A rant on neuroscience and philosophy

Neuroscience has given rise to one of the most absurd and pathetic versions of reductionism ever seen, one that purports to “explain” one of the most complex realities we know — the subjective experience of consciousness — simply by pointing to physical phenomena that seem to accompany it. It’s like saying that cheese tastes good because it’s made of atoms. Far be it from me, of course, to disparage the idea that cheese is made of atoms or that the brain is the seat of consciousness, but it seems like this approach not only doesn’t answer, but actively blocks the asking of the most important and interesting question: how did the observed complex phenomenon arise out of the physical process?

The attempt to “explain” subjective experience by reference to the physical processes of neurons and hormones consists essentially in trying to explain what we already basically know (I feel sad) by what we can never directly experience (my hormones are acting up). In many cases, the “explanation” is simply a translation of typical descriptions of subjective experience into the terms of neuroscience. A great example of this is a New Yorker profile of the Churchlands from a few years ago, which portrayed them doing just that in their everyday life. Instead of saying that they were exhausted from work, they would describe the chemical process at work. It struck me as pathetic and sad that they would think further information was being added in this process.

People were able to learn a lot of interesting things about matter without knowing that the level of chemistry was grounded in the level of sub-atomic particles — indeed, without knowing what “atoms” were at all. They were able to learn a lot about evolution without knowing about the genetic vehicle, and in fact scientists still don’t really know precisely how genes give rise to traits. It’d be insane to say, “Well, now that we know about quarks, all the questions of chemistry are answered,” or, “Now that we know about genes, there’s no need to study actual animals anymore.” Doubtless more information about the “lower” or more “foundational” level would contribute to the study of the “higher” or “phenomenal” level, but not if the study of the lower level leads you to believe the study of the higher level is already redundant.

It is probably the case that an account of the connective tissue between the brain and the subject — the “dream-work,” if you will — is going to have to be much more speculative than most contemporary philosophers would really be comfortable with. It would probably look a lot more like Freud’s metapsychological writings or Beyond the Pleasure Principle than like a work of “proper” science or philosophy. I honestly wouldn’t even know where to begin. But unless people are willing to do that kind of work, it seems to me that just bracketing the brain and reflecting directly on the experience of consciousness is going to be a lot more useful than any direct reference to neuroscience could ever be under present circumstances.

Absolute zero

In my chemistry class, the professor mentioned that scientists have come very close to “absolute zero,” indeed within a billionth of a degree — but never actually reached it. On hearing this, I asked aloud, “What would that even mean?” And I ask the same to you, my readers: is it ontologically possible for a specific body in the universe to reach “absolute zero”? How would we describe such an object? Would we be able to measure this condition without disturbing it?

Science envy

The hottest new trend in continental philosophy is scientism. Where all of us benighted continentalists worry over meta-commentary on previous readings of interpretations of old German texts, you see, scientists are really engaging directly with the real!

Well, let me tell you: I’ve actually been doing science this semester in the Shimer Natural Sciences 1 class I’ve been auditing. I’ve laboriously read through foundational texts of pre-modern and modern chemistry. I’ve taken part in modern adaptations of classical lab experiments, such as the experiment with the calcination of tin that allowed Lavoisier to definitively disprove the existence of phlogiston and cleared the way for the recognition of oxygen. I daresay that this experience, however rudimentary it undoubtedly is, represents a more concrete engagement with scientific practice than most of our current science fetishists have had since high school.

As a result of this engagement, I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions. First, the natural sciences are conceptual disciplines and mostly don’t want to admit it. Experimental results are not unmediated encounters with the real, but tests of concepts — often requiring extremely contrived set-ups that would never be even approximated in a thousand years of passive “empirical observation.” Any number of “wrong” systems can account for observed results (viz., the phlogiston theory, which was actually pretty robust, until someone thought of the question it couldn’t answer).

The scientific method is obviously extremely powerful, but its (often willful) blindness to the real nature of its practice and its totalitarian ambition to explain everything (i.e., reduce everything to “scientific” terms) also make it extremely dangerous. Hence one of the most important jobs of philosophers is to be critics of science, in the Kantian sense of the word. In other words, Husserl and Heidegger and Foucault were basically right.

Phlogiston and You!

In the Natural Sciences class I’m taking, we’ve spent the last couple weeks working through various attempts to understand the nature of heat. As it turns out, Bacon “got it right” early on by proposing that heat was in some sense motion, but it is surprising how tenacious the view of heat as some type of “fire particle” was. The theory of phlogiston (i.e., fire-matter united with other types of matter in chemical compounds) was so stubbornly adhered to that the person who (arguably) discovered what we would now call oxygen thought he had actually produced something called “dephlogisticated air,” and even Lavoisier, who properly discovered and named oxygen as such, maintained a variation on the phlogiston theory with his notion of heat particles called “caloric.”

We started the class the the pre-Socratics, and I was working my way through Being and Time during those weeks, so for me this whole class has been framed by the “question of the meaning of Being.” It seems to me that a lot of these problems could’ve been avoided had the scientists in question thought more attentively about that question. For instance, it seems to me that in all their texts, there’s a latent conceptual distinction between heat-as-substance and heat-as-effect — why should the latter be limited to cases where the former is present? And if it shouldn’t, what work is the notion of a heat-substance really doing? Can’t there “be” heat in some sense even if it’s not a substance?

Further, it seems to me that the advent of modern science in rebellion against Aristotelian scholasticism follows a familiar pattern where surface-level polemic masks a deeper solidarity: in this case, both share the metaphysics of substance. I wonder if a more authentic return to Aristotle and specifically to his theory of potentiality as one of “the ways in which being is said” may have provided a more fruitful conceptual framework.

