Monthly Archives: March 2014

Chomsky and the Mind-Body Problem II: Update on some progress

I just had a meeting with my supervisor Paul Pietroski this early afternoon and we discussed about what I should write about. I tried to explain to Pietroski that I wanted to use intentionality as a case against Chomsky’s critique of the Mind-Body Problem, but Pietroski pointed out something interesting about Chomsky’s critique that I didn’t notice. I initially thought that Chomsky denied that there are any interesting problems about the mind in relation to the body, but Pietroski pointed out what Chomsky is really trying to get at. Chomsky isn’t merely denying that there is a mind-body problem, but rather what he is denying is that the mind-body problem is an exceptional or a special problem that stands out from all other problems. Pietroski uses “life-body” problem as an example to clarify Chomsky’s point. Erwin Schrodinger (yes, that quantum physicist who came up with a Schrodinger thought experiment) wrote a book called “What is life”. In this book, Schrodinger inquires how is it possible that life emerges from physio-chemical processes underpinned by fundamental physics that is governed by the laws of nature. For a moment this was a mystery until people discovered the chemical structure of the DNA and how it could develop under certain conditions (see Miller-Urey experiment).

So, for a moment there seems to be a very serious “life-body” problem, but when people gather more facts about the world they begin to see how it is possible for life to emerge from lifeless matter. Likewise, it seems like the mind-body problem is analogous to the “life-body” problem insofar as it can be solved by learning more facts about the world. Furthermore, what makes the “mind-body” problem anymore different from the “geology-physics” problem or any other problems of unification? Something like the “geology-physics” problem is a problem of how do you incorporate one scientific level into another. So, there is a difficulty in unifying any prima facie disparate fields. However, given that this unification problem is common, what makes a mind-body problem a special case of the unification problem that stands out from other unification problems?

Unification problems are generally resolved by gathering more facts about the world, which can drastically change one field of inquiry so we can incorporate the other into it. An example would be how we can reduce chemistry into 18th century physics. It use to be a problem until not only was an atom theory posited but the discovery of quantum mechanics made it possible to incorporate chemistry into physics. We can re-describe elements in the periodic table into atomic numbers and such. This involved changing fundamental physics itself so we can incorporate chemistry into physics. So, this unification problem was resolved by new discoveries that our 18th century predecessors wouldn’t have imagined. So, what is it about the mind-body problem that makes it so special that it is fundamentally different from a unification problem between chemistry and fundamental physics?

Descartes was able to state a mind-body problem in a special way, because he had a framework that posited two fundamental realities: one that is explained in terms of pure mechanics (i.e. physical contact) and the other that is an immaterial realm that transcends pure mechanics. However, Descartes also notices that there seems to be a phenomenon in which our mental states interact with our physical states. This phenomenon, however, goes contrary to the Cartesian framework, since it cannot be explained in terms of pure mechanics. So, there seems to be a huge problem, because no matter how many physical facts you gather the problem still remains. However, this changed when Newton discovered the force of gravity as an action from the distance in which one massive object is able to interact with another in a long distance; both are interacting without physical contact. So, the Cartesian framework collapsed and the mind-body problem disappeared. Ever since the collapse of the Cartesian framework, there doesn’t seem to be anything like it that can recreate a similar mind-body problem. Nowadays, scientists are methodological naturalists who don’t necessarily posit another fundamentally different reality , rather they stick to this universe and try to develop any hypothesis or theory to understand it. In this approach, it seems like all there is left is a problem of unification, but how could there be a special problem of unification?

Descartes’ mind-body problem was a prima facie special problem of unification, because of the Cartesian framework it emerged from. It is a kind of problem such that no matter how many facts you discovered about the natural world, the unification problem still persists. New discoveries about any physical mechanic at best will complete our mechanical view of the world that conforms to Descartes’ Mechanical Philosophy, but those discoveries won’t inform us how the mind and body seem to relate to one another. The phenomenon of the mind-body relation at best remains a mystery, rather than a mere problem,  for anyone like Descartes who accepts the Cartesian framework that presupposes Mechanical Philosophy. Descartes’ mind-body problem seems like a special unification problem that remains mysterious. However, given that Newton’s discovery of gravity undermined the Cartesian framework, this prima facie special unification problem between the mind and body is no longer a problem.

Overall, Chomsky accepts that there is a unification problem about the mind just as there use to be a unification problem about the physics and chemistry or life and physics. However, he denies that the mind-body problem is a special kind of unification problem that remains a mystery no matter how many discoveries we make about the natural world. In fact, Chomsky thinks that there is no special unification problem. Descartes’ mind-body problem got closest to being a special unification problem, but ever since Newton’s discovery we haven’t found anything like it.

