Tuesday, 20 October 2015
TROUBLE WITH THE BRAIN, Part 2
By now we are all beginning to realize that one of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems. - H. Rittel and M. Webber
Neuromania has become popular as a term for scientists and others who have been so dazzled by advances in neuroscience in the last few decades that they have persuaded themselves that brain science can explain everything about the human mind, consciousness, and selfhood. Prof. Joe Herbert is afflicted with neuromania, but at least he understands the fundamental problem that is blocking progress toward preventing and treating mental disorders. It is that we cannot answer the question: How does the brain produce consciousness? Let’s call this the Standard Question.
One serious problem with this formulation is that it rules out approaches by psychoanalysis and other branches of psychology that have a lot to say about consciousness and mental problems but do not concern themselves with the brain. Could it be that many so-called mental disorders can be understood as problems of living that are best dealt with by the methods of talking therapy and not by drugs or other brain treatments? If so, then a balanced approach should be interdisciplinary, which calls for abandoning the Standard Question in favor of a more open definition of the problem. My suggestion is explained below.
Part of the reason why science has failed to find an answer in several hundred years is that the question is not amenable to investigation by the experimental methods of brain science. The brain is objective; it is observable. Consciousness is subjective. It cannot be observed. Your thoughts, feelings, and dreams are private. No one can know what they are unless you choose to say what they are. So, to learn anything at all about what a brain event means, neuroscientists have to ask the subject what she is experiencing. Even neuromaniacs know this. What they don’t seem to realize is that by doggedly sticking with the Standard Question they beg the prior question, does the brain produce consciousness? If it doesn’t, then there is no hope of finding out how the brain produces consciousness. If you define a problem incorrectly at the outset, your chances of hitting upon the right solution are nil.
Does the brain produce consciousness? Let’s make this specific: does the brain produce thoughts? There is not the slightest evidence that it does. ‘Produced’ is a causal metaphor taken from agriculture and manufacturing. In both of those we can watch the process of production take place - a farmer’s field produces crops, products roll off an assembly line. We can see the beginning, we can watch the process unfold, and we see the product at the end. By contrast, no one has ever seen a brain produce a thought. Here’s an ordinary thought from arithmetic: 5 + 7 = 12. When you think that thought, will a neuroscientist be able to see it in your brain with his scanner? Of course not. What’s in the brain is physical; the neurons have mass; the energy of their activity can be measured. A math equation is not visible, has no mass, no measurable energy, no physical characteristics whatsoever. Therefore, it cannot be in the brain, nor can it be produced in any simple sense by the brain. ‘Production’ is a bad metaphor for our purposes.
To realize this is not to deny that our brain interacts with our mind. It clearly does, and neuroscience is making great progress in learning more about brain-mind correlations. But because of its narrow focus, neuroscience never gets beyond this basic premise: the brain is a necessary condition for mental activity to occur. No brain, no thoughts or feelings. Damaged brain, impaired thinking or feeling. Take off the tunnel viewer and we realize the brain is only one item in a large network of necessary conditions, including our cardio-vascular system, our digestive system, and the other parts of our bodies that are essential to life and therefore to the proper functioning of the brain. So the whole body is involved along with other, non-body conditions that I will discuss later. Neuromania commits the Fallacy of the Single Cause: the assumption that because the brain is a necessary condition, then it must be the sole and sufficient cause of our mental lives. That’s plainly false. (It’s not science, by the way, since no experiment supports the assumption. It’s bad philosophy.)
The Standard Question also ignores the fact that the relationship between brain and mind is a two-way street. It is inter-action. Mental activity can bring about changes in the brain. Neuroplasticity and the placebo effect are just two items of evidence that demonstrate this.
The brain does not produce thoughts, feelings, dreams or any other experience. So to ask “How does the brain produce consciousness?” is to mis-define the problem. It sends researchers off in a direction that cannot fail to mystify them in the way so poignantly described by Prof. Herbert in his Aeon piece. In my previous post I asked three questions that pose no difficulty for any six-year-old child but leave neuromaniacs scratching their heads. Here they are again:
1. If I imagine my mother’s face, why can’t a neuroscientist see the image in my brain, even with his state of the art scanning machine?
2. If pain sensations occur entirely in my brain, why do I feel the pain of a sore toe in the toe and not in my head?
3. Suppose I spot a bird in a tree and point it out to a friend. If seeing the bird takes place entirely in my brain, why do I point away from my head toward the tree?
