Calling a spade a spade

In his comment on my previous post, Steve Flatt raised some interesting objections to my criticism of the way some philosophers construe brain function, citing Rom Harré and Daniel Dennett in support. I can’t comment on Harré’s and Dennett’s specific points because I haven’t read either of the texts Steve recommends, but I think I the objections Steve raises can be resolved by reframing them. I’m responding in a new post, because I need to explain the concepts involved.

Deconstructing a spade

Steve begins by pointing out that “Deconstruction is not necessarily the right thing to determine the purpose or “aboutness” of the brain”. He cites a colleague who used the analogy of a spade, arguing that if you were to systematically deconstruct a spade down to its component sub-atomic particles, “the further into the deconstruction we got the less apparent the purpose of the spade became”. That’s certainly true; but if you’re interested, not in the purpose of the spade, but how one could be made, deconstructing the spade becomes crucially important.

Human beings have not always been able to make spades as we know them today. Until we had tools that would cut and shape wood, and had figured out how to extract iron ore from rock, how to make it malleable and had the tools to shape it, even if we had wanted to dig holes in the ground we wouldn’t have been able to do it with a spade made of a steel blade and wooden handle. The first concept that I think would be useful in reframing deconstruction is the idea of levels of abstraction.

Levels of abstraction

Fields of knowledge that deal with complex systems are usually quite at home viewing a particular phenomenon as occurring simultaneously at different levels of abstraction; biologists, for example, can comfortably move between the molecular, cellular, tissue or whole organism levels when tracking a particular physiological pathway. What happens to molecules affects cells, what happens in cells affects tissues, and what happens in tissues affects the whole organism. If we apply this concept to the example of a spade, we find that a spade too can be construed at many different levels; the sub-atomic, atomic, molecular, compound, materials, parts, object and function levels. Each level of abstraction is dependent on the configuration of the level beneath it, so each level of abstraction is ultimately dependent on the configuration of the sub-atomic particles (for want of a better term) that make up the spade. A spade can be deconstructed as a series of levels of abstraction that have the following characteristics:

function level: digging (and multiple other functions)
object level: spade
parts level: blade, handle
materials level: steel, wood
compound level: steel, cellulose, lignin
molecular level: iron, carbon, glucose, monolignols
atomic level: Iron, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen
sub-atomic level: protons, electrons etc.

I agree with Steve that “Deconstruction is not necessarily the right thing to determine the purpose or “aboutness” of the brain”. But he then goes on to say “To assume that by taking it to pieces we will learn its functions seems highly unlikely to me.” In response I’d point out that most people studying the parts of brains aren’t doing that to determine its purpose, but to find out how it works, not the same thing at all.

I think levels of abstraction are what Harré is getting at when he refers to molecular, organism, person and soul ‘grammars’. Different levels of abstraction certainly have patterns of functioning that you could call ‘grammars’ if you wanted to. What concerns me is that Harré, like Wittgenstein and Ryle, appears to be making language his starting point for their analysis. To me this is starting from the wrong place. In terms of the levels of abstraction involved in human functioning, language is at a very high-level, and the patterns it forms will be influenced by what’s going on at the levels beneath it. It’s certainly true that language shapes the way we construe those lower levels, but it doesn’t shape the way they work, so applying patterns from language to other levels of abstraction isn’t necessarily helpful. Different levels of abstraction work in different ways, which where another concept comes in handy – constraints and affordances.

Constraints and affordances

Each level of abstraction has different constraints (things that can’t be done) and affordances (things that can be done). Random collections of sub-atomic particles can do things that atoms can’t, but atoms can do things that individual sub-atomic particles can’t. If you were to melt the blade of the spade, the puddle of molten steel that resulted would have constraints that the blade didn’t – you wouldn’t be able to dig with the molten steel or use it to build a sandcastle; but it would also have affordances that a blade didn’t – you’d be able to pour it into a cast or use it to start a fire. This brings us to a third useful concept, emergent properties.

Emergent properties

Different constraints and affordances emerge at each different level of abstraction, so each level of abstraction has different emergent properties. Individual atoms of iron, carbon, oxygen and hydrogen have different properties to a chunk of steel and a wooden pole, which in turn have different properties to a spade; even though the spade, chunk of steel and wooden pole are all made of atoms of iron, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The idea of emergent properties maps neatly on to Ryle’s concept of ‘disposition’ and Bowlby’s description of feelings as ‘phases’ of physiological processes. It also allows us to formulate answers to Dennett’s questions. I don’t know the context in which these questions were asked, but there is a response to the questions as they stand.

