Re: Churchland, science, prediction, etc.

ray scupin (scupin@LINDENWOOD.EDU)
Mon, 18 Sep 1995 16:05:02 -0500

Churchland's _Neurophilosophy: Toward A Unified Science of the
Mind/Brain_, which I have not read, but has been *thankfully* quoted by John

On Sat, 16 Sep 1995, John McCreery wrote:

> Consider the curious notions conveyed by the word
> "fact." A commonsense view of its meaning suggests
> that human beings have, at least some of the time, (we
> leave aside obvious cases of fraud, deception, illusion,
> ideology) an instantaneous and unmediated access to
> reality. I point, you see, we then agree on an
> "undeniable" "fact." Neurological evidence shows
> clearly that the idea of "instantaneous and unmediated
> access to reality" is, in itself, a chimera.
> I now quote from Churchland,
> "Helmholtz [Heinrich von Helmholtz, 1821-1894] then
> tested Muller's claim that nerve impulses traveled at
> immedasurable speeds. His methods were elegantly
> simple and quantitative. He measured the velocity of
> nerve conduction by stimulated the nerve at different
> points and noting how long it took for the muscle to
> contract. He found, to great amazement, that is was
> slower even than the speed of sound." In his
> preparation he calculated conduction velocity at a
> mere thirty meters per second."
> Helmholtz's father found these results rather shocking.
> In a letter to his son he wrote,
> "....the results at first appeared to me surprising, since
> I regard the idea and its bodily expression not as
> successive but as instantaneous, a single living act that
> onllybecomes bodily and mental on reflection, and I
> could as little reconcile myself to your view as I could
> admit a star that had disappeared in Abraham's time
> should still be visible."
> We now know, of course, that since light, too, travels at
> a finite speed, that star is altogether possible.
> Helmholtz' research added a new temporal dimension
> to research that had already shown that the brain
> constructs its image of the world and does not directly
> perceive it.

John goes on to say that .....

> Facts, it appears, are made not found. Which is why, I
> suppose, scientists are obsessive about their methods
> and casual observation does not count as science

I want to contest this notion by stating that *not all facts are made or
constructed* by reference to the work by Berlin and Kay on colors, and
the neo-Kantian perspective reflected in Maurice Bloch's work (that was
discussed in a back channel a while back by John, myself, and others).
Bloch refers to Kant's perspective that much of our phenomenal reality is
indeed constructed by conceptual frameworks that are given to us through
the socialization process, and many facts about the world are socially
constructed. However, Kant also suggests that certain concepts of time
and space are "pure intuitions," and are universally understood by all
humans everywhere. Through ethnoscientists such as Berlin and Kay, and
others such as Cecil Brown on plant classification supplemented by the
work of Scott Atran and Lawrence Hirschfeld, it appears that we classify
much of our natural phenomena in similar ways throughout the world. Yes,
of course, we use different terms, but the manner in which we classify
these natural phenomena is not completely arbitrary, based on random
cultural circumstances. Thus, it appears that not all of our "facts" are
constructed. If they were all socially constructed, then we might, as
different cultural beings, live in radically different cultural worlds.
I want to suggest that we do not do so. I close with a quote from Oliver
Sacks, and hope to see more discussion on this topic.

>From the lecture "Neurology and the Soul" printed in the New York Review
of Books, Nov 22, 1990, by Oliver Sacks.

"The world does not have a predetermined structure; out structuring of
the world is our own---our brains create structures in the light of our
experiences.....footnote.....Such structuring, or construction, occurs at
*two levels in our brains*: a lower level which is innate, universal, and
automatic, such as the mechanism Edwin Land and Semir Zeki have described
for constructing or computing color in our worlds; and a higher level,
for the construction of categories which extend from the perceptual to
the moral (though it could be said that even the sensation of color is a
categorization, albeit one fixed by the strictest physical and
physiological constraints, e.g., the threee naroow wave-bands of
frequency to which the retina differentially responds. Thus *all* of us
arrive at the same categorizations---"red" is read for all ofl us, for
monkeys too."


Ray Scupin