Monthly Archives: June 2015

What Dreams May Come

“What all of this does occasion, if grasped, is change in prevalent attitudes towards meaning, ideas and propositions” (Quine: Reply to Chomsky)

Dreams have perplexed people as long as people have existed. They have been viewed as messages from the Gods, as visitations to other worlds, or mere babble conjured up by the semi-conscious brain. In 1900 Freud wrote his famous (or infamous) book ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, where he argued that Dreams carried hidden desires which could be deciphered once one knew the language that Dreams were constructed in. In this short blog-post I want to discuss dreams and whether they do indeed express unconscious desires, wishes etc. Before beginning my analysis I will first outline two recent dreams I had. I will not be trying to interpret my dreams. Rather I will use them as illustrations my own direct experiences on the topic. I believe it is important for philosophers to go to their own direct experiences as much as possible, in order to ground our beliefs in our experienced reality as much as possible. Not that I think one person’s idiosyncratic experiences should somehow constrain science. Rather I think it is just important to use our own experiences as a template to see how much and to what degree our experiences coincide with what science is telling us. Furthermore when thinking about the mind I think it is important to avoid making the Typical Mind Fallacy of assuming that all minds are identical to our own. One way to avoid making this mistake is to directly describe one’s experiences and compare them with others to see to what degree ones experiences represent those of all people. Obviously it takes brain scans and behavioural tests to verify if people actually think differently, verbal reports are merely a starting point. So I will begin my blog-post by writing down two of my most recent dreams and I encourage people reading this blog-post to do the same themselves:

Dream 1: Occurred 2 nights ago:

One of the first things I remembered about my dream was that some girl had gone missing down a very deep cavern. People had searched but could not find her. Two friends of mine tried to find the missing girl but they had to return as one of them was afraid of some wolves who were in the cavern and when you got deep into the cavern it was flooded and you needed to be able to swim down there. I was worried because the girl (sometimes in the dream it switched between being a girl missing, and many people being missing) had gone deeper and further into the cavern than should have been possible. Eventually myself and a friend of mine went into the cavern to look for the girl, as we descended into it we eventually came across water and had to start swimming. The water was overwhelming. It was extremely difficult to swim in and I had the constant worry about being bitten by sharks. I wanted to turn back but my friend found this confusing and wanted to continue. Eventually someone (rescued/captured us), I don’t really what happened then…the next thing I remember was that my friend and I were back in a lab. Suddenly a machine in our lab contacted us, we had a model T Rex that was given to us by the person who saved us in the cavern last time. I through the T Rex model at the machine and the person talking through the machine destroyed the T Rex model. I shouted at my friend it is from a deeper layer than the creature who rescued us and is more powerful. We ran out of the lab and I felt that the theory of evolution had been disproven twice by something personal… the next thing I remember was I was back at big empty house that in the dream was my home. I went out to get some beers I met a friend of mine who had rescued the girl from the cavern she seemed in a terrible state. I went and picked up some beers and when I returned to my house it was vandalised”

Dream 2 which occurred last night:

“ I was looking for someone and a girl told me that they were in a room, but when I looked in the room I could see nobody. The girl laughed at me, and told me I could see them from another angle. So I walked around and looked in the back door. I could see people in the room though at a skewed angle. They laughed and told me that they weren’t really them but were representations from elsewhere…From here things get sketchy I remember turning from the room and meeting someone who had something wrong with his foot, somebody told me he was a copy of another person, that subjectively the person would think he was the real him but there would be another more real version of him somewhere. Then I saw a lot of replica’s of other people walking with their originals. I sat down to dinner. I looked at my foot it had something on it, I realised I was a replica. I talked with others about being a replica. A guy informed me that human replicas were not entirely controllable by aliens, but that lower order replicas of animals or plants were almost entirely controlled by aliens. We all went for a drive, I was sitting in the back of the car, when the driver started driving I fell out part of my leg was caught under the door of the car. I and other passengers shouted at the driver to stop but he only drove faster. This went on for ages. Eventually the car stopped…The next thing I knew I was walking towards a hotel and I recognised an acquaintance he asked me if I had got some product for him which I had promised. I informed him that I had not gotten it but would do so by tomorrow. We then bitched about the idiotic recklessness of the driver… the next thing I remember I was back at the dinner table here my memory of the dream breaks down. I vaguely remember that we and others at the table were changing form, things were getting frightening so we ran from the table. We ended up running over a bridge. But the bridge was surrounded by Ivy like a tissue of webs. The Ivy connected to my foot. We realised I had been captured by the vegetation. My friends went on. I lay ready to be transformed by the vegetation and I heard a beautiful song playing in the background singing the lyrics ‘Everything is Colours’.”

Freud’s theory of dreaming stated that the primary purpose of dreams was wish fulfilment. He noted that humans have a biological need to sleep but that worries and needs have a habit of waking people up from a deep sleep. Thus in order to keep us asleep the psyche constructed dreams which helped us fulfil our wishes/desires. Now there was obviously a problem with Freud’s theory from the outset if dreams were wish-fulfilments why do we have bad dreams and nightmares etc. Freud’s answer to this question involved arguing that the manifest appearance of dreams masked the real meaning of the dreams. On his theory our wishes and desires are often unconscious, and if we they entered consciousness they would be so disturbing we would wake up. So our desires are fulfilled in dreams in disguised forms.

Freud (like Skinner and most psychologists) wanted to ground his theory on evolutionary facts. He looked at man as an animal created by the forces of natural selection whose animal nature was repressed by societal norms. Those of us brought up according to cultural norms were indoctrinated with a form of ethics of the particular society we are born into. But our societal ethics does not always help us satisfy our unconscious animal urges for power, sex etc. According to Freud we satisfy instinctive urges that society judges unacceptable through Phantasy. By studying the things like Parapraxes (slips of the tongue) and dreams he claimed to have discovered that humans have unconscious urges.

Freud claimed by analysing the nature of dreams he discovered that they worked according to different laws of logic[1]. His analysis of dreams revealed that it worked according to the following logic (1) Exemption from Mutual Contradiction, (2) Timelessness, and (3) Replacement of External by Psychical Reality, (3) the absence of negation. From my own introspective examination of my dreams I will admit, that speaking only for my experiences, my dreams sometimes take the form that Freud claims is universal of dreams[2]. In my above dream we were looking for one person (a girl), and at the same time we were looking for a group of people. To me in the dream it didn’t seem at all strange to be looking for one person and a group in fact, it seemed that they were identical. So my dream involved identification of a group with an individual, it involved an acceptance of contradictions. I assumed that One = Many; if many equals 4 (or any number other than 1), then saying that 1 = 4 this will lead to wild contradictions in any mathematical system[3]. I have had many dreams where I talked to a person who represented an entire class of people, and have had no difficulty accepting contradictory states e.g. thinking a person was both dead and alive at the same time. So for the very little it is worth my introspective experiences has features that correspond to the logic Freud discusses. According to Freud when you understand the logic of the dream work you can unmask the latent content of a person’s dreams. The real meaning that lies under the manifest image that is the dream content we experience. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to analyse my dreams J

In a therapeutic situation Freud used the concept of free association, which was predicated on the concept of psychic determinism. So if a person has a particular image in their dreams Freud asks them to talk about what they associate with the image. The connections people make with the image will from Freud’s perspectives reveal the persons emotional connections with the image. Where the person’s free associations break down this reveals the persons possible unconscious feelings on the particular dream image. Freud began his studies by working on Hysteria (what we would call a psycho-somatic disorder). With his studies in Hysteria Freud believed that he discovered that people were unconsciously using physical disorders as a way of coping with unconscious disorders.

