Notice by Peter Munz



Culture or no culture

Notice by Peter Munz (in New Zealand Books, March 2006) of Kim Sterelny’s Thought in a Hostile World and Derek Melser’s The Act of Thinking).

The simultaneous 2004 publication of two books on the way we understand and operate in the world was an unusual event in the intellectual culture of New Zealand. First there was Kim Sterelny’s Thought in a Hostile World and, soon after, Derek Melser’s The Act of Thinking. Both were published in a prestigious way: Sterelny was awarded the Lakatos prize; and Melser’s book was published by the MIT Press. Even more remarkable is the fact that the books are incompatible and err in opposite directions. Both misrepresent the role of culture: Sterelny by underrating it, and Melser by overrating it.

Sterelny’s book is an account of how human cognition of the world we live in evolved. He avails himself in an impeccably erudite fashion of the scientific findings which, when put together, tell the story of that evolution, an account of the neuronal and physical changes that have taken place and succeeded one another. There is no account of the extraordinary fact that humans, unlike prehumans, live in societies either defined by their cultures or containing strong cultural features. There is no mention of the fact that human bodies only function with the inevitable help of cultures.

Sterelny writes as a well-informed scientist, determined not to stray into speculation and not to wonder about non-neuronal events which have gone to make what we are and what we understand of our world. The only time he lapses into philosophy is when he simply leaves out evidence and thoughts that do not fit the story he is determined to tell – unfortunately, a truly philosophical custom!

There is no discussion, not even a reference, to the groundbreaking work in neuroscience by Antonio Damasio on ‘somatic markers’, the raw feelings which are the noticeable but inarticulate stage coming between the silent churnings of neurons on one side and fully articulated consciousness on the other. Nor is there mention of Semir Zeki on the ‘binding problem’ arising from the division of labour in our brains, which register colour, shape, size and location of our perceptions in different and unconnected regions.

But there is worse. Sterelny drifts into an argument which is downright wrong. He distinguishes between our internal and external environments, and asserts, without further ado, that our internal environment, i.e., what one supposes to be our inner sensations and feelings, is transparent because it can be ascertained and defined. It is only our external environment which is translucent. He repeats here without argument the old belief that when we introspect we come across what we are felling – that is, what our internal environment consists of.

Had he considered Damasio’s findings, he would have realised that our internal environment, our feelings, are far from transparent: feelings are noticed or sensed. As they stand, they are so vague that one cannot tell, by just staring at them, what word might be a suitable description of them. But if we are living, as we all are, in a culture that provides a language, which, though imaginative, is intelligible, we can make those feelings conscious by inventing verbal labels for them. In short, we can interpret them. This way they can be made transparent if and when we become conscious of them, that is, at the point at which they are given ‘a local habitation and a name’. in order to bring feelings into the full light of day they must be made conscious. They can only be brought into the light of day as this or that feeling if we have a language rich enough to imagine or invent a verbal label for them. If they remain unidentified they lurk in our internal environment like ominous and irritating alien bodies we can only ruminate on. The kind of language we need to make them conscious derives the intelligibility of its meanings from what Wittgenstein used to call our ‘form of life’, from our culture rather than from our ability to define their meaning by pointing to the object of event we are intending to talk about.

The point is that we cannot identify those feelings before they are named. In Sterelny’s presentation, culture plays a very minor, almost accidental role. Culture does not appear to be necessary because he thinks that our feelings are transparent as they stand. As a result, Sterelny underrates the crucial role of the culture that provides language, allowing us to make the internal environment transparent. Instead, he considers culture as little more than something that helps mark the niche we are living in and are adapted to, more like the scent some animals leave behind.

Sterelny’s belief that our internal environment is transparent rather than that it has to be made transparent commits him to a studied neglect of the crucial roles of both consciousness and culture. Moreover, his refusal to address the crucial role of consciousness shows that he is out of touch with almost every neuroscientist, not to mention philosopher. They have all come to realise that human consciousness stands at the centre of our cogntion of both the internal and the external environment.

Whereas Sterelny writes as a scientist and lapses into philosophy only in so far as philosophy is at its most disreputable, Melser writes, with a vengeance, as an accomplished philosopher determined to ignore the science of neurology. He is so dedicated a philosopher that neuroscience, alleged to be a non-philosophical pursuit (although the best neuroscientists, like Edelman, Damasio, Zeki, often think, consciously or not, philosophically), is banned from his expositions. Melser’s book is a fascinating read because it is the product of a lively sense of direction – a genuine book of philosophy which never once strays from the path of explaining how we think and how we are conscious.

Melser attributes all this to the fact that we are living in cultures, but forgets to mention that there is a very good reason why we are living in cultures: they necessarily make up for the silent churning of our neurons and so he ends his book with an extraordinarily bold (and to my mind, false) epigram: the new-born baby’s first smile shows that nature ends and culture begins. The entrance into culture shows nature has been left behind. One must suppose that Melser deserves credit for hinting, in so many words, that before consciousness appears there were purely natural (i.e., neuronal) events leading to the evolution of the human embryo and the birth of the baby. But the difficulty one must have with his marvellously philosophical book is that it fails to explain the connection between the neuronal events which led not only to the embryo but also to the evolution of our cultures.

To my mind, the universal appearance of cultures was due to the fact that neuronal events were not, by themselves, sufficiently adaptive to allow the baby to grow after birth and live outside the womb, happily or unhappily, as the case may be. Whatever it is precisely that the smiling baby is ‘feeling’ is the product of its neurons – that is, what Damasio calls ‘the somatic marker’. On the other hand, the mother’s ability to interpret that smile is decidedly due to her culture, which provides the meaning of the words she uses to interpret it. What those words mean cannot be defined by reference to the neurons which caused the smile, for those neurons are nothing but chemical and physical events which, as they occur, give no hint of ‘love’ or ‘pleasure’.

While one must be pleased that such stimulating and prestigiously rewarded books were written in New Zealand – an encouraging supplement to the cultures of hip-hop and the All Blacks – it is a great pity that the people who accepted Melser for MIT and those who awarded the Lakatos prize to Sterelny did not pause to suggest, as a preliminary condition, that Melser and Sterelny get together, compare notes and take notice of each other.