Plato and the proper explanation of our actions

9780307378194_custom-ddcd506e3b084611bfcc807db8f753d0ebf8ff75-s6-c30by Rebecca Goldstein [1]

PLATO: The disagreement between you reminds me of an argument I heard a long time ago.

SHOKET: Well, if it was so long ago I don’t see why it would have any relevance to what we’ve been talking about. We’re talking about our state of knowledge now, not a long time ago.

PLATO: Yes, we are always talking about our state of knowledge now, whenever it is that we talk, but still I think this old argument applies. Can I tell it to you?

AGATHA: I think I know the argument you mean. Was it Socrates who first proposed it, or was it you all along?

PLATO: Who can remember, after so many years and so many versions? I only know that I always hear it spoken in his voice, the one he always used when he was ready to stop his clowning and speak with quiet seriousness. To Shoket: You would have liked him. He was a kidder who liked to laugh, like you. So it could only strike wonder on occasions when all the laughter fled him and he appeared before us serious, as I think he must have appeared on that day, spending his last hours on the thin pallet of his prison cell, his closest friends gathered around him.

SHOKET: Why was he in prison?

PLATO: That was the very example he used to make the argument I have in mind. Why was he in prison? What did he do to end his life in this way, and why did he do it? Imagine that Socrates were to say to you, Dr. Shoket, in answer to your question of why he is in prison, the following:

“The reason I am here, Dr. Shoket, sitting on a jail-cell bed, soon to die, is that my body is composed of bones and sinews, and the bones are rigid and separated at the joints, but the sinews are capable of contraction and relaxation and form an envelope for the bones with the help of the flesh and skin, the latter holding them all together, and since the bones move freely in their joints, the sinews by relaxing and contracting enable me to bend my limbs so that I can be in the position in which you find me.

“Would you feel that my explanation had done justice to your question, Dr. Shoket, when I never troubled to mention the real reasons, which are that since Athens has thought it better to condemn me, therefore I for my part have thought it better to sit here, and more right to stay and submit to whatever penalty she orders. Because, by dog, I fancy that these sinews and bones would have been in the neighborhood of Megara or Boeotia long ago—impelled by a conviction of what is best!—if I did not think that it was more right and honorable to submit to whatever penalty my country ordered rather than take to my heels and run away. But to call things like that causes is too absurd. If it were said that without such bones and sinews and all the rest of them I should not be able to do what I think is right, it would be true. But to say that it is because of them that I do what I am doing, and not through choice of what is best—although my actions are controlled by mind—would be a very lax and inaccurate form of expression. Fancy being unable to distinguish between the cause of a thing and the condition without which it could not be a cause (Phaedo 98c–99b).

AGATHA: That’s amazing. Did he really say it like that? Were you there?

PLATO: I was not there. I was ill and could not come (ibid. 59b).

SHOKET: I’m sorry, I must be missing something here. There are all these allusions going on that I’m not getting. But most of all, I’m just not getting why I’m supposed to be amazed by your friend’s argument. Your friend is trivially correct that speaking of bones and joints and muscle contractions doesn’t get the mind—which is to say the brain—into the explanation. At the very least, he should have added that the explanation for why he didn’t flee was because his motor cortex didn’t activate motor programs that moved his muscles and bones along some route that was guided by cognitive maps in his hippocampus.

AGATHA: That’s true. You can’t get an explanation of an action if you don’t bring the mind in.

PLATO: Yes, that was in fact his point, that one must bring in the mind to explain his action. And he thought that the way to bring in the mind in explaining his action was to refer to the “right and honorable” aim he thought he would accomplish through his action. But that is only the old way of speaking of mind, uninformed by brain science, and we must replace it with our state of knowledge now. So then what my friend ought to have said is something along the following lines: The reason that I am lying here on this jailhouse bed is that my default mode network, interacting with memories stored in my hippocampus and medial temporal lobe, generates patterns of activity that correspond with various future scenarios, including fleeing and staying put. The staying-put pattern generates a conflict signal in my anterior cingulate cortex, because the ACC also receives a prepotent response from midbrain limbic circuits that cause the organism to struggle to escape confinement. The signal is then relayed to my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which engages in information processing to resolve the conflict. The DLPFC sends and receives signals from my ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which contains information about my long-term goals, and also connects to areas in the right superior temporal sulcus that allow me to simulate the actions of other people. The information in this network causes the DLPFC to resolve the conflict by sending signals to the premotor and motor areas, which cause the muscles of my body to leave me in the jail cell.

