Starting again

As Tony indicated in a recent e-mail, we have decided to restart this blog, which focuses on DP and social neuroscience.   I’m reposting a much expanded version of a message I sent to the Society listserv last May 11, with additional content that is based on subsequent discussions with Jeff Evans, Tony Putman, as well as many e-mail exchanges with other Society members.

I’ve omitted the last point from my original posting, item number 7, which raised a question about the conceptual “place” of embodiment in DP.   Tony Putman has agreed to follow-up with a subsequent post addressing the issue raised by that item.

After this post, my intention is to return to “case studies” of specific literatures.

I. The conceptual relationship between the Person concept
and human neurological embodiment 

1. One good place to start talking more sensibly about Human Neurological Embodiment (HNE) is to talk about HNE as providing for being a person (which includes acquiring the history of a person).

There is no point to starting at a sub-conceptual level, like talking first about an HNE provision for knowledge or wants, because all sub-conceptual levels presume the Person concept.  By starting from the Person concept, most everything else about the conceptual relationship between persons and HNE can be derived.  For example, it can be noted that there is no deliberate action without capacity that provides for deliberate action (because that’s what it takes to be a person), and in providing for persons, HNE therefore necessarily provides for deliberate action.

2. The HNE has no behavioral status of its own – e.g., the HNE does not engage in deliberate action.  However, persons as we know them to be would not be possible without the HNE, or some equivalent NE that did the same job.  This is an instructive tautology and it has been noted many times in the DP literature (in various guises).  The HNE is just the kind of NE necessary to provide for persons in the way we know them to be, including worlds in which the HNE has the significance of providing for persons.  Only a sufficient NE is necessary for such worlds.  Any specifically sufficient NE is not necessary.

HNE, as a specifically sufficient NE, provides for what we take to be the case when we are talking about persons.  If we were talking about something else, like dogs, we would say the specifically sufficient Dog Neurological Embodiment (DNE) provides for what it takes to be a dog.   Consistent with multiple earlier presentations and papers in the DP literature, if we were talking about robots or aliens whom we recognized as persons, we would say that their cybernetic or alien biological neurological embodiments provided for being a person.  (Please note that I am using NE language deliberately, even when referring to robots.)

3. Since the HNE, or any specifically sufficient NE, acquires significance within a world of persons, it is only because we are persons that we recognize the HNE as having significance.  More importantly, it is only because we are persons, and observe what persons do, that we know what to look for in (or alternatively, what to discover about) the HNE (e.g., the systems, functional patterns and physiological operating  principles to look for) and to know when we have found something.

4.  Given these considerations, there are both logical/conceptual and empirical relationships between HNE and persons.

The conceptual relationship between persons  and HNE is that the Person concept provides guidance about what must be the case when considering the HNE, i.e., what must be provided for in order for an NE to be of a sort that is sufficient for persons.  The Person concept provides guidance about what an NE must be able to “do.”

However, to understand how it is that an NE is sufficient (i.e., what its characteristics are and the mechanisms by which it operates) requires empirical investigation.   Because we start by describing persons and their worlds (including the worlds of persons who claim that the worlds of persons are epiphenomenal, or otherwise have no bearing on understanding HNE), it makes sense to ask, how it is that the neurological embodiment provides for having worlds within which reasons, significance and status make a difference.  The empirical relationship between HNE and persons is that the HNE is a specific NE with specific features that provides the conceptually necessary capacities for persons.

Any statement that appeals to neurological embodiment in order to inform the world of persons, already presumes the world of persons and the meaningful distinctions persons make about what will or will not be informative.   Neuroscientists are able to address what it is the HNE is doing, since they are also informed by the Person concept (if only implicitly, as persons themselves with worlds).  Neuroscientists are interested in the operating mechanisms and principles of the HNE so that they can understand how it is that those mechanisms and principles provide for persons.  These mechanisms and principles may be at the gross functional level (e.g., what are the systems that provide the capacity for language), at the physiological level (e.g., how is it that certain alterations of neurotransmitter systems or sodium and potassium channels affect behavioral capacity), or even at levels that are smaller than that.

5.  The relationship between HNE and persons is not merely correlational.  It is not that the neurological world and the behavioral world exist in parallel universes and just happen to operate in coordinated fashion.   The HNE provides capacity, including the capacity to behave based on an appreciation of significance.  Persons recognize HNE systems because, among the capacities the HNE provides, is the capacity to adopt behavioral stances in which the significance of an object, process, state of affairs or event is taken to be of a certain sort.

II. Some implications of the Person/HNE conceptual
relationship for the conduct of research

1. Embodiment is one of the boundary conditions on the behaviors that can be engaged in, in the sense that the physical world is a boundary condition, of which embodiment is a component.  Embodiment establishes boundary conditions on real worlds.  Pigs can’t fly, but not just because they don’t have wings.   Neuroscientists hypothesize neurological systems that provide for those limits and, in the best of circumstances, then devise methods that demonstrate the systems they’ve hypothesized, to the satisfaction of other scientists, in ways that are methodologically, logically, and conceptually sound, (the latter being a big tripping point), and that can be replicated.  However, it is critical to first have a descriptive system.   The Person concept explicates neurological constraints by first explicating the behaviors for which those constraints are relevant.

2. Since the Person concept provides guidance about what must be found when looking at the HNE, anything else short of or differing from what we know must be the case given a world of persons will either be incomplete or incorrect.

