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[Neuroscience] Re: Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience

jonesmat via neur-sci%40net.bio.net (by jonesmat At physiology.wisc.edu)
Thu Nov 30 17:14:11 EST 2006

Glen M. Sizemore wrote:
> MJ: I disagree with the whole "mereological fallacy" accusation against
> "neuroscientists" in general.  First, no sensible neuroscientist would
> argue that the brain acts in isolation from the rest of the organism.

> GS: You do not seem to understand what the mereological fallacy is. It has
> nothing to do with "the brain act[ing] in isolation from the rest of the
> organism," it has to do with arguing that part of the brain can be said to
> do what whole animals are said to do.

sigh. I knew this would happen.

The term "mereological" has nothing directly to do with the brain, or
with behavior, at all. Mereology is a branch of formal logic that deals
with the rules of how "parts" relate to each other and to "wholes".
Essentially it deals with the same sorts of concepts as set theory, but
with some basic twists in definitions and rules of inference.

"Mereological Fallacy", however, is a phrase that appears to have been
invented by Bennet and Hacker to provide a catchy and deep-sounding
buzzword for their attack on reductionism in neuroscience. Or is it
dualism that they're attacking? - I'd be ok with that.

Anyway, the phrase "mereological fallacy" itself conveys no information
about what the fallacy may be. There could be all manner of
mereological fallacies, including the superstitious idea that the whole
is something *other* than the sum of its parts and their interactions.
However, because mereology is a formal system of logic, in order to
claim that a mereological fallacy has been committed by
neuroscientists, one needs to write down in mathematical terms the
objects under discussion (cortex, amygdala, memory, consciousness,
hunger, whatever), and the relations between these that neuroscientists
believe in (e.g., brain = mind, amygdala = emotion, or whatever) and
then use the axioms and rules of mereological reasoning to generate a
MATHEMATICAL PROOF that one or more of these beliefs either leads to a
contradiction, or cannot be generated from mereological axoms and

If Bennet and Hacker have done this, then the book could potentially be
worth reading. But I didn't see any mention of math or proofs in the
reviews I looked at, which were all about Descartes and what an evil
fiend he is.

Interestingly, Descartes was long before the development of mereology,
and did not include any mereological formalism in his writings. Yet
Bennet and Hacker apparently equate the "mereological fallacy" with the
dualism that comes from being too Cartesian in reasoning about the
brain. How can being too Cartesian comprise a mereological fallacy if
mereology wasn't around when the Cartesian worldview was formulated?
That's equivalent (logically speaking) to accusing Isaac Newton of
committing a "Quantum Mechanical Fallacy" by treating mass as a
continuous variable. Sure, we can say it, but it doesn't mean anything.

There's a fallacy here somewhere, all right.

Incidentally, if there's truly something logically wrong with the
philosophical foundations of neuroscience, it's not clear to me why one
would need mereology to figure it out. Why not set theory? Perhaps
because saying "category confusion" doesn't sound nearly as deep, and
won't sell as many books, as saying  "mereological fallacy"?

> If this is synonymous with what you
> are saying, then all I can say is that you are wrong, and I can find
> hundreds of examples in which that is exactly what they say. Any time an
> author says that a part of the brain remembers, or sees, or hears, or
> decides, or thinks, or is conscious etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.
> etc. they are literally talking nonsense as B&H suggest. The brain doesn't
> think, and mercury atoms are not silvery and slippery.

Ah. You've been experimenting with mercury. Probably without gloves or
respiratory protection. That explains a lot.

If I say that the hippocampus "remembers", I am saying that it serves
as a storage area for information. Stored information is what a memory
is. The hippocampus stores information, therefore the hippocampus has
memory, and can be said to remember something. I am not saying that all
memory lives in the hippocampus (which would be either a mereological
or set theory error - the set of things with memory is larger than, and
includes, the hippocampus).

I know from your many previous frustrated rants that you are in denial
about whether the brain "stores", "processes", "thinks" or has any
other function that can be described using common language. But I'm

You say "the brain doesn't think". In that case, does the heart beat?
Do the kidneys filter? Or are cardiologists and nephrologists as
misguided and stupid as us idiot neuroscientists?

Speaking for myself, my heart beats, my kidneys filter, and my brain
thinks just fine, thanks.

> GS: That's why they wrote the book, which I am reasonably certain you will
> never read (neither will I, probably, but then, behaviorists have been
> attacking the mereological fallacy, and the associated notion that
> folk-psychological "things" are "in the brain" for 50 years).

Really? Please provide a citation for a behaviorist publication that
includes a formal mereological proof, or for that matter, even using
the word "mereology" in a publication. Or were you just making that up?
Oh, or is it really you who doesn't understand what a mereological
fallacy is?

You're right that I probably won't read the book. But I may flip
through it at a bookstore to see if there are in fact any mereological
proofs in there anywhere. On the other hand, I probably won't
deliberately poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick either. My
thirst for knowledge only goes so far....

> But the alternative view is that folk-psychological
> terms are simply names for behavior and behavior is not inside the head.
> What is inside the head is the neurophysiology that mediates behavioral
> function.

That's a pretty narrow view of behavior. You seem to think behavior
requires arms and legs or something like that, and since there aren't
any arms or legs inside the head then behavior can't occur there. I
disagree. If a person moves their arm, that's obviously behavior. But
the arm moves because the nerves tell it to. So the activity of the
nerves is more fundamental to behavior than the actual arm movement.
Furthermore, the neural activity is capable of directing behavior
(communication via a computer teletype, for example, as I decribed in
my previous post) without the arm.

of the organism is the physiology that mediates those parts of the
behavior that are observable by performing mechanical work on the
outside world.

Not only does the brain think (mine does anyway - if you still insist
that yours doesn't I'll be tempted to agree), but it behaves.

Have a nice day.


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