SHOKET: Okay, now I’m officially amazed. What have you been doing, auditing classes?

PLATO: MOOCs.

SHOKET: Okay, but I still don’t see what your friend’s argument, even supplemented with neuroscience, is getting at.

PLATO: Do you not see what it is that is still missing from the explanation of my friend’s action? We cannot explain why my friend did what he did unless we understand what that action meant both to him and to others, how he saw it and what value he placed on it and how he saw how others would see it and what values they would place on it, both in his day and later, and back and forth in spiraling loops of values and meanings.

AGATHA: The way the philosophers at the Cognitive Science Center would put it is that you can’t explain his action unless you view it in the context of value and meaning in which his behavior is embedded.

SHOKET: Fine. I have no problem with that, as long as you keep that context of meanings and values in the cortical activity of brains where it belongs. So let’s say that your friend had decided to save his life and flee from jail. The patterns of synaptic strengths in the neural networks of various parts of his brain would have had to be different, since any difference in behavior must have originated from some differences in the brain.

PLATO: And would we be able to see those differences with the techniques you are soon to use in order to view my brain?

SHOKET: See them with our fMRI? Well, no. They’d be differences at the level of microcircuitry, which we obviously can’t see with the millimeter resolution of fMRI. After all, there are a hundred thousand neurons and as many as a billion synapses in each cubic millimeter of the cortex. Even with the best technology today, we can’t record from more than a few dozen of them at a time. But that’s just the limits of our technology. It doesn’t make any difference to the neuronal differences that would really have been there had Socrates chosen differently.

AGATHA, to Plato: Isn’t that what you’d call the difference between ontology and epistemology? The difference between what there is, as opposed to how we can know what there is?

PLATO: Yes, it is. So let us close the gap between ontology and epistemology by imagining a technology as good as you like. Imagine a technology in the future that could record the individual activity from all of the brain’s hundred billion neurons at once. Also suppose that the human connectome project, showing how all the different parts of the brain are connected neuron by neuron, synapse by synapse, has been completed. Suppose you could plug the firing rates into a massive computer simulation of that wiring diagram of the brain. That sounds amazing, but it’s no less amazing than the technologies I’ve seen develop in my 2,400 years. Would you then be able to explain what made Socrates remain in jail by giving an explanation at the level of his cortical activity?

SHOKET: Well, the difference in the firing patterns would be extremely complicated, consisting of billions of tiny differences in synaptic weights, leading to differences in the firing patterns over hundreds of millions of neurons. It would all be too complicated for anyone to trace out in his mind’s eye. But the differences would have to be in there somewhere—we could run the simulation, and it would tell us whether Socrates decided to flee or to stay. There are no facts over and above those, so yes, in principle, that’s where we’d find our explanation.

PLATO: But how would we explain why the computer simulation ended up in the state in which Socrates stayed rather than the state in which Socrates fled, if the explanation in both cases consisted of reciting billions of numbers that no one could understand? Where in that mass of numbers could we extract anything approaching what my friend was able say so simply and so many years ago, making himself intelligible, to his contemporaries and to you in such a different world, by presenting the reality of himself as a person, which is to say a creature ready to have something to say when asked why he behaves in the way that he does, submitting his reasons to a community of those who know how to interpret what he says, who may not find his particular reasons persuasive but know at least how to respond when offered reasons, how to consider and to evaluate? Even if we could get our hands—or rather our minds, which is to say our brains—on those masses of numbers, could they ever absorb the masses of meaning and mattering, the standards of reasoning and behaving to which we submit ourselves in order to live lives that are not only coherent to ourselves but coherent to one another—and coherent to ourselves at least in large part because they are, or we know how to go about making them, coherent to one another? All of that and more goes into constituting the shared world in which we do our living, and without which there is no life that is recognizably a life.

