Me and My Brain: What the “Double-Subject Fallacy” reveals about contemporary conceptions of the Self

by Yohan J. John

MiBWhat is a person? Does each of us have some fundamental essence? Is it the body? Is it the mind? Is it something else entirely? Versions of this question seem always to have animated human thought. In the aftermath of the scientific revolution, it seems as if one category of answer — the dualist idea that the essence of a person is an incorporeal soul that inhabits a material body — must be ruled out. But as it turns out, internalizing a non-dualist conception of the self is actually rather challenging for most people, including neuroscientists.

The scientific revolution is a story with two great themes: empowerment and disenchantment. While the tools of science and technology give humankind unprecedented power over the material world, the ideas that give rise to these tools seem to cast out the myriad souls and spirits that once haunted the world. Material objects are emptied of such animating principles — their properties are instead viewed as emerging from the laws of science that they must inexorably obey. In a sense this is how objects are defined: those things that do not possess agency. This scientific exorcism started in the skies and is gradually working its way closer and closer to ourselves. Physics began the process by dispensing with the Aristotelian idea that objects move by virtue of some innate source of motion. Chemistry soon cleared the alchemical spirits from the laboratory. And biology eventually banished 'vital forces'. Now the process is being put to work in humans. In seeking a materialist conception of the mind and the self, neuroscientists seem to be envisioning the end of the quest to fully naturalize and objectify the world. The human body may be the final frontier — the last haunted house.

The overwhelming majority of neuroscientists will claim that they have no need for Cartesian dualism — they do not believe in an immaterial soul, and hold that mental phenomena are simply consequences of complex (and thus far poorly understood) physical processes. Words like 'soul' and 'spirit' can seem like relics of the supernaturalist adolescence of our species, so removing them from our lexicon can give the impression that we are no-nonsense materialists. But dualism, properly considered, is not a position about supernatural souls per se, but about perceiving a separation between the body and a qualitatively different something else. Mainstream scientists and philosophers call this something the mind or consciousness. In the humanities the word 'subjectivity' is also deployed. These ostensibly modern concepts occupy much the same role as the soul once did in European thought; they denote a self — that with which a person identifies. To be a true non-dualist, then, is to conceive of the self as a physical process that is not qualitatively different from any other biological process.

It seems as if this kind of non-dualism is easier stated than practiced. A recent paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience suggests that even experts in the sciences of mind and brain find it difficult to shake off dualistic intuitions. Liad Mudrik and Uri Maoz, in their paper “Me & My Brain”: Exposing Neuroscienceʼs Closet Dualism, argue that not only do neuroscientists frequently lapse into dualistic thinking, they also attribute high-level mental states to the brain, treating these states as distinct from the mental states of the person as a whole. They call this the double-subject fallacy. ( I will refer to the fallacy as “dub-sub”, and the process of engaging in it as “dub-subbing”.) Dub-subbing is going on in constructions like“my brain knew before I did” or “my brain is hiding information from me”. In addition to the traditional subject — “me”, the self, the mind — there is a second subject, the brain, which is described in anthropomorphic terms such as 'knowing' or 'hiding'. But 'knowing' and 'hiding' are precisely the sorts of things that we look to neuroscience to explain; when we fall prey to the double-subject fallacy we are actually doing the opposite of what we set out to do as materialists. Rather than explaining “me” in terms of physical brain processes, dub-subbing induces us to describe the brain in terms of an obscure second “me”. Instead of dispelling those pesky spirits, we allow them to proliferate!

Mudrik and Maoz address possible objections to the dub-sub accusation. One might argue that dub-subbing is merely a metaphor — neuroscientists know perfectly well that the brain cannot be an independent psychological subject living alongside the self. We just anthropomorphize parts of the brain to get some basic idea across, or even to shorten what would otherwise be a very lengthy piece of prose. Mudrik and Maoz argue that in fact dub-subbing doesn't help illuminate anything — it can actually generate even more confusion in areas of psychology and neuroscience that are already plagued by difficulties in methodology and interpretation. [1] One of the examples they focus on comes from Antonio Damasio's book Descartes' Error.

“…our brains can often decide well, in seconds, or minutes, depending on the time frame we set as appropriate for the goal we want to achieve, and if they can do so, they must do the marvelous job with more than just pure reason.” [Emphasis added by Mudrik and Maoz.]

This account of decision-making contains two subjects: the brain that 'can often decide', and 'we' who set goals and time frames. But where is this 'we' and how does it set goals? Surely this process has something to do with the brain too? If the whole brain is doing a job for 'us', then what is left to be the basis of 'we'? This 'we' is left unexplained, resulting in an incomplete account of decision-making.

