Monday, 24 April 2017

Where Does Thinking Take Place?
If you would be so kind, please help me find my mind.    - Mose Allison
I often introduce a discussion about the mind-body problem by asking "Where does your thinking take place?"  Nearly everyone answers, "In my brain."  Such is the power of contemporary neuroscience with its razzle-dazzle imaging technology and brain-probing techniques.  When I reply, "Wait a minute.  What about you?  I thought it was you who does the thinking.  When I ask what you think about this or that, it's you, the person, that answers, isn't it?  Now you tell me it's your brain that does your thinking.  How did you, the person who answered my question, drop out of the story?"  People often look startled when I ask this question, because they have not thought carefully about the relationship between self, mind, and brain.  They don't realize the dramatic self-erasure that occurs when they embrace a materialistic theory of mind.  Neuroscientists have popularized the notion that mental activities like thinking, imagining, feeling, etc., are just brain states, and science is God, so people assume it must be true.*  However, this doctrine, known as physicalism or the physicalist theory of mind, is not science - there is no experiment that proves it.  It is bad philosophy.  Here is some good philosophy to help clean up the mess.
When you are thinking about something, there are at least three factors involved.  There is the agent of the thinking, that's you, a person.  Second, there is the process of thinking, moving from one idea to another, as when balancing your checkbook or writing a letter.  Third, there is what your thinking is about; thinking is always about something.  This 'aboutness'  is often called intentionality.
These three factors cannot be separated.  They are necessary components of every act of thinking.  Of course, a normally functioning brain is also necessary, along with the rest of the body it is attached to.  However, to say that thinking takes place in the brain is to attempt to cram all three of the first group of necessary components into that 3-pounds of squishy meat inside your skull.  So according to the standard view, you, your thinking, and what you are thinking about are all inside your brain.  But, of course, you have no awareness of being surrounded by or sitting on top of your brain tissue.  You are not actually aware of your brain at all.  You are aware of your body and the contents of the room you are in, and you are aware of your thoughts, but your brain is not available for inspection.  You probably don't know anything about it.  You may be living in a Matrix, but you are definitely not living inside your brain.
Are the absurdities of this story starting to become rather obvious?  First is the ridiculous notion that you, the person doing the thinking is inside your own brain at the same time as you are in the external, physical world reading an essay with eyes that are precisely not in your brain.  Philosopher Patricia Churchland goes further; she says, no, you are not in your brain; you are your brain.  A person is just a brain in a skull (the rest of the nervous system is apparently just for carrying the head around).  This kind of talk borders on lunacy.
Here's another way to see that thinking can't happen in the brain.  Let's talk about intentionality, the 'aboutness' of thought.  Thinking is always about something.  Let's assume a thinker, Sue, is thinking about the Pythagorean Theorem and let's suppose she is using a drawing like the one below to help her visualize the relationships.

                                                            a2 + b2  = c2
You might remember your geometry teacher pointing out that drawings like this are not real triangles and squares; they are representations.  Lines in drawings have width and thickness; real triangles do not,   Drawings are also never perfect, whereas real triangles have perfectly straight lines and perfectly accurate angles.  They possess only two dimensions, and no physical properties like mass or volume.  Drawings are just visual representations of abstract geometric ideas.  They are not found in nature, and they cannot be made physical by any human art.  So when Sue is working on the Pythagorean theorem, is the object of her thinking - the real triangle - in her brain?  Of course not.  The brain is a physical object, so anything in it would also have to be physical.  Plenty of neurons, blood, and water in there, but no triangles.  Lots of electrical signals whizzing around, but no thinking.