_____

Rebecca Goldstein received her doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University. Her award-winning books include the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and nonfiction studies of Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza. Her most recent work, Plato at the Googleplex, was released from Pantheon in March of 2014. She has received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, has been designated a Humanist of the Year and a Freethought Heroine, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives in Massachusetts.

[1] This excerpt from Rebecca’s book, Plato at the Googleplex, replaces one previously published at Scientia Salon, at the author’s request. She wanted to give our readers something more meaty to chew on…

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33 replies

  1. Ah, a surprise! and a nice one. This is more like it, and more suggestive of the reasons Goldstein’s book is receiving positive reviews. Good move!

  2. “That’s true. You can’t get an explanation of an action if you don’t bring the mind in.”
    So animal action can’t be explained!?
    The following paragraph’s explanation of behavior triggering is wrong. See Paul Cisek’s work.
    The brain processes in parallel from multi-locations in ms, not serially.
    The computer is a bad, but culturally popular analogy, like the steam engine was for the body.
    This explanation is a typical, top-down attempt to impose cultural beliefs onto a hodge podge of neuro findings/beliefs/theories. The cultural/magical goal is to save subjective experience from irrelevance and being just epiphenomena. It is just more traditional magical thinking – “Mind over matter and “Action at a distance.” two supernatural beliefs from the dawn of recorded history…and defaults of the human, and probably all animal brains.

    The ultimate conceit is that it requires words mediate everything biological, medical/physiological, especially English academic words and ideas. there literally is no time for that to even be possible. These are medical facts – not academic, self-referential statements.

  3. “She wanted to give our readers something more meaty to chew on…”

    Truly ‘meaty to chew’ indeed. This really is the hardcore issue of humanity, much more important than the BICEP2 and Planck data in terms of human meaning.

    While Goldstein has made this issue so vividly, she has not giving any hint about the solution. There is a ‘No question principle’: no question in this entire universe is without a definite answer, most often only human is ignorant about that simple answer.

    Her issue is very simple. There are two different universes (not the physics multiverse).
    One, the moral universe.
    Two, the physical universe which can further divided into two sub-universes.
    a. The material universe, the stars and galaxies.
    b. The life universe (encompassing the consciousness and the intelligence).

    In the West, the moral universe is often attributed as a God governed dominion. Yet, with the Large Complex System Principle, all these universes must be isomorphic. If we can find the ‘source’ for intelligence and consciousness in the material first, we should definitely enter into the moral universe with a material ladder.

    The most important attribute for consciousness is the ability of distinguishing a ‘self’ from others. That is, every entity must be ‘uniquely’ labelled (tagged). The ‘Four Color Theorem’ can tag all (at least, unbound large number, if not infinite) ‘balls’ uniquely. Thus, the (A, G, T, C) system of the DNA codes is a ‘Four Color System’, that is, lives have no choice but acquiring the ‘consciousness’. When we identify the ‘four color codes’ in the elementary particle system, the material ladder to consciousness has built. With such a ladder, it has a great chance to ‘extend’ it into the realm of morality.

    Thanks for bringing up such an important issue.

  4. You would have to model all the inputs to the brain as well, which includes Plato’s biography and social environment.

    The mass of numbers may not be tractable but how can we insist on an intuitive explanation?

    I’m not quite certain that we, in our culture, truly grasp Socrates’ explanation, at least not without a great deal of effort and historical study.

  5. Funny, that was just what I was thinking – not meaty enough. Now i am off to re-read Phaedo before commenting further.

  6. Always curious when advanced physics, cosmology, etc are brought up in matters of the brain and behavior – while biology, medical-physiology, chemistry are ignored.

