The brain’s I

by Katalin Balog

This is the first of a series of three essays on understanding the mind.

Archangel-gabrielAs I am writing this, I am behind schedule for my deadline. In the past I thought procrastination was a moral issue; perhaps not a failing, but a moral issue: a choice. Growing up in a Communist country, I have viewed career and achievement – like many of my peers in disaffected opposition circles – with a certain amount of suspicion. I have often told myself ever since my move to the United States that I don't want to put professional advancement ahead of life: family, daydreaming, various interests mundane and arcane take precedence over productivity.

HeadwBrain_editedBut a recent diagnosis of ADD has cast these self-stories in a different light. I now have another explanation, one that doesn't have to do with the inner recesses of the self, but chemicals in my brain. I have been prescribed medication that, on the occasions I take it, is enough to stop my mind from wandering, from making extraneous connections, perfectly useful in a general sense, but not conducive to the focused attention needed to actually complete projects. My condition turns out to be a chemical deficiency of sorts, my behavior the result of my brain working in slightly abnormal ways.

Are these two stories complementary? Or does the chemical explanation obviate, or even disqualify my earlier, non-scientific understanding? The problem of “double take”; that we have two, seemingly incongruent modes of understanding the human being, once as embodied, there for the whole world to observe, once as possessed of a mind aware of itself, is not exactly new, and in some sense has been with us, I suspect, since the beginning. We are bodies and minds – and the intimate connection between them is one of the basic facts of life. We can investigate how our behavior is affected by the stuff we ingest, the health of our body, and the state of our brain, the same way as we would study any other human. But we are also capable of self-awareness and insight into our own soul that defies third person observation. And more than just acquiring knowledge, we have a great ability to be transformed by our own experience and insight.

To put it philosophically, there are generally two, radically different ways to relate to the world and ourselves: objective and subjective. Objectivity is an orientation towards reality based on abstracting away, in various degrees, from subjective experience, and from individual points of view. An objective approach is based on observation and reasoning that is, in principle, accessible to any third party, irrespective of his or her personal idiosyncrasies. A subjective orientation, on the other hand, is based on an attunement and direct reflection on the inner experience of feeling, sensing, thinking and valuing that unfolds in our day-to-day living. This distinction has been brought into contemporary philosophical discourse most notably by Thomas Nagel, in a number of his essays, most famously in “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?“.

These two kinds of understanding by and large coexisted peacefully and stayed out of each other's way for most of history. Because up till recently the prospects of a scientific understanding of the mind and brain have been remote, the study of the mind has been historically the domain of the humanities. But recently things have changed. The rise of the physical sciences in the 17th century, and later, Darwinism, as well as advances in cognitive science and the study of the brain, has shifted the balance toward the objective approach; and it has rendered the question of the connection between the two approaches both more urgent and more puzzling.

The view that the body, including the brain, is a kind of “machine” made up of entirely physical stuff and obeying the same laws as all physical things, has been influential since Descartes and is the product of the Scientific Revolution. Because behavior involves the physicality of our bodies subject to the laws of physics, it became conceivable, even plausible, that it can be, at least in principle, given a complete biological, neuro-physiological explanation. Scientific psychology, based on behavioral observation and self-report, has also made tremendous strides. The prospect of a comprehensive “science of the human” via objective, scientific study of the brain and behavior has raised the issue of whether in a scientific worldview there is any place left for a subjective understanding of mind and life. Perhaps our traditional, humanistic view of humans can be superseded and replaced by a scientific one. A culture war between the two camps ensued. Scientists, humanists, and philosophers today often view the two modes of understanding not just as different, but in competition.

As Marilynne Robinson observes (see here), the rise of the cognitive and neuro-sciences, coupled with a sometimes exaggerated view of what they can explain, and a concomitant condescension toward a common sense, intuitive grasp of the mind, have all contributed to a parallel, calamitous decline in the humanities. In the first part of this series of essays, I look at how a humane understanding of the mind comes under pressure from science. In the second, I will discuss the flip side of these hostilities: the rearguard action that some philosophical and literary authors mounted against science and objectivity. In the third, I will look at the prospects of a peaceful coexistence between the two sides.

I Scientism and the humanities

The discovery that something as intimately personal as depression corresponds to chemical changes in the brain, or that meditation affects brain functioning have been greeted by surprise and excitement in the popular media. Though obvious, it is worth pointing out that there should be absolutely nothing surprising about these connections by now; the intimate mind-brain nexus has been amply demonstrated by neuro-science. Given what we know, the surprise would be if we could demonstrate the existence of anything mental without a brain correlate. This much is common ground. I have never doubted, even before my diagnosis, that my lack of focus is based in the way my brain operates. What is controversial is what to make of this connection.

