The Black Box Brain Problem

If I found a black box with a number keypad and a printer tape, I could make tables of all the inputs I tested and the outputs.  I put in a 1 and get a 3.  A  7 gets me 127.  Non-integers return ‘ERROR.’  Depending on what ends up in my table, I might be able to make some reasonably confident guesses about what was going on inside the box.  Provided I had been careful to watch out for positive bias.  (Go ahead, read the linked article, it’s really good and I’ll be here when you get back).

This is what neuropsych is doing a lot of the time, and I’m all in favor.  But there’s a weird overreach (exacerbated by lazy science reporting) that’s happening as the discipline branches out.  There’s an idea that one you have an input-output table, the work is done, and that there’s no reason to wonder what’s actually going on inside the box.  Roger Scruton puts his finger on it in his essay “Brain Drain” for the Spectator.

It seems to me that aesthetics, criticism, musicology and law are real disciplines, but not sciences. They are not concerned with explaining some aspect of the human condition but with understanding it, according to its own internal procedures. Rebrand them as branches of neuroscience and you don’t necessarily increase knowledge: in fact you might lose it. Brain imaging won’t help you to analyse Bach’s Art of Fugue or to interpret King Lear any more than it will unravel the concept of legal responsibility or deliver a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture; it won’t help you to understand the concept of God or to evaluate the proofs for His existence, nor will it show you why justice is a virtue and cowardice a vice. And it cannot fail to encourage the superstition which says that I am not a whole human being with mental and physical powers, but merely a brain in a box.

Intuitively, we have much stronger preferences about the entries in an input-output table of our mind than we do for a similar table for any black box machine we might pick up off the street.  When it comes to other natural processes, we might find a particular input-output pair surprising, but we’d be unlikely to say it needed correction.  Describing the stimulus-response linkups is insufficient.

That’s not to say research at that level isn’t worthwhile.  It can be fodder for future (transhumanist) intervention.  It can make it easier to pin down some of the prompts that lead us astray, so we can avoid them the way an alcoholic avoids alcohol.  These kinds of applications are just the neuroscience equivalent of researching cognitive biases.

We just have to avoid being indifferent to the ways the stimuli and responses link up.  And neuroscience isn’t the discipline that will help us with the oughts — we have to take the brain scans and input-output tables back across campus to the philosophy lab.

In the example at the beginning of the post, I wouldn’t be able to figure out that my hypothetical black box was generating the nth Mersenne Prime (given n as the input) unless I was already fluent in mathematics.  Interpretation takes different skills than dissection.  Speaking only the language of biology, we can describe the brain, but we can’t say anything that interesting about cognition.

David Alpert, a quantum physicist at Columbia, makes a similar complaint in his NYT review of Laurence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing:

It happens that ever since the scientific revolution of the 17th century, what physics has given us in the way of candidates for the fundamental laws of nature have as a general rule simply taken it for granted that there is, at the bottom of everything, some basic, elementary, eternally persisting, concrete, physical stuff. Newton, for example, took that elementary stuff to consist of material particles. And physicists at the end of the 19th century took that elementary stuff to consist of both material particles and electro­magnetic fields. And so on. And what the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged. The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Kyle

    Great post. Reminds me of another great passage from Chesterton, although maybe a little bit of a stretch. It has to do with the quarrel between science and religion and how both sides oversimplify their arguments and wind up clashing.

    There were two things in your post that reminded me of it:
    1) Your insistence that “oughts” belong to the “philosophy lab”
    2) The last quote’s point about the taking for granted of the existence of stuff

    The second point is not as directly related to the quote, but it is in the sense that at times we take guesses or suppositions as fact when they are not.

    G.K. Chesterton in St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox:

    But for all that, he was historically a great
    friend to the freedom of science. The principles
    he laid down, properly understood, are perhaps the
    best that can be produced for protecting science
    from mere obscurantist persecution. For instance,
    in the matter of the inspiration of Scripture, he
    fixed first on the obvious fact, which was
    forgotten by four furious centuries of sectarian
    battle, that the meaning of Scripture is very far
    from self-evident and that we must often interpret
    it in the light of other truths. If a literal
    interpretation is really and flatly contradicted
    by an obvious fact, why then we can only say that
    the literal interpretation must be a false
    interpretation. But the fact must really be an
    obvious fact. And unfortunately, nineteenth
    century scientists were just as ready to jump to
    the conclusion that any guess about nature was an
    obvious fact, as were seventeenth-century
    sectarians to jump to the conclusion that any
    guess about Scripture was the obvious explanation.
    Thus, private theories about what the Bible ought
    to mean, and premature theories about what the
    world ought to mean, have met in loud and widely
    advertised controversy, especially in the
    Victorian time; and this clumsy collision of two
    very impatient forms of ignorance was known as the
    quarrel of Science and Religion.

  • @b

    >>sciences. They are not concerned with explaining some aspect of the human condition but with understanding it, according to its own internal procedures (Scruton)

    Wow, that’s a distinction with a difference. Science is just part of the continuum of academia. In the sciences, like natural philosophy before it, all explanations and understanding and “internal procedures” are interlocking and self-correcting. Like the history department. Researchers in scientific fields aren’t particularly blinkered. Top university departments aren’t intellectual silos. Interdisaplinary work isn’t fruitless.

    Historically universities have been squeezing those blinkered disaplines out of academia. They become true silos. Training, employing, and teaching their untrustworthy ideas to the next generation. Outside of the public education system.

    >>But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all. (Alpert)

    That’s just factually incorrect. Universities have been researching these questions. They even have tentatively proposed answers (nothingness creates matter, says physicists).

    • @b
      • Anonymous

        I like how he states what I’ve been saying for a long time (much to the chagrin of… well.. everybody), observability conditions are time-dependent and empirical falsifiable science can be wrong.

  • deiseach

    In this context , I should like to quote an extract from the ongoing work of the estimable Dr. Boli:

    “IN THE BEGINNING, according to science, there was the One, and from it all things were created. This account differs so little from that given in the first chapter of John’s Gospel that we may consider the two versions fundamentally interchangeable, allowing for some poetic license on both sides.

    At a certain point in time—in fact, at the very first certain point of time in the history of time—this primordial unity gave birth to multiplicity with a tremendous racket. There is some disagreement as to why this event occurred: theologians believe it happened because God willed it; scientists believe it happened for no reason at all; and Dr. Boli, whose opinion must be allowed to count for something in his own book, believes it was the result of deliberate sabotage. The matter thus set loose in the previously tidy universe busily set about forming itself into galaxies, stars, planets, and other detritus, so that today there is little hope of ever getting the place cleaned up. This should be a valuable lesson for us all on the tragic consequences of slovenly habits.”

    • Kyle

      Dr. Boli’s reason definitely makes the most sense. My refrigerator is proof of the life-giving consequences of slovenly habits!

  • keddaw

    Due to the nature of our brains, we are closer to enigma machines than a basic black box as our internal processing changes based on previous inputs. (And that’s before we get to the fact it changes internally over time and depends more than we’d like to imagine on magnetic fields, hormones from other parts of the body, temperature etc. etc.)

  • melior

    “And it cannot fail to encourage the superstition which says that I am not a whole human being with mental and physical powers, but merely a brain in a box.”

    *tweet!* Abuse of “merely”, 5-yard penalty.
    Sadly, it appears G.K.C. is wedded to the misconception that he isn’t both a whole human being and “merely” brain in a box.

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