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Imagine Neurosociology

July 15, 2013

If Jeff Hawkins (On Intelligence, with Sandra Blakeslee, 2004) is right, we might consider most if not all of social systems’ structures externalized memory-prediction patterns trained on brains. Social networks would turn out devices to monitor how behavior (action) follows or not these patterns. Free will would be central to move across those patterns following different patterns. There would be lots of hierarchies organizing (via feedback and feedforward) these patterns, just as Hawkins would have it, yet they would be embedded in one or more heterarchies to allow not only for pattern formation (Kant’s “Reihen”) but also analysis of elements (Kant’s “Subjekte”) and division of systems (Kant’s “Systeme” and their “Teile”). Social theory in neurosociology would turn out to be about communication (redundancy & variety) and evolution of patterns entertained by cultivated brains.

Hawkins’ book and ideas are interesting because he is among the few who accept the operational closure of the brain. He is not quoting Johann Peter Müller or Heinz von Foerster but Vernon Mountcastle for this concept but never mind. The concept of operational closure and the principle of undifferentiated coding (both terms not used by him) allows him to conceive of the brain as a self-learning, auto-associative memory-prediction device determined in its older parts by genetics and evolution and in its neocortical parts by behavior, culture, and education. That makes the brain structurally deterministic, without having to assume that it determines perception, behavior, or action. Instead, it is forming information via myriads of feedback and feedforward impulses between layers and columns of neurons.

A field of neurosociology is far from being defined, let alone established (but see David D. Franks’ 2010 book on Neurosociology and its references, as well as Franks’ and Jonathan Turner’s edited Handbook on Neurosociology, to be released this July 2013), but there seem to be ways by now to avoid any kind of reductionism and to inquire instead into the co-evolution between the brain, in one hand, and its environment including many other brains, in the other. Such co-evolution concerns both mankind’s history and our everyday behavior and experience including social forms defining political, economic, aesthetic, pedagogical, religious, scientific, and other ways to shape, vary, and switch both action and experience.

It would be a non-trivial business to probe into sociology’s rôle and interaction theory, action-as-system theory, theory of self-referential social systems, game and network theories to see how they fare within a research program pursuing the assumption of a memory-prediction model of the brain. We could do without the assumptions of consciousness and society, both of them being in fact “reduced” to patterns shaping certain perceptions and actions without ever letting the brain determine either consciousness or society.

Consciousness, as Hawkins proposes, is about “declarative” memories and predictions (probably not far from Brentano’s and Husserl’s understanding of intentionality), society about memories and predictions presented to others known to be independent.

See now (March 2014): Neurosoziologie: Ein Versuch, Berlin: edition unseld, 2014, link

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