Wednesday, September 29, 2010

neuronal pragmatists

Two ways in which neurons act like fans of pragmatist philosophy:
  • In the pragmatist viewpoint (interpreted by me), the significance of knowledge is closely tied to its value in practice, assuming highly elastic definitions of "value" and "practice". Similarly, the strength and variety of connections between neurons are closely tied to the impact of neurotransmitters. And the release of neurotransmitters is clearly correlated with emotions, broadly categorized as "pleasure" or "pain", and emotions in turn are a large part of subjective value. Research has also shown that once this link is forged between knowledge and emotions, mere anticipation and contemplation can trigger the experience, albeit at a less vivid level. Hence, anatomy and physiology support the pragmatic notion that creatures naturally evaluate knowledge based on its effects. There's a feedback loop between knowledge and its short-term and long-term results. Of course, the mechanism can operate independently of high-level abstract insights about danger or desirability, like in cases of phobia and mental trauma. Or when someone has difficulty memorizing knowledge that's important yet provokes no reaction in the person besides indifference.
  • More mysteriously, the judgment of knowledge commonly has a nebulous and inarticulate component of "reasonableness" that's integral to pragmatic truth but neglected by other philosophies. When this component is verbalized, people describe it as intuition, the "ring of truth", "feeling right", "clicking into place", "harmony", "seeing the whole picture", "jumping levels of meaning", maybe even related to the "oceanic feeling". (Software developers probably refer to it when they babble on and on about "beauty" and "elegance" in their computer code. Mathematicians say that they felt "guided" and "sensed the right track" to a solution.) My speculation is that this brain sensation corresponds to instances of mental economy. In other words, one "item" of knowledge connects up to another item of knowledge to form some kind of unity, even if it takes the form of opposites on a continuum. Data or concepts were in chaos, but now are in order. Exceptions turn into new, subtler rules. Furthermore, I speculate that this mental economy corresponds in turn to synchronization of the firing neurons that store those items. It's well-known nowadays that the brain is filled with activity in most of its states, and that the unconscious/subconscious/non-conscious takes up a rather startling percentage of that activity. Thus it's noteworthy whenever there's an unusual amount of synchronization of neurons in consciousness (does this help explain the human enjoyment of music?). Any knowledge that acts as a bridge or otherwise "performs double duty" causes a synchronization and a new network-of-networks of the participating neurons. So when we speak of resonant ideas, the description approaches literal truth, for the ideas' neuron firings resonate. Perhaps this is a feasible physical hypothesis for what happens when pragmatists claim that people value an idea based in part on its "reasonableness".