Ralph Windle Posted by Ralph Windle.

    Ralph Windle is the editor of The Poetry of Business Life, as well as the author of Boardroom Ballads and The Bottom Line, and co-editor (with William Keyser) of Public Enterprises in the EEC.

    We have several times had cause, - perhaps most notably in ‘Mind Your Metaphors’ and ‘ Language, Truth and Logic ’ ( below ) - to acknowledge how big a part words and languag....

    We have several times had cause, - perhaps most notably in ‘Mind Your Metaphors’ and ‘ Language, Truth and Logic ’ ( below ) - to acknowledge how big a part words and language play in looking for forward momentum in the arts/science creativity search. It’s one of the key reasons why it’s been necessary to widen the designation of ‘arts’ to embrace the ‘humanities’, since philosophy has emerged as a key moderator at the interface of ‘arts’ with ‘science’ and has something to say about the uses and meanings of words.

    The extent to which scientists use metaphor as a creative catalyst in their work
    itself suggests affinity with novelists and poets, but they may often be less aware of both this fact and its implications. I quoted the comment of eminent physiologist, Denis Noble :

    “ Scientists are sometimes not aware, first, that they use metaphors much more frequently than they might think and, second, that the relationship between a metaphor and reality is very different from that between a scientific theory and reality…. The selfish gene is an idea more in the field of metaphorical polemic than science ”.

    In ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ I quoted a pre-eminent example of the two worlds coming together :

    At the 2009 Venice Biennale, Professor Rachel Falconer gave a detailed account of an earlier, internationally known, book which built bridges between ‘art’ and ‘science’ through metaphor. It was in 1975 that Primo Levi, established writer and committed professional chemist, brought out ‘The Periodic Table’ (which, she points out , once beat Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ to gain the title of ‘best science book ever written!’) It is, in fact, Levi’s autobiography, in which he uses sustained metaphors from Mendeelev’s Table of Chemical Elements to structure the narrative of his own life and relationships. Levi was a Nobel Laureate – not for Science, but for Literature!

    What I had not anticipated was the extent to which usage of words and language
    would become a critical issue not only in the relationships between ‘arts’ and ‘science’ but also between some scientists in the neuro- and others in the more traditional-sciences. The bringing together in 2003 of an eminent neuroscientist, Professor M R Bennett, and Oxford philosopher, PMS Hacker, to produce their magisterial ‘Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience’ - acknowledging, in its introduction, that it would be ‘highly controversial’ - has certainly met that promise but failed to stem the controversy.

    Paradoxically, there were later moves by a number of well-known, populist scientists , to have philosophy declared ‘dead’ , at precisely the time when its questions seemed most needed; but happily there are no signs yet of the hemlock being uncorked. Nevertheless, the battle of words around ‘the reductionist agenda’ ( Noble’s phrase ) rumbles noisily and inexorably on.

    The choice of philosopher Colin McGinn by the New York Review of Books to write the review of Ray Kurzweil’s recent book ‘ How To Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed ’ could not fail to be provocative (though Kurzweil is not himself a professional neuroscientist); still, Joe Herbert, Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience from Cambridge (UK), was quickly into action in the letters’ page condemning McGinn’s ‘devastating review’ in combative language and at length.

    McGinn was wrong, wrong, wrong – Herbert confidently declared. “ McGinn’s assertion that neurons don’t recognise anything, or read, or understand, is wrong. They do: assemblies of neurons do exactly that. This is not homunculus talk … the brain generates the mind, as wings enable flight ..”

    Yes, responded McGinn – “ the study of the brain is highly relevant to the study of the mind. But it doesn’t follow that therefore the brain ‘understands’ ‘reads’ ‘thinks’ ‘feels’ or ‘processes information’.” Herbert misses the point of his own analogy. “ … wings indeed enable a bird to fly; but it is false and confused to say that ‘wings fly’ – it’s birds that do that ”.

    Herbert again. “ McGinn’s view that the brain cannot be said to carry information, unless there is some sort of supervisory element that he calls the mind, is so wrong. If I overhear someone talking Polish , I will not understand a word; the information content for me is zero. But it is information nevertheless..”

    McGinn again …” Herbert’s own analogy again works against him; the reason speaking in Polish counts as having information content is that someone can understand it, even if he can’t. All information is information – to some conscious agent. Accordingly, neurons do not, considered in themselves, process information or send signs, or receive messages – to indulge in such talk is a clear case of the homunculus fallacy.”

    There is clearly some distance still to go in this continuing dialogue des sourds ,
    but it remains important that it should be travelled. Meanwhile, Raymond Tallis at least ( author of ‘Aping Mankind’ ) feels confident enough, in a recent Guardian, to assert that ‘ Philosophy isn’t dead yet !’

    The ‘philosophy’ which Stephen Hawking pronounced dead in 2010, he believes, was not ethics, political theory or aesthetics, but ‘ metaphysics’ which focusses on ‘ the most general understanding of nature – of space and time ’. It was out of touch with the latest in maths and physics was Hawking’s indictment.

    Yet, according to Tallis, this would be the worst of times to give up the metaphysical banner. “ Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly forty years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but incomprehensible even to many who work with them … ” Above all “ the attempt ( of science) to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally … ”.

    Connecting our science to our humanity, he concludes, “ sounds like a job for a philosophy not yet dead ”.

    We’ll be watching !


    RW. May 2013.