Hayek, Hebb, and Heisenberg: Toward an Approach to Brain Functioning

Here’s the second of the extracts from a bona fide neuroscientist (and friend of Fuster). Gerald Edelman of course is also someone who recognized Hayek’s genius in this area.

. . . the mind must remain forever in a realm of its own which we can now only directly experience it, but which we shall never be able fully to explain or to ‘reduce’ to something else (Hayek, 1952, 8. 98).

F. A. Hayek’s The Sensory Order must rate as one of the most creative books written on general philosophy of neuroscience. Though Hayek was a Noble-prize winner in economics, and was not educated as a neuroscientist his book opens up a new window on neuroscience, and this window certainly offers great possibilities to neuroscientists working on unifying aspects of neuroscience. Guided by the fundamental view of Fuster (1995) I have tried to suggestively interpret Hayek’s concepts firstly as a work on memory and brain dynamics (Başar, 2004), and more recently, as a more general work on the brain-body-mind relationship (Başar, 2010). Though a detailed description and interpretation of Hayek’s philosophical psychology is not possible because of space constraints, I will try to explain three concepts that are embedded in the work of Hayek: 1) D. O. Hebb’s learning theory (1949) 2) The S- Matrix concept of quantum dynamics developed by W. Heisenberg (1943), and 3) The Feynman Diagrams as a consequence of the S-Matrix theory.

In the first half of the twentieth century two important books introduced outstanding holistic and dynamic approaches to brain functioning. The first, Donald Hebb’s book (1949) related to the organization of behavior, inspired several neuroscientists in search of the “Hebb neuron.” According to Hebb, the functioning of the brain after learning is a “different” brain compared with the same brain before the learning process. Though Hayek developed his theory almost twenty years prior to the publication of Hebb’s book, The Sensory Order was published three years after Hebb’s book. The chain of ideas developed in this theory is highly pertinent to the dynamic nature of the living brain. Hayek states: We shall see that the mental and the physical word are in the sense two different orders in which the same element can be arranged; though ultimately we shall recognize the mental order as part of the physical order (Hayek, 1952, section). Hayek argues that it is the whole history of the organism that will determine its action with new factors contributing to this determination on later occasions that were not present on the first.

In The Sensory Order asked the question “what is mind?” and discussed the relationship between mind and body or between mental and physical events (Hayek, 1952, 1.49). Hayek classifies “emotion” as a special type of disposition for a type of actions which, in the first instance, are not necessitated by a primary change in the state of the organism, but which are complexes of responses appropriate to a variety of environmental conditions. “Fear,” “anger,” “sorrow” and “joy” are attitudes toward the environment, and particularly towards fellow members of the same species. This means that a great variety of external events, and also some condition of the organism itself, may evoke one of several patterns of attitudes or dispositions, which will affect the perception of, and the responses to, any external event. “Emotions” may thus be described as affective qualities similar to the sensory qualities and forming part of the same comprehensive order of mental qualities. Hayek further proposes that we must distinguish between two different kinds of physiological “memory” or traces left behind by the action of any stimulus. One is the semi-permanent change in the structure of connections or paths and which determines the courses through which any change of impulses can run (similar to Hebb’s principle). The other is the pattern of active impulses proceeding at any moment as results of a stimuli received in the present and past and perceived also as merely part of continuous flow of impulses of central origin, which never altogether ceases, even when no external stimuli are received.

The theory of brain functioning or the “new psychology” as described by Hayek in The Sensory Order still merits important attention as a general framework in stimulating brain-storming approaches to brain-body-mind integration. This essay has described some possibilities to bridge Hebb’s Theory and the quantum brain approach with the insights of Hayek.


London Aesthetics Forum

The LAF is putting on two lectures that would have great appeal to me:

One of my favourite philosophers, Colin McGinn, on Hand, Mind and Language:

In what ways might the human hand have contributed to the evolution of the human mind and human language? To what extent do we have a “manual mind”? Could spoken language have had its origins in a gestural language based in the hand? This lecture will advance the thesis that ostension and prehension are connected and that the mind is a “grasping organ”. This provides a new and acceptable form of biological naturalism about mind and language.


Catherine Wilson on Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities: Mach’s Empiricism and the Episodic and Narrative Self:

The Austrian writer Robert Musil, author of the great but still little read trilogy, The Man without Qualities, obtained his PhD in in early 20th century Berlin with a thesis on Ernst Mach’s empiricistic philosophy of science. The paper will discuss Mach’s contribution to literary modernism and to the notion of the fragmentation of the self, a notion that has resurfaced in recent debates over the importance –or unimportance –of narrative continuity to selfhood.


The Emerging Science of Consciousness: Mind, Brain and the Human Experience

Daniel Kahneman and David Chalmers on this panel. There are other discussions of relevance as well on this site.


Ian McFetridge

For some reason the late brilliant, though relatively unknown philosopher, Ian McFetridge popped into my consciousness (on reflection, the thought could have been triggered by my thinking about a school chum who had a McFetridge kind of intelligence and wit but sadly was never to even begin to reach his potential). Anyway, Ian conducted my Birkbeck interview and never used his superior intelligence or his knowledge to score points even though I was, philosophically, terribly naive. None other than Colin McGinn in his terrific autobiography speaks affectionately about Ian the man:

He was a short, springy man with a small moustache, fiery brown eyes, and an ebullient manner.  . . . I appreciated his quick, darting intellect and his fine philosophical judgment. He was the kind of philosopher who saw one’s point immediately and always had something to add to it, either critically or creatively. He could sometimes be a bit too animated, as if small explosions were being detonated in his head, but I liked his seriousness and his sound philosophical sense. He was humorous, generous, lively, compassionate, human. At the end of my teaching day I would often stroll over to Birkbeck to meet Ian, who taught mainly in the evening; if he wasn’t in his office he was already in the pub. I would order my usual half pint of larger while Ian went through pints of beer at an impressive pace. We would gossip and talk philosophy  . . . Then, after about five quick pints, he would hurriedly announce that he would have to go and give a lecture. This never ceased to amaze me: I would start to lose my philosophical head  . . . while Ian would be perfectly coherent after his fifth pint  . . .