Here are the straightforward answers that anyone not afflicted with neuromania understands perfectly well:
1. Because the image of my mother’s face is not in my brain.
There is no “inner theater” inside my brain equipped with a little screen on which my imagined pictures are projected. The same goes for my dreams. So, you may ask, if not in my brain, then where are they? This is another misguided question. People assume everything real has to have location in space, but we have seen already that this belief is false. Thoughts are real, so are dreams and the phantoms of my imagination, but because they have no physical characteristics, they are not physical realities and therefore cannot be located in our very physical brain. And if they are not in my brain, then they are not anywhere at all. There may be a way to avoid this strange conclusion, but if there is it won’t be through the dogmas of neurophilosophy.
2. Because the pain you feel is actually in the toe, not in your brain.
This is laughably obvious. Only a neuromaniac would try to persuade you that you are really feeling the pain in your brain, as if there were no difference between a toe-ache and a headache. Of course, that’s not how the point is usually stated. Materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett says that experiences like painful toes are illusions. The pain seems to be in the toe, but that’s an illusion created by the brain, which is where the pain really is. Surprise! Your brain is a sly illusionist that has evolved over millions of years in order to fool you about the nature of your most ordinary experiences. How the species survived all this time while trying to adapt to an illusory world is not explained.
3. Because you are seeing the bird in the tree, not in your head.
There is a story going around about a psychiatric patient who was convinced that he had a squirrel in his head. Now a condition of that sort is not impossible if the squirrel is small enough, but a bird in a tree is another matter altogether. The tree is too big.
Squirrel in Head
No doubt I will be accused of trivializing the serious ideas of highly paid professors of philosophy and neuroscience. My bad, but these absurdities are just the logical consequences of trying to cram all of our experiences into a 3-pound lump of meat and then poking around in it to somehow find them again in the tangle of 86 billion neurons that make up the meat.
Back to our main issue - if the Standard Question is poorly formulated, how should we state the mind-body problem? I suggest we scrap it altogether because, as we have seen, it is based on faulty assumptions and has unbelievable implications.
1. The Standard Question assumes that the brain alone is fundamental (materialism) and mind is secondary - a mere product or epiphenomenon.
2. It assumes that the brain is like a factory, “producing” thoughts and feelings like the liver produces bile.
3. It implies, weirdly, that mental activity begins and ends in the brain and that our experience of a body and a world outside the brain is an illusion.
4. It implies that brain science is the only reliable source of knowledge about consciousness and the only path to discovering treatments for mental dysfunction.
5. Strangest of all perhaps is that the materialist project dismisses the most basic conviction people hold about how their lives work, namely that it is the self who thinks, perceives, feels, and acts. Here is world-famous neuromaterialist Patricia Churchland who has worked long and hard to convince herself that she is just a brain in a skull:
My brain and I are inseparable. I am who I am because my brain is what it is. Even so, I often think about my brain in terms different from those I use when thinking about myself. I think about my brain as that and about myself as me. I think about my brain as having neurons, but I think of me as having a memory. Still, I know that my memory is all about the neurons in my brain. Lately, I think about my brain in more intimate terms as me.
All of these ideas have been seriously damaged, if not demolished, by philosophical criticism. Since we are very far from a significant consensus among scientists and philosophers on these matters, there is no good reason to stick with the Standard Question. Philosopher Colin McGinn argues that we cannot answer it, because the human mind lacks the basic concepts to link the subjective realm of mind with the objective realm of the physical brain. This is another way of recognizing that the Standard Question is a badly formulated problem.
Can we do better? Yes, but we are not likely to get a simple, all-encompassing question that can guide our investigations. Here are the facts we have to work with:
1. I am a conscious person whose essential nature is awareness. I am aware of my inner world of thoughts, perceptions, memories, dreams, emotions and a lot of other interesting phenomena.
2. I am intimately related to my body without which I would have no life or consciousness. My body is part of an external world of objects and events with which I interact constantly.
3. I live in relationship with other beings who have inner lives and with whom I must achieve mutual understanding and work cooperatively.
Each of these aspects of my world is taken as a domain of investigation by various branches of inquiry: introspective psychology and spirituality, the physical sciences, and the social and cultural sciences, respectively. Each is defined by its own broad, orienting question:
1. Who am I? What can I know about my own mental activities and potentialities?
2. What can we know about the world we live in?
3. What can we know about our relationships with others and how we should behave towards them?
After a 400-year philosophical digression into an unfortunate debate about mind and body, we have circled back to the Big Three Questions that have always defined the project of philosophy. It feels like coming home.
