Feb 05 2014

In Which I Argue At Length With A MacArthur Genius

Strong-ily, wrong-ily
Tout their position:
“The self as the brain”

Finding our cause in our
Sadly, it’s fictional:
Lemme explain….

(tl;dr–”brain as self” models are dependent on a particular philosophical model; the conclusions are more a factor of the requirements of that model than of the evidence.)

Mano presents a clip from the Colbert Report, in which neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland tells Colbert that neuroscience shows there is no such thing as, among other things, a soul.

True enough… but damn, does she have to say the brain is responsible for consciousness? That is just plain… well, dependent on a set of philosophical assumptions that are rarely if ever questioned. Which leads to bad questions, which leads to crap answers, which leads to “deep philosophical questions” that are a pile of horseshit.

“We (some mammals) have the same neural mechanism for pair bonding” (paraphrased from Churchland’s interview) is not at all the same thing as “the brain is responsible for pair bonding”. And the difference makes all the difference in the world. And, oddly enough, the difference is philosophical.

If you think that, say, a person could be replicated at a given moment—replicated down to the quark, or smaller if such things exist—and that this replicated being would possess all the qualities of the original… then you are a mechanist. The notion that your life history is stored, is somehow represented in the structures of your body, is mechanistic. The requirement that any change in your behavior is necessarily the effect of some immediate cause, some proximal cause stored in body or mind or wherever… is mechanistic. That is, these things which make so much sense, make sense because they are framed in terms of a mechanistic world view which you (not just you , of course) have been fed since you were knee high to a jackalope.

But, you see, mechanism is not A) the only philosophy you can use in such scenarios, nor B) the way you live your life and learn the terms used back in that mechanistic scenario. See, the thing is, events in your life unfold over time. And that time need not be compressed and represented as some instantaneous thing. Mechanism’s metaphor is a clockwork, and you can stop a clock, look at its gears, and infer what happens in present, past, and future. A clockwork represents all of that information in an instantaneous slice of time/space. That’s a requirement of the model. That’s not a requirement of reality.

You see, there are other models. A contextualist model recognizes the contributions that happen across time and across situation, and does not require that they be “stored” inside you, since they actually do exist outside you, and are part of the context of your actions. Your actions can only be defined as embedded within context—the environments that promote or suppress a given range of behavior, the consequences that select for or against a range of behavior…

In other words, what you do in a given situation depends on what has tended to work in similar situations. An evolutionary model, really.

“Fitness” is not stored within an individual; fitness is defined across populations, across generations, with respect to environments. Fitness is necessarily dependent on variables that are defined across extended time and space. To place “fitness” inside an individual, as the presumed cause of their success or failure at something (sex, say, or foraging), is to misrepresent the concept. (alas, yes, I have seen it presented this way—that is precisely the problem I am writing about.)


The same, exact misrepresentation is constantly used in human behavior. There are concepts (again, like “fitness” in biology, and “consciousness” in behavior) that are only definable in a manner extended over time, and dependent on environment. Those wonderful brains that are the “cause” of the self? They have been shaped by the environment, in (at least) two very important ways, across two very different scales of time. One, of course, is evolution—this is at least given lip service in the “brain is self” camp, though it seems all too often as if they want to think of our modern brain as the ultimate product of evolution, rather than an ongoing work. But yes, over millions and billions of years, the environment has selected this behavior over that, and the brain structures that support this behavior have thus been favored. It is not, of course, the brain itself that is being selected for or against, but the behavior (and in our case, the flexibility in behavior) it allows.

The second sort of environmental influence, I don’t think I have ever seen credited in a “brain is self” claim, although it is every bit as important as the evolutionary history. Every brain that a researcher runs through a PET scan, CAT scan, X-ray, FMRI, or EEG… is part of an actual person, a whole organism that has been interacting with an environment, including a culture, for all of its lifetime thus far. This brain is part of a person who behaves—over time, and with respect to environment (including social and cultural environment as well as physical environment)—and whose behavior can only be seen as unfolding across time.

