Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Problem of Universals, Christian Physicalism and Modern Neuroscience

I teach about and like to study medieval writers. One perennial debate during the Middle Ages was the "problem of universals."

Now I'm not convinced that universals in the Platonic or Aristotelian sense exist (i.e., rednesss itself, circularity, squareness or beauty as such), but let's assume that we can talk meaningfully about universals, whether they're Platonic, Aristotelian, Ockhamist or Abelardian. We might develop a scenario like the following based on modern psychology:

A) Distal stimulus: a diamond
B) Proximal stimulus: the information from the sensory object (e.g., a diamond) that reaches our sensory receptors
C) Neural networks: the brain is able to form varying representations of the distal stimulus
D) These representations constitute what philosophers have called "universals."

See Rod Plotnik's Introduction to Psychology.

In truth, there is no one answer to this question from a neuroscientific perspective but there are theories which try to explain perception and concept-formation (abstraction). Joseph LeDoux has written an interesting work on this subject entitled The Synaptic Self. I am most convinced by his neuroscientific account and Antonio Damasio's explanation of the embodied self.

Of course, one cannot be dogmatic about such matters, but my ultimate goal is to understand what the self is. How does science correlate to what we learn from Scripture? There appears to be evidence that we do not have souls, but are souls (Genesis 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:45). While no neuroscientific theory has definitively explained the self, I also don't see a need to invoke the soul concept as an explanation for perception or abstraction.


Duncan said...

Interesting ideas. I had not heard of "redness" before:-

It reminded me of this:-

Edgar Foster said...

Thanks for the links. In the case of redness and other similar presumptive entities, a distinction is being made between abstract redness as such and red concreta. According to the theory, an apple may exemplify or instantiate redness, but the apple itself qua a concrete object is red (not redness itself).

These categories may seem trifling or nit-picky, but they play an important role in ancient theological debates and modern discussions about--among other things--mind and the self.

Duncan said...

Wouldn,t this conversation be redundant to one who sees green & red as being the same or one who cannot see?

Doesn't this demonstrate that the physical parameters need to be uniform for a common uniform understanding of the range of frequencies we call red?

Edgar Foster said...

I don't think either situation would make the conversation redundant, since one could still distinguish between a red object and its essence. Or for a possibly clearer example, consider the conceptual difference between triangularity (normally viewed as a universal or general essence) and a specific triangle (a concrete object). A triangle could be scalene, obtuse, equilateral (so forth), which Plato and Socrates argue indicates that there is a difference between individual triangles and triangularity itself.

The ancients and medievals were striving for something else (IMO) besides a common/uniform understanding of natural phenomena. They wanted to understand a thing's essence: its whatness or quidditas. Furthermore, they did not have the scientific knowledge that we today have. Nevertheless, while questions about Forms (universals) can be epistemological, they also have been ontological/metaphysical.

Duncan said...

For triangles, if subsets did not exist with varying vectors then this would not be possible:-

But the software requires the specific number of vectors to recognise the varying point to point distances. Extremely small levels of variance can be measured. But the object defined as something with three sides internally totaling (always) 180 degrees is constant within a single plane.

So I still think that commonality in definition is the key. Now if one party only considered a triangle is conceptually real if one corner is at 90......

Duncan said...

What you are describing sounds like:-!essay=/dreyfus/drepung/monasticed/s/b41

And probably just as unproductive.

Edgar Foster said...

You make some good points about triangles, but I still don't think that Plato/Socrates would concede that a common definition for triangles would be a sufficient condition for determining what it means for X to be a triangle.

Granted, some writers on the subject have contended that Plato/Socrates tried to achieve common definitions for universals, but a common definitioin alone would not be sufficient for Plato/Socrates. Moreover, there are numerous ways that we can define an object (X).

Putting aside these conceptual difficulties, it's good to know that the ancient philosophers tended to define concreta and abstracta in terms of genus and species. For example, they distinguished animal (genus) from man, horse, or dog (instances of species). It's similar with triangles. Plato/Socrates insist that there is an abstract Form known as triangularity that is unseen to human eyes (the universal), which undergirds all concrete triangles (species). The Form explains why triangles have interior angles adding up to 180 degrees or why all triangles are three-sided polygons. So they appear to be saying that the common definition--if we could develop one--would logically depend on the abstract universal that is not perceptible to our senses.

Edgar Foster said...

Keep in mind that my primary concern is whether we need the soul concept to deal with universals, or is the brain sufficient to deal with them?

I've also given thought to common definitions as solutions to logical problems, and it has been tried before, but did not get off the ground. Gottfried Leibniz attempted to construct a universal dictionary in his younger age, but later abandoned the project. Ludwig Wittgenstein also seems to have given up on such an endeavor.

Besides, think of all the variant definitions for "water" or for "heat," not to mention abstractions like dimensionality or humanity.

Duncan said...

I am trying to grasp your main point & I think I am starting to grasp it.

Edgar Foster said...

Main question: is the soul idea needed to explain our ability to form concepts?

Secondary issue: Are universals merely words/merntal concepts or do they actually exist outside the mind as objects in their own right?



Edgar Foster said...


the links you shared did address one of the issues I raised, to wit, the problem of universals. Plato/Socrates broached the issue, Aristotle challenged the Platonic/Socratic view of the Forms, then the medievals took the discussion to another level. Of course, I skipped how this "problem" was handled by ancient theologians/church fathers. Christopher Stead has a helpful book on the subject, and so does a church historian named Hanson. The latter study is about the Arian Controversy, but it touches on the univeral question.

Duncan said...

Thinking on:-

There are clearly universal principles that we must inhabit and therefore through sensory education what we then call a concept is unavoidable built on sensory experience.

To say that a blind person can conceptualize redness is deceptive as they can assign a value to the idea of color but without the sensory input (the common perspective) how can it be a uniform idea. They could associate redness with heat & blueness with cold since these are experiences that can be associated and communicated by those who have both inputs.

This is where work on AI (if such can exist or can even be defined) is useful. For software to mimic human response by "learning" from sensory input, it requires the input to be as near equivalent to human as possible.

This is where the nephesh comes in :-

For example bowels(gut)/heart unconscious mind:-

Thinking built on physical attributes.

Duncan said...

Duncan said...

Have not read yet but may be of interest.

Edgar Foster said...

I've had discussions with some colleagues, who think concepts cannot be reduced to our perceptual experiences. Like Plato and Aristotle, they would contend that universals are metaphysically prior to things we experience in the sensible realm. Plato even believes that the Forms (abstract universals) are epistemolgoically prior to sensory perceptions. I don't believe Plato would rule out a blind person being able to conceive of redness although he/she never visibly perceived a red object. And let's assume that the blind person cannot understand/does not know the scientific data for red. On the Platonic view, I think he/she could still have the concept of redness.

I agree that thinking for us humans requires some type of sensory input, so it would make sense that we might see this kind of thing mirrored in AI. However, Plato and other people I know seem to be arguing that concepts are not necessarily connected to percepts.

Edgar Foster said...

The links will also be helpful. I love Wierzbicka, and found the videos interesting as well. Thanks!

Duncan said...

Duncan said...

Duncan said...

I just found this which is very interesting food for thought. So is redness a concept at all or just something only shared through a common label & vocabulary? The label redness being the trigger.