Given this very helpful insight from Pietroski, I wonder if I can ever state the mind-body problem in a way that makes it exceptional in a deeply conceptual way. I’m not sure I can, since I’m inclined to think that Chomsky is probably right. The reason why I think he might be right is that the most popular justification for the mind-body problem as a special problem of unification is often based on our intuition. However, our predecessors also appealed to their intuitions to justify the “life-body” problem or the “chemistry-physics” problem as a special problem of unification. So what is it about our intuition that makes the mind-body problem special than their appeal to intuition about their unification problem? Our predecessor’s intuitions were undermined by new discoveries that helped their successors achieve unification, so why couldn’t that happen to us? If one puts it that way, I think Chomsky’s argument looks very convincing, but I need more time to think about it.

Creating a poll for fun

A Swarm Mind and the Chinese Nation

I just saw a fascinating PBS documentary called What Animals are Thinking. One of the scenes was the hive of honey bees trying to decide which place to move to as its new home. Some experts in this documentary suggested a striking parallel between how a hive of bees makes decisions and how our brain makes decisions. The parallel between both of them is that both consist of excitation and inhibitions. Our brain is made out of neurons that form a network of neurons called a neural circuit. When a neural circuit is activated it enters in a state of excitation. However, there are other neural circuits that are also in a state of excitation, but these neural circuits are competing with each other. When these neural circuits are in a state of excitation, they also try to inhibit one another. The dominant neural circuit succeed in inhibiting another neural circuit and consequently succeeds in remaining in a state of excitation. Similarly, there are inhibitions and excitation among bees as they try to communicate with each other. In the bee experiment, there are at least two group of bees from the same hive. One group finds a potential home A with a large entrance, whereas another group finds a potential home B with a small entrance.  The latter group is dominant, since bees in general favor a small entrance, which makes their new home less conspicuous to future predators. Both sides try to waggle dance in an angle that points to their potential home, which communicates information to their peers, but the dominant side tries to inhibit the other from waggling. Soon, when most bees receive an information to their new home, they ultimately decide to move to their new home. This phenomenon is called swarm intelligence, which is the theory that a collective of non-intelligent agents can constitute a collective intelligence. Perhaps individual neurons are a case of swarm intelligence, since each individual neuron are non-intelligent and form neural circuits to perform intelligent tasks. In fact, this insight was also pointed out by a neurobiologist Thomas D. Seeley.

When this parallel was drawn in the documentary, I also notice another parallel: Ned Block’s Chinese Nation. For those of you who don’t know Ned Bock’s Chinese Nation, it is essentially a thought experiment proposed by Ned Block as an objection against Functionalism. In this thought experiment, there is at least a billion Chinese citizens who are using their walkie talkie to send radio signals to each other in terms of inputs and outputs that correspond to how mental states function. If Functionalism is true, then an entire Chinese population constitutes a mind. But this would sound so counter-intuitive, because such a mind wouldn’t seem to have a conscious qualitative experience. This thought experiment was suppose to be a disturbing objection against a Functionalist who wouldn’t think that an entire Chinese nation has a mind.

But how does Block’s Chinese Nation parallel with a hive of bees? In a Chinese nation thought experiment, perhaps excitation is a successful transmission of radio signals, whereas inhibition is when a radio signal is not transmitted. In this sense, a Chinese nation looks a lot like a hive of bees engaging in excitation and inhibition. Both are probably a case of swarm intelligence. If the functions of mental states are essentially (but not only) excitation and inhibitions , then perhaps we really do have something like a Chinese Nation, except its not the citizens of China, but rather a collective swarm of bees. Instead of having an abstract and remote scenario that only occurs in a thought experiment, we might have a real scenario that is analogous to the Chinese Nation thought experiment. If functionalism is true and the function of mental states consists of excitation and/or inhibition, then a swarm of bees essentially constitutes a single mind. After all, a group of bees engages in excitation and inhibition in order to get to a certain outcome, which is to find which place to inhabit as their new home. So, if there is a parallel between a swarm of bees and a Chinese nation thought experiment, then a swarm of bees might also count as a mind under Functionalism.

I’m not claiming that a swarm of bees is in fact a mind, but rather a functionalist would have to consider a possibility that a multiple parallels between a swarm of bees and functions of our mental states (or neural circuits) might warrant a conclusion that a swarm of bees would constitute a single mind. The only problem I suspect is whether or not there are sufficient parallels between both a swarm of bees and our brain. After all, there is still a lot we need to learn about the brain, so perhaps such parallels are superficial at best. For now, I’m only entertaining a thought that a swarm of bees might constitute a mind.