You cannot slice open a person’s leg to see where they have walked. A person’s accent is not stored in their vocal cords while they are not speaking. Where they have walked, and how they talk, are dependent on where, and with whom, they lived. We speak of stored abilities, or traits, or habits, but these things are only seen unfolding across time, and their “storage” is not observed but inferred under the assumptions of that clockwork model. The inference comes as a requirement of the model, not as an obvious part of the behavior—where is my walk stored, when I sit down?

Consciousness does not arise in the brain. It is a property of our interactive behavior, unfolding over time. Everything about what it means to be conscious, what it means to be aware, takes place across time and in interaction with an environment; to say it is caused by some brain part is to neglect the history of the environment shaping the brain. “Brain as self” is, functionally, as dualistic (and as wrong) as Descartes’s substance dualism. The brain does not control the body; the brain is part of the body. If there is metaphorical puppetry going on, it is not the brain as puppet master—rather, the environment (across genetic time as well as individual learning) is the puppet master, and the brain acts as the strings.


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  1. 1

    It’s February; keep your eyes peeled for sciencey articles about the chemical or neurological basis for love.

    Same problem.

  2. 2
    Al Dente

    Cuttlefish @1

    Thanks for the warning.

  3. 3

    then you are a mechanist.

    That’s me all right. But I can’t help it, I was made that way. :-)

  4. 4

    I’m certainly not well-versed in the subject, so take what I say with a grain of salt. This is merely the perception of an outside observer.

    I’m not really seeing a conflict in the mechanistic point of view and the contextualist point of view. They appear to be 2 complimentary points of view. It would appear to me that the context of how a person learns and arrives at the skills and thoughts that they have leads to how they arrive in a mechanistic sense. Whereas the mechanistic point of view shows where an individual stands at a certain point in time, the contextualist point of view demonstrates how the individual got there and where the individual may be headed.

    Are there mechanistics stating that the contextualist POV is irrelevant?

  5. 5
    Michael Brew

    This kind of touches on the old philosophical question of “what is self”? Many hypotheticals have been proposed such as whether an amnesiac’s old “self” has died, some kind of complete copying of both body and memory, drastic surgery coupled with invention of a new persona, etc. To my knowledge, the question of what really constitutes “the self” has never been satisfactorily answered, so any assertion on the subject is pure supposition. The conclusion here, I would say, is no more valid than the conclusion that consciousness arises from brain function because not everyone will agree with your premises on what constitutes “the self.”

  6. 6

    If you think that, say, a person could be replicated at a given moment—replicated down to the quark, or smaller if such things exist—and that this replicated being would possess all the qualities of the original… then you are a mechanist.

    It certainly would not “possess all the qualities of the original” because presumably you would put the replica in a different position, and position is an important quality for anything. You’ve just changed the environment, the angle, etc. etc. by replicating it. You can’t just ignore that.

    And if you don’t change the position (as in you make a replica in the same place as the person you’re replicating), then there is no way to possibly tell the difference between that and doing nothing at all.

  7. 7

    well, yes, doublereed, but presumably the original person could have simply walked to the new position, without (in most senses of what we mean) becoming a new person. Of course, in one sense, I am a different person than the one who typed that last sentence, but we rarely split hairs that finely.

  8. 8

    I’m going to second unbound’s comment. If there were some device that could replicate an individual ‘down to the quark,” the two replicas would occupy different contexts and have different futures going forward. As played out in dozens of sci-fi stories on the topic. But what makes each of those futures continuous with a shared past is what went through the replicator.

  9. 9

    Michael Brew–indeed, it does touch on that–the question you are pointing at has never been answered because it is a bad question based on an inappropriate model. And it is unlikely to be answered any time soon because the language we use to address it grew around and from that model.

  10. 10


    Are there mechanistics stating that the contextualist POV is irrelevant?

    in a de facto sense, yes, all the time. The entire “brain is self” view, by continual neglect, promotes that stance, and that is the view I see virtually constantly in popular media accounts of neurological science.

