Wednesday, April 23, 2008

New Books - Psychology, Neuroscience, Consciousness

"My Name Is Bill, and I am a Book Addict."

Altogether now: "Hi, Bill."

A great site for finding new books in the fields of psychology and philosophy is Metapsychology Online Reviews. They posted a few things this week that I found interesting and will probably add to my Amazon Wish List. This is the first of many such review collections to come.

Review - Brain, Mind, and Human Behavior in Contemporary Cognitive Science
Critical Assessments of the Philosophy of Psychology
by Jeff Coulter and Wes Sharrock
Edwin Mellen Press, 2007
Review by Keith Harris, Ph.D.

Both scientists and philosophers have a strong interest in understanding how it is that a brain, apparently made up of simple matter, has (seemingly) evolved to know and experience the world in which it exists. This issue has of course been a mainstay of philosophy throughout recorded history, but are we any closer to a satisfying approach? With the marvelous progress in the cognitive and neurological sciences in the past few decades, the relationship between mind and brain would seem a practical problem that may soon be unraveled.

However, Coulter and Sharrock, the authors of the present book, are especially skeptical that we have attained a meaningful system of discourse that can serve as the basis for a philosophy of mind, and are therefore also skeptical that pronouncements by major thinkers in the field (e.g., the Churchlands, Fodor, Dennett, Chomsky, Pinker) provide substantive traction. By focusing on fundamental weaknesses and limitations in the way this issue is even discussed (and perhaps can be discussed), Coulter and Sharrock hone in on the fundamentals rather than nuances, as will be explained below.

Read the rest.

Review - What Is Emotion?
History, Measures, and Meanings
by Jerome Kagan
Yale University Press, 2007
Review by Jelle De Schrijver
Apr 22nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 17)

In the last decades a so-called affective revolution has taken place in the behavioral sciences: the role played by emotions in the guidance of human behavior became widely acknowledged. Yet, despite broad interest, it remains hard to define what an emotion is. Is it the representation of bodily changes (as William James argues), is it a functional response to guide survival (as Darwin suggests), or is it a conscious experience of a change in inner sensations (Kagan's view)? The use of brain imaging techniques opened a new path to the understanding of emotions, focusing on their neural underpinnings. Yet Kagan argues in 'What is emotion' that the pendulum has swung too far. He claims the one-sided emphasis on the neural counterparts of emotions ignores a wide variety of contextual factors that influence emotional experience. A brain state and the subjective interpretation of a change of feeling that originated in brain state, he remarks, are distinct phenomena. Furthermore, Kagan disputes that there are only six basic emotions as was pointed out by Ekman. He argues that many of the experiences humans have do not fit in one of the six categories. Housewives, asked about the most memorable moment of the day for instance, do not report a moment of high emotion, yet a general feeling of ease and quietness. Though these feelings do not fit in the general categories they are subtypes of emotions that are too often ignored by current research, Kagan alleges. With his critique, this eminent developmental psychologist wants to make sure future research of emotions will be scientifically sound.

The author's main argument rests on the observation that "a major problem in current research on the biological bases for emotions is that the probability that a specific feeling or appraisal will follow a particular brain state is low, whether we assess a thousand people or one person a thousand times. Hence, there is minimal determinism between most incentives and the cascade of processes representing a brain profile, a feeling, an appraisal and an action." (p. 212). In short, he observes there is no complete overlap between one emotion and one brain pattern. This means that one 'brain image' does not allow us to discriminate between different emotional states that relate to it. The image underdetermines the actual emotional state, which entails there is not enough information in the image itself to make conclusions. Therefore, Kagan concludes, we should not focus explicitly on the brain as this 'underdetermination' does not allow us to perform sound scientific research.

Read the rest.

Review - Folk Psychological Narratives
The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding Reasons
by Daniel D. Hutto
MIT Press, 2008
Review by Phil Jenkins, Ph.D.
Apr 22nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 17)

Folk Psychological Narratives is a powerful defense of an intriguing idea that has been poking around the fringes of philosophy of psychology circles for twenty years: that our folk psychology -- our ability to make sense of the behavior of others by attributing mentalistic reasons to them -- is grounded in the stories, the narratives, we learn as children. The classic source for this startling idea is psychologist's Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning (Harvard University Press, 1990) which emphasizes the large scale implications of a cultural grounding for our language and thought, rather than a hardwired computational one. Hutto's project is more fundamental. He rolls up his sleeves and goes to work sifting through the alternative hypotheses with care, presenting each one clearly and charitably in order to find what is most compelling about them in his efforts to show that the Narrative Practice Hypothesis is the best account of our capacity to 'read' each other's minds.

It should be said that, though Hutto's writing is clear and engaging, this book is clearly intended to address an audience familiar with the ongoing contemporary philosophy of psychology debate on folk psychology. Though a general philosophy dictionary will be of some help, one would do even better to have a philosophy of psychology (or philosophy of mind) reference at the ready. But for anyone willing to run down some of the more difficult terminology, Folk Psychological Narratives is a highly rewarding volume.

Read the rest

Review - Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?
Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will
by Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown
Oxford University Press, 2007
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D.
Apr 22nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 17)

I approached this book with trepidation. The authors -- one a philosopher and one a cognitive neuroscientist -- both work at the Fuller Theological Seminary, and I feared this would be an uninformed and credulous exercise in Christian apologetics. In fact the book is a lot better than that. Though there is a theological motivation, it is not allowed to blind the authors to the evidence. They aim to reconcile a robust picture of human agency with science, by way of a defense of a nonreductive physicalism. The view is physicalist in that it presupposes no laws or substances other than those that are (or ought to be) countenanced by science; it is nonreductive in that it holds that agents are themselves causes of their behavior.

Though the research strategy pursued here is a sensible one, the book is wildly over-ambitious. It seeks to develop a full account of agency, topdown causation and language, not to mention free will and mental causation, along the way defending controversial positions in metaphysics such as emergence, and taking positions on the function and nature of consciousness. Any one of these topics is fit for a book; attempting to solve them all, while laudable in one way, is rather foolhardy. Inevitably, the views defended are often sketched, rather than adequately defended, and pressing objections go unanswered. An example, almost at random: Murphy and Brown argue that we couldn't have been zombies; ie, that phenomenal consciousness plays a functional role such that any being that lacks phenomenal consciousness could not be a functional duplicate of us. This, allegedly, is because consciousness supplies us with 'second-order knowledge' -- the knowledge that we know something -- and we can and do use second-order knowledge to guide our behavior. This, they argue, is why sufferers from blindsight can use visual information to guide their actions, but cannot do so unprompted: they know but do not know that they know, and therefore cannot use the knowledge spontaneously. This is an interesting idea, but it is also clearly underdeveloped and open to apparently devastating objections.

Read the rest -- not a glowing recommendation, but it sounds interesting.

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