But Ian had problems. He worried obsessively about his work  . . . He smoked and drank far too much . . . He also had difficulty reconciling himself to his homosexuality . . . All this was combined with a manic-depressive temperament  . . .

Colin McGinn, The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy

Here is the opening paragraph to Christopher Hookway’s review of the posthumously edited work in Philosophy, Vol. 67, No. 260 (Apr., 1992), pp. 264-266.

Logical Necessity and Other Essays By I. G. McFetridge, edited by John Haldane and Roger Scruton. The Aristotelian Society, ix+240 pp., £12.00

The editors of this volume, which collects Ian McFetridge’s published writings with a selection from his Nachlass, speak of sharp and vital philosophical presence. The addresses they delivered to his Memorial service provide a moving and accurate picture of the man and the philosopher: Roger Scruton’s description of his first encounter with McFetridge, from which he emerged chastened, philosophically enlightened yet with his philosophical self-confidence intact, describes an experience that many will share. The contents of the book provide testimony to McFetridge’s philosophical powers, a reminder of what he might have contributed to British philosophy. At the time of his death, McFetridge was working on a book on modality, an historical and analytical examination of philosophers’ attempts to explain the source of necessity and the grounds of our knowledge of it. Although far from completion, the project was well enough advanced that we can be grateful for the hundred pages or so of the present volume which are taken from work in progress-and saddened that there was not to be time for more work in the same vein. Logical Necessity also contains four published papers, contributions to scholarly debate which will be familiar to those working in the appropriate areas. These include an early piece on aspects of Davidson’s semantic programme, McFetridge’s Joint Session response to John McDowell’s ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?’, and an interesting discussion of the philosophical significance of supervenience claims. A robustly sensible review of some books on Wittgenstein is included, together with interesting but lesser pieces on the morality of deterrence and on the nature of knowledge. Although those who knew McFetridge will be pleased to possess this record of his philosophical achievements, and his philosophical powers are evident throughout these works, the lasting value of this volume must lie in the previously unpublished material on modality, and it is to this that I shall now turn.


Hayek and Behavioral Economics: Mindscapes and Landscapes: Hayek and Simon on Cognitive Extension

I see that the publisher now has a fully detailed page up for a volume that I’ve been privileged to be a part of. The Foreword is by a very nice chappie going by the name of V.Smith and includes luminaries such as McCloskey, Boettke, Gintis, Steel and others. My abstract:

Mindscapes and Landscapes: Hayek and Simon on Cognitive Extension

Hayek’s and Simon’s social externalism runs on a shared presupposition: mind is constrained in its computational capacity to detect, harvest, and assimilate “data” generated by the infinitely fine-grained and perpetually dynamic characteristic of experience in complex social environments. For Hayek, mind and sociality are co-evolved spontaneous orders, allowing little or no prospect of comprehensive explanation, trapped in a hermeneutically sealed, i.e. inescapably context bound, eco-system. For Simon, it is the simplicity of mind that is the bottleneck, overwhelmed by the ambient complexity of the environmental. Since on Simon’s account complexity is unidirectional, Simon is far more ebullient about the prospects of explanation. Hayek’s social externalism functions as a kind of distributed “extra-neural” memory store manifest as dynamic spontaneous orders. Simon’s organizational rule-governed externalism negotiates the “inner” world (the mind) with the “outer” world through a homeostatic interface that offloads the cognitive burden into the environment. Their respective externalisms may differ in detail but not in spirit in that it ameliorates their shared presupposition of cognitive constraint. Even though any “optimization talk” for Hayek and Simon is objectionable, knowledge acquisition can be represented by a contextualized stigmergic swarm optimization algorithm that gives due emphasis to both the individual and the environment. The key insight is that “perfect” knowledge is unnecessary, impracticable and indeed irrelevant if one understands the mechanism at work in complex sociality, a stigmergic sociality that in effect augments or scaffolds cognition.


Mind and Matter

Here’s a review from the NYT by the ever caustic Colin McGinn (one of my favourite philosophers of mind, however unfashionable some might think he is). H/T to Paul Raymont for the link and for tracking the toing and froing. Here is the equally polemical Raymond Tallis with a joint review of Deacon and Gazzaniga.


Locating Conscious Properties in a Material World

Two reviews of  Gerald Vision’s Re-Emergence: Locating Conscious Properties in a Material World

By Philip Goff

By Kevin Morris


Colin McGinn: All machine and no ghost?

Colin McGinn locates his position within philosophy of mind. Though not a fashionable position, I’m very sympathetic to it – and of course, it is a position that has much in common with Hayek.

The “mysterianism” I advocate is really nothing more than the acknowledgment that human intelligence is a local, contingent, temporal, practical and expendable feature of life on earth – an incremental adaptation based on earlier forms of intelligence that no one would regard as faintly omniscient. The current state of the philosophy of mind, from my point of view, is just a reflection of one evolutionary time-slice of a particular bipedal species on a particular humid planet at this fleeting moment in cosmic history – as is everything else about the human animal. There is more ignorance in it than knowledge.