Is there a way to integrate these great fields of inquiry, to show how they all fit into a larger map of knowledge and reality? Perhaps, but that’s a story for another time.
Friday, 9 October 2015
TROUBLE WITH THE BRAIN
Most of our organs can be treated as repairable machines. Why can’t we treat mental illness by simply fixing the brain?
An article bearing the above subtitle landed in my inbox this morning. Written by an eminent neuroscientist, emeritus professor Joe Herbert, the essay laments the fact that medical science has not been able to achieve anywhere near the success in treating mental disorders that it has in treating, say, heart disease. The heart, he writes, is no longer a mystery. We know so much about how it works that many diseases and malfunctions of the heart that once killed people or ruined lives can be prevented or fixed by modern medical treatments. We can even transplant hearts as a last resort.
Not so with the brain:
Our understanding and treatment of mental disorders is primitive. Why is that? The burden on our society is huge. A quarter of women will have an episode of depression at some stage in their lives (it’s about half that for men). Most will never reach a doctor or be diagnosed. About 40 per cent of those who do won’t respond to the first antidepressant they are prescribed, and about 60 per cent of those won’t respond to the second. About half of schizophrenics will get better or manage to live reasonable lives: the other half will relapse or never recover in the first place. Anorexia nervosa claims the lives of more patients proportionately than any other mental disorder. But mental disorders are only one category – a rather artificial one – of brain disorders. *
The reason for this, says the author, is that the brain is vastly more complex than any other organ in the body. Despite huge advances in the last few decades in our knowledge of brain function, the brain is still a mystery. We cannot yet use our brain science to predict what neural state will lead to a change in mood, a decision, or a thought. That’s why there is still a huge gap between psychology/psychiatry and neuroscience. He holds out hope that one day that gap will be closed, psychiatry will be replaced by neuroscience, and “then the scourge of mental illness, a tragic and crippling burden for individuals and society, might at last begin to be lifted.”
Most people, I suppose, would read this description with an appropriate mixture of concern and hope. It reflects the mainstream view of scientists and philosophers that the problems threatening our ability to lead healthy lives are physical in nature and will gradually be solved by advanced science and technology. Mental disorders are particularly difficult but will eventually yield to better drugs and neural interventions yet to be discovered (much better than electroshock therapy, we hope) . Have we any reason to doubt this hopeful scenario? Along with many psychologists, philosophers, and even some neuroscientists, I believe we do. What if the entire approach is misguided because the problem itself has been badly misunderstood?
One of philosophy’s main tasks is to identify assumptions in any train of thought that may harbor mistakes. A mistake at the beginning, as in a mathematical problem, will yield an erroneous conclusion. In the case of a policy decision, the result can be, not merely a false conclusion, but a real-world disaster. Think of the assumptions behind the U.S.’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. If Prof. Herbert’s analysis is wrong, the result could be a waste of billions of dollars in a search for pharmaceutical solutions to mental problems that are not amenable to such solutions at all.
In the first paragraph of the essay, Herbert assumes that mental disorders are brain disorders. This is hardly self-evident, but it reflects the mainstream theory of human nature that prevails among philosophers and scientists these days: that a human is just an organism, a product of biological evolution, more complex than any other type, but still basically just a body with a highly complex brain. This philosophy is known as materialism. In the current context, materialism implies that the mind and the brain are the same thing or that mental states are nothing more than brain states. Prof. Herbert understands full well the main problem that ‘bedevils’ a materialist philosophy of human nature.
Psychology is a description of what the brain does: neuroscience aims to describe how the brain works. The mysterious and seemingly unfathomable gap between them bedevils not only psychiatry, but all attempts to understand the meaning of humanity. We are what our brain is, and our wonderful hands allow us to carry out its commands. But if we can’t explain precisely how we decide to make a movement, let alone how we learn to perform it more accurately, how can we even attempt the greatest task of all: explaining how the brain produces consciousness?
How indeed? And if we can’t explain how the brain produces consciousness, then we don’t know how it produces mental disorders like depression, and therefore we don’t know how to cure them.