Freud was used his techniques on himself. His early interest in dreams was inspired by an event in his life. When his friend and fellow Doctor argued that Freud’s psychoanalytic treatments were not working on his patient Irma Freud had a dream which showed Otto in a foolish light, Freud interpreted this as unconscious resentment on Otto.

Freud’s theory of dreams had a dual existence in academic psychology with the rise of behaviourism it was largely treated with distain. But in the psychiatry and the humanities it was adopted by most people as a work of genius. However, while it enjoyed hegemony in psychiatry for for 75 years, from 1975 onwards the work of Hobson seemed to have refuted Freudian theories of Dreams[4].

Solms and Turnbull correctly noted that the work of Hobson seemed to have refuted Freud:

“… They were able to claim that since generation of REM is an automatic, pre-programmed process its unconscious mental correlate is as “motivationally neutral as the brainstem mechanism that generates your heartbeat. This much seemed certain…Some 25 years after it was first proposed, it is still completely dominates the field of REM sleep research. By 1975, then some of the great mysteries surrounding sleep and dreaming appeared to have been resolved. ..Hobson and McCarley 1977 seemed to have destroyed Freud’s theory of dreams with their activation synthesis model” ibid pp. 187-189)

On Hobson and McCarley’s model dreams were activated by the mechanisms in the Pons of the brain stem. And since the Pons was in no way connected to higher brain processes Hobson and McCarley were quick to point out that it had nothing to do with complex thoughts or desires. So they noted that brains were not caused by the type of complex desires that Freud postulated. The synthesis aspect of the model notes that the forebrain that is activated by the Pons tries to make sense of the random images, thoughts etc that the Pons has activated. But the whole process is random and ultimately on this model dreams do not have the properties that Freud attributed to them. In their ‘The Brain and the Inner World’ Solms and Turnbull noted that at a 1976 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association a very pro-psychoanalytic crowd massively agreed that Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ had been refuted by recent neuroscience. Now scientific disputes are not solved by a vote; but it is instructive that in 1976, the vast majority of psychoanalytic orientated psychiatrists believed by Hobson had refuted Freud.

Solms though argued that recent evidence shows that Hobson’s theories are not as sound as originally believed. Firstly Solms noted that Hobson (and the vast majority of dream researchers) assumed that dreams only occurred during REM activity (which is caused by the Pons), but actually up to 20 percent of dreams occur in non REM states. Solms noted as follows:

“In a 1997 study, 6 patients who had sustained damage to the REM-generating regions of the Pons were asked whether or not they were still dreaming, and their answers were a clear “yes”. In contrast, more than 40 others patients with damage to specific parts of the forebrain, nowhere near the critical REM-generating structures, did experience a cessation of dreaming following their brain damage-but in those patients the REM state was preserved” (ibid p. 193)

The obvious conclusion to draw as Solms did was that contra Hobson dreams are causally dependent on REM states. Solms research indicates that from a neurological perspective dreams can be caused by a variety of different states they can even be generated by the forebrain. Solms notes that Dreaming can be triggered by arousal from any place within the brain, including emotion, memory etc.

As I said above Freud argued that dreams were wish fulfilments which helped us sleep. But there was little way of helping testing his claims circa 1900. However recent research on brain damaged people who report that they no longer sleep indicates that they sleep worse than typical patients (see Solms 1995). This is to some degree a confirmation of Freud’s views, though needless to say much more research needs to be done on the topic.

As things stand from my limited knowledge on the subject the debate between people like Hobson and Solms is still wide open on the issue of the nature of dreams (though the evidence is swinging towards Solms sympathetic reading of Freud). That said I think to some degree the debate is much ado about nothing. I think that if Solms is tilting at wind mills by looking for the intrinsic meaning of dreams. Solms despite his competence as a neuroscientist believes that there exists real intentionality of the unconscious mind. He had presented no evidence to support this view.

I think that rather than think Freudian dream interpretation stands or falls on the debate between Hobson and Solms we should adopt a more pragmatic approach. Dreams are typically ambiguous, in some sense they are like Rorschach symbols. We can treat an analysands reactions to them as indicating what they are worried about, interested in. We can do this by letting them talk, and interpreting their talk. This is what talking therapy was originally about after all.

[1] For a more explicit working out of the supposed laws of the unconscious see Matte Blanco ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ where he works out mathematically the logic of the Freudian Unconscious.

[2] Obviously my own experiences should not be taken as having any real validity other than as data as to how things seem to one subject.

[3] Obviously as Matte Blanco noted we map many onto 1 in infinite sets but going into this would involve too much of a detour. The short story is for Blanco the unconscious is structured very similar to the infinite discovered by Cantor.

[4] Here I am following the work of ‘The Brain and The Inner World’ by Solms and Turnbull (2002)

Language and Physics: A Discussion of Some Issues


“Many physicists have gone so long not understanding quantum physics that they think it is a mistake to even try”

               “The world doesn’t speak only we do” Richard Rorty

Facebook can be a great medium to think through various different scientific and philosophical issues. A while ago on Facebook a friend of mind Fabiola Soreng posted an interesting quote by Heisenberg:

“It is not surprising that our language should be incapable of describing the processes occurring within the atoms, for, as has been remarked, it was invented to describe the experiences of daily life, and these consist only of processes involving exceedingly large numbers of atoms. Furthermore, it is very difficult to modify our language so that it will be able to describe these atomic processes, for words can only describe things of which we can form mental pictures, and this ability, too, is a result of daily experience. Fortunately, mathematics is not subject to this limitation, and it has been possible to invent a mathematical scheme — the quantum theory — which seems entirely adequate for the treatment of atomic processes; for visualisation, however, we must content ourselves with two incomplete analogies — the wave picture and the corpuscular picture.”

I had read this claim by Heisenberg many years ago in his book ‘Physics and Philosophy’. Over the years I have heard it repeated many times by various different physicists. Below is a nice discussion of the perils of trying to talk about physics when not being clear about language

When reading the post on Fabiola’s page I believed that these physicists including Heisenberg had inherited a logical positivist view on the nature of language, for example a Carnap/Ayer type view on language. I wondered if physicists today knew that few if any theorists would accept the simple picture theory of language that Ayer, following the early Wittgenstein, argued for. When I voiced these concerns Fabiola correctly informed me that a lot of physicists like Heisenberg were very critical of Logical Positivists and my historical understanding of the issue was deficient. That said I was still unclear as to what justification physicists had for their claim that language was incapable of describing the world of Quantum Mechanics etc. If they simply meant that in their experience language was a bad tool then there would be little issue. But if they on the other hand argued that language was structurally deficient then things would be different and they would need to provide some justification for their claims about the nature of language. So needless to say I was delighted to see that she tagged her friend physicist David Samuel Silverstein into our discussion. However before moving on to Silverstein I will first give a brief outline of Heisenberg’s reasons for thinking that language is inadequate to describe reality.

Heisenberg discusses language in his ‘Physics and Philosophy’ in the chapter ‘Language and Reality’. He argues that language is by its nature vague and that even if we try to define the terms of language we will have to rely on some basic concepts which are themselves vague. He claims that language is vague because of its evolutionary history. He gives various examples of what he sees as the primary difficulty with language, e.g. colour blind people who use the word red and green without having any idea of what the actual extension of these terms. He begins with a discussion of colour and appeals to the work of Socrates who in Plato’s dialogues showed the slippery nature of concepts that we think we have a handle of e.g. Justice, Equality, The Good, etc. He credits Aristotle with giving us tight definitions of concepts and says that Aristotle gave us our scientific language.

He then notes that Aristotle’s emphasis on logical analysis and syllogisms etc, while important doesn’t capture the actual vague pattern of ordinary language discourse. He then talks about how we develop a scientific language (through technical definitions) which is different from natural language. He argues that this technical language, prior to the theory of Relativity and Quantum Theory, could be employed consistently and without difficulty. With the mathematical and experimental discoveries of relativity and quantum theory things changed. He argued that since our language formed in a Newtonian world it would be of little use in describing non-Newtonian concepts.

He seems to think that with regard to language it gradually moulds itself around new theoretical developments. He notes that (scientific) language is now in line with Einstein’s notion of ‘simultaneity’. But he argues that there are unsurpassable difficulties when it comes to describing some aspects of physics in natural language:

“In the theory of general relativity the language by which we describe the general laws actually now follows the scientific language of the mathematics, and the descriptions of the experiments themselves we can use the ordinary concepts since Euclidean Geometry is valid with sufficient accuracy in small dimensionsThe most difficult problem, however, concerning the use of language arises in quantum theory. Here we have at first no simple guide for correlating the mathematical symbols with concepts of ordinary language; and the only thing we know from the start is the fact that our common concepts cannot be applied to the structure of atoms…But the problems of language here are really serious. We wish to speak in some way about the structure of the atoms and not only about the ‘facts’- the latter being for instance the black spots on a photographic plate or the water droplets in a cloud chamber. But we cannot speak about the atoms in ordinary language.” (ibid pp 78-79)

So above Heisenberg is arguing that Relativity theory is to some degree expressible in natural language but things are much more difficult with quantum theory. He goes on to note that there have been two alternative approaches to trying to describe quantum weirdness in ordinary language. The first approach is to speak vaguely (and poetically about) about the discoveries of quantum mechanics.


“In answer to the first question one may say that the concept of complementarily introduced by Bohr into the interpretation of quantum theory has encouraged the physicists to use an ambiguous rather than an unambiguous language, to use the classical concepts in a somewhat vague manner in conformity with the principle of uncertainty, to apply alternatively different classical concepts which would lead to contradictions if used simultaneously. In this way one speaks about electronic orbits, about matter waves and charge density, about energy and momentum, etc., always conscious that these concepts only have a limited range of applicability. When this vague and unsystematic language leads into difficulties, the physicist has to withdraw into the mathematical scheme and its unambiguous correlation with the experimental facts…In fact I believe the language actually used by physicists when they speak about atomic events produces in their minds similar notions as the concept ‘potentia’. The language has already adjusted itself, at least to some extent, to this true situation. But it is not a precise language in which one could use the normal logical patterns; it is a language that produces pictures in our minds, but together with the notions that pictures have only a vague connection with reality, that they represent only a tendency towards reality.” (ibid p. 80)


Here we see the curious approach repeated by Heisenberg that he used above when speaking about relativity theory. He begins by saying that language cannot capture the discoveries of relativity and a few paragraphs later speaks about language adjusting itself to the new facts of reality. Likewise he begins by saying that language cannot capture the facts about quantum reality, but he then moves on to say that language is adjusting itself to the new quantum reality, except in certain areas where we need some mathematical formalism to capture reality.

The other approach to describing quantum reality using language is designing a more precise technical language. Heisenberg describes this as follows:


“Weizsacker (Birkhoff and Neumann) have tried to create precise logical languages which can cope with the quantum world…The general logical pattern, the details of which cannot be described here, corresponds precisely to the logical formalism of quantum theory. It forms the basis of a precise language that can be used to describe the structure of the atom. But the application of such a language raises a number of different problems only two of which we can discuss here. The relation between the two different levels of language, and the consequences for the underlying ontology.” (ibid p. 81)


Heisenberg is correct to note that there are some technical difficulties with Weizacker’s formal language. Furthermore one wonders what advantage there is to be gained in developing a formal language to express the discoveries of quantum physics when we can understand them well enough in mathematics. Nonetheless I see no reason in principle why a more advanced version of Weizacker’s project cannot be developed. Hence I see no reason why we cannot express the discoveries of quantum mechanics in terms linguistic terms. From what I can see Heisenberg really showed little more than that language is not always a good tool for capturing physics not that it is structurally deficient.

When I discussed the issue of language and math with Silverstein he made some points which were different than Heisenberg’s. Silverstein made some interesting points and it is worth delving into our discussion to see where the brief dialectic led us. I began with the following question:

Firstly I should say I am not an expert in physics so I freely admit I could be badly wrong on this issue. That said I think it is worth discussing because I don’t understand the structural features of language that physicists are pre-supposing when they speak of the nature of language. You begin with the following claim:

“To a very large degree our verbal language is something that is limited due to the fact we as humans are hardwired and evolved within the macroscopic world where the laws of Newtonian mechanics apply. Because of this, the quantum world is something that is a complete breakdown of our intuition. When we even begin to attempt to intuitively describe what happens within quantum mechanics we find ourselves in the dark when we either use our current language or further modify it to something that makes little to no sense to us.”

You claim that because of the conditions of our linguistic evolution (a place where Newtonian Mechanics apply) our language fails us because of a misalliance between our folk intuitions about reality, and the strange facts about the quantum world. I think here when you talk about folk intuitions about reality, you are not speaking about language, but about our intuitive theories of the world. Humans do seem to be hardwired with folk psychological expectations about the behavior and mental states of other agents in the world, and the behavior of objects in the world. These are the domains of study of folk-psychology and folk-physics. When ethno scientists study folk physics and folk psychology they are not interested in the world per-se but in the cognitive processes of a particular species and their expectations (probably unconscious) of how the world works.

Now what is interesting here is that empirical studies into the folk physics of children, indicates that they have an implicit theory about how the world should work prior to acquiring any language. These studies are typically done by tracking the expectations of children; children are habituated to a particular stimulus and when something surprising happens (from the child’s perspective); the child will stare at the stimulus longer. Using this technique psychologists have found that children have detailed expectations of the way the world should work months before they even begin to acquire a language. Spelke (1990) describes some of this data:

“Bower’s studies have yielded four findings that seem to have provided evidence for object permanence in infants well below 9 months. First, 7 week old Infants were found to discriminate between disappearances that signalled the continued existence of an object (e.g. Gradual Occlusion), and disappearances that did not (e.g. gradual dissolution or sudden implosion). Second, 2 month old infants were found to anticipate the reappearance of an object that stopped behind the screen, ‘looking to that half of the movement path the object would have reached had it not stopped’ Third, five month old infants were found to show disruptions in their tracking when an object was altered while passing behind the screen: they tended to look back at the screen, as though in search of the original object. Finally, 5-month-old-infants were found to reach for an object that had been hidden by darkening the room. (1985, 195)”

Now there was admittedly some debate in the literature on the significance of Bower’s results; Piaget and Quine both in their different ways, argued that Bower over interpreted the data. But since then Spelke, Baillargeon, Markman, Carey, Bloom and many others have replicated these studies and responded to both Piaget and Quine’s objections. For a more detailed explication of these topics see my: . The important point here is that children typically begin developing their language from about 12 months as they learn their first words, and start triangulating on shared objects of experience with others, and this is months after they have developed their folk physics. So difficulties in describing the quantum world may as you suggest stem from a discontinuity between our folk physics and the actual structure of reality. But I don’t see how this can be traced to a problem in the structure of language as opposed to a problem with people expecting the world to fit their a priori intuitions.

Silverstein replied to my point as follows:

“ First off I would like to point out that this isn’t specifically with respect to our linguistic evolution, but to the very hard-wiring of our brain itself. However because of that, of course language is still going to play a role regardless, yet if we focus particularly on language alone that really is something that I feel will really mask the issue as a whole. Once again this does reflect on language yet to get at the very roots of language I feel one first needs to look and focus on understanding and comprehension. So to elaborate further one needs to look at and see how the world works first even before comprehension. Now that is some very interesting information you shared with me with regards to the psychological studies done with children. Yet this is something which really does show how we are hardwired to the Newtonian world, and because of that it is something that is extremely intuitive to us even at a very young age. Once again I feel what we have to do is look more at the root or as Fabiola said, a common denominator, and that really has to do with our understanding of the physical world.”

I am not entirely sure I fully understand the reply of Silverstein. On one level we seem to be in agreement that the conditions under which humans evolved resulted in hardwired intuitions which make understanding quantum mechanics difficult from an intuitive point of view. I would add that a slight amendment; studies in folk physics intuitions show that children seem to intuitively accept a kind of Cartesian contact mechanics. It is for this reason that people, including Newton, found some aspects of Newtonian physics puzzling. That said it seems that Silverstein and I are in agreement that our intuitive folk physics can be an impediment to understanding the real world.

What I am slightly confused about is his claim that we need to look at and understand the world ‘before our comprehension’. To some degree this seems like arguing that our eyes to some degree effect how we see the world, so to see things in a theory neutral way we should rip out our eyes and see the world as it is. When Silverstein argues that we need to understand the world ‘before our comprehension’ what he seems to mean is that we should carefully observe and mathematically describe the world as it is before theorising about it. I think, and pretty much all brain science and developmental psychology would back me up on this, pure theory neutral description is impossible we are always using an implicit theory to interpret data. Now things may not seem like that from the point of view of the theorist doing the observing but it is none the less a fact (see Wittgenstein 1953, Quine 1960 for more details). From the point of view of a working physicist these implicit assumptions may be so close to home that they are not even aware of them. The working assumptions typically do no harm so a physicist who thinks he is engaging in theory neutral observation and typically will not run him into trouble. Nonetheless it is important that we give as accurate description of what is going on as is possible if we as external observers are to understand the nature of the scientific enterprise.

Back to the issue of language I do agree with Silverstein that it has its deficiencies. Natural language can be vague there is no doubt about this. But people like Quine (1960) have worked on modifying our natural language to at least minimise this vagueness where necessary. There is a huge literature of Vagueness (Timothy Williamson has done great work on this) in natural language that can help in discovering where exactly natural language breaks down and examining this literature can probably help in the process of making language more precise in order to express the weird world of Quantum mechanics.

People like Ladyman and Ross in their ‘Everything Must Go’ attack the philosophical need to tame the world as revealed by contemporary physics. They note that attempts to make quantum mechanics more intuitive, by the lights of our folk intuitions, simply ends up falsifying the data. For this reason they argue we should treat the mathematical structure of the various theories as real and ignore the other aspects of the theory as mere window dressing. To some degree I think they have a point. Nonetheless I think understanding precisely how our folk intuitions differ from what science tells us about the world can greatly increase our understanding. So, for example, with a greater appreciation of what our intuitions are about how the physical world works, we can understand why we find some scientific theory radically unintuitive. This works in simple areas like probability, we have a good working understanding of how people intuitively think about probability, we can also explain why people’s intuitive probability goes wrong in certain areas. This helps us explain to children why certain facts seem intuitive to them and shows them the unreliable nature of their intuitions on some topics (some philosophers haven’t taken this simple fact on board: Thomas Nagel take a bow).

Similar situations arise in the study of consciousness where people use intuition pumps to get others to think that certain aspects of consciousness will never be amenable to a scientific analysis. But none of this is the fault of language as far as I can see, but is the fault of taking our intuitions more seriously than we should on a variety of different topics. Silverstein replied to my above comments as follows:

“As for differentiating our folk intuitions verses what science actually tells us; well that is something that we have been doing within the scientific community for centuries and it is still something we are differentiating today. Consciousness is something that is extremely mysterious due to the fact that we have such an ill understanding of what it is, however that is something that really isn’t something which we need to focus on language first, but once again need to look more at the big picture which is being able to understand it first. When it comes to talking about language I really don’t think that it is so important to specify on a particular nature of language they are using.”

Again here I think there are large areas of agreement with Silverstein and I. We are in agreement that science has been differentiating our folk intuitions from what sciences tells us for centuries. The evidence I gave about our deficient folk intuitions was scientific evidence. I am not presenting some alternative to science as the best tool for understanding reality, there is no alternative that I know of. On the issue of Consciousness I think he misunderstands me to some degree. I don’t think we need to focus on language first in order to understand consciousness. Rather what I was pointing towards was the fact that people have intuitions which make them think of consciousness in a certain way. These ways of thinking sometimes lead to pessimism about a science of consciousness. People like Dennett use language (analogies, metaphors, intuition pumps) to get people to think differently about consciousness. This is not a replacement of the experimental approach rather a helping hand in getting people be less guided by their a priori intuitions about the way we should or should not approach consciousness.

On the issue of language I do worry about the way physicists think about it. When physicists talk about language they typically (but by no means always) don’t specify what their theory of the nature of language is, rather they seem to rely on their own intuitive view on its nature. Relying on one’s own intuition is bad practice for physicists thinking about linguistics as much as it for linguists thinking about physics.

I think that it is necessary if language is being discussed for the person to give some indication of what they mean by the word ‘Language’. There are debates within linguistics about the degree to which language is an innate domain specific entity genetically programmed or whether is developed culturally and learned by each individual using domain general innate architecture. I think it is important to take a stance on these issues as if you are going to talk about language being limited in ways x or y you need to justify this with empirical data about the nature of language. There is a big debate on the extent to which natural language consists of universals that are wired into the subject and if a theorist is arguing that language is hardwired to do x or y then they owe us an account of what they think are the universals in natural language and some commentary on the anthropological and linguistic data offered by people like Everett, Sampson, Pullum, Evans, Behme, Cowie, Clark etc who argue that these supposed universals don’t actually exist.

Upon reading my reply to Silverstein my friend Fabiola responded by posting a meme from Feynman: in which Feynman argued that making language too precise as some philosophers do can actually be counterproductive and bad for science. Below is my reply to her:

Fabiola I am not sure I agree with you on Feynman. It seems to me that physicists say diverse things about language and don’t really justify them with empirical evidence. One physicist Pete Morrison claims that the problem is that language is too vague and cannot be used to make the precise predictions in the way that mathematics can. In the Feynman quote he complains that philosophers use language in too precise a manner. Heisenberg claims that language is deficient because we need to form mental images when using language whereas mathematics is more abstract. Einstein on the other hand argued that language was a bad tool for thinking and he preferred to think in mental imagery (so is he making the opposite claim to Heisenberg?)

So different physicists seem (from a cursory glance) to have vague and not always consistent views on what is so deficient about language as a tool for explaining the world. If they are making claims about the structure of language they need to deal with the structures revealed by linguistics. On the other hand if they are merely saying that language is a tool that is not very useful for them then we can just ignore the issue. I don’t think Feynman really addresses any real issue above it would be helpful if he cited particular philosophers who are guilty of this behaviour. Then I could see if he understands them correctly, if he did I may agree with his characterisation. Furthermore as Heisenberg showed above it is not just philosophers who try to improve language to make it a more precise tool to explain reality. Weizsacker, Birkhoff, and Neumann, have all tried to develop formal language for this purpose as well. I wonder what Feynman would make of their work?

I am not arguing that physicists need a theory of meaning to do their science. It is one of the most flourishing scientific fields there is, and needs no help from ignorant outsiders like me. I am more concerned with their views on language and whether I can make sense of them. In my view Linguistics is a flourishing science, if physicists want to talk about language they need to understand the science of language. Otherwise they can just choose to ignore the issue, (a perfectly sensible approach) but empirical claims about the nature of language require empirical evidence. I mean if a theorist decides to speak about quantum mechanics then presumably they need to know something about quantum mechanics and maths. Why does a physicist get to make vague claims about the nature of language while systematically ignoring the science of language? Just because a scientist has expertise in physics doesn’t make them an expert on language. It seems to me that some physicists make a mish-mash of claims; e.g., language is too vague to do x, we shouldn’t try to make language too precise because it leads to paralysis, we need to form a mental picture to use words. These claims are never justified with any evidence. I agree that if you want to understand cosmology physics is the only place to look (although philosophers like Maudlin and Ladyman, Ross, Albert etc have written interesting stuff). My concern is to understand whether there are structural features of language that make it unsuitable to understanding the world. And if there are why it cannot be modified to fill this void?. It is clearly the case that physicists find mathematics the best tool for explaining and understanding the world. But this tells us nothing about the semantic power of language or its limits. Silverstein commented on my reply to Fabiola as follows:

“To be frank it seems like it should be something that is self explanatory with regards to what language we are using. Yes I am one of those people that relay far more on my own intuitive view. This is my honest opinion when it comes to language and it is not only something that I feel is true but I would say that about at least 99% of the physics community of the past and present agree with. I cannot give any fancy linguistic argument since it is not my field, however I did express my opinion earlier and I hope this further illuminated it.”

More than anything he said, in our discussion, I am in strong disagreement with Silverstein’s above claim about language. If a theorist wants to make claims about the structure of language they need to provide empirical evidence to support these claims. The fact that 99 percent of physicists agree with him on this fact is not relevant at all. Furthermore this 99 percent of physicists seem to be in disagreement about what it is about language that makes it so deficient; is it too vague, is it too precise? Heisenberg seems to think that the problem with language is that we need to connect our words to mental images in order to give them content. This claim is simply false; some people are extremely poor mental imagers and don’t use mental imagery in using their words at all (see Kosslyn et al 2006, and Galton 1880). I have discussed mental imagery and how assumptions that all people have the same degree of mental imagery leads to theoretical mistakes in my blog post: . I think that physicists can claim that they don’t find language a useful tool and that is fine as far as it goes. But when they argue that language cannot express x or y they need to provide real empirical evidence to support their claim and neither Fabiola or David Silverstein have provided this evidence.

On the issue of mathematics Silverstein’s claims are interesting but again I think they need to be qualified. He argued:

Now mathematics is something which is not so limited because with mathematics we are writing down natures laws which is something that automatically comes to us, and no matter how it comes out, it is something that we write down and describe not with verbal language but the language of the cosmos. Hence we are not limited to inventing ways of describing things, when we are discovering the endless and different amount of ways the laws of nature comes to us. This is regardless if it is something that at first makes sense to us or not and no matter how paradoxical it may seem, the only thing we are looking for is truth, no matter how it may show its face to us.”

Firstly I think the metaphor of the language of the cosmos needs to be expanded on a bit. The universe doesn’t speak any language, it is us (and perhaps other creatures) that uses language or math to describe the universe, but does it really make sense to say that the universe speaks? I think it would be more expedient to say that so far mathematics has proven the most efficacious tool we have for describing the universe.