Patricia Churchland has argued that neuro-science should not only inform but in some cases eventually replace our ordinary psychological accounts of mental phenomena. Common sense concepts such as belief, will, attention, etc. might turn out to be seriously defective in the light of the discoveries of neuro-science in the way as, say, the terms of Aristotle's physics have turned out to be defective in the light of Newtonian mechanics. Philosopher Daniel Dennett (see here) and neuroscientist Michael Graziano go even further, and claim that subjective experience is illusory. As an article in the New York Times science section blithely remarks: “We no longer believe in a numinous life force, an élan vital. So what's the big deal about consciousness?” This attitude is fairly mainstream – though by no means universal – in neuro-science circles and their popularizers in the press.

This imperialistic view of science's domain – we might call it scientism – is based on two dogmas. One is that science has already satisfactorily demonstrated that our universe is purely physical: no God, no soul, no “spooky”, non-physical qualities to our experience. The other is that, consequently, the physical sciences play a special (authoritative) role in all inquiry. It is not just that science cannot be overruled by any other kind of inquiry – which sounds kind of reasonable – but that whatever cannot be demonstrated or understood from the objective perspective of science, doesn't really exist. We are looking at you, subjectivity!

Channeling this spirit, Steven Hawking has recently declared that there are no questions at all that science can't answer. The problem is, for all the wonderful progress science has made, it is pretty hard to believe that all questions come down to scientific ones. How about What are we having for dinner? Perhaps one might say that if a superhuman being knew everything about the quantum-physical description of my kitchen, and understood English, she could translate the physical description into ordinary English and answer my question. So far so good – though no one as yet suggested that this would ever become a practical way of dealing with dinner-questions. But arguably nothing like this can be done with the question Whatshould we have for dinner? Decisions have to be made, not just reasoned about. Or how about the question of what kiwi tastes like? Or whether kiwi tastes more like raspberry or like gooseberry? Or whether Trieste still has an air of the Monarchy about it? Scientism would be content to say that such questions are illusory, but for most of us that is going too far.

Scientism is an extreme and – in my view, very misguided – idea of what the scientific world view requires. It flies in the face of common sense – by dismissing subjectivity, it indirectly dismisses some of the most fundamental ways in which we learn about ourselves. The primary ways we grow in our understanding of humanity is by contemplation, introspection, by cultivating a subjective awareness of what it is like to live our particular lives; by listening to other voices speaking to their own experience of life through the arts and literature; by empathetic understanding of culture's imprint on the self through history and anthropology. In truth, the cognitive and neuro sciences have only made modest inroads to date in explaining what makes us tick. There is very little contribution on their part to a serious self-understanding at this point.

Though this is a complicated and much debated philosophical question (see here), it is tenable to claim that the existence of subjective mental states is compatible with a purely physical universe. It is possible that purely physical minds conceive of their own experiences in a way that is inaccessible to and isolated from the point of view of science. Scientific thought and introspection require very different concepts. Of course, if everything is physical, no facts exist that are not physical; but this doesn't preclude the existence of first personal, inner perspectives on these facts that are quite separate from the scientific perspective.

Science can dislodge deeply held common sense beliefs. Obvious examples are the nature of physical objects, or, a bit more controversially, the nature of the self. But the case of experience is not like that. There are no scientific or philosophical discoveries that force us to give up belief in the inner qualities of our experience. Even if it turned out, as David Chalmers argues, that subjective experience cannot exist in a purely physical universe, it would be more reasonable to give up belief in the universe being purely physical than give up the belief that one can directly and deeply reflect on one's experience and learn things one cannot possibly learn otherwise in the process.

Scientism is a theoretical mistake; but one with adverse practical consequences. By prioritizing the objective, it contributes to the demise of the humanities; and more broadly, it contributes, however inadvertently, to the devaluation of a humane approach to life. There is a concern, expressed in Western philosophy most forcefully by Kierkegaard, namely that our experience of life matters in ineffable ways that no objective understanding of the world can capture. Wittgenstein, in a well-known letter to Ludwig von Ficker, the publisher of the Tractatus, claimed that “the whole point of the book is to show that what is important lies in what cannot be expressed” in a scientific language.

Suppose there was a super-intelligent organism — in a twist on Frank Jackson's famous knowledge argument — that lacked any feeling or experience, a creature of pure thought. A purely scientific account of humans – though very far from reality – is perhaps not an impossibility. So such a being could know everything about humans in biological, neuro-scientific, and information-processing terms – even though she lacked the introspective understanding normal humans have of their subjective reality. Such a creature would arguably know nothing of value, meaning, and human significance. (An interesting video depicting Jackson's argument can be found here.)

Subjectivity and objectivity, of course, is a matter of degree. We hardly ever relate to anything purely objectively or purely subjectively. But as already Kierkegaard has pointed out in the 19th century, modern life supports a tendency toward objectivity, while in fact, the proper orientation is to become more subjective, more immersed in one's consciousness, to understand oneself more from the inside. He said: “… this is the wonder of life, that each man who is mindful of himself knows what no science knows, since he knows who himself is.”