Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Brain, Mind, and Computers by Stanley Jaki

[I posted this review of Stanley Jaki's Brain, Mind, and Computers at Amazon recently...]

If you read enough of Fr. Jaki's works, or at least enough of the right ones, you see certain themes emerge time and again. One of the most important of those "Jakian" themes is the irreducible ontological gap between "the quantitative and the qualitative." Fr. Jaki explicitly cites an early source for this distinction as Aristotle (cf. Categories 16a). What makes physics the chief of natural sciences is its ability (sometimes envy-producing for other sciences) to isolate minute areas of material reality and explain them to an exhaustive quantitative degree. However, given the gap between quantities and qualities, this limits physics to quantitative concerns (when physics brings in literally meta-physical perspectives and assumptions, it makes proper use of the realm of qualitative reality). Given the nature of reality, you could call physics the supreme, because supremely limited, science. The disparity between quantities and qualities is the thesis of Fr. Jaki's first book on the history of science, **The Relevance of Physics** (TRP, 1966), its relevance being but the narrowly defined flip-side of its Irrelevance in many areas of life, an irrelevance acknowledged by many of physics' brightest lights.

The quantity-quality theme is also the driving force behind **Brain, Mind and Computers** (BMC). Indeed, Jaki mentions he originally intended to make BMC a closing chapter of TRP, but, upon reading M. Taube's **Computers and Common Sense**, he decided the cognitive/AI issue needed a lengthier, manifold treatment on its own. Ideally, then, BMC should be read in conjunction with, and perhaps only shortly after, TRP. BMC originally (ca. 1969) consisted of four chapters (each averaging 160 footnotes) and an epilogue, but in 1989 Fr. Jaki reissued BMC with a new fifth chapter (sort of like H. Dreyfus did with his **What Computers STILL Can't Do**, though Fr. Jaki thinks not very highly of Dreyfus's phenomenological arguments against strong AI), so be sure you get the newer paperback edition from Regnery.

Not only as a "Jakian" Catholic myself, but also as a believer in academic rigor -- one of Jaki's great strengths -- I am constantly miffed and surprised not to see this book cited in the indices or bibliographies of books dealing with the philosophy of mind and cognitive sciences. (An exception is D. Hofstadter's annotated bibliography in **Gödel, Escher, Bach**, but even then he brushes BMC aside as mere polemics, albeit with some "interesting" points ... yet he never engages those interesting points.) Certainly BMC is dated in terms of its contemporary analysis of AI. Even so, the gaps it fills in the historical record and the emphasis it lays on key issues -- such as 1) the futility of a physicalist reduction of human consciousness, 2) the important (rather Gödelian) discrepancies between human cognition and computerization (i.e., between language-as-understood and terms as formally describable), and 3) the crucial difference between computational results and intellection per se (i.e., the immateriality of thought per se). This last point deserves some elaboration. To borrow one of Fr. Jaki's own metaphors, just as two rivers may combine molecules when they converge but do not thereby perform addition, as a formal mental operation, so a computer may produce an algorithmic solution without thereby grasping the problem. The immateriality of intellection is understood by Fr. Jaki in terms of all words being universals and all meaningful discourse being predicated on methodical realism.

For these reasons alone, BMC should not be so consistently ignored by supposedly well read scholars in the field. The praise the book earned when it first appeared, coupled with the status of its author, should make BMC more prevalent in the discussion, even if only as a matter of academic thoroughness. BMC should remain especially significant in the AI/cog-sci debates since it is argued in tandem with TRP, a book no scholar of science can do without reading.

Of course, I am inclined to believe that, despite his accolades on a formally academic level, the priestly collar so proudly worn around Fr. Jaki's neck has led, even if unconsciously, to chronic disparagement of him on a personal level, moreso than some academics might care to admit.

Works that could profitably be read with BMC include:

  • M. Adler's **The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes** and **Intellect: Mind over Matter**
  • J. Maritain's **The Degrees of Knowledge**
  • E. Gilson's **Linguistics and Philosophy** and **Methodical Realism**
  • M. Taube's **Computers and Common Sense**
  • Fr. Jaki's Real View Books pamphlet, "The Brain-Mind Unity" and **The Relevance of Physics**
  • J. Ross's essay, "Immaterial Aspects of Thought"

1 comment:

Michael Turton said...

I am constantly miffed and surprised not to see this book cited in the indices or bibliographies of books dealing with the philosophy of mind and cognitive sciences.

Jaki's main work has been as a historian and philosopher of science; what he writes on the mind, he, ummm, doesn't do so well. Arguments for dualism remain strong among philosophers, but they are on their way out among cognitive scientists, particularly those who work within evolutionary paradigms, where some really exciting stuff is going on.

It's ridiculous that we both live in Taichung and can't get together to hammer shit out over a beer. We'll grab Karl Smith one of these days...