Pragmatist Neurophilosophy: American Philosophy and the Brain


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Indeed, the choice between teleological and mechanistic modes of explanation may not be forced.

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After all, wholes typically have genuine powers and properties that no aggregate of parts could have. This is not duplication of causal powers, as reductionists fret, but only the recognition of compatible kinds of causal powers at different scales and systems of nature. The pluralistic stance of pragmatism and neuropragmatism is hospitable to continuities of terminology and causality at multiple levels of brain science. Neuropragmatism cannot deny that humans can do these things.

Yet it must undertake explanations for their existence without permitting them to assume any fundamental role in ordinary cognition. Neuropragmatism tends to favor the idea that sophisticated symbolic capacities of human intelligence are the scaffolding on which the extended mind of linguistic sociality operates.

Basic cognition is not symbolic or representational; but human societies design their environments in ways that offload cognitive work onto the manipulation of external symbols. Rationalism in general makes it difficult to account for cognition and knowledge in any natural terms. Cartesianism was the height of presumptive rationalism by taking our most sophisticated forms of communication replete with analytic meanings and necessary truths as essential to all consciousness and cognition.

Later representationalisms sustained this obsession with static symbols, rendering it difficult to naturalistically explain even how children acquire linguistic competence. Reliance on representation leads to a postulation of foundational perceptions. Connectionism comes closer to dynamical and distributed cognition but may still contain aspects or elements of representationalism. Neuropragmatism, like other neurophilosophies, takes close notice of the way that the brain rapidly merges diverse streams of stimuli from all sources in order to guide effective action in the lived moment.

All cognitive processes and hence all conscious experiences too are fusings of information about external sensations, motor control processes, and internal feedback from the body. There is no pure sensation, no pure will, and no pure feeling. There are no dichotomies between sensation, emotion, and reason — these aspects of cognition work together as they guide behavior.

Even in the simplest case of behavior, these fusions are evident. Simplistic associationism is inadequate because organic circuits create new wholes that are not merely sums or sequences of their parts. In a genuine organic circuit of perception, action, and consequence e. The next time the child sees the flame, he sees a hot flame, and when he reaches for that flame, he reaches for a painful touch. Organic circuits result in holistic organic wholes of experience. Experience is thoroughly imbued with prospective values of action. That is why we directly experience meanings and values in the world around us.

If meanings or values were only interior mental states, then our experience of an external object would be stereoscopic, a sort of double perception. Does lived experience ever seem like this? Meanings and values are where they appear to be: embodied in the things that we know how to use. Meanings and values are instances of achieved practical knowledge through learning. Knowledge is built up from our experimental attempts to productively manage our deliberate modifications to the environment.

Static representationalism, correspondence theories of knowledge, and Cartesian materialism are not viable theories of mind and intelligence.


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Even aspects of connectionism and dynamic systems theory may contribute to the proper synthesis of these positions Bechtel and Abrahamsen , provided excessive representationalism is avoided Freeman , Rockwell Localized mind is where brains act; philosophical options are common substantial cause, or dual aspect monism, or outright ontological identity.

Networked mind is wherever brains are coordinating action through communication, and therefore much of intelligence is an emergent feature of human communities modifying environments. Mind is dependent on brains, and cognitive functions are brain functions, either of single or multiple brains. Neurons are all about systemic communication, across synapses and across the room. Many cognitive functions and all higher cognitive functions only operate through people — viz.

Human psychology must be social and ecological. For babies could never do any such thing. To presume so is to believe as if each baby was born a positivistic scientist or a cultural anthropologist. Because feelings are intimately connected with behaviors through such things as systems of mirror neurons , it is the joint behaviors that build up the mind.

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The baby is doing the same things as the adult, not thinking the same things as the adult. The pragmatist always looks to the social behaviors underlying cognition. After all, how could the developing infant brain be using complex concepts so soon to interpret adult behaviors?

Neuropragmatism: A Neurophilosophical Manifesto

Rationalists might suppose that they are, but babies do not need such refinements so soon and given the diversity of cultures, it is a good thing that babies do not need them — for the diversity of cultures shows that they do not have them. Babies are born individuated but not as individual selves. Babies do not start out as solipsists, intimately acquainted with their private mental states while ignorant of those of others. Sustained mental individuality is far more complex than having passing mental states. Put another way, a child gradually learns how to treat people as having mental individuality right along with her own growing sense of mental individuality.