This description applies to any kind of thinking, not just mathematics.  All thinking involves concepts, and concepts are non-physical.  Take justice, for example.  Can the meaning of 'justice' be found in the brain?  Certainly not.  Only neurons in there, no justice, no meanings. 
Here is my argument in brief: 1) 'mind' is not a thing; it's a collective noun we use for convenience to talk about a number of human activities that seem different from the operations of our organs and limbs; call them 'mental activities.'  Thinking is one of those.  2) that any thinking operation requires at least four necessary elements:  a person, an object, a process, and a brain; and 3) that none of the first three can be found in the brain.  They are correlated with brain states but are not themselves brain states.  It follows that the popular "thinking happens in the brain" theory is wrong.  A functioning brain is the necessary physical component of any act of thinking, but it is not sufficient to explain the other components which are not physical.  Thinking does not take place in the brain.
"Where does it take place then?  If not in the brain, then where?"  Nowhere, I'm afraid.  The trouble lies with the question.  "Where do mental activities happen?" is based on the hidden assumption that everything has to be somewhere, that is, everything we consider to be real has to have simple location in space.  That's the fundamental assumption of all materialist philosophy and science.** But why should we believe it?  Where's the proof?  There is no proof, because there is no possible way of proving anything about everything.  The first principle of physical science is not itself a scientific hypothesis.  It's an orienting metaphysical assumption that has to be taken on blind faith if physical science is ever to get off the ground.  Such assumptions, however, can be falsified, and we have seen good reasons to think this one - that all reality is material - is false.
_____________
   * Novice philosophers might forget themselves in the embrace, but neuroscientists themselves do not.  They know that in order to discover the correlations between a mind and whatever is showing up on their MRI screens, they have to ask the experimental subject, the person who is having the experience, what it is they are experiencing. 
      ** For more on this, see my posts "Trouble With the Brain, Parts 1 and 2," October 2015.


     


9 comments:

  1. Vedanta explains this beautifully, Charles.

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  2. thinking = rational judgment; intelligent / mental experience based on intelligence and then philosophy = search for truth . . . an elusive quality subject to much mystery.
    Life is not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be experienced. Science has found that the brain has billions of neurons with trillions of synapses occurring constantly between them. It is the control mechanism that responds to stimulus from sensations. These sensations come from internal and external excitations that activate nerve signals and glandular responses. The physical body is an integrated synthesis of body and emotion and mental faculties.
    I am the centre of my beingness at all times responding instantly in the moment to fight or flight, happy or sad, rest and recuperation choices. Sleeping does not still the trillions of synaptic brain activity. Focus on tasks is always in the moment and results over time in acquired skills. Presented in the NOW moment is the Next Obvious Work and selecting out of many options the appropriate choice . . . or reconsidered in the moment when unforeseen awareness creeps in to doubt that appropriateness.
    Three factors you mention are not independent of each other as they are synergystically spontaneous. I served an apprenticeship and learned daily to become a qualified tradesman by being present in each moment of being taught. Experience allows me to answer questions in the moment and decide the action to follow. Where is the repository of this experience except in the memory which is mostly in the brain though muscular memory of skilled craftsmen cannot be discounted. Discussing the action steps is the job of physics.
    Robert the Scot

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  3. Hi Charles -

    This is a nice little essay and I find what you have written to be very interesting. I am very intrigued by the problems associated with the philosophy of mind as many of life's issues relate to what we think constitutes "mind" and/or consciousness.

    I have recently been reading some of the physicalist accounts of mind inspired by writers like Daniel Dennett. Given my recent reading I would like to challenge what you have written and see how you would respond. Apologies to Dennett and the physicalists if I'm misrepresenting some of their points.

    I believe Dennett might respond to the question that you have posed "Where does thinking take place" by arguing that the question itself is problematic and leads to an apparent problem that does not exist. In other words that the concept of thinking implies a self conscious thinker but there is no such entity. Consciousness for Dennett does not meaningfully exist as we only have a brain and a collection of related processes that correspond to certain parts of the brain. Consciousness amounts to a grand illusion.

    This may at first glance appear counter-intuitive but on reflection Dennett does have some evidence for his position. It appears that there is no central processor role for consciousness within the brain. The brain functions very much like a neural network with no specific role for a coordinator. Most of the time we carry on without being conscious of the world around us. For example, often we drive along a familiar route without being conscious of what we are doing and yet we (our brains - encased in bodies) are making several complex decisions.

    The advantage to Dennett's position, if he is correct, is we can move on from the thorny issues related to what is consciousness. Or the even more contentious issue how can a material substance affect and/or be affected by a non material substance. In this manner rather than being left with the "hard problem" of consciousness we can move forward with a deeper understanding of brain states.

    Of course some questions remain, if we assume that evolution is the basis for biological organisms on this planet then it would be interesting to understand why consciousness evolved as part of the package? Does it provide us with some advantage for survival? Why would consciousness exist if was just a misleading illusion? I don't know the answer to these questions but further scientific work could yield the answers in the future. It seems to me the overall advantage of Dennett's approach is it frees us of a thorny issue that seems to resist our understanding and may lay the groundwork for future scientific understanding.

    What do you think?

