Crick’s Deepity

13 May 2013


James Watson and Francis Crick

James Watson and Francis Crick

The least interesting views on almost any philosophical question will inevitably (inevitably, at least, in our age of industrial-technological civilization driven by scientific innovation) be those of some eminent scientist who delivers himself of a philosophical position without bothering to inform himself on the current state of research on the philosophical question in question, and usually, at the same time, decrying the aridity of philosophical discussion. (While this is not true of all scientific opinion on matters philosophical, it is mostly true.) So as not to make such a sweeping charge without naming names, I will here name Francis Crick as a perfect embodiment of this, and to this end I will attempt to describe what I will call “Crick’s Deepity.”

“Crick’s Deepity” sounds like the name of some unusual topographical feature that would be pointed out on local maps for the amusement of travelers, so I will have to explain what I mean by this. What is “Crick’s deepity”?

The “Crick” of the title is none other than Francis Crick, famous for sharing the credit for discovering the structure of DNA with Watson. It will take a little longer to explain what a “deepity” is. I’ve gotten the term from Daniel Dennett, who has introduced the idea in several talks (available on Youtube), and since having learned about it from watching a video of a Dennett talk I found the term on the Urban Dictionary, so it has a certain currency. A deepity is a misleading statement which seems to be profound but is not; construed in one sense, it is simply false; construed in another sense, it is true, but trivially true.

The most commonly adduced deepities are those that depend upon the ambiguity of quotation marks, so they work much better when delivered as part of a lecture rather than when written down. Dennett uses this example — Love is just a word. If we are careful with our quotation marks, this becomes either “‘love’ is just a word” (trivially true) or “love is just a word” (false).

Twentieth century analytical philosophy expended much effort on clarifying the use of quotation marks, which are surprisingly important in mathematical logic and philosophical logic (Quine even formulated quasi-quotes in order to try to dispel the confusion surrounding the use-mention distinction). The use-mention distinction also became important once Tarski formulated his disquotational theory of truth, which employes the famous example, “‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white.” The interested reader can pursue on his own the relationship between deepities and disquotationalism; perhaps there is a paper or a dissertation here.

In one of his lectures that mention deepities Dennett elaborates: “A deepity is a proposition that seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed.” Dennett follows his deepity, “Love is just a word,” with the assertion that, in its non-trivial sense, “whatever love is, it isn’t a word.” The logical structure of this assertion is, “Whatever x is, it isn’t an F” (or, better, “There is an x, and x is not F”). What Dennett is saying here is that it is a category mistake to assert, in this case, that “x is an F” (that “love is a word”).

Whether or not a category mistake is a logical error is perhaps open to question, while use-mention errors seem to be clearly logical errors. There is, however, a long history of treating theories of categories as part of philosophical logic, so that a category error (like conflating mind with matter, or with material processes) is a logical error. Clearly, however, Dennett is treating his examples of deepities as logically ill-formed as a result of being category errors. “Whatever love is, it isn’t a word,” he says, and he says that because it would be a category error to ascribe the property of “being a word” to love, except when love is invoked as a word. (If we liked, we could limit deepities to use/mention confusions only, and in fact the entry for “deepity” in the Urban Dictionary implies as much, but while Dennett himself used a use/mention confusion to illustrate the idea of a deepity, I don’t think that it was his intention to limit deepities to use/mention confusions only, as in his expositions of the idea he defines a deepity in terms of its being logically ill-formed.)

Now, that being said, and, I trust, being understood, we pass along to further deepities. Once we pass beyond obvious and easily identifiable confusions, fallacies, and paradoxes, the identification of deepities becomes controversial rather than merely an amusing exercise. It would be easy to identify theological deepities that Dennett’s audience would likely reject — religion is a soft target, and easy to ridicule — but it is more interesting to go after hard targets. I want to introduce the particular deepity that one find’s in Crick’s book The Amazing Hypothesis:

“The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carrol’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You are nothing but a pack of neurons.’ This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most of people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing.”

Francis Crick, The Amazing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, New York: Touchstone, 1994, p. 3

No one should be astonished by this hypothesis; reductionism is as old as human thought. The key passage here is “no more than,” although in similar passages by other authors one finds the expression, “nothing but,” as in, “x is nothing but y.” This is the paradigmatic form of reductionism.