A child only gradually develops the notion that she has an internal mental life, distinguishable from her absorption in her environment, by participating in the living cognition of the community around her.


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  • For example, knowing what beliefs are, and knowing that one has beliefs as distinguished from the beliefs of others, is a far more sophisticated ability than merely having transient beliefs. Individuality is an emergent social category, not a biological or metaphysical category — no one is born as an individual self. Like every other role, one learns how to be an individual only within a community and that is why different cultures apply differing notions of individuality. The way that even babies have personalities is not a refutation, but a confirmation of this social theory of the self, since the growing infant learns how to be treated as an individual by being treated in ways particular to her personality and only later on will she realize that she has a personality.

    Although there are numerous broad continuities between animal and human cognition Fetzer , Hoffmeyer , as would be expected given evolution, human cognition displays some notable discontinuities from animal mind because we are now so intensely cultured animals. By taking higher cognition and self-conciousness, like all human communication, as fundamentally social, neuropragmatism is aligned with Peircean semiotics Peirce , Sebeok , the social mind Valsiner and van der Veer , symbolic interactionism Blumer , developmental consciousness Bogdan , and biosemiotics Barbieri The biological evolution of the human species, and the cultural evolution of complex human associations, suffice to explain all features of cognition.

    Nothing spiritual or supernatural is needed to account for mind. The highest modes of human cognition aim at social competence, technological expertise, and knowledge of reality. Culture educates members of society into various forms of responsible intelligence and expects their satisfactory use for group goals. These cognitive modes amount to technological skill and ultimately answer to pragmatic criteria of success set by societies. Basically, culture is technology.

    Social learning and teaching was the first technology, and all else followed Sterelny Both society and nature provide the empirical checks on postulated theories. Because we are an evolved species, and social epistemology and reason can be naturalized, there is sufficient reason to be critical realists: we can be confident that cognition tracks the general features of nature, and confident that science is gradually becoming more reliable about tracking the fine details of natural processes. We do not have to worry that human knowledge may be wildly incorrect or ignorant about the environment.

    Conscious monitoring of conduct is thoroughly interfused with ongoing motor control of muscles and internal and external sensory feedback. Agency consists of a capacity to creatively refine control over habitual practice by judging observed success, so both frontal and motor cortex regions are simultaneously and interrelatedly involved. Proposals that consciousness does no work guiding conduct must postulate both epiphenomenalism and epicognitivism. Epiphenomenalism declares consciousness to be real but powerless, an after-the-fact ghostly spectator on the life of the brain. Brain centers that generate consciousness must have an efficacious role in conduct as James argued in This conclusion does not mean that consciousness as such has its own natural causal powers there is no route back to dualism or Cartesian materialism here , but only that consciousness of higher cognitive efficacy is no illusion, but an accurate report.

    Indeed, for pragmatic naturalism, holding that consciousness is a real aspect of the natural efficacies of higher brain cognition can make sense. Responsibility in turn is the degree to which one can successfully use reflective deliberation to guide conduct in socially appropriate ways. As philosophers from John Locke to John Dewey and Daniel Dennett have argued, our capacities for practical deliberation, normative conduct, and degrees of moral freedom naturally grow together and remain culturally fused together. The intense degree of human sociality accounts for the way our species encourages normative conduct using normative moral responsibility in addition to the older primate emotional motivations of love, kindness, and charity.

    However, the intense sociality of human life requires the thoughtful management and adjustment of multiple social roles and responsibilities, in turn requiring dynamic moral problem solving about what to do from situation to situation. Moral concepts such as responsibility, freedom, autonomy, and blame have distinctive functional roles in creatively sustaining the community life of human societies.

    As Dewey wrote,. To see the organism in nature, the nervous system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system, the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which haunt philosophy. And when thus seen they will be seen to be in , not as marbles are in a box but as events are in history, in a moving, growing never finished process. It goes all the way from synapse to society; from cortex to culture.

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    That is, their understanding of experience, and thus science, is simplistic. According to the neurophilosophical orthodoxy, the main concern for philosophy is the reconciliation of two opposing views of humanity, the scientific on the one hand and the manifest or humanistic on the other. The job of philosophy is to navigate the rapprochement of these two views.

