Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bones and sinews.

I'm slogging through, er, writing a brief talk for a neuroscience class under the dubious title assigned to me): "What philosophy can do for neuroscience." Sigh. I'm off my game here, but Plato (being dead) never is. I came across a wonderful bit from the Phaedo that certainly helped me withstand materialist reductions.

When Socrates asked why he was sitting in the jail awaiting trial, he noted that Anaxagoras would have told him that he sat there because his limbs bent at the joints, his sinews stretched, and his rear touched the seat which was in the jail. In other words, Anaxagoras would have explained it all in terms of his body parts.

Socrates’s answer speaks to us today as we hear things like, "Well, the neurons explain away free will."

"By the dog, I think these sinews and bones could long ago have been in Megara or among the Boetians, taken there by my belief as to the best course, if I had not thought it more right and honorable to endure whatever penalty the city ordered rather than escape and run away. To call those things—sinews, bones, joints, sockets—causes is too absurd. If someone said that without bones and sinews and all such things, I should be able to do what I decided, he would be right, but surely to say that they are the cause of what I do, and not that I have chosen the best course, even though I act with my mind, is to speak very lazily and carelessly. Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause from that without which the cause would not be able to act as a cause!” (Phaedo, 98e-99b)

He then goes on to a brilliant philosophical discourse on the immortality of the soul, asking all the deepest questions of our longings and attempting to grasp at answers that take account of all he knows—his body, his thoughts, his country, his upbringing, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

And it is a bumbling brilliancy—as all such grapplings are. And Socrates would laugh at neurophilosophy's confidence that soon, at last, knowing the whole of the brain, we will understand ourselves. For we will understand only a little something of a much greater whole. And, without the reference to the whole, the material part will lose its certainty, for it will lose its context.

As Socrates knew, it is only in appeal to all things—seen and unseen—that the satisfaction of our deepest, and philosophical, questions even begin to emerge into the light.


Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Excellent, excellent post -- and your neuroscience talk should be excellent. My daughter, who is a professor of neuroscience, would insist that neuroscience can only help us understand the biology and the psychology of a condition or state, not serve as a prediction or deal at all with the metaphysical, the metaphysical being beyond the confines of neuroscience. Well, at least, I believe she would say that based on her approach and thinking in general -- and I certainly don't think neuroscience will be able to go beyond the physical/physiological because that is the basis of its definition. Cognition is in the domain of neuroscience; metacognition belongs to philosophy and other branches of psychology.

Anyway, well done and good luck on your talk.

e2 said...


Rae said...

It seems that science simply *must* hope to achieve absolute knowledge, but humility brings one much closer to truth. I especially appreciate your description: "And it is a bumbling brilliancy—as all such grapplings are." It seems most fitting for this topic.