The topic of posts on this blogsite have become rather narrower than the ‘neuroscience, technology, philosophy’ tagline would suggest. Here, I set out my stall with something a bit more informative than the references to Greek mythology and German literature you will find on the ‘About 1.0’ page.
The site considers various age-old philosophical problems (of consciousness, of free will, of morality, of knowledge, or science) but from a neuroscientifically-oriented standpoint.
A Physicalist Worldview
It takes a ‘physicalist’ stance:
- There is only physical ‘stuff’ (such as matter).
- Consequently, there is a gradual transition rather than a sharp distinction between self and non-self (the ‘environment’).
This is in contrast with the ‘traditional’ dualist view:
- The realms of ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are separate.
- Consequently, there is a sharp distinction between the two.
I have made an analogy in some posts, between:
- Dualism: an old house with subsidence, and
- Scientific physicalism: a brand new house, but still under construction.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for religiously-inclined people to ignore the cracks in the walls of the old house. Scientifically-inclined people feel superior with their new building but they generally do not recognise that their home is incomplete. The aim here is to look at how the new house might look when completed, so we can then judge if it is better than what came before – morally as well as scientifically.
A Simple Theory of the Brain
The ‘latest’ science is used to inform a ‘latest’ philosophy – a suggestion of what future generations might accept as normal. It is often the case that ‘better’ explanations are unsatisfactory to those who have grown up with a different worldview but are accepted almost unquestioningly by their grandchildren who have grown up with that new explanation established.
That ‘latest’ science is neuroscience (currently fashionable). At the heart of what I present is a model of the brain (as formulated by others) variously called the ‘Bayesian Brain’, ‘Predictive Brain’ or Karl Friston’s ‘Variational Free Energy’ (the term that I generally mention) and ‘active inference’. I frequently refer to it by the phrase ‘hierarchy of predictors’ as I think this is a more descriptive, more accessible term.
There is no presumption that this model of the brain is ‘correct’ (as it might be viewed by our grandchildren). It is a grossly simple explanation for the most complex one-and-a-bit-kilograms you will find anywhere in the universe. But it is hoped that it provides a better model of how the brain works than any established model and is the most appropriate non-academic one for the purposes here.
Biology, Physics and Philosophy
For me growing up, physics was full of ‘crunchy’ big ideas whereas biology (wherein neuroscience lies) was the soggy accumulation of little facts:
- of meticulous drawings of bats,
- of naming the parts of a bat,
- of cataloguing the 1,240 species of bats and
- of estimating the number of bats per square mile.
Even biology’s big idea – evolution – was soggy, providing qualitative post-hoc explanations in contrast to physics’s quantifiable predictions.
Ultimately, there are two philosophical questions:
- ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, and
- ‘Why are we conscious, so as to be able to perceive that ‘something’ and to be able to ask the above question?’
- ‘What is ‘is’?’ (a question of ontology), and
- ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ (a question of the nature of consciousness)
Physics promised answers to the former; biology ignored the latter.
But there have been significant developments in neuroscience since my formal education ended, not least in the ability to visualize what is going on. Coming late to the biology party, I was astounded by exquisitely crunchy mechanical behaviour in microbiology, such as in the machinery of the synaptic vesicle (see below).
This ‘crunchy’ side of biology has not been, and maybe still isn’t, conveyed to the general public. Biology is more precise and more appealing for physics-y type people after all.
And neuroscience now promises to provide some sort of answer to big questions, like ‘what is it like to be a bat?’.
Sorry Sheldon, physics is fuddy-duddy. Neuroscience is where it’s happening.
Simple and Un-rigorous
Philosophers pride themselves on their rigour. Philosophy has been described as ‘rigorous but not technical’ in contrast to science being ‘both rigorous and technical’.
But this blogsite might be described ‘technical but not rigorous’.
It is speculative. It relies on immature ‘pre-science’. It aims at simplicity. It is reductionist. It aims to be simple enough for an intelligent layman to have a basic understanding for it then to be a springboard to detail elsewhere. It is unconstrained by the shackles of rigour in academia. True, I occasionally cite academic papers and books, but I generally don’t want to clutter things up with justification. If you seek justification, just google.
And I try to avoid ‘neural correlates’. I try to avoid citing scientific associations between some phenomenological experience (such as empathy) and something physically observable within the brain (such as an increase in activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, as observed from changes in blood oxygenation in functional MRI scans). Such justifications make people more like to believe neuroscientific propositions -but they are clutter getting in the way of the bigger picture.
The approach is systemizing , trying to assemble ideas (typically others’ ideas) together to form that bigger picture. Again, the assemblings are not rigorous. But hopefully some may prove interesting or ring true.
Shades of Grey
Dualism obviously creates a sharp distinction between body and soul. But this also creates other sharp distinctions as a result. Between human and animal for example. And between responsibility and not. These are crisp black and white distinctions.
But with physicalism, dichotomies are presented just for simplicity of explanation. Continua (shades of grey) are there if we want to see them, particularly if it helps understanding. Barriers can be removed.
There might be some reason why I would want to distance myself this blog. I might not want to have it associated with my professional life. I might think it is embarrassingly amateurish but that there is some merit sharing it. I might think that my writing style is terrible (I certainly don’t pay that much attention to it).
But the blog is about ideas and it shouldn’t matter.
The site is anonymous. I just prefer it that way.