In some cases dub-subbing can be easily fixed, and doing so clarifies the nature of the neuroscientific problem being discussed. One example from the paper goes as follows: “Your brain doesn't tell you when your body moved in a different way from what you intended”. In this formulation, who or what is the brain talking (or not talking) to? Surely not the incorporeal soul? What is really being talked about is the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes, both of which are happening in the brain. We might translate the dub-subbed sentence as follows: “Your conscious neural processes do not receive information that convey when your body moved in a different way from what you intended”. (This 'translation' is my own. Mudrik and Maoz have created a handy table that contains several translations of dub-subbed prose into non-dualistic prose.)

If most examples of the double-subject fallacy can easily be translated, then why should we be concerned about them? Perhaps dub-subbing is a quirk of writing style rather than a serious scientific problem? That might be overly optimistic. There are reasons to care about how the self is described: the writings and pronouncements of neuroscientists carry the weight of expertise on human subjectivity and agency. This is particularly visible when neuroscience interacts with the legal system. Mudrik and Maoz quote Jonathan Pincus, and expert on criminal behavior and the brain:

“When a composer conceives a symphony, the only way he or she can present it to the public is through an orchestra…. If the performance is poor, the fault could lie with the composer's conception, or the orchestra, or both…. Will is expressed by the brain. Violence can be the result of volition only, but if a brain is damaged, brain failure must be at least partly to blame”

Mudrik and Maoz point out that the basic moral intuition here — that violence committed by a brain-damaged person should be judged differently from that committed by a “normal” person — is valid and aligns with how many people think about crime and punishment. However, the way this idea is presented makes use of dub-subbing: the analogy implies that the will of a person is as distinct from the brain that executes it as a composer's symphony is from the orchestra that performs it. But this analogy is misleading: we ought to say that the symphony of the will is composed by the orchestra itself, and not by some external composer. (Perhaps the self is more a jazz improvisation than a fixed classical piece.)

A violent act can originate in a malevolent intention that is successfully executed through a “healthy” brain, and also in a good intention that is perverted by an “unhealthy” brain. But intentions themselves are manifest neurally, and therefore we can also speak of faulty will, and not simply faulty execution. So neuroscience does not provide us with an easy materialist justification for separating “intentional” violence from “accidental” or “pathological” violence. All pathways that lead up to a violent act pass through the brain. It's also worth pointing out that these pathways do not necessarily originate in the brain: social, cultural, and ecological factors all contribute causally, in variable and context-sensitive ways. As Mudrik and Maoz point out, none of this means that moral culpability is impossible in a materialist set up — only that it cannot be based on the notion of a totally disembodied “free” self whose decisions arise ex nihilo.


RWS_Tarot_07_ChariotA natural question to ask is why people, including experts who should know better, are so prone to the double-subject fallacy. One answer Mudrik and Maoz come across is the idea that dualism is somehow faithful to experience: it often feels as if we are some kind of weightless psychological entity that is temporarily inhabiting a body with a will of its own. This may be true, but dub-subbing only arises when traditional notions of the self collide with modern neuroscientific findings. Dub-subbing seems inconsistent with the materialism that its practitioners have signed up for. If the brain is hiding things from 'me' or deciding things for 'me', then I am left wondering where this 'me' is physically located. Traditional dualism, by contrast, seems a tiny bit clearer — the soul is composed of some non-material substance, but it sits like a pilot in the cockpit of the body, controlling the levers and pushing the buttons. This may be one of humanity's oldest metaphors for the self. In the Katha Upanishad, this is how the relationship between the supreme self (atman) and body is described:

Know the self as lord of the chariot,
The body as the chariot itself [2]

The double-subject fallacy, then, is a symptom of what may prove to be a transitional era. For thousands of years, humans have been comfortable with the idea that each person's fundamental essence is something other than the body itself, and that the body is simply a vehicle for this essence. We are now being asked to give up on this picture, and see the fundamental essence as being of one substance with the body. Even among the scientifically-minded, there is resistance to this view: consciousness just feels separate from bodily process. This intuition is what gives conceptual breathing space to the notion of “mind-uploading“. If the mind is simply software running on the body's hardware, then surely it can be transferred to fresh hardware — as easily as uploading an mp3? Surely the song remains the same? At the culmination of the scientific revolution, it seems as if information — abstract, disembodied, and somehow eternal — offers us a new techno-utopian dualism. It may be that somewhere in the notion that mind is a physical process rather than a physical thing, we will find a way to unify dualism with materialism. Perhaps the mind is like a wave, and given the right conditions the wave can propagate forever? (The analogy between a person and a wave is fertile territory for speculation, but for the purposes of the remainder of this essay I'd like to take a road that might be slightly less traveled [3].)