If it were the case that we observed a competence that appears to make no sense in terms of what we know about the HNE (if that competence would otherwise seem impossible) we would be conceptually required to change our understanding of the HNE, not our understanding of persons (unless we wished to suggest an alternative mechanism that is independent of HNE and that we were prepared to support with evidence).   If pigs could fly, we would change what we look for when looking at PNE, not what we know about what pigs can do.

3. It may be that a neuroscientist will discover some aspect or quality of the HNE, but then not be able immediately to determine that aspect’s function.  This is an empirical question that may or may not be resolved over time.  However, conceptually, the resolution can never be any statement that would lead to claiming that persons are different than they are.   The HNE serves as a boundary condition on real worlds.   Persons and their real worlds serve as a boundary condition on the significance of the HNE.

It may be that a neuroscientist will make a claim about something that has been discovered, but that does not make conceptual sense given persons and their worlds.  This is a conceptual error, not an empirical error.  The Person concept provides guidance about when such conceptual errors have been made, and what must be taken into account to correct them.  However, in order to correct the error, it may be necessary to do experiments in new ways, in addition to looking at the HNE in new ways.

It may be that a neuroscientist will make a claim that represents that scientist’s focus on a sub-component of capacity, perhaps even recognizing that full elaboration of the Person concept is being ignored.  This is roughly analogous to a deletion operation in the IA formula.  The application of the Person concept therefore provides guidance about the significance of a neuroscientist’s conceptual claim about empirical findings, even if only to assign to that claim a sensible “place.”

III. Some implications of the Person/HNE conceptual
relationship for the HNE

1. Persons acquire personal characteristics, including individual competencies.  It may be that certain things matter to one person that don’t matter to others, that one person makes distinctions that others cannot make, or that one Person achieves states of affairs that others cannot achieve.  Such abilities can be acquired through training, practice and experience.  However, some cannot, in which case we may look to the HNE (as one possibility) that provides the capacity to exercise those competencies.  These skills may or may not be expressed or further refined through history.   The HNE does not provide history.   Instead, the HNE provides for the acquisition of history and personal characteristics, including personal characteristics that cannot be explained on the basis of history alone.

2.  In this light, it makes sense to ask what’s different about the HNEs of people for whom we would say, “Their worlds are behaviorally impaired,” about the HNEs of people who once had worlds but no longer do, just as we might ask such questions about the worlds of people who can do things no one else can do or have never been done before.   However, it makes no sense to suddenly ask such questions about impaired or gifted people if we haven’t also been asking them about the HNEs of all people.

3. Embodiment provides for making distinctions, like dog vs. person, although it does not provide for any specific distinction or any specific concept, like “dog.”  If that were the case, there would never be new concepts, new distinctions, new behaviors, new social practices, new forms of community, new competencies.   Embodiment provides for the acquisition of concepts through practice and experience, not the expression of specific concepts that are fully embodied (although it can be reasonably claimed that the universe of concepts available to persons may also be bounded by embodiment – this is unclear).   Another way to say this is that the HNE may not choose what specifically matters to a person, but the HNE must provide for things mattering, given that person’s  history and circumstances (the acquisition and appreciation of which are also provided for).

4.  Why is this argument specifically important?  It is important because this line of reasoning provides conceptual access from a DP perspective to, for example, the embodied capacities for learning and memory.   The HNE is clearly an NE that is not static.  It has, as neuroscientists would say, plasticity.  Given what we know about Persons and their worlds, we would say it could not be otherwise, and that any other NE sufficient to provide for Persons would also have plastic features.  The HNE provides for the acquisition of new personal characteristics.  It provides for the acquisition of personal characteristics that are novel and have never been encountered before.  In ways that both have been and are still to be determined empirically, the HNE must change over time.  Plasticity is therefore not a surprise, but a requirement.  The Person concept provides the conceptual necessity for at least one type of (empirically observed) plastic mechanism.

IV. DP and the Person concept are essential to an
understanding of these relationships

1. It is very important to note that we only recognize and are able to explicate the central conceptual relationship between Persons and HNE because of the DP foundation.  It is only because we have a rich conceptual and logically coherent development of Person that we can even talk about a conceptually necessary relationship between an HNE that provides for persons, including persons who assign status to the HNE.  A stronger way to say this is that without a world of persons there is no HNE, and without an HNE there is no world of Persons – but that’s a complicated ontological argument that leads to distractions.

2. It is misunderstandings of the mutually necessary logical/conceptual relationship between HNE and persons that have resulted, historically, in a collection of conundrums labeled “the mind-body” problem.   Neglect or dismissal (rather than just misunderstanding) of this relationship has resulted in reductionism and the assignment to HNE of a causal status relative to behavior.

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2 Responses to Starting again

  1. yogapark says:

    For me as reader, this is pretty much a sermon to the choir. But it is a very good sermon, and contains many useful reminders that contribute to a foundation for this field.

  2. Joe Jeffrey says:

    Seems to me the old analogy to the software and hardware of a computer system is useful. We observe a computer system doing various things and can sometimes deduce some facts about the hardware. And, if we thought we had discovered something about the hardware that implied that an observable software “behavior” was not possible, we would have to take it that our hardware conclusion was wrong. The analogy breaks down if you push it hard (like all analogies), and can lead to the error of reductionism if you’re not careful, because in fact all software processes do reduce to hardware ones, unlike behavior. But it has the advantage of being a system many are somewhat familiar with, with a reasonably similar what is it doing — what is the physical structure involved relationship.

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