  11. 11

    rturpin–certainly, the replicated-to-the-quark person presumably is as you say. But the “brain is self” people go further than that, and localize whatever essence the self is (note the platonic terms) in the brain, such that you could (given a slight tweak on your magic machine) replicate that person’s brain in a new body and have it be that person in the same sense. More, people like Crick and Koch are looking for the neurological “correlates of consciousness” not in the whole brain, but in particular areas or structures (e.g., spindle cells and mirror neurons).

    That which we call consciousness is observed in the ongoing behavior of a whole person–indeed, our vocabulary of consciousness predates neuroscience by centuries–it is dependent on our enteric nervous system, our adrenal glands, that itch in the sole of your foot, and yes, our environment, as well as by what goes on in your noodle. And it is something that unfolds over time, by definition, and only by assumption might be “stored” in any meaningful sense. Looking for where in the brain consciousness arises is like looking at a frame of “Gone With The Wind” to find where the plot arises.

  12. 12

    well, yes, doublereed, but presumably the original person could have simply walked to the new position, without (in most senses of what we mean) becoming a new person. Of course, in one sense, I am a different person than the one who typed that last sentence, but we rarely split hairs that finely.

    I would argue that you have to split hairs that finely in this case, because you are arguing things about context and mechanisms. You went down to the quark level.

    Walking to the new position changes the mechanisms. It changes the quarks and atoms and all their positions. Different context.

    The fact that you are a ‘different person’ as time progresses is important to the conversation. Because your brain shifts constantly between rapidly different social and physical situations. Your brain isn’t static, and you aren’t either. The idea of ‘storage’ seems to be a bad analogy for purely mechanistic functions, and I don’t think you’re recognizing just how ridiculously complex ‘mechanistic’ actually is.

    Saying, for instance, that mechanistic doesn’t take into account factors outside of your body simply does not make sense.

  13. 13

    Essentially I’m trying to argue that your view and ‘self as brain’ are not differentiable from one another.

  14. 14

    Ah–ok, I see part of my mistake; your mechanism, as you are looking at a person, includes not just their brain (which is the specific sort of mechanism I am complaining about) but also the person and her or his environment as parts of the clockwork. And that is, I admit, a much better picture.

    But there is still a problem with it for me, which I hope you can help me with. The clockwork metaphor requires an immediate, proximate cause for behavior. In consciousness-sorts of behavior, this creates a particular phenomenon: suppose that we can reliably show that a particular event in the environment reliably predicts a change in behavior. If it happened immediately, we would have no problem inferring that the event was the (or “a”) cause of the behavior (I will admit up front that causal inference is inference, not necessarily fact). Now… separate this event from the behavior by some amount of time. There is still the same predictive relationship, but the event and the behavior are no longer temporally contiguous.

    While in the first scenario, most would be happy to say that the event directly caused (or influenced, or shaped, or whatever) the behavior, in the second, mechanistic explanations would have us infer (not observe–the only thing we have observed that is different is a passage of time) some additional mechanism–a change in attitude, or memory, or some other gap-filler. The explorers of consciousness then must search for these gap-fillers in our brains (and again, typically–though not with your explanation–in parts, rather than in whole brains). But these gap-fillers are inferred because the machine needs them, not because we have actually seen them. We require something to fill a temporal gap in the same sense we used to require an aether to fill a spatial gap–that is, it is an assumption of the philosophy rather than a conclusion based on evidence.

    In your mechanistic view as presented in your comments here, you are clearly including the environmental context–do you have a different explanation for temporally discontiguous influences? Is your machine one that is extended in time as well as in space? (if so, it is enough different from the mechanistic explanations I have seen that I would be tempted to call you a contextualist!)

  15. 15

    Essentially I’m trying to argue that your view and ‘self as brain’ are not differentiable from one another.