Learning science again for the first time

It’s hard to believe, but I’m at the halfway point of the semester already. As part of my training, I’ve been taking Shimer College’s Natural Sciences 1, The Laws and Models of Chemistry. It seems unlikely that I’ll be teaching it any time soon, but I wanted to see how Shimer’s Great Books approach works with a hard science class — and so far, I think it has much to recommend it.

Basically, it seems that the trade-off compared to a traditional science course is that you get a lot less information about the current state of science and a lot less practice in the technical ins-and-outs of skills like balancing chemical equations, operating lab equipment, etc. — but you get a lot better understanding of the problems scientists (both pre-modern and modern) have grappled with in trying to get some kind of handle of “what stuff is made of” and a much more vivid grasp of the basic principles that are discussed.

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The nerdiness of the New Atheism

This Sunday, the New York Times published a hugely entertaining review of a book purporting to demonstrate that quantum physics definitively answers the question “why is there something rather than nothing,” absolutely and once and for all. The reviewer goes to great lengths to show how ridiculous this claim is, but the best part of the piece is when he responds to the author’s polemic against religious thinkers:

And I guess it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.


This morning I read this NYRB article on symmetry in quantum mechanics, which I highly recommend. The overall theme is the use of the assumption of various types of symmetries in nature as a guide to scientific research, even when there isn’t much else to go on. What emerges through the argument, however, is the fact that some apparent symmetries in nature aren’t actually symmetrical at all, but are near-symmetrical side effects of more fundamental, underlying symmetries. He uses the example of the near-symmetry that particle physicists had detected between protons and neutrons — as it turns out, that apparent symmetry was just a coincidental after-effect of the symmetries among the particles that make them up.

Being a philosopher and theologian, however, I naturally found the most interesting part of the article to be his highly speculative account of the apparent order in the universe:

As far as we can see, when averaged over sufficiently large scales containing many galaxies, the universe seems to have no preferred position, and no preferred directions—it is symmetrical. But this too may be an accident.

There is an attractive theory, called chaotic inflation, according to which the universe began without any special spatial symmetries, in a completely chaotic state. Here and there by accident the fields pervading the universe were more or less uniform, and according to the gravitational field equations it is these patches of space that then underwent an exponentially rapid expansion, known as inflation, leading to something like our present universe, with all nonuniformities in these patches smoothed out by the expansion. In different patches of space the symmetries of the laws of nature would be broken in different ways. Much of the universe is still chaotic, and it is only in the patches that inflated sufficiently (and in which symmetries were broken in the right ways) that life could arise, so any beings who study the universe will find themselves in such patches.

This is all quite speculative. There is observational evidence for an exponential early expansion, which has left its traces in the microwave radiation filling the universe, but as yet no evidence for an earlier period of chaos. If it turns out that chaotic inflation is correct, then much of what we observe in nature will be due to the accident of our particular location, an accident that can never be explained, except by the fact that it is only in such locations that anyone could live.

For me, this idea resonated with Meillassoux’s infamous concept of “hyperchaos.”

In addition, the mention of Plato’s Timaeus, combined with the “intro to fine arts” class I’ve been auditing as part of my training at Shimer, led me to wonder if we might be living in a “well-tempered” corner of the universe, similar to the way Plato’s demiurge has to “force” the universe to fit together in approximate whole-number ratios because the real whole-number ratios won’t actually work. (This last bit might make no sense to anyone but me, though.)

Posted in Meillassoux, science. Comments Off

What Would Jesus Not Do?

Typically, these kinds of  things devolve all too quickly into a cliché and banal critique of religion, but this one is brutally funny enough to withstand such temptations. Or at least make it worth of a link.

Dialectical Materialism: The undiscovered country

There has been one constant in my career as a Zizek expositor: no one cares about the parts where I discuss Zizek’s dialectical materialism. This may reflect on my feeble skills, but it also reflects a broader trend — no one seems to take Zizek’s development of dialectical materialism very seriously. Ideology critique, counter-intuitive political claims, remarks on film — that’s what really gets the attention.

To my mind, though, the deeper ontological questions Zizek is getting at with dialectical materialism are by far the most interesting things about him, the area where he is making a serious contribution. His notion of the universe as “non-all” or “non-whole” is very productive, and it’s not just idle speculation — he links it up with the frontiers of modern science. His chapter on cognitive science in Parallax View is a real tour de force (Jameson agrees), but it seems to have been greeted by total silence. Similarly, his discussions of quantum silence are dismissed as bullshit, apparently on an a priori basis, if they’re noticed at all.

What is going on here? Perhaps it’s a mismatch in his audience — the continental or theory crowds aren’t used to taking science seriously, and the analytic types and the scientists themselves aren’t used to taking “postmodern theorists” like Zizek seriously. I fear it’s just going to be Adrian Johnston and me, crying out in the wilderness — or rather, just Adrian Johnston, as I’m not sure my future research agenda has room for more than a few occasional pieces on Zizek.


For supposedly being shut out of the public and disciplinary debate, one sure does hear a lot about the research that says climate change isn’t man-made. Isn’t this the fundamental mark of an idea that has won the day — that it is publicly denied and/or ignored, but whose implications are in fact enacted? Orthodox climate science may have the support of the scientific community, but its effects on public policy throughout the world has been cosmetic at best. All the major endeavors to cut emissions, for example, have been negligible, and even the avowed aspirations to limit carbon levels fall dramatically short of what the science behind the aspirations says is helpful. In practice, if not in spoken principle, the economic power brokers of the world agree with the naysayers. All the derisive emails in the world, or even aggressive collusion in a disciplinary organ, won’t change this.

The soundtrack to a conservative’s declaration of defeat is a victory march.


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