Some of my readers might be a bit slack-jawed (perhaps even, might I say, astonished) to see me call this paradigmatic instance of scientific reductionism a “deepity.” In taking up Dennett’s term “deepity” and applying it to the sort of scientistic approach to which Dennet would likely be sympathetic is clearly a case of my employing the term in a manner unintended by Dennett, perhaps even constituting a use that Dennett himself would deny was valid, if he knew of it. Indeed, Dennett is quite clear about his own reductionist view of mind, and of the similarity of his own views to those of Crick.

Dennett, however, is pretty honest as a philosopher, and he freely acknowledges the possibility that he might be wrong (a position that C. S. Pierce called “fallibilism”). For example, Dennet wrote, “What about my own reductios of the views of others? Have they been any fairer? Here are a few to consider. You decide.” In the following paragraph of the same book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, Dennett described what he considers to be the over-simplification of Crick’s views on consciousness:

“You would think that Sir John Eccles, the Catholic dualist, and Francis Crick, the atheist materialist, would have very little in common, aside from their Nobel prizes. But at least for a while their respective view of consciousness shared a dubious oversimplification. many nonscientists don’t appreciate how wonderful oversimplifications can be in science; the cut through the hideous complexity with a working model that is almost right, postponing the messy details until later. Arguably the best use of ‘over’-simplification is the history of science was the end run by Crick and James Watson to find the structure of DNA while Linus Pauling and others were trudging along trying to make sense of the details. Crick was all for the trying the bold stroke just in case it solved the problem in one fell swoop, but of course that doesn’t always work.”

Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, 2. “By Parody of Reasoning”: Using Reductio ad Absurdum

Dennett then described Crick’s reductionist hypothesis (I’m leaving a lot out here; the reader is referred to the full account in Dennett’s book):

“…then [Crick] proposed a strikingly simply hypothesis: the conscious experience of red, for instance, was activity in the relevant red-sensitive neurons of that retinal area.”

Dennett, Op. cit.

Dennett followed this with counter-arguments that he himself offered (suggesting that Dennett is not himself quite the reductionist that he paints himself as being in popular lectures), but said of Crick that, “He later refined his thinking on this score, but still, he and neuroscientist Christof Koch, in their quest for what they called the NCC (the neural correlates of consciousness), never quite abandoned their allegiance to this idea.” Indeed, not only did Crick not abandon the idea, he went on to write an entire book about it.

It would be a mistake to take Crick’s reductionism in regard to consciousness in isolation, because it occupies a privileged place in a privileged scientific narrative. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran placed Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA in the venerable context of repeated conceptual revolutions since the scientific revolution itself:

The history of ideas in the last few centuries has been punctuated by major upheavals in thought that have turned our worldview upside down and created what Thomas Kuhn called “scientific revolutions.” The first of these was the Copernican revolution, that, far from being the centre of the Universe, the Earth is a mere speck of dust revolving around the Sun. Second came Darwin’s insight that we humans do not represent the pinnacle of creation, we are merely hairless neotonous apes that happen to be slightly cleverer than our cousins. Third, the Freudian revolution, the view that our behaviour is governed largely by a cauldron of unconscious motives and desires. Fourth — Crick and Watson’s elucidation of DNA structure and the genetic code, banishing vitalism forever from science. And now, thanks once again partly to Crick, we are poised for the greatest revolution of all — understanding consciousness — understanding the very mechanism that made those earlier revolutions possible! As Crick often reminded us, it’s a sobering thought that all our motives, emotions, desires, cherished values, and ambitions — even what each of us regards as his very own ‘self’ are merely the activity of a hundred billion tiny wisps of jelly in the brain. He referred to this as the “astonishing hypothesis” the title of his last book (echoed by Jim Watson’s quip “There are only molecules, everything else is sociology”).

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Perception, 2004, volume 33, pages 1151-1154

The narrative of the materialist reduction of mind to brain or to brain function fits nicely into the overarching scientific narrative of conceptual revolutions that are a rebuke to human pride. That the rebuke to human pride remains such a central theme in the ascetic practice of science merely shows the continuity of science with its medieval scholastic antecedents, in which the punishment of human pride was no less a central doctrine. Indeed, what we might call the Copernican imperative of contemporary science has become the dominant narrative to science to the point that few other narratives are taken seriously. (It is also wrong, or at very least misleading, but that is a topic for another, future, post.) Thus the Copernican imperative is a lot like the (repeatedly disputed) idea of progress in industrial-technological civilization: no matter how hard we try to find another paradigm to organize our understanding, we keep coming back to it. (For example, I have mentioned Kevin Kelly’s explicit arguments for progress in several posts, as in Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression.)