    Yes, but you are doing so by speaking of the brain differently than, say, Churchland did in the Colbert clip, in precisely the way that addresses the stuff that sets my hair on fire.

  16. 16

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “temporally discontiguous.” It might help if you give me a specific example.

    It sounds to me like what you’re saying is “If people react differently to something than they previously have demonstrated, we tend to assume that’s a change in the person rather than the change in the context surrounding that person.” In which case, I would argue that brains change depending on the context, so they aren’t differentiable. I mean that’s the whole reason why brains are so awesome: they adapt.

    I suppose we’re both arguing against this tendency for people to treat the brain as relatively-static rather than dynamic?

  17. 17

    I’m getting at the storage metaphor–the assumption that, if something in the past has an effect in the present, it must be through some sort of stored influence–a memory, a changed mind, a rewired brain, or the like. That because we see this huge fuzzy set of behaviors we call “love” unfold over time and across situations, but that the neurophilosopher can say love is the result of these brain structures and this chemical. Certainly the brain is active in all those situations, but this activity is not the cause; rather, it is one of the effects of this interaction. In an attempt at being scientific, we land far short, at simply reductionist.

  18. 18

    Hypothetical scenario:

    When I’m having breakfast in the morning, I use the last of my milk and make a mental note to get more. Then I go to work. On my way home from work, I stop by the store and get milk.

    Something like nine hours have elapsed from the cause to the behavior, and there’s nothing in the immediate environment (my car, the traffic on the roads, etc.) that would account for my going to the store rather than straight home. I don’t understand why you would consider it unreasonable or incorrect to say that the past event is influencing my current action through a stored memory.

  19. 19

    A perfect example, full of inferred gap-fillers. Certainly, the reason you stopped to get milk is that you used the last of it this morning. We agree on that. It is even fine to describe the process as remembering, or as memory. Where we go wrong is in reifying the behavior of remembering–an active and dispersed activity in the brain, also dependent on environmental factors and physiological state–and speak of it as a stored entity. The metaphor leads cognitive researchers to speak of encoding, storage, and retrieval, and the search was on for just where these entities were stored. Remembering is a far more global process, highly dependent on context; to reduce it to a brain action is inaccurate, and to reify this subset of remembering into discrete entities leads to, frankly, decades of looking for a “thing” that isn’t actually a thing. Your driving wasn’t stored while you were at work; your working wasn’t stored while you were in your car; we speak of remembering very differently, and it has gotten us in trouble.

  20. 20

    Ah, I see. I suppose it is a rather egocentric, inaccurate way to look at things. It seems perfectly natural to me that we consider humans to be the actors in whatever situations humans are in, regardless of whether it’s more complicated than that.

    But it’s almost like a convenient shorthand, kind of like the dualistic notions of the soul and body. I don’t know how you would describe contextualism quickly to a layman. We like simplistic metaphors: it’s the way we’re programmed (<- purposeful joke).

    Although I am under the impression that especially in terms of vision, there are actual visual images being imprinted and 'encoded' and then afterward complicated brain things come in to interpret them.

  21. 21


    There is, as I write this, yet another story up on npr.org that punches all these buttons. “Our Brains Rewrite Our Memories, Putting Present In The Past” http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/02/04/271527934/our-brains-rewrite-our-memories-putting-present-in-the-past . Once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere, and it just seems so terribly stilted.

    Remembering is an active process, something that (pretty much by definition–but not quite) requires an event in some distant (how distant? it varies) past (except for false memories), but it also involves ongoing change, with present information being incorporated on an ongoing basis. Thus, additional information is simply new input in an ongoing (thus, extended in time and across environments) and active process. In the NPR story, researchers are manipulating current information, and measuring recollection of earlier information. That is, they, the researchers, were doing the re-writing, not the brain. The brain, yes, is a large part of our remembering–but clearly, as shown in the experiment (but not in the researchers interpretation) so is the ongoing environment! Remembering is an active, fluid process; the metaphor of “encoding, storage, and retrieval”, with attendant errors at each stage along the way, makes for convoluted inferences that depend as much (or more) on the philosophical assumptions as they do on the observed data.