When he speaks of mathematics being used to understand the universe he argues that because of the fact that the universe speaks mathematics we don’t have to invent symbols to describe it. You just describe the universe in its own language; the language of mathematics. Assuming that he doesn’t think that the universe is a conscious agent who has a language, there are two ways I could parse his claims (1) As meaning that the universe at its most fundamental level is nothing more than a series of mathematical entities and their relation to each other. (2) That mathematics is the most useful tool we have for understanding the universe?

Silverstein replied to this question as follows:

“When I talk about the language of the cosmos and language of nature, you even stated that it does appear to be a metaphor. Indeed this is a metaphor and it doesn’t literally mean that the universe is literally speaking. I would like to add that I don’t see mathematics as a mere tool but I actually see mathematics as a discovery and artifact that we are uncovering. This is something that I truly do feel that makes it different than language which is something that really does appear to be something that is invented and is not something universal. To be very direct I’m going to put language and mathematics in two different categories and I don’t see the universe as a self aware conscious agent. To a very large degree, I will say that at the most fundamental level. Earlier I was not emphasizing language being hardwired into us; I was talking about the hard-wiring of our minds as a whole which gives us a physical understanding which then LEADS to language.”

Silverstein’s reply in so far as I understand it is an expression of some kind of Platonism. Language is a tool developed over our evolutionary history but mathematics is something that exists independent of our contingent biology and is a universal feature of the universe. I partly agree with him here but I think he ignores the degree to which our mathematical abilities are innately structured because of our evolutionary history. To develop the point a bit we can assume mathematical Platonism but still think that us as contingent biological entities may be incapable of grasping all of these truths and our innate mathematical sense may only partially correspond with the mind independent world. Silverstein who believes that maths puts us in direct contact with reality may not agree with my pessimism on this point.

When Silverstein speaks of the fact that “We discover the way the laws of nature come to us no matter whether they make sense to us, we accept it no matter how paradoxical it may seem, because we are after truth; no matter how it may show its face to us.” Here I think he definitely needs to expand on what he is claiming. Sure you can and should modify your theory on the basis of unexpected experimental results. But an experimental result doesn’t come with a label ‘I must be interpreted this way’. When an anomalous experimental result occurs and it cannot be made sense of in light of previous theories. Different theorists ALL of whom presumably want to discover the truth no matter what its face may disagree on how to account for this new experimental result. Different mathematical formalisms may be tried which at least agree with the current experimental result and can account for it in light of a modified previous theory and a variety of different experiments will be proposed to test the various new formalisms and theories. I think the way he describes things air brushes the fact that we are sometimes at a loss with how to cope with anomalous experimental data. Theorists disagree, and hopefully as we do more and more tests we can get an interpretation which is more in line with the facts. But such results are rarely the result of simply accepting some revealed truths but rather as a result of interpretation, theorizing, and testing these theories as rigorously as possible.

Silverstein replied as follows:

“With regards to how nature shows itself, I am saying that regardless if we comprehend it or not, it is something that we write down regardless. As I stated before there are things that observation plays a key role in the picture and regardless if what we are observing cannot be understand and if there are no words to describe it in the dictionary we write down the mathematics regardless, and when it comes to labeling yes it does indeed come with a label, we simply just need to decipher what it is telling us. Yes different mathematical formalism often is tried, but very often we are discovering a brand new axiom of mathematics, something physical which is which is describing our results.”

Here again he seems to be emphasising the importance of pure observation and not letting our theories force us to ignore inconvenient or seemingly bizarre data. I think it is worth reflecting on the degree to which our minds enter into our interpretative process when we are collecting data. Chomsky has written about the fact that we are creatures created by natural selection not angels so we shouldn’t be so sure we are always directly in touch with reality at all times. I have written on this topic and though I am very critical of it, it is worth thinking through his logic in thinking about whether our brain engages a science forming faculty which to some degree influences how we interpret the world . There is a long standing debate between people like Kuhn and those like Weinberg and Sokal on the degree to which observation is theory laden. I don’t think Kuhn is necessarily correct on this issue but I do think that Silverstein is beginning with the assumption that Kuhn is wrong and hasn’t provided much evidence to support this a-priori intuition of his.

When Silverstein talked about the evolution of language he noted that it developed in our Newtonian Environment. But he spoke about mathematics as something we discover and read off Nature’s language. To some degree I agree with him on this, I think Frege and Husserl both conclusively showed that mathematics cannot be entirely reduced to psychology. That said some of our implicit mathematical abilities are shared with other animals, Dogs, Crows, non-human Primates Etc. There is good evidence that we have an innate number sense which we use to acquire our more complex mathematical abilities. See for example:

Above Susan Carey discusses the evidence for an innate number sense. In a different direction Ian Hacking and George Lakoff have discussed the role of embodiment in the type of mathematical structures we develop:

Above is a talk by Hacking on mathematics development and Lakoff on embodied cognition. None of this in my opinion shows that mathematics can be reduced to cognitive/embodied processes in my opinion. But it does show that if we are going to discuss the nature of mathematics and language we need to pay attention to cognitive science to justify our positions. We do know that in the brain there are different areas which specialise in language and math. We know through brain damage that the areas are dissociated from each other. A person after a stroke can have much of their mathematical abilities spared, while losing the ability to speak and understand language (and vice-versa). But I don’t think this really demonstrates much about the structure of maths and the structure of language and how they can be developed, modified, and inter translated.

Silverstein responded to the above points as follows:

“Yet with mathematics what we are doing is that we are doing something that is rather different. Even before we can understand what it is we are writing, we are writing down our observations; something which we very often are forced to come up with entire new names because of what that very observation is telling us. While with the mathematics it is indeed something that is already there; and indeed being a physical phenomenon, it was something that already existed before our prior knowledge. To be direct, we don’t invent words such as gauge invariance, Lorentz Transformations, Chern-Simon forms and topological explicit and spontaneous symmetry breaking prior to the mathematics and that is used to describe our daily lives. This is something that comes to us first from the mathematics and then we are forced to invent new words for them.”

I think here I should note that Silverstein is presenting a particular philosophy of mathematics called realism. In their ‘The Grand Design’ Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow espoused a kind of model dependent realism, while people like Penrose prefer a form of Platonism. Different physicists hold different philosophies of science. So a physicist who says that this is the philosophical views held by physicists needs to at least debate with the competing scientists who hold different philosophies of science whether pragmatist, Platonist etc.

An important point to note when speaking of natural language (and the degree to which it can express mathematical truths) is that natural language is typically explained interms of mathematics by linguists. Linguists typically explicate syntax in terms of a kind of quasi set theory; semantics in some quarters is explicated in terms of ‘Tarski’s theory of truth’. There are mathematical studies of the statistical features of words being used and correlated with the probability of a child hearing things like nouns, verbs etc in their linguistic environment. Some theorists like Katz actually think of language as an abstract object like math. I think if physicists want to make large scale claims about the semantic powers of math (or lack thereof). They need to provide empirical evidence to support their claims.

