Crick’s Deepity

13 May 2013

Monday


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.

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Astonishing Hypothesis

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Two Thoughts on Naturalism

26 December 2009

Saturday


Several times in this forum I have identified my own views as a form of philosophical naturalism, and while I haven’t given any kind of systematic exposition to naturalism I have made a few suggestions, such as in A Formulation of Naturalism, in which I suggested that naturalism can be treated as materialism analogously to finitism in transfinite set theory: we follow materialism as far as it can go, and only depart from it when it forces incoherent formulations upon us in the attempt to preserve an unadulterated materialism. (In retrospect, what I said there about materialism I could just as well have formulated as mechanism: in naturalism we follow mechanistic explanations as far as we can.) With that in mind, here are two more passing thoughts about naturalism.

Naturalism: Thought One

Naturalism accepts science at face value. Now, this is simple enough, but any explicit and simple statement usually requires a great deal of qualification in order to make it accurate when applied to the detail and complexity of the actual world. And since naturalism emphatically is concerned that it be in touch with the actual world and not some fantasy world of wish-fulfillment, it is important that we at least try to get naturalism’s relation to science right.

It is a difficult philosophical problem to say exactly what science is. Separating science from other intellectual enterprises (some of which are mistakenly called science when they are not) is called the demarcation problem. We cannot presuppose an answer to the demarcation problem, because there is as yet no adequate formulation of it. Moreover, science changes. We must accept that scientific theories regularly displace earlier theories with more recent theories, with the consequence being that scientific knowledge changes.

One of my favorite quotes from Foucault runs, “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.” (from “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault”) This is more difficult than it sounds. Moreover, Foucault offers this as a demarcation criterion. This hasn’t gotten the attention of, for example, Popper’s use of falsifiability as a demarcation criterion, but I think it is worth keeping in mind.

For naturalism to accept science at face value means that naturalism accepts that scientific knowledge changes, and it accepts the history of science without feeling attacked by a past that has been abandoned. Anti-naturalistic doctrines (such as those of Plantinga I recently mentioned in A Note on Plantinga) almost without exception view science as a obstacle, as a looming problem on the horizon that the non-naturalistic thinker will resist honestly dealing with until forced to deal with it. When the retrograde thinker is forced to consider the results of science, it is usually only in a series of compromises that seek to evade and avoid the straight-forward conclusions of science.

Naturalism: Thought Two

Just a few days ago in Ideas Again I argued that it is important to distinguish between embodied ideas and abstract ideas. An embodied idea is an idea that is not made explicit and given exposition as an idea, but is made actual through its exemplification in the life of an individual. Mystics embody mysticism and scientists embody science; Plotinus embodies the possibility of mysticism as Darwin embodies the possibility of science.

Today’s thought on naturalism and embodied ideas is that it could be plausibly argued that it is the natural order of things that an idea emerges first in its embodied form, and only later is made abstract and explicit in formal consciousness by an act of de-contextualization. That is to say, the embodied idea must be consciously torn out of its context and exhibited in isolation in order to attain to the status of an abstract idea.

Moreover, one could go further than saying that it is the natural order of things that embodied ideas should (temporally) precede abstract ideas, and one could assert that Naturalism entails that all ideas will first be manifest in embodied form. In other words, there are no abstract ideas that are given to us as abstract ideas; all ideas are ultimately derived from experience. I would call this radical empiricism if William James had not already employed that phrase to his own ends.

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Naturalism: a Series

1. A Formulation of Naturalism

2. Two Thoughts on Naturalism

3. Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation

4. Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms

5. Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology

6. Naturalism and Suffering

7. Transcendental Non-Naturalism

8. Methodological Naturalism and the Eerie Silence

9. Some Formulations of Methodological Naturalism

10. Darwin’s Cosmology: A Naturalistic World

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A Formulation of Naturalism

16 November 2009

Monday


Hallett Cantorian Set Theory

One of my favorite books on set theory is Michael Hallett’s Cantorian Set Theory and Limitation of Size. While I have read some rather critical notices of the book, I am not the only one who appreciates it. I found a customer review at Amazon by William D. Fusfield that reads, “This is BY FAR the best and most INTERESTING book available on how Cantor developed his key ideas about transfinite sets, large cardinals, ordinals etc.”

Since Cantor is remembered for legitimizing the infinite as a mathematical concept, it might be a little surprising to hear that Hallett attributes “finitism” to Cantor, but by finitism Hallett does not mean any of the range of constructivist or strict finitist positions staked out by those who deny the legitimacy of the actual infinite and set theory, but rather it describes what we may call the methodological finitism of Cantor’s approach to the transfinite numbers he defined by way of set theory.

Finite mathematics is largely uncontroversial and commands the consensus of almost all who take an interest in the matter, however much they disagree on other parts of mathematics. Thus Hallett formulates what he calls Cantor’s principle of finitism thus:

“The transfinite is on a par with the finite and mathematically is to be treated as far as possible like the finite.” (p. 7)

This I would call methodological finitism. A little further on, on page 32, Hallett quotes Weyl thus:

“…for set theory, there is no difference in principle between the finite and the infinite.”

Hallett then comments:

“…the unity which Weyl points to is so much a fundamental part of Cantorianism (at least when we substitute ‘transfinite’ for ‘infinite’) that I have called it Cantor’s principle of finitism.”

A week ago I was musing about naturalism while making a longish drive and it occurred to me that something parallel to this approach could be used in a formulation of naturalism. “Parallel” is the key term here as were are talking about very different things with naturalism and the transfinite. What strikes me about Hallett’s formulation is the innate good sense of “as far as possible.” This stands in contrast to polarizing and absolutist definitions that employ formulations like “nothing but” or some equivalent of an extremal clause.

In contemporary science, scientific materialism is largely uncontroversial and commands the consensus of almost all interested parties. But from a philosophical standpoint materialism is as dissatisfying as finitism. If you can focus on the science and not think much about the materialism, you’ll be fine. But if the whole object of your interest in science is to illuminate the world and to come to a better understanding of it over all (as is my own interest), then one cannot only not avoid thinking about scientific materialism, one is obligated to think about it carefully.

At this point, then, I would suggest a methodological naturalism parallel to Hallett’s formulation of methodological finitism in Cantor: “Naturalism is on a par with materialism, and philosophically is to be treated as far as possible like materialism.” Or one could formulate it thus: “The natural is on a par with the material and scientifically is to be treated as far as possible like the material.”

Such a formulation would acknowledge both the success and the limitations of classical materialism that views the world entire as “nothing but” matter in motion — Democritean atoms whirling in the void — a classically reductionist formulation. Methodological naturalism as I have formulated it above, parallel to Hallett, would follow classical materialism as far as possible, and would only depart from materialism when that materialism was unsustainable in light of the evidence. And at this point I do not mean to suggest that one makes a transition from matter in motion to a non-naturalistic account of the world. On the contrary, it is at this point that naturalism shows itself to be as distinct from materialism as the infinite is distinct from the finite. Naturalism takes the spirit of materialistic explanation forward into areas that patently cannot be treated in terms of matter in motion.

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Naturalism: a Series

1. A Formulation of Naturalism

2. Two Thoughts on Naturalism

3. Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation

4. Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms

5. Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology

6. Naturalism and Suffering

7. Transcendental Non-Naturalism

8. Methodological Naturalism and the Eerie Silence

9. Some Formulations of Methodological Naturalism

10. Darwin’s Cosmology: A Naturalistic World

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