    This conflict, however, is not merely a theoretical problem for philosophers. It has manifested itself socially in the academy as the two cultures described by C. Snow There is a desperate need for rapprochement of some sort, as there are real life consequences across the life sciences and out beyond the ivory tower into areas like public policy. This difference subsequently sets up distinct conceptions of science, and therefore different resolutions to the conflict between the scientific image and the humanistic or manifest image.

    The specific differences between mainstream neurophilosophy and neuropragmatism come down to how the problem is articulated and thus how it is solved in light of that articulation. Generally speaking, however, the conflict is a genuine one felt by most parties. The concern is that the scientific image ultimately shows the humanistic one to be illusory, thereby bringing into serious doubt genuinely human concerns about dignity, freedom, responsibility, and living a good and meaningful life.

    Science, it is feared, will rob us of our humanity. Moreover, the conception of cultural tradition, what Wilfrid Sellars influentially called the manifest image, similarly differs between neurphilosophy and neuropragmatism.

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    The main distinction is the difference in how each position conceives of experience, and subsequently of science. Patricia Churchland ; and articulates the problem in terms of scientific theory versus folk theory, and then, as she often does in the latter work, refers to Quine and his pragmatism.

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    The neuropragmatism we advance here is similar to this branch of neopragmatism but, as will become clearer, stands in stark contrast to the conception of science based on an inadequate conception of experience. The Churchlands 25ff continue this discussion in terms of folk psychology versus scientific psychology, and mention the origins of these ideas in Sellars ibid : 4ff.

    Dennett is also a clear and accessible statement of the problem, even as he has unwittingly affirmed most of the neuropragmatist materials for its solution. The truth of science is taken as value-free and objective, whereas the truth of the manifest image is value-laden and subjective.

    Notice that this conflict is yet another version of mind-body dualism, in which the properties of each, science and culture, are mutually exclusive. Today we recognize such a view as Cartesian materialism. While neurophilosophers like the Churchlands, Dennett, and Flanagan would balk at being called Cartesian materialists, they succumb to the modified account of it as described by Rockwell It may not be that there is one specific place in the brain where experience all comes together, but they suppose that there is a specific space delimiting experience: the brain itself.

    When thus seen, we are better speaking not of mind as a noun but of mind as a verb: an organism does not have a mind, rather an organism minds. Indeed, our scientific activity should not be inquiring into the mind but into the process of minding. Mentation goes beyond the cranium, suspended in a cultural medium of communicating humans. Neuropragmatism would not achieve the naturalization of consciousness and mentality by limiting it to a single brain, ignoring how human brains become distinctively human only when wired together.

    One might as well do that to all the signaling wires of the nervous system and be done with meaning altogether. Avoiding that eliminative dead end, the only alternative is to take seriously the way that both the phenomenology of lived human experience and the physicality of brains interacting with each other and the environment exist in natural spaces much larger than the confines of any cranium taken singly. It seems like we are directly experiencing the external world because we really are. This issue, too, is complex as each of the aforementioned neurophilosophers have held varying views throughout their careers.

    Regardless, this dichotomy fits the general pattern that neuropragmatism seeks to eliminate. Among the reasons mainstream neurophilosophers have such difficulty in their efforts to reconcile the manifest image with the scientific image is the question of what to do with value or mentality in an ontology of value-free facts or bodies? Eliminativism is one strategy; constructivism is another. The former fails to keep the sacred aspect of the manifest image, which many find a dissatisfying, if not a terrifying proposal.

    The latter is left making qualifications upon qualifications about what is meant by manifest terms like consciousness in ways that end up making their readers wonder whether consciousness is real or illusory. This too is unsatisfying. By encouraging some philosophers to suppose that they have privileged access to analytic truths grounded in enlanguaged culture, a battle arose between linguistic a priorists and neurophilosophers over who had the right to dictate the nature of the self. This battle only sustained the dualistic terms of the debate into the late twentieth century, as neurophilosophers felt pushed into viewing culture as a competitor to the scientific image of humanity.

    Ironically, humanists fearful of scientism have only perpetuated the worry over an inhuman theory of self which an improved cognitive neuroscience would prevent. Neuropragmatism conceives of science like all modes of intelligence as an inherently evaluative and thus value-laden method that provides provisional instrumental truths as guides to practical action in the world — not a method of justifying static propositions that objectively mirror or correspondingly represent the non-human external world.

    This difference between conceptions of science is central to understanding the difference between neurophilosophical reconciliation and neuropragmatic reconstruction. In his articulation of the conflict between science and common sense i. What distinguishes science from common sense is the mode of inquiry, specifically the experimental method developed into the sophisticated technological and industrial affair that produces the most secure knowledge humanity has about the world to date.

