February 17, 2007

Why I Love CogSci

The Feb. 12 issue of the New Yorker had an extensive article in Pat and Paul Churchland, philosophers of mind at UCSD. So much cool stuff!

I'll quote snippets of the article, but if you like this kind of thing, it's worth tracking down the whole article.

About marriage: "Paul sometimes thinks of Pat and himself as two hemispheres of the same brain-differentiated in certain functions but bound together by tissue and neuronal pathways worn in unique directions by shared incidents and habit."

About "truth": Paul (again) "... always remembers that, however certain he may be about something, however airtight an argument appears or however fundamental an intuition, there is always a chance that both are completely wrong, and that reality lies in some other place that he hasn't looked because he doesn't know it's there." (emphasis added)

and on to philosophy, sort of, and neuroscience.

About the study of the brain a few decades ago, quoting Paul but (I think) based on Pat's experience: " 'There were cases when a split-brain patient would be reading a newspaper, and, since it's only the left brain that processes language, the right brain gets bored as hell, and since the right brain controls the left arm the person would find that his left hand would suddenly grab the newspaper and throw it to the ground!' Paul says." Bingo! My right brain almost threw this article down many times, but my left brain was very engaged. Question for self: how to keep the right brain busy when working hard with the the left brain?

About Pat & Paul's notion of philosophy as it relates to science: "Philosophy could still play a role in science: it could examine the concepts that scientists were working with, testing them for coherence, and it could serve as science's speculative branch, imagining hypotheses that were too outlandish or too provisional for a working scientist to bother with but which might, in the future, yield unexpected fruit."

Pat, Francis Crick, and consciousness: " 'He [Francis Crick] thought the strategy of looking for the neural correlates of consciousness was likely to be fruitful, but I became very skeptical of it. It seemed to me more likely that we were going to need to know about attention, about memory, about perception, about emotions - that we were going to have to solve many of the problems about the way the brain works before we were going to understand consciousness, and then it would sort of just fall out.' " (emphasis added)

On language, "... both [Paul] and Pat like to speculate about a day when whole chunks of English, especially the bits that constitute folk psychology, are replaced by scientific words that call a thing by its proper name rather than some outworn metaphor. Surely this will happen, they think, and as people learn to speak differently they will learn to experience differently, and sooner or later even their most private introspections will be affected. ... The new words, far from being reductive or dry, have enhanced his sensations, he feels, as an oenophile's complex vocabulary enhances the taste of wine." Not sure how I feel about that, but it's interesting to contemplate, and the article gives examples of how it could be useful.

I'm skipping over the more substantive philosophy / neuroscience bits - largely because they are over my head! - and I also skipped the ethical issues they are addressing at UCSD with respect to legal aspects of neuroscience. Tell your right brain to shut up and read this article with your left brain fully engaged.

Larissa MacFarquhar, "TWO HEADS; A marriage devoted to the mind-body problem." the New Yorker, February 12, 2007, v 82 i 49, p58-69. The article isn't online for free, but you can read it in Academic Search Premier (AN 23916441) or LexisNexis.

No comments: