[Neuroscience] Re: Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience

Glen M. Sizemore via neur-sci%40net.bio.net (by gmsizemore2 At yahoo.com)
Thu Nov 30 21:32:59 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.

MJ: sigh. I knew this would happen.

GS: Sigh. So did I - you are insufferably arrogant. And despite the fact 
that I dislike you intensely, I tried to keep the ad hominems out of it. I'm 
still trying.

MJ: 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.

GS: Not exactly. The formal systems are just that - attempts to formalize 
the treatment of the relation of parts to wholes and parts to each other, 
which has wound its way through philosophy for thousands of years.

MJ: "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.

GS: It is an attack on what is sometimes called "epistemological dualism" 
(ED). ED is what results when one rejects the embarrassing ontology of 
dualism but continues to talk about behavior in terms of the old mentalistic 

MJ: Anyway, the phrase "mereological fallacy" itself conveys no information
about what the fallacy may be.

GS: Fortunately, B&H convey information about what it might be.

MJ: 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.

GS: But this is not what B&H are talking about. It is not a matter, 
necessarily, of something being "more than the sum of its parts." Can you 
read? It is about describing the role of a part in the same terms as the 
observations to be "reduced" to some other level. It is something like, to 
put it in terms that even you might understand, pointing to the steering 
wheel and calling it a "car."

MJ: 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.

GS: I have already addressed this.

MJ: 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"?

GS: The things people say cannot be reduced to logic or set theory. To hold 
otherwise is an assumption. Just deal with the issue as presented instead of 
obfuscating. Is it proper to refer to a part of a complex system with terms 
used to describe the whole? Is a steering wheel a car? Would you argue that 
a person thinks? A person decides? Would you argue that these idiomatic 
expressions are somehow wrong? How is it that people think? How is it that 
they decide? How could these things be explained by saying that some part is 
doing these things? If the locutions are in need of explanation, then they 
are STILL in need of explanation when the brain (or one of its parts) is 
said to do them. And if the hippocampus "remembers," what about each cell? 
Each post-synaptic receptor? Each molecule making up each cell? Does each 
molecule "remember"?

 > 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.

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

GS: Maybe. But what explains your chronic obfuscation and ad hominems? Is 
there any sense to saying that mercury atoms are silvery and slippery or, 
rather, even if you defined this into existence, would it explain the 
macroscopic properties that we call "silvery" and "slippery"?

MJ: 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).

GS: Would you say that there is something wrong with saying that people 
remember? Isn't this simple, natural, colloquial expression, and the 
observable behavioral-phenomena-in-context, what we seek to explain? The 
term "remembers" (and similar terms) is a name for observable behavioral 
phenomena (until "we" decide to hijack the meaning so as to give the 
illusion of explanation): "Yes! Joe remembered the beer!" Is there something 
wrong with that locution? Of course there isn't. But "what is it really?" 
Answer: "Oh, some forms of it are really the hippocampus remembering." But 
why are "we" not inclined to ask about "what remembering really is?" at this 
new point? Oh, you want to further reduce it? OK. But if the term is in need 
of clarification - which is where we began with Joe remembering the beer - 
it will always be in need of clarification once we adopt the practice of 
explaining the more macroscopic level with the same term at the 
reductionistic level.

MJ: 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

GS: The brain "does" what is presented in your Results section. To call some 
modification of a synapse "storage" is to impose a set of assumptions - a 
philosophy - on the data, and it is a set of assumptions that I have argued 
is flawed, and I have provided a philosophical analysis of why I say this in 
the previous posts to which you allude. The environmental arrangements that 
result in animals remembering change the brain's synapses, but it does not 
follow that anything is stored. You are wrong when you say that I don't 
think the brain's activity can sometimes be described in ordinary terms; I 
am perfectly comfortable with saying that the brain is changed by certain 
environments, while being uncomfortable with saying that the environment has 
been stored. The former is literal and the latter is metaphor.  The issue 
concerning "thinking" is different, and falls under the mereological fallacy 
as described by B&H. The problem of "storage" is not really the mereological 
fallacy because the term is not applied (except when bad philosophy trickles 
down to ordinary language) to the macroscopic phenomenon. Here, the problem 
is that "storage" is a metaphor AND an assumption. It is not a hypothesis 
that we may reject by experiment. It is an assumption that is superimposed 
on virtually any behavioral observation and its "neurophysiological 
correlates." Hope that helps.

MP: 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?

GS: This is not the issue. The issue is does a cardiac cell beat? Does a 
kidney cell filter? Cardiologists and nephrologists would probably not say 
this and would think it silly. I guess that provides an answer to the last 
question above.

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

GS: Apparently not the last, in both of our senses.

> 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).

MJ: 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?

GS: Sigh. Behaviorists have argued for decades that saying the brain, or 
parts of the brain, can be said to do the things that whole persons are said 
to do is stupid (would you like the citations?).  That is the meaning of the 
mereological fallacy as used by B&H. I have already discussed formal 
treatments of this issue as just that; ATTEMPTS to formalize an issue that 
has pervaded philosophy and science for a long, long time. Quit obfuscating 
and make some sort of substantive argument.

MJ: 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....

GS: Yeah, it is outweighed by your arrogance.

> 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.

MJ: 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.

GS: You have conflated two issues. First is the issue of whether or not we 
should refer to neural activity as "behavior." There are certainly accepted 
uses of "behavior" that apply; after all, if we can refer to the "behavior 
of an asteroid," or the "behavior of a particle in a magnetic field" we can 
certainly refer to the behavior of a neuron or cell assembly etc., as well 
as the behavior of an animal. So what? Does that mean that there is some 
obvious connection  between all of these phenomena other than their general 
physicalism and susceptibility to observation and measurement? The sort of 
behavior I study is the behavior of animals, it is a subject matter that is 
distinct from the behavior of masses in gravitational fields and so forth.

Now let's examine the sense in which the activity of the nerves is more 
fundamental to behavior than the actual arm movement. I will skip over some 
important topics, such as the fact that classes of behavior are not 
isomorphic with classes of movements - taking a videotape of an animal 
behaving is not "measuring behavior" in any meaningful way. In any event, 
let's talk about a rat whose lever-press behavior has been shaped by 
exposure to contingencies of reinforcement. Let's take the extreme example 
of a rat that, when placed in an operant chamber, never presses the lever. 
We watch, and watch, but it never presses the lever. We have no way to show 
this, but it is possible (though extremely unlikely) that the rat would 
never press it unless we arrange certain conditions. Now, we begin to 
deliver a food pellet any time the rat turns toward the lever, and maybe 
once in a while, when it is still facing in that direction. Now, when the 
rat turns frequently toward the lever, and spends a lot of time facing it 
when it has turned thus, we deliver a food pellet when it either lifts a 
paw, or even steps towards the lever. I think even you can see where this is 
going. What is the more fundamental thing here? Is it the contingent 
relation between the rat's behavior (in the ordinary sense of "animal 
behavior") and the delivery of a food pellet? Or, as you suggest, the 
physiology responsible* for the approximations we reinforce as well as the 
changes in the nervous system that accrue from the reinforcement which are 
then responsible for the next response. Take away the contingencies and the 
rat never presses the lever. Take away its physiology (or do a lesion 
experiment) and the contingencies may not work. I'll even grant a sense in 
which physiology is more fundamental than the contingencies. One day you may 
be able to directly alter nervous tissue such that an animal acquires an 
operant response class, like food-reinforced lever-pressing, without 
exposure to the contingencies of reinforcement that normally produce such a 
response class. Then there would truly be a step towards a science that is 
more fundamental - you could produce behavioral phenomena, but behavioral 
variables cannot, obviously, produce the "existence of physiology."  And I'm 
not saying that you even have to do that (and I doubt we ever will be able 
to); I grant you the "more fundamental" distinction merely because of the 
possibility that you could one day do that. But the main point is that one 
cannot explain behavioral facts until one has the behavioral facts to be 
explained, and the behavioral facts cannot be explained by appeal to terms 
that are used in their description. Such terms are not even part of 
explanations at the behavioral level!

*Or is it natural selection we should point to as the "responsible" (and, 
thus, "more fundamental)? Or, at least, the factors that unfold during 
embryogenesis? Or what about in between natural selection and epigenesis?

MJ: 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.

GS: Can you describe the procedure used in training the monkeys (or maybe 
you're talking about the human demonstration - no matter)? Any, ummm, 
contingencies of reinforcement in there? The answer is that, yes, there are. 
Though I have already acknowledged the "more fundamental" title to 
neurobiology, I urge you to produce the phenomenon you are describing 
without arranging any exposure to contingencies of reinforcement. Let me 
know when you got that one licked, Matt.

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

GS: You can certainly spit that in my face when you can establish an operant 
response class without exposure to contingencies! You will keep me informed 
as to your progress. No? Certainly you see the possibilities. Why couldn't 
ready-made behavioral repertoires be extended to us? Certainly there is no 
need for graduate school, or even college. Hell! They ain't no need for any 
schoolin' at all!

MJ: 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.

GS: Yeah. Profound. What was I thinkin' to wrastle with the likes o' you, 

MJ: Have a nice day.

GS: Git along little doggie.

"jonesmat" <jonesmat At physiology.wisc.edu> wrote in message 
news:1164924851.735246.22850 At 80g2000cwy.googlegroups.com...
> Glen M. Sizemore wrote:
>> MJ: I disagree with the whole "mereological fallacy" 

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