Dennett’s questions

First question; “Please tell me, Dr Physicist, just what colour is. Are there colours according to your theory?

‘Colour’ is the label we give to an emergent property of the interaction between our visual processing apparatus and a particular wavelength of light. Colour doesn’t exist in the same way as our visual processing apparatus or light exist, because it isn’t the same sort of thing as they are. Dennett’s questions are essentially meaningless (which I suspect is what he intended them to be) because colour can’t be reduced to sub-atomic particles, but without sub-atomic particles colour couldn’t be an emergent property of anything.

Then there’s; “Dr Chemist can you provide the chemical formula for a bargain?

Similarly, the question about the chemical formula for a bargain is meaningless because a bargain is an emergent property of a particular set of human interactions. It can’t be reduced to a chemical formula, but if chemical reactions weren’t involved, no bargains could ever be struck because there would be no one to strike them.

The third question Steve quoted; “Could you ever frame a clear concept of a bargain, or a mistake, or a promise…?

begs another question, which is; what do you mean by a ‘clear’ concept? Enormous amounts of time have been wasted by people trying to frame clear concepts of things that are far from clear and are never going to be. One clear concept that I think can resolve the problem is the idea of a fuzzy set.

Fuzzy sets

Category theory, derived from set theory, organizes entities in ways that derive from the features of the entities, rather than by forcing them into categories we prepared earlier. A fuzzy set is one whose elements have degrees of membership. Supporters of a political party would form a fuzzy set, because some people would be in total agreement with the party’s policies whereas others would agree to varying extents. (Members of a political party, by contrast, would form a crisp set, because someone is either a member or they’re not.)

A bargain (or a mistake or a promise) is a construct that applies to certain forms of human behavior. The category of things we call {bargain} has core (prototypical) features – that would include more than one party and an agreement – but its member bargains vary widely in their form and content. Because of those variations, it’s pointless trying to frame the concept ‘bargain’ clearly. It’s much more appropriate to frame it as a fuzzy category, with core distinguishing (prototypical) features but with degrees of membership and blurred boundaries.

Even though bargains (or mistakes or promises) might in general be fuzzy constructs it doesn’t follow that any particular bargain (or mistake or promise) is fuzzy in terms of what’s involved in specific cases. If I agree to pay my son £5 if he washes the car, some very concrete, clearly definable things are involved. The general concept ‘bargain’ isn’t the same sort of thing as; my son, a £5 note, water, shampoo or the car. A bargain is an emergent property of a particular configuration of those things, plus many others at lower levels of abstraction that it would take too long to list.

Epigenetics

Steve refers to epigenetics as a problem, but I’m not clear why. The discovery of epigenetic effects showed that the interaction between genetic expression and the environment is even more complex than was previously thought, but that doesn’t make genetic-environmental interaction intractably complex. Because of their emergent constraints and affordances, entities at each level of abstraction are bounded; they operate within limits and behave according to patterns determined by those constraints and affordances. So epigenetic factors don’t mean that human behavior and adaptability are infinitely variable; patterns will emerge from the variability.

Determinism

Steve also says “But the tool we can most effectively use to explore [the brain] is language and behaviour. While we may map these activities on to the brain in some form the sheer flexibility of processing means we can never be deterministic about what parts of the brain do what particular activity.”

I think Steve’s making two assumptions here. First, using language and behavior to explore the brain might be most useful to him in his work as a psychologist. But they might not be so useful to an occupational therapist working with a child with mobility problems or a brain surgeon trying to remove a tumour. Those people might find knowing how the brain’s primary motor cortex functions quite useful.

I think the second assumption is that looking at lower levels of abstraction to try and figure out how the brain works is deterministic. I don’t think it is. It’s just figuring out how the brain works at lower levels of abstraction. Higher levels of abstraction, such as language and behavior are to an extent determined by what happens at lower levels, but their constraints, affordances and emergent properties limit what goes on within different levels, rather than determine what goes on within them.