    Looking at the function of remembering, it makes sense that it should be updated constantly. If new information comes along about something important, it would be highly adaptive to adjust your understanding of something–and, frankly, wasteful to store an outdated original copy with the now-obsolete information. If remembering helps us to navigate our world (gathering resources, avoiding danger), it should be an ongoing, active, and malleable process.

    But our model, our storage metaphor, gives us instead something where, perhaps, hypnosis will allow us access to the original, unsullied memory, locked in its vault, hermetically sealed. It makes sense–even our self-reports of memory conform to the model we’ve been immersed in from birth. We are confident in vivid memories, ready to swear to our eyewitness accounts, even when researchers show us how easily they are distorted. “Ah, but memories of these highly important things, like the face of a mugger, those will be accurate.”… except that they are not. Our alleged understanding of “memories”, framed wrongly, is a genuine problem, and people have gone to jail (or worse) on nothing more than someone’s confident, vivid, believable, and false recollection. (parenthetically, it seems we systematically discount the recollections of women, children, and underprivileged witnesses. Funny thing, that; it seems that among the things memory is, is a tool for maintaining power. When a concept is ill-defined, it is subject to misuse and abuse.)

    And now it seems I’m ranting and venting. Apologies to all who had to wade through all that.

  22. 22

    Although I am under the impression that especially in terms of vision, there are actual visual images being imprinted and ‘encoded’ and then afterward complicated brain things come in to interpret them.

    Um… if this were boiled down to a one word answer, that answer would be “no”. It’s complicated, and all the more so because our vocabulary (“images”, for instance) came about long before the tools were available to explore the phenomenon. We have no sensory neurons in the brain, for instance, so we cannot feel ourselves think. Given that, it is no surprise that the way we actually see the world is vastly different than the way we express our seeing of the world (which, again, conform to a vocabulary utterly inadequate to the task).

    We know, for instance, that the proximal stimulus on the retina (the roughly two-dimensional flipped and reversed projection of the distal stimulus in the real world) sends information through a large range of mostly-parallel channels, with edge information processed separately from texture, from color, from recollection of prior interaction, from facial features, from distance (multiple cues there, and learned over your lifetime), from hedonic value (do you feel favorably or unfavorably about this thing?), and more (my favorite is a sort of fourier analysis of the spatial grid frequencies in an image–you can fatigue some of these processors and make an image look completely different). Each of these channels is interactive, such that the processing does not flow in one direction only. There is no one place where it all comes together, and it all happens without our being aware of any of it. We have access to some of the output consciously, and other output influences our behavior without our being able to comment on it, or report on it, or know that it is influencing us.

    It is true that we can take some very simple stimuli and see corresponding activity on the primary occipital cortex. In some cases (like grids) we can even see relationships between the stimulus and this activity that tempt us to call it an image–but in reality, this is a far cry from what “image” means in our language, and it is quite a stretch to think that this one small fragment of one of many parallel processes, observed without the ability to know whether the information is being sent one way or another… as is so often the case, the reporting of the observation is quite a bit sensationalized. It is very cool research, but it’s a bit like peeking through a fence at a subway car passing, and trying to infer the entire system from that glimpse.

  23. 23
    Marcus Ranum

    I see where you’re going but I don’t buy it.

    One problem is that the “brain as self” is what carries our memories. So, we exist in a world, and events occur (our past, our context) and we remember them and move on. The only thing that remains of the past is our memories; the actual past is irretrievably gone. This is especially relevant to the case where perhaps I experience something and mis-remember it — the mis-remembered version is what I carry forward into time.