  7. I wonder about the future of the mind and if it would become advanced enough to overcome the obstacles raised in this article. For instance, will we be able to plant a chip inside our brains that would allow us to process large amounts of data in a way that a computer could (or some other variation, like store Wikipedia in our memory)? I don’t know anything about neuroscience, but I don’t a priori see why this can’t be achieved within the (perhaps not exceedingly far) future. Supposing we can get there, it would radically change the nature of what it means to be human (as technology is already incrementally doing on say the social level through social networking) in ways that might make the lamenting of certain epistemological problems obsolete.

  8. This selection is much “meatier” than the previously posted selection. I haven’t read Goldstein’s book so I don’t really know how this exchange ends (I personally don’t find Plato’s ending salvo in this selection to be much more than a pep talk), but her objective seems to be to demonstrate the continued relevance of philosophic inquiry in our “new age” of techno-scientific “explanation,” as apparently represented by Shoket’s position of “There are no facts over and above those, so yes, in principle, that’s where we’d find our explanation.” But Plato/Socrates wants to suggest that such an explanation is inadequate in evaluating the “why” as opposed to the “how.” The key for me in this exchange resides in Plato’s statement “Fancy being unable to distinguish between the cause of a thing and the condition without which it could not be a cause.” One either acknowledges the validity of such a distinction or one doesn’t.

  9. Even more curious that you excluded psychology and the humanities, the two fields far more apt at addressing the issue brought up in this dialogue. Biology and chemistry, as the dialogue shows, are hopelessly non-specific and can not account for the specificity provided by looking at the history of the individual and the cultural meaning system that the behavior is nested in.

  10. Again an excellent post! I really enjoyed both of them but this one does provide more to chew on. I agree with the contention that no matter how advance our understanding of neurophysiology gets, it all not get us to the type of explanation we are looking for in this case with Socrates. It reminds of the saying (I forgot who said this), “the best chemical analysis of ink cannot tell us the meaning of Shakespeare”.

    With that said, I think it is somewhat odd that people are so hyper focused on neuroscience when it comes to the non-philosophical, science based explanation of these types of events as opposed to psychology, which in it’s functional wings very much interested in explaining behavior at the level of learning as well as within symbolic meaning systems. Studying the brain physiology is great but without studying the larger context in terms of environmental interactions as psychology does ultimately leaves psychology in a much better place to address these issues. However I also don’t think that the psychological explanation completely eats up the philosophical one here but it does get much closer at explaining the function of Socrate’s behavior.

  11. I recently read this book and I think it is great. But I do have to say that it doesn’t give as resounding a defeat to the anti-philosophy crowd such as Krauss as I would have like. Even Neal De Grasse Tyson has been going around saying science left philosophy behind 200 years ago. For example, although the dialogue in this post presents a nice argument against the sort of reductionism represented by Shoket, it doesn’t show that psychology isn’t or won’t take over for philosophy. Lots of sciences can be and are being done at higher levels of analysis without be reductionistic in that way. I was hoping to see a stronger argument in favor of the indispensability of philosophy.

  12. A truly bewildering stream of 0’s and 1’s has been transmitted over the Internet to my web browser, which, after performing some millions of machine instructions on it, has rendered on screen some characters, which I recognize as English, and which contain this interesting question, which I quote in part:

    “Where in that mass of numbers could we extract anything approaching what my friend was able say so simply and so many years ago, making himself intelligible, to his contemporaries and to you in such a different world…?”

    In fact, we often extract meaning from what at the smallest level is a mass of numbers, or a mass of synapses and neurons firing in rapid succession, or some other collection of physical minutiae. You could, if you chose, describe a bottle of 1979 Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac Bordeaux as a mixture of protons, neutrons, and electrons arranged just so, and you would be correct, but you would be missing the best part, which is found at a much higher level of organization.

