Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Bird Brains

I saw an interesting article on research that had been done to uncover the neural cause of bird song. The song could be attributed to a 'domino effect' of neural firings. Quite convincing... so why am I sceptical? I could just be being bloody minded in the face of strong evidence (heaven forbid!), except that I think there is a philosophical error being made which says sonething like 'the music is in the bird's brain'.

By identifying the cause of a psychological phenomenon as in the brain, we transfer the cause of that phenomenon to something else, but we don't know what causes that. So our explanation moves to understanding what causes the neurons to fire. Maybe that's in the brain too. But then what caused that? and so on. The hope is that this might give us control over our mental causal mechanisms so effective interventions can be made. But it doesn't help us understand what the singing does in the first place. (and it wouldn't come cheap (sorry!))

A bird which doesn't sing is hard to imagine. Singing is what birds do; like blinking, breathing, defecating, etc. To understand the singing, is it better to ask what the singing does? If we pursue this path, we don't just go into the animal's head but into the environment. We look at the singing of the other birds responding. We look at the social interactions, the organisation of labour, etc. We also might look at the impact of a singing utterance on each individual bird. And what would this sort of understanding tell us? It might tell us something about ourselves. It might give us some insight into human organisation and the relationship between sentient life and communication. Maybe...

So I've been experimenting with Centipedes and motion detection!

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