Reference

Harré, R & Moghaddam, FM (2012)’Psychoneurology:The Program’ in Psychology for the Third Millennium: Integrating Cultural and Neuroscience Perspectives,SAGE.

Gilbert Ryle and the brain

During a recent Twitter conversation I was urged to read philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s book The Concept of Mind, written just after WW2. ryle

The conversation was about the purpose of speech and evolved into a discussion of brain function. I enjoyed reading Ryle’s book – he thinks incisively, has a dry sense of humour and a strong sense of the absurd – and I think I grasped at least the key points of his argument.

On the mind

If I’ve understood him correctly, Ryle is saying:

1. When we talk about bodies and minds as if they are the same sort of thing, we make a ‘category error’. Even if we talk about bodies and minds as if they are the same sort of thing, we can’t infer that the mind exists in the same way as the body exists. A body is a publicly observable thing; we can see it, touch it, measure it, weigh it. We can’t do any of those things to minds; a surgeon couldn’t dissect out someone’s mind from their body. Ryle illustrates the point by comparing the clause ‘she came home in a flood of tears’ with ‘she came home in a sedan chair’; both clauses might be true, but they are true in different ways.

2. We use the term ‘mind’ to refer to a particular set of things that people do – thinking, feeling, knowing etc. But thinking, feeling and knowing are characteristics of people, in the same way as brittleness is a characteristic of glass. We might say ‘the glass broke because it was brittle’, but we don’t mean that the fact that the glass was brittle caused it to break; something else was the cause – like a stone striking the glass, or it being dropped.

3. Similarly, when we say “Jill stormed out of the room because she was angry” we don’t mean that Jill felt anger in her mind and the anger caused her to storm out of the room, we mean that something happened to make Jill feel angry and also to make her storm out of the room – someone was rude to her, perhaps. We don’t have to introduce a hypothetical construct like ‘mind’ in order to explain Jill’s feeling or her behaviour.

Having demonstrated that the concept of mind itself is flawed – it isn’t a thing inside human beings but a label that we attach to certain human activities, Ryle goes on to explore the far-reaching implications for the way we construe knowledge, will, emotion, sensation, intellect etc. I was with him up to this point.

On the brain

What was noticeable about The Concept of Mind is that Ryle hardly mentions the brain, except in respect of psychologists studying patients with brain damage. One could argue, with justification, that Ryle isn’t writing about the brain, he’s writing about the mind, or more accurately, the non-existence of the mind. Others have argued that the brain and the mind are the same thing, but that idea poses a problem if you don’t think the concept of ‘mind’ is necessary to explain thinking, feeling, knowing or behaving. So where does the brain come into all this?

Philosophers, brains and education

Philosophy isn’t my field, but I had come across Ryle previously. When my son started school, he was identified as having ‘special educational needs’. Years ago, when I was teaching, I’d taught kids like my son, and even more years ago had gone to school with kids like him, and I was puzzled as to why his not uncommon difficulties with literacy and numeracy seemed to be posing such a challenge for the education system. So I started reading up on the subject. One book I read was Deconstructing Special Education and Constructing Inclusion by Gary Thomas and Andrew Loxley, published in 2001. We were getting along swimmingly until chapter 4, ‘Thinking about learning failure, especially in reading’. Here, the authors questioned the existence of phonological awareness, a key concept in some models of learning to read, and they drew on the ideas of Ryle, Willard Van Orman Quine and Ludwig Wittgenstein, all philosophers of language, in support. Thomas and Loxley appeared to acknowledge the involvement of the brain in learning, but didn’t seem to know much about what happens in the brain during learning. They claimed, for example, that “When we learn to drive, we do just that: learn to drive – and we do so in a car, on a road” (p.69). From the perspective of a casual observer, maybe. But at the level of the brain, there’s a great deal of complex activity going on whilst learning to do something like drive a car. And of course some people don’t learn to drive however hard they try, and others can’t because of brain damage or physical disability.

