Sunday, February 05, 2006

My Mind/Body Problem and Yours.

Benedict Carey, "Searching for the Person in the Brain," The New York Times, Sunday, February 5, 2006, Section 4, at p. 1.
Peter Medawar, Pluto's Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 64-65.
Colin McGinn, The Problem of Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 126-153, pp. 153-187.
David J. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 106-107.

I enjoyed reading Benedict Carey's article in today's Times. Once again the error of physicalist reductivism is made, but in a blatant and almost comical manner. Mr. Carey says that it "seems" (to whom?) that "neuroscience will soon pinpoint the regions in the brain where mediocre poetry is generated, where high school grudges are lodged, where sarcasm blooms like a red rose." I promise to provide some sarcasm for Mr. Carey later in this essay.

I wish to begin my response by examining this lapse into the "category mistake" of physicalist reductivism, which is the identification of a subjective experience exclusively with the brain state to which, allegedly, it is related. According to Mr. Carey, all subjective experience is potentially "seen" in a brain scan, since it is nothing more than a specific brain state. I regard this statement as Mr. Carey's version of mediocre poetry.

He tries to qualify this conclusion in his final paragraphs, so as to hedge his bets, making a fatal error in logic and destroying his own argument. Mr. Carey's position is that: " ... it is beyond doubt that brain images reveal real biological activity that is associated with genuine human sensations." He quotes "Dr. Lucy Brown," a neuroscientist at Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx:

"Everyone thought phenomena like love and jealousy were simply impossible to study, that they were too variable, too individual. They preferred to think of them as magic."

I will examine the difficulties with this position by raising three distinct issues. None of these issues or objections involve a literal belief in magic (though, in a sense, love is indeed "magic"). While there are many others that I might discuss, these three "seem" most important to me: 1) causation and category mistake problems; 2) difficulties of culture and the complexity of emotions; 3) space and personhood problems. None of these clusters of philosophical problems "associated" with the physical reductivist position is recognized or addressed by Mr. Carey.

Notice that Mr. Carey is careful to use the slippery word "associated" to refer to the relation between the brain and mental states or experiences. No brain image will actually picture ennui or wistful sadness at the recollection of a youthful romance, for example, but it will only show a lumpy and smelly gray mass, sticky liquid and blood vessels, neurons firing and so on that are said to be "associated" with those experiences. No one can tell you "how" brains and minds, are associated or where exactly they connect. This inability is what philosophers call "a problem."

This is different from proving that such a lump of brain tissue is the same thing as, say, sadness. That suggestion is an example of a "category mistake," made by the physicalist. "Associated" is just too fuzzy a word to mean much of anything in this context. Particular brain states may be "associated" with subjective experiences, but this does not demonstrate that they cause these subjective experiences, because causation cannot be pictured in a brain scan, since causation is an abstract concept.

Abstract concepts do not have a single physical location and neither do complex emotions like love, which are inherently SOCIAL and CULTURAL, as well as INDIVIDUAL. Neither does the mind have a spacial location. Mr. Carey has fallen into the so-called "space trap" (McGinn) by assigning location to an abstract entity, the mind-in-relation -- as distinct from the brain on which the mind depends, which does have a physical location.

Two persons with normal brains from different countries will experience love and romance (a Western concept, as demonstrated in the writings of Robert C. Solomon) in entirely different ways. Although their cerebral functions would both be normal, so that this difference in their subjective experiences would be undetectable in any brain scan, since such a difference is the result of culture and history, language and mores, not just biology.

Naturally, people loving one another is universal. What that loving means or requires, the forms of expression permitted to persons, the flavor and nuance of the subjective state "associated" with love, as it is actually experienced, is different from culture to culture.

Mr. Carey's language goes on holiday at this point: Dr. Lucy Brown "could not elaborate. A camera crew from CNN was due to arrive, to talk to her about the brain in love." Metaphors are out of control again. Brain in love?

My brain is a non-sentient organ, which has no feelings, no desires or yearnings. I have those experiences. Only a person who possesses a brain has those subjective experiences. And a person is a complex entity, arising socially, through interactions with others and existing within languages, which are also social, through the acquisition of a complex culture that prescribes meanings and roles in relationships with others. None of these social factors will be seen by a brain scan.

I promised some sarcasm, this is it. My brain is never "in love" and it does not get pissed at my ear, but my spleen once had a torrid affair with a neighbor's thyroid gland.

The error in Mr. Carey's reasoning is based on confusing or personalizing biological functions of an organ (the brain), that is only part of a complex organism (a human being), then mistaking those functions and that organ for the entire organism or -- a more complex concept -- for the entire person. Especially when it comes to love, a person is not just a brain. In fact, another part of my anatomy seems even more crucial to the experience. (See "Richard and I.")

I deny that my brain is ever "in love," but my penis certainly has been infatuated at times. The totality that "I" am has and does love other persons. I hesitate to identify the complex entity that I am with either of those parts of me. My self includes both brain and penis, fortunately, and also many other aspects of that being-in-the-world that is me. Most importantly, my identity includes other people, shaping and altering me, in relations of love and trust, but also of enmity and hostility, when it is directed at me.

It is most certainly not beyond doubt to question such physicalist reductivism ("the mind is just the brain thinking"). Some of the leading thinkers on the nature of mind and consciousness have done exactly that. One example should suffice:

Physical explanation is well suited to the explanation of STRUCTURE and of FUNCTION. Structural properties and functional properties can be straightforwardly entailed by a low-level physical story, and so are clearly apt for reductive explanation. And almost all the high level phenomena that we need to explain [the mind as dependent on the brain, operating well,] ultimately come down to structure or function ... But the explanation of consciousness is not just a matter of explaining structure and function [there is also the content of minds]. Once we have explained all the physical structure in the vicinity of the brain, and we have explained how all the various brain functions are performed, there is a further sort of explanandum: consciousness itself. Why should all this structure give rise to experience? The story about the physical process does not say. (Chalmers, p. 107.)

Even an opponent of all forms of dualism, who is a Nobel laureate in biology, denies any identity between brain states and mental reality, though obviously brain states are necessary to those realities. Peter Medawar insists that mental disorders must not be attributed to either mental or cerebral factors alone.

"Both contribute, though sometimes to very unequal degrees, and the contribution made by one will be a function of the contribution made by the other." (Medawar, p. 65.)

Finally, Mr. Carey undermines his position as he grudgingly acknowledges: " ... the interlocking symphony of activity that make us individuals, [sic.] ... are absent, despite all the color coding and exotic names for areas of the brain."

I hate to break the news to him, but neurologists looking for the person only in the brain are embarked on a doomed quest for the "Schrodinger's cat" of consciousness, after all the boxes are empty. A bowl of milk and a ball of string may be more useful in trapping a real cat. A search through Romantic poetry and the literature of love may be more helpful than any brain scan in understanding love between real persons.

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