Levels of analysis

Salon features an interview today with Steve Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein:

Proud atheists: Steven Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein interview | Salon Books

After reiterating the physicalist view of the mind, the article ends with this quote from Pinker (reminiscent of Marr’s levels of analysis):

[…] But just by looking at the brain itself, will you ever be able to understand the creative mind?

PINKER: I suspect not. In fact, the reason I’m not a neurobiologist but a cognitive psychologist is that I think looking at brain tissue is often the wrong level of analysis. You have to look at a higher level of organization. For the same reason that a movie critic doesn’t focus a magnifying glass on the little microscopic pits in a DVD, even though a movie is nothing but a pattern of pits in a DVD. I think there’s a lot of insight that you’ll gain about the human mind by looking at the whole human behaving, thinking and reporting on his own consciousness. And that might be true of creativity as well. It may be that the historian, the cognitive psychologist and the biographer working together will give us more insight than someone looking at neurons and brain chemistry.

I think the analogy with the DVD is disingenuous. In the case of the DVD, we know precisely how the low-level pits are combined to form the high-level representation (the movie). The system is not mysterious. To be fair, Pinker doesn’t say that neurobiology is always the wrong level of analysis. Maybe he would have been correct 50 or 100 years ago, but I think it’s clear now that neurobiology is on the path to providing a complete synthesis (certainly, with the help of cognitive psychology) that cannot be achieved without it.

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3 thoughts on “Levels of analysis

  1. A better example is a laptop. By ignoring the architecture of the processor in an everyday laptop, you miss out on some of the most clever and powerful concepts in the history of human thought. The logic unit, the Harvard architecture, the idea of caching data, the idea of a bus for routing information — just to stare at the black, plastic case of my laptop would yield no insight into how the computer computes. And yet by staring just a little harder, into the realm of circuits, how the entire device manifests computation into reality, rapidly becomes apparent.

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  2. I agree with you. If you don´t know the neural mechanisms underlying the mental processes you can´t sure about that phenomenon is true. Pinker is near conductism in these answer. For me his vision about the research of the mind is the reason for his opinion about the imposibility (now, and in the future) to know the mechanisms of counsciousness.

    Great web. I´m spanish. Sorry for the english language.

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  3. You can understand the computer at the software level just fine without knowing anything about how it works. The anti-reductionists think that the mind is the software level description of the brain. Presumably we could run the same software on vacuum tubes, integrated circuits, or using a complicated arrangement of used chewing gum. To focus on such detail, if you are interested in the program being run, would often be a mistake. They think the same applies in the explanation of human behavior.

    My problem with much of the antireductionist stuff is not their identification of software and mindware, but their claim that we can come to understand the brain at the software level without studying the hardware.

    The problem is that behavior underconstrains the set of possible computational mechanisms that underlie the behavior. Why should behavior be the one area of biology where the functional decomposition isn’t aided by an understanding of the meat doing the functioning? Imagine people studying digestion saying that they didn’t need to study enzymes, physiology, etc but that they could just study the inputs and outputs of the digestive system. This would be insane. Why should it be any different in the study of behavior?

    A guy in the 1800s actually did generate a complicated theory of digestion based on comparing the inputs and outputs of the digestive system (how pleasant). He made incorrect assumptions about the types of chemical reactions possible in the digestive system and his whole system was just wrong (I got this from a wonderful paper by Bill Bechtel, a philosopher at UCSD).

    The upshot: when you ignore mechanisms, you are likely to end up with a load of shit.

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