Neuroscientists are Kantian Anti-Realists

From Michael Rohlf’s new SEP article on Immanuel Kant:

[According to Kant], the sensible world, or the world of appearances, is constructed by the human mind from a combination of sensory matter that we receive passively and a priori forms that are supplied by our cognitive faculties. We can have a priori knowledge only about aspects of the sensible world that reflect the a priori forms supplied by our cognitive faculties.

[T]he Critique claims that pure understanding too, rather than giving us insight into an intelligible world, is limited to providing forms — which he calls pure or a priori concepts — that structure our cognition of the sensible world. So now both sensibility and understanding work together to construct cognition of the sensible world, which therefore conforms to the a priori forms that are supplied by our cognitive faculties: the a priori intuitions of sensibility and the a priori concepts of the understanding.

Here we can see the intellectual foundations for modern neuroscience’s claim that the objects we experience are illusionary constructions generated from the brain making hypotheses and guesses about how the world is based on ambiguous sensory input. The key idea here is construction. An internal mental construction implies a disconnection from the objects themselves. When grasping a coffee mug, my vision is not directed towards the cup itself, but rather, towards an internal construction the brain generates. According to Kantian neuroscience, the mug I experience is not real; it is a simulation. Neuroscience is thus an intellectual descendant of Kantian anti-realism. Indeed, 20th century positivism collapsed into representational phenomenalism despite its claim to be “anti-metaphysical” and modern neuroscience has subsequently followed suit with little critical discussion.

For neuroscience as for Kant, experience is a construction. This means that the mind is directed towards representations. Of course, Kantian neuroscientists claim that the physically sensitive brain actually bumps up against the real world through its corporeal body. It’s just that low-level physical bumping is not sufficient for conscious experience; the brain must take the bumpings and then operate on them in order to generate or construct a “percept”, which is experienced by the mind. The mind is always directed towards these percepts rather than objects themselves. The coffee mug in my hand is nothing but an internally generated percept, which may or may not “correspond” with the real. This of course inevitably opens up the possibility of brain-in-a-vat external world skepticism and radically skeptical epistemological worries such as the “problem” of illusion and hallucination. Moreover, internalists like Thomas Metzinger avoid the inevitable homuncular problem by supposing that the construction views itself or, put another way, the screen upon which the construction is projected is the whole system. In other words, Metzinger claims that one can have a theater without an audience.

I take this to be wildly unparsimonious. Surely the operation of constructing an incredibly complex phenomenal percept is costly. If thinkers like Metzinger are willing to throw away the self in their theories, why not throw away the projective-theater metaphor which was originally developed to accommodate a robust theory of selfhood? If our metaphysics bottoms out in brain activity, behaviorism is the more parsimonious theory. But this would be a hybrid behaviorism that incorporates “internal phenomena” such as mind-wandering, introspection, episodic memory, internal speech, working memory (visual sketchpad, phonological loop, reconstructive imagination), etc. In the same way that Metzinger argues for a selfless theory of percept construction, I would argue for a selfless theory of mind-wandering and introspection.

Selfless is perhaps a misnomer because under my theory, the self is very much real insofar as it is the transcendental entity which “performs” the operations of introspection. However, this self (call it an “analog self”), can itself be seen as a virtual construction which is operationalized whenever internal phenomena arise. The imaginings of the mind-eye couldn’t operate unless there was a virtual perceiver but this perceiver is “self-organizing” in the way that Metzinger’s self-viewing theater is. The key difference between myself and Metzinger however is that I claim the selfless selving of introspection is operative only periodically whereas Metzinger claims that selving is operative for all experience, including ordinary perception of the real. For me, experience is divided between conscious, self-reflexive introspection and behaviorist automatisms constituted by instinct, reflex, habit, and learned, automated skills. These automatisms ground introspection both ontogenetically and phylogenetically. Phylogenetically, because automatic, nonvoluntary behavior preceded conscious, deliberate mental acts by millions of years. Ontologically, because nonconscious behavioral reactivity characterizes the experience of human infants; introspection is a skill we learn through exposure to the appropriate cultural scaffolds (language, folk psychological discourse, etc.). Selving is thus something that, as Heidegger says, exists primarily as a counter-possibility to automatic behavior. The self is not foundational for experience, but rather, is a mode of experience derivative from our more primordial absorption into familiar patterns of habit.


Filed under Phenomenology, Philosophy, Psychology

4 responses to “Neuroscientists are Kantian Anti-Realists

  1. When grasping a coffee mug, my vision is not directed towards the cup itself, but rather, towards an internal construction the brain generates. According to Kantian neuroscience, the mug I experience is not real; it is a simulation

    … but the things that the neuroscientist observes are REAL. This is the decisive difference between Kant and modern neuroscience, and it is profound. For the scientist, and NOT for Kant, there is a group of people whose privileged perspective affords them a view of reality: brains, neural activity, reports from subjects, etc.

    Kant was willing to do the philosophy in order to discover that this position is basically incoherent, and that no person occupies such a magical perspective. If the neuroscientist really says that my coffee cup isn’t “real”, they are caught in a contradiction.

  2. Gary Williams

    … but the things that the neuroscientist observes are REAL

    Kant believed in the reality of the earth just the same as the modern neuroscientist but was concerned with the conditions for the possibility of experience. He wasn’t an idealist, but thought that conscious experience is only possible if it is constructed (synthesized) by the transcendental ego (mind/brain) from the given matter (sense-data) which are grounded in reality (the noumenal realm).

    If the neuroscientist really says that my coffee cup isn’t “real”, they are caught in a contradiction.

    The neuroscientist would say that the coffee cup is real but our experience of it as an phenomenal object is illusionary/simulated i.e. a mental representation constructed from the given sense-data based on hypotheses and learned expectations (which leads to the possibility of illusions when our guesses don’t “correspond” to reality). This is the basic theoretical position of almost all modern neuroscience.

  3. vic p

    If we can say that the whole processs is integrative, then the environment transforms the self. With the self being most real, the environment becomes most real. Of course we can also be “dis-integrative” when we introspect and daydream, so the self or system “hacks” itself like a kid hacking a computer network.

  4. Michael LaFargue

    Of course when I see a mug, *something* is there, but is it a “mug”? Does what is there correspond in detail to what I see. E.g if I see a colored mug, something is there that makes me see the colors, but I don’t think what is there are colors.

    On the other hand, I don’t think my gaze is directed on a representation, if “representation” is in my mind. My cognitive apparatus makes me see the mug out there at a spatial distance from me. No theory is going to make me see the cup as something existing in my mind (alongside ideas, daydreams, etc.) rather than out there in the world.

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