    The words of Socrates have no meaning at all, unless we understand the language in which they are spoken, and that requires quite a large collection of memories to be stored in our brains, and the process of retrieving them to take place by way of synapses and neurons firing away. Which in no way diminishes the significance of what Socrates has to say, nor our understanding of it.

  13. For example, although the dialogue in this post presents a nice argument against the sort of reductionism represented by Shoket, it doesn’t show that psychology isn’t or won’t take over for philosophy.

    Where in the post is the “argument against the sort of reductionism represented by Shoket”? All the article says is that a full account would be sufficiently voluminous that a human could not assimilate it. Thus a human would need a highly simplified summary. That isn’t an argument against reductionism, it’s just pointing at limitations of humans.

    To take another example, take the question of the “causes of the World War One”. Obviously a full account would involve the attitudes and motivations of hundreds or thousands of people, and would be too unwieldy to assimilate. Thus any account of “the causes” of the war would have to be a highly selective and highly simplified version of the full truth.

  14. I agree, Coel. I don’t think reductionism should be seen as a bad thing. It’s just another tool we have in understanding the world. It is not intended to supplant but to complement high-level explanations.

  15. Again, why do we insist that an acceptable explanation has to be intuitive? By “intuitive,” I mean what we fancy Socrates’ self-ascribed explanation means. I repeat, it is by no means certain that we really understand what “city” and “duty” really meant in Socrates’ world. Further, we intuit that Socrates necessarily understands his own motives, but is that easy intuition true? What about Socrates’ daemon? Did he really hear voices or was this a metaphor from a culture and dead language impossible to translate? Is it possible that his reasoning was warped by the weakness of old age or depression?

  16. “All the article says is that a full account would be sufficiently voluminous that a human could not assimilate it.”

    That is precisely the argument against reductionism. It is too unwieldy to describe such a complicated process at the level of neurons. We need a higher level of analysis. For example, while modern Biology is consistent with the laws of physics we don’t try to describe evolution in terms of fundamental particles, we describe it at a higher level of analysis. So my point was that Goldstein makes a good argument against trying to describe everything to do with the mind in terms of neuroscience, but that doesn’t mean that everything else is a matter for philosophy. Cognitive science is done at a higher level of analysis and could take over for philosophy in these matters. Philosophy would then be obsolete when it comes to matters of the mind. I am not saying this is necessarily the case, but that if Goldstein was trying to show that philosophy is still important and relevant when comes to discussing the mind, she did not completely succeed. I find that disappointing.

  17. “Okay, but I still don’t see what your friend’s argument, even supplemented with neuroscience, is getting at.” I’ll side with Mr. Shoket any time.

    First, I do not see what this MOOCHed-up Plato has to add to the conversation. He is repeating – under anachronistic cloak of authority – what cognitive scientists and sociologists etc. have been saying all along. Whether his analogy of the “computer simulation” will turn out to be useful in explaining our mind is anyone’s guess. For one, what makes human mind so special, it’s its plasticity and adaptability – it is a (mainly unconscious) learning system, while computers simply crunch as per overt program (for the moment).

    Secondly, what he describes is literally, child’s play. Children need only a few years to learn and operate the mind in the material and social setting. They become consummate social actors, like all of us (well, my manners may be improved…). Our immediate goal should be to secure the system’s functioning under changing conditions. Becoming a better driver in ever denser city traffic is more important than ferreting out what’s under the hood. Understanding is seldom a prerequisite for use (though it may improve it in Bayesian fashion). BTW: our guide may better be a taxi-driver, rather than an auto-mechanic.

    Thirdly, resurrecting Plato collaterally fosters bad thinking habits (sorry, Ms Goldstein, nothing personal). Usage of his worldview in a conversation implicitly reinforces errors rooted in categories like dualism, essentialism, idealism and other deepities his line of thinking has propagated through the ages and infests everyday language.

    Does it all sound a bit like casting away the chess-board? Sure: maybe ‘go’ is an alternative.