Thomas and Loxley’s model of learning appears to be one in which the brain is an amorphous mass. For example, they cite Wittgenstein’s observation of seeds where he says;

nothing in the seed corresponds to the plant which comes from it: so that it is impossible to infer the properties or structure of the plant from those of the seed … so an organism might come into being even out of something quite amorphous, as it were causelessly; and there is no reason why this should not really hold for our thoughts.” (p.69)

Wittgenstein made this observation in 1947, two years before Ryle wrote The Concept of Mind. He prefaced his comment by being quite explicit about brain function:

No supposition seems to me more natural than that there is no process correlated with associating or thinking; so that it would be impossible to read off thought-processes from brain-processes. I mean this: If I talk or write there is, I assume, a system of impulses going out from my brain and correlated with my spoken or written thoughts. But why should the system continue further in the direction of the centre? Why should this order not proceed, so to speak out of chaos?” (Klagge p.98)

Thomas and Loxley also base their claim for the non-existence of phonological awareness on work by Karl Lashley and Antonio Damasio (p.70). In the 1950s Lashley had concluded that the ‘engrams’ he believed encoded memory were distributed evenly across the brain. Antonio Damasio’s work is much more recent, but the authors appear to have misunderstood it. They say “current knowledge of the brain provides a picture of indissoluble interconnections in which it is impossible to disaggregate, for example, the relationship of that which we call affect from that which we call reason” (p. 70). It’s certainly true that Damasio’s work showed that ‘affect’ and ‘reason’ aren’t clearly demarcated in the brain, but that’s as much to do with our constructs ‘affect’ and ‘reason’ as it is to do with the way the brain functions. You can’t deduce from that that the brain as a whole consists of ‘indissoluble interconnections in which it is impossible to disaggregate’ things the brain does.

Thomas and Loxley aren’t the only authors I’ve encountered who appear to have concluded that thinking, feeling and knowing aren’t an outcome of processes in the brain. I once ploughed through PMS Hacker’s Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003). What Hacker seemed to object to was neuroscientists referring to the brain as if it were an agent; as in ‘the brain detects…’ or ‘the brain responds by…’. I could see what he was getting at; one of the points Ryle makes about the mind is that if we have to construct it in order to explain what causes thinking, feeling and knowing etc., we then have to ask what causes the mind to cause thinking, feeling and knowing etc, and so on and so on in an infinite regression. I suspect Hacker sees the brain in the same way; that if we assume the brain causes thinking, feeling and knowing etc, we have to ask what causes the brain to cause these activities in another infinite regression. It makes more sense to construe thinking, feeling and knowing etc, as characteristics of people, as things people just do. But I think there are two problems with the arguments put forward by Hacker, Thomas and Loxley and Wittgenstein. The first is that they are making another category error and the second is that they have overlooked how the characteristics of things contribute to the causes of events.

Another category error

Ryle might not have been writing about the brain, but some of the people who are applying his reasoning to the brain are doing just that, and I think they are making exactly the same kind of category error that’s a key point in Ryle’s argument against the existence of the mind. Ryle, rightly, pointed out that even though we talk about the body and the mind as if they are the same type of thing, it doesn’t follow that they are the same type of thing. Indeed we know they’re not the same type of thing because bodies are publicly observable but minds aren’t. But bodies and brains are the same type of thing; brains might usually be hidden by the skull, but they can be dissected out, weighed, measured and made publicly observable. In other words, although there’s no evidence that the mind exists, the brain indisputably exists, is the same sort of thing as the body and is inextricably linked to it.

The characteristics of things

Ryle refers several times to the analogy of glass being brittle to show why we can’t argue that the mind must cause things to happen. He sees brittleness as being a ‘disposition’ of glass, something inherent in its nature that means it shatters rather than bends when certain causal events occur, such as it being hit by a stone. In the same way people have dispositional characteristics that result in them thinking, feeling or behaving in certain ways when certain causal events occur – they feel angry when people are rude to them, or sad when someone dies. Although I can see Ryle’s point, what he overlooks is the process that occurs when glass shatters.

Glass (mainly consisting of silicon dioxide) shatters rather than bends if hit by a stone, due to its molecular structure. And its molecular structure is an emergent property of the arrangement of the sub-atomic particles that make up silicon dioxide and that function according to the laws of physics. Biological organisms have structures that are much more complex than glass and they behave very differently to glass, but ultimately they are also made up of configurations of sub-atomic particles that conform to the laws of physics. It’s the configuration of the particles that makes glass behave like it behaves and allows human beings to behave as they behave; obviously because the configuration in humans is much more complex, we have constraints placed on us and affordances open to us that glass doesn’t have.

