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A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves
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2013 > BSP 96: Robert Burton's "Skeptic's Guide to the Mind"

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Ginger Campbell (GingerCampbell) | 312 comments Mod
I have just posted the latest episode of the Brain Science Podcast. It features the return of Dr. Robert Burton who first appears back in Episode 43. We talk about his new book A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves.

Show Notes for BSP 96

Listen to BSP 96

Please note that the free episode transcript will be available early next week.


message 2: by David (new)

David Mcdivitt | 65 comments Loved the interview! I was excited thinking of so many things while listening. But I do not agree the mind is a paradox and this is why. So long as we remain bound up in Platonism, realism, and physicalism it is a paradox. For instance a window is installed on my house. The molding around the window covers a lot of jagged edges. What do we view? Do we view the finished window or do we think in terms of construction and jagged edges concealed by the molding? Let's not diminish anyone. There are reasons to think both ways. The point is we construe what is apparently physical in terms of our idea of what a window should be, then we move forward with the window as an item of language. The world is interpreted as abstract ideas, only. That we call some abstract ideas physical, matters only because we fixate on our own definitions, not knowing we made the definitions up ourselves. What, did god leave us things to trip over and find? We shall evolve a meaning for “mind” that is useful and less nebulous. For instance I like bicycling. Should I buy a bicycle that conforms to me, or should I conform to the bicycle? If it's one ridden by a famous cyclist, should I conform to the bicycle? Both perspectives are valid. Maybe I don't ride the best way and could use more structure; maybe not. As a definition for mind evolves that is more more useful for us, it will persist. For instance, what is physical about behaviorism? How can the brain be reduced to behaviorism? When a person behaves, can the firing of neurons or connections be expressly associated? No. They don't have to be. People have had behavioristic hypotheses and have validated them through experimentation. That is science. Science is not realism and not physicalism. What matters is whether we come up with ideas and definitions we can use.


message 3: by Roger (last edited Apr 30, 2013 03:43PM) (new)

Roger Morris (roger_morris) | 34 comments Dr Burton commits himself to scientism ("Science is the only route to knowledge of reality") and then proceeds to give an interview that was mostly philosophy of mind. You both mentioned David Hume multiple times!

He says at the outset that science has it's limitations when it comes to the study of the mind and admits that there are aspects of the mind that may be forever a mystery.

This means that Dr Burton is either a Mysterian in the mind/body problem (in the tradition of British philosopher Colin McGinn) or he is simply inconsistent in his position on epistemology.

Could it be that knowledge of the mind may need more than just strict empiricism? When will neuroscientists like Dr Burton admit that their discipline could not exist without philosophers?


Ginger Campbell (GingerCampbell) | 312 comments Mod
Roger wrote: "Dr Burton commits himself to scientism ("Science is the only route to knowledge of reality") and then proceeds to give an interview that was mostly philosophy of mind. You both mentioned David Hume..."

Actually I think Dr. Burton has more respect for philosophy than the average neuroscientist.


message 5: by Wilson (last edited May 01, 2013 12:31PM) (new)

Wilson (CuriousMind) | 9 comments One thing that I disagreed with - or at least thought didn't support the point - was the analogy of the microscope. (Reminder: comparison between analyzing 'the mind' with 'the mind' and analyzing a microscope with a microscope.)

I think that this analogy may actually show that it will (or at least may) be possible to understand human minds with human minds, as long as you keep the plural.

It is, of course, self-evidently impossible to examine a microscope with that same microscope (i.e. itself). However, it is certainly possible to examine it with another microscope, or - even better - with a set of other microscopes with different features and abilities, in order to examine it more thoroughly.

The analogy would work better if every microscope were unique, so that every microscope could examine (well, be used to examine) every other microscope but not itself.

Anyway, I think it's possible that the fact that many different minds are approaching the problem of describing 'the mind' - and Dr. Burton himself pointed out how unlike each other minds can be - gives a glimmer of hope that we can come closer to understanding the mind than he gives us credit for.

If only one person were examining one mind (their own), I'd agree with him one hundred percent, but it's not that way. Many minds are examining many (other) minds, and as long as we all continue to question each other (and, to the degree our minds will let us, ourselves), I think we'll get a lot closer than Dr. Burton thinks we will.

