24 December 2013

"Neuro" & Integration

So I'm finally getting around to reading closely Rose and Abi-Rached's Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind, a book that I am sure will at times provoke me and at other times impress me. I'm reviewing it for the "Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences", and so readers will have to await for my general reaction for some time still. But already on page 4 I'm finding myself thinking - "huh - that is how you both understand that?" The authors, citing Roger Smith, write:
Nor is there anything particularly novel in the challenge that contemporary neuroscientists mount to dualism. For example, in the early decades of the twentieth-century, Charles Sherrington sought to develop an integrated theory of brain and mind, and this was the prelude to a host of neurological, psychological, and philosophical attempts to clarify the mind-body relation; it also led to a host of worries about the implications for the higher human values of morality, autonomy, wholeness and individuality.

Now the authors have already mentioned that Sherrington never really abandoned his claim that the relationship between mind and brain was unclear and fraught. So kudos. But it is also a very strange reading of the "Integrative Action of the Nervous System" and indeed Sherrington's later work to say that it aimed for an integrated theory of brain and mind. One might say that Sherrington's work was a studied attempt to see how far one could go in studying the action of reflexes all the way to the level of the cerebrum without actually postulating anything about "mind" at all! Oh I admit that there are a few coy references here and there in all of Sherrington's books to behavior, to responses, etc., and these are mainly cast in ethological terms, but I doubt that they amount to anything so forceful as an attempt at an integrated theory of brain and mind. So...hmmm seems in order.


  1. I agree with you that Sherrington isn't the best illustration of Rose and Abi-Rached's point. But there were other scientists back in the day who opposed dualism in a way that "led to a host of worries about the implications for the higher human values of morality, autonomy, wholeness and individuality." I can think of one in particular (ahem) who wrote in 1880,

    “Even the most decided monist could hardly adhere to the earnest purposes of practical life in the face of the idea that all of human existence is a fable convenue in which mechanical necessity awards to Caius the part of a traitor, and to Sempronius that of a judge; and therefore Caius is taken to execution, while Sempronius goes to his breakfast. We are not bothered that so many letters in every hundred thousand miscarry because they are not addressed, but it shocks our moral feelings to think that, according to Quetelet, so many persons in every hundred thousand are to become thieves, murderers, and arsonists; for it is disconcerting to have to think that we are not criminals only because others, instead of ourselves, have drawn the black lots that might have fallen to our share.”

  2. I agree with you that there were many famous monists. Indeed, I've mentioned C. Judson Herrick below (and at other times on this blog). But these monists are certainly not materialists in the way that Rose and Abi-Rached represent them. Consider your very choice quote above! The mention of Quetelet is for me the key difference. Quetelet was interested in the normal curve - the reference here - precisely because it represented a transcendental category. Theodore Porter in his "History of Statistics" and also his "Trust in Numbers" makes clear that such transcendental equations were the very stuff of dreams of grand unified theories in the nineteenth century. Monism cast this way takes on a quite different import in the history of the neurosciences - and the import is precisely the reason that British physicians and scientists were so uneasy with monism as a rule. Their dualism/idealism was purposively directed away from the more spiritual implications of monism. I see Rose and Abi-Rached rather clumsily collapsing the two styles of mind/brain unity together. They mean to intimate that this means only that brain and mind could be integrated together. I suspect that Reymond (and know certainly that C. Judson Herrick and (to name another) James Crighton-Browne) had his eyes on a much larger set of postulates relating the organism, the brain, and the environment. It is easy to ignore such transcendentalism or dismiss it, but in fact I'd say the advantage is to the transcendentalists because the naturalistic materialism that Rose and Abi-Rached aim to claim as the historically inevitable secular narrative of the brain, is factually caught in horrible scientific contradictions, not least of which is that it ascribes to nerve cells properties that otherwise do not appear to exist in the universe. The monists had a point. The materialism that Rose and Abi-Rached describe strikes me more like Alex Rosenberg's nice nihilist materialism, and in their context is thus anachronistic. Rosenberg's position is perhaps the most explicit and least contradictory, but even he fails to explain why nerve cells should be so special. It is clear when one reads Bob Richards that this very problem has plagued brain, mind, and evolution since before Darwin. Rose and Abi-Rached think that epigenetics will get them out of the problem. Perhaps. (I hope so!) But we are along ways from history at this point. And Reymond, Herrick, and for that matter Quetelet had their eyes on something very different. They thought they had worked it out. In short, Sherrington isn't just a bad example, to me the whole claim is suspect at best because it takes, what I'd label Pavlovian materialism. and makes it everything that idealism was not. That is just not accurate. (I discuss some of this in my forthcoming forum essay in "Isis" in March.)

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  4. I will be very interested to read your article. Du Bois-Reymond only considered the problem of monism solved if we dismissed free will as a fiction, but doing that left us the nagging problem of having to abandon ethical judgments as well (see his quotation above). If that is a solution, it is a very awkward one indeed. Du Bois-Reymond suggests that we abandon traditional categories of praise and blame in a world dictated by "mechanical necessity." This is a view that other philosophers have come to as a consequence of determinism, where people are little more than clockwork oranges. It's unsettling, and I think du Bois-Reymond meant it that way. It's nothing like the alternative monism that you describe. I'm not familiar with Herrick, but the magic formula of "nerve cells + epigenetics = free will" sounds a lot like Ernst Haeckel. And there's plenty of this wand waving still going around. For the record, I feel the same way about it that you do.

    By the way, have you seen Roger Smith's "Free Will and the Human Sciences in Britain, 1870–1910" (Pickering & Chatto, 2013) on this whole issue? It's really good.

  5. That is fascinating. I haven't read Smith's "Free Will" yet. I've been absorbed by reading all things by Sheldon S. Wolin for the last year really. Hence my delay in "Neuro" and, for that matter, your biography too! (I'll get round to it soon enough.) The quote that you supplied above about Quetelet appears to have a couple of meanings then. I'll take your word for it that Du Bois-Reymond adopted it in the hard materialist sense. But if I understand Porter's work, then I believe that the fascination for many with the Gauss's curve was the fact of its transcendental features. If you haven't read those two books by Porter, then I heartily recommend them. But the point as I see it that separates materialism and monism is this conviction that consciousness and free will are either the product of brain states (materialism) or a property of the universe (monism). It may be that when I read Smith's book, he will suggest that my definitions are in need of polish. I imagine that monism and Romantic conceptions of nature have some overlap, and so I would not be at all surprised to find that Haeckel could be construed as somewhere in between monism and materialism. Anyway - best for me to read your biography sooner rather than later. I'll try to get to it this term.

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