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More Serious Problems with Representation in the Brain: Remembering the Battle of Hastings


P.Z. Myers has responded to my observations that neuroscience is rife with conceptual confusion. His reply is typical of dodgy materialist tropes — "neuroscience proves materialism" and the like. He offers no cogent response to my observation that "storing" memories in the brain is unintelligible, and frankly no cogent reply was expected.

Memories are not the kind of things that can be stored. Representations of memories can be stored, and representations of all kinds are stored on computers and in books and in photo albums all the time. Representations can be stored, but memories can’t be stored.

MInd-and-Technology3.jpgFurthermore, representation in the brain is a highly problematic concept, because the act of representation presupposes memory and intentionality and intellect and will and all sorts of mental acts that are precisely the kind of things that materialists claim are explained by representation. By claiming that memories are represented in the brain, materialists presuppose memory to explain memory. If a memory in the brain were stored as a representation, one would have to presuppose a memory of the code or map that linked the representation to the memory and a memory of the location of the representation in the brain so it could be accessed. Representation presupposes memory, so it can’t explain memory.

Materialists are also incoherent when they claim that the representation just is the memory. If the representation is the memory, it’s not a representation.

And there are even more serious problems with representation in the brain. Consider my memory that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066. When I remember it, what exactly is it that I am remembering? Certainly I’m not remembering merely the visual image of the phrase, or the sound of the phrase. That would be a different memory. I’m remembering the fact, not an image or a sound. I am not remembering the battle itself by first-person experience, of course (I wasn’t there), and I’ve never even visited the battlefield as a tourist. I’m not remembering when I first learned it — I have no distinct memory of the moment in tenth grade when I heard it or read it.

When I remember that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066, I am not remembering an image at all. I am simply remembering that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066 — I’m remembering a fact, not any kind of image.

How could a fact — not an imagebe represented in the brain? How can a concept be represented in the brain? How could synapses represent mercy or justice or humility? How can logical and mathematical concepts be represented in the brain? What would the brain representation for imaginary numbers be?

The assertion that the brain stores memories makes no sense. The assertion that memories are stored in the brain as representations presupposes memory. The assertion that some memories and thoughts — historical facts, abstract concepts, mathematical truths — are represented in the brain is simply unintelligible.

It is undeniable that brain processes are necessary for some mental functions — perception, memory, imagination and the like. That is the proper purview of neuroscience. It is also undeniable that memories per se aren’t stored, that representation of some memories, if it occurs, doesn’t explain memory because it presupposes memory, and that representation of concepts is unintelligible.

This conceptual morass besets neuroscience. What philosophers and neuroscientists who understand this problem are demanding is mere conceptual hygiene.

Image: By Unknown, suspected to be commissioned by Matilda of Flanders, Odo of Bayeux or Edith of Wessex (Bayeux Tapestry) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



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