The postmodern brain

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The next section sketches such a perspective. It will be refered to as mutualism, although it should be noted that this term is used elsewhere is different senses, e. Still and Costall, It emphasises that consciousness cannot be realistically considered apart from the evolutionary process. The eclipse of modernism has created a productive metaphysical vacuum.

Within it the conundrum of mind and experience creates a natural focus. For modernist science, timelessness and mechanism were the essence of reality. On the postmodern agenda timelessness and mechanism are special cases. Indeed, some physicists now suggest that the appropriate level at which to search for fundamental physical principles are the irreversible, that is, historical, events that occur within organic systems Rae, , chapter Such a proposal makes it easier to inquire into consciousness which, being an essentially historical processes, cannot be properly understood by reduction to timeless mechanisms.

Consciousness and processes that support it are parts of an organic system. Consciousness is one level, preconscious psychological processes another, brain another, body another and so on Bohm, Parts of this system bear both external and internal relationships to each other because they share an evolutionary history.

The Postmodern Brain

Organic systems are nested within each other and integrated by historically structured forms of reciprocal causation. The flow of action within such systems is open and generative. This flow cannot usefully be reduced to some closed, timeless set of elementary physical laws, causes or objects, and for that reason modernist science does not provide a suitable framework in which to understand it.


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Mutualism is a proposal for how postmodern psychology can inquire into this flow in an appropriate and sensitive way. Three related aspects of mutualism will be examined in this section: formal causation, evolutionary emergence and an ecological realistic perspective on meaning. Firstly, let us look at formal causation.

Brains, minds and consciousness exist by virtue of a mutually evolved system of internal and external relations. Within such systems there exist organic forms of causation which are qualitative distinct from and which cannot be reduced to inorganic forms Sperry, , This promotes attention to the somewhat neglected Aristotelian category of formal causation.

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This concerns the structured effects of structured causes and deals with the recurrent patterns of causation by which one part of an organic system influences another cf. Rosch, In this sense it easily escapes Hume's deconstructive analysis of causation since effects are patently similar to and hence are phenomenologically prefigured in their causes.

Formal causes are carried by patterns of relations within organic systems and cannot be understood on the basis of knowledge of isolated systems of matter and energy alone. These are the material vehicle for formal causation, but not the thing itself. The contemporary treatment of formal causation is relatively underdeveloped, even in biology, since modernist science deals primarily with material and efficient causation.

However, formal causation has had an enduring, if minor, influence on biological science until relatively recently. For example, the rational biology of Goethe and d'Arcy Thompson, who studied morphology as the product of dynamic formative processes, remains a persistent presence in contemporary biological science Goodwin, It is no surprise that in this work, consciousness is a central issue e. Mechanism limits the understanding of both consciousness and of formal causation, on which it depends.

Causation involves transfer. A mechanistic view, dealing primarily with material and efficient causation, is at its strongest when dealing with transfers of matter or momentum. Formal causation however, although material and efficient causation is its vehicle, is more appropriately seen as the transfer of information or meaning. It is this that is the basis of organic action and of consciousness. Next, let us examine emergence, which is often used in a contrastive sense to reduction.

Reduction is useful where isolated inorganic situations are concerned, but when organic action is in question, it is simply unproductive. Organic action does not break physical laws; indeed, they cannot be broken. But they can be irrelevant, and organic events cannot be reduced to simpler underlying physical events. The latter are not causes but effects, entrained in mutually evolved patterns of organic action.

These patterns are self-organising and integrate physical, biological and psychological levels of order into functional wholes Wicken, , page 4. Such patterns are dynamically stabilised by the interchange of formal causes which generate and are generated by organic action Serres, These patterns are neither predictable from nor reducible to simpler precursors; that is, organic order is emergent.

Now emergence is occasionally suspected, sometimes with justification, as a surreptitious attempt to re-introduce mystery into science. However, mutualism aims for emergence without mystery. Just as it is legitimate to talk of the emergence of social and political systems, so biologists and psychologists may talk about the emergence of biological and psychological systems Popper, Under this view, mental life and consciousness does not require a special substance or force somehow intervening in the world of matter.

Brain, mind and consciousness are different aspects of an emergent evolutionary production, a form of life. Within this mutualist world picture, no part of a system is privileged. Action within mutually evolved systems, the support for consciousness, is essentially composed of organic events.

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It is not reducible to simple physical causes. Whitehead's concern with the occasion as the fundamental spatio-temporal aspect of reality is a direct response to this reductive fallacy Hartshorne, Likewise, to take emergence seriously is to recognise that consciousness must be considered within a framework rich enough to address the historical process that has produced it. Lastly let us examine the ecologically realistic treatment of meaning. Meaning is most commonly treated as having to do with the semiotic systems of human culture. However, the interchange between animals and between animals and their surroundings is a semiotic process, and human communication has many characterisitics in common with this level of interchange Sebeok, In the mutualist view, the very existence of organic order, the basis of ecological relations, depends on an interplay of meaning.

