Sunday, July 22, 2007

Bring on the Brain

And, following on from psychometrics, there always seems to be a particular science through which we aspire to understand ourselves. Anatomy encouraged the view that we were like the machines of the industrial revolution. Darwinism inspired despair, eugenics or social determinism among late Victorians. Physics after Einstein convinced us we were elements in a gigantic and bizarre mathematical system. Molecular biology, after DNA, portrayed us as fundamentally simple computers. And now the various branches of brain science are converging on the view that we are rather like the internet, a system of connectivity. This is a view that is now very deeply embedded in the cultural mainstream. David Brooks, for example, writes a column about it in the New York Times and I've just read a rather good novel - The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - which starts with a case of Capgras's syndrome and then expands into a meditation on the nature of the self in the light of current findings in neurology. Meanwhile, scientists continue to struggle to cross the final frontier of the brain. As with all previous scientific models, people are assuming that brain science is the discipline that will deliver the final truth of our predicament. Brooks, for example, does what all journalists do when considering the most confident and imaginatively gripping science of the moment, he uses it to confirm his own values. This is understandable - I've been guilty of it myself - because, at any one time, the dominant science seems to be on the verge of finality. In the late eighties, it was the Theory of Everything promised by the physicists. This also was used to under-write values; the physicist Steven Weinberg, for example, said the ToE would have the effect of stopping people reading their horoscopes. The reality is, of course, that we can never know if a science is approaching - or, indeed, has reached - finality. (This is not cheap postmodernism, truth or finality is an essential aspect of scientific thought and science obviously works in ways that other systems of thought do not.) And, if we can't know, then retro-fitting our values to the latest scientific news story is simply superstition. Brain science will move on and we'll move on from brain science. Something remains, but it isn't science. Perhaps, it is nothing at all.


  1. It seems to me that people will always keep reading their horoscope and continue believing everything they read in the tabloids is the "Gospel Truth." In the end, I think most of us revert to the mean and our brains are filled, if not with fluid, then endless loops of useless information. Can't help wondering if the fluid is a cause or an effect of his career. Were he working for the EU in Brussels or the American government in Washington, D.C., the answer would be both, I presume.

  2. The X-rays look uncannily like Homer's brain - perhaps he just got his cranium Simpsonised.

  3. To add to your point, none of these brain science developments look to get any purchase on the "hard problem" of consciousness itself. I don't know if you have come across Galen Strawson's recent Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?. It is a ruthless take on the consequences of where taking consciousness seriously in a none dualist way takes you (as against the denial strategies of Eliminativist Materialists such as Dennett). A useful summary of the book is given in Jerry Fodor's recent LRB review:

    I find Strawson's position convincing, and as such find it a short step to embracing A N Whitehead's brilliant (to my mind) Process Philosophy - which, in turn, leads to the (also to my mind) only credible Christian Theology i.e. Process Theology.

  4. Imagine being the civil servant in that “water on the brain” story: you’ve been getting along with life, love, work etc, possibly thinking “I’m getting the hang of this I think, I’m managing”, nurturing a reasonably positive self-image only to be told after a routine trip to the hospital one day that in fact, no, despite appearances, you’re actually an irredeemable idiot

  5. I'm not so sure that the latest science determines our values as much as it defines our self image. It is almost like science is the stereotypical stage hypnotist giving instructions to the hapless volunteer: "now you are a chicken!"

    Self images are metephors, yet we act as if they are determinative of our values and actions. Thus many religious people continue to resist Darwinism and any notion that we are products of matter. They imagine that if they were to become convinced that Darwinism were true, they would be forced to act like a machine, as if the hypnotist commanded "you are now a robot." You'll often hear the objection from religious people that we are more than "mere matter." Notice the value judgment of matter. But if matter is capable of producing conscious life, as science pretty much forces us to conclude it is, then isn't it just a matter of upgrading our estimate of matter? Not "mere" matter, but wonderful matter.

    We are obviously more than what our self-image tells us we are. Our natures are more robust than the simple images engineered by our consciousness. We'll never get a full image of ourselves because our mind is more than the small part of it that is available to conscious scrutiny.

  6. I have just two words for you, Bryan dear: "Paradigm Shift."

    We know there's always one ahead of us, so no use getting too cozy with whatever the latest theory is. Before you know it, it will be out. And as someone else said on this thread, all these theories are just metaphors anyway. An attempt to understand human consciousness and why we are here. In that sense, religion is just another paradigm, though it's definitely the most enduring of them all, never completely eradicated with the others shift (Phrenology anyone? Tea leaves?).

  7. It must be a right bummer coming down with Capgras's Syndrome and whatever its opposite is called at the same time, so that you know all the people you don't know and don't know all the people you do know - a kind of quantum psychosis effect.

    Just my two cents but perhaps Buddhist thought has a lot to suggest here, with its emphasis on how we can really only ever know a very limited kind of reality and are constantly taken in by the notion that the "I" is something objective and enduring.

    That networking analogy: I wonder if this means that bloggers are nits on the nodes of the network.