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Why the Brain Can’t Be Understood Simply in Terms of Particles

For the same reasons as a basketball cannot be understood wholly as a “sphere,” the brain is more than particle physics in action

In an essay-length blog post, philosopher Edward Feser (pictured) addresses Chapter 5 of theoretical physicist Brian Greene‘s new book, Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (2020). Greene attempts to show that the mind can reasonably be understood as a collection of particles governed by mathematical laws and Feser says, no, it can’t:

A description of the brain in terms of nothing more than particles governed by mathematical laws, no matter how complex this description, can no more give you a complete description of the brain than spherical geometry can give you a complete description of a planet or a basketball. And Greene himself inadvertently admits this too. He writes:

“I don’t know what mass is. I don’t know what electric charge is. What I do know is that mass produces and responds to a gravitational force, and electric charge produces and responds to an electromagnetic force. So while I can’t tell you what these features of particles are, I can tell you what these features do… For gravitational and electromagnetic influences, any concern that substituting action and response for an intrinsic definition amounts to an intellectual sleight of hand is, for most researchers, alleviated by the spectacularly accurate predictions we can extract from our mathematical theories of these two forces. (p. 133)”

What Greene is acknowledging here is that the methods of physics don’t capture the intrinsic nature of phenomena, but only those relations between phenomena susceptible of mathematically precise description. Hence physics simply doesn’t tell us everything there is to know even about the material world (let alone anything beyond the material world). As I have noted many times, this is a point that used to be often commented upon by scientists and philosophers (Poincaré, Duhem, Russell, Eddington, et al.) and has in recent years been getting renewed attention in academic philosophy.

What Greene doesn’t see is that the point completely undermines his basic reductionist assumption. Why should we assume that what is real must be reducible to physics’ mathematical description of basic particles, if we already know that that description doesn’t capture every aspect of reality in the first place?

Edward Feser, “The particle collection that fancied itself a physicist” at Edward Feser blog (August 20, 2020)

Feser goes on to tackle the problem of “the particle collection that fancied itself a physicist” in lively fashion in much more detail, for example:

Greene’s fallacy is like that of someone who says that, since a map is enormously useful for getting around a certain bit of terrain, predicting what you’ll see when you reach this or that part of it, etc., it follows that there is nothing more to the terrain that what is captured by the map. As Alfred Korzybski once said, “the map is not the territory.” If only more physicists were capable of seeing what a crackpot linguist could!

Edward Feser, “The particle collection that fancied itself a physicist” at Edward Feser blog (August 20, 2020)


You may also enjoy: Michael Egnor’s dialogues with Ed Feser and some of his other comments on questions of the day:

Remarkably, a simple triangle can disprove materialism Philosopher of mind Edward Feser and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor chat about the essential immateriality of our minds.

Knowledge is power, sort of… If that’s all knowledge is, the resulting science is bound to be limited, says Michael Egnor. He is reflecting on philosopher Edward Feser’s recent, rather sharp review of cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

and

If computers are intelligent, climbing a tree is flying. That, says Edward Feser, is the take-home message from Gary Smith’s book, The AI Delusion

Hat tip: Ken Francis, co-author with Theodore Dalrymple of The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd


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Why the Brain Can’t Be Understood Simply in Terms of Particles