I found the discussion with Fabiola and David Silverstein very interesting and informative. But I am not sure that I fully understand their positions. So I decided to post it in blog-post form to see if others had any views on the differences between natural language and mathematics and could perhaps help us to further clarify the issues. As a non-expert on these issues I hope to gain further insight by engaging with thinkers who have thought about this issue deeper than I have.


“There is no such thing as philosophy free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination” (Daniel Dennett 1995)

In his ‘Freudian Unconscious and Cognitive Neuroscience’ Vesa Talvitie contrasted two different conceptions of the unconscious. He called them the dry unconscious which he traced to Aristotle via Leibniz and is studied today in cognitive neuroscience, and the wet unconscious which he traced to Plato via Schopenhauer and Freud and Jung. Talvitie correctly noted that the unconscious been massively studied and explicated by philosophers over the last 2000 years. Yet despite the fact that philosophy has clearly had a significant influence on psychoanalysis, Freud was dismissive of philosophy and some current analysts think that philosophy is actually harmful for psychoanalysts to study. Donald Meltzer has explicitly argued that the study of philosophy is bad for practicing psychoanalysts. But as Daniel Dennett admirably put it, there is no such thing as philosophy free science, just science which uncritically takes on board philosophical baggage without examining it. Over the last 50 years or so, some psychoanalysts have argued that despite the brilliant clinical insights of Freud, his theory of the mind was infected with harmful Cartesian assumptions about the nature of the mind. Psychoanalysts like Stolorow and Cavell have used the arguments of Heidegger, and the later Wittgenstein and Davidson to repair the conceptual foundations of psychoanalysis. While on the other side of things psychoanalysts like Matte Blanco have used the mathematical logic of philosophers like Russell and Frege, and the early Wittgenstein (and mathematicians like Cantor) to try and make psychoanalysis more rigorous.

Matte Blanco was influenced by Bertrand Russell’s views on Logic, in particular Russell and Whitehead’s ‘Principia Mathematica’, and applied them to psychoanalytic observations. He attempted to explicate the workings of unconscious logic using the set theory. His main insight was that the logic of the unconscious as described by Freud has similar properties to the infinite that Cantor discovered. Thus in unconscious fantasies parts are often considered equal to wholes, and when we explicate infinity similar things happen, with an infinite series you can map the prime numbers on to the natural numbers, and despite one series being a part of the other they both add up to an infinite series. Blanco explicates the unconscious in terms of the principle of symmetry and the principle of generalisation and shows how these features can make sense of otherwise inexplicable behaviour. I won’t go into this in too much detail here other than to say he thinks that he explicates the unconscious interms of symmetrical logic and consciousness interms of asymmetrical logic.

Blanco’s theory of emotion is derived from a direct phenomenological analysis of our experience of emotion. He starts with an assumption which influences the rest of his analysis of emotion throughout his text. Firstly he treats propositional attitudes as something that is caused by brain but as something that is not identical to any particular brain-state. He maintains that he is not supporting any kind of mind/body dualism. Rather he is just noting that our propositional attitudes are not obviously identical with our brain states. Now Blanco is correct that his view doesn’t commit him to substance dualism, but it does seem to commit him to form of property dualism. Though strictly speaking he doesn’t argue that the propositional attitudes won’t reduce to brain states he merely states that it isn’t obvious that they will, but that future brain science may refute his conjecture. He was writing ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ in 1975 around the same time that Fodor was writing ‘The Language of Thought’ and Dennett was writing ‘Then Intentional Stance’, and eliminative materialism had yet to surface. So Blanco could be forgiven for not having this worked out in any detail.

Somewhat surprisingly, while he argues that propositional attitudes emerged from the brain but may not be identical with the brain, he argues that sensation-feeling is obviously a bodily state. Nowadays, with Chalmers hard problem of consciousness, the relation between raw feels and the brain/body is dubbed the hard problem of philosophy which some theorists think we will never solve. Blanco notes:

It will be seen that, if one starts from the phenomenological point of view, the subject unfolds with the help of logical notions which are at the heart of psychoanalytic conceptions. The ensemble is, therefore, phenomenological-psychoanalytical-logical…But where emotion differs from it is in the fact that it not only leans, so to speak, on bodily events (if we wish to be more Unitarian, we would say: it is not only an integral part of a psycho-physical event), but in its very nature must be viewed as a psycho-physical phenomenon. An example may illustrate what I mean. If I am afraid, my heart may beat faster than usual and I may become pale. Faster pulse and paleness are not the physical substratum of the emotion of fear in the same way as some brain metabolism may be the substratum of thinking. They are more than that: they are integral aspects of the phenomenon called fear. Similarly, tense muscles may be considered integral aspects of the emotion that is called expectation…We feel them to be such directly and refer to the physical aspects of them as an integral part of the emotion, whereas this is not the case with thinking…To give an example: we are now more fully aware of the influence of emotion on thinking. We know that people see the world according to the emotions we experience; if they are under the influence of paranoid fears they will tend to see people as persecutors; if they have repressed sexual wishes they will find sexuality where others would not discover it; and so on” (ibid p. 217-219)


Blanco makes a good point that bodily sensations are very closely connected to bodily processes but the exact feeling of pain or happiness does seem to be obviously identical with any physical process in the body. Here I am not accepting any intractable hard problem there are various ways of attacking the hard problem e.g. Galen Strawson’s approach or Dan Dennett’s approach. My point is merely that contrary to what Blanco claims the emotions don’t seem to be any more identical to bodily/brain states than the propositional attitudes are from an intuitive point of view. Now as we know, intuitions are not a great guide to ontology so the relative obviousness or non-obviousness of the supposed identity is not that important from a pure naturalist perspective. But since Blanco’s emotional theory is derived from a close phenomenological analysis of our experience of emotion if his analysis of emotions doesn’t correspond with other people’s experience of emotions then he faces a problem that needs to be addressed.

Blanco’s analysis of emotion deserves credit he anticipates the work of Damasio in breaking from tradition and not separating emotion from thinking. To some degree he thinks sensation-emotion is primary but he argues that all thinking is intertwined with emotion and that intense emotion is driven by propositional thought. His work was heavily influenced by the philosophical work of Bertrand Russell’s ‘Analysis of Mind’ and William James’s papers on Consciousness. Blanco’s phenomenological analysis of emotion lead him to a position so similar to Sartre’s theory of emotion that Blanco actually devoted an appendix of his ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ to discussing how both theorists arrived at such similar views as each other independently. Clearly Blanco was influenced by philosophers such as James and Russell, and he used similar techniques as Sartre, to arrive at his theory of emotions. A lot of philosophers like Wittgenstein, and Popper have been dismissive of psychoanalysis. While Freud and a variety of different psychoanalysts have been dismissive of philosophy, nonetheless the two subjects seem to have offered key insights to each other. This can be seen further if we analyse the work of Marcia Cavell.