    Regards,
    Stan

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  4. If a person does not understand computers, they would be amazed that electrical devices can do math and project images. Similarly, we do NOT understand how thoughts are created in biological systems but they obviously do occur in the 'hardware' of the brain because when the brain is injured our thinking is disturbed as would a computer if some of its electronics were damaged.
    Hiding behind ignorance gives us a "God of the Gaps" - a short-term desperate step.
    We, as persons, "own" our brain just as much our kidneys and both must function properly for a person to act normally. There is no distinction between a system and its activities; humans are single, integrated systems - there is not just a body occupied by a mysterious 'spirit' (or 'soul') that activates it and disappears when they die.
    All Charles's points are just disguised theology, including his spurious analogy with mathematics which was the principal analog of ancient priests, who were hiding behind Plato's mystery 'forms'.
    Consciousness derives from our awareness of own bodies.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Hello. Welcome to the blog. Your comments are copied here with my intertextual responses in brackets.
      [You wrote:] If a person does not understand computers, they would be amazed that electrical devices can do math and project images. Similarly,
      [NOT "similarly." We do understand how computers work, but as you say …]
      … we do NOT understand how thoughts are created in biological systems but they obviously do occur in the 'hardware' of the brain
      [Hardly obvious. Otherwise, contemporary philosophers of mind would not be so tormented by the "hard problem" of consciousness. For more on this click here, section 5.4.]
      because when the brain is injured our thinking is disturbed as would a computer if some of its electronics were damaged.
      [Brain injuries are a popular type of evidence among physicalist philosophers. However, they prove only that a normal, healthy brain is a necessary condition for coherent thinking to occur. They do not prove that the brain and the mind (I use 'mind' here to stand for any mental activities, e.g. thinking, dreaming, etc.) are identical or that thoughts occur inside the brain. Nobody has observed a thought in a brain, even in a healthy one.
      Your computer analogy looks good at first glance, but a closer look shows it fails as an analogy with the human mind/brain complex. You will grant, I imagine, that computer hardware (the electronics) doesn't do any useful work by itself. Actual computing requires a software program, but even these two are not sufficient for computing to take place. A human thinker is required to write the software, enter the data, decide when to hit the 'Enter' key, and interpret the output (text, numbers, images, etc.) that eventually shows up on the screen. Thus, human thinking is another necessary condition for computing, but it obviously does not take place in the computer, so we are back to our original question: where does thinking happen?]
      Hiding behind ignorance gives us a "God of the Gaps" - a short-term desperate step.
      [Ignorance? God? Gaps? I have no idea what this means.]
      We, as persons, "own" our brain just as much our kidneys and both must function properly for a person to act normally. There is no distinction between a system and its activities; humans are single, integrated systems - there is not just a body occupied by a mysterious 'spirit' (or 'soul') that activates it and disappears when they die.
      [You have attacked a straw man here. My argument is very conservative. It does not presuppose or imply the existence of a soul or mysterious spirit. It simply demonstrates that the activity we call 'thinking' is not physical in nature and therefore cannot take place in the brain. If you are guessing that behind the curtain I am harboring a secret soul-theory, you would be wrong.]
      All Charles's points are just disguised theology, including his spurious analogy with mathematics .which was the principal analog of ancient priests, who were hiding behind Plato's mystery 'forms'.
      [My geometry example is not an analogy (a comparison). I am not comparing the Pythagorean Theorem with anything. I am citing it - or rather the operation of proving it - as a particular example of thinking. Because you suppose my example is an analogy, you have missed the point altogether. Which brings me to my principal criticism of your remarks: you haven't really engaged my arguments. I have addressed your single argument for the physicalist theory and shown it to be fatally flawed. The ball is now in your court. If you think my arguments are illogical, then where exactly do they go wrong? Dismissing them spuriously as theology won't do.]

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  5. The first error in geometry is to view a single line as an infinite number of points because a point is assumed to have zero extent. Wrong! There must be something special to identify 'somewhere' in space as a point, such as the two ends of an open line or the cross-over between two circles at two points. All real examples have only a finite number of 'special' points, thus, geometry is an artistic act of and in the human imagination (pure, timeless definitions) with rhetorical tricks to persuade the gullible (aka 'mathematicians'). Plato and Descartes got it wrong in thinking that math reflects (represents) reality. Arithmetic also has many unstated assumptions (think of a few). Most physicists (not me) have bought into this charade.

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    1. Why do you think Plato and Descartes "got it wrong?" I don't see an argument here.

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