Burge against neurobabble

Here .

12 Comments

  1. Another cranky philosopher uselessly complaining about applying “psychological” terms to brains.

    The rest seems amateurish. For one, putting generative linguistics on a pedestal shows his credulity, and statements like the following show his ignorance:
    “Standard explanations of neural patterns cannot explain vision because such explanations do not relate vision, or even neural patterns, to the environment. “
    This suggests he hasn’t read a single paper in visual neuroscience.

    Skinner’s 1918 critiques of the runaway speculations about brains that he called the ‘conceptual nervous system’ were more compelling.

    And the following is just out of nowhere:
    “Where does mind begin? One beginning is the emergence of representational accuracy — in arthropods.”
    Really? Arthropods, eh? Out of nowhere, we get arthropods. No justification.

    Perhaps the editor cut that part.

    I do believe that psychophysics is extremely important. So does every other neuroscientist studying sensory coding. Few if any of us in that field sit there focusing myopically on brain states independently of the environment.

  2. kenneth aizawa

    Well, I read most of the complaints about psychobabble as directed primarily at misleading science journalism on fMRI.  I didn’t read Burge to be attacking all of neuroscience.

    Regarding psychological properties applying to brains versus people, I think there is a charitable reading.  It is that there are capacities/properties of people and capacities/properties of brains and they are probably qualitatively distinct.  This is a basic feature of Craver’s picture of mechanistic explanation and Gillett’s dimensioned view of realization.  I’m no fan of Wittgenstein, but I don’t think one has to be to recognize this stereotypical feature of distinct levels.

  3. Eric Thomson

    Yes, you are right he directs it toward MRI, as I said that was one good point. However, it seems he is unfamiliar with the rest of neuroscience, and it just comes off as someone who doesn’t know what he is talking about. He should have been much more clear about it if that was his point. It’s like me picking the most useless oxbridge type philosopher I can find (e.g., Bennett) and criticizing his work in the NYT but pushing it as a criticism of all philosophy and ignoring Becthel etc..

    “there are capacities/properties of people and capacities/properties of brains and they are probably qualitatively distinct.”

    Sure, I could buy that in theory, but for the controversial cases it is hard to say which properties divide out this way (it isn’t an a priori conceptual question, but a scientific question). More to the point, to quibble about the words we use to describe them, or complain if researchers import words from one domain to the other is the  opposite of helpful for those who take an empirical approach to understanding how behavior and brains work. Language isn’t that inflexible. Finally, even for cases when it is true it  is not clear it is an idea worthy of dissemination to the NYT. In some sense it is trivial: Fred riding a bicycle is a molar behavior thing; his brain does not ride bicycles. But if some neuroscientist talks about how ‘brains ride bikes’ I don’t give a crap, frankly, as a millisecond of reflection makes clear how to deconstruct that expression.

    Other than the trivial point that in the popular press too much is often made of christmas tree lights in the brain, I’m not sure what is new, useful, or worthy of public dissemination in that editorial. It reads like book promotion run amok.

    Sorry I’m being a cranky scientist now.

  4. Joshua Stern

    I too agree with most of the cranky but almost none of the stated rational. I’m afraid Burge comes from the school that says science never has anything to say about philosophy, like whether a philosophical theory is credible (read: even possibly correct). I disagree with that sort of thing even more strongly than I do with celebrating MRI images as explanations of cognition.

  5. The idea that fMRI research is just about finding places that light up is really out of date, if it was very accurate. There is a growing and now very significant knowledge of the functioning of various parts of the brain; in addition, there’s all sort of comparative data.
    To see an illuminating use of such research, have a look at Dehaene’s arguments for homology in “The number sense”.

  6. kenneth aizawa

    In truth, he directs his criticism at one kind of use of fMRI by science journalists.  That, I thought was a bit hackneyed.  Of course, maybe that’s hackneyed among philosophers of psychology/neuroscience/cognitive science.

    And, I don’t care that much about saying that the brain loves.  I get how to parse that.

    What I thought was interesting is that idea that for doing psychology there are certain areas that seem to advance pretty well on their own, even without much neuroscientific data.  I think a lot of vision science is like this, especially that having to do with visual illusions, even though a lot of vision science incorporates neuroscientific evidence.  (This paper, for example, seems to me to make good use of some pretty pedestrian sorts of psychological studies when it integrates them with neuroscience.)  Experimental methods in psychology seem to be able to get at data that you can’t get with neuroscience right now.  Similarly, I think that there is a lot of data in linguistics that you would not get through neuroscience.  The structures of sentences, for example, seem not to be accessible by neuroscience at this time.  And, it is the close examination of sentential structure that got us past behaviorism.

  7. Joshua Stern


    The structures of sentences, for example, seem not to be accessible by neuroscience at this time.

    Very diplomatically said!


    And, it is the close examination of sentential structure that got us past behaviorism.

    If you mean Chomsky (and/or Fodor) I would quibble with this. It’s not like we discovered some relationship between nouns and verbs in sentences that hadn’t been known for 500 years or ignored by behaviorists. I suggest it’s better to say that we wanted to find a place for a theory X which helped to explain many linguistic phenomena, and there was simply no place in behaviorism to hang such a theory, nor did behaviorism offer any such explanations. Generative transformational grammar isn’t particularly about sentence structure as such, nor does a whole lot of modern lingustics respect such strict grammatical relationships either.

  8. Eric,
    “And the following is just out of nowhere:
    “Really? Arthropods, eh? Out of nowhere, we get arthropods. No justification.”

    FWIW I believe he is refering to the physical structure. In which case this probably a simple statement of fact unless you can find an older class of animal with a brain. This is generally acepted so requires little justification.

  9. Eric Thomson

    “this probably a simple statement of fact unless you can find an older class of animal with a brain.”

    Likely flatworms or annelid worms. This is an area of active research in evolutionary biology, not something for philosophers to be making pronouncements about, certainly not a simple statement of fact.

    Good discussion in:
    Basic Nervous System Types: One or Many?, Pages 55-72, F. Hirth, H. Reichert in Kaas, ed, Evolution of Nervous Systems (Volume 1).

     

  10. OK I’ll give you that. Worms brains (small as they may be) are first so he made an error. At the time I found some sources that made that statement but obviously they were mistaken (the slam dunk is the very definition of arthropod).

    Anyway… my point was it wasn’t a important point!

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