Marcia Cavell was influenced by the work of Donald Davidson in particular his emphasis on triangulation, and paradoxes of irrationality. Her emphasis on procedural knowledge, implicit memory and knowing-how (as opposed to knowing-that), being prior to explicit knowledge is consistent with the views of Heidegger and Stolorow. She says for example:

Children do not learn that oranges exist, that beds exist. They learn to peal oranges, to lie in beds. Attention to the ways language is actually used in daily life will free us from the temptation to hypostatize language and meanings, as Plato did in positing a realm of abstract, immutable Forms. There are not meanings, but people meaning things by what they do” (Cavell: Becoming a Subject p 64)

By drawing on the work social scientists like Margret Mead and philosophers like Grice and the later Wittgenstein Cavell notes that ‘selves’ emerge through social interaction with peers about a shared world of experience. She hammers home the point by discussing the work of Donald Davidson. Davidson in a series of papers argued that a necessary condition of thought was a self, other and a shared object of experience.

“To believe that p is to hold that p is true. Of course you can know that it might be false, can be doubtful of its truth, and so on; the point is that the concepts of belief and truth, evidence and reason, are necessarily linked…So if you have a belief of the propositional sort…you must have a grasp of how you THINK things are, and how they truly are, between right and wrong, correct and incorrect, true and false, since belief is by definition, a state of mind about the world; it is the sort of thing that can be true or false (even though one may never know in a particular case which it is), and for which one adduces evidence and reason. (ibid p. 67)

For Davidson (and the later Wittgenstein) we can only discover the difference between something being true and something being false if we have a self, another and a shared object of experience which we can make claims about truly or falsely. Robert Stolorow speaks of post-Cartesian philosophy and uses Heidegger as a philosopher who more than most has helped us escape from the myth of the isolated mind. As we can see though Cavell using the work of Donald Davidson and Wittgenstein manages to avoid a lapse in to Cartesianism. Both guys end up with the same result but using different strategy. But there are differences Stolorow’s emphasis on procedural knowledge, is largely consistent with Cavell. But Stolorow’s focus on anxiety, and death, etc is far removed from Cavell’s concerns. Likewise when Cavell discusses the nature of irrationality she borrows from and improves on Davidson’s logical arguments (by considering developmental evidence), she is arguing in a manner alien to the likes of Stolorow. Nonetheless I think there are a lot of similarities to the psychoanalytic work of Stolorow and Cavell which can be traced to their philosophical influences Davidson, The later Wittgenstein and The early Heidegger. Blanco as we have already seen was heavily influenced by philosophers like Russell and James. So clearly philosophy has played a key role in influencing Freud’s development of the unconscious and psychoanalysts influenced by philosophers are busy trying to make psychoanalysis more rigorous using mathematical methods invented by philosophers, and to free psychoanalysis from hidden Cartesian assumptions through detailed phenomenological analysis. So philosophy and psychoanalysis while sometimes critical of each other can be mutually enriching fields.

A former teacher of mine Ross Skelton is a logician, a psychoanalyst and a philosopher. He has written papers on Blanco and has forty years of clinical practice behind him. When discussing the influence of philosophy on psychoanalysis with me noted that while people like Blanco, Stolorow and Cavell have done some interesting theoretical work their theories have had little impact on clinical practice. So one could argue that despite what I am claiming philosophy has had little practical influence on psychoanalysis.[1] It could be further claimed that like the way engineers can rely on Newtonian physics and ignore the niceties of Relativity Theory when dealing with terrestrial objects psychoanalysts can ignore the philosophical debates about Cartesian theories embodied cognition etc. This approach is fine as far as it goes as long as the analogy is followed through. Engineers don’t deny that relativity theory is true they merely abstract away from it for some purposes in order to simplify calculations. If psychoanalysts are doing similar things then there is no problem. But it should be noted that in certain circumstances the effects of relativity cannot be ignored. Likewise I would argue that the mathematical modelling done by Blanco and the emphasis of embodiment and phenomenology cannot be ignored in all circumstances and psychoanalysts would be well advised to use as many tools at their disposal as possible.

At the start of this blog-post I noted that Vesa Talvitie made a distinction between the dry unconscious of cognitive science and the wet instinctive unconscious studied by psychoanalysis. In my next blog I will discuss the relation between the cognitive unconscious and the psychoanalytic unconscious. I will try to bring the two unconsciousness together with the work of Deacon, and the idea of Selfish Neurons, showing that if we start from Deacon’s position of creatures fighting off the second law of thermodynamics the cognitive unconscious will be seen to be less dry and mechanical. I will show that there is less of a schism between psychoanalysis and cognitive science than some people think. Dennett notes the distinctions between theorists of a different mind set:

“There are no entirely apt labels for the opposing sides of this gulf, since the ongoing controversy turns every battle cry into a derogatory term for the other side. Reductionism, fie! Holism, fie! “Enlightenment” versus “Romanticism” is pretty close, as the reader can judge by considering what the following team players have in common; on the Enlightenment side: Darwin, Turing, Minsky, Dawkins, both Crick and Edelman (in spite of their antagonisms), Tibor Ga´nti, E. O. Wilson, Steven Weinberg, Paul and Patricia Churchland, and both Raymond Kurzweil and me (in spite of our antagonisms). On the Romantic side are arrayed Romanes and Baldwin, Kropotkin, Stephen Jay Gould, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Stuart Kauffman, Roger Penrose, Ilya Prigogine, Rupert Sheldrake, and the philosophers John Haugeland, Evan Thompson, Alicia Juarrero, John Searle, and—off the map, now— Jerry Fodor and Thomas Nagel. Many have been inoculated against the other side by the excesses of some of the participants. Can anybody knit up “the Cartesian wound that severed mind from body at the birth of modern science” (p. 544)? Deacon, defending the Romantic side, makes some real progress largely because he understands and appreciates both sides so well. He is a good evolutionist and cognitive scientist with insightful interpretations of the strengths and triumphs of evolutionary and computational thinking, and he is trenchant in his criticisms of Romantic lapses into mystery.” (Dennett ‘Aching Voids and Making Voids’)

I will try to bridge some of these divides between psychoanalysis and cognitive science which are mirrored in the Dennett quote above. Not by treating all approaches as equal but by adopting the approach of a vulture and adopting what is useful in each theory and discarding what is not.

[1] Skelton does allow that Lacan’s use of Hegel has had an actual practical influence on clinical practice. But I won’t discuss Lacan’s work here as I have done so in other blog-posts see my ‘Lacan and Cognitive Science’