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The significance of this for organic sciences like psychology and biology is that action is also part of this ecological interplay. Bohm, in describing organic action, holds that ecological integration between physical, biological and psychological levels of organisation is an evolutionary product based on meaning:. These meanings fundamentally affect our actions towards nature and the action of nature back on us With higher animals this operation of meaning becomes more evident and in man it is possible to develop conscious awareness, and meaning is then most central and vital.

These "actions towards nature and the action of nature back on us" are intimately involved in evolutionary change itself Bateson, ; Piaget, It is in this way that evolution is open, generative and reflects a history of ecologically situated actions. Bohm, acknowledges some influence from Whitehead in developing his ecological perspective on meaning. In particular we may note here Whitehead's discussion of perception as a symbolic rather then merely physical interaction between perceiver and perceived Whitehead, , pages 3 - 6.

It is in this sense that formal causation was described above as the transfer of meaning. He suggested that to understand them would require a science that:. The basis of this science is a reversal of the picture of reality offered by traditional science These different aspects of an ecologically realistic perspective on meaning are components of a natural semiotics, an integral part of a postmodern science of mental life.

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The subject matter of this science is neither culturally relative conventions nor supposedly absolute laws of nature but evolutionary systems which combine both. Shifting psychology in this mutualist direction helps to free it from the modernist restrictions by which it is presently hampered. Mutualism in drawing attention to formal causation, emergence and an ecologically realistic perspective on meaning, promotes a shift away from the modernist agenda of cognitivism with its effort after a unified mechanistic theory.

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Postmodern science is shifting beyond this agenda, and psychology might well do likewise. The next section briefly reviews some recent critiques of cognitivism which suggest that something like this shift is in fact underway, and that there is significant common ground shared by these critiques and mutualism. Cognitivism has been a major, if not the predominant, theoretical and methodological orientation of Western psychology for about four decades.

It assumes that mental life depends on internal cognitive structures that represent or symbolise external reality, constituting a language of thought, as it were Fodor, A further assumption is that these structures are manipulated in a rule like way to produce the psychological dynamics of action, thought and consciousness. The analogy with the computation is clear, and computational models are used as psychological theories in cognitivism's flagship discipline, Artificial Intelligence AI. Furthermore Turing's demonstration that there exist universal principles of computation holds out the glittering prize that computation may provide a unified theory for mental life.

To the extent that AI is taken to be psychologically plausible, it is presented as just such a unified theory, at least of cognition Newell, There are even claims that with sufficiently powerful computers and sophisticated programs it will be possible to create centres of consciousness and subjectivity outside the biological realm. This idea, known as 'strong AI', is the culmination of the project initiated by Hobbes and Leibniz to treat reasoning as some form of manipulation of symbols, as Haugeland points out Haugeland, However Haugeland also notes that there is a problem with this project, which he calls 'the mystery of original meaning' Haugeland, , page Until quite recently, AI has relied on programming languages designed for symbol manipulation.

Now symbols carry meaning by denoting something else. But in AI systems the denotational meaning of a symbol is other symbols within the system, albeit that some of these refer to input or output conditions. In this rather narrow view, meaning lies predominantly within the system. The generally limited performance of robots that rely on symbol manipulation is an index of this unrealistic isolation of meaning.

This decontextualisation of meaning is an important part of the objections that Bruner directs at cognitivism Bruner, His view is that a commitment to empty mechanism has hijacked the original impulse behind cognitivism's overthrow of behaviorism in the 's. In particular, he feels that the development of the mind within a local system of cultural meanings is a fundamental desideratum for any proper psychological theory. In practice, this inevitable relativism has been neglected in favour of the effort to describe the mature mind in non-developmental, that is, ahistorical, universal terms.

The assumption is made that there exist culturally neutral universals of mental life, perhaps similar to those proposed by Turing for computation. Once these are discovered it will then be possible to return to development and understand it properly. But this, objects Bruner, is getting things in the wrong order. The mind, and particularly the human mind, develops by assimilating the culturally supported meanings that surround the developing individual.

These meanings create the capacities of the mature mind, not the other way around. Computational principles on their own are not enough, the cultural context of the mind must be taken into prior account. Edelman broadens this line in suggesting that cognitivism not only fails to take account of the cultural context, but also fails to take sufficient prior account of the organic nature of the brain and of the evolutionary processes from which its structure emerges Edelman, He proposes that the brain develops by a blend of ontogenetic and phylogenetic selection.

While initial genetic specification is important, the mature structure of the brain also reflects the actions of the organism which in turn are bound up with the reward system geared to what the organism values. Development, in Edelman's view is by selection, that is, it involves a dynamic and selective loss of neurones, rather than the growth of neural structures under genetic control.

He believes that this rules out the idea that the brain carries out computations in the formalised Turing sense. Computation in this latter sense is value free and involves permanent functional relations between components of a simple system for handling symbols. These functional relations depend in turn on the persistent internal structure of the components.

If a significant part of the functional architecture of the brain develops its in response to action and to values that reflect and depend on what is encountered in an environment, then the Turning machine seem an unlikely model for what it is doing. Edelman also finds unsatisfactory in the way cognitivism approaches the encounter between organism and environment. The naturally occuring objects and events of the world lack the sorts of regular properties that might be captured in symbolic descriptions. Moreover, the 'properties' that an object or event has for one organism are different from those it may have for other organisms.

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