I also think he tripped up a little in saying that because we are only studying the physical basis of mind - neurons, etc. - that we will never understand the mind itself. For anyone who thinks that the mind is its neurons, that will probably remain true.

But the mind isn't a thing, it's a process. To understand how an internal combustion engine works, it's necessary but not sufficient to be familiar with all of its parts. To describe its operation, you have to talk about how all of the parts interact.

Or, consider a symphony (or even a rock and roll song). It's necessary, but not sufficient, to know what all the instruments (and possibly voices) do and sound like, but in order to understand what's going on, you have to be able to describe how and when they - the instruments and the sounds - all interact with each other.

Now, since we didn't build the brain ourselves, we don't know what all its physical parts are. So, as a prerequisite to any understanding of the process they enable, we need to understand the parts first. Both the low-level parts (neurons, glial cells, neurotransmitters, etc.) and the higher-level structures made from them (hypothalamus, hippocampus, cortex, etc.).

We're still in the very - incredibly - early exploratory stages of understanding any of these things. My guess (and yes, I do understand that it is only a guess) is that as we gather more and more data about the physical structures of the brain, and understand more and more about how they work together, we (well, 'they' - neuro- and other scientists) will be able to make more and more accurate attempts to describe the processes in which they engage.

These descriptions will, almost certainly, be wrong in many important aspects. But we'll only find that out by testing them, refining our understanding, getting more information about the physical foundations in which the processes we're attempting to describe occur, and trying again.

Even at the rapid rate of acceleration of all our knowledge of the brain, this process - to the degree that it's possible at all (i.e. up to the point where we come up against something, maybe like chaos theory, that says "This is as far as you can go, and no further") - will almost certainly take decades, possibly centuries.

How simultaneously exciting - that we can do it at all - and saddening - that even at my relatively young age, I likely won't live long enough to see it all unfold. But I can enjoy what I have time for. Thanks for the opportunity to do so, Ginger!

I wonder how many people will read this all the way through! (I also wonder if reading it all the way through is really worth doing?)


Ginger Campbell (GingerCampbell) | 312 comments Mod
Wilson wrote: "One thing that I disagreed with - or at least thought didn't support the point - was the analogy of the microscope. (Reminder: comparison between analyzing 'the mind' with 'the mind' and analyzing ..."

I agree that the MIND is a process rather than a thing. Perhaps one reason that some listeners have reacted negatively to Burton's position is that in the short space of our interview, this concept never really came up. Burton was less concerned with defining the MIND than with explaining why he feels it is NOT the Brain. This might seem obvious after all the podcasts I have devoted to the subject, but there really are a lot of neuroscientists (and non-scientists) who accept the BRAIN=MIND assumption, not realizing that it is NOT identical to Brain >>(generates)>>MIND.

No doubt as our understanding of the brain improves we will gain even further insights about how it generates the mind. Dr. Burton is humbling suggesting that we recognize that much of what the brain's does will always be beyond conscious access and control. Failure to realize this makes one prone to jump to conclusions that can to devastating consequences--such as thinking one can "read" another person's intentions from their fMRI scan!


message 7: by David (new)

David Mcdivitt | 65 comments I think as we begin to form a workable definition of mind, we will begin thinking more in terms of that definition, defining ourselves so to speak. As we need a definition we will make a definition.


message 8: by Oné (new)

Oné (Baldscientist) Interesting... I want to read the book now...(:-)


message 9: by Necho (last edited May 07, 2013 03:44AM) (new)

Necho (nutchi) | 2 comments Thanks for another thought provoking and stimulating episode. As always, the advice to students was interesting to hear, this time taking quite an unexpected form. If i recall correctly, Burton suggested studying the humanities before going into neuroscience.

I assume philosophy of mind was intended as a relevant line of study, but i wonder if there are other possible routes to go. Essentially, all personal and anecdotal examples on this matter would be greatly appreciated.

Furthermore, i found the bio on Burton's website to be quite inspirational and insightful for those uncertain (like me) about pursuing a career in medical neuroscience. http://www.rburton.com/bio.htm


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