Placing Crick’s thought in the context of the narrative that furnishes much of its meaning suggests further contexts for Crick’s thought — the ultimate intellectual context that inspired Crick, as well as alternative contexts that place a very different meaning and value on Crick’s reductionism. Surprisingly, as it turns out, the ultimate context of Crick’s views is the most simple-minded theologically-tinged science imaginable, which at once makes Dennett’s above-quoted observation about Crick’s and Eccles’ common ground pregnant with meaning.

Crick’s contempt for philosophical approaches to the problem of consciousness is so thick it practically drips off the page, and furnishes a perfect example of what I have called fashionable anti-philosophy. Despite Crick’s contempt for philosophy, Crick jumps directly into the use of theological language by repeatedly invoking the idea of a human “soul” — indeed, his book is subtitled, “the scientific search for the soul.” This is an important clue. Crick rejects philosophy, but he embraces theology. In other words, Crick’s position is theological, and Crick’s theological frame of mind is at least in part responsible for Crick’s dismissive attitude to philosophy.

Many contemporary philosophers (not to mention contemporary scientists) tie themselves into knots trying to avoid saying that thought and ideas and the mind are distinct from material bodies and physical processes, not because they can’t tell the difference between the two (like G. E. Moore’s famous dream in which he couldn’t distinguish propositions from tables), but because to acknowledge the difference between thoughts and things seems to commit one to a philosophical trajectory that cannot ultimately avoid converging on Cartesian dualism — and if there is any consensus in contemporary philosophy, it is the rejection of Cartesian dualism.

How are thoughts different from things, in so far as we understand “things” in this context to be corporeal bodies? The examples are so numerous and so obvious that it scarcely seems worth the trouble to cite a few of them, but since many people — Crick and Dennett among them — give straight-faced accounts of reductionism, I guess it is necessary. So, think of a joke. Or have someone tell you a joke. If the joke is really funny, you will be amused; maybe you will even laugh. But if you had an exhaustive delineation of brain structure and brain processes that correspond with the joke, nowhere in the brain structure or processes would you find any thing funny or amusing. If you are a brain scientist you might find these brain structures and processes to be fascinating, but unless you’re a bit eccentric you are not likely to find them to be funny.

Similar considerations hold for tragedy: watch or read a great tragedy, and then see if you can find anything tragic in the brain structures and processes that correspond with viewing or reading a tragedy. If you are honest, you will find nothing tragic about brain structures and processes. Again, take two ideas, one of which is logically entailed by the other — of, if you like, take a syllogism and make it easy on yourself: Socrates is a man, All men are mortal, Therefore Socrates is mortal. Find the brain structures and processes that correspond to these three propositions, and see if there is any relationship of logical entailment between the brain structures and processes. But how in the world could a brain structure or process be logically entailed by another brain structure or process? This is simply not the kind of property that brain processes and structures possess.

Being funny or being tragic or being logically entailed by another proposition are properties that ideas might have but they are not the kind of properties that physical structures or processes possess. Physical structures have properties like length, breadth, and depth, while physical processes might have properties like temporal duration, chemical composition, or electrical charge (brain processes might have all three properties). It would be senseless, on the other hand, to speak of the length, breadth, depth, chemical composition or electrical charge of an idea. It is nonsense to say that, “The concept ‘horse’ is three inches wide.” Not true or false — just meaningless. It is equally nonsense to say that, “The pelvis is tragic.”

To conflate thoughts and things is a category mistake, and in so far as category mistakes are violations of philosophical logic, expressions that formulate category mistakes are logically ill-formed. When logically-ill formed propositions seem profound — the sort of thing which, if true, would be earth-shattering — but in fact are merely false, then you have what Dennett calls a “deepity.” Thus Crick’s deepity is his identification of “your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will” with “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” If this were true, it would be earth-shattering, but in fact it is a logically ill-formed expression that is a deepity. Whatever your joys, sorrows, and memories are, they certainly are not the behavior of nerve cells. That much should be uncontroversial, so let us call a spade a space, and a deepity a deepity.

. . . . .

Astonishing Hypothesis

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


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