    That fits with corrupted/damaged memories as well. As the Alzheimers’ began to destroy my grandmother, she “remembered” a trip she made to Venice and Paris. Of course, she’d never been to either place. Now, you may say ‘the context is her memory of the past’ but it’s of a past that never happened. So, I think that you’re wrong: we are entirely our memories – what our memories squeezed and misinterpreted, misremembered and hallucinated, as well as accurately remembered from our experiences. I don’t see anywhere you appear to be thinking that it’s somehow external to the individual’s body, except in the sense of “history” but history absolutely vanishes the moment the present becomes the past. The only thing we carry forward from that is memories and ghosts of what happened. Even if they’re on film, they’re dependent on the positioning of the camera.

  24. 24

    You say “the ‘brain as self’ is what carries our memories”, but that is precisely what is at issue (among other examples); you cannot make it so by simple assertion. Yes, the actual past is irretrievably gone, but we can every bit as accurately say that it has “changed us forever” as say that it remains only in this thing called a memory. You are taking something that is demonstrably dependent on more than just the brain (there is a large literature on state-dependent and context-dependent memory that shows that far more than the brain is involved), and localizing it not simply in the brain, but in a hypothetical construct (a “memory”) that is inferred from changed behavior rather than observed as a discrete entity in brain activity.

    The mis-remembering is seen as a failure of memory in the mechanistic model, but it is frankly to be expected when you view remembering as an ongoing and active process. The function of remembering is to have past experience help you in the present–as such, new experience *should* change your eventual remembering (I’d repeat part of comment 21 here). This particular behavior is flexible, malleable, imperfect, and that is a feature, not a bug.

    Confabulations (like your grandmother’s false memories) are completely consistent with an active process of remembering (and the organic damage must be acknowledged), but again is a point *against* the notion of encoded, stored, and recalled memories.

    Experientially, nothing in a contextualist model denies any of your examples–just as knowing that the reality is earth-rotation does nothing to diminish the beauty of a sunset. It would be a poor theory if

    Your insistence that a memory (and it is appropriate that you use “ghost” as well) is required to bridge a temporal gap is A) inferred under the assumptions of mechanism, and B) identical to the requirement of an aether for light to travel through–that is, not observed, but assumed to be necessary.

  25. 25
    Robert B.

    I think cognition is an easier example for contextualism than memory is.

    Imagine working on a jigsaw puzzle. You pick pieces up, turn them around, place them next to each other to better compare colors and shapes, and eventually by doing this you find a match and fit the pieces together. You probably also sort groups of pieces with similar colors into groups, expecting matches to be more likely within those groups. When you make a match, you use the fitted-together pieces as a new unit, and try to fit other pieces to that.

    Clearly solving a jigsaw puzzle is a fairly complex cognitive task. But, where is that cognition happening? Where, exactly, are your thoughts? Are they entirely in your brain? If so, you should be able to solve an unfamiliar jigsaw puzzle in your head – observe the pieces carefully, and without touching them figure out how they all go together, so that when you finally start using your hands you already know exactly where every piece goes and you’re just executing your already-generated solution. But that’s not how humans solve jigsaw puzzles, ever – I’d pay money to see it done with a puzzle of fifty pieces. You can’t actually hold that entire cognitive load in your brain. You have to use your hands as a component of every puzzle-solving step, and use the puzzle state as active memory. You’re not just thinking with your brain, you’re not even just thinking with your brain and your hands – you’re thinking with your brain, your hands, and five thousand little bits of colored cardboard.

    And when you’ve finished chewing on that, consider this one: in the jigsaw puzzle, you think outside your brain by manipulating your environment in a controlled way. So what happens when someone else manipulates your environment?

  26. 26

    Great example, Robert B–and of course, the classic example in the literature uses Tetris to do exactly what you are talking about–we can rotate a tetris piece (there is a word for them, but I don’t know it) much more quickly using the screen and our fingers on keys than we can rotate them “mentally”. We outsource our thinking–it is something that is necessarily extended across time and clearly across more than just brain.

  27. 27

    I have no idea what “You’re not just thinking with your brain” means. Thinking with my hands?