  18. What constitutes as an “explanation” depends very much on the mind receiving the explanation. A blind man cannot process an explanation consisting of visual qualities, whereas for a non-blind person, seeing is believing usually applies. I raised earlier the contention (which seems to have been ignored) that I think it is likely that our minds will be amplified with future technology in which case I don’t think we can be so certain about what ultimately constitutes as an explanation. If my mind comes attached with a computer that can do billions of computations per second, what is an incomprehensible amount of data by today’s standards, might be a simple process for me in the blink of an eye in the future – and how can we, with our limited minds, possibly fathom whether or not this is “an explanation”? It might be a fun intellectual exercise to discuss these issues, but I think we should all admit these are highly speculative and tentative topics that will be shaped by our evolution and technology.

  19. Tim, I’m not sure if it’s just a processing power issue, rather the appropriate level of explanation. It’s like the example of trying to study the chemical composition of the ink in which Shakespeare was written to understand what Shakespeare means. Having an enhanced brain will not lead to a satisfactory account of why Socrates is in prison if it focuses on neurobiological explanation exclusively as it will still not be specific enough to include information regarding the history of the individual and the culture the individual resides in.

  20. Hi philosophercj,

    That is precisely the argument against reductionism.

    Personally I wouldn’t call it an “argument against” reductionism, since it is not saying that reductionism is wrong, it is just pointing to a feature of how the world works, namely that simplified, summary accounts of happenings can be useful.

  21. Aldo Matteucci: “Whether his analogy of the “computer simulation” will turn out to be useful in explaining our mind is anyone’s guess. For one, what makes human mind so special, it’s its plasticity and adaptability – it is a (mainly unconscious) learning system, while computers simply crunch as per overt program (for the moment). … Becoming a better driver in ever denser city traffic is more important than ferreting out what’s under the hood. … Does it all sound a bit like casting away the chess-board? Sure: maybe ‘go’ is an alternative.”

    “Go” is definitely more complicated than “chess”, but there is no way to say that chess is inferior to go.

    Your description of ‘mind’ is not wrong according to the 20th century paradigm. But, ‘mind’ is now understood as basically composed of two major parts, the consciousness and the intelligence. Although these two parts are seemingly entangled at the highest tier of manifestation, at the base level they are completely different.

    Consciousness is all about ‘tagging’ every entity uniquely; thus, each entity can distinguish itself from all others.

    Intelligence is all about ‘information processing’; that is, it needs a counting device (counting straws, abacus or Turing computer).

    In this short comment, I cannot address these issues in detail but would like to point out some directions for the issues. Let me just talk about ‘intelligence’ only here.

    Intelligence can arise from the material in four steps (or be reduced to ‘material’ level in four steps).
    One, Turing imbedding in material (see, http://www.prequark.org/Biolife.htm ).
    Two, the ‘essence’ of intelligence (What is intelligence?) See, http://www.prebabel.info/aintel.htm .
    Three, the ‘rising’ mechanism for intelligence, see http://sexevolution.wikia.com/wiki/Sexevolution_Wiki .
    Four, the intelligence machine, see http://www.prequark.org/inte001.htm .

    The issue that Ms. Goldstein pointed out is much more than a traditional ‘mind/body’ issue. It does point to the issue of ‘physical (including the mind)/moral’ issue. The gap between physical/moral is much bigger than the mind/body one.

  22. Coel I think are disagreement has its roots in understanding what reductionism means. There are different notions of reductionism. There is ontological reductionism, which is what you seem to be talking about. In this context, that would be the idea that the mind is nothing more than the brain. I have no problem with this sort of reductionism and I take it we are in agreement about it.

    There is theoretical reduction. This is the idea that one theory or explanation can be reduced to another. For example Kepler’s laws of the motions of planets was reduced to Newton’s laws of motion. Newton’s theory could explain everything Kepler’s could and it could also explain the motions of bodies on earth as well. Newton’s theory was more general and absorbed (reduced) Kepler’s theory. My contention was that Shoket offers us a reason to think that higher level cognitive theories will not be reduced to theories in neuroscience. Perhaps they could be in principle by a being with a much greater cognitive capacity than ours, but they will not be by human beings with our current cognitive limitations.