The double-subject fallacy reflects an unresolved dualism in the minds of modern humans — one that could even be integrated with science some day, possibly with the help of the concept of information [4]. But it also reflects what might be called a 'soul-giving' or 'mind-attributing' faculty that exists in most people. As I've discussed in a previous essay [5], randomness and unpredictability have in the past induced people to attribute souls or wills, not just to animals and plants, but also to inanimate objects and forces of nature. We might even argue that the most basic human outlook is not mind-body dualism, but a thoroughgoing mental monism. Perhaps 'primitive' human societies can be far less miserly than we are when it comes to 'conferring' mind on the world: every rock and tree and stream can be imbued with at least a touch of will and spirit. From this perspective, the story of civilization is the gradual 'condensation' of these myriad spirits: from polytheism to pantheism to theism to atheism. Humans may once have encountered the world as a menagerie of minds that were only partially consistent with each other. At times these minds or spirits seemed to work in harmony, but they could also break out into cacophonous chaos. For many cultures it was spirit that was most the fundamental building block of the universe, rather than matter. Consider this excerpt from David Graeber's book Debt: the First 5,000 Years:

Maurice Leenhardt, a Catholic missionary who had spent many long years teaching the Gospel in New Caledonia, […] asked one of his students [in the 1920s], an aged sculptor named Boesoou, how he felt about having been introduced to spiritual ideas:

Once, waiting to assess the mental progress of the Canaques I had taught for many years, I risked the following suggestion: “In short, we introduced the notion of the spirit to your way of thinking?”
He objected, “Spirit? Bah! You didn’t bring us the spirit. We already knew the spirit existed. We have always acted in accord with the spirit. What you’ve brought us is the body.”

The notion that humans had souls appeared to Boesoou to be self-evident. The notion that there was such a thing as the body, apart from the soul, a mere material collection of nerves and tissues—let alone that the body is the prison of the soul; that the mortification of the body could be a means to the glorification or liberation of the soul—all this, it turns out, struck him as utterly new and exotic.

The ongoing colonization of the material world by science shores up the belief in a rational order underlying the surface chaos. This burgeoning order was once identified with the solitary God of monotheism, but is now a depersonalized and nameless collection of scientific laws. Perhaps we are now witnessing a parallel colonization of the human self. But the process seems only to have just begun: our selves are not transparently integrated and coherent law-abiding things.

Being aware of the double-subject fallacy should help us talk about mind and brain more clearly: in a materialist framework the brain as a whole cannot be a separate subject from the self or the mind. But there may be a second message in the double-subject fallacy — one that we might want to be more wary of. It is the idea that the self can only ever be unitary — that the body cannot contain multiple selves; that there is only ever one subject with which a person can identify. The unitary self may be more of an ideal that a real state. Maybe we should take seriously the idea that a self can sometimes feel divided into multiple subjects: one for each of the unpredictable forces that seem to pull at the body. As Walt Whitman memorably wrote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

To complete the transition to material monism, we may need to finish the colonization of those unruly mental multitudes. By mastering the forces acting on the brain and body, perhaps we will discover ways to smooth out our inner contradictions, and more easily see our selves as integrated, purposeful, unitary wholes. I think this is an admirable goal, but it may be outside the reach of neuroscience. I suspect that the quest to enhance the sense of personal oneness and integrity will eventually lead us outside the brain and even the body. We may find that the essences we seek do not dwell within things, but manifest themselves in the relationships between things.


Notes and References

[1] In my previous 3QD essay, I explicitly engage is a form of dub-subbing, by describing the brain as a city — the Neural Citadel. I was using the idea in a half-serious way. Nevertheless, when I cross-posted an excerpt of the post on my blog, I added a disclaimer: “For the record, there is a major problem with personifying neurons. It doesn’t actually explain anything, since we are just as baffled by persons as we are by neurons. Personifying neurons creates billions of microscopic homunculi. The Neural Citadel metaphor was devised in a spirit of play, rather than as serious science or philosophy.” I am still ambivalent about whether anthropomorphizing things is always a bad idea.

[2] From Eknath Easwaran's translation of the Upanishads. This is the whole passage:

Know the Self as lord of the chariot,
The body as the chariot itself,
The discriminating intellect as charioteer,
And the mind as reins.
The senses, say the wise, are the horses,
Selfish desires are the roads they travel.
When the Self is confused with the body,
Mind and senses, they point out, he seem
To enjoy pleasure and suffer sorrow.

As with most texts, it is illuminating to read more than one translation. The Wikipedia translation of this passage has much less of a moralistic tone.

[3] I played with the 'wave nature' of people and things in an old blog post: The Great Red Spot (or, When Can a Thing be Said to Exist?).

[4] I explored the concept of information in biology in a series of essays here at 3QD. The last one is particularly relevant here: How Informative is the Concept of Biological Information?

[5] Randomness: The Ghost in the Machine? – 3QD

(The article that inspired this essay is, unfortunately, behind a paywall. Contact me directly if you'd like to know how to obtain a copy.)

The first image is a still from the movie Men in Black, captured from a YouTube video. The second image is from Wikipedia.