Let’s look at depression again. We have some ideas about which parts of the brain are responsible for generating emotion, and even some (rather sketchy) information about which parts of the brain might be dysfunctional in depression (assuming this is a single disorder, which it most certainly is not). But until we have precise knowledge about what distinguishes the brain of a depressed person (or a schizophrenic, or an obsessive one, or whatever), we won’t know how to put it right.
Despite this serious difficulty, Herbert holds out hope that materialist science will one day solve the problem. This is the kind of promissory note that we were handed some 15 years ago by the apostles of genetic biology who were certain a whole panoply of diseases would be eliminated in a few years by genetic medicine and genetic engineering. We are still waiting.
And, I contend, we will be waiting till the Second Coming for neuroscience to solve the problem of mental dysfunction as well. Why? Because the problem has been misdefined. Consider Herbert’s own words again: ...“how can we even attempt the greatest task of all: explaining how the brain produces consciousness?” If Herbert had been trained in philosophy as well as in science, he would realize that this formulation is based on the assumption that the brain produces consciousness. Does it? In a future post, I will argue that this assumption is seriously misleading, that it is only partly true, and to make it the whole truth about our lives as conscious beings is to diminish our conception of human nature and to encourage disastrous social policies.
But first, let us understand clearly what this doctrine says. When Herbert, et al., claim that the brain produces consciousness, they don’t mean that consciousness is in any way independent of, outside of, or other than the brain. The brain doesn’t produce a thought like a factory produces computer chips. No, the claim is quite radical: all conscious activities are nothing more than brain activities. They begin and end in the brain. Depression, for example, is a condition that exists entirely in some region of the limbic system. It is a disorder in the way that neurons interact with one another. And so it is with thinking, imagining, sense experience, and so on. They all happen in the brain. They are all just the zipping around of electrochemical impulses in our hugely complex brains. This assumption raises some awkward questions:
· If I imagine my mother’s face, why can’t a neuroscientist see the image in my brain, even with his state of the art scanning machine?
· If sensation occurs in the brain, why do I feel the pain of a sore toe in the toe and not in my head?
· If seeing a bird in a tree takes place in my brain, why do I point away from my head toward the tree?
On the assumption that the brain produces consciousness, questions like these will remain forever baffling. Once the notion is seen for the absurdity that it is, the answers fall into place rather easily, as I will argue in my next post.
* To read the article quoted here, go to http://aeon.co/magazine/psychology/why-cant-we-unite-neuroscience-and-psychiatry/?
Thursday, 1 October 2015
IS PHILOSOPHY JUST A HOBBY - Part 4
“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” - Henry David Thoreau
RR: Last week we agreed that this time we would talk about how philosophy can be a way of life. Since then I have read some philosophy and started a journal, but I could use some more guidance. For one thing, it’s hard for me to figure out where to start, what to write about.
Don’t worry about that too much. You have already started a philosophical approach to life: you’re reading, you have the two attitudes of deep curiosity and deep skepticism, so you can let them take you wherever they may at first. You will soon get a sense of what the pressing issues are for you at any particular time. Putting your conclusions into some sort of order can wait a while. But let’s back up a bit.
First of all - you may have discovered this already - philosophy is intrinsically satisfying. Like art for artists, it’s something philosophers value for its own sake. Sometimes it can even be fun.
Philosophical curiosity can also expand your appreciation of life’s ordinary wonders. A great example of this is Robert Rowland Smith’s Breakfast With Socrates (2009) in which he takes you through an ordinary day in the company of some of the great philosophers past and present who offer insights on what you are doing hour-by-hour and what you can learn by reflecting in different ways on those activities.
For example, Chapter 1 is titled “Waking Up.” One of our members talked about this at a recent meeting. If you think deeply about it, he said, you can’t help but realize what an amazing event waking up is. Smith agrees and has superstar philosophers Descartes, Kant, and Hegel show you just how deep you can go with this while you’re sipping your breakfast coffee. Later at the gym, the social historian Michel Foucault works out beside you and cautions that your exercise routine may be a form of social control. Karl Marx sits beside you at work and whispers in your ear about why you’re feeling alienated toward what you do for a living. The titles of other chapters - “Going to the Doctor,” “Shopping,” Cooking and Eating Dinner,” “Arguing With Your Partner” - raise all kinds of deep questions about what you do in your average day. Are you as thoughtful about your life as you could be? Do you take too much for granted? Is your freedom needlessly constrained by your own complacency? If thinking about your life in this way doesn’t lead you to make some changes, I’ll be surprised.
RR: So I can get ideas about what to think about just from looking more carefully at my everyday activities and from my reading.
