Thursday, December 20, 2007


Francis Crick's Dangerous Idea

V.S Ramachandran, director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California pick's Francis Crick's 'astonishing hypothesis' that: 'our conscious experience and sense of self consists entirely of the activity of 100 billion bits of jelly, the neurons that constitute our brain.' (p. 22) Ramachandran writes: 'We take this for granted in these enlightened times - but even so, it never ceases to amaze me.' (p. 22) The idea that ideas are 'mere by-products' (p. 23) of the activity of 'bits of jelly' amazes most people so much that they don't believe this idea. Ramachandran's 'We' who 'take this for granted' is nothing but prejudicial rhetoric. The actual majority who doubt Crick's 'astonishing hypothesis' have the principle of credulity on their side. Indeed, if ideas are 'mere by-products of neural activity', why should I trust the by-product output of this activity ('conclusion' would seem to be an odd word to use in this context) when it says that ideas are mere by-products?

Ramachandran discusses the classic 'Given a choice, would you choose the [brain in a] vat scenario or be content to remain the "real" you in the real world you live in now' (p. 24) thought experiment (would you choose to live in 'The Matrix'?): 'most people I know - even scientists - pick the latter alternative, on the grounds that it is "real". Yet there is absolutely no rational justification for this choice, because in a sense you already are a brain in a vat -a vat called the cranial vault... All I've asked you is "Which vat do you want?" - and you have picked the crummy one!' (p. 24) Well, this just strikes me as a reductio of Ramachandran's philosophy of mind - mos people intuit that it's better to live in the real world because it's real, and if Ramachandran's concept of mind doesn't permit one to make this reply, then so much the worse for his concept of mind! If all you are is a brain in a vat, then why pick the crummy 'real world' vat over the nice 'fake world' vat? Perhaps because you are more than a brain in a vat, and the real world vat allows you to have relationships with, and effects upon, real people who are themselves more than brains in vats?!!

But even Ramachandran has doubts:

'From an objective, third-person point of view, there's nothing special about the information in your brain [we could in principle make multiple identical copies], whether in your cranium or in a vat, but from your internal perspective its everything. The irony is that our brains create an objective science and then proceed to push out subjective experience of the very selves that gave rise to science in the first place! Isn't something wrong here?' (p. 25)

Yes! And again, Yes! By the 'objective, third-person point of view' Ramachandran means a wholly naturalistic description of reality. The attempt to describe everything about humans in a wholly naturalistic way does indeed eliminate the uniqueness of each individual's 'internal perspective', the very perspectives that give rise to the materialistic science that attempts to deny its origins. So much the worse for materialistic science!

'What's so sacred about "real" reality? This is a question that belongs in the realm of philosophy rather than of science. Science can provide data relevant to the vat question, but not its ultimate answer. I confess that I, too, would pick the "real" me... perhaps because I believe, unconsciously, that there is "something else" after all...' (p. 26.)

Of course science can be counter intuitive - but it still strikes me as slightly odd that a scientist who claims that 'We' take the astonishing hypothesis 'for granted in these enlightened times' can nevertheless admit to favoring answers that he thinks contradicts this hypothesis, or wonder if he doesn't unconsciously believe the hypothesis is wrong after all.

Moreover, one cannot make quite so stark a divide between science and philosophy - Ramachandra's science incorporates the philosophical assumption that metaphysical naturalism is true - and the incorporation of this assumption renders his attempt to claim that 'science' can't answer the brain in a vat question incoherent - of course (naturalistic) 'science' answers the brain in a vat question, and answers it just as Ramachandran answers it, for if 'science' is naturalistic (indeed, even it is only methodologically so) then 'science' must affirm that Francis Crick's 'astonishing hypothesis' is true. The only way to avoid this conclusion is to denude science of naturalistic assumptions. Then science can truly 'provide data relevant to the vat question' whilst leaving philosophers of mind free to debate the final answer.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?