Cognition & Reality

Monday, 30 August 2010

The New Phrenology

Filed under: Behavioral Genetics,Psychomyths,Radical Constructivism — drtone @ 12:48 pm

Phrenology was once a popular and at times highly respected way of understanding the relationship of mind and brain. Whether they have known it or not, almost everyone has seen phrenology diagrams, because they are often displayed as a joke. No one seriously believes any more that you can tell about a person’s character and abilities by mapping the shape of his or her skull. Nevertheless, I defy anyone to distinguish between the main claims of phrenology, an acknowledged “pseudoscience,” and those made by proponents of the “innateness” of cognition and language.

The Wikipedia article on phrenology begins by stating, “Following the materialist notions of mental functions originating in the brain, phrenologists believed that human conduct could best be understood in neurological rather than abstract terms.” This is precisely what Fodor, Pinker, Chomsky and their thousands of disciples believe, as I have discussed previously. The warrant for the claims of these new phrenologists, although couched in zoomier scientific and logical terms, is just as murky and nonsensical as that of Gall and his followers two centuries ago. The problem begins with a confusion of mind and brain, as if we could know the former by intensive study of the latter.

The mind is not the brain, any more than “Two and a Half Men” is your television set. No doubt, if pressed, someone like Steve Pinker would admit that he believes in a future technology that could distinguish the electrochemical difference in the brain between the sentences, “Flying planes can be dangerous,” and “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Such a belief should be understood as such: It is an article of faith based on a cluster of misconceptions about the mind and how it really works (as opposed to Pinker’s description in his well-known book.

As I have researched this post, I have discovered, somewhat to my embarrassment that a 2003 book by William Uttal has the title The New Phrenology. Apparently, Uttal makes much the same argument as I have here…and more.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] I found his name in a book I’ve mentioned here, The New Phrenology, in which his work is cited often. I remembered some discussions I had with him on the topic and […]

    Pingback by Terminal Entertainment « Cognition & Reality — Tuesday, 7 December 2010 @ 10:26 am | Reply


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