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.