertaining to neuro-phenomenal experience. "That successful networks do indeed tend to exhibit these superempirical characteristics as a matter of empirical fact is uncontroversial, but it is a fact about cognitive ethology..." For us, we understand the microbiological structure of the brain in terms of superempirical characteristics which is to say it "makes sense only within the macrophysical purview of evolutionary biology." In other words, what happens in the brain is at an absolute independence from what we casually observe to be happening in the brain based on our macro-beliefs in evolution. " seems that the the superempirical virtues Churchland invokes in order to discriminate between theories must remain extra-neurological characteristics, characteristics which reveal themselves only in the course of an ethological analysis of the organism's cognitive behavior within the world, rather than via a neurological analysis of the brain's microstructure." In other words, our analysis through language of other organisms using our own lexicon of beliefs are beyond what happens on a neurological level. How the neurological level is to be understood at all remains to be seen, but applying pragmatic and evolutionary adjectives to its function is reasoning on the side of extrinsic considerations, those extrinsic considerations plainly being what's good for us (being).

The problem with phenomenology was always its own premise; philosophy as a descriptive science. The problem with this is a sense that there was a lack of rigor in understanding phenomena in our own terms. There was always the fact of having to borrow concepts from a developed language to try to describe something that happened independent of this historically developed language. If phenomenology exhausted one thing, it was the idea of how much linguistic description could be made of phenomena. Husserl's work is an archive of figurative descriptions of phenomena. Regardless of how extensive Husserl's work was though, there was the sense that linguistic expression couldn't "show" the micophysiology of consciousness. As we stated in the last post though, Husserl was without the luxury of modern cognitive technology, and so relied on pure reason as the method for science. As cognitive science develops though, it would help to have a reading of these basic readings to see how extensive the descriptive sphere could be exhausted when pertaining to consciousness. This would help in the fact that thinkers would be much less apt to apply "superempirical" terminology to something that was happening independent of it. While phenomenology acted as a descriptive science, it made sure not to act as a teleological science and Husserl took great pains to introduce much of his work with a Cartesian reduction so the reader could operate without the reader wanting to apply presuppositions to the work at hand, regardless of how innocuous these presuppositions may have been (pragmatic presuppositions). This much neuroscience could learn from phenomenology. It's this much that Brassier understands and how he is able to work within the extensive space of Heidegger and Churchland. He's able to see the benefits of a "pure science" when observing phenomena but also able to criticize a scientific method if it isn't aware of itself as relying on metaphor or applying a naive teleological presupposition to its work. His work on Paul Churchland thus far has proven Brassier as a faithful thinker in this regard. The question will be how he will be able to understand consciousness scientifically independent of metaphor, i.e language, or whether this is even possible. If not, the understanding of something called "consciousness" will have to be obviated when "seeing" anything in general pertaining to an "understanding of consciousness." It's here where a nuanced, subtle, but clear nihilistic disposition will pave the way for some very interesting thoughts. How to reconcile this nihilistic disposition with any "understanding" in general will be very interesting. As a preliminary question, what is the relation between nihilism and science?

No comments:

Post a Comment