Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"The Laughter is on My Side."

In yesterday's New York Times, scientists reported frustration at the failure to achieve any progress in diagnosing or treating psychiatric illness on the basis of ever-more sophisticated brain imaging technology:

"... the hopes and claims for brain imaging in psychiatry have far outpaced science, experts say."

Here is a bit of scientific wisdom for you:

"After almost 30 years, researchers have not developed any standardized tool for diagnosing or treating psychiatric disorders based on imaging studies."

Benedict Carey, "Can Brain Scans See Depression?," in The New York Times, October 18, 2005, at p. F1.

I do not have the heart to explain to these researchers that their efforts may be based on a "category mistake" (Gilbert Ryle), and doomed to failure. As Kierkegaard warned, over a century ago, "you will not find consciousness by looking down a microscope."

Of course, consciousness is dependent upon cerebral states, but it is not identical with those cerebral states.

You cannot discover the mind by dissecting the brain, just as you will not find dreams, hopes, wishes, fears or memories inside a blood vessel. No matter how many brains you dissect, the mind will escape you. The very hope for such a thing is a logical error. It is like asking whether your refrigerator is a Catholic or if your hunger is orange. It is, literally, absurd.

The mind is as much a cultural and philosophical artifact as the brain is a biological one. The brain is an organ in the body; the mind is an abstract concept that emerges from the acquisition of language within a cultural context. They are mutually dependent, certainly, but quite distinct. ("Mind and Machine" and "Consciousness and Computers.")

This is not to suggest that the mind is a ghostly entity, existing above or beyond the brain. There is no ghost in the machine. This need not involve acceptance of Cartesian dualism or any religion. You must have a brain to have a mind, to achieve consciousness, even if brain and mind are not the same thing. ("John Searle and David Chalmers On Consciousness" and "Robert Brandom's 'Reason in Philosophy.'")

We can take pictures of brains, but no one has a picture of consciousness, except for works of art or books, whose reality leads us to infer the existence of conscious and intelligent beings who must have created such things.

If I see a film, for example, then I may conclude that conscious and intelligent beings made it -- unless it is a "Three Stooges" movie.

Yet mind is indeed something different from brain: mind is linguistic and cultural; mind is social as much as it is individual. Thus, two persons with identical (or "normal") brains will develop very different minds or mental lives based on such factors as the languages they learn, the historical epochs in which they live, the educations that they receive, genders, races, sexual orientations, and so on. ("The Galatea Scenario and the Mind/Body Problem.")

As you read these words, you are in contact with my mind through its work, "my" writing these words. My brain, however, is not found splattered on your computer screen or on my keyboard. I hope. Yet I certainly need my brain in order to share the contents of my mind by writing and publishing my texts.

And yet, there is an added mystery in the mind/body debate resulting from the ways in which language functions in my absence. Think of Jacques Derrida's work. ("Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")

You may come to read these words when I am in the grocery store or taking a shower, a day or one year after I wrote them.

Nevertheless, I am still "present" in my words which are on the screen. I am present for you -- especially for you -- as you read right "now."

The metaphysical issues found in this foregoing paragraph may keep philosophers busy for years.

This raises the great difficulty with mind: Where is the mind located? In a sense, my mind is with my words, wherever you find them, you find me, or it; the mind is in its products. On the other hand, my brain (I hope) is located with the rest of me, physically, wherever I happen to be right "now."

Notice, once more, the magic word "now." Indexicals?

My now is different from yours. You are reading this sentence in your present tense; you are in your now. At the moment when you read this, I am perhaps shopping for books at Barnes & Noble, or buying tickets to a movie, or dreaming about the woman I love in my now. I may even be having sex -- ideally with another person, not just by myself -- now. ("Richard and I.")

Remember William Blake? "... infinity in an hour ..."?

Well, this is it. Right now. Each of us is in the present tense. Yet we may inhabit different moments in time. I'll have to devote an essay to McTaggart's proof for the unreality of time. Unfortunately, I am in a hurry and don't have the time to write it today. ("A Review of the T.V. Show 'Alice.'")

Our "meeting of minds" is taking place "in" language, in the Forest of Arden. The scientists cannot find that magical meeting place under a microscope, nor with a telescope in outer space. They can not see it with a CAT scan nor with an MRI machine, yet it sure is real. Best of all, it is a place where we can be safe. They can't hurt us there, here, where we are right now.

No X-ray will see us in the Forest of Arden. No salesmen show up and knock on the door. There is no IRS. No one can torture us in this psychic space. Your neighbor may be ... Madame Bovary or Audrey Henkel. You may bump into Myra Breckinridge or Hamlet at the grocery store or in the library.

I much prefer the Forest of Arden to what is laughingly known as the real world because I can find the person I am looking for here and say things to her that I need to say. ("Shakespeare's Black Prince.")

Kierkegaard's warning is more necessary now than ever before:

Don Quixote is the prototype for a subjective madness, in which the passion of inwardness embraces a particular finite fixed idea. But the absence of inwardness gives us on the other hand the prating madness, which is quite as comical; and it might be a very desirable thing if an experimental psychologist would delineate it by taking a handful of such [behaviorists] and bringing them together. ... If you meet someone who suffers from such a derangement of feeling, [a brain, but no mind,] the derangement consisting in his not having any feelings, you listen to what he says in a cold and awful dread, scarcely knowing whether it is a human being who speaks, or is a cunningly contrived walking stick in which a talking machine has been concealed. It is always unpleasant for a proud man to find himself unwittingly drinking a toast of brotherhood with the public hangman; [see the New Jersey Supreme Court's most recent death penalty decision,] but to find oneself engaged in rational and philosophical conversation with a walking stick is almost enough to make a man lose his mind.

I sympathize with Kierkegaard. I have had conversations with walking sticks. In America, many of them are lawyers. Worse, some are judges.

Now consider this letter sent by John Paul Sartre to R.D. Laing, appearing in Laing's study of Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason:

... what attracted me in your works was your constant concern to find an "existential" approach to the mentally sick. Like you, I believe that one cannot understand psychological disturbances FROM THE OUTSIDE, on the basis of a positivistic determinism, or reconstruct them with a combination of concepts that remain outside the illness as lived and experienced. I also believe that one cannot study, let alone cure, a neurosis without a fundamental respect for the person of the patient, without a constant effort to grasp the basic [existential] situation and to relive it, without an attempt to rediscover the response of the person to that situation, and -- like you, I think -- I regard mental illness as the "way out" that the free organism, in its total unity, invents in order to live through an intolerable situation. [Like being tortured and raped?] For this reason, I place the highest value on your researches, in particular the study you are making of the family as a group and as a series -- and I am convinced that your efforts will bring closer the day when psychiatry will, at last, become a truly HUMAN psychiatry. ("'The Stepford Wives': A Movie Review.")

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