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Andrea Diem-LaneAndrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.


Paul Churchland's Neural Theory of Ideal Forms

Andrea Diem-Lane

For over two millennia, philosophers have debated how we gain knowledge of the world. The Greek thinker Plato argued that there are universals of human cognition, such as concepts of beauty, justice, and the Good, innate to us. While these ideas or eidoes, often referred to as Platonic Forms, are certainly nuanced in each cultural setting, they can best be understood in the first place because of a prior overall conceptual framework. For instance, in China, India, Africa, Iran, and Greece the inhabitants of these lands may define beauty or justice quite differently. Yet, despite one’s background, humans all seem to understand the over-arching “idea” of beauty and justice. We begin to “intuit” these universals from the moment we enter this world, and they in way help us navigate the world. Nonetheless, as a rationalist Plato asserted that through reason and logic it is the philosopher who can truly penetrate through all of the particulars witnessed and fully grasp the universal, higher forms from which everything was modeled. This knowledge would be transformative, he added.

Paul Churchland in his 2012 text, Plato’s Camera, pulls from the theme of Platonic universals. He too is interested in the idea of universal concepts and acknowledges their importance in his epistemological scheme. Like Plato, Churchland contends that this conceptual framework is necessary for our daily perceptual judgments. However, Plato and Churchland then begin to part company. Churchland places the source of these abstract categories in the natural world, specifically in the brain. When Plato offers his other worldly explanation for why universal forms exist (that ingrained knowledge was evidence of a higher realm of existence) Churchland points to a neuronal interpretation.

Interestingly, this approach contradicts John Locke’s tabula rasa. The neurobiologist does take into account the environmental role in understanding epistemology, but he starts first with the basic antecedent framework which begins at birth and which allows us to interpret our sensory experience throughout our lives. How the brain does this, taking a picture of the world, sort of speak, and developing a representation of it, is extensively detailed. Churchland refers to this representation as “maps.” There are not just a few but multiple, high dimensional maps of external realities which supply us with the fabric to make sense of the world. These maps are in a way a modern version of Platonic Forms and partly of Immanuel Kant’s categories of understanding. And they do not arise, Churchland proposes, through language but are in fact pre-symbolic and are due to the synaptic connections within the brain.

There are three types of learning that Churchland delineates in his text. First-Level Learning forms the basic conceptual framework. He is not implying we are born with this framework as Plato does but that it starts to form from birth across the brain’s synaptic connections, taking days, weeks, or even years to produce reliable mental maps of the objective world. He clarifies that this form of learning is independent of language and thus can apply to other animals as well. The pithy saying that “neurons that fire together wire together” captures the beginnings of this type of learning. As the creature first interacts with the world, axonal activations occur and this forms the rudiments of a background structure.

Once the framework is in place, new sensory input can be interpreted and integrated and this leads us to what he calls Second-Level Learning. This form of learning takes place when the brain (human or animal) experiences new data in the environment and one must make sense of it within the larger conceptual backdrop. The new stimuli can also alter the maps. One can think of this type of learning as the “particulars” one experience every second of every day that is mixed with conceptual maps and made sense of. To highlight this, he uses the analogy of the rolling marble endlessly going up and down hills and valleys as it encounters the conceptual landscape of the brain.

Finally, Third-Level Learning specifically applies to the human being since it depends upon language. In this case, learning occurs through cultural and social systems, as we index each other’s models. This learning, transmitted through language, is extended beyond one’s life and passed on to the next generation. It is essentially the exchanging and recording of mental maps.

As mental maps, we can raise the ontological question of how well they represent reality. There is little doubt that maps will always be less than what they are representing. Yet, we can add the genetic twist that as long as these models procure our food and mates (and thereby extend our DNA lineages), these maps will be to our evolutionary advantage.

Furthermore, Churchland makes a fascinating case that in acknowledging our mental maps are less than perfect scientific advancements can and will be made. With each generation of scientists we add to our maps new insights and understandings that escaped our ancestors. And this is the beauty of the scientific endeavor. It is not a stagnant discipline but a dynamic one which expands our mental maps to “an increasingly broad and penetrating grip on the structure of the larger reality of which it is a part.” His view of science and where it is taking us is an optimistic one. To capture his enthusiasm for scientific realism, here is a quote from the article, Mystical Dimension:

"And since we are stuck to such map making, we are circumscribed by a logical syllogism that on the surface seems intractable. All maps by definition are less than the territory to which they point (because if the map is exactly as large as the land itself, then such a map would be superfluous) and thus have 'gaps.' And if they all maps invariably have gaps, then all such designs are inevitably, even if only partially, mistaken. What this means, of course, is that all the delineations we make about the world around us are potentially wrong because they are not perfect transparencies. This why science always rediscovers the unknowable, because no matter how sophisticated our maps may be they will have a gap in them which will reveal something hitherto undiscovered."

Altogether, Paul Churchland’s book was a philosophically enlightening one, albeit technically arduous. The attempt to explain the epistemological program of Plato (and Kant) with a modern neurobiological analysis made for a remarkable thesis. Explaining how from birth the human brain’s 86 billion neurons and over a 100 trillion neural connections crafts maps of the external world, which serve as universals, and adjusts these maps with the onslaught of new stimuli, or the particulars of the experience, wraps Plato’s Forms in a modern package.

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