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The Matter of the MindReview - The Matter of the Mind
Philosophical Essays on Psychology, Neuroscience and Reduction
by Maurice Schouten and Huib Looren de Jong (Editors)
Blackwell, 2006
Review by Joel Parthmore
Jun 25th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 26)

The title of this book is intended, of course, as a kind of double entendre. On the one hand, the subject matter of this collection of essays is the mind as viewed in the light of modern theories of neuroscience and philosophical reductionism. On the other, its subject is the matter of which the mind is composed -- which, in the dominant paradigm of the day, is not only materialist but physically monist. There is only one kind of stuff and that stuff is physical stuff. There is no mental stuff independent of the physical. Mind reduces to brain, thoughts to neurochemical processes. There are nearly as many ideas of what reductionism is as there are authors in this volume; but all of them agree, more or less, on this point, as expressed by the editors in the opening pages: "Intentional explanations in psychology and functional explanations in biology are under constant threat of being replaced by lower-level explanations" (p. 3).

Jaegwon Kim's concerns about causal over-determination may be the driving force behind many a reductionist argument. Blood may be spilt debating Nagelian versus New Wave versus mechanistic reductionism. If one does not come with a background in reductionist theories in philosophy -- to many, an esoteric sub-area of an already esoteric subject -- one might wonder what all of this matters. Maybe in principle everything one might ever want to explain about the world one observes can be captured at the molecular or even the subatomic level; but in practice that will strike many as impractical if not actually unwise. Can an account of chemical reactions ever be said to capture the beauty of a particular sunset or the biting pain of first love? Paul Churchland may well say that beliefs and desires don't really exist, that not only is folk psychology (the lay person's attempts to theorize about the minds of others) fundamentally misguided, but psychology as a distinct area within empirical science may well go into the dustbin. Lawrence Shapiro writes optimistically that "as matters stand, it certainly looks as if a complete physical reckoning will say all that needs to be said about psychological phenomena" (p. 101). But for those of us who don't feel the intuitive appeal of such an eliminativist approach, psychology (and sociology, and anthropology, and so on) may be expected to remain with us a while longer. As Mark Twain famously quipped, "the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated." The same might be said for the social sciences.

Certainly many of the essays in this volume will be heavy going for the non-specialist; the essay by Andy Clark is a welcome exception, though even then, one might want to keep a dictionary of philosophy close at hand. So why should the non-specialist persist? ...Perhaps because the issues driving these seemingly esoteric discussions really are important, in that they go to the heart of what we believe science to be about. Is -- for example -- science about discovering the truths about the universe; or is it not about discovering truths at all, but instead about raising and testing hypotheses: not to get closer to any ultimate objective truth but simply to get further away from ignorance and confusion?

When reductionism is glossed as simplification, it seems relatively unobjectionable. All other things equal, a simpler theory is to be preferred to the more complex one it replaces. There is no reason, in principle, why someone could not undertake to revive a Ptolemaic model of the universe and hope to account for all the results of modern space exploration within it. The reason why no one does this in practice is that the resulting theory would be staggeringly complex. Occam's Razor is not just a handy tool for avoiding such quixotic endeavors; it's good science, helping deliver many of the results of which science is justifiably proud. On the other hand, as a supervisor of mine is fond of saying, a theory should be as simple as it can be and no simpler. We shouldn't get so enthusiastic in the spirit of the cause that we end up with, e.g., an impoverished theory of psychology-as-molecular-biology that lacks the explanatory power of the theory we started out with. The simplest theory isn't always the best one; and sometimes, the simplest theory is simply wrong.

Oftentimes, however, the reductionists seem to have a much bigger prize in their sights, and it's not just the temptation to think that, given some decomposition of a whole into parts, the parts might do all the explaining and the whole be disposed of. I suspect there are two main motivations lurking behind a lot of reductionist talk. One is the overwhelming domination of the scientific paradigm and the suspicion that the social sciences, as currently construed, fail to live up to the expectations of the hard sciences. As Thomas Polger writes: "The popularity of reductionism, according to [Jerry] Fodor, owes to its confusion with the doctrine that physics is the most basic and most general science..." (p. 58). The hard sciences have been so successful that they should set the standards for everyone else. On such a view, if the social sciences could be reduced to footnotes within the hard sciences, then so much the better for scientific progress.

The second motivation is, I think, the Holy Grail of much scientific endeavor: the conviction that there can and should be one correct explanation for any observed phenomenon. It's the product, I think, of a certain extreme of metaphysical realism. Again, to quote the editors: "...Reductionism is often taken to be committed to an explanatory monism which is supposed to deliver something high on science's wish list: a unity of knowledge..." (p. 22). If an explanation is on offer at a "higher" level and a "lower" level, then ideally the "higher"-level explanation should be discarded in favor of the "lower"-level one. Of course, not least of the difficulties here is that almost no one says what they mean by a "level" or just what counts as a higher or lower one!

For myself, my money is on pluralism: different levels call for different explanations -- a psychological explanation for the psychological level, a subatomic particle one for the subatomic level -- and even at a single level, no one explanation can be expected to bear the burden of providing the sole answer. As someone comfortable with the label of anti-realist (whilst distinguishing that from idealism!), I feel no need to believe that there is one single correct explanation for anything or even that such talk makes sense. That there are wrong answers -- and I believe there are -- need not be taken to imply that there are canonically right ones. As Polger writes in defense of a pluralist view: "Whether reduction is true is simply not the right question to ask" (p. 71).

© 2007 Joel Parthemore

Joel Parthemore is a second-year DPhil student studying theories of concepts at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. He is a member of the Philosophy of AI and Cognitive Science research group in the Department of Informatics. In his spare time he plays with Linux computer systems. You can find him online at http://www.parthemores.com/research/.


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