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.


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.


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.


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


2 thoughts on “Calling a spade a spade

  1. I am finding this discussion really interesting and I have no wish to try to score points or win an argument because it seems to me that this is a developmental process for both of us in which ideas are brought out and considered. I feel honoured that you wish to continue the conversation. I would that most surgeons removing brain tumours anaesthetise the patient, remove the relevant part of the cranium and then rouse the person to get them to talk about altered sensation as the tumour is excised as the surgeon is unable to determine the end of the tumour and the start of normal tissue clearly; so language plays a pretty big part in that kind of brain intervention, albeit not in the way you suggest.
    On that note, something you wrote triggered my thinking in a rather different direction, largely because I think you make many powerful points with which I have no argument with at all. I think I could raise an argument about being able to make good spades, in an empirical fashion, without knowing anything about the molecular structure of steel or knowing the different structures of wood to get the best product but it feels a rather puerile and pointless effort. Indeed, for about 150 years following the industrial revolution, modern engineering used exactly this method to produce the best alloys.
    My point about epigenetics was merely to underline the complexity of the problem as the brain is incredibly plastic and changeable in many ways, trying to make predictions about individual behaviour will continue to be elusive as the number of factors that any model would be required to address would be beyond the scope of any technology we have at the present time. Having a general model of brain function would help us to better determine norms of behaviour. However, again the range of human behaviour is so broad that identifying a “normal brain” would probably be a futile project unless the intent is to develop a totalitarian society, severely restrictive and developmentally stalled.
    No, my new point run through the observations you made at the very beginning about how we use our brains and how they work. This seems to me to go to the core of this conversation. You are quite correct when you observe that both Guy and myself see language as an important tool in our work. Language is the tool each of us uses as an attempt to communicate our inner world (whatever form it takes) to those around us. It is one of several tools we use, for we also use other media like behaviour, visual arts, music, etc. to express our ideas, beliefs, demands, etc. we use language to explore that high end process. However, it depends on what we are trying to achieve that determines what level of abstraction we use.
    Your exploration and discussion is about how the brain works. Digging down into brain function and how it works is a quite different activity or enquiry. So the point I wish to amplify is the one you made about how we undertake that exploration. You are right – language is not the tool to use to explore how the brain works, it is the tool to determine what the high end of the brain does (for significant parts of the brain have no language that philosophers such as Ryle and Wittgenstein would recognise or understand!
    Likewise the electron microscope will not tell us much about the nature of behaviour and communication, which, as you rightly point out, was what Dennett was trying to get across. To illustrate this difference Kate Jeffery, Director of the Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience at University College London wrote recently,
    “Let’s say Martians land on the Earth and wish to understand more about humans. Someone hands them a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare and says: “When you understand what’s in there, you will understand everything important about us.”
    The Martians set to work – they allocate vast resources to recording every detail of this great tome until eventually they know where every “e”, every “a”, every “t” is on every page. They remain puzzled, and return to Earth. “We have completely characterised this book,” they say, “but we still aren’t sure we really understand you people at all.”
    The problem is that characterising a language is not the same as understanding it, and this is the problem faced by brain researchers too. Neurons (brain cells) use language of a kind, a “code”, to communicate with each other, and we can tap into that code by listening to their “chatter” as they fire off tiny bursts of electricity (nerve impulses). We can record this chatter and document all its properties. We can also determine the location of every single neuron and all of its connections and its chemical messengers. Having done this, though, we still will not understand how the brain works. To understand a code we need to anchor that code to the real world.”
    Full reference:
    The above statement tells me that even if we can be deterministic about how the brain works (and I am sure we will) we still need a code that helps us to identify what each neuron is saying and the impact it has on others that it is connected to. That means that when we understand and can predict how each and every neuron acts, when it acts and why it acts, we will also have a language to understand what they are saying to each other.
    So although we can abstract at different levels, determine the brain’s construction at sub atomic and molecular level, modules of the brain and actions as a result of neuronal activity, all those activities are underpinned by communication in the form of a code – in a very real sense, language underpins the very basis of brain function.
    So I guess my own personal conclusion is that this is not an either/or type of discussion but a and/both discussion that will eventually join together in a unified theory of brain function. A discussion of either/or is as puerile as the nature/nurture debate of past years. Philosophers have used language for thousands of years in an empirical way to explore the brain and how we use it to develop meaning and communication. We are now beginning to discover much more about how the brain produces language and what neurons are doing. For an extended discussion go to:
    Both forms of investigation are valuable and essential if we are really going to understand what it is to be a homo sapien sapien and learn how to behave and think in a way that enables us to be a worthwhile and sustainable species. However both forms of investigation require language to enable that process. It is important to be respectful to both endeavours and recognise that both have much to learn from the other.

  2. Thanks for the response Steve, and for the links. For anyone who couldn’t get the Jonathan Edwards link to work, it’s here
    and very helpful it was too. Could bear several re-reads.

    If I’ve understood you correctly, what you’re saying is that the language we use every day shapes our neural connections – so through language we can access, to some extent at least, what’s going on in the brain. And theoretically, at least, we should be able to link patterns of neural connectivity all the way up to how everyday language works. If that is what you are saying, I have no problem with that.

    What I do have problems with is people seeing life, the universe and how the brain works solely *in terms of* everyday language, as if different levels of abstraction don’t exist, or don’t work in different ways to everyday language. And there seems to be a lot of that kind of thinking about.

    I completely agree that you don’t need to know about the molecular structure of iron or wood in order to make a good spade, but you do need to be familiar with the characteristics of iron or wood to make spades that do the job and last for years. Knowing how to use spades, or what kind of spade is suitable for what job isn’t enough, and that knowledge doesn’t make one iota of difference to the way iron and wood function.

    I suppose what I’m concerned about is people imposing the structures of language on all lower levels of abstraction regardless. I can forgive Wittgenstein for doing that, because he couldn’t have known how brains worked. But there’s no excuse now for blindly conforming to Wittgenstein’s model.

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