    Another important point Dewey makes about common sense is that it is not static and fixed but always changing in response to the dynamic environment. We see this progression in the history of the humanities, broadly speaking, from myth to mythology to dogma and scripture to Chaucer and Shakespeare through to contemporary poetry, novels, films, and so forth.

    Pragmatist Neurophilosophy: American Philosophy and the Brain

    In one way or another, these affairs are concerned with our everyday lives, not as isolated events but as living experiences, as social interactions with each other in a world, actual and imagined. Through them we see how life could be lived and could be experienced Bywater They not only affect our consciousnesses but bring about qualities in both familiar and novel ways so as to encourage or admonish specific ways of life.

    They are at the heart of our moral lives. In abstracting beyond the particulars of common sense, Sellars and others end up stopping or freezing a dynamic living process. Snapshots have their place, surely, but to take the snapshot for the whole is to lose out on the entirety and the richness of life. Unfortunately, Dewey notes, this feedback has not been nearly as successful as it needs to be, never amounting to more than providing new tools for upholding tradition, yet never fully critiquing tradition.

    This is due in part to the tendency of the practitioners and outside observers of science to finalize the results and methods of science. Sellars does this in setting up the opposition between the manifest and scientific images as though they both could be the complete and the final word on matters. Science is a provisional and ongoing cultural technology, one of the most humanistic endeavors humans undertake.

    As science progresses, it becomes ever-more removed from practical affairs as its proximate goal is to develop knowledge for its own sake — not to be developed within the lived-in environment of ordinary life. This is not its only goal: the products of science are empowering when properly integrated into the humanities and ongoing cultural life. Science, when seen as just a phase within the interaction of organisms with their environments in the process of life, has consequences and applications outside of itself, in the commonsensical world, with which the humanities are primarily concerned.

    The neuropragmatist conception of experience thus seeks to establish and cultivate the continuities between science and the humanities, between the scientific image and the manifest images, to improve the richness of living experience in a never-ending process of growth —just as the neuropragmatist motto implies. The industrial and Darwinian revolutions, as well as the American Civil War, brought about both a sense of crisis and a vision of hope for what humans could do should they work together toward a common goal.

    Today we are still wrestling with the consequences of Darwinism and industrialization. Yet we have further difficulties with which to wrestle than the classical pragmatists. For among the consequences of Darwinism and industrialization is a globalized information society that has the means of yielding both life-saving, life-improving medical care and the willful creation of biological warfare as well as the inadvertent diseases effected by industrial life and life in an information society.

    The successful scientific models that inspired the classical pragmatists were those of physics, chemistry, and early biology. Neo-Darwinian models of life and the impressive rise of the cognitive and behavioral neurosciences 5 provide new inspiration, new tools, new hopes — and new challenges. Physics provided a cultural transformation in how we alter our environments and generate energy.

    But it did not seem to threaten our moral, spiritual, and intellectual lives with any significant conceptual change. Indeed, the changes were seen initially as liberating, until much more recently. With physics, the moral threats came from increased pollution of our environment, and, with the Bomb, the very real possibility of mutually assured destruction.

    Chemistry likewise gave us new materials and fuels as well as chemical warfare and new means of substance abuse. Biology similarly brought benefits and dangers, from longer life spans to biological warfare. But biology brought with it a renewed sense of crisis for the human self-conception. Physics may have displaced the center of the universe from the Earth, but the belief in Cartesian dualism left the human soul seemingly intact.

    Now opened, the challenge to pragmatism is the threat science, especially the neurosciences, poses to our cherished ideals. For the challenge is not only to bring the products of neuroscientific inquiry to bear on morals and politics, as so many researches are eager to do today, the challenge is to use such data in order to bring the experimental method and attitude toward morals and politics as well. To what ends we use this constantly growing trove of information is a greater concern than any specific scientific question itself.

    Neuropragmatism is the philosophy best suited for guiding humanity through this new intellectual and moral terrain. Barbieri M. Bateson G. Bechtel W. Berthoz A. Blumer H. Bogdan R. Bywater B. Calvo P. Chemero A. Churchland , P. Churchland P. Clark A. Cook G. Damasio A. Dennett D. Dewey J. Fetzer J. Flanagan O. Fodor J. Franks , D. Freeman W.

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