    Okay so my point was that pointing out that the mind cannot be explained purely in terms of neuroscience does not show that we cannot give a complete scientific explanation of the mind. We may be able to give such an explanation using higher level psychological theories or theories in cognitive science that are couched in mentalistic terms rather than simply in terms of neurons, synapses and brain regions. If we can give a complete explanation of the mind scientifically, then what job is there for philosophers? Goldstein has not completely defended the role of philosophy in understanding the mind.

  23. I’ll second tienzengong’s last sentence here. Not sure I understand what led to it, but it resonates with me.

  24. I think that this is the right way to understand the argument presented in the dialogue, but it doesn’t show that we can’t have a purely scientific explanation of why Socrates is in prison using higher level psychological theories. We could have an explanation in terms of cognitive science, which can help itself to mentalistic terms, even if we cannot give an explanation in terms of neuroscience. So, the dialogue does not show that philosophy must play an important role in explaining the mind as Plato and Agatha argue. Shoket could argue this way and still claim that Agatha is wasting her time talking to philosophers. I am not saying that this is a view I favor. I am just saying that Goldstein’s defense of philosophy is incomplete.

  25. I don’t think your analogy is quite accurate. I think a better analogy would lead us to consider the famous example of Searle’s Chinese room, where suppose now, a Chinese dictionary and a trove of Chinese literature/encyclopediac information were uploaded to my brain. Would all this knowledge then constitute “understanding” Chinese? We can debate all we want about whether this is or is not the case, but seeing how this experiment is in principle executable in the future, I think I’m happy being a bit more agnostic about what constitutes understanding (the topic is still interesting, but again, I think it’s highly speculative).

    Also in this case (Socrates), it seems that one of the main points of the article is to distinguish between the “merely material” causes of why Socrates is in prison (the bars prevent him from escaping, his muscles contracted in such a way that he was escorted there) and the “actual” reason he’s there (his accusors forced him to be there). Of course, all the information we might have of Socrates body has nothing to do with the latter. But if an enhanced mind were brute force fed all the news/information leading up to the event, I don’t see why a super intelligent being could not then sort out all the sociological reasons why Socrates is in jail.

    So I think there are two separate issues. The first is to what extent a massive amount of information could ever “explain” something. I contend that given our limited minds, sensibility and practicality dictates that we have “simple” explanations (and not swaths of 0s and 1s), but on the other hand, that may change once we can process 0s and 1s. After all, the value of theorems in mathematics and a few fundamental physical laws derives from the fact that we can’t simply see/compute/visualize 10^26 particles moving all at once and fathom this totality directly. We need something manageable and the beauty/mystery of science is that we have been very successful in finding such simple patterns (for which we could have another philosophical discussion). But there’s no reason to rule out that once we have vast computational mental powers, what is now regarded as overly reductionistic (symphony = a conglomeration of many sound waves) may become a tractable feat of mental intake and who knows what aesthetic feeling (or whatever kind of feeling) that may invoke (will it be less or more than what we experience of the symphony in our current state of mind? who knows). The other separate issue is the nature of causality and to what extent having vast troves of information implies an understanding of causality. That is also a separate discussion.

  26. Perhaps they could be in principle by a being with a much greater cognitive capacity than ours, but they will not be by human beings with our current cognitive limitations.

    That’s the crucial statement. It is not that “theoretical reduction” (as you call it) does not work, it’s that it is not an approach that humans can assimilate beyond a certain level of complexity. The limitation is with humans, not reductionism.

    Okay so my point was that pointing out that the mind cannot be explained purely in terms of neuroscience …

    Again, it *can* be explained purely in terms of neuroscience. However, humans would need a simplified and summarised “higher level” account in order to assimilate it.

    If we can give a complete explanation of the mind scientifically, then what job is there for philosophers?