At one level, you could say that glass shatters if it’s hit by a stone because that’s just what glass is like; but at another level, being hit by a stone causes a reaction in the molecules of the glass that results in it not maintaining its structure and falling into fragments. Similarly, at one level you could say that people just get angry or feel sad when certain things happen, and you don’t need to invent some hypothetical thing called a ‘mind’ to explain it. At another level, that’s a cop-out, because it completely overlooks what happens in people’s bodies when they do get angry or feel sad in response to something happening.

Moving back to Bowlby

It was instructive to compare Ryle’s chapter on emotion with John Bowlby’s chapter on feeling and emotion in Attachment, published 20 years later. Bowlby applies Ryle’s line of reasoning to feelings. (He refers to ‘feelings’ rather than ‘affect’ or ‘emotion’ because ‘feelings’ encompasses the other two and is self-explanatory.) Bowlby doesn’t see feelings as having an independent existence but as characteristics of physiological processes, in exactly the same way as Ryle saw thinking, feeling and knowing as being ‘dispositions’ of people. Bowlby quotes philosopher Suzanne Langer;

“When iron is heated to a critical degree it becomes red; yet its redness is not a new entity which must have gone somewhere else when it is no longer in the iron. It was a phase of the iron itself, at high temperature.

As soon as feeling is regarded as a phase of a physiological process instead of a product of it – namely a new entity physically different from it – the paradox of the physical and the psychical disappears.” (Bowlby p.108)

Like Ryle, Bowlby concludes that people’s feelings and dispositions aren’t things with an independent existence in the ‘mind’, nor are they what causes people to behave in certain ways. But what he does recognise is that physiological processes are involved in feelings, and Bowlby appears to know a good deal more about those physiological processes than Ryle, Thomas and Loxley, Hacker and Wittgenstein.

Why does any of this matter, anyway? Isn’t it all a storm in a philosophical teacup? It matters because Ryle’s reasoning is being applied, and applied wrongly, to child development and education.

Child development and education

Something that’s intrigued me in my recent exploration of the child development and education literatures is their focus on theoretical frameworks developed prior to the 1950s. Lev Vygotsky died in 1934, Sigmund Freud in 1939, Wittgenstein in 1951 and Lashley in 1958. The Concept of Mind was published in 1949. But the 1950s saw a sea-change in our understanding of both genetics and brain function. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published their work on the structure of DNA and in 1959 David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel figured out the basic mechanism for sensory processing from their work on the visual cortex of the cat. These two discoveries alone essentially spawned the modern sciences of genetics, molecular biology and cognitive neuroscience that have transformed biology and medicine. But these discoveries have implications for child development and education of which people working in child development and education often seem blissfully unaware.

I suspect that lack of awareness is because of the increased specialisation that’s taken place alongside a rapid increase in human knowledge over the past century or so. People studying child development or education have their work cut out getting a good knowledge of their own field, never mind studying genetics, molecular biology and brain science as well. But you don’t need a vast knowledge of genes, molecules or neurons to understand the principles of how they function, and if our understanding of those principles has changed in the last sixty years, it’s important to know how it’s changed. It’s disastrous to carry on using models of child development and education devised before we knew how genes or brains functioned.

I recognise that some people see brain science as the answer to everything – when it isn’t. We don’t need to know what’s happening in children’s brains to know whether a particular method of teaching reading or arithmetic has been effective, or to have to do a brain scan to demonstrate that maltreatment in infancy might have been harmful. But what happens in children’s brains is crucial to their development and learning, and the better we understand the processes, the better we will understand how to best support development and learning. If thinking, feeling, knowing and behaving are being construed, wrongly, as ‘just happening’ in children, and brain function and physiological processes are simply being overlooked, or worse, denied to be happening, we’re missing an important piece of the human jigsaw puzzle.

References
Bennett, MR & Hacker, PMS (2003) Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Blackwell. Bowlby, J (1982) Attachment (2nd edition), Basic Books.
Klagge, J(2010) Wittgenstein in Exile, The MIT Press.
Ryle, G (1949) The Concept of Mind, Peregrine Books.
Thomas, G & Loxley A (2001) Deconstructing special education and constructing inclusion, Open University Press.

Acknowledgement: photograph of Ryle from Philosophy Pages http://www.philosophypages.com/ph/ryle.htm