Thursday, September 30, 2010

Details, Details...

In the Humanities, we like to emphasize the importance of what we call "close reading," by which we mean concentrated attention to the details of a text: syntax, specialized vocabulary, nuance and conditions, logical order, the manner in which ideas develop and are connected. We do this because we aim to achieve, I hope, precision in our understanding. Not a "vague idea," not something "in the ballpark," not "close enough to count," but rather accuracy, correctness, definitude. Truth, even.

The hard(er) sciences have their own analogous practices, which also aim at achieving verity and securing knowledge: control groups, principles of falsification and parsimony, independent confirmation of reproducible results. Mathematics, even. Our methodologies may differ in some rather dramatic ways, but they're structurally much more similar than we might sometimes like to admit. In particular, when it comes to making claims about the things we purport to know, the first rule across the disciplines is: Get It Right.

It's exasperating to see philosophical claims, or the claims of particular philosophers, so grossly mangled in scientific literature. The recent article in Discovery magazine titled "The Places in the Brain Where Space Lives" by Carl Zimmer is a case in point. It's a really fascinating neuroscience/cog-sci piece about a condition called "spacial neglect," which causes its victims to "lose" (at least a part of their) spatial sense. For the record, I think Zimmer (who is a frequent guest on NPR shows like This American Life and Fresh Air) has a real knack for delivering technical, specialized, and highly sophisticated scientific information to the populus. My guess is that bona fide neuroscientists and cognitive scientists might also have a few bones to pick with his account of the phenomenon he reports, but I want to pick a specifically philosophical bone here. Zimmer's essay begins with a reference to the eminent 18th C. German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who initiated the so-called "critical turn" in philosophy with his landmark 1781 text The Critique of Pure Reason. Zimmer begins:

The great philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that nothing matters more to our existence than space. Every experience we have—from the thoughts in our heads to the stars we see wheeling through the sky—makes sense only if we can assign it a location. “We never can imagine or make a representation to ourselves of the non­-existence of space,” he wrote in 1781.

The nonexistence of space may certainly be hard to imagine. But for some people it is part of everyday life. Strokes can rob us of space. So can brain injuries and tumors.

So, there it is. Kant must've been mistaken. We found some damaged brains that lack a sense of space. Science proves Kant wrong, right?

I'll put aside for the moment Zimmer's hyperbolic and otherwise naïve claim: "Kant believed that nothing matters more to our existence than space." There's a long and storied battle, even in expert Kant scholarship, about which is the most significant of the philosopher's three "Critiques"-- the Critique of Pure Reason (which dealt primarily with metaphysical and epistemological questions), his Critique of Practical Reason (which dealt with morality), or his Critique of Judgment (which dealt with aesthetics, Nature, and teleology). My own position on this is that the three Critiques constitute a whole, and an understanding of any one is deficient without an understanding of its co-implication with the others. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, for sure, in this case.

At any rate, to Zimmer's credit, making reference to Kant was a smart move. For philosophers, and others familiar with Kant, this is an obvious connection, as one of the more revolutionary claims of the "Transcendental Aesthetic" section of Critique of Pure Reason (from which Zimmer quotes) is Kant's proposition that our understanding of the external world is not derived solely from experience, but rather from a combination of our perceptions and a priori concepts. "Space" and "Time" are two of these concepts, according to Kant. They are not derived from experience; they are the preconditions for experience. That is to say, there is NO "perception," NO "experience," without space and time already (conceptually) being in place. We do not percieve or experience Space and Time as such; rather, they serve as the conditions for the possibility of percieving or experiencing everything else. So, my guess is that even an undergraduate who has had some minimal exposure to Kant's first Critique would be able to see that the neuroscientific phenomenon that Zimmer describes-- "spatial neglect"-- does not constitute a proper falsification of Kant's theory. None of the study's subjects have been robbed entirely of their sense (or, Kant would say, concept) of space. They are experiencing it in an anomalous or strangely truncated way, to be sure, but they are still experiencing. Proving Kant wrong would require demonstrating some experience that is "experienced" utterly independent of space and time.

The "nonexistence of space" is not simply "hard to imagine," as Zimmer (incorrectly) claims that Kant claims. It's impossible to think, much less experience. And although the subjects that Zimmer describes do pose an interesting case, it is NOT the case that the "nonexistence of space... is a part of [their] everyday life."