    The cerebellum is part of the brain, which does a lot of the ‘rapid calculation’ and precise muscle memory you’re talking about. It has a completely different structure than the cerebrum. Obviously muscle memory involves your muscles pretty heavily, especially considering that muscle memory relies almost entirely on repetition. You actually have to do the task several times before you can do it faster (and more precise). Like practicing a musical instrument. Or speaking a language.

    As far as “cognitive load” and “active memory”, this is strange terminology. The brain makes shortcuts. You already know that. We don’t process every little detail. We process the big picture and whatever little details we want to focus on at the time.

    But “rotating mentally is slower than operating keys” doesn’t require ‘outsourcing.’ That’s just as true with ROM and RAM, which maintains the storage metaphor that you don’t like. Different mechanisms with different properties is all you need to explain that.

  28. 28

    There is a long history of “mental rotation” experiments; mentally rotating a shape (say, to see if it fits a puzzle, or is the mirror image of the piece that fits) is slow and fraught with error. It is much simpler, more accurate, and faster to rotate the image on the computer (or gameboy). The actual rotation is not being done by your cerebellum, but by the computer processor. Pressing buttons is a different behavior from mental rotation–you are engaging in the same task (rotation of a form), but in one case it is very clear that the processing of the task is shared with an object in your environment. Likewise, in solving math problems, your thinking and remembering was once facilitated with pencils and paper (where sums were quite literally stored), and now with calculators, computers, smartphones, etc. Your thinking in such cases is clearly aided by objects in your environment–I used the term “outsourced” because the claim is simply that it is the brain–only the brain–and the reality is that it is not.

    And of course, our vocabulary about thinking precedes our understanding that it is the brain at work at all–it was the soul at work, sometimes the heart, or the mind. We did not observe someone else’s brain in order to see that they were thinking–we observed the whole person, over time, interacting with environment. This is how we live our lives; it is artificial for us to take concepts that arose this way and shoehorn them into a clockwork-computer analogy in the brain. (Consider–the same apparent interface when working on a computer may be supported by vastly different hardware, and/or different coding. We see behavior, and infer how a machine might do it, and come up with all sorts of alleged mental mechanisms. Modern neuroscience goes looking for these mechanisms and occasionally confirms one, and often finds that there is no evidence for the alleged mechanism–for instance, the cartesian theatre, or Chomsky’s “language acquisition device”, or any of Freud’s hypothetical constructs. But… the interface is usable and understandable at that level, without hypothesizing about the underlying mechanisms. Certainly, the functions and structures of the brain are terribly important–they are a huge part of how the causal influences in our environment shape our actions. But let’s study them by actually observing them, not by circularly inferring hypothetical constructs. Meanwhile, it is absolutely legitimate to look at the behaving person as a whole, as embedded in and influenced by an environment, to see the causes of our actions. Not the mechanisms–at least, not the ones inside the skin–but yes, the causes.)

  29. 29

    The actual rotation is not being done by your cerebellum, but by the computer processor. Pressing buttons is a different behavior from mental rotation–you are engaging in the same task (rotation of a form), but in one case it is very clear that the processing of the task is shared with an object in your environment. Likewise, in solving math problems, your thinking and remembering was once facilitated with pencils and paper (where sums were quite literally stored), and now with calculators, computers, smartphones, etc. Your thinking in such cases is clearly aided by objects in your environment–I used the term “outsourced” because the claim is simply that it is the brain–only the brain–and the reality is that it is not.


    Right, the concept of the rotation is the same, but you’re using different things. One you are relying on your ‘mind’s eye’ or whatever. And the other you’re relying on your vision, hand-eye coordination, muscles, tactile feedback, etc. The cerebellum is actively involved in one case and not the other. You get a lot more feedback from one compared to the other.

    I suppose you could think of the nervous system as outsourcing. It sends out signals and demands immediate feedback. Without that feedback it can’t learn and develop. I like that.

    And now that I have a nice simple metaphor to understand what you’re saying, it’s far easier for me to understand what you’re getting at :D

  30. 30
    Robert B.