    Well that depends on how one defines “philosophy”. To my mind properly done philosophy is the same thing as science.

  27. Reductionism is used in two ways that I know of. Firstly there is empirical reductionism which says that any meaningful statement can be stated as “each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience.” (Quine, Two Dogmas of Empiricism)

    The other is to do with the ways that one theory can be reduced to another by means of inter-theoretic identities, ie that biology can be reduced to physics. I am assuming that the latter is meant here. There is more than one version of reductionism but I am also assuming you mean that all theories are reducible to physics.

    I would say that this is wrong, as in the example of a computer. A computer works entirely by the laws of physics but a complete understanding of physics would not tell you why the computer is doing what it is doing. In order to do that you would have to also understand the mathematics of computing.

    You cannot say in a computer that it’s actions are caused by the micro-states that support the algorithm steps, it would be more true to say that the specific arrangements of the micro-states are caused by the macro-state – ie the algorithm. Thus you cannot even say that the operation of a computer is reducible to physics.

  28. There is a cut and paste fail in the first paragraph of the above: It should read:

    Reductionism is used in two ways that I know of. Firstly there is empirical reductionism which can be stated as “each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience.” (Quine, Two Dogmas of Empiricism)

  29. Even if we could get our hands—or rather our minds, which is to say our brains…

    I think it is rather presumptious, given the subject matter of Phaedo, to assume that Plato would have so easily assented to the proposition that the mind is the same thing as the brain.

    Even if he had become convinced of Naturalism I think he might have been skeptical of such a statement. He might have pointed out that nobody would say that an instantiation of an algorithm was the same thing as the computer it was running on.

  30. Thanks for the links – I’ll look them over asap.

    Actually, I was only wielding Occam’s Razor here: I am not convinced that Plato, even mooched up, has much to add, though his way of categorical thinking still pollutes the discourse. What model we may end up using to describe the phenomenon is up for grabs.

  31. I think that your argument takes much too narrow an interpretation of “physics”. There is nothing in physics that says that you cannot take account of an ensemble of material and of patterns in that ensemble.

    Indeed, a lot of physics is doing exactly that (how else, for example, would one study the physics of galaxies, rather large ensembles of matter?).

    Thus, in my opinion, “a complete understanding of physics” would indeed tell you “why the computer is doing what it is doing”.

    Of course that explanation might use some higher-level concepts applied to the ensemble, and whether one called those higher-level concepts “physics” or “mathematics of computing” is only semantics. The whole point of the “reducible to” viewpoint is that they are essentially the same thing.

  32. Philosophercj,
    I agree that psychological science would be more informative but I still think there is an aspect of value that even psychology would not be able to study scientifically so there would still be a place for philosophy. I’m not sure what Goldstein’s view is on the matter but I don’t think she is defending the view that science has nothing to say but that it’s not the whole picture for this particular case.

    Tim,
    It may not be a perfect analogy but I’m not sure where in the brain we would get the specific information regarding the cultural context. Just as muscles of a warrior may tell us that the warrior is fit and has experienced trauma in the past, it won’t give us the details of the war. However, I would of course not discount future scientists in terms of finding out something completely different about the brain so I’ll leave the possibility open.

    For the other case you bring up where we know all the physical facts, including about the culture and history of Socrates, can lead us to a reasonable explanation of why he is in prison, I agree that in this case it is possible to explain why Socrates is there. Actually, I don’t even think we need extra computational power to do that, psychology is perfectly good at the telling you that information without having to know or visualize what the 10^26 particles are doing. It’s the appropriate level of explanation.

    Of course whether or not we could get to the point where we can understanding everything at the particle level, I’m not really sure I have an opinion on that. It’s hard to tell if we have true epistemological limits to full reductionism or it’s merely a technological limitation but I would simply be guessing at this point.

  33. Seems that it should be the other way around. Though, many seem to be reductionists and just take the starting place of physics to be the natural one because of their reductionist leanings.

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