Platonic Chomsky

Chuck Grimes cgrimes at
Sat Apr 1 01:36:40 PST 2000

>From Scott Martens on the Platonic Chomsky thread:

Ah, Cartesianism!

I'm a materialist. To whatever extent minds exist, they exist in the human nervous system. There is evidence to support this idea, for example how behaviour and personality traits change when the brain is damaged sometimes, and specifically how language ability can change or be completely eliminated by brain damage. Memories can be lost or changed by physical damage to the brain. Language and linguistic abilities can be changed by messing with the brain.



About 1992, Scientific American put out a special issue on this dilemma of the mind versus the brain and represented the mind as the phenomenon of the brain. The articles from the biological, material, or brain side were pretty obviously stronger and more compelling than the more perceptual, psychological, linguistic and social mind side. My kid who brought the issue over to my place (then a sophomore in chemistry and at the knows-everything-stage) and I had some great fun arguing each side. At that time I was working as a general tech goofer and bibliographical researcher/reader for a friend and others working in a plant science lab. We had just got back from a bio-physics conference where some new findings on ion channels had been presented.

One of the main reasons my kid was interested the magazine issue was his human physiology professor was the author of one of the articles: Carla Shatz, `The Developing Brain'. The article covered the early fetal development of axons from the retina through the optic chasma, to the geniculate nucleus and forward from the primary visual cortex. Axons grow toward one another and meet in the GN. Question: how do they find each other and make the correct connections, if they are starting from different loci? Shatz's answer was the growing axons follow electrical potential pathways.

Returning to the thread.

I put up the following argument against both sides of the mind/brain argument. So to pick up where that left off, I'll consider Scott to advocate the material side--which was also the dominant side in the magazine and my son's position as well.

The materialist says, to whatever extent minds exist, they exist in the human nervous system.

Let's take this down to some of the assumptions. The mind is an apparently self-evident phenomenon that because it can be designated by a single word, seems to carry with it the assumption that it can be located like its symbolic expression as a single entity and bound by distinct spatial and temporal measures which must be co-extensive to a material organ(s) of the body. What's in a name carries a lot of baggage.

A demonstration of this co-extension and co-location is provided by brain damage cases which yield evidence of damage to its co-entity, the mind. There is a slight equivocation or potential exit provided by using the term nervous system instead of brain which extends to include organs of perception. More humorously, dead people don't have minds.

I won't argue directly against this idea. However, consider this problem.

We (mind/brains) can orient ourselves in time and space and we assume this is accomplished via the nervous system. How do the vastly less well endowed organisms accomplish the fundamental tasks of spatial and temporal orientation--some with no apparent discrete physiological organs or organelles for doing so?

The first impulsive answer is to cite numerous tropisms, such as plants are attracted to light sources. However, after you spend awhile following the research in detail these apparently simple chemico-mechanical systems fail at some level to provide a satisfactory answer. After reading about the molecular pathways and their physical triggering mechanisms, you arrive at what amounts to the same dilemma as the mind/brain problem, except as viewed in a microcosm.

I found myself in bibliographical reading in broad scope conceptual problems, asking myself things like how does a biological system measure an interval of time? What is an intrinsic orientation scheme for physical space? These kinds of problems show up everywhere (everywhere I was reading, i.e. plants).

Sidebar. I have no idea what is going on in robotics these days. However, one way to conceptualize something like these problems of orientation is to think about building a free moving robot. The last I heard most of them can't move down a hall without touching the walls. Can any swim a pathway or orient themselves in a fluid medium? If any can, what are they using as an orientation-feedback system? Can these systems perform at metabolic speeds?

So, my pet theory begins with the idea that time and space were already well ordered systems whose organization and patterning of matter existed long before living systems which of course evolved from this organization.

Therefore the way to discover how organisms accomplish their orientation is to look at the relationship between these fundamental physically organized systems and the organisms that inhabit them. The consequence of this approach is to de-localize the idea of an organism and allow many attributes we consider intrinsic to it to dissolve into the organization schemes of the environment. This is particularly effective at explaining how organism perform certain functions like orientation without the organs or organelles to do so.

You can simplify this idea by calling it a relational approach rather than an object centered approach. It is no less material, and in fact may allow for an even more stringent materialism--since our understanding of physical science is more in accord with a materialist conception of natural phenomenon. The end result is that organisms appear as a set of relations rather than a single self-identical entity that responds. The assumption is that naturally occurring signals originating from the external environment are a priori patterned and coherent. The organism then forms only one locus of a polylocal phenomenon of which many physical phenomenon contribute.

Example. Scott cited memory as requiring a physical recording medium in order to gain access at a later time. It doesn't necessarily follow that the medium has to be localized in the organism. We just make this assumption and it appears self-evident.

Think about the constants of an environment and how those constants provide much of the necessary order, organization and continuity that are attributed to an organic system. For instance, the sun will come up tomorrow, so I don't have to remember that fact. All I have to do is deal with it when it occurs.

If you extend this relational approach to the mind/brain it is possible to dissolve some apparently intractable problems. The mind as a totality doesn't necessarily represent a phenomenon of the brain, since the brain is only one locus of many associated loci: the physical world, social relations extended to include society and its symbolic systems of language and culture. Each of these in turn is not completely distinguishable from its associated loci.

It is always possible to characterize and formally describe each locus independent of its associates. However, in such an imposed isolation, each will appear incomplete and incapable of providing a reasonably complete account of its own configuration. Or, a complete account can be given, as long as it excludes what provides or contributes to the relationship with the others.

The more extended up shot to this approach is a reflection on how we partition the world and isolate what we call phenomenon. Phenomenon seem self-identical, but that needs to be made an explicit assumption and examined for the possibility that what has been isolated is indeed self-identical within certain specified constraints.

You start thinking along these lines after you have worked with people who have spent a long time studying a simple phenomenon that seems well characterized, but is not apparently located where it is supposed to be found.

Chuck Grimes

PS. After going through most of the other posts I don't think this quite re-traces the same ground, although it might appear to.

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