Monday, December 06, 2010

Peter Hacker tells James Garvey that neuroscientists are talking nonsense

This is a good post from The Philosopher's Magazine - I'm not sure I agree with Hacker that cognitive neuroscience is a load of nonsense. However, I am convinced (after reading this article - which is almost but not quite an interview) that I need to read Hacker's book on the topic, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003).

Hack is mostly opposed to scientism as near as I can tell - and I am with him on that regard. There is much about human experience that cannot be explained with brains and neuroscience.

Hacker’s challenge

Written by: James Garvey | Appears in: Issue 51

Posted by: TPM October 25, 2010

Peter Hacker tells James Garvey that neuroscientists are talking nonsense

Peter Hacker

Peter Hacker

So long as people read Wittgenstein, people will read Peter Hacker. It’s hard to imagine how his work on the monumental Analytical Commentary on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations could possibly be superseded. He spent nearly twenty years on that project (ten of them in cooperation with his friend and colleague Gordon Baker), following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps, and producing a large number of important articles and books on topics in the philosophy of mind and language along the way. Nearer the end than the beginning of a distinguished career as an Oxford don, at a time of life when most academics would be happy to leave the lectern behind and collapse somewhere with a nice glass of wine, Hacker is in the middle of another huge project, this time on human nature. He also seems keen to pick a fight with almost anyone doing the philosophy of mind.

This has much to do with his view of philosophy as a contribution to human understanding, not knowledge. One might think that philosophy has the same general aim as science – securing knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in – even if its subject matter is more abstract and its methods more armchair. What is philosophy if not an attempt to secure new knowledge about the mind or events or beauty or right conduct or what have you? According to Hacker, philosophy is not a cognitive discipline. It’s something else entirely.

“Philosophy does not contribute to our knowledge of the world we live in after the manner of any of the natural sciences. You can ask any scientist to show you the achievements of science over the past millennium, and they have much to show: libraries full of well-established facts and well-confirmed theories. If you ask a philosopher to produce a handbook of well-established and unchallengeable philosophical truths, there’s nothing to show. I think that is because philosophy is not a quest for knowledge about the world, but rather a quest for understanding the conceptual scheme in terms of which we conceive of the knowledge we achieve about the world. One of the rewards of doing philosophy is a clearer understanding of the way we think about ourselves and about the world we live in, not fresh facts about reality.”

His account of the nature of philosophy is Wittgensteinian through and through. It’s a conception of philosophy which regards philosophical problems as confusions in language rather than deep mysteries encountered in the world. The job of the philosopher is to make these conceptual errors clear to us and in so doing help us out of our muddles. Philosophical questions aren’t solved; they’re dissolved. There is knowledge here, in a sense, but it’s not the sort of knowledge most philosophers think they are pursuing.

“By doing philosophy you come to realise things about the structure of our conceptual scheme that you would never have realised otherwise. Realization is indeed a dawning of knowledge. But the knowledge here is not knowledge of the world we live in. It is knowledge of the structure of our conceptual scheme. It very often looks like “metaphysical knowledge” of reality – as it were knowledge of the scaffolding of the world. But it’s no such thing. The world doesn’t have scaffolding. Rather, in doing philosophy, we come to realise the character of the grammatical and linguistic scaffolding from which we describe the world, not the scaffolding of the world.”

Because he thinks of philosophy is a quest for understanding, on Hacker’s view it can’t be transmitted from generation to generation as knowledge can. Each generation has to earn insight, has to face its own obstacles and work out an understanding for itself. This strikes a chord. I wonder about the present generation and what Hacker thinks might get in the way of our understanding.

“The main barrier is the scientism that pervades our mentality and our culture. We are prone to think that if there’s a serious problem, science will find the answer. If science cannot find the answer, then it cannot be a serious problem at all. That seems to me altogether wrong. It goes hand in hand with the thought that philosophy is in the same business as science, as either a handmaiden or as the vanguard of science. This prevailing scientism is manifest in the infatuation of the mass media with cognitive neuroscience. The associated misconceptions have started to filter down into the ordinary discourse of educated people. You just have to listen to the BBC to hear people nattering on about their brains and what their brains do or don’t do, what their brains make them do and tell them to do. I think this is pretty pernicious – anything but trivial.”

In the last decade Hacker has turned his attention from the philosophy of language to the philosophy of mind, dealing with what he sees as a whole raft of conceptual confusions in cognitive neuroscience. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, which he co-authored with the neurophysiologist M. R. Bennett, works through a number of tangles in detail. As we talk about some of them, I begin to see that there is a straight line from his Wittgensteinian thoughts about the nature of philosophy to his work on the mind.

Read the whole article.

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