Saturday, March 13, 2010

the hypothesizing brain

"The brain's main job, like that of a scientist, is to generate hypotheses about what is going on in the outside world, a Max Planck Institute for Brain Research study suggests." (more)

I'm not so sure. It's not the scientific work itself I'm skeptical of but rather the interpretation of it quoted above. It doesn't sound right.

First of all, a brain is a part of a scientist already. Saying a brain's job is like a scientist's job is like saying a CPU's job is like a computer's job or that an electron's job is analogous to that of an atom's. I know the point here is deeper than that, and I'm harping on a syntactical error; nevertheless, this subject is murky already without saying confusing things like this.

I suspect the deeper point is that the principal function of the brain is to form hypotheses, and that human beings in general, just by virtue of experiencing the world, are either doing science or are doing some sort of proto-scientific activity.

So there are several questions in here:

What's the relationship of hypothesizing to doing science in general? If someone is hypothesizing, is that enough to say they are "acting like a scientist"?

What's the relationship of hypothesizing to ordinary experience? Is the brain's main function to hypothesize? Is human experience primarily constituted by hypothesizing?

The interpretation seems to suggest that the main way we relate to the world is by means of generating intellectual models of the world (of which hypothesizing is a species). Yet our main way of relating to the world seems non-representational and practical in nature. Sure, if I walk in a room and see someone there I really wasn't expecting, that's going to cause a jump in activity in a part of my brain. From the experiential point of view, I'd have encountered something novel, so I'd have to bring in some conceptual framework to make sense of it. (Though imagine you walk into a room and someone takes a swing at you. A fight/flight response would kick in before a conceptual one did.)

But you can't generate a general understanding of how the mind works on the basis of an extreme example. It's like generating your position on waterboarding with the "there's a ticking bomb about to explode" scenario. You have to go by how the mind acts ordinarily. Ordinarily I'm not drafting hypotheses or any conceptual models of the world; I'm just interacting with it. (And I think we should be skeptical of any claim that we're doing this unconsciously.)

I don't relate to the world as though it's an object before me that I form theories about. I relate to the world as though it were part of my own nervous system. When I have an itch, I don't form a hypothesis or a conceptual model of it. I just scratch it. The itch invites a scratch, and I oblige. That's how most experience is. The dishes are dirty and invite washing, and so (if they're lucky) I wash them. (They were unlucky last night.)

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