I'll restrict my impulse to remind Zimmer et al that Philosophy is ALSO a scientific discipline, the "Science of sciences" even-- remember, Logic is our sandbox, everyone else is just playing in it-- and that Philosophy also has rules and methods and axioms that ought not be violated, not the least of which is to read closely! (I'll resist my corresponding impulse to say "RTFA!"... or, maybe, "RTFB!" in this case). But I will implore all those who find themselves compelled to "throw in" a reference to a philosopher, however well-intentioned it may be, to take more care before they do.

This especially goes for all compulsions to reference Nietzsche's claim that "God is dead" or Derrida's claim that "There is nothing outside the text" or Descartes' claim that "I think, therefore I am" or, well, pretty much anything that Marx said.


anotherpanacea said...


But don't read it by yourself. :-)

Carl said...

Clearly, I need to read up on my Kant.

As way of explanation--if not excuse--I came across the connection between Kant and spatial neglect in "Spatial Deficits and Selective Attention," by Lynn Robertson (in The Cognitive Neurosciences, 4th edition 2009, MIT Press).

Robertson, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, opens the chapter as follows:

"The influential 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that space and time were the two necessary mental concepts supporting all other human experience."

After quoting Kant on how we can't imagine the nonexistence of space, she writes,

"Although it is very nearly impossible to imagine a world in which space does not exist, there are individuals with damage to certain brain areas who must contend with the loss of spatial perception on a daily basis."

Chet said...

What does RTFA FTW mean?

Leigh, don't let yourself sink into mediocrity defending Kant from scientists. That's the job of untenured faculty and adjuncts!

DOCTOR J said...

@Carl: Thanks for stopping by... and, if this wasn't made clear above, I want to say again that I am a real fan of your work (the perhaps overly-harsh tone of this post notwithstanding)!

I think the important point (only implicit, admittedly, in the Robertson quote that you cite) is that, as I noted here, Kant's claim is that Space (and Time) are a priori concepts, which means (among other things) that they are not derivative of experience. That means that we cannot have "perceptions" or "experiences" of things that are not accompanied and contextualized and made thinkable FIRST in conjunction with our concepts of Space and Time, but also that our concepts of Space and Time are largely vacant and meaningless without the perceptions and experiences that fill that context with content. As he famously stated in the First Critique: "Concepts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind."

The *radical* element of Kant's claim is, of course, that our concepts of Space and Time are conditions for the possibility of "experience." My worry with the "spatial neglect" studies, as you explain them, is that they suggest that there are people who have no "concept" of Space. If that were the case, it would most certainly present a MAJOR challenge to Kant's theory of perception, and also (I suspect) an entirely new problem for neuroscientists. But, in the end, the "loss of [a certain degree of] spatial perception" is not the same as the loss of spatial perception (or conception) altogether.

Again, I really appreciate the work that you do. So, I'm interested to hear your thoughts on my claim that there is a significant and disproportionate relation between the claims that scientists make about philosophical theories and the claims that philosophers make about scientific theories. I wonder if, in your view, an analagous misattribution or misinterpretation (by a philosopher, toward a "hard" scientist) would be taken as seriously?

For the record, I am not accusing you of "not doing your research" (as is evidenced, in part, by the citation you provided in your comment, which I can see as easy to misread sans context).

Carl said...

I don't know whether or not someone can lack a concept of space. I'm not Kant, and I'm not a neuroscientist. But the more that I think about it, I don't know how one would actually translate "the concept of space" into modern terms that could be made part of a scientific investigation. Would scientists have to ask questions like, "Do you know the difference between up and down?"

That being said, there are definitely all sorts of really radical spatial neglects that I didn't have time to get into. Balint's syndrome, for example, is sometimes called a psychic paralysis, making it impossible for a person to pay attention to anything that isn't directly in front of his or her own eyes.

Scientists can certainly be flaky at times about philosophy, just like they can be about the history of science. I have no idea how to measure degrees of flakiness, though.

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks, again, Carl. I guess what I want to say is that if neuroscientists (and cognitive scientists) are NOT asking themselves the question "What do we do with concepts?", then I'm guessing they have already conceded the mind-vs.-brain debate and settled that the mind is *only* the brain. I, for one, am not so sure that all of the operations of the mind/brain can be translated into "scientific" (by which I understand you to mean, I think, "materialist") terms.