    The jigsaw example isn’t original to me, Cuttlefish. I got it from the philosophy of mind course where I first learned about this stuff, though I forget if it was from the professor or the book.

    The mathematical term for the shape of a tetris piece is “tetromino.”


    One you are relying on your ‘mind’s eye’ or whatever. And the other you’re relying on your vision, hand-eye coordination, muscles, tactile feedback, etc.

    Yes, but it goes further than that. In one method the resources you use to figure out the answer are all part of you. In the other, you’re using objects outside of you as key parts of the figuring out process. You’re outsourcing all the way out, if you see what I mean – not just to your vision and muscles, but to the environment.

    Sometimes people think of human behavior and thinking in a stimulus-response model: We see something in the environment, think about it in our brains, and respond by taking action in the environment. But that’s not how it usually works – in general, the environment is participating in the “think about it” step also, and there’s no point in the process where the brain is working by itself. That’s why Cuttlefish was getting so grumpy at the neurophilosopher’s statement that “consciousness arises in the brain.” For any of the big interesting mind functions like consciousness, the brain is necessary but not sufficient, and all the interesting stuff is emergent from the interactions in the brain-body-environment system, rather than being localized to any one part of that system.

    Saying “consciousness arises in the brain” is a bit like saying “you pick things up with your opposable thumbs” – it’s not wrong, exactly, but it paints a very inaccurate picture of what’s happening.

  31. 31

    Yay, people get it!

    One last thought on the “arises in the brain” bit–clearly (as mentioned in, say, comment 27) the brain is a big part of our “doing things”–but that’s just it: our brains working is part of, not the cause of, our actions. We would never say “I’m walking because my legs are moving”, so why is “I’m walking because my frontal cortex, coordinated by my cerebellum, is sending signals to my legs” any more acceptable? Our brain activity does not cause itself–we don’t allow believers to say “everything needs a cause, except god” and then try the same special pleading with the brain (except, of course, that we de facto do that all the time).

    As Robert B says, the environment participates in our thinking.

    Had an odd thought… so I was watching Olympic stuff, and it occurred to me that if we were able to take a speed skater’s brain and transplant it perfectly into my body, I would be wholly unable to compete at the level that former owner of the brain could. It’s very simple; I have nothing approaching the leg muscles, the back muscles, the lungs or heart that these athletes have. Not just their brains have been honed by staggering numbers of practice hours over the years, but of course so have their bodies. Now, we do not say that their bodies “remember” that training, or that the changed physiology constitutes a “memory” (although we can describe it as an increase in “fitness”, in the non-darwinian sense). It is not merely that the brain controls a body, it is that this brain is an integral part of this particular body, in this particular history with this particular environment. And if we say this person is able to skate faster, longer, better because they are more fit, that would be circular and wrong. We are every bit as able to say they are more fit because they are able to skate faster, longer, and better. Fitness works as a description, but not as a cause. Memory (and cognition, and any such entities) work as description. Not as cause.

  32. 32
    Pain Strumpet

    Cuttlefish: “Of course, in one sense, I am a different person than the one who typed that last sentence, but we rarely split hairs that finely.”

    Well, you did specify in the original post that the duplicate would be identical down to the quarks, or smaller if such exist. That seems like an awfully fine hair you’re willing to split in one case.

  33. 33

    I did specify that, Pain Strumpet–for two reasons. First, it echoes the challenges I have seen in debates on this topic, and secondly, it shows the extent to which our philosophical word-games are different from the way we use the terms in real life. Real life usage of these terms is much fuzzier than technical definitions, but frankly, this is a point in favor of real life. The concepts are imprecise–if they reflected actual entities, that would be a problem, but since they don’t, the fuzziness of the concepts and of common usage go hand in hand.

  34. 34
    Nick Gotts

    i recommend Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind for detailed discussion of how thinking and memory are activities distributed across the brain, the rest of the body, and the external environment.

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