That’s usually the way it works. Conversation with others will also stimulate your thinking. These days access to online blogs and forums is a terrific advantage to philosophers. The Internet allows you to keep up with developments in the natural sciences, social sciences, psychology, and popular culture, too. All of those are important for developing a comprehensive worldview, which in turn will affect your life.
Suppose you see the late George Carlin’s routine “Too Much Stuff,” a wicked put-down of consumerism. You look at your own life and realize you have too much stuff. What’s up with that? You realize that buying more and more stuff you don’t need doesn’t really improve your life. It leaves you feeling empty after the first flush of retail ecstasy. It has to do with boredom, perhaps status-seeking - keeping up with the Joneses - or just being a sucker for advertising. Your inner philosopher will no longer tolerate that. You start downsizing your ownership, hold a garage sale (Socrates is there in his tattered cloak, nodding his approval), perhaps even join the voluntary simplicity movement. You’ve become freer, more your own person.
RR: Speaking of my own person, that’s another aspect I want to talk about. I see that philosophical thinking can help me change my external lifestyle, but what about my inner life? Can philosophy help me with that, or do I need counselling or maybe watch Oprah more often?
I don’t watch Oprah, so I can’t advise you about her, but I do notice that every cover of her magazine displays herself in some new fashionable outfit and radiating the joy of being Oprah. So I’m not sure she can help you with your shopping addiction or your narcissism. Without getting too personal, what’s bothering you?
RR: Well, I’m not as bad off as the guy on Ted Talk …. you remember - Jules Evans, who talked about how philosophy saved his life. But I’ve got hang-ups and habits I don’t like, so I’d like to know how, or if, philosophy can help me work on those to become a happier person.
Let me guess: you suffer stress in your job, home life, relationships with friends or a lover; you’re worried about financial or job security or your health; you’re lonely, experience a lot of boredom, watch too much TV, eat too much, drink too much, party too much, and so on. Maybe you’re dissatisfied with what you’re doing or achieving in life; you have a generally bad opinion of yourself; you don’t measure up to other people you think are more successful or happier than you. I could go on. Any or all of the above?
RR: Not all, but some of them, yes - actually quite a few of them.
Welcome to the human race. Your condition is what earns the psychiatric profession and the vast self-help industry billions of dollars every year. Well, let’s see, you can pay $80 - $200 an hour for psychotherapy. Are you up for that?
RR: No, I can’t afford it.
Philosophy is definitely cheaper, and besides your neuroticism is quite normal. There’s no need for you to pay big bucks for therapy, unless you insist on taking Woody Allen for your role model. Look, start with this astonishing insight: the world is not structured so as to guarantee your happiness. In fact, happiness as we define it may not be what life is about at all. The Buddha taught that life is dukkha which means ‘disappointing’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’ He taught an 8-point approach to life leading to liberation from the inner turmoil that we all suffer from. It includes very specific daily practices for gradually transforming your life toward greater self-control and peace of mind. So Buddhism is one philosophy you can check out. It’s popular these days; you’ll have no trouble finding information and teachers.
RR: I admire Buddhism and I’ve looked into other spiritual systems. But they’re not really for me; I’m just not into meditation.
Ok, there are options. In the West, academic philosophy is not a lot of help. The practical wisdom traditions of the ancient world are pretty much ignored in university programs, which is unfortunate. The Graeco-Roman sages, for example, knew all about the problems of living - ignorance, delusion, fear of death, the difficulty of controlling the 'passions' (emotions, impulses). They were more concerned with virtue and building character than with philosophical theory. They had plenty of advice and even training programs for the perplexed. Luckily for people like you, those traditions are not dead. Some of them - Epicureanism and Stoicism for example - are making a comeback in our time. I’m especially impressed with an organization called Stoicism Today which offers books and online courses on Stoic philosophy and practice. Why don’t you check out their website at http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/ and see if it appeals to you?
In the meantime, here’s something you can start doing as soon we finish here. It’s similar to the Stoic use of maxims. For the rest of your day, whenever some negative emotion comes up, say to yourself, “I am not my feelings.” Do it for at least a week and record the results in your journal . If you like what the practice does for you, keep it up for the rest of your life. There are many other techniques for you to experiment with.
Gotta go. It’s been a pleasure. I’d wish you luck, but what we’ve been talking about is not a